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Trip Report Trip Report: Paris, Provence and Switzerland

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After several 10-day trips to Europe my husband and I really wanted a longer trip. This trip was 30 days! The heart of the trip was Provence and we added destinations of interest from there. We arrived home yesterday so here goes:

Overall: We're a couple in our fifties. Our budget was modest/moderate. We like to be in the center of everything so housing location trumped style. We value simple experiences over fancy dining. We love history, art, architecture. We love wine. I'm a vegetarian and love chocolate!

Packing: We packed light! We each had one rollable carry-on and 1 small should bag.
We did not bring irons or hair dryers. With 9 stops It was important that each of us could carry or roll what we packed. Simplicity ruled -- except -- some of our stops had a washing machine! For Americans not having a clothes dryer was odd but typical there. We allowed 24 hours and things dried fine. I brought one hanger with clips so I could always hang small stuff to dry. Excellent shoes are a must. Leave the cute sexy ones at home unless you travel first class :)

Logistics: i had all the printed reservations for hotels and trains in one envelope. i didn't want to fuss with electronics. Being shoulder season (April) we didn't plan anything else other than hotels, trains and the rental car for Provence. We had a laptop and iPad with us for in-the- room free wireless research.

We flew direct to Paris from Atlanta and I had reserved an Air France bus to take us to Gare de Lyon (train station.) It was great to have the bus reservation in hand since we were tired. From the train station we took a taxi to Marais. I had also bought a small package of Int'l minutes from AT&T so I could call hotels when needed. We arrived with a stash or Euros so we were ready with "cash." Our credit card was taken *mostly* everywhere though.

STOP 1. 5 Nights. Paris. AIRBNB in Le Marais. Paid about $175/night for an efficiency apt.. First time users of this site and it worked beautifully. I wanted to save some $ on this leg. We had been to Paris once before and knew this neighborhood to be central and arty. The apt. location was perfect. The hosts were very responsive and met us as indicated. It had a bit of a "student feel" with basic furniture etc, but it was clean and worked great. We walked half a block to a bustling street with cafes yet at night it was quiet. Every morning we made our coffee and had local yogurts ready in the fridge.

We skipped the obvious this time around and wandered about. Had lots of falafel, pastries and took two walking tours through Discover Walks (free + tipped supported.) Loved their offering in Marais and Latin Quarter. Re-visted the Louvre (how could we not?) and went to an organic wine bar near by for a terrific cheese plate. Walked. Enjoyed public parks and squares. No fancy food.

Then we took a taxi back to Gare de Lyon and hopped the train. We had reservations which are essential in France. They book 90 days out and I booked them on capitaine train. Google to find it. It's a third party site that actually makes sense.

The train (2nd class) was comfortable. I was glad we only had one carry-on bag each because the train was packed and there wasn't a lot of room for luggage.

Here started my relationship with French bathrooms. The train bathrooms are pay only. And you gotta have smaller change. If you have a $20 the attendant just shakes her head.

STOP 2. 4 Nights. Nice, France. 1 bedroom Apt rented through Nicepebbles.com. We paid about $200 a night. This web site offers attractive apts all over Nice. The pictures were so pretty I had a hard time resisting. We were met at the train station by an affable guy who insisted on taking my luggage over the cobblestones. He also insisted on taking it up the 3 flights of stairs to the apt. Luckily it only weighed about 28 lbs at that point! If you don't do stairs, travel first class!

The apt. was beautiful. Smaller than I thought but really well appointed. Nice stylish furniture. Fantastic shower. Great bedding. However, I was quite irritated by one thing: cigarette smoke from the adjoining apt. The rental apt and its neighbor share a locked vestibule. The other apt occupant smokes like a chimney and that smoke seeped into the apt. Other than that, it was great. I would rent from Nice Pebbles again for sure, but not this apt. named "Juno." If you're not bothered by this, please rent it. it's gorgeous!

