A First Trip to France
France – and How to Use Public Transportation
After Italy, my expenses of having a college-age child were still problematic, so the next European trip was delayed until 2016. Europe offers so many choices, so Diane and I had several discussions on where to go next. Diane and I were both prior military and had served in Europe many years ago. Neither of us had seen very much of France during that time. I spent a very cheap weekend in Paris in 1979, followed by a trip to Le Mans to see American actor Paul Newman perform his famous second place finish in that storied race. Diane had spent a rushed weekend in the early 1980’s in Paris that was as equally disappointing as my cheap weekend. We decided, of all of the places to see in the world, that France and especially Paris deserved a better effort.
Where to go in France in addition to Paris?
Paris was a no-brainer. This time we were going to stay somewhere decent and see as much of the city as we could stand.
Most US citizens choose to visit Normandy due to its relative close proximity to Paris, as well as its significant place in US military history. I like to think of myself as something of an amateur historian, so visiting Normandy was on my list. Normandy also placed high on the Rick Steves’ France guidebook order of priorities. However, the beautiful and unique chateaus of the Loire Valley were equally appealing, if not more so. After watching some videos on the chateaus, those definitely made the list.
Diane and I are both of German descent, so we were both attracted to the idea of visiting the French/German culture found in the Alsace. It also helped that Rick Steves highlighted Colmar as a great base to experience that area.
France is big enough that traveling from one part to another can take most of a day. We looked into visiting the attractive south of Provence and the Riviera, but we had already enjoyed some of the Riviera experience in Italy. The wine-intensive regions of Burgundy and Champagne were appealing on many levels, including their relative closeness to Paris. After analyzing time-to-travel and sights-to-see, the decision was jointly reached to focus the trip on Paris, the Loire Valley, and Alsace.
I kept entertaining the idea of adding an additional area to the trip, either Normandy, Burgundy or Champagne, but decided to keep the itinerary simple based on our relative success in Italy.
The Time of the year to Visit France
The end of August and early September looked good for projected temperatures, averaging in the mid-70s, and rainfall probability was low as well during that time. I could squeeze in the Labor Day weekend to get extra mileage out of my available vacation days. No French holidays occur during that time, so most attractions should be open plus we would miss the summer crowds. This timetable also fit well with when in February I had started to get serious about a planning another European vacation.
How to Travel to France
After my great experience flying with Delta Airlines for the Italian trip, I was already pre-disposed to lean in their direction. I still checked against other airlines, but Delta once again offered the best price from Atlanta to Charles De Gaulle (CDG) airport in Paris. We booked on the Delta credit card. Purchases on that card are not charged an exchange rate fee plus the points allowed us to book a free US trip to go see one of our adult kids. A win-win for sure.
Our Itinerary to France
Based again on the way that we had enjoyed our trip to Italy, we decided to start with the Big City Experience and stay in Paris. I had learned my lesson about using a rental car in Italy, so I decided to focus on rail travel in France. France is known for their high-speed TGV trains, and I was going to use them!
Leaning once again on that fount of knowledge, Rick Steves, I used the guidebook’s suggestion to base in the small town of Amboise for our second location. The train time from Paris to Amboise appeared to be less than two hours.
I thought a bigger trick was getting from Amboise to the Alsace. The French train system rose to the occasion, however, and suggested that a five hour TGV would get me to Strasbourg, followed by a smaller train to Colmar.
Thus the final itinerary for our vacation to France was:
- Fly in to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport (CDG)
- Take a taxi to our hotel in Paris, stay 4 nights
- Take a 2 hour train from Paris to Amboise, stay 3 nights
- Take a 6 hour train from Amboise to Colmar, stay 3 nights
- Take a 3 hour train from Colmar back to Paris’ CDG, stay the last night at the Airport Hilton
Big Question: how to get around the local areas of Amboise and Colmar without a rental car?
Answer: In the interest of taking the opposite approach from the Italian all-car experience, I decided to try and focus on a no-car vacation as much as possible. I did some more homework and found a couple of highly recommended van tours that seemed to fit. What is a van tour? Worst case, they try to see how many customers they can fit in a van and drive to a couple of local attractions. Best case, they have you and maybe one other couple and take you to several attractions of your choice. I honestly didn’t know what to expect aside from pre-booking what appeared to be the most likely day-long itineraries for one day each at Amboise and Colmar.
Another Big Question: How about that Language Thing?
