I love flying Air France. I feel like my French vacation has begun as soon as I get on the plane. The food is wonderful, everyone is speaking French and it feels like I’m already in France. They also have a cabin of “Premier Voyage” which is between coach and business class that is not very much more expensive than coach but gives you extra leg room and a larger seat. The problem with Air France is that from the East Coast they only fly out of New York and Washington DC, Dullas.
Most of the time I fly on points. American Express points can be moved to Air France. Become obsessive about collecting points and use them for your flight.
Getting from Charles de Gaulle to Paris:
From Charles de Gaulle there are three ways to get into the city of Paris. You can take a cab (about 60 Euros), take the train (RER - about 15 Euros) or take the bus (about 10 euros). I usually take the train. You get on at the airport and you get off at several stops in Paris. From the station where you get off in Paris you can get a cab or take the Metro to your hotel.
From Charles de Gaulle to Bordeaux:
If you fly Air France and are going directly to Bordeaux then it makes the most sense to simply change planes in Paris. The cost to fly all the way to Bordeaux from the US is almost the same as flying to Paris.
You can also take a TGV train directly from Charles De Gaulle airport to Bordeaux. This makes sense if you are not flying Air France to Paris.
If you are stopping in Paris before going to Bordeaux, then the train is the best way to get to Bordeaux. You get the train from Gare Montparnasse. Make sure you are looking for your train number as the destination can be a stop past Bordeaux (ie Toulouse).
Check Your Airport!
Most flights from the US fly into Charles de Gaulle Airport, but some airlines are now flying into Paris’ other airport – Orly. Make sure you know which airport you are flying into especially if you are having to change planes to go to another city. You may be flying into Orly an out of Charles de Gaulle – or the other way around – and have to change airports. It’s not impossible to do, but it is a little bit of a hassle and takes about an hour.
Travel light. I just went for eight weeks and took only one carry-on and a backpack. I hate standing around waiting for my luggage, or taking the chance that the airlines will lose my luggage. I want to go right from the plane to my hotel in the shortest amount of time. So how do I pack in carry-on? It is impossible to pack for eight weeks so I pack for ten days and plan on doing wash. Here are my other tips.
1. Shoes are the enemy of travel. I take two pair – a pair I can do a lot of walking in and a pair of sandals to wear with shorts – that can also be worn to the pool or beach. The walking shoes are the most important and I start shopping for them months before I leave for my trip. I want a pair that is great to walk in (and you will do a lot of walking) and also can be worn out to dinner. I have a pair of Clarks that does the trick and I love them. I wear them on the plane and pack the sandals.
2. Travel underwear is key. ExOfficio (www.exofficio.com) is a company that sells all kinds of travel goods. They sell underwear that can be washed at night and is dry in the morning. I take two pair. I wash one pair at night in my hotel, and it's ready to wear the next day. This saves a lot of space in my luggage.
3. I take two pair of long kakis – one I wear on the plane and the other in my suitcase. The weather could be cool, and I also want a pair to wear to nice restaurants.
4. I take two pair of quick dry socks. They are the same as the underwear – they dry overnight.
5. I take one cotton sweater. I usually don’t need it, but for the one or two nights it could be cool, I’ll have it.
6. I take one dress shirt (also from Exofficio) that I wear on the plane. It also dries quickly.
7. I take ten golf shirts. I take the kind that dry quickly and can be washed at night and dry in the morning.
8. I take 3 pair of shorts. Two khaki and 1 blue. Dark colors are best for wine tastingJ
9. I take only the minimum of toiletries with me – and buy the rest when I arrive – so that I don’t have to worry about the liquid allowance in carry-on.
10. I take a small nylon rope strapped backpack for my daily excursions. It takes up almost zero space in my bag and it is great for walking around.
11. My briefcase/backpack is a soft side from Eagle Creek that also has backpack straps, so I usually carry it on my back. In it I have:
e. usb cables and plugs - make sure you have plugs that adapt to Europe.
f. folder with tickets and itinerary
12. I found a large nylon bag that folds up and can be stuffed in the outer pocket of my suitcase. I take that so I have room for the things we’ll buy while we’re there. We check that bag on the return trip home.
