A First Trip to France

Posted October 30th, 2016 by Tom
First Trip to France
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:

  1. Fly in to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport (CDG)
  2. Take a taxi to our hotel in Paris, stay 4 nights
  3. Take a 2 hour train from Paris to Amboise, stay 3 nights
  4. Take a 6 hour train from Amboise to Colmar, stay 3 nights
  5. 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.

Montage of Sites in Paris, France

Montage of Sites in Paris, France

Visiting Paris

: 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.

Montage of Amboise, France

Visiting Amboise

: 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.

Montage of Alsace, France
Montage of Alsace, France

Visiting Colmar

: 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

Details from France… or Living With Your Decisions

Accommodations while in France

Food and Drink in France

French Attractions

Paris Attractions

: 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.

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.

Amboise Attractions

: 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.

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.

Colmar Attractions

: 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.