Answer: Time to learn some French! What’s the easiest way to learn some French in a few months? My work schedule involves some occasional travel, so a classroom was out of the question. At first I looked into the popular Rosetta Stone series, but I was concerned about the teaching style and lack of grammar. I had taken a couple of semesters of mostly long-forgotten German back in my college days and remembered some of that formal structure. I had to think that being able to read the language was as important as being able to speak.
Luckily I found a highly rated product that seemed to fit what I wanted nicely: the on-line Fluenz language series. It seemed to be geared towards adults and teaching practical language for tourists. Being ambitious, I purchased five semesters equivalent of Fluenz French. Diane and I religiously did the daily lessons. She had taken French in her college days, and some of it began drifting back to supplement the coursework. Their coursework, we found, is geared to the traveler, teaching you basic language to help you get through customs, order food, ask directions, etc. I managed to get through the first semester and started on the second, but felt the need to repeat the first semester to get it firmly planted in my brain. We continued to use the lessons right up until the trip. It turns out that I was going to need all the help I could get.
How the Itinerary to France Played Out
The Flight to France
: Like our previous flight to Italy, we had a good time on the flight. The flight from Atlanta to Paris is shorter than going to Rome, so while the flight was still long, it was enjoyable with the food, wine and movies. Again we got that thrill as the flight attendants addressed the passengers in both French and English. Another adventure begins! Unfortunately sleeping on the plane remained a problem, with only a few light naps being the best I could do.
Customs in Paris
: At least this time I has some idea of what to expect. It was still a mass of humanity being pressed through a funnel, but customs at CDG was more refined, and faster, than the experience at Rome had been. The French Customs Officer looked slightly amused at my lack of travel stamps in my passport, and made a point to leaf through each blank page. I guess my Italian sticker on the passport cover did not count for much. At least I was rewarded with my first official stamp in my passport.
Charles de Gaulle Airport
: It is BIG. There was an indoor mall with a crazy variety of goods. Luckily there were Tourist Info (TI) locations as well, so we bulk purchased some subway (metro) tickets (a carnet is 10 tickets) as well as our Paris City Pass from the helpful and well-spoken staff. I had read that this Paris Museum Pass was invaluable. Our previous experience in Florence had likewise pointed to the value of having a “fast pass” city pass method of seeing the sights. Skipping the ticket-purchase lines alone at those sights was worth the price.
Taking a Taxi from the CDG into Paris
: I had originally hoped to take the train from CDG to Paris, but I was still in the post-flight holy-crap-I’m-tired phase. Still haunted from my trials of trying to find my hotel in Florence, I opted instead for one of the many taxis and decided that the 50 Euro price was worth the convenience. The driver was pleasant but did not speak a word of English! Thank you, Fluenz French, for giving us a passing ability to speak numbers and give simple directions in French. It was not long before we were in the very heart of Paris and at the door of our hotel.
: It was beautiful, but it was HOT. Where was my mid-70F temperatures? Highs stayed in the 90F range during the days we were in Paris. I tend to sweat in that kind of heat, despite being from Florida, and my clothing and appearance suffered as a result. The hotel did not have air-conditioning, but they did offer us a small, portable fan. That fan was constantly turned on full power whenever we were in the room, and quickly was dubbed by Diane as “Angel Fan”.
Temperatures did cool to the upper 70F zone at night, so we threw open the window and used the fan to cool us as much as possible. Did I mention that the hotel was in the city center, across from two cafes? People in Paris eat dinner around 9 and stay up late, and then somehow arrive to work early the next morning. Between the noise and the heat, sleep was hard to come by.
There was also a bit of the “Paris Syndrome”, where the city is so hyped that it cannot measure up to expectations. Sure, the cafes were amazing, the churches and museums impressive and the Eiffel Tower stunning. The Paris Museum Pass was a time and money saver as expected. However, there were also rats behind our bench as we sat and looked at the Eiffel Tower. Diane’s phone was stolen from her zipped-closed and tightly clutched purse at the Louvre. There were constant vendors hawking cheap knick-knacks at most locations of interest, especially at the Montmartre and the Eiffel Tower. There were French soldiers with guns at all of the main attractions, guarding against the terrorist threat. There were beggars in the Metro Stations and random street corners. Paris is home to 11 million people, and it has the megalopolis problems that go with that number.