1. A money belt is an absolute necessity; no question, not an option, it just is! You should have one or not carry anything at all. Violent crime is not bad in Europe but petty theft is a problem. Carry your passport and air tickets in your secure money belt at all times – unless you can lock them in a safe. Our friends lost their passports and air tickets in the London airport and it was a nightmare replacing them. Another friend had his laptop stolen when he put down his briefcase next to him for just a second to pay for something at a counter. His passport was also in that bag and it was an unbelievable hassle just to get back to Canada. He is also now on the “suspect” list every time he goes through security. It will ruin your trip if you loose your passport or credit card.
2. Look for hotels with safes and use them.
3. Make a color photo copy of all your important documents (passport, credit card, atm card, plane ticket etc.) and place it in a safe place. Take a picture of it an have it on your locked phone.
The French appreciate it when you try to speak their language. Even if you’re butchering it they will treat you better if you try. One thing I do is ask them how to say things. They see that I am interested and it really helps. Almost everyone is friendly and helpful. I think a lot of the bad reputation the French get is because Americans can be obnoxious and we get the response we deserve. Everyone will treat you better with a few simple French words. This is particularly true with waiters, hotel staff and others in the service profession.
Here are my top eleven words/phrases you should know and use.
1. bon jour (good morning)
2. merci (thank you)
3. si vous plait (please)
4. au revoir (good bye)
5. bonne (great)
6. tres (very)
7. avez vous? (have you?)
8. ou est (where is..) pronounced oo ay
9. comment (how) pronounced coe mont
10. quell? (what) i.e.: quell heurre = what time
11. combienne? (how much) (comb ee n)
Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. It is busy and alive like any large city, but it has the added dimension of being architecturally beautiful and filled with art.
With kids: When we were there in ‘99 we took the boys in for a day - and a full day was plenty for them. You'll want to make sure to hit the high spots and have a good meal, but after that it will depend on what your kids enjoy as to how much time is right for your family. We went to the Eiffel tower first and it took us three hours to get up and down. Be prepared for long lines and lots of crowds in July and August (we were there in August). It was also very hot in August so standing in line was not fun - but hey, you’re in Paris and you just have to go up the Tour Eiffel.
From the Eiffel Tower we got on the open air double-decker bus tour of the city. This worked out well because the boys got a good overview and saw all the sights but we didn't have to walk all over to do it. We did the “drive by” of Notre Dame and got off the bus at Luxembourg Gardens. The “Jardins du Luxembourg” is one of my favorite spots in Paris. It is similar to a small version of Central Park in New York and gives you the sense of being with real Parisians. There are all kinds of people hanging out there, and perhaps there will be entertainment in the park like there was the day Deb and I were there. On that day there was a concert, a tennis tournament, and a basketball tournament going on. When I took the family, we laid on the grass and took naps!
Back on the double-decker bus (it's a "hop on, hop off type") we rode along to the Arc de Triomphe where we again disembarked. I had been up the Arc with Mike so because the boys were already tired, we passed on this. But the sight from the top is worth it and I recommend it if you are up to the climb. After the Arc we walked down the Champs Elysees and poked in the various overpriced shops looking for the perfect Paris souvenir - which we never found. It seems to me that the best souvenir shops are around Notre Dame (a stop on the tour bus) but beware of the tee shirts - the cheap ones will shrink badly - a lesson learned from experience.
In many French restaurants you'll find "menu prix fix" or the fixed price menu. This is what I always look for. There are lots of guidebooks recommending restaurants and we’ve used Rick Steves and Let’s Go. Rick Steves writes travel books about Europe (Europe through the back door) and has a PBS show called “Travels in Europe.” His web sight is also good and there is a “graffiti wall” where other travelers write suggestions of restaurants etc. It might be worth looking at. He is great for inexpensive hotels that are real values, but his restaurant picks can be a little expensive. “Let’s Go” on the other hand is written by Harvard University kids bumming around Europe and has hotels that are so cheap you wouldn’t want to stay there (this also learned from experience) but it’s restaurant recommendations are pretty good. They generally list places that serve lot’s of food at reasonable prices.
