Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Choose France have chosen not to advertise French properties any more

Way way way back in time (well OK, on 24th September 2005 which is as an awful long time ago in Internet time) I advertised our French holiday home on Choose France.

Well unfortunately since I've had the advert live on their site I've only received three booking enquiries via them, each of which was rapidly followed up by an email from the Choose France administrators warning that the enquirer was probably fraudulent - requesting a holiday for their daughter visiting from the States, asking for a month-long booking, or requesting to book because of company business (but then saying that they wanted to book for 1 adult + 1 child!).

So top marks from Choose France for being on the ball in terms of spotting rogue enquiries, but unfortunately little generated in terms of actual customer leads.

Today I received an email from them saying that from 1st August 2008 the website will become an information only website and will no longer be advertising owner/agent rental properties.

Over the last few years I guess I'd kind of written off their site, and I saw today when I looked at my advert that I'd not even been adding 2008 bookings so it appears as though we're completely vacant in the peak period (which of course we're not, we're full for almost all of this summer holidays).

Choose France did also have a "late availability" section which we used to advertise on occasionally, not sure from their email whether this will be maintained or not.

In the over-competitive rental directory market there'll be a few more casualties like Choose France.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Pictobrowser flash movie doesn't work with Firefox 3 + Adblock

Last week I wrote how to display PictoBrowser using standards compliant HTML and get rid of the horrible <OBJECT><EMBED> structure that's normally required to load a flash movie, replacing it with a much simpler <OBJECT object type="application/x-shockwave-flash">.

Tonight a few days after I'd written the article and I'd asked a few friends to test the new page, and finding it all still worked fine, I made the changes to the Gite Photo Gallery, gave it a quick check, and found I got the "cannot load flash movie" message:

PictoBrowser doesn't load with Adblock and Firefox3


Cutting a long evening trying to find the problem and a lot of Googling short, I eventually tracked down Jyri Kilpelainen's posting of the self-same problem and the corresponding Bugzilla bug report.

It transpires that there's a problem with Adblock running within Firefox 3 (which I'd just upgraded to), and as a result it doesn't show flash movies if they're embedded with <OBJECT object type="application/x-shockwave-flash"> - lots of other people have reported this problem on the Firefox Adblock plugin page.

Although I could upgrade to Adblock Plus which apparently doesn't have this problem, for now I'm going to leave the photo gallery page as it originally was until the problem's fixed properly as there's potentially lots of other people out there using Adblock in Firefox like me, and I'd rather keep the website working for the majority.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

Natural treatment for lack of assertiveness and feelings of inadequacy

Nothing to do with France, but I thought this amusing advert was worth sharing. I was at a conference for System Architects across IBM this week (which is what I allegedly do for a living) and they showed this video to open one of the sessions.

I won't spoil the surprise to tell you what it's about, but take a surf over to YouTube and enjoy this natural health treatment advert!


Thursday, July 17, 2008

W3C compliant PictoBrowser

Back in March I wrote an article on fixing a number of HTML 4.01 strict errors in order to try to get our holiday cottage home website to be W3C compliant.

At the time I concluded with acknowledging that there were two remaining obstinate problems, the fix I introduced to center-align a clickable image isn't compliant and neither is the Pictobrowser photo gallery.

I've noticed from my website logs since I wrote that article that a number of people have come across the Blog since then, looking for details of how to make the PictoBrowser HTML W3C compliant, and since I subsequently did work out how to fix the problem, I thought I'd pass on my experiences, and at the same time would actually get around to implementing the fix I'd found!

Pictobrowser gives you a natty little Flash-based way of viewing photos from your Flickr photo album, but does this at the expense of browser and W3C compatibility.

