Photo by Elsie McIverSelling organic produce
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then France just might be the word worth a thousand pictures.
The world’s most popular tourist destination manages to seduce a lot of people, be it because of the language, the countryside, the French joie de vivre or simply the wine. But France is more than the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower and a Nutella slathered baguette.
One of the best ways to dive into French culture is to spend time in a rural community. If you are willing to work for your room and board, you can often score a pretty inexpensive French vacation with the added bonus of getting to truly enjoy the local way of life.
Instead of re-packing your backpack every few days and only seeing various tourist attractions, you get the chance to have a semi-permanent base camp, integrate into the local community, practice your French language skills and experience authentic French culture.
From working on vineyards and farms to restoring medieval castles, here is your guide to discovering France from the inside, getting you away from glossy tourist brochures and into the everyday rhythm of la vie française.
Working the land
What is more symbolic of the French lifestyle than wine and gastronomy? The two are integral parts of the French economy, and more importantly, French tradition.
France prides itself on agriculture and wine production; taking part in either of the two therefore means not just consuming the delicious drink and food that France has to offer, but helping to produce it.
A popular and relatively hassle-free way to do farm or vineyard work is to join World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). For a small registration fee you get access to a whole network of farms across France; to make your life even easier, they let you pay with Paypal.
The registration fee gives you access to the WWOOF France guidebook, published in paper (25€) as well as in an online format (15€). The guide contains listings of over 300 participating farms that you can contact and at which you can volunteer.
Time commitment varies from farm to farm; some want workers for only a few days or weeks and others want you to stick around several months. Working as a WWOOFer means you will get free room and board in exchange for labor, and you’ll probably end up working with some other interesting travelers from all around the world.
Beyond vineyards and farms
Agricultural work might not be your life passion, but there are still several options for seeing rural France up close and personal – and cheap. One way is to partake in an archeological excavation or work on an historic site.
There are several organizations that put together these kinds of work-trips, and although they require fees, they are minimal in exchange for the room, board and local experiences that you receive.
Workcamps through Service Civil International (SCI) require an application fee of $235. Although you are responsible for paying all travel expenses, room and board is covered. The two to three week volunteer projects range from environmental protection to renovating medieval castles.
Volunteers for Peace, based out of Vermont, offers over 300 programs in France for the upcoming summer months. The average project length is about three weeks and costs $300 plus a $30 VFP annual membership fee.
If you want to spend your summer in romantic Provence check out La Sabrenenque which offers volunteer restoration projects of architectural sites. The two week program costs $710 for 2 weeks, which includes room and board as well as organized activities and excursions.
Where do I go?
France is a big country with many regions, traditions, and even climates. So how do you pick where to explore?
For wine lovers, remember that in France wine is named by the region it comes from. If your favorite wine is a Bordeaux, makes plans to head to the southwest. Or how about the smooth taste of Burgundy? Look no farther than the vineyards of east-central France.
The exception to the rule is with white wines, which are named after the grape used to make them. If you want an in-depth discovery of white wine, look no farther than Alsace, in northeastern France; this is where the best white wine in all of France comes from.
Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage? In the words of Charles de Gaulle, “How can you govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?”
It’s true: France has a lot of cheese, and if you have difficulty governing the country, you’ll definitely have difficulty choosing where to go.
Normandy is home to the infamous Camembert, and also superb crepes and hard cider. Savoie, a region in the French Alps, produces Roblochon. Comté is another popular cheese – in fact it has the highest production figures of all French cheeses – and is made in the region of Franche-Comté.
For all of the French cheeses, check out this helpful list at Wikipedia.
Another way to decide your destination is by way of gastronomy. Cuisine varies from region to region in France, and every one has its specialty. Southern France has more Mediterranean influence, lots of vegetables, fish and olive oil, while the northeast sticks to its heavier German roots with delicacies like sausages and sauerkraut.
Remember that the great thing about France is that anywhere you go their will always be a selection of wine, cheese, regional specialties and locals that are proud of where they live.
Exploring on your own
After a few weeks of working or volunteering, you might want to take off on your own French adventure. One of the most inexpensive ways to explore France, and especially the wine regions, is by bicycle.
Alsace and the Champagne region are two ideal places for wine and wheels; they both feature “wine routes,” roads weaving through the vineyard dense countryside, and villages are close together, meaning your cycling days don’t have to be overly strenuous.
Here you can pedal from village to village, or vineyard to vineyard, take in an afternoon tasting and get a room for the night.
For inexpensive accommodations, many regional tourist offices offer rooms chez l’habitant, basically in the room of a local villager’s house. These provide an excellent, and inexpensive, way to enjoy rural French hospitality.
In terms of budget, life is a little easier if you have a travel partner; rooms chez l’habitant can run as low as 40€ per night for two people, and usually include a homemade breakfast complete with fresh croissants.
Transportation is an inevitable cost, even if you manage to score free room and board by doing some WWOOFing, but there are a few ways to get good deals.
If you are under 25 years old and planning on traveling in France for an extended period of time, you may want to consider getting a SNCF 12-25 card. The card costs 49€ but gets you up to 60% off all train ticket purchases. Valid for one year, you are guaranteed a minimum of 25% off normal ticket prices.
If your stay in France is shorter, or you are over 25, try to buy your tickets in advance. Although SNCF sometimes offers last minute promotions, you will have an easier time getting a good deal on a ticket if you plan ahead.
The TGV Europe website is also helpful in planning train trips, but keep in mind that to get to smaller destinations in France you will most likely need to take a regional train at least once during your adventure.
Often, a big concern of traveling to France is whether or not your dusty high school French is going to cut it. Some volunteer programs require participants to have a certain level of French, but for the most part as long as you keep an open mind, a pocket dictionary and use merci, bonjour, and a repertoire of hand gestures, you should be able to do just fine.
Once you and your hosts have had a few glasses of wine you’ll find that language suddenly becomes unimportant.
Finding a Matador Traveler with some France experience isn’t too difficult. Elsiek, who graciously provided the photos for this article, spent several months WWOOFing in southern France. If you’re stopping in Paris on your way to rural France, check out jgbrandt’s article How to Enjoy Paris on $100 a Day.