Rick Steves highly recommends staying in the 7thArrondisement and in the Rue Cler neighborhood. Deb and I have stayed there a lot and I think he is right. The Rue Cler is within walking distance of the Tour Eiffel, Napoleons tomb, and the Rodin museum. The real unique thing about the Rue Cler neighborhood is that it is still a very local place even with lots of tourist. You feel like you’re experiencing real Paris life, not the tourist side of things.
We stayed at the Hotel d’Alma and it is a good hotel at a reasonable price with clean rooms and breakfast included. There is one major drawback to the hotel d’Alma; it doesn’t have air conditioning. I didn’t think this would be important because Paris is usually not that hot, even in the summer. The problem is that the city is noisy and I didn’t sleep very well because I had to keep my window open and the noise kept me awake.
We’ve also stayed at the Hotel Park Eiffel which is also near the Rue Cler and it is a fine hotel (with air conditioning) but a little more expensive. One of my favorite things about this place is it’s rooftop patio.
These days we love staying close to Luxembourg Gardens and now stay between there and Gare Montparnesse. We love the Hotel Aiglon which is on Boulevard Raspail because it is close to great restaurants, the Metro and Luxembourg Gardens.
After you've been up the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumphe and relaxed in Luxembourg Gardens, the other must see sights are
1) Notre Dame,
2) the Louvre,
3) the Musee d’Arsay,
4) the Rodin museum (good for kids) and
5) Sacre Coeur. These are all stops on the bus tour, but you can also easily see them using the metro or buses.
Again, I would warn you that the lines for these will all be awful during the summer. If you plan to visit the museums then I would strongly suggest a Museum Pass (which you can purchase at any museum or train station) because it generally lets you in a side door and you can skip the long lines. Believe me it's worth it. We skipped an hour wait in line at the Musee d’Orsay because we had the pass and were able to enter through a side door. And if you visit two or three different museums then it pays off financially also.
I would suggest a day of general touring and a day of museums. Generally we had breakfast at the hotel, then ate a light lunch and a good, long dinner. Two or three days of great food and museums is probably enough for the first time in Paris.
Versailles is an hour from Paris by train (take the metro – ask at your hotel). Again, the lines will be long and you will exhaust yourself walking around the property but it is worth it. I believe they run the fountains – accompanied by classical music - on Sunday afternoons in the summer and this is fantastic!
The four other places in France I would strongly recommend are 1) the Normandy Beaches, 2) Mount St. Michelle, 3) a few chateau of the Loire Valley and 4) Bordeaux/Dordogne.
Eating in Paris:
Bertillion - the best ice cream in the world. Just east of Notre Dame
Angelina's - awesome breakfast and the must have Chocolate Afrikan. No really, you must!
Fontaine du Mars - a little touristy but wonderful. Ask to sit outside, or if you have to sit inside ask to sit with the French people.
Le Moulin Vert - on the outskirts, great value, excellent food, wonderful service.
Bistro de Breteuil - is a great prix fix that is hard to beat. The service was excellent and the price included Kir and wine!
La Closerie des Lilas - Where Hemmingway wrote "A Movable Feast" - will break the bank, but worth every dime.
Bistrot du Septième - Classic prix fix menu; great service and a true taste of Paris.
About forty minutes – and a quick train ride – from Paris is the chateau of Fontainbleu (near where I was born). It is where Napoleon abdicated and it is a beautiful chateau with wonderful gardens in a lovely small town.
About an hour from Paris is the cathedral at Chartres, which is well worth the trip.
Versailles is about thirty minutes from Paris and you should make sure you go when they run the fountains.
To me, the D-day beaches are a must see. When you stand on the beaches and realize what occurred there you gain a whole new perspective of the war and the price that was paid for freedom. The only challenge with the Normandy beaches is a logistical one because they’re not easy to get to. You can take a bus tour that leaves Paris very early in the morning and does the whole tour. This is the simple way and can be booked at your hotel.