Our 4 days in Nice were fun. We were right in Vieux (Old town) and it's bustling and loud! Party central. While we were tucked in by midnight those below partied like champs til 5am. It was part of the experience and made us laugh at their abilities. Plenty of casual dining here. We liked la Voglia, but the portions are huge and could have been split! A lot of Italian food in Nice. Loved it all. One of our favorites was going to the beach and sitting out with a cool bucket of white wine and Caprese salad beach side. Opera Plage was the restaurant. My husband thought it was going to be overpriced but for the view (and shade) beachside he agreed it was worth it.

Two good museums here via bus. We went to Chagall (a must if you're a fan!) and Matisse right up the road with a small collection. The treat here is that both museums are located up hill and give you a fabulous view from up there. Beautiful homes (mansions) and apts abound. We met a lovely British couple named Penny and Nick, also on vacation, and had lunch with them at the second museum.

The buses are great and are cheap. Another day we also took the bus to EZE. It's a funny one-two punch. The Bus is really cheap, drinks overlooking Cap Ferret. NOT cheap. But ya know, what the hell. We paid $60 (I'm not kidding) for one round-- a gin & tonic and Aperol spritz with ample munchies "included." Great experience at Chateau de la Chevre d'Or. The staff was super friendly and didn't wince at our blue jeans and t-shirts once! The view is heavenly!! Translation on hotel name: Golden Goats. Yes, I see! Got great pictures! Could not afford to get drunk. :)

Also in Nice, FREE fabulous park overlooking the east side of the city. Parc du Chateau. It's up a hill and it's all this walking and climbing that allowed me to come home without gaining any weight. Bring good shoes!

We were temped to rent bikes along the beach promenade in Nice but the bike rental machine was confusing. We walked instead.

Our favorite meal: buying local pasta and sauce from the friendly man at Maison Tosello in old town and taking it to the apt. to cook. It was really great!

9 days in and we still had 21 days to go.

next stop Provence.

More to come after some sleep...

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    STOP 3. 4 Nights. Saint Saturnin les Apts. Mas Perreal B & B.
    After the fast pace of two cities we were ready for some down time. We had a car reservation at Avis and picked it up at The Nice - Place Massina location close to old town. The pick up went very smoothly and we were on our way. We didn't really look at the route beforehand and had an old map around in the car, but we made it work. We were a little surprised by the expensive toll road and learned to avoid those after that. Luckily, we had some cash and paid what seemed like 15-20 Euros over the days trip! I wasn't willing to plan the trip down to that level of detail and it showed. Somehow we managed to get to AIX en Provence for lunch, park centrally in a garage and have an easy bakery lunch. We strolled and then hopped back in the car. Within an hour or two through lots of twists and turns we arrived at our B & B. The Luberon was gorgeous. The play of light late in the day with purple and gold and the vineyards surrounding the B & B were gorgeous and romantic. I had arrived at my favorite spot! Eureka!

    The B&B is marvelously run by Kevin and Elisabeth and they make the best breakfasts. All the guests were so happy eating their homemade pancakes, quiche, etc. We will certainly return. I think we paid about $150 or so. It was so nice to finally chill and one day we did nothing but lay around the room and patio. It was a great base to explore the perched villages and we saw most of them. The hosts also gave us good pointers on restaurants and we enjoyed The Voyages in the local village. They had a good vegetarian plate. We managed to drink the aperitif straight -- (pastis) only to realize later why it was poured into such a tall glass! Luckily we sipped it. We were supposed to add five parts water… oops, didn't read that first.

    This was a magical area and we were so happy to visit Gordes, Lacoste, Menerebes, Apt for the Saturday market, and Bonnieux. It was the highlight of our trip. Kevin and Elisabeth are the best hosts. They are warm and friendly.

