Paris, Provence and Normandy trip report

Jun 12th, 2002, 04:20 AM
  #1  
David
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Paris, Provence and Normandy trip report

My wife and I returned from our first trip to France. Let me begin by thanking everyone who responded to particular questions that I asked and thanks to the general community who over the past year have offered so much valuable information. Hopefully some of you may glean information from this report to be of use down the road.
We stayed at Hotel des Grandes Ecoles. We had booked sometime in January. We had asked for a room with twin beds as we were told they were larger and specifically had asked for one of two rooms in the Garden building. We never confirmed which room was in fact reserved, so when we were given a somewhat small room in the main building there was not much to be done about it. The “Madame” was not able to make any changes. The hotel itself is a true find. Immaculate, with people seemingly always cleaning. The rooms run from 95 to 105 euros. I would avoid the 95 euro ones as they are in the garret and come with slanted walls. The garden building rooms are 105 for a double and are the best deal.
We loved the area; Place Contrescarpe and Rue Mouffetard had a lot of activity. We saw mostly locals who were students and younger people. “The Place” has two large cafes that are excellent for people watching.
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:23 AM
  #2  
David
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Getting around Paris was extremely easy. The metro is both great and a curse. It was great as we were able to use it to get all over with very little effort (as long as you don’t mind using the stairs…lots of stairs). We saw nothing untoward going on in the metro. The “curse” of the metro is that it keeps you from the city streets; but unless you know the bus system, we found the metro the only way to get around when distances were too great to walk. Since we arrived on a Sunday and planned to be there a week, we got the Carte Orange, which is good for a week starting on Monday. It was a great bargain at 13 euros. I would consider getting one even if I were only going to be there for 3 or 4 days as we found we got great value from it. Note: When you buy it they “require” you to affix a passport type photo to it. The machines in the metro make photos for 4 euros, which is a rip off since I am positive no one ever checks to see if you have a photo on your card. If you want to be law abiding, however, I would suggest you bring any type of mug shot of you from home to paste on the card and save 4 euros.
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:24 AM
  #3  
David
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We bought museum passes and found when we went to the d’Orsay and the Louvre, that there were no lines to jump in front of. I’m not sure why this was so but it just worked out for us. The d’Orsay was the most incredible museum for us. To be so close to these masterpieces was amazing. Unfortunately, one of my first thoughts when I saw Van Gogh’s self portrait was the fact that without any security, it would be so easy for a deranged “art lover” to take off his other ear!
We stopped off at the Invalides to pay respects to Napoleon and then onto the Rodin where we spent most of the time in the garden, which was really beautiful. This was the first nice day since we had arrived and it was special to sit at the outdoor café in the gardens.
While in the same neighborhood, we decided to look for Rue Cler. We found it disappointing. It wasn’t upscale the way I had heard it to be; neither was it seedy. It was just a street with lots of tourists and nothing special. Perhaps it was because it was midday and not the morning.
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:25 AM
  #4  
David
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The next day we made it to the Louvre where the crowds were not bad either. Had no trouble in going right up to the railing to view the Mona Lisa and yes she does follow you as you walk from side to side. The Louvre was a bit confusing to get around; we never could find “Liberty” so we had to settle for a post card of it.
After leaving the Louvre, we spent time in the Tuilleries watching the children floating their boats in the fountains.
We decided next to go to the Opera district. The Opera house was very nice but the traffic was like being in Times Square. I’m sure there must be quiet streets in this district but after making it to the Galleries Lafayette we couldn’t wait to leave the tumult for a return to our quiet neighborhood in the fifth.
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:27 AM
  #5  
David
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We had ordered train tickets over the internet for our travel to Provence and Normandy after Paris. I suppose we saved money for doing it ahead of time (although I’m not sure of that). However, it required us to pick up the tickets ahead of time either from a Gare in Paris or at one of their boutique stores (which we were never able to find) Anyway, one late night, instead of going to the hotel we went to Gare Austerlitz for the tickets. We were unable to find anyone at that time of night to help us. We decided at another time to go to Gare De Lyon to get the tickets. After going to two tellers who refused to acknowledge the fact that they knew English (which they in fact did to some extent) we were finally helped and got our tickets. The moral of this story is despite being told that I would have no trouble buying tickets once in Paris I bought them ahead of time and spent a lot of time and frustration in actually getting them once we arrived. It would have been much easier to have paid a 10 euro fee and had a travel agent do it all at once. (But again I’m not sure what the actual savings were).
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:28 AM
  #6  
David
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The restaurants we went to were not really worth reporting on. We went to L’Excuse in the 4th one night and spent way too much for an OK meal, although my wife had a citrus flavored monkfish plate that she really liked. (At the next table over we saw a local couple return their main courses and were served different ones).
On the Sunday we arrived and on the Sunday we left we had falafels at the world’s best falafel house (according to Lenny Kravitz) Aus L’Falafel on Rue des Rosier. A special with eggplant, and lots of veggies and great falafel ran 5euros. The neighborhood reminded me of Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, except all the kids spoke French instead of Hebrew. Prior to eating we spent time in Place desVosges that was packed with Parisians enjoying the weather and the music.