Pictobrowser automatically generates the HTML you need to embed into your website page, which looks like this:

<object width="500" height="500" align="middle">
<param name="FlashVars" VALUE="ids=pictobrowser& names=pictobrowser& & ..."> </param>
<param name="PictoBrowser" value="">
... some more param's ommitted
<embed src="" FlashVars="ids=pictobrowser& names=pictobrowser& &... " loop="false" scale="noscale" bgcolor="#DDDDDD" width="500" height="500" name="PictoBrowser" align="middle">

This HTML is a slight variant of the so called classic "twice cooked" method of embedding Flash into a website, the <object> tag is there for IE browsers and the <embed> tag is there for Netscape based browsers. Although this works most of the time, the "align=middle" isn't valid in HTML 4.01, the <embed> tag has never been part of the HTML standard, and so if you run the default pictobrowser HTML through the w3C validator you'll end up with a slew of validation errors

Turning to one of my favourite sources of website help, A List Apart, and trawling through all their articles about Flash development, I came across Drew McLellan's Flash Satay article which describes how to drop the <embed> tag and use a simple "container" flash movie that would then auto-load your main movie.

Also on ALA I found Bobby van der Sluis's Flash Embedding Cage Match which describes the cross-browser support problem in far more detail than mere mortals like I can do and describes the embedded-object solution for better standards compliance.

I tried dallying with the embedded-object solution and works in Firefox and IE and if you strip out all the </param> tags it cuts the number of W3C validator errors from 19 down to 1, still with an errant error message from the align=middle coding, but I didn't really like the way it required calling the flash player ActiveX control in IE by using a Windows-specific GUID - this just looked horrible.

Looking back as I write this article now I remember that another of the reasons I rejected the nested object approach was that there was a problem when viewing the page in IE that required you to click-to-activate the Flash active-X control (a behaviour introduced by Microsoft in 2006 as a result of a patent infringement problem). This issue has now gone away as Microsoft's agreed a licence agreement to resolve the patent dispute, and as from April 2008 the click-to-activate functionality has been removed from IE.

Bobby van der Sluis concluded with describing how he felt the strategy for Flash-embedding was to combine the best of the two competing Flash embed solutions, UFO and SWFObject, into a new collaborative projects, SWFfix.

SWFfix is still going strong, there was a new release launched recently on the SWFfix Blog, and the JavaScript is freely available to download from Google Code, but after giving it a play I decided it was all too complicated and adding more JavaScript to my website just wasn't the way I wanted to go.

So there I got stuck for a while until I came back to the seminal Flash Satay article on ALA.

In it Drew McLellan carefully step by step re-engineers the twice-cooked Flash player approach into a standards-compliant approach that works across all different browsers. Drew's realised though that IE waits until the whole Flash movie file is loaded before it starts playing it, i.e. it doesn't start streaming it from the start like 'proper' browsers do. His solution to this problem which becomes particularly acute for large flash movies was to introduce a small "sacrificial" flash file that loads quickly and then starts streaming in the main file.

For me though this isn't a problem as the pictobrowser.swf file is only 8Kb in size, way smaller than some pictures on my website, so any delay in loading it is hardly noticeable.

The solution was therefore before me, to simply take the standards-compliant code that Drew had produced in Flash Satay and exclude the last bit of the sacrificial flash file to stream in the "main" file.

The resultant HTML thus looks like this:

<object type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width=580 height=580 data="/theme/pictobrowser.swf">
<param name=movie value="/theme/pictobrowser.swf" >
<param name=FlashVars VALUE="ids=pictobrowser& names=pictobrowser& userId=53897043@N00& titles=on& source=keyword">
<param name=scale value=noscale>
<param name=bgcolor value="#ffffff">
<span>Unfortunately we are unable to display our Brittany photo gallery in your browser as you do not appear to have the free Adobe Flash player installed.<br><br>Visit the <a href="" onclick="target='_blank';">Adobe Flash download centre</a> to get the latest version.</span>

And then I surrounded this all within a <blockquoute><div> to indent pictobrowser a little instead of worrying about including an align=middle which isn't valid HTML.

The <span> in the middle is a bit of HTML that's displayed if the browser can't display the Flash movie - prompting the visitor to download the Flash player from the Adobe site.

This new website page passes OK through the W3C validator, it displays properly in all the browsers I've tried, job done methinks!

Update 27/7/08: Found out that an AdBlock bug when used with Firefox 3 causes Flash files not to load in Firefox 3. Until Adblock is corrected I'm not going to implement this change


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Blogging in the future

Blogger Icon
When I finished editing my last posting about a scam "honeymoon" booking I accidentally discovered a new feature that Blogger had just introduced - automatic future posting.