I will not go back to Paris, but I did enjoy the city’s unique character and wonderful sights. Being on the Eiffel Tower at sunset with Diane is one of my favorite memories, as is seeing Paris during the day from the top of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile. We had a favorite café near our hotel (La Terrasse) where the young wait staff always desired that we stick to English instead of butchering their language. The quiche there was delicious and the wine superb. We would sit at our outside table for an hour or more, enjoying that very Parisian atmosphere, watching the people walk by.
Trains in Paris
: Our first train experience riding with the French national railway company (SNCF) was during our visit from Paris to Versailles. We took the metro to the station to meet the train, only to find that the station was under maintenance and closed. The metro’s ticket personnel were able to communicate through their broken English and our broken French that a bus was being provided as an interim solution to take us from that station to another down the line. Taking the bus was slower, but was also an interesting way to see standard work-a-day Parisians in standard work-a-day life. Finally getting to the SNCF ticket booth, I was amazed at how cheap the prices were: just 14.20 Euros total for two round trip tickets. The trip was short, and though there was no air conditioning in the passenger cars the ride was still reasonably comfortable despite the 90F+ temperatures. I felt vindicated with the choice to stay with public transportation.
That self-satisfaction was dampened slightly when the time came to ride to the small town of Amboise. I had carefully studied the three main train stations in Paris. I had studied the online train schedule for the SNCF rail system. Despite all of that, I still managed to choose the wrong station to leave Paris, going to Gare de Paris Montparnasse. Luckily, the gentleman at the SNCF counter was passably fluent in English and was able to communicate that we needed to leave from Paris Gare de Austerlitz. We went ahead and bought our tickets at Montparnasse and followed the advice to take the city bus from Montparnasse to Gare de Austerlitz. Bear in mind that Diane and I are carrying all of our luggage during this adventure, so why we didn’t opt for a taxi will remain one of my life’s most mysterious decisions.
The bus was packed with people, yet we managed to cram ourselves and our suitcases into the standing room only space. The bus stopped several more times, somehow fitting even more passengers at each location. We were sardines in the can, and I had one hand firmly on my wallet and the other gripping the suitcase, trying to keep my feet as the bus swayed through the Parisian streets. When we finally arrived at Gare de Austerlitz, I felt like we had to pull ourselves and our luggage through the suction of that mass of humanity.
The Gare de Austerlitz was bustling and modern. The schedules were clearly displayed and we found our platform easily. Lugging our bags up the metal steps to the train was a bit of a surprise, but there was a small area at the front of the train car for suitcases. Sitting back, relaxing and watching the scenery go buy on our way to Amboise, my confidence in the public transportation decision was restored.
: The small and sleepy SNCF station here was very much in contrast with the hive-like activity of Paris’ Gare de Austerlitz. I had a map from my guidebook and knew it would be a short walk from the station to our B&B. There were no taxis at the station anyway, though there was a phone that could be used to call one. The day was pleasant, so we set off with luggage in tow. Emerging from the part of the town on north side of the Loire River, we were treated with a stunning view of the Chateau d’Amboise. The B&B, Le Vieux Manoir, was excellent. The van tour was also enjoyable, with visits to chateaux at Blois, Cheverny and Chambord. We were able to taxi to the magical Chenonceau, and simply walked to the Chateau d’Amboise.
: This was a great base to see the small Alsatian villages nestled between the Vosages Mountains and the Rhine River. The town has a variety of beautifully timbered restaurants near its unique canal system. We had to taxi to and from the train station, as this town is simply too big to haul luggage from the station to most hotels. There were no balconies on our delightfully creaky timber-framed Hotel St. Martin, but we were still able to open the windows and enjoy a great view of the busy street below. The van tour that we booked turned out to be a wonderful experience, and we were able to experience the beautiful villages of Eguisheim, Kayserberg and Riquewehr, as well as the wonderfully preserved Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle. We also took the local train to spend a day in the capitol of Alsace, Strasbourg, where we loved the old cathedral and the strange mix of German and French cultures.
Leaving France from Charles de Gaulle Airport
: Having learned from my disappointing choice of the Hilton Garden Inn for the last night of our Italian adventure, I picked the more upscale Hilton at CDG. This airport sits well away from Paris but within walking distance of the airport, so we enjoyed our last French meal with a nice bottle of wine, watching the various airplanes taxiing around the airport.
Lessons Learned during our first Vacation to France
- Public transportation is a good idea. The train system in France is ridiculously good, once you get the hang of it. The TGV high-speed trains lived up to my expectations, loaded with style and comfort, at least in first class. The more pedestrian local trains were equally punctual, though they were much more utilitarian. Public transportation can, however lead to some uncomfortable situations.