Our experience at Versailles was the same as has been written many times on this forum. Large crowds, beautiful palace and grounds….
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:29 AM
  #7  
David
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Late in the afternoon we were back in the city and made stops at St. Chapelle and then to Notre Dame. I found that St. Chapelle not being set up as a church takes away from the beauty of the stain glass itself. The church loses its atmosphere, IMO, as rows of tourists sit on each side looking up at the windows. So too, I found the dominating exterior of Notre Dame not to be matched by its interior. The gothic-bleakness of Notre Dame, together with the hordes of people trooping through it is the memory I have of the church, instead of the rosette windows etc. The simplicity of the deportation monument directly behind the church certainly stands in stark contrast to its more notable neighbor.
On our last evening before leaving for Provence we took the 2230 river cruise through Vedettes du Pont-Neuf. The time was perfect (first week of June). There was a wonderful guide whose live commentary made the trip that much more enjoyable.
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:31 AM
  #8  
David
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Our next stop was our trip to Arles in Provence. We were right in picking Arles as our base for the three nights we had. It’s a medium size city of 50,000 so it’s a lot easier to get your bearings in a short period as opposed to Avignon , and we felt it would be a bit more interesting than the surrounding small towns. Arles may be the only town in the world where one gets off a 200 mph high speed train and is confronted with the choice of “holding it awhile longer” or using the bathroom facilities at the station which consist of a coed hole in the ground toilet…an interesting juxtaposition of 17th century utilitarianism and 21st century technology! Arles appeared a bit touristy upon leaving the train station, but once you entered the old walled city it became a different town. We enjoyed going through the amphitheater and seeing the other Roman ruins. Our hotel was Hotel le Calendal, which we found to be great. The common areas were decorated in Provencal colors of yellow, reds and blues. The rooms also were shaded in these colors. The hotel has a beautiful garden/sitting area. They have food service throughout the day. At 70 euros, the hotel was a great bargain. We dropped off our bags and went next door to a café for another (one of many) chevre goat cheese salads. What made this one a little more memorable than the others was sitting outside looking at the 2000 year old amp heather and listening to Bruce Springsteen belting out “Born in the USA” from a restaurant radio…very surreal….
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:32 AM
  #9  
David
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The next morning we took off in our rental car and visited St. Remy, Gordes, Rousillon and Les Baux.. The roads were very narrow. We rented the smallest car we could and found that it took up most if not all of our side of the road. The roads have no shoulders. It appeared that there was the width of two tires between the road and an ever present ditch that was next to the road. As far as we could tell the smallest car from Avis did not have A.C. but the weather was rainy and cold and we didn’t miss it. Gordes and Rouisollon are very interesting and beautiful towns. Rouisollon reminded me a lot of Sedona, Arizona a town near where I live. Like Sedona, the towns were crowded with tourists, cafes and souvenir stores. The next morning we drove to Pont du Gard before we turned the car in. We got there about 9 a.m. and there were maybe a handful of tourists. Without thinking about it we ended up on the right bank, which was fine. There is a new visitor station with a café and nice facilities. (Again great croissants and café crema here too). The Pont itself is amazing to see and being there with so few other people made it that much more special.
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:34 AM
  #10  
David
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Upon returning to Arles we were able to spend late morning walking through the Weds. market in town. It being the first Weds. of the month we had heard it was a large market. It truly was amazing. From fruit, to fish, butcher, cheese, and olive stands it had everything imaginable. Seeing the locals shopping made me feel that I was in a time warp going back 75 years to the food markets that thrived in many American cities. Afterwards we spent time in the hotel’s garden and enjoyed the rest of the day walking through town and buying the perfect Provencal tablecloth and place mats.
The next morning we took the early morning train to Paris and then the connecting train to Bayeux in Normandy. Although it made for a full day of train travel it was broken up with a three hour layover in Paris. This layover gave us enough time to get to St. Lazare station and find a nearby café. We arrived just as the France-Uruguay world cup game started and we had prime seats under the TV. The café was packed and passersby filled the street to catch moments of the game on the TV that was set up near the sidewalk. For us it was more fun watching the passions of the crowd than the game itself.
We were spoiled by the TGV train to Provence but the ride to Normandy was only two hours and time went fast as we shared a compartment with “Hans” from Holland who was going to the Normandy coast to oversea the work being done on his summer beach house.
