From Paris

Weekend Trip: Lyon

Posted by Strainu on August 21, 2008
From Paris / No Comments

Versiunea română aici.

Transport
Map

There are TGV trains from Paris to Lyon every hour or so. You also have planes and a highway between the two cities.

Rating: ★★★★½

Accommodation

There are many low-cost hotels in the city, including in the city center. Because we were three, we chose one of the low cost hotels (Premiere Classe or Etap). With the city tourism fee, this got as to 22 euros/person for a modern, air-conditioned room in downtown Lyon. This solution has only one disadvantage: one of the three beds is above the other two.

Rating: ★★★½☆

What to see

The first thing to see is the Fourvière hill, part of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites. You can take the funicular to the Roman amphitheater or to the XIXth century cathedral. At the bottom of the hill you have the Old Lyon (Vieux Lyon) – famous for its traboules (small passageways between buildings). A guided tour could be useful here, because you can easily get lost or miss some cool traboules.

Near the old city there is the Presqu’île, home to the shopping quarter, the city hall, opera and some museums.

Another hill worth seeing is the Croix Rousse, home to the world famous painted walls. If you are at the right distance, you might even mistake them for a real street. There is an interesting story about respect between taggers and the painters who made the walls. In one of the walls there was a real postal box that integrated in the painting. After a month from the inauguration, the box was full of graffiti, but the wall was clean – and it still is. It’s a good example of how modern art can prevent degradations in the modern cities.

If you have time, don’t miss the Film Museum – Lyon is the city were the Lumière brothers projected the first movie over 110 years ago.

If you want more info on what to see and where you can find good food, check out the second link below.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Alternatives

Think Bruxelles, Toulouse, Marseille or Strasbourg.

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

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Extended Weekend: Côte d’Azur

Posted by Strainu on August 14, 2008
From Paris / 3 Comments

Versiunea română aici.

Transport

Map

The Côte d’Azur is far from Paris (about 1000 km), so if you leave by car, make sure you have 2 drivers. A much easier way is to go by train – 6 hours by TGV or 10 hours by night train. I chose the latter solution as it allowed my to save a day.

Between the resorts you have bus services (slow but cheap – 1 euro) or local trains (more expensive but much quicker). For instance, between Cannes and Antibes you make almost 1h by bus and 12 minutes by train.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Accommodation

You can find accommodation for all budgets on the Côte d’Azur. However, you should consider booking at least 2 to 4 weeks in advance during the summer, as there are many tourists in the area.

If you’re looking for a low budget restaurant, don’t bother looking near the beach. Instead, try near the fishing ports – you might have pleasant surprises. 🙂

Rating: ★★★★☆

What to see

Cannes, Antibes and Nice are all alike, except for the “Croisette”. The “Croisette” is almost the ultimate in showing off. In one end you can also see the famous “Palais des Congres” where the film festival is held. Further down the street, you have the 4* and 5* hotels on one side, the private beaches of those hotels on the other side, and in the middle, 100k+ euro cars. 🙂 However, you can also find some lower-budget restaurants on the beach, but their prices are still above average. The beach is from sand, which is very unusual in France. This is not the case in Nice and Antibes, where you have to stay on rocks.

The rest of Cannes is just an ordinary resort, with shops, hotels and all the rest. There are some museums, like the Musée de la Castre, sitting in the former Castle of Cannes (photo 1) or the Musée de la Mer (Sea Museum). From the tourist port of Cannes you can visit the Lérin Islands, that were protecting the port in the Middle Ages – Saint Marguerite and Saint Honorat. I went to the larger one, Saint Marguerite (photo 3 and 4). It’s covered with a pine forest and hosts a village and the Fort Royal, home to the Sea Museum and a youth hostel. The museum is not very large nor very interesting. The good part is that it’s free for students. If you missed the last morning boat and need to spend some time on the island, you can visit the natural reservation on the eastern side of the island or the WWII bunkers.
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Nice is known for the half-moon shape of it’s beach. I can’t really understand the fun in spending the day laying on rocks, but hey…France is a free country 🙂 The main attraction except the beach is the Colline du Château, a mountain top at the end of the Angel’s Bay where the town’s castle and cathedral once stood. From the top, you can see the port, with the ferries to Corsica (photo 5) as well as the whole bay, as far as the airport (photo 6).