- Example: We were returning to Colmar on a local train after a wonderful day in Strasbourg, and the car we were in was crowded so we picked the last available seat. This seat faced the opposite seat, which was soon filled with a young French couple. I’m guessing that they had not seen each other for an extended period, since as soon as they sat down they could not keep their hands off each other. Perhaps I should have said something to them, but instead Diane and I kept a loud, running commentary of what they were doing for our own amusement since attempts at other distractions failed. The kissing and groping continued for the length of our journey back to Colmar, and remains a reminder to in the future always select a seat that does not face another.
- Learning some of the local language is a great idea. Learn as much as you can. On several occasions we were spared a heavy dose of inconvenience thanks to our time spent with the Fluenz language series. Even so, I always breathed a sigh of relief when we were able to deal with an English speaking French person, since invariably their English was better than our collective French.
- Be prepared for weather that is not quite what you expect. I came to Paris expecting some fine early-spring autumn weather. What I got was a heat-wave as stifling as any I had experienced in Florida. Unfortunately, most of my photos from this vacation show Diane looking wonderful and I look like I had just emerged from a swimming pool.
- Local tours can be worthwhile. Both van tours that we tried for this vacation proved to be enjoyably led by witty and personable tour guides who spoke excellent English.
- Two weeks is about right. Everybody is different, but for us, two weeks, to include travel days, was a great balance of being in France long enough to truly enjoy it without feeling like we had completely abandoned our two small dogs and adult children.
- Another thing to be aware of on longer trips is the museum-ad-nauseum burnout that comes from seeing otherwise amazing museums day after day. It’s nice to have a few days to relax and take in the countryside to intersperse with those museum days.
Details from France… or Living With Your Decisions
Accommodations while in France
- Paris: we stayed near the Rick Steves’ recommended Rue Cler area, at the unimposing Hotel du Champ de Mars. The staff was friendly and helpful. The room was reasonably modern, except for that most sought after item on a 90F+ degree day: air-conditioning! As related earlier, we were given a fan and basically told there was nothing else to do for it. The included breakfast was served in a windowless basement that proved to be stifling, even in the mornings. The food was great, with fresh croissants, yogurt, fruit and plenty of hot coffee. Needless to say, I was already sweating by the time breakfast was over. Eventually we skipped the hotel breakfast to eat outside at the nearby Café Du Marche, just to feel what little breeze that was available.
Perhaps on days when Paris is not experiencing an abnormal heatwave, this hotel would be more agreeable. As it was, in my experience, it will be remembered for cold showers (in an effort to cool down), late nights trying to sleep with an open window despite a popular café across the street (in an effort to cool down), and early mornings due to that same open window while delivery trucks were doing their job for the businesses on Rue Cler.
I personally do not recommend staying in the Rue Cler area, and I likewise recommend that any late-spring to early-fall itinerary includes double-checking for air-conditioned rooms.
- Amboise: Le Vieux Manoir is a delightful B&B run by expat Americans Gloria and Bob. It was a bit of a walk from the train station, with bags in tow, but was well worth the effort. Upon arrival, Gloria gave us a glass of wine and a very informative rundown on differences between American and French cultural outlooks. She stayed helpful throughout our visit, assisting with arranging taxis and offering suggestions on eating establishments. We stayed in the room known as “Colette”, and we enjoyed the air-conditioning (whew), modern amenities and wifi. The included breakfast was simply amazing, with plenty of options. Gloria and Bob are older, but still witty and wonderful. I would happily stay here again. Worth noting, however, is that the attractive pebble driveway makes pulling a wheeled suitcase something closer to trying to plow a furrow.
- Colmar: Colmar is large enough that there are quite a few choices for lodging. The Hotel St. Martin in the heart of the old town, complete with the desirable heavy German timber frame architecture that exemplifies Alsace. We had a nice top floor room with a view of a busy pedestrian street, complete with a canal. The room was very modern, with a mini bar and wonderful air conditioning. We were nearing the end of our vacation, and we spent one evening enjoying the A/C, a bottle of the local wine, some local cheese, all the while watching French TV. On a side note, the similarities between French and American TV are striking, complete with several Hollywood productions dubbed in French. Back to the hotel: the elevator was decent sized, though we usually took the stairs. The breakfast was not included, though it was large with much variety. We tried it the first morning: it was reasonably good though pricey for the convenience. The next two mornings we opted for more basic fare nearby. The staff was friendly and helpful, procuring a taxi for the trip back to the train station. Overall we enjoyed our accommodations and would stay here again.