    Stop 4. 4 nights. Uzes. L'Albiousse B & B. Not to be outdone, we headed to Uzes next. It's just west of Provence and nicely close to the Pont du Gard. This is an enchanting village. The renovated 16th century townhouse is a treasure. It was our most expensive stop in France. Over $200 plus parking was extra. The two hosts live in this magically re-imagined modern version of a 16th century urban home. There's plenty of past in the textured and worn stone steps and humongous double doors and high ceilings, but then there are modern touches using recycled materials in the chandeliers. We felt very well taken care of. In fact, we were the only ones there. Gwilyn and Alexis kept close tabs on us, but managed to still go out and about themselves. These two are quite entertaining and great hosts!

    While there we dined well at casual Mas Cantine and at more upscale Le Bec a vin. We loved the local Wednesday market and the shops offered interesting and more off-beat decor items.

    We also were able to visit a couple Chateauneuf de Pape vineyards from there, as well as Saint Quentin la poterie where we browsed for local ceramics. We had tastings at the vineyards -- if you want a more extensive tour it's arranged in advance and rather pricey. We added two bottles of wine, various local goods like honey and olive oil and ceramics to our suitcases.

    Pont du Gard was the highlight here and the town of Uzes itself. Go. The duke may even be in residence at the castle in the center of town. My husband saw him in the evening strolling along.

    More later...

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    More about Pont Du Gard. Bring a snack or picnic with you. It's a great place to sit below the bridge and enjoy some peaceful time. We didn't know to do this and ended up having another nutella crepe. Certainly not a bad thing but… when you enter the parking lot of the Pont du Gard you take a parking ticket and then walk around ALL the tour buses to the courtyard that contains food stalls, the museum and gift shop. We weren't sure what to do. You walk all the way forward and that path takes you to the bridge where you spend most of your time. Luckily it was quiet and the tour bus traffic and congestion seemed to stay in the courtyard area and buildings. After that we stopped in the museum. My husband was really taken with it. When you're ready to leave, pay your ticket by the gift shop and your receipt allows you to get out of the parking lot. Lots of English was spoken.

    STOP 5. 4 nights. Saint-Remy-de-Provence. Hotel du Soleil. We headed out of Uzes before noon and decided to spend a few hours in Nimes on the way to St. Remy. That seemed simple enough.

    Getting there was pretty straight forward on the winding roads to the southeast. It was a beautiful drive. Once we arrived in Nimes we found the parking deck below the arena. we walked around the neighborhood, did a cursory walk around the arena and headed to the Maison Carree. We had taken an extensive tour of the Rome Colosseum on another trip and loved it, but didn't feel compelled to pay the Euros to go inside this one. Instead we visited the Maison Carree which is a lovely 2,000 year old structure and has a good movie inside which tells the story of Nimes' beginnings. We grabbed a snack at a restaurant for the benefit of a bathroom…Nimes was also a good place to pick up another camera chip at a decent price. We headed out of Nimes but circled the city a couple times trying to find the secret passage to St. Remy The moral of the story is always look for signs that are "close enough" to your desired destination. I rejected Arles as in the wrong direction but that was the secret to finally finding our way out.

    It was great when we were finally "released" and started seeing signs for towns on the way to St. Remy.

    We had heard St. Remy was popular with Americans. (As an American, I had mixed feelings about that!) The town has lovely plane trees also popular in many of the towns, especially Aix. We found our hotel (Hotel du Soleil) just south of town and were pleasantly surprised by what was described as a "budget" hotel. It has a lovely courtyard and sparkling pool. While it was too cool for a dip it was a relaxing place to read. I think we paid about $135. The hotel has recently been renovated and has a stylish spa feel. I thought this place was a great value, well located and quiet. We had no fridge but my husband used the balcony to park some of our juices in the cold air. The rooms are tiny however. We didn't pay extra for the breakfast and instead walked into town (5 minutes) for coffee and pastries.