The pedestrian district, comprising the Promenade and several inland streets is home to some interesting buildings like the enormous Acropolis convention center/multipurpose hall and the very odd Louis Nucéra Library (photo 8). Another place to visit in Nice is the Garibaldi Place.
NisaNisaNisaNisa

Antibes was once as important as Cannes or Nice. Nowadays it seems a little “sleepy”, the main interest spot being the port.

Even if Monaco is generally considered as a single city, that’s not true – the northern part is called Monte Carlo, while to the south there are other cities. Due to the lack of time, we only made a half-day walk in the country, looked at the Prince’s Palace then left back for Antibes.
Rating: ★★½☆☆

Alternatives

If you don’t have 3 days, you might consider going from Paris to the Atlantic Ocean. Another destination could be the Northern Sea or even the African seaside if you go by plane.

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

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Extended Weekend: Benelux – Luxembourg, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Bruges

Posted by Strainu on August 13, 2008
From Paris / No Comments

Versiunea română aici.

Transport

Map

There are 3 ways to get around:

  • a car – which we choose; we rented a car from Sixt and left for the “Autoroute du Nord”; the highway is expensive and not as good as you’d expect in France (still better than the ones in Romania, of course) and pretty much “average” in Belgium and Holland.
  • a bus – Eurolines has routes between all this cities; the trip takes forever – count 7 hours between Paris and Amsterdam.
  • Thalys – the high speed train that liks Paris, Bruxelles, Koln and Amsterdam + regional trains from there.

We had some problems with the GPS in Utrecht, due to the road works in progress which were changing the look of the city. The rest of the road was smooth. You should consider about 4 euros/h or 30euros/day for parking in Holland.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Accommodation

The initial idea was to spend 1 night in Liege, 2 nights in Amsterdam and one in Bruges. Due to the lack of time, we gave up on the nights in Liege and Bruges. In Liege we found a Premiere Classe hotel downtown and in Bruges a small hostel, both at about 20 euros/person/night.

Amsterdam was a whole different story. The hostels were both expensive and fully booked 2 weeks ahead. As a back-up solution, we decided to stay in Utrecht, about 35 km from Amsterdam. We chose the Strowis Hostel, which delivered all the promises from the site. We particularely liked the back yard and the hosts. 🙂

Rating: ★★★★☆

The cities

Luxembourg is a mix between a tourist and a business city. It tries to do both roles as good as possible and in my opinion it works. However, not everybody agreed – some of my friends found it too “official”.
Luxemburg in a strange light on deviantart

Amsterdam is of course known for its canals, bikes and drugs. I personally found it to be a dirty city (the only one in western Europe who could be compared with Bucharest) and hard to live in if you have any kind of prejudices – and how many of us can honestly say they have none? On the other hand, I just loved the museums; perhaps was it because I am attracted to Flemish painters because of their choice of colors or because of the nice contrast between the old artworks and the modern layout.
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Utrecht was much more “quiet” than Amsterdam. Despite the same active night life, the city seemed to always me asleep. I’m sorry we only had a few hours to explore it.

Bruges is the medieval city by excellence. Between the old churches and houses you walk on small stone-paved, car-free (at least in the city center) streets. The downside is that once you see one of those, the rest are pretty much alike.
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Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Alternatives

Choose 1 city from Holland, 1 medieval city and a very small country (like Lichtenstein, Andorra, San Marino or Vatican) and you’re all set. Pretty cool, huh? 😀

Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆

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One day trip: Atlantic Coast

Posted by Strainu on July 13, 2008
From Paris / 1 Comment

Versiunea română aici.

Transport
Map

The road from Paris to Rouen and further to Le Havre is on highway. Unfortunately, we went on a holiday so the road was packed. To get to Etretat and Fecamp, two resorts on the Atlantic coast, you need to get off the highway and onto secondary roads. In the resorts there were insufficient parking places compared with the number of cars.

