Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Travel Report: Paris


2010
05.01
  • Dates: December 29th 2008 to January 4th 2009.
  • Accomodation: Ibis Porte d’Orléans, 33 rue Barbès, 92120.
  • Transportation: Eurostar from London St.Pancras to Paris Nord.
  • Food: Mostly supermarkets and hotel restaurant.
  • Activities: Arc de Triomphe, Tour Eiffel, Les Tuileries, le Musée du Louvre, Château de Versailles, Notre-Dame-de-Paris, Sacré-Coeur, Moulin Rouge.
  • Total cost: around €600 for two people.
  • Appreciation: 2/5.

Paris by Anne Gauthier

As some of you may have guessed, this is not a pro-Paris kind of post. Francophiles out there, please stop reading now and carry on to the next post, thank you.

 My experience in Paris was, to put it in a polite way, memorable, but definitely not in the way I would have hoped.

Parisians have a somewhat solid reputation that precedes them worldwide; I expected rudeness, language issues and bad weather. However I was surprised at how out of proportions all those expectations actually were.

Paris. It does has a very nice ring to it. City of lights. Amélie Poulain. Cheap wine. Expensive designers. Rated as one of the most romantic places ever. Right.

As I got off the Eurostar in Gare du Nord, I looked around for Métro ticket machines in order to get to my hotel, which was pretty much on the other side of the city. Finding none that was actually working, I decide to queue and wait for a till to open - I waited 45 minutes. That still amazes me today: how can an international train station not offer working machines (or permanent clerks) for Métro users?  There were roughly 100 pissed people waiting to buy tickets and get to their hotel, including me. When I finally got the chance to proceed, the clerk told me that the weekly pass is €16, which was lower than I expected. I told him I was surprised at how cheap it was and considering I had just saved €5, I was all smiles. His answer was plain and very courteous: “That’s because we pay them with our taxes”. Hum. I was tempted to remind him that my only presence in Paris was probably going to cost as much as his weekly wage and thus I was pretty much paying him myself - inner poise, inner poise. If I had spoken, it would have probably escalated in a very humiliating public argument (with yelling and staring and certainly swearing at some point), and I would have ended up with no ticket at all stuck in Gare du Nord with that jerk. Peace was my ally, even though I looked like a total fool ignoring his comment.

Hôtel de Ville by Anne Gauthier

One of the many reasons why I expected so much from Paris was because we, French Canadians, and the French, call one another cousins, feeling that we are somehow still related 400 years after colonisation. But really, all we have in common is our language and yet we apparently don’t understand one another very well (although if you ask me, they are the ones not wanting to understand us, or anyone else, for that matter). A friend of mine says that it’s a totally different world outside the maleficent ring road of Ile-de-France, to be fair. I expected to find a lot more of my cultural heritage in Paris than I actually did, especially regarding my language.

After a brief language incident in McDonald’s (apparently French McDonald’s employees don’t even speak French anymore, English has taken over), a bistro waiter asked me what I would like to order, in French, to which I answer in perfectly audible French. His reaction was to ask me what language I speak and put on a blank stare, looking at me like I had just blurted out some Japanese slang. From that point on, I only spoke English - it really was the easiest way to be understood, sadly.

This all happened on the first day, within the first few hours. I was off to a good start. Seven more days to go. Yay.

Let’s take a closer look at my itinerary:

Champs Élysées by Anne Gauthier

Day 1

Arrived at Gare du Nord at 10 after a lovely ride through mustard fields. Train was stucked over half an hour in the Channel Tunnel – not that am suffering claustrophobia or anything but being stuck in that particular spot is nothing too fun. Upon arrival, was kind of shocked to see countless soldiers with very impressive firearms everywhere in the station (although definitely understood why after ticket incident). Finally arrived at hotel at 1PM. Took a little time to wind down, re-find inner poise and add more layers to outfit because of freezing weather. Left with a total of 6 layers on. Hopped in the Métro and got off at Charles de Gaulle - l’Étoile for first official landmark sightseeing: the Arc de Triomphe. Kind of regret not climbing all the way to the top and see the 12 avenues emerging in different directions from the chaotic  and fairly dangerous roundabout below. Walked down the Champs-Élysées and felt very poor and somewhat bored apart from pretty Christmas lights in the trees. Went on a mission to find quaint French bistro with plenty of locals, but failed to do so in the immediate hyper-touristic area and finally settled for a typical American bar on a nearby street, whose only advantage was to have a simple menu and even simpler prices. Not so much for authentic French dinner though. Stopped by a supermarket on way to hotel and bought some snacks – which, in absence of fridge, were kept in the supermarket bag, hanged outside the window. Was reminded of Christmas parties back in Canada where beer and food were left on the porch because the fridge was too small.

