France without the French


Recently, many have been lamenting that they just can’t stomach traveling to France in the current political climate. I think they are missing a great opportunity to enjoy Paris or Provence with minimal tourists. But nonetheless, they are reluctant.

Here are two suggestions about places to go where you can enjoy the French flair for life, but spend your money with America’s allies. You still get great food, fine wine and wonderful shopping. You just aren’t in France. Plus your dollars will go a lot further than they will in France.

Quebec City, Canada

For a Francophile, Quebec City is as close to heaven as one can get on this side of the Atlantic. The people here are more French than the hommes and femmes on the continent. Quebec cuisine is wonderful. The shopping is fabulous. The narrow cobblestone streets and streetlights are romantic. Tiny bistros ooze charm. Everyone speaks French (and English). Their history is intertwined with ours. The museums are world class.

Canada is on our side, only a short hop from the USA and Canadians are happy to see Americans up here.

Believe me. After a day walking around Quebec City, the reception is wonderful. Everyone from shopkeepers and hoteliers to the customs agents and tax drivers has been gracious.

Plus the Canadian dollar is worth only 66 cents. That means bargains – lots of them. Gourmet meals are affordable. End of winter sales mean megadeals on ski outfits and racks of other designer clothing.

Add in the fact that this is low season for Quebec and the bargains stretch to hotels, inns and B&Bs. A double room in the elegant, historic and palatial Chateaux Frontenac can be had for only about US$140 to 160 a night. Cozy B&Bs in the Old Town, only steps from the imposing Frontenac, can be booked for about $50 to 60 a night for a double room (including breakfast).

The roundtrip American Eagle flight from Boston only cost $210. Continental Express flights from Newark cost about the same.

This is the perfect place to come for a cheap, very affordable touch of France without any of your hard cash going to France. For a sample of the good times that can be found in Quebec City check out my site for an overview of the city with links to dining, hotels and other activities. Or click on Quebec’s regional site.

Val d’Aran, Spain

Two weeks ago, I spent several days along the northern edges of Spain midst the jagged Pyrenees in the isolated Val d’Aran. This small sliver of Spain lying hard against the French border has developed a wonderful blend of Spanish sensibilities and French flair. It is a secret Spanish Shangra-La that few have visited.

Those who have discovered this remote corner of Europe come to the Val d’Aran in the winter for dining at scores of gourmet restaurants and skiing at Baqueira-Beret, not necessarily in that order. In the summer, this valley is a paradise for hiking, hunting, mountain biking, fishing and, as in the winter, for gourmet dining.

The valley also preserves a unique history where the people developed a local valley government that decreed all grazing lands were public and created a rare successful communal society that withstood tensions between two major European powers for centuries. And the valley still maintains its own language, Aran’s, which is also spoken in the Dolomites of Italy and in southern Switzerland and France.

If you yearn for a trip to France for the food, this may be a worthy alternative. Its cuisine is a unique blend of hearty mountain cooking with French gourmet touches.

Tomato foam, then mountain mushroom soup might begin a meal. Venison medallions in a peppercorn sauce with sides of asparagus or pimientos de piquillos arrive as the main course. The desserts provide the perfect finish. Here the French influence makes its biggest impact with leaves of chocolate or rich fruits layered with pastries.

As for costs, everything is cheaper in Spain than in France. Gas costs less. Skiing costs less. Clothing costs less. Lodging costs less. And the food costs less.

The finest gourmet meal in the valley at Casa Irena, where the King of Spain dines, will end up costing about $75 to $80 per person with two sharing a good bottle of Rioja wine. That is not the starting price. That is the upper end of the spectrum. For us common folk, wonderful meals with great Spanish wines will average less than $25 per person.

Here’s where to get details on lodging, dining, nightlife and tapas bars in Val d’Aran whether you are planning to ski or not.

OK. Enough whining about the French. Enjoy these two pockets of joie de vivre, affordably, without sending any of your hard-earned cash to France.