- Charles de Gaulle Airport: Our last night in France, so it must be time for a Hilton hotel. I tend to choose Hilton chain hotels simply because I travel as part of my job and tend to build up status with Hilton. There were certainly plenty of options for hotels at CDG. The hotel was large and modern, easy walking distance to the airport. We were struck by the lack of guests when we arrived, leading Diane to develop a concern regarding some possibly known terrorist threat that we were unaware of. Despite that, the food was good and the room was modern and lovely. We spent our last evening with a last bottle of local wine, watching through the window the steady stream of air and automotive traffic from our lofty perch. Our terrorist fears proved to be unfounded, walking to the airport was painless, and I would stay here again.
Food and Drink in France
- Our first night in Paris we were, as expected, jet-lagged, exhausted and famished. With little energy available to find a dreamed-of Parisian food experience, we settled for a small café, trying it’s best to be an American diner, appropriately named the Bedford Ave Diner. It helped that it was located across the street from our hotel and that it was open. The staff seemed as happy to have guests as we were happy to have a French take on burgers with pseudo milkshakes.
We found a small café called La Terrasse that I referred to earlier while discussing Paris. While sitting at an outside table, whether enjoying some morning coffee or some evening wine, the atmosphere was relaxing despite the constant foot and automotive traffic a few feet away. I learned to enjoy Quiche Lorraine, though we enjoyed all of the choices. This was, in my mind, the true Paris experience. We loved La Terrasse enough to return three more times.
- We repeated this in Amboise by returning repeatedly to the café La Reserve. It wasn’t the experience of Paris, of course, but was still fun to sit and eat and enjoy the people watching. We met a lovely Australian couple sitting at a table next to us, and enjoyed an evening’s conversation while swapping travel tales.
- There is a proliferation of small “Quick” or “Monoprix” markets that are good for grabbing some water or snacks. There is no doubt that Paris is as modern as it is old.
- Cheese… in France. It was all delicious.
- Wine… in France. Even the low priced local wine was still very tasty. We tended to go with Pinot Noirs in Amboise, while trying the Gewurztraminers in Alsace.
- Coffee… in France. We enjoyed our share of Caffe Latte. I didn’t have any that I didn’t like, including the Starbucks at the heavily commercialized Louvre.
- Tarte Flambee is the Alsatian flatbread/pizza. We had one in Strasbourg near the famous cathedral at a biergarten (Terrasse des Rohan), appropriately drinking beer and listening to a large German-style Oompah band. It was delicious and helped create a perfect lunchtime experience.
- There was a definite shift in menus between the Loire Valley and Alsace. The German influence in Alsace led to more robust meat dishes with heavy sauces. Delicious, though not what usually comes to mind as standard French fare. The large number of Germans on holiday in the area may have been responsible as well.
- French food in general had a certain wholesome goodness that is a little hard to explain. Bread in the USA tends to play havoc with Diane’s fair skin, but piles of baguettes and pain chocolate in France did nothing of the sort. Small honey bees routinely were attracted to our plates as we ate at the outdoor cafes. That is something that rarely happens at home.
- On the flight back, our Delta inflight food was provided by French vendors at CDG. Everything, especially the cheese, fruit and yogurt, was so fresh tasting and delicious. This is in sharp contrast to the food from Atlanta on our way to France, which tasted like your average airplane food and probably has the same shelf-life as a standard Twinkie.
: Paris is huge. Luckily, most of what you’ll want to see as tourists is near the center of town. Despite that, you will probably get to know the public transportation system way better than you wanted to. In the public spaces I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe, despite the routine presence of armed soldiers (though I should have been more aware of pickpockets). Based on my Florence City Pass experience, the purchase of Paris Museum Passes at the Tourist Information (TI) at CDG proved to be a great investment for both time and money.
- Versailles: The dedicated train from Paris to Versailles (RER Line C5) is fast and simple. A short walk through the town of Versailles gets you to the Palace. The palace is popular, so even on the shoulder seasons expect massive crowds. The palace is large, and the tour takes a couple of hours. You will want the audio guide. Walking the gardens and seeing Marie Antoinette’s Triannon also takes time and a good dose of standing and walking energy. We had to pay extra to see the gardens, though Triannon was included in the Paris Museum Pass. Paying a few Euro for the tram that loops from the Palace to Triannon is a leg saver, especially after already walking through the palace and gardens. We managed to follow an odd path in Triannon and briefly got lost, and judging by other souls wandering about it was clear that we were not the only ones. I enjoyed all of it, though the signage could be better.