Versailles by Anne Gauthier

Day 2

Took the RER train to Versailles - Rive Gauche. Cozy ride on top floor, sitting on retro brown leather seats. Previously booked entrance tickets online and avoided one of the two queues - security only took over an hour. Was very proud of self-forehandedness. However, did not enjoy visit because of major overcrowding - could barely circulate in peace, was pushed around in all directions. Horrible Jeff Koon exhibition of vacuums right in front of Marie-Antoinette’s official portrait, how about that?  Loved the view of the snowy gardens. Took tons of pictures of the Bassin d’Apollon. Walked over to the Petit Trianon, which was more enjoyable as pretty much empty. Would definitely go back in summertime to enjoy famous flowery gardens. Had to wait over an hour to buy RER tickets back to Paris as all ticket machines were down and only one till was open (yes am that lucky) - however the clerk gave wrong tickets and could not go through the turnstile. Finally ended up going through over the said turnstile, boarding in manner of outlaw crook.

Day 3

Cruise on the Seine. Although am proudly Canadian and Canadians are apparently not supposed to feel the cold, never felt this cold in entire life. Did not move an inch during entire journey. Must bring anorak next time and look like authentic Canadian (could wear striped belt and pretend to live in a log home, too). Cruise is a great way to enjoy details of bridges, not so much of landmarks, and create new geographical checkpoints. Took the Métro to the Champs-Élysées for a giant New Year’s Eve party, which locals news said was going to be huge, festive and memorable. Er, no. No countdown, fireworks, musical event, circus, nor entertaining dwarfs, nothing - just 600,000 drunken people having individual countdowns every 5 minutes. Was ironically frightened by the amount of police officers on duty.

Tour Eiffel by Anne Gauthier

Day 4

First beautiful day of trip. Started at Trocadéro with excellent views of the Tour Eiffel. Great photo spot with perfect blue sky in background.  Have to admit that finally seeing the Tour Eiffel is quite something as very iconic.  Was tempted to buy red béret and pain baguette. Walked over the bridge and through Champs-de-Mars to finally end up at Les Invalides. Lovely golden dome. Crossed the extravagant Alexandre-III bridge, which is ornated with remarkable cherubs and such. Hung out at Place de la Concorde for a while. Walked passed l’Orangerie, through Les Tuileries and to Rue de Rivoli. Forced boyfriend to shop for awhile. Waited outside over an hour to visit the Louvre and of course, as polite Canadian, queued even though many people bypassed. Hurray for youth: free evening visits for those under 26. Made way to La Joconde (Mona Lisa), La Vénus de Milo, La Victoire de Samothrace and La liberté guidant le peuple (am big Coldplay fan). Had to fight through the crowd to take quick picture in front of La Joconde, which is protected by a glass wall (hello reflections) and two armed security guards. Quickly felt arted-out. Left the Louvre, walked over an hour to find decent place to eat – failed again and ended up in questionable pizzeria on even more questionable rue Saint-Denis because of inability to walk at this stage of the day. Immune system would have felt safer in space suit.

Basilique du Sacré-Coeur by Anne Gauthier

Day 5

Hopped off the Métro at Les Halles. Loved the quirky Fontaine Stravinski near Centre Georges-Pompidou, although the Centre looks like some kind of space ship that landed on Earth at a very random spot. Quickly walked towards Hôtel de Ville and the giant skating rink. Crossed the Pont d’Arcole and arrived at Cathédale Notre-Dame-de-Paris. Quasimodo not in sight. Couldn’t climb all the way up as closing time was fast approaching, sadly. Was very impressed with the architectural details of the cathedral, inside and outside. Too bad there were hundreds of noisy people that obviously didn’t appreciate the calmness and magnificence the Cathedral offers. Stopped by the numerous souvenir stores near the Cathedral and bought famous “Tournée du chat noir” poster. Grabbed sandwiches and candies on way back to hotel and called it a night.