    St. Remy doesn't have the charm of Uzes. Its main square is dominated by a parking lot. There's a lot of upscale shopping (especially clothes) which doesn't appeal to me. The Joel Durand chocolate shop is awesome! What St. Remy does have is access to some cool sites. The spare remains of Glanum, a pre-Roman town is just to the South. Van Gogh's asylum is there, too. There's also Les Baux to the south with the remains of a castle. The views are beautiful, especially when you get up high at Glanum's peak or when you climb the castle in Les Baux. We also enjoyed visiting the olive oil facility in Moulin Castelas on the way to Les Baux. Catherine gave us a great personalized tour. What a lovely lady. Call ahead to book this free tour.

    I was really tired of heavy food at this point. I had a lot of fresh juices, salads, etc.
    There looked like some nicer dining spots but we didn't try them. If you like shopping, head to St. Remy!

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    Let me know if you have any specific Provence questions…

    Our 12 days in Provence were done. Our next stop was Switzerland!

    We got up very early on the last day in St. Remy and drove to Avignon. We had bought two bottles of Starbucks to get us going in the a.m. We had a series of reserved tickets to cross into Geneva. And my husband had bought a 4-day Swiss pass right before we had left home and had it shipped to Uzes. We had that in hand. You can only buy Swiss passes from outside Switzerland! We were quite nervous about getting lost since we also had gotten lost in Avignon on the way to Uzes! My husband is really excellent with directions, but still…

    We got to the train station outside Avignon just fine. There are two stations and we knew we had to get to the TGV. The signs are lousy of course. It's strange but you have to go into a parking lot and take a ticket to drop off your car. Not intuitive.

    I had to use another pay bathroom in the train station. I guess I should stop drinking coffee in France. Had to have change.

    There's a lot of talk about trip pacing on this forum. And I agree. 3-5 days per stop is minimal. Well, I broke all the rules in Switzerland because we only had 1 week left and the trip was already 30 days long. I also knew Switzerland was going to be expensive. The Swiss pass alone cost $650-ish. My husband was tense about this. We knew it "included" all our train travel but only discounted mountain experiences like Jungfrau. Still it seemed like a lot!

    We got on board and changed trains after an hour in Lyon. From there we got into the next stop --Grenoble-- and changed again to Geneva. 3 trains. Each requiring lifting our increasingly heavy bags. Should we have purchased all that wine?

    We arrived in Geneva mid-afternoon, hungry and tired. We stopped at a cafe in the train station and sticker shock! I innocently told my husband i wanted the yogurt with muesli out of the case. We're talking a container of yogurt! It cost about 6-7 dollars… and the guy behind the counter pushed "dollars" before my husband could understand what was happening. That conversion cost another 3%. after that, we always chose CHF currency since I knew our credit card offered the conversion for free. That start got us cranky.

    Next was to buy our ticket to Bern, our first stop. We didn't want to use our Swiss pass yet since we knew we had to spend about $75 dollars/day each to break even.

    We got our tickets (about $35 each) and got to Bern and a nice lady at an info counter told us how to get to our hostel. Yeah, that's right. I tried to impress my husband with my budget choice. It was a private room and bath, but still it was a hostel. Backpackers Glocke in old town Bern. We rolled our bags about 4 blocks and we were there. One case of stairs to reception and a small elevator to the top.

    it turned out to be great value. non-smoking awesomeness. I could finally do a load of laundry!! I could tell my husband was chewing his lip when we learned it was 5 Francs a load, 3 more to dry and 1 for the laundry soap. I hit the wrong button, got the longer wash and it added 2 more Francs to that. I was quite popular with my husband at that moment. My husband breathed through it… and said little. But now we had clean jeans and shirts for the rest of our trip!!

    Our one night in Bern was a way to see where Einstein worked. I just finished the Walter Issacson book and it was cool to see the clock tower and his apt. We also had a great meal at Punkt, right next door to the hostel. It was crazy spicy but we enjoyed a change of pace. We split the meal and it was plenty of food. A couple of glasses of wine later and we were good.