When I finished writing the article on Tuesday evening I decided I'd post it on Wednesday morning when I got into work so I changed the post date & time to 9am on Wednesday morning. I then intended to click "save now" to save a draft copy of the posting, and then on Wednesday morning I'd click on "publish post" to launch my inner thoughts onto the internet (well a few of my inner thoughts anyway).

Instead what I did was press the enter key, which defaults to "publish post" and Blogger then surprised me with the following screen telling me that my posting was queued up and would be automatically posted at the appropriate date in the future:

Blogger auto posting

Blogger only launched the automatic posting of future-dated posts last month, and like lots of things from Google it's delivered so neatly that you don't even need to search it out - it just works!

Guess what, I'm going to future-date this posting as well, not for any good reason, just because I can !!

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Holiday Driving Hell - Monday 14th July, 8pm

A quick TV tip I spotted that looks to be worthwhile watching, on Monday next week on ITV1 there's a programme entitled "Holiday Driving Hell".

I caught the end of this weeks programme and from what I saw they were going to be talking about driving in France, and how British holiday-makers can inadvertently break the law, face on-the-spot fines or have their vehicles confiscated.

They were interviewing people on the ferry across to France to see whether they could recognise various French road signs (many couldn't) and talking to people who have managed to fall foul of the foreign driving laws.

On my long term "to-do" list for the website is to write more about the differences of driving to France. I have started the new website page but like many things, not quite finished it. I think I'll be putting the video on for some more inspiration ...


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Scam booking - a "honeymoon present for friends"

I've written before about some of the scam holiday gite booking requests that I receive from time to time, but yesterday I received one that almost had me believing it before I checked it out a bit further.

Most of the scam bookings I get via our 'contact us' form are completely obviously rubbish, they're packed full of links to definitely unsavoury websites (I never bother looking at what they are but judging by some of the link titles I can guess they're porn related). Why anyone ever bothers trying to entice me to visit their websites via this means is beyond me, but I'm quite good at pressing the 'Junk' button in Thunderbird when I receive these.

Some days I receive one or two of these junk booking requests, but occasionally I get several in the day, and on a particularly bad day I received nearly 40 of them. My usual tactic is to periodically rename the "contact us" website page so whatever auto-bot is visiting the website and filling in the form will just get a 404 page not found error. This usually reduces the volume for a few months before it's time to apply it again.

Today's "booking enquiry" though was quite different:
Booking enquiry submitted by Glenn King ( on Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 01:03

Query: Hi,
I will like to make a reservation for 21 days for friends who will come there for honeymoon its my gift to them since i cannot attend their wedding. Let me know if there is any vacancy for the month of August 29th to September 18TH 2008 or any other dates you have available, I will await your response
Glenn King

Although it looked 'sort of' right, it did raise my suspicions especially when I realised that Mr King was proposing to buy a Gite booking for someone's honeymoon present in a little over 7 weeks time. I can't imagine anyone in their circumstances wouldn't have their honeymoon already booked, and even if it wasn't, they were unlikely to be able to take 3 weeks off work with such little notice!

With warning bells now firmly switched on I did some exploratory Google searches and didn't find anything, and then I turned to Lay My Hat which is a website forum dedicated to holiday home owners around the world.

A quick search on their forum turned up trumps, several other property owners reporting similar "honeymoon" booking requests with identical wording, even down to the poor English at the beginning ("I will like"). Here's one such example.

Moral of the story is to keep your wits about you as a Gite owner and trust your instinct if things don't "look right".

Mr Glenn King won't be getting any kind of reply from me ...

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Prix des Carburants - easily find the cheapest fuel in France

Whilst I was over in France earlier this month I noticed the significant price rise in unleaded petrol (sans plomb) and diesel (Gazole) since I was last over at Easter.

In just a couple of months I've been away Unleaded has risen from €1.30 to around €1.50 a litre, and diesel's now about €1.40. It wasn't that long ago I can remember petrol being around the €1 a litre mark - a 50% increase ! Combined with the poor UK/Euro exchange rate it means that unleaded petrol is roughly £1.19 a litre (i.e. about the same as the UK) and diesel £1.11 (i.e. still about 15% cheaper).