- Ile de la Cite: The original island in the Seine River that was ancient Paris, this is the home of the cathedrals of Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame. Sainte-Chapelle is worth a look for its amazing stained glass and exterior architecture, though little else. Notre Dame is massive, beautiful and enjoyable from both inside and outside, though a bit Spartan compared to Italian churches. As a fan of the TV series “Vikings”, I got a kick out of seeing the statue of Rollo near Notre Dame.
- The Louvre Museum: Like Paris, it is so huge that it can feel overwhelming. Most people race the stairs to see the Mona Lisa, simply because that is the one thing the average layperson recognizes. Otherwise, it is a maze of paintings and artifacts from many cultures and ages. Clearly France once had a world empire, and it has the loot to show for it. Honestly, in my mind it was borderline skip-worthy, simply because a person need at least one full day of gawking at all of the displays. A large underground shopping area is at the museum entrance, and it is packed with people. Taking advantage of that situation are gangs of “students” (pickpockets and their associates) taking “surveys” (distracting the victims while the crime takes place). This is where Diane’s cellphone was stolen out of her zipped-closed purse the one time I walked ahead of her in search of the metro station. We have often reflected that we would like to see a film of the crime in action, because those must have been some very smooth criminals (apologies to the Michael Jackson song). If you are approached by the survey takers or people providing handouts, ignore them and hold on to your stuff.
- Sacre-Coeur: Officially the Basilica du Sacre-Coeur de Montmartre, this amazingly large jumble of architecture sits on a hill with some great views. I don’t think the Basilica itself is all that great on the inside, though it is impressive from the outside. Here again we saw the roving gangs of pickpockets with their “surveys”, in one case practically assaulting an older Chinese female tourist who was screaming and double clutching her handbag like a football fullback. We even saw “Beware of Pickpockets” scrawled onto the steps leading up to the Basilica. The trinket vendors lined the sidewalks as far as the eye could see. As I said, the view from the hill is great, though you may pay a bigger price for the experience than you expect.
- Palais de Chaillot, also known as Trocadero: Anchoring one side of the Eiffel Tower, it is interesting to walk past while dodging more trinket sellers and apparent homeless people lining the walkways. The buildings are impressive from the outside, otherwise it is a fancy shopping area.
- Eiffel Tower: I had prepaid for tickets on-line months in advance of the visit to secure a sunset entry. Watching that sunset, and being on the tower as it lit up, is a lifelong memory. Never mind the endless trinket sellers, the shell game artists, the street performers or the police: this one was totally worth it. The views alone are incredible. Speaking of views, as part of my prepaid ticket, I had purchased the elevator ride to the very top of the tower. However, Diane and I share an illogical fear of heights regarding manmade structures. We were content to stay on the second level, which is still much higher than it looks. We reasoned that we could see the buildings from that level better than we could possibly see them from a much higher level. We also took the stairs down from that second level, and that endless descent alone will remind you of how high you were.
- Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile: We used the Metro a lot to get to some of the more distant locations away from the hotel. The Metro stop for the Arc lands you on the outside of possibly the largest roundabout that I have ever seen. Make sure you take the underground walkway from the Metro stop to the Arc itself. We happened upon a military ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, complete with apparent dignitaries and uniformed military. It seemed odd, given the hustle and bustle of this amazing intersection of Paris, to see a somber ceremony. We had been to the Unknown Soldier’s Tomb in Arlington, VA, and experienced a completely different atmosphere.
All that being said, the climb to the top of the Arc was well worth the effort, providing splendid views of Paris is general and the Champs-Elysees in particular. Amateur historians, such as myself, will want to inspect the Arc itself for the many references to famous French victories during the Napoleonic Wars.
- Napoleon’s Tomb: Located in the truly beautiful and easily recognized Dome des Invalides, Napoleon’s sarcophagus is the centerpiece, though there are many tombs located in the building. Be sure to note the royal chapel and the veterans’ chapel separated by glass, since the King attended one chapel and his soldiers the other. The attached Musee de l’Armee can consume a bunch of time for somebody (like me) who appreciates France’s military history. I have never seen so much medieval armor.
