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Trip Report Trip Report - Provence & Paris - June 2012

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Another excellent European trip.

I would like to thank the following:
- The Fodorite (I’m sorry, I can’t remember who it was) who brought TGV Prem train fares to my attention.
- Those who reassured me that we could go on a good trip to Provence using public transportation.
- Those who responded to questions (both mine and those of others)
- DebitNM for the research into Chip & PIN credit cards

Major Transportation

I used AA air miles to book the trip many months in advance. We were to fly Miami – Barcelona – Marseille and arrive at 11:30 AM. We were somewhat flexible so even though we didn’t book anywhere near 330 days in advance we were able to get the flights.
In mid-April I decided to call and arrange seat assignments. At that time I was informed there was a problem with my reservation. Their partner, Iberia, had cancelled the Barcelona to Marseille flight and they would have to rebook us to fly Miami – Madrid – Marseille. No problem except that the flight would arrive at 6:30 PM and we would lose our first day.

I quickly checked the schedules and noticed that Iberia had a flight from Madrid to Marseille that arrived at 11:30AM. This would be better than even my original itinerary. However, I was told that there were no air miles seats available. I was then told that if I wanted they would move my travel date one day earlier to give us an additional day. Although this would add one night of hotels we decided to add the day to the end of the trip to give us an additional day in Paris (4 instead of 3).

The next day I decided I wasn’t satisfied. I called American and asked about that better flight. Again I was told there were no air miles seats. I asked when they knew the Iberia flight had been cancelled and I was told it was mid-January. That’s three months earlier !!!! I complained that had they told me immediately it’s possible I may have been able to make other arrangements. The sales clerk immediately told me he would try to get us on the earlier flight. The next day my itinerary was updated to arrive in Marseille at 11:30 AM.
To travel from Avignon to Paris we had Prem TGV tickets. We selected a departure of 6:15PM. This didn’t cut into our last day in Avignon but still arrived well in advance of sunset.

Local Transportation

We briefly considered renting a car for part of the Provence portion of the trip. We weighed the ability to visit nooks and crannies and going on our own schedule against not having to navigate, drive and park. In the end public transportation won out and it worked very well for us.

Except for one mini-van tour to Gordes, Roussillon and Les Baux all local transportation was by bus or train.

Granted there are a few places we could not visit using public transportation and we were subject to bus and train schedules. However, with some planning it worked well and we had no problems.

If I had to do it over again

The only thing I would probably do differently would be to avoid all town markets. While they all vary in size they all appeared to have the same types of items for sale. The markets only served to block the view of the towns. Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was overrun by people until early afternoon.

Lodging

Aix-en-Provence - Hotel Des Augustins

Excellent location. Spotless hotel, room and bathroom. New bathroom. Room was very small. Very quiet. Fine for a one night stay.

Avignon – Hotel Bristol

Excellent location to see the city as well as proximity to the train and bus stations. Nice hotel. Spotless room and new bathroom. Very quiet room. Since we were staying for more than a week we took a larger room. Whoever designed the hotel never planned on staying there as there were a few stairs in too many places even with the elevator. Only an issue when checking in or out. We would stay there again.

Paris – Hotel Clement

The hotel, room and bathroom were spotless. Bathroom was new. I requested an inside room (no view) due to the location across the street from Saint-Germain Market. Very quiet room. The room was small but adequate and efficient. We would stay there again. Take care with checkout. They charged my card in US dollars (at a high rate) instead of Euros. Their bank refunded me 150% of the overcharge after I noticed it and emailed the hotel.

Meals

In all cases there was a breakfast café within a block of our hotels. A good start to each day with croissants and pain au chocolate while we enjoyed picnic lunches in parks and city/town squares.

There was no shortage of good neighborhood bistros for dinner that never disappointed. Crepes on Rue de la Harpe was another meal we thoroughly enjoyed.

Itinerary

A fair amount of care had to be taken as bus schedules for winter, spring and summer differ.

Aix-en-Provence (Day 0 and 1)

Our flight arrived in Marseille at 11:30 AM and we immediately took a shuttle bus to Aix-en-Provence. By 1:30 PM we were out walking the streets of this beautiful town. Winding streets, squares and fountains. Just the right number of tourists. An excellent start to the trip.

Avignon (Day 2 – 8)

Avignon is pleasant enough to wander around. However, I figured that it wouldn’t have enough to keep us busy for complete days so I planned day trips for every day with Avignon taking up either the early or late part of the day. On our last day we walked across the bridge to Villeneuve-les-Avignon. This is a beautiful area and worth the time and effort.

Saint Remy

Probably our least favorite town. Arriving early in the lunch period didn’t help either as it had an abandoned feel. Eventually people began to walk the streets but its main claim to fame appeared to be its proximity to the Roman ruins at Glanum and the hospital that housed Van Gogh. After wandering around the town for a few hours we came across our high point of the day - hearing the organ at Saint-Martin.

Pont du Gard

I had previously been to the aqueduct at Segovia. However, the setting and size of Pont du Gard is amazing. One of the “don’t miss” sights.

Uzes

I read a little about Uzes on Fodors so it was added as the bus schedule fit very well following Pont du Gard. My only regret is that we were there on market day and the main square was not at its best for viewing most of the day.
We enjoyed wandering the streets of this town with its immaculate cobblestone streets and winding pathways.

Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

A truly beautiful setting of canals, waterwheels, and flower boxes. Unfortunately, I planned this day for the market and seeing the best of L’Isle was an effort. I was tempted to return for a few hours on our last day in Provence to see it without the market.