If you want to get to the Atlantic by train, you can get to Le Havre by Corail trains. There are some TGVs to Rennes and Brest, in Bretagne.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Food

Like anywhere in France, you can find good food and excellent wine just about anywhere. However, unlike other cities, the prices were quite high. As we were on a budget, we settled for supermarket food. 😛


Rating: ★★★☆☆

Sightseeing

Rouen, once the capital of Normandy, is a city famous mostly for it’s cathedral. The area around it is full of interesting old houses. What we couldn’t quite understand is why there was a 60s glass-and-concrete building doing just in front of the cathedral?

The city also has some interesting museums and other churches, but we skipped them due to the lack of time.
Oceanul AtlanticOceanul Atlantic

The small roads between Rouen and the seaside are worth the detour by themselves. Old stone houses and windmills are common in the region.

In Fecamp, there isn’t much to do besides sunbathing. Unfortunately, the beach is made of stones, so you should bring a mattress instead of a towel.

Etretat has, besides the rocky beach, some old WW2 defenses now eaten by the ocean when the tide is high. When the water is low, you can visit them and even go through a passage in the rocky cliffs to some “hidden” beaches. You can (if you’re in good shape) then climb up the cliff for a spectacular view of the coast.

Casinos are an important attraction in both cities, although the look a bit “rusty” and can’t be compared to the palaces of the Cote d’Azur.

Oceanul AtlanticOceanul AtlanticOceanul AtlanticOceanul Atlantic

Rating: ★★★★½

Alternatives

The Mediteranean Sea is quite far from Paris compared to the ocean, but it remains nevertheless an important alternative.

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

Links

No links here, sorry.

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Extended Weekend: Loire Valley

Posted by Strainu on May 14, 2008
From Paris / No Comments

Transport

Map

To visit the Loire Valley, you’re better off to stay in one of the big cities, Tours and Blois.

The road from Paris to Tours is quite good. The downside there are many route changes and the itinerary has some toll portions. It will probably take you about 2 hours to get there. Blois is on this route, about 1h30 from Paris.

We have chosen to stay in Tours and get there by TGV. The trip takes little over an hour from Paris Montparnasse and 59 minutes from Massy. Unfortunately there are only a few trains that go in the Tours main station. Most of them stop in a small station on the outskirts of the city, and from there you have to take a regional train. Besides, the trains are a little old. It’s not particularly pleasant to hear the outer shell strongly vibrate at 300km/h.

To get to Blois, and even to Tours if you would like to save some money, you can take some classic trains from Paris Austerlitz. The trip takes about 2h to Blois and 30 more minutes to Tours.

To get around the valley the best is to have a car. If you don’t, you have to get around with local trains (TER) or with local buses. The trains are fast and quite expensive, while the buses are slow, cheap and few and far apart. Be careful, in the weekends the transport sucks (there are fewer trains and no buses).

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Accommodation

The Loire Valley has accommodations for all the budgets, from campings and the cheapest hostels to 5***** palaces and even reconverted castles. Tours is in the center of the region so it will probably be your first choice, but Blois has its own charm and nothing compares with the experience you will have if you decide to spend some days in one of the villages in the region.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The castles

I grouped the castles by their region. You should be able to visit all the castles in a group during a single day, without running to much.

Chenonceau and Amboise

Chenonceau and Amboise are placed more or less on the route between Tours and Blois. The first castle I visited, Chenonceau remained my favourite. It was built in the 16th century and it is called “Le chateau des Dames” (The Ladies’ Castle) because it was owned by the wife (Catherine de Medicis) and the mistress (Diane de Poitiers) of the French king Henri II. The castle spreads over the Cher River, so the view is guaranteed from the ball room, which is over 60m long. The domain and the gardens are pretty impressive, although not comparable with the ones at Versailles.

Amboise is different. It was built from an old fortress and the successive kings added new buildings or destroyed old ones, so the current castle is formed from 2 very different wings. This castle gave me a very pleasant surprise, as it was the only one which had a brochure in Romanian. Unfortunately, neither the castle nor the domain were impressive.

Entry fees were 10 euros in full, 7,50 euros for students at each castle.

ChenonceauxAmboise

Rating: ★★★★☆

Blois, Chambord et Cheverny

The Blois castle is the most intriguing of them all. It’s made from 3 different wings, of which the most beautiful is unfinished. It has an impressive side on the road and an interesting collection of weapons.