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:35 AM
  #11  
David
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We were three for three on this trip with hotels. We stayed at Hotel D’Argouges. The staff was extremely friendly and helpful. The hotel itself was superb. We paid 90 euros, which included breakfast for two. The room itself was big enough for three. Bayeux was a beautiful town. Walking the cobblestone streets late at night it reminded us of a Disney set. The main cathedral has a beautiful exterior and it is lit up with an orange glow at night. We ate at one good and one great restaurant. The first good one was Le Pommier; the second night we ate at a restaurant that had been recommended and which, interestingly enough, was not on any of the advertising we saw. It was named l’Assiette Normande. It is located very near to the entrance to the cathedral. The restaurant had about 7 tables or so. One of the waitresses was the wife of the chef. The meal we had was the best of our two weeks in France and probably near the least expensive too. The fixed price menu had dishes for both of us. My wife had plie (similar to sole) menieure which was done perfectly. I had a beef steak with Pont l’Eveque cheese sauce, which was easily the best meal I had. Aside from the entrée salads, we had apple and chocolate desserts, an assortment of local cheeses, 50cl of house wine and the grand total came to 44 euros. During the course of the dinner the chef came out to meet some diners. I would highly recommend this restaurant.
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:36 AM
  #12  
David
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We started the next day visiting the Bayeux tapestry. Luckily we just beat the hordes of school children who were just arriving. We then opted to take the Busfly tour of the Normandy beaches instead of renting a car. There were only about 10 of us on the tour. The guide, Vincent , was excellent. The only negative was that we only had about 35 minutes at the American Cemetery, which was too short. Being at the cemetery was an awesome experience. There are very few sights in the world where one expects to be overwhelmed upon first sight and for me this was one of them.
We took the train back to Paris the next morning. Before leaving Bayeux we walked around the Saturday market. The dairy farmers were out in force and customers were lined up as the merchants were pouring what looked like cream from large vats into the customers glass containers. The only downside of the market was seeing all the live young ducks, bunnies and chickens packed tightly together in cages waiting their fate. (Unfortunately I am not a vegetarian so I’m not in a position to complain).
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:37 AM
  #13  
David
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The train rides to both Provence and to Normandy afforded us an opportunity to see the beautiful French countryside. The ride for about the first two hours south of Paris is very picturesque. On both routes you see lots of sheep and cows grazing on beautiful pastureland. South of Paris there were a number of picture post card type villages/hamlets tucked away on the lush hillsides with a church steeple being surrounded by the small community.
We returned to Paris for one last day, which included some time at Montmarte.
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:43 AM
  #14  
David
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Upon reflection some of the best moments included watching the young children being dropped off at school early in the morning in Paris, Arles and in Bayeux. Very cool to see parent-child relations that are universal.
Spending a Saturday afternoon in Luxembourg Garden eating cheese and drinking wine in the shade.
When we entered Paris for the first time on that Sunday afternoon, the Taxi driver drove through a neighborhood somewhat northeast of the Bastille. Our first glimpse of the city was seeing the locals lined up at small neighborhood boulangeries, carrying baguettes or flowers just purchased from street merchants and getting the whiff of that wonderful bakery smell that permeates Paris. That smell was truly amazing when we got off the train at Gare de Lyon and after a couple of minutes my wife and I both agreed that this must be the only train station on earth that smells like a boulangerie.
On the same theme, the pastries everywhere we went were as good as we had heard; the butter crusts, the real fruit and chocolate flavors with no heightened sweeteners (which really gets me irritated when I think of how pastries are done in the U.S). And believe it or not we both actually lost a couple of pounds the first week because of all the walking; which appears to be the secret to so few overweight Parisians.
Then there were the many school children who were on class trips at the Louvre. They were all holding onto their assigned worksheets studying the pictures and sculptures and checking off items as they discovered them on the works of art. Talk about a first class school field trip!
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 04:45 AM
  #15  
David
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I would be remiss if I did not mention that we found the people everywhere to be friendly and helpful. Were there exceptions? Of course, just like anywhere else. If anything, I think some people were reticent to use English not because they didn’t want to help but rather because they felt they weren’t good enough in it; but if you made a halting effort in french they would quickly respond the best they could in english.
Finally, the Paris street sweepers who were out every day keeping the streets clean. For a large city I thought the streets were very clean and the city seemed to have cleaners out all the time. While waiting for our shuttle to the airport I took one last walk early Sunday morning. The street sweepers were out cleaning up after a busy Saturday night on Place Contrescarpe. As the pile of debris was pushed together I noticed something peculiar. Instead of beer cans there were instead a multitude of wine corks littering the streets…Viva La Difference!!!!
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 05:52 AM
  #16  
lisa
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What a wonderful trip report. I just got back from Paris, and now reading your report makes me want to visit Arles and Bayeux!
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 06:57 AM
  #17  
Howard
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Great report, David! Having also stayed at Grandes Ecoles, we could really relate to a good part of your narrative!
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 08:07 AM
  #18  
Nancy
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Reporte excellente!!!!
I feel as though I was with you on your trip! Perhaps we can meet someday and hear more about it?
Avec respecte.
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 09:58 AM
  #19  
Roz
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Next time, kennel the dogs and take me with you...it sounded just magnifico!
 
Jun 12th, 2002, 10:14 AM
  #20  
Randy
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David: Sounds like you had a great trip. For your information, two years ago the Metro police fined me 120F for not having my picture on my metro pass.
 

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