Another way is to rent a car and drive up to the beaches - about a ninety minute to two hour drive. A third option is to take the train to Caen and pick up a rental car there. This avoids having to driving in Paris but takes longer because the train is not a high speed one from Paris to Caen. I typically take the train and rent a car in Caen.
If you go you’ll want to begin in Caen at the "Memorial". Although it's called the memorial it's really a museum that takes you through the history leading up to the war and then also documents the war itself. This is a great starting point for understanding the whole war.
From Caen you drive about a half an hour to the beaches beginning in Arromanches - the sight of the false harbor and the worst casualties in the landing. There is a museum here also which shows how the false harbor worked and tells more about the war. Your ticket to the Memorial in Caen also gets you a discount to the museum in Arromanches.
From Arromanches it is only a short drive to the American cemetery and from the American Cemetery to the German cemetery is only about ten minutes. Both are sobering and give you a better understanding of the battle. I don’t know how you’ll react to the American Cemetery but for me it was incredible. From the American Cemetery you continue on to Point du Hoc and the other significant places from the war.
Near the D-day beaches is the town of Bayeaux where there is a famous tapestry and a wonderful bed and breakfast - Hotel d'Argouges. This is the best place to stay when visiting the beaches.
Near Bayeaux is Le Mount St. Michelle the fabulous island church and monastery. The Mount is spectacular. The story is that the angel Michael told one of the kings to build it and after ignoring the angel two times he finally did build it. It is a truly marvelous creation. It is built on a chunk of rock off the Normandy coast and when the tide is in it becomes an island. You can only park and enter the little town at the bottom of the Mount and walk the foot bridge to the town. My advice is to drive to the Mount in the evening staying just outside the Mount in an inexpensive hotel, or perhaps even stay in Pontorson. Get up early and visit the Mount itself the next day and then drive from there to the Loire Valley (about a three hour drive).
Near the Mount is the town of St. Malo with a walled old city that is also incredible.
In the Loire there are so many wonderful Chateaux that it is almost impossible to see them all on one trip. There are three that are essential.
The chateau Villandry has fantastic gardens that Debbie really loved.
The chateau Chambord is the grandest of them all and is incredible in is size and magnitude.
The chateau Chenenceau is beautiful and famous for its architecture, which crosses the Cher river and has a great history to it.
Three chateaux in one day is probably too much and you'll want to break up you visits by staying near Tours to be close to them all. Other Chateau to visit if you have the time are Blois, Amboise (and Leonardo DiVinci’s house near by), Chinon, Usse, and Azay de Rideau.
There are countless other chateaux but these are the main ones, and each has it’s own unique character and story to tell.
Along the Loire river, just east of the city of Tours is the area of Vouvray - known for it’s great wines. These are wonderful whites with a great citrus flavor, some which are sweet. They are kept and fermented in caves, and you can take tours and tastings in many of them. We spent an afternoon there and tasted some great wines. We liked one of the wines so much we ordered a case shipped to Ontario after we returned home. Try the Molleoux - a sweet version that is not exported. Another great wine area is in Sancere, and the Chateaux has a wonderful restaurant.
There is also an excellent restaurant/hotel in Chenonceaux which I have visited many times and stayed in. The onion soup is the best in the world; really. It is called La Roseraie (tel. 0247239009) and it is located in the town of Chenonceaux within walking distance of the Chateau Chenonceau. Chenonceau and Chambord are fairly close to each other so you could visit Villandry on your way from Normandy, then spend the night in Chenonceaux (at La Roseraie).
The town of Bordeaux is a working city that has gone through a major revitalization in the last ten years. It is a city focused on the serious business of making the best wine in the world and while there are very nice things for the tourist, the real sights to see are outside of the city of Bordeaux in either the Left Bank of the Gironde, or east along the Dordogne river. It is worth spending a day in the city, but not much more. The new Cite de Vin is worth visiting as is the river front and the center old city.