Chambord is arguably the most famous castle of them all. It’s a huge royal palace surrounded by an endless park. The village of Chambord is practically a touristic attraction in itself, being pretty much unchanged from the 17th century. This castle houses the famous double helix staircase, by which 2 people could see each other but never meet.

Tickets for students are 5 euros at Blois and 7,5 at Chambord.

BloisChambord

Rating: ★★★★½

Chinon et Langeais

Chinon is more of a fortress than a castle. It’s made of three distinct parts separated by ditches. It’s currently undergoing a huge restauration which will see the main tower rebuilt from scratch. This decision is unfortunate, in my opinion, as it takes most of the charm of the castle. Chinon also has a museum dedicated to Jeanne d’Arc.

Langeais is a small castle not to far from Chinon. It’s the castles where Charles II and Anne de Bretagne married, making Bretagne a part of France. The most interesting thing here is the drawbridge, which is lowered each morning.

ChinonLangeais

Rating: ★★★½☆

Luynes et Tours

Luynes is a private residence and can only be visited with a guide. Its charm is given by the small histories told by the guide and the many family pictures. It’s placed in a suburb of Tours and you can get there by bus.

The Tours castle is the city’s art museum. I personally found it totally uninteresting.

Luynes

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Alternatives

Well, there isn’t really an alternative to the many castles in the Loire Valley. Perhaps the English countryside? If you know an area with such a high concentration of castles, please let me know.

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

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Extended Weekend: London

Posted by Strainu on May 01, 2008
From Paris / 5 Comments

Transport
Map

There are three ways to get from Paris to London:

  • the plane – there are three companies operating flights between the two cities: Air France, British Airways and Easyjet. The price difference between “normal” and “low-cost” airlines is minimal. This is the method we chose as it is simple and cheaper than the train if you book at the last minute. The flight takes an hour, but you must be at the airport at least an hour before the takeoff. If you have more time, it might be cheaper to go by train to Tours and take a Ryanair flight from there.
  • the train – the Eurostar, that is. The trip takes about 2 and a half hours, you get to see more than from the plane, but it’s incredibly expensive if you don’t book a long time ahead.
  • the ferry – there are several companies with ferry services from Dover to Calais, with prices starting at 13 euros per passenger. You could argue that this is the cheapest way to go to London, but it’s also the longest, as you have to come with commuting times from the ferry terminal to the railway stations.

As an interesting observation, it must be said that a flight from Bucharest to London (which takes almost 4 hours) is just 25% more expensive than a flight from Paris to London (1h).
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Accommodation
London is a huge city, with thousands of hotels and hostels. Nevertheless, if you don’t book in time you might have trouble finding cheap hotels. We stayed at Charlie’s Bed and Breakfast, an interesting little hotel in northern London recommended by our predecessors at Supelec. It was a very comfortable room with old-fashioned bed covers and high colorful windows. It was all very clean and you could find lots of tourist information near the reception. The only problem was the bathroom, because the window wasn’t closing.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Museums
Public museums are free in London, and they’re a lot of them. Near the world famous Harrods shop you have an Art Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum.

Due to the lack of time we only visited the Science Museum – 6 floors of scientific models, games and exhibitions. You could learn anything from the debris found on the bottom of Tamisa to how the Moon lander looked like. Pretty impressive.

The British Museum was another point of interest we couldn’t miss. I personally wanted to compare it to the Louvre, but I found there is no comparison possible. The Louvre tends to put art from the same period together, while the British gathers art by the geographic area it was created in. I wandered about the whole day in the museum but still missed some rooms and overlooked others. If you have the time, go in at least 2 days at the British Museum.

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Rating: ★★★★☆

Sightseeing

There is a lot to see in London. You can start with a walk along the Thames river, then get on the London Eye to have a aerial view of the British capital and to decide what you want to see. Due to the lack of time, we limited ourselves to Big Ben, the Buckingham Palace (with the guard change, of course) and some commercial avenues.

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Rating: ★★★☆☆

Alternatives
Most Western European capitals can be easily reached from Paris: Berlin, Madrid, Luxembourg, Bruxelles, Amsterdam… you only have the problem of choice.

