Rudy Maxa is best known for his PBS travel series RUDY MAXA’S WORLD, and videos like HAWAII TO THE MAX. He also knows Paul Theroux, and so, since I’ve reviewed an interesting audiobook titled “What French Women Know,” and my favorite episode of No Reservations is Paris, I wanted to ask him some questions related to books in general, and to travel in France in particular.
Jonathan Lowe: You once wrote an unauthorized biography of a con man titled “Dare To Be Great.” Then you did some reporting for The Washington Post that was nominated for a Pulitzer, also unrelated to travel. What, then, are your own favorite books?
Rudy Maxa: Love “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” by Joan Didion, “The Professor and the Madman” by Simon Winchester. Anything by Simon Winchester, in fact. “Memoir From Antproof Case” by Mark Helprin, “Up In the Air” by Walter Kirn, a movie starring George Clooney. “My Secret History” by Paul Theroux, and “Snow Blind” by Robert Sabbag.
Q: What did you most enjoy exploring France, and what itinerary stops shouldn’t be missed by those wanting a mix of chateaux, Paris, and wine country visits?
A: In Paris, I enjoy walking. For hours. Almost every residential block offers architectural marvels, and commercial neighborhoods are filled with fascinating shops, cafes, bistros, and restaurants. Outside of Paris, I like Burgundy and the Loire Valley for a great mix of restaurants, pastoral beauty, and chateaux.
Q: Any thoughts on package tours as opposed to just hoofing with the aid of a rental car?
A: I think there are some folks who enjoy the predictability, organization, and simplicity of a package tour that stipulates an itinerary and includes a guide. But my guess is on a second or third visit, many travelers would prefer to roam about and make some discoveries on their own. I’m in the latter camp.
Q: What’s the best time to visit France, and are there any tips on customs or culture that American tourists generally overlook?
A: I think the last half of May, all of June, and July through Bastille Day are the best times to visit places in France that are especially popular with visitors. The weather is more likely to be good, and the French are still at work. August, when the entire country takes off, is my least favorite time. Paris is empty, the south of France is traffic gridlock. Customs? Air kissing involves one time on both cheeks. Know the basic words in French, such as “please” and “thank you” and “hello” and “goodbye.” I know it sounds silly, but locals in every country appreciate Americans making an effort to speak a few words in their language. Don’t ever touch the fruit and vegetables in an outdoor market in Paris–just point for the shopkeeper. Only three passengers to a taxi, please.
Q: What about safety and economy? How does France stack up against the rest of Europe?
A: I consider France as safe as any other country in Western Europe. Probably a lot less theft in France than in parts of southern Italy. As for affordability, well, given that it takes $1.50 to buy a euro these days–and only $1.30 this time last year–the entire continent has become fairly pricey. I’d recommend getting out of the big cities to find less expensive hotels and restaurants.
Q: Paul Theroux recommends sticking to the ground when traveling, whenever possible. Have you ever shared a bottle of wine in some bistro with him, and what’s his best travel advice?
A: I’ve never been to France with Paul, though we did travel together for about ten days in India. I like sticking to the ground, as well. Paul often says it’s not the things that go right when you’re traveling you remember the best–it’s the things that go wrong. If you’re driving, you can always take the wrong road, which may well turn out to be a good idea.
Q: What fun for you lately, traveling?
A: I shot a Silk Road episode in Uzbekistan for “Rudy Maxa’s World” on public television. I had a great time in Central Asia, even though, two days before we were to depart, a camel threw me off its back while we were shooting a closing scene. Bottom line: Three stitches in the back of my head and a broken right clavicle. Tip: Avoid a camel named Catherine in the town of Khiva.