What pops into your head when someone mentions a
French wine holiday? Most people think of an organized group tour with an
exorbitant price tag. Wine lovers, take heart. If you are prepared to strike out
on your own, you can explore France's wine regions on a modest budget.
There are many ways to enjoy a wonderful but inexpensive wine
holiday in France. All it takes is some independence, willingness to talk to
strangers and a few information resources. Most organized group wine tours of
France don't cater to the budget minded traveler. All-inclusive itineraries
usually involve staying in luxury hotels and eating in exclusive restaurants.
Traveling with a group also means spending most of your trip with other
foreigners. Traveling independently not only saves money, but also provides you
with real opportunities to meet French people, practice your language skills and
return home with an authentically French experience under your belt. Here are a
few tips to get you started dreaming and planning your trip.
The tourist offices (offices de Tourisme) possess a gold
mine of free information, so use them as much as possible. You'll find
information on everything from available accommodations to the names of
winemakers who host lunches at their homes.
The Internet is also a great tool for planning an
inexpensive wine holiday. Using the Internet you can choose accommodations, find
addresses of small rural winemakers and plan your trip around wine festivals.
The big green and yellow guide of Gites de France,
Chambres et Tables d'Hôtes, is available in the travel section of most good
bookstores, or you can order it at Maison des Gîtes de France et du Tourisme
Vert, 59, rue St-Lazare, 75439 Paris Cedex 09
Also widely available in bookstores, Patricia
Wells's Food Lover's Guide to France highlights worthwhile culinary stops in
each region of France. This popular book is wonderful.
The French view the green "Guides Michelin" as
the definitive reference for restaurants.
The Guide Hachette for wine (available in
English) does a superb job of listing and rating small rural producers.
It you are comfortable reading French have a look
at the Guide du Routard for the region you are in. The French swear by these
budget travel guides, which contain a wealth of reliable and inexpensive
The Gîtes de France accommodation network, at
gites-de-france.fr, is a traveler’s
delight. Most of this Web site can be read in English. It allows you to search
accommodations by region. Prices, ratings and contact information are supplied.
I have found their rating system (one to four épis de blé, or wheat sheaves) to
be well researched and accurate.
At the official site for the network of tourist
offices, tourisme.fr, you should be able to
find the address, phone number and tax number of the specific tourist offices
you would like to contact.
To research winemakers at
to the region you are interested in and you should find a list of small rural
producers. I was impressed that even our favorite winemaker (located in a tiny
village of 200 people) is listed.
For investigating wine and/or food festivals,
globaltest.com is unsurpassed. You can
find festivals by region, date and area of interest (in this case, wine).
I also recommend consulting travel guides in your local
library. Guidebooks can be an immense help for creating lists of good
winemakers, producers of local specialties, markets and restaurants to visit.
Although it is always necessary to do a little bit of
planning ahead, your wine holiday itinerary should leave room for improvisation.
Once you reach your chosen destination, your best sources of information on wine
tastings, restaurants and activities are the locals. This is no time to be shy:
Ask advice of the people who serve you in stores, the operator of your gîte
(rural lodging) or winemakers you meet at tastings. You'll be happy to discover
that the French love giving advice— especially about food and wine.
You'll want to rent a car for at least part of your stay.
If you book your car rental from North America rather than France, the rental
fee may be up to 30 percent cheaper. Big rental companies such as Avis, Hertz
and Budget have agencies all over France.
It's wonderful to spend a night or two in one of the major
wine cities (such as Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Beaune or Chablis). However, it is in
the small villages that form the backbone of France's wine regions that you'll
find the real bargains—charming, clean and inexpensive places to stay. For
example, a night at the Hôtel de la Poste in Beaune can cost you anywhere from
680 F ($ 113) to 1,000 F ($ 166). In contrast, you can find accommodations 13 km
from Beaune, in the lovely village of Arcenant, for only 220 F ($37) a night
(including breakfast). There are essentially two options in the French
countryside—stay in a gîte or rent a self catering house (an independent home
with a bathroom and fully equipped kitchen). In either case, book ahead. The
high season for all types of accommodations inns from early May to late October,
and spaces fill up quickly. Confirm that bed linens and towels are supplied;
vacation rentals that cater mainly to Europeans often do not supply these.
Self catering houses are abundant in France’s wine
regions. A great place to start your search is in the classified advertisements
at the back of this magazine—look under Short Term Rentals. You might also want
to scour the classified sections of national and local newspapers. Look for
flyers posted on bulletin boards at travel bookstores or the nearest French
cultural center. Finally, word-of-mouth remains one of the best methods of
finding great bargains. Ask other Francophiles; you will surely be amazed at the
addresses they suggest.