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

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One Day Trip: Versailles

Posted by Strainu on March 28, 2008
From Paris / 2 Comments

Versiunea română aici.

Transport
Map

It’s not really worth it to go to Versailles by car from Paris (or from anywhere in Ile-de-France for that matter). The roads are always full and parking spaces near the castle are hard to find.

Your best bet is to leave your car at home/the hotel and take the RER (suburban train) C to Versailles. There are 3 railway stations in the city, but any of them will do, as they’re pretty close to each other. Just choose the one closer to your location.

The RER trains are not renowned for their safety, especially in the evening, so you should try to finish your visit before the night falls.

Rating: ★★★★½

Food

The restaurants from the Versailles domain (there are two of them I believe) are quite expensive. If you don’t want to leave the domain, you should pack some snacks or buy them from the cafeteria.

Outside the Court, like everywhere in France, you can find numerous small restaurants with excellent food and wine. If you are on a budget, you can order the “Menu du jour” (Menu of the day), which can cost you from 9 to 20 Euros (depending on the location). Service is usually included, but if you were particularly impressed, you can leave a 5-10% tip.


Rating: ★★★½☆

Sightseeing

Well, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? After all, why would you go to Versailles if not to see the Versailles Castle and gardens? And if you’re wondering how much it will cost you, I can tell you that in march 2008, the prices were 13,5 euros for the main palace, 5 euros for the Trianon castle and gardens. The main gardens were free except in the evenings when there are water shows. Of course, there are reductions for kids and combined tickets (16 euros). Be ready for a 1 to 2 hours of queuing (in the low season).

The main castle is impressive at least. You go through the king’s, the queen’s and the children’s apartments, plus the world famous “Galerie des Glaces” (“The Hall of Mirrors”). Once a day, there is a special visit to see the “Royal suite”. In plus, there are many temporary exhibitions, but you have to buy a separate ticket for those. The order of the rooms is clear, there is no chance of getting lost. However, the constant crowding created by the groups is quite annoying.

In order to truly appreciate the gardens, you should visit them between April and September, while they’re still green. It’s still interesting in winter, but the earth and sand trails combined with rain are not fabulous for your shoes.

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Rating: ★★★★★

Alternatives

The only alternative I can think about is the Louvre Museum. If you don’t have the time or the disposition, try any of the Paris Museums + a walk in the city.

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

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One Day Trip: Tours

Posted by Strainu on March 21, 2008
From Paris / 1 Comment

Versiunea română aici.

Transport
Map
The road from Paris to Tours is quite good. The downside there are many route changes and the itinerary has some toll portions. It will probably take you about 2 hours to get there.

We have chosen to get there by TGV. The trip takes little over an hour from Paris Montparnasse and 59 minutes from Massy. Unfortunately there are only a few trains that go in the Tours main station. Most of them stop in a small station on the outskirts of the city, and from there you have to take a regional train. Besides, the trains are a little old. It’s not particularly pleasant to hear the outer shell strongly vibrate at 300km/h.

Be careful, in the weekends the city transport sucks (the Sunday mornings no bus works).

Rating: ★★★★☆

Food
Like everywhere in France, you can find numerous small restaurants with excellent food and wine. If you are on a budget, you can order the “Menu du jour” (Menu of the day), which can cost you from 9 to 20 Euros (depending on the location). Service is included in most restaurants.

Do keep in mind that on weekends most of them will be closed. In fact, like in all small French cities, most of the shops will be closed on Sunday. We found a small “Brasserie” in Place de la Victoire which had a fabulous service and reasonable food.


Rating: ★★★★☆

Sightseeing
There is not much to see in Tours. Although the city is on the world famous Loire Valley, it’s castle is pretty much disappointing. It’s currently a sort of modern art museum, opened from 2 P.M.

The cathedral is very big (compared with other similar constructions), very well lit and overall quite impressive. It reminded me of the cathedral of Bruges rather than a french cathedral.

Other tourist attractions include the Loire River, the Art Museum and the City Zoo.

LoireCatedralaCatedralaPrimaria

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Alternatives

Other cities within an hour of TGV from Paris are: Lens, Le Mans, Dunkerque, Dijon, Valenciennes and even Bruxelles.

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

Links

Sorry, no links available. Use google. 🙂

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