The Left Bank is where the Medoc is located and it is from here that we get the world-class wines of the Rothschilds, Margaux, La Tour etc. These are great Cabernet Savignon based wines and the center of all of this is the town of Pauillac. In Pauillac there is an excellent Tourist Information Center where the staff are very helpful and you might even happen onto a wine tasting as I have done several times. From here they will also make reservations for your to tour some of the wineries (for a fee).
Wineries in France are not like those in America. You do not simply show up and go on the next tour. You must call in advance and make a reservation. Since using the phones in France presents it’s own challenges, and then speaking to someone who may or may not speak English is also an adventure you may want to go through the TI.
The best of the wine tours I’ve taken are at Ch. Razan Segla, Ch. Lascombes, and Ch. Pichon Baron. Margaux is also great but difficult to get in. Not only are the guided tours excellent, but you get to taste the wines.
The best wine shop on the Left Bank is in Margaux. Stop in to Cave L’Avant Garde and see my friend Wayne McCarthy and tell him I sent you. This is my home base when I'm in the Medoc and it really is a fabulous shop.
My favorite place to stay in the Medoc is the Relais du Margaux in the town of Margaux. The rooms are very nice and it has two excellent restaurants, along with a golf course and a spa. The staff are exceptional and it is a great place to return to after a long day of wine tasting.
In the northern Medoc – just near Chateau Greysac – there is the lovely Hotel Roland de By. It is more B&B than hotel but is very nice, quiet and relaxing. The challenge here is that they do not have a restaurant and there are none close by.
My other favorite restaurant is the fabulous Lion D’Or in Arsac. This is an iconic place that the former owners sold a couple of years ago. The new owner/chef is doing a fabulous job and I really love this place.
On the Right Bank, or the region east of the City of Bordeaux is the fabulous town of St. Emilion. A monk who resided in a cave here founded this little village in the eighth century. The walled town contained eight gates, some of which are still visible today. There is a “wine train” that will take you on a tour of the vineyards (a pleasant and informative ride) and a helpful TI there also. Make sure you visit the underground church. The town itself is awesome and you should make sure you have a leisurely meal at the restaurant in the courtyard.
We have stayed at the Palais Cardinal (tel 011-33-5-57-24-71-39), which is built into the wall of the city with great views of the rolling vineyards. Dinner here was also fabulous, and the house wine was fantastic. This is a great, very basic hotel and a good value. If you want to pay more and stay in the top hotel in St Emilion it is Hostellerie de Plaisance.
Just outside of the town is the very nice (and expensive) Hotel Grand Barail. You’ll need a car to get into St Emilion from here but it is worth it to stay at this fantastic place.
There are a ton of wine shops in the city of St. Emilion but the best is Marchand de Soif. Make sure you visit my friend Anthony and tell him I sent you. He owns this fabulous wine shop and he will treat you very well if you mention my name.
The Dordogne is my favorite part of France. The relaxing pace, beautiful scenery, quaint villages, great food and wonderful wine make this a slice of almost heaven.
Going east from St. Emilion you head along the Dordogne River to the cities of Bergerac and Sarlat. Sarlat is a wonderful little village that did not have major roads to it until the late 1970’s. It has a great open market on Saturdays and fine linen shops. Enjoy the stroll around the city and poke in the shops hunting for bargains.
My favorite great restaurant in Sarlat is Le Presidential and it is fantastic. We had a wonderful two-hour lunch there and enjoyed every morsel. Sarlat is worth going to just for Le Presidential.
Not far from Sarlat is the hilltop town of Domme. From here you can see out across the valley to the chateaux and river towns that make this place so special. We love to stay at Hotel L’Esplande which sits on the edge of the cliff and has a fantastic restaurant that makes dinner here one of the most memorable in France. Sophie and her crew do an amazing job and this is truly a special place.
Around Sarlat and in the Dordogne region are many small towns and castles. This is where they fought the Hundred Years War. Make sure to visit, Beynac, and Le Roque Gagnac.
Not far from Beynac is Les Eyzies, the historic caves with Cro-Magnon art. It really is a beautiful area and very popular with English transplants who have bought homes in this region.