One out of three gîtes offers an enticing option called La
table d'hôte, in which the gîte operator serves meals to guests. This system is
a fantastic way to enjoy rustic meals for a very modest price. Gîtes that offer
this meal service are called chambres d' hôtes.
Another one of the many benefits of staying in rural
accommodations is that you will probably have the possibility of preparing your
own food. Before you reserve, ask whether there are facilities for independent
cooking. You can save a lot of money by alternating restaurant outings with home
cooked meals. Shopping for food in France is an experience not to be missed.
Grocery chains such as Intermarché, Carrefour and Géant are good places to stock
up on the basics inexpensively. Then you can discover the towns and villages of
France's wine regions by going to an outdoor market for the remainder of your
purchases. The nearest tourist office can provide you with a list of all the
outdoor markets in the area; there is usually one almost every day of the week.
With all the money you've saved by eating in, you may be
able to splurge on a few restaurant meals. Good restaurants proliferate in areas
that produce wonderful wines. Guidebooks are a handy starling point for
restaurant information. Once you're armed with some ideas from your guidebooks,
don't forget to consult with the locals. I recommend that you stay away from the
main squares of the big towns when searching for a restaurant—this is where the
overpriced tourist traps tend to group.
In most wine regions there are a few hardy winemakers who
offer home-cooked meals along with a dégustation (wine tasting), either in their
homes or in their wine cellars. This opportunity is often a great deal, not to
mention an utterly unforgettable experience. The local tourist office or
syndicat d’initiative (similar to a chamber of commerce) can provide you
with some addresses of winemakers who offer meals.
Every wine-producing area has a few well-known wine
companies. Self guided wine tastings at these establishments can cost anywhere
from 20 to 100 F ($3.50$ 17). At these somewhat impersonal tastings you
generally find yourself among hordes of other tourists. However, many of these
big companies have Spectacular buildings that make a tasting on their premises
worthwhile. For example, Patriarche Père & Fils in Beaune has cellars that run
for miles underground and date back to the 13th century.
The soul of France's wine regions resides in the small,
rural wineries and the unique and inexpensive wines produced there. Wine tasting
is almost always free at these family-run businesses. More often than not the
person who conducts the tastings is the one who made the wine. The winemakers'
pride in their work is obvious, and often, if you hit it off with your host,
you'll find yourself tasting some very special vintages. Ask about good
restaurants nearby before you leave: Winemakers have a legendary appreciation
for good food.
Almost every local will be able to suggest one or two
favorite addresses for wine tastings. If not, go into any local bookstore and
consult the winery guides, which you can probably find in English as well as
French. Also, don't hesitate to make a spontaneous stop at any winery that looks
enticing as you drive along.
Be aware that during the vendanges (grape harvest) in
September or October the small wine producers are busy working and greatly
curtail their wine tastings. However, what better (not to mention inexpensive)
way to immerse yourself in wine culture than joining in? If you have a work
permit or a passport from a country in the European Community, the best way to
get involved is to walk through the vineyards and ask it anyone needs your help.
This is a common practice among adventurous travelers of all ages; and many
people travel from southern to northern France working in the vineyards. As a
worker you are supplied free accommodations and meals. This once in a lifetime
experience is well worth the sore knees you will have at the end of the day.
Wine tasting isn't the only enjoyment in France's wine
regions. Biking is a popular option, and every large town (of over 50,000
inhabitants) should have at least one bike rental shop, as do many of the
smaller villages. The prices are competitive, and nobody knows the local hiking
as well as the people who own and run these bike shops. They can provide you
with maps, directions and invaluable tips.
Seek out wine festivals such as the Aix Wine Festival in
Provence in July, the St- Vincent Tournante in Burgundy in January and the
Obernai Grape Harvest Festival in Alsace in October. Not only do these include
free or very inexpensive wine tastings, they also offer an opportunity to
participate in the lively French winemaking culture. The Internet is a great
place to find out about these festivals before your departure.
There are also many things to taste in France besides
wine. For example, have you ever considered a cheese lasting? There are good
places to taste cheese in almost every wine region of France. Also, take time to
explore the other local products a region produces. Did you know that Burgundy
specializes in the production of the world famous Dijon mustard and creamy fruit
liqueurs such as cassis, or that Alsace makes wonderful sausages and clear fruit
brandies? Take time to learn about and find producers of the local specialties.
There you have it! With a little bit of ingenuity and a
big smile, wine holidays in France can be done on a budget. You will surely
find, as I have, that saving money can add authenticity and spontaneity to your
trip, not to mention a whole lot of fun. Cheers!
Laura Bradbury and Franck Germain are a
freelance writing and photography team. They own a house in Burgundy that they
rent out. They are always on the lookout for new ways to help their guests enjoy
a wonderful and inexpensive wine holiday.
© 1999, Laura Bradbury & Franck Germain - All