    We both agreed the long day and several train rides was too much. We would have been better off staying in Geneva. Just because you have short train rides, it doesn't matter. If you have to lift and drag your bags 3 or more times, it's taxing. This was the first day I would have changed our plan.

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    STOP 7. 2 nights. Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. Hotel Staubbach.

    We woke in Bern and had some coffee -- we had brought our small french press coffee maker and it had come in a handy several times on our trip. We strolled old town for an hour and then dragged our suitcases the 4 blocks to the train station. At the desk the agent sold us the tickets to Lauterbrunnen and activated our Swiss pass for the next day. That seemed the best use of our 4-day pass. We would see if it was worth the price!

    The train took us through Interlaken Ost. (We could have taken an earlier one to Interlaken West and changed but this was a more efficient route.) From Interlaken Ost we took the train to Lauterbrunnen. It was a quick ride - maybe 1.5 hours?

    Lauterbrunnen is way more scenic than the pictures. You can't breathe the pictures. You can't take in the shimmery snow-covered Alps and the waterfalls all in one scan. It was stunning.

    I had a lucky streak going. I wasn't quite sure where the hotel was. I didn't do my usual planning since we had 9 stops. But it worked out. We walked toward the main waterfall since I knew the hotel had a view of it. But, there are dozens of waterfalls. And just as I was beginning to wonder we found the hotel. We had a very warm welcome at the hotel.

    It's a well-worn hotel with creaky floors and tattered carpets. It also has sweet views over the valley from our standard room and an ample breakfast. We liked it!

    We knew the weather to go to Jungfrau was iffy, but we hoped it would clear by our last day. The weather we had that first afternoon turned out to be the best. Good thing we took a walk that afternoon to take in the town and views. Because after that, it was rain and clouds.

    That night we tried the fondue at Hotel Oberland. They have seating outside and inside. Part of the outdoor area is reserved for non-smokers which is usually not the case. We took full advantage of the area and had a totally wonderful fondue. It included a small green salad. The fondue is served with bread and small potatoes. It also has ample servings of fresh garlic, onions, chives and mushrooms which you can add to the fondue.

    My biggest fear was running out of the fondue! I never wanted it to end. It was so good. Luckily, I did get full before it ran out. My husband mopped up the rest in a ridiculous orgy of a scene.

    The next day it was raining lightly. After breakfast we took the bus to Trummelback Falls. WOW. This was dramatic. This highly engineered setting inside the mountain allows you to see the force of water coming directly from the highest peaks above. You take a cable car partially up and then take a series of wet stairs up and then down the falls. I was surprised people brought their young children. It's slippery and you must use caution.

    This was worth the admission!

    From there we took the bus again (included in our Swiss pass!) to Stechelberg, a short 1-2 miles down the road. From there we got on the cable car to Murren. (My husband was keeping a running tally of what we would have spent sans the Swiss Pass…) Not one for heights I was curious how I would fare. The ride to Murren was smooth and easy! We went up about 1,000 feet to Murren and it was snowing. We warmed up in one of the few places open. Now, this was early May so summer season had not really begun. But the hot chocolate was terrific and the peaceful snow-covered town was dreamy.

    We then took the train through Winteregg to Grutschalp. The views were limited because of the clouds. We arrived back in Lauterbrunnen. After a break we took a train to Wengen. The train was so scenic -- we didn't really do anything once we got there.

    We headed to Interlaken for some Indian food. My husband had found this place online. Spice indian. I was so happy to find all this spicy food in Switzerland! This place was really great. Given the price of things in Switzerland we split a main course and got some sides. Plenty of food for us.

    The next day we took a train to Grindelwald just to see the town. We saw fleeting glimpses of what I believe is Eiger above the town. We grumbled a bit about our Swiss Pass. If the weather isn't good, it's hard to make good use of it. Even with all our train trips we hadn't used it enough. But there was always Lucerne!!

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