Just south and east of the Dordogne are the incredible cliff hanging towns of Roccamadour and St. Cirq la Popie. Both are breathtaking and incredible and worth the hour’s drive.
Three of our favorite restaurants in all of France are in the Dordogne. They are:
a. Le Vieux Logis in Tremalot – a Michelin starred restaurant that is the best of true French gastronomic fare.
b. Le Tour des Vents – sitting on the edge of a hillside near Montbazillac and overlooking the valley to Bergerac this would be great if it were just for the view. The food is also phenomenal and this is also a Michelin starred place.
c. The previously mentioned Hotel L'Esplande.
On the Riveria we’ve stayed in both Nice and St. Raphael. I love both places but they are very different. Nice is crowded and popular with stone “beaches.” St. Raphael is quiet and has a lovely sand beach. The exciting nightlife is one of the attractions in Nice, while St. Raphael is more quiet and quaint.
The real "find" for us was the area near the Spanish border. We love both Collioure and Banyuls. Both are beautiful little seaside towns with wonderful restaurants and beautiful sunsets!
In Banyuls we stay at Hotel Les Elmes. This is a quiet place with a very good restaurant for a very reasonable price.
In Collioure there is nothing like Le Relais des 3 Mas! Absolutely fantastic! The rooms are nice but the real draw here is the restaurant. Classic French and amazing!
1. Good maps are essential for getting around Paris and a GPS is worth every dime for driving around France. I bought a great map of Paris years ago and it has been invaluable in helping me get around.
2. The GPS has saved me from getting lost many times and I love it. But even with it I still take a good road map of France just to make sure I’m covered. The French have an unnatural love of signs and there are signs everywhere. You don’t need to worry about getting lost because everything is well marked.
3. Rental cars are much cheaper if you make the reservation from North America. I rent from Kemwell – a consolidator in the US – and they have been extremely helpful when I needed them. I’ve called them from France when it is the middle of the night in the US and they have been fantastic.
4. Make sure your credit card has insurance for rental cars that covers foreign rentals. I discovered that I had been driving for a month with no insurance because I assumed my Amex covered it in France like it does in the US; it doesn’t. Amex has a program you can sign up for that will cover you in foreign countries. Also – if you rent for longer than forty days you need to split the rental because your credit card won’t cover a rental for more than forty days.
5. The cheapest way to get a train ticket is to go directly to the SNCF site (www.sncf.com) and print out the ticket at home – but you have to be able to navigate the site in French. The same ticket on the RailEurope site will cost a little more. Be careful. If you enter your country as “US” on the SNCF site it will automatically take you to the RailEurope site. Enter your country as France and you will be taken to the SNCF site.
6. Figure out your phone situation (calling card, foreign access codes etc.) before you leave. Your cell phone will work in France but it will cost a fortune to use it – probably $1.00/minute. If you are in France for an extended period of time, stop into a phone store and buy a sim card.
7. When I was in France for six weeks I purchased a French sim card from Call In Europe, but it didn't work in my Iphone (because the Iphone was “locked”), so I bought an inexpensive phone when I got to Paris. It was still less expensive than using the iphone and ATT's European roaming rate. Now that ATT has unlocked old iPhones my French SIM card works in the old phone and I use that phone when I'm in France. You have to call ATT to get the unlock code, but if you own your iphone outright you can have it unlocked and buy a cheap sim card once you get to France.
8. Guide Books. My favorites are:
a. Rick Steves
b. Karen Brown - Bed and Breakfast; also Small hotels
c. Eyewitness France
In 2003 we visited Arles – a small town in Province – which host a few memorable sights as well as being one of the places Van Gogh lived and painted. It’s a pleasant enough town, and the coliseum is great, but a day would be plenty here.
We also spent some time on this trip in Lyon. Lyon is a working city like Bordeaux, which has a beautiful old town and fantastic restaurants. I think you need to spend several days there to get the feel of the city and to really search out the great restaurants. The art museum is great as well as the old town.
The town of Avingnon is a beautiful little ancient village and well worth the visit. But more importantly is the town and wines of Chateauneuf du Pape. Here is Cotes du Rhone at its best.