Arles

A bit of a surprise. I expected a town of Roman ruins and while it surely has them, Arles turned out to be a very pleasant wandering town as well.

Of course, I had to walk to the Van Gogh bridge. Had I known how far it is I might have thought better of that idea.

Hill Villages (Gordes, Roussillon & Les Baux)

Originally, we were going to take a minivan tour of Gordes, Roussillon, Lacoste and Menerbes. However scheduling eliminated Les Baux so we switched to a Gordes, Roussillon and Les Baux tour.

The cream color of Gordes, Orchre of Roussillon and museum feel of Les Baux made this an excellent choice of contrasting villages. The view upon approaching Gordes is nothing less than spectacular.

Montpellier

A fodorite described Montpellier as one of the most underrated cities in France. This piqued my interest and I definitely have to agree. Within a couple of minutes of leaving the train station we realized this place is special.

Montpellier has a small city feel but appears to be a mixture of Amsterdam’s squares and trolley and Paris’ architecture.

Usually a walking tour takes you from sight to sight with little in between. In Montpellier the “in betweens” are just as much of a sight as the actual sights.

Paris

Day 1
Although we’ve been to Paris several times over the years (the last time being about 10 years ago) there’s still nothing like walking along the Seine, into the Louvre courtyard, through les Tuileries to Place de la Concorde and part way up the Champs-Elysees. So that’s how we spent most of our first day in Paris.

We then veered up toward the Opera Garnier and on to Galeries Lafayette where we had tickets for the 3PM Friday fashion show. Not a designer premiere but still a fun event.
After spending some time wondering through Galeries Lafayette we then walked up towards an intersection just behind Gare Saint-Lazare to find the corner in Gustave Caillebotte’s painting Paris Street; Rainy Day. Found it.

From there we walked towards Musee Nissim de Camondo and Parc Monceau. We got there too late for the museum so we walked over to Parc Monceau. Late in the afternoon on a cloudy, cool day the park didn’t show itself in its best light. Maybe tomorrow morning after we go to the museum.

Day 2
A slightly drizzly start to the day confirmed that going to Musee Nissim de Camondo was a good idea. This museum turned out to be one of the highlights of a trip with many highlights. A mansion donated to the city – still furnished and filled with a wonderful art collection as well as a tragic story.

Unfortunately the drizzle put a damper on Parc Monceau although we did walk through on the way to the metro station. We decided the weather would not get in the way of Montmartre and judging by the crowds, others felt the same way. The winding streets of Montmartre remained charming despite the weather. By early afternoon the skies began to clear and we were glad we had not changed our plans.

After wandering around for a couple of hours we took the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe. By now the sky was mostly blue and the sun was shining on the Arc. What a sight!
I circled the Arc navigating what felt like a dozen streets in the shape of the spokes of a giant wheel. After a while we decided to walk a few blocks down the Champs-Elysees and head towards the Alma Bridge and the Eiffel Tower.

We had last been to Paris about a month after Princess Diana was killed. Many pictures and letters from children had been placed against an old fountain just beside the Alma Bridge underpass. That fountain appears to have been replaced by a “flame”. While I saw no mention of Diana, I’ve since read that it is known as Princess Diana’s Flame.

By now the weather was as good as we could have hope for so after wandering around the Eiffel Tower for a while we took a sunset cruise along the Seine. We’ve never done that before. The views of the major Paris sights from the river was amazing.

We had dinner in the area so we could walk back over to the Tower and see it lit up in the dark of night.

Day 3
Yesterday’s clearing weather appeared to be extending into today. What’s a Sunday in Paris without the Marais. On the way to the Marais we walked across the Seine behind Notre-Dame and made a stop at the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation. A sobering stop.

After wandering through the streets of the Marais for a while we headed over to a very sunny and warm Place des Vosges. Excellent picnic weather.

Place des Vosges is a spectacular park and obviously not a well-kept secret. After enjoying the views for a while we headed back through the Marais streets and on to Musee Carnavalet. While interesting, it didn’t have the impact of Musee Nissim Comando.

From there we took the Metro to Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise. While I had a map that showed the burial location of many well-known people, finding the actual spot became quite tedious. We did find Edith Piaf mostly due to a small crowd thereafter walking around for a while and searching for Sarah Bernhardt we finally gave up and decided to try and make it to Musee Petit Palais for a late visit.

My notes indicated last entry at 5PM. It would be tight. We walked in at 5:10 and the sign listed last entry at 5:15. We didn’t look for any specific works but just wandering through this beautiful building was time well spent.

Day 4
Topping-off day. We walked over towards Notre-Dame and my wife spent some time in Shakespeare & Company while I was taking some photos in the area.

We walked down past the Sorbonne and over to the Pantheon. The clouds began to clear so a picnic in Luxembourg Gardens just across the street looked like a good idea. The French sure know how to make their parks and gardens. One is grander than the next!!!
While walking through the park we heard a band playing in the band shell. We sat down to listen with the rest of the crowd. Afterwards we spoke with a few people in the band and found out that the band was made up of students from several schools in the Tallahassee area. It’s a small world after all.

After our picnic lunch we sat around enjoying the park for a while and then took the Metro to the area just above Les Halles. We wandered up the pedestrian rue Montorgueil and on the way to the Palais Royal gardens came upon Passage Vivienne. This is a beautiful indoor shopping arcade similar to Galeries St Hubert in Brussels.

Eventually we found our way to Palais Royal and its gardens. Wow! We never expected such a beautiful garden. And this is a well-kept secret. While there were people, it was not crowded as some of the other parks.

Photos

You can see my photos (way too many) at:
www.travelwalks.com

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