Day 6

Had a little more sleep than planned in the morning and watched a silly reality show about who’s the best dinner host called “Un diner presque parfait”- these French really are obsessed with food. Took the Métro to Château Rouge and climbed all the way up the Montmartre hill to Basilique du Sacré-Coeur. Very impressive views of the city. Basilique is grandiose, although didn’t visit inside because kind of fed up with churches. Beware the bracelets sellers down the stairs, though - very intimidating. Wandered around Montmartre and ran dinner errands in several little homey shops in manner of authentic Parisian seen in movies (not the actual ones). Walked down to Moulin Rouge for typical tourist photo and found the boulevard not charming at all and pretty much filled with trashy strippers club. Not very inviting.

Day 7

Went back to the Eiffel Tower, this time actually going up. Did not felt the urge to wait over three hours outside to have a bird’s eye view of something I don’t fancy back on the ground floor but sometimes pleasing mother-in-law is more important than what one wants. Gasped when saw a map pointing out to London – 340 kilometers. Most exciting moment of the week. Nonetheless amazed at how cramped all the buildings are out there. No wonder Parisians are always in such a bad mood. Slowly made way back to Gare du Nord and arrived in London after an eventless Eurostar ride home. Hopped on the 253 at Euston and collapsed in bed 15 minutes later, exhausted – but thrilled to be back in tiny Camden shoebox called home.

My conclusion: Paris is a milestone for any European traveller, no matter what. It’s a beautiful place to visit - if you take into account that a lot of Parisians are rude and live in a parallel universe. With that in mind, it’s much more enjoyable.

Paris by Anne Gauthier

I’ve got to be honest and admit that the architecture is one of the prettiest I’ve seen (my cynical side would definitely add ‘one freaking chance’ but let’s try to be fair). The way balconies are decorated and how buildings are coherent as a whole really creates a nice visual touch, giving an internationally recognisable and classical look. Most properties are well maintained, which allows visitors to witness authentic features and appreciate the Era where everything did not look like it was made out of a squared concrete box. I was even able to overcome the extreme dirtyness of the Métro because I was amazed by its simplicity and efficiency (and the padded seats).

Do I regret going? Not a minute. As I mentioned, Paris is a must-see for any traveller and I’m glad I had the chance to visit it. Would I go back? I actually did, and I appreciated it a little more the second time around. Probably because I knew what to expect and did not get my hopes too high. In other words, as long as you don’t think of Paris as the eight world wonder and don’t end up suffering the Paris Syndrom, you should have a pretty good time.

All photos by amazing Anne Gauthier.

Top 10 Overrated Attractions in Europe


2010
02.20

1. Manneken Pis, Brussels

It’s a tiny little men peeing in a fountain, on the corner of a street, with hundreds of tourists in awe around it. It sometimes has costumes. When I was there, it was an orange tuxedo. Lovely.

2. Astronomical Clock, Prague

The clock is not really interesting. It’s more of a tourist trap than anything, so beware your belongings… pickpockets thrive in this area.

3. Stonehenge, England

The stones are actually pretty impressive, especially when learning how it got there. What’s not impressive is the 20 feet distance from the stones and the nearby motorway.

4. Champs-Élysées, Paris

Large busy boulevard. Too many tourists. Angry French drivers. Luxury stores aplenty. Make sure you pack a bunch of “patience” before going there.

5. Vatican City, Rome

Too much luxury in such a tiny place. Definitely worth a visit though, as long as you don’t think about world hunger.

6. The Spire, Dublin

That’s basically just a tall, metal thing in the middle of O’Connell street.  You can’t really walk past it, unfortunately.

7. La Barceloneta, Barcelona

The beach is dirty and overcrowded. Too many Asian masseuses asking around (repeatedly) for clients. The sea is filthy and cold. Just don’t rely on this spot  to  have a true “Spanish beach experience”.

8. Moulin Rouge, Paris

The Boulevard de Clichy burlesque club has nothing to brag about. It looks like something you would normally see in Vegas. Plus, tickets are very, very expensive.

9. Heineken Brewery, Amsterdam

Video simulation. €15. Enough said.