Every time we went over to France we've got into the habit of filling up our 20 litre petrol can at the last petrol station just before we get back on the boat, but this time it just didn't seem worth it for me to do this. With my wife (Liz's) car which is a diesel, rather than the unleaded mine takes, it'll probably still be worth it as the French government has historically charged a significantly lower tax rate on diesel so the price differential is still worthwhile.

Back in November 2006 I wrote about the MINEFI website that compared French fuel prices to the rest of the EU but looking back at the site this week I found that it hadn't been updated since then January 2007 when unleaded was €1.16 a litre.

As always there's easily a 10% price difference between fuel prices at the hyper-market and those paid on the autoroute so I thought I'd try to find an easier way of searching out cheap fuel than my usual approach of following the signs for centre commercial (commercial centre) which if you're at an unfamiliar town will usually lead you to where the hypermarkets and out-of-town retail parks are located.

After fruitlessly searching the MINEFI site and a couple of other French government websites for more up to date fuel pricing information I thought I'd give Google a turn and rapidly found the Prix des Carburants website which is a doddle to use (even if your French isn't perfect).

Firstly you can either search by department or commune (town) and you'll be presented with a list of all the fuel stations in that area, and their most recent prices for gazole (diesel), GPL (LPG) or SP95 (unleaded). You can sort the list alphabetically or by cheapest/most expensive, and produce a popup map of where to find the petrol station:

Prix des Carburants, France

Prix des Carburants, France
Far more powerful though is the route-finding feature on the right-hand side of the website home page.

On this you enter your starting address (either postcode, town or road within town), end address and what fuel your car uses, then on clicking 'Lancer la Recherche' (run search) you're presented with a route from your starting to end destination and a list of fuel stations along the way.

For each fuel station there's the name, what chain it's in, the distance along the route, and of course the most recent fuel price (and date the price was received).

What I noticed was really clever was that as well as showing all the petrol stations that are directly on your calculated route, which on the motorway would of course only show those at the fairly infrequent service stations, you're also presented with the petrol stations in the proximity of your route (Proximitéé du parcours), and against each the distance off your route that they lay so you can easily see whether it's worth a detour.

Prix des Carburants, France
The map provides the usual scrolling and zoom options you'd expect, and for highlighted fuel stations you can click on the petrol pump symbol to show a popup address box and fuel prices.

I did encounter a few random screen-draw problems where the map sometimes got a bit corrupted. Not sure why, maybe they'd not tested it properly on Firefox (I didn't try with IE), but zooming out and then in again tended to fix the problem.

This example shows the E Leclerc hypermarket near Outreau which is just outside Boulogne on the route towards the autoroute. Needless to say I've been there more than once on my way to and from Brittany!

Finally for regular users you can create an account to bookmark your favourite petrol stations and frequent routes across France.

All in all, I thought that Prix des Carburants was an excellent website and a great example of what the Internet can do.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Creating our new Website FavIcon (Favourite Icon)

Back in May I wrote an article explaining about Blogger's new favicon and what favicon's are.

For a recap of the purpose and benefits of a 'Favourite Icon' (or 'Favicon'), read the original article!

At the time I said that I'd had the task of producing a favicon for our Gite website on my 'to do' list for some time but still hadn't had the time to create one.

Well for once I actually left the office last night at a half-reasonable time (8pm as opposed to 10pm or 11pm which it sometimes is) so I had some time to myself in the hotel I was staying in.
Trying to draw a firm line between work and home I resolved to not spend the evening wading through the hundreds of unread emails I still hadn't dealt with and would spent my time doing something for me, i.e. working on a favicon.

I'd had the idea for what I wanted the favicon to be for some long time - to blend together the black and white stripped Brittany Flag (the Gwenn-ha-du - literally Black and White in Breton) and a love-heart symbol.

I thought this would be nice and simple, and hopefully iconic and memorable enough.

