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|Bonjour! Last week we left off on an Irish ferry from Wexford, Ireland to Cherbourg, France. Let’s just say I’m happy to be on land again. From Cherbourg we travel via train to Paris, then to La Rochelle.
ARRIVING BY SHIP
From the ship my travel writer colleagues and I hopped on a bus to customs. Clearing was quick and easy, but it was uncomfortable seeing the French military holding AK-47s with their fingers on the triggers. We then took a 5-minute bus ride to the Cherbourg train station, to catch a train to Paris. Fortunately we had a couple of hours before it arrived, allowing time to walk around this small, cute port town I had just driven through.
Cherbourg is a popular ferry port located at the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula. Cherbourg has been an important military base since Napoleonic times, and is a well-known gateway to the Normandy region. The old part of Cherbourg is centered around the fishing port, and is charming to walk around. There are many narrow cobblestone streets, with plenty of places to shop or grab something to eat. The main attractions are Cité de la Mer, a fantastic aquarium, and Fort du Roule, which has a great view and houses Musée de la Libération (commemorating D-Day and the liberation of Cherbourg in World War II). I need to visit Cherbourg again, so I can see both those places, as well as Mont St. Michel -- a World Heritage site-- that’s close by.
CHERBOURG TO PARIS
Using our First Class Eurail passes, we took a 'fast' normal train (not a TGV) to Paris’ Gare St. Lazare. It took 3 hours and was really easy, thanks to advance reservations. RailEurope, Eurail’s United States distributor, will make reservations for you, but they charge a service and shipping fee (that’s because nothing is electronic, and passengers need paper reservations). Walking up to the station ticket counter will save you a few euros, but it’s probably best to spend the money to guarantee a seat. Our train wasn’t crowded so we could’ve saved money, but that’s the chance we took. REMINDER: When using a Eurail pass, don’t forget to get it validated (read the instructions that come with it). Write the date on the ticket before getting on the train; otherwise you risk paying an on-the-spot fine, or having the pass taken away.
The hotel that was arranged for us was way out by Disneyland Paris; the city was sold out due to Fashion Week. Instead of schlepping 35 minutes in and out of Paris, my colleagues called around to find a hotel in the city. That was no small task, but after a couple of hours on the phone we finally found one with a vacancy. To my surprise it was a youth hostel! I’m ashamed to say this was my first time ever sleeping in a youth hostel, but I was excited for the experience.
This hostel is located in the 18th arrondissement (Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements, or districts). The city is compact, and most neighborhoods are charming. The 18th is no exception. A guidebook said it has "a diverse range of cultures, from the red light district of Pigalle, to the artists of Montmartre, to the famous flea markets of Clignancourt." That’s very accurate. The hostel was just a couple of blocks away from it all, plus the Metro Lamarck Caulaincourt.
HOTEL CAULAINCOURT SQUARE
When we walked into the scaffold-covered Hotel Caulaincourt Square, I was greeted by a young, hip atmosphere. The clerks behind the desk were friendly, and loved their Marlboro cigarettes (smoking indoors is allowed and accepted). I don’t speak much French, so I was happy that one of the clerks was an expat from Washington, D.C. That made communication much easier, especially when he told me they had internet for free. Four young travelers were occupying the computers, but that was okay. I had my laptop and my room was directly above the lobby, enabling me to have a strong wireless signal. Unfortunately, though, my room did not have a full bathroom -- just a not-so-clean shower. The walls were dirty, the twin beds lumpy. Nