Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tues 21 June - Sat 2 July: France and Belgium: Price Comparisons

You often hear and read that everything is a rip off in the south of France: the food, the accommodation, the transport, even the beaches. Well, after spending 12 days there (my first visit to the south after having wanted to go for some time), I can refute most of these claims. And then qualify them by saying, "yeah, but I live in Belgium."

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in eating out. So, yes, there are pricey restaurants out there, but more often than not, I found deals wherever I went. Offers that you'd expect to see in England: "3 courses for €25", or even just €18 in a couple of places. The price distinction between a starter and a main was, on the whole, respected. I rarely encountered €18 for a starter and the same for a main.

It's not just the prices of the food that impressed but the quality. I have to say I've always been distinctly underwhelmed by French cuisine: meat and potato heavy with few vegetables. But, I was on the Cote D'Azur and thankfully a Mediterranean diet dominates. Plenty of vegetables, lots of pasta, well seasoned but simply cooked fresh fish, huge salads, with bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on every table. And free tap water!! Everywhere you went, une carafe d'eau was given to you without even having to ask. In fact, they regularly topped them up.

In Belgium? No free tap water, plain, white fish smothered in sauce, with everything else either too heavy or too rich. I got pretty bored of Belgian food a while ago. It was also a relief to see that the famed French cuisine does really exist. But, then you do need to almost be in Italy to sample it!

The other notable differences in price included free public toilets (although not everywhere) and only €1 for a bus ticket on any journey throughout the region (amazing value).

Again, Wallonia is one of the poorest regions in Western Europe, so why is it more expensive to eat out here than in one of the most touristy, overcrowded spots in Europe? I am, and always will be, at a loss to explain why. It can't be the high taxes, they're pretty high in France too.

As for the actual holiday? Well, it was wonderful. Nice was used as a base for a few days to explore places such as Antibes (which I really liked, felt classy and stylish), Juan-Les-Pins (tacky, faded glory, so I'm told), Menton (last town before Italy, with a stunning old quarter which had the colours and smells of Rome) and Villefranche (my favourite: small beaches, an old army barracks which provides great walks, with dozens of cafés and restaurants buried in the old town which sits high up on a slope and looks out to sea).

The next leg of the trip took us further inland and to Vence for a week, which also has a beautiful old town, with the kind of windy and narrow streets giving way to small, intimate squares, which I just adore. Managed to also squeeze in day trips to St-Paul de Vence (could have been in Tuscany, very twee looking, but delightful), Grasse (where they make lots of perfume) and Tourettes-sur-loup, which if it had been in England would have been packed with day tippers. However, as there are so many little villages like this in France, it was relatively quiet.

It also provided one of the highlights of the stay: a pot of tea and the best lemon tart I have ever tasted, whilst sat outside a café under a huge tree, in a small square. It was just heaven.

The south of France was everything I wanted from it. I'm already having cravings to go back.

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