Back Searching on Google for Brittany Flag I came across Wikipedia's Flag of Brittany entry and this rather nice commons licence copy of the Gwenn-ha-du.

Favicon's need to be sized as either 16 by 16 pixels or 32 by 32 pixels and the Microsoft Icon format allows both types to be embedded into a single file so the first thing I needed to do once I'd saved a copy of the flag found on Wikipedia was to reduce it down to 32 pixels wide.

This resulted in an absolutely awful image with indistinct stripes in varying shades of grey and black so I had to spend quite a bit of time with Photoshop's pencil brush manually editing the individual pixels of the picture to make the image more clear, both when viewed at 32x32, but also when reduced to 16x16.

Microsoft Word Love Heart
Next job was the love heart. This was somewhat easier as I found a suitable picture in the Microsoft Word clip-art gallery which I copied into Photoshop, cropped it down to just the central heart, selected and then removed the surrounding pink background using the magic-wand tool, and then resized it to 22 pixels wide.

Finally I copied the love heart into a new layer above the Brittany Flag and then carefully copied, nudged and pasted the heart into the right alignment against the flag. I'm sure there is an easier way to move layers around in Photoshop but I don't know what it is so this last bit was somewhat laborious.

Completed Brittany Flag and Love Heart Picture
And this is the completed 32 x 32 pixel result which overall I was quite pleased with.

I did try some other variations of orientation of the flag and heart, and I briefly experimented with writing 'GITE' at the top of the icon, but none of these really looked good - you can see some of the trial attempts on the picture at the top of this article.

Having got a picture in Photoshop I was happy with I used my favourite Image viewer/converter, Irfanview to convert the .PSD to a .BMP and I then used Chami's FavIcon Generator to create the Icon File. You upload a normal picture format to the Chami website and it converts the picture to 32x32 and 16x16 pictures and then embeds them together into a single .ICO icon file.

All that was then required to associate the icon with my website was to upload the favicon.ico to my website and then change the website template to include a reference to the icon file in the HTML <HEAD> section like this:

  <LINK rel="shortcut icon" href="" >

And that's it, all finished. If you now view our Gite website or this Blog in either Firefox or IE7 the icon should be shown on the tab bar, and if you bookmark any of these pages the icon should again be shown against the saved bookmark.

I did find reference on Wikipedia's FavIcon entry to the above not being valid W3C HTML and that I should be using

  <link rel="icon" href="http://URLtoyourfavicon/favicon.ico" type="image/png" >

  <link rel="icon" href="http://URLtoyourfavicon/favicon.ico" type="image/x-icon" >

But what I'd written seemed to work in the browsers I use, it passed the W3C website validator test, and sampling the many websites I currently have open in Firefox showed that they all either used the rel="shortcut icon" coding or were using the old IE approach of relying upon the icon being named favicon.ico and it being stored in the website root directory, so I decided there wasn't sufficient justification to do anything different from the rest of the website 'flock' and it was job done!

Hope you like it - please do drop a comment on your thoughts - good, bad or ugly?


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A free ticket from SpeedFerries after they cancelled my crossing last week

Last week I wrote about my frustrating trip home after striking Boulogne fishermen caused SpeedFerries to cancel my crossing. Well today a bit of nice news in the email, a complementary return crossing ticket:

Dear Customer

Last week your crossing with SpeedFerries was affected by industrial action on the part of the fishermen in Boulogne.

As a gesture of good will for the inconvenience you experienced, SpeedFerries would like to offer you a free return ticket, which is valid for travel within the next 12 months. Should you be unable to use this ticket yourself, it can be passed on to a person of your choice.

The free ticket has been issued with a “dummy” date and name and can be activated for actual travel dates by logging on to using the reference number and security code below.

Reference number : XXXX it's a secret that I'm not telling my blog readers!
Security code : XXXX also not telling you this!

SpeedFerries is also pleased to inform you that the relevant parties have all committed to a long term solution and that we are assured that SpeedFerries’ customers will not be inconvenienced in the future by actions of this type.

Kind regards

SpeedFerries Ltd.

Definitely the right thing for SpeedFerries to have done, a good customer service result, and I'm happy to continue recommending them.