There is so much to see in Paris that it could consume an entire two weeks. We missed several famous museums (Paris has approximately 130 museums), districts such as the Latin Quarter, and famous cemeteries like Pere-Lachaise (I am a Doors/Jim Morrison fan). I would have liked to have seen more but after four nights I was ready to move on from the big-city life of Paris.
: This town was exactly the change that I needed after being in Paris. As I discussed earlier, Amboise is as picturesque as they come, especially when looking up from the north side of the river. It proved to be an excellent hub for viewing the chateaux in the eastern Loire Valley.
- Loire Valley Tours (Chaumont-sur-Loire): I had booked this van tour on-line, well in advance of our visit. I wasn’t really sure what to expect as I had never done anything like a van tour. We dutifully waited outside the Tourist Office in Amboise. Even though the van had five other people, our guide (Cyril) made us feel welcome. He gave us history and antidotes for the towns, countryside, and chateaux as we made our way. The tour included the chateaux of Blois, Cheverny and Chambord. Lunch was included and it was nice to skip the ticket lines and enjoy sharing travel stories with fellow English-speakers. All three chateaux were unique, interesting and well worth visiting. Cyril provided that deeper personal insight that you can’t get from reading books or listening to audio guides. I was very pleased with our first van tour.
- Chateau d’Amboise: Large but mostly empty or ruins, this is still worth a visit just for the view and the chance to find the improbable location of the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci.
- Chenonceau: This was by far my favorite of the chateaux. Sitting directly on the Le Cher River, it has gardens, furnishings, architecture and tons of royal subterfuge all rolled into one building. Well worth the brief taxi ride from Amboise.
As a footnote to the chateaux experience, any royal history that you can learn from the time of these chateaux will help make them even more interesting. The interplay between the royal families living in these chateaux with their own “Game of Thrones” is complex and fascinating.
: This colorful town has been compared to an Alsatian Venice due to its canal system. I think that is more of a tourism-boosting comparison than an actual truth, though Colmar is still unique and beautiful in its own way.
- The Musee Unterlinden is possibly the best small town museum I have ever seen. We enjoyed the old town with its timbered buildings, ancient church and nice cafes. It was still France, but the German influence was unmistakeable.
- Ophorus Tours (Ophorus Castelnau de France): Much like the Loire Valley Chateaux tour, I had booked this “Gems of Alsace” van tour months in advance. We again waited at the prescribed location, this time with one other couple. I was surprised when our young guide showed up with an empty van! It was just the five of us as we headed out of Colmar. Our guide, Aude, was friendly, exuberant and full of stories about the local area. We spent time in the flowerbox laden town of Equisheim, walking the city walls and settling in for a delightful wine tasting at the Charles Baur Winery. It was my first experience with the local Gewurztraminer white wine, and though I am usually a dry red wine person, I did thoroughly enjoy this sweeter local flavor.
- The other couple took some time to relax, so Aude walked the medieval town of Riquewehr with us, giving us a wonderful dialogue on the history and architecture of the village. Next we were given an hour and a half to find lunch on our own in the equally beautiful village of Kayserberg. Later we continued up to the French War Cemetery and the American WW2 memorial at Sigolsheim. It was important to me to see that Allied sacrifices are still remembered and I respect the French for doing that. Aude pointed out the “martyr villages” from the fierce fighting in this area that had basically been leveled and rebuilt, with shiny modern steeples where medieval churches had once been.
- The final part of the tour was the Haut-Koenigsbourg castle, rebuilt by Kaiser Wilhem II in 1908 although the original ruins date back to 1192. This is practically a fantasy castle, with details and flourishes and artwork faithfully recreated. It was a fantastic way to end the trip. This overall van tour experience rates as a highlight of our entire time in France.
- Strasbourg: We caught the local train from Colmar to Strasbourg, feeling quite comfortable now with the French train system. After a quick ride to the ultra-modern Strasbourg train station, we had an easy walk to the old town. The cathedral is stunning, with amazing sculptured detail inside and out. The surrounding buildings had a great feeling of that French-German cultural mix. As I related earlier, we enjoyed an Oopah band while drinking really good pilsner and munching on a pizza-like tart flambee. We also happened on a huge flea market that was fun to peruse. There is no doubt that Strasbourg is a large modern city, but the old town area just felt like a bigger version of Colmar. I highly recommend this city as a day trip.