10.  The Louvre, Paris

Perfect if you want to wait hours outside, argue with non-queuing people, walk around in an overcrowded corridor and fight your way to catch a sight of the Joconde, hidden behind a glass wall and two guards. 

Travel Report: Côte d’Azur


2010
02.18

I went to Côte d’Azur in late April. It was a bit of a last minute spill, really.

I landed at Nice at around 9AM. The landing is quite something, the plane has to turn around over the Mediterranean and land on a tiny tarmac on the beach. It was beautiful. There is a regular bus service (#98) from the airport that gets you to downtown Nice for €4.

I hopped off at the Promenade des Anglais to enjoy the (rocky) beach for a little while. Although the water was very cold, it was my first time at the beach and it couldn’t have been a better experience. Some courageous French men took a swim in tiny Speedos though.  Magnifique.

I wandered around the city for awhile, exploring the market for fresh products to each at lunch. I took the elevator up the Colline du Château to get the best view of the harbor and the city, although there are steps climbing up the hill. Excellent photo opportunity.

Nice's beach and harbour

At around 2PM, I decided to hop on a bus and head to Monaco for the afternoon. The bus route 100  leaves from the bus terminal (Gare Routière, 5, boulevard Jean-Jaure, 06300) and costs only €1. The best bus ride I’ve ever been on. It gets to Monaco by driving through all the small villages along the coastline, allowing the traveler to sit back and to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

Once in Monaco, I climbed up “the Rock”, where the Palais Princier stands. It is still today the official residence of the Prince of Monaco. It’s quite an interesting palace as it offers different architectural styles, allowing the visitor to witness the Palace’s history.

This hill also over great panoramic views of the harbor but also of the principality.  Another great site in this area is the Monaco Cathedral, which houses the remains of former Prince of Monaco and princess Grace. The Jardin Exotique is also worth a visit, but make sure to have your student card to get the discount (€3.50 entry fee).

A visit to Monaco wouldn’t be complete without a small stop at Monte Carlo’s casino. You can only take a few steps in though, as entry charges are very expensive and the dress code not tourist-friendly. You can either walk there if you have enough time on your hands, or you can take a taxi.

Now, back to Nice. I enjoyed a pizza on the beach at sunset, which was a wonderful moment. But I was glad I had to leave, because the beach’s population seems to get more and more weird as the sun sets. Just be careful if you hang out around there at night, especially if you’re by yourself.

I’m glad I went but I won’t be going back. Maybe I haven’t been at the right time of the year but it just wasn’t fun. Final mark: 3/5

  • Date: April 28th
  • Accommodation: n/a
  • Transportation:  flight London/Nice -  Bus 98 from/to airport - Bus 100 from/to Monaco
  • Food: lunch with fresh products from the market, dinner with take-out pizza on the beach, at sunset.
  • Activities: beach, market, stroll-sightseeing, casino.
  • Total cost of trip: €135, for two people.
  • Appreciation: 3/5
  • Les châteaux de la Loire


    2010
    02.08

    42 châteaux (castles) consists of what is called Les châteaux de la Loire, located in the region of Vallée de la Loire in Central France, 2h south-west of Paris. The following itinerary visits 4 castles of the area.

    Château d'Azay-le-Rideau - by Anne Gauthier

    For the initiated, biking your way around would be an excellent idea. For the others, car would be best. You can take the train to Tours and rent a car there. A great way to have lunch would be to pack a picnic in the morning and enjoy it in near a river overviewing a château.

    From Tours, head to Villandry where you will find the most beautiful garden of the area.

    Now, get to Azay-le-Rideau, one of the oldest Renaissance château of France, which is built directly into the river. It’s probably the best example of a traditionnal French castle.

    Château de Chenonceau

    Then, drive to Chenonceau, the most magnificent château of the area. It is the second most visited after Versailles. Great spot to have lunch.

    You can go to Chambord now. It is the largest château of Vallée de la Loire, where the Louvre’s art colletions were stored during WWII. Take some time to notice the roof details too.

     Finally, head to Talcy see the castle but also to see the impressive windmill. Or go directly to Blois and call it a day. You can take the train back to Paris if your base is there.

    It seems like a lot of places for a single day but they are all very close to each other. You will need two days if you want to visit inside every castle but if you don’t plan on doing that, one day is sufficient.

    (Photos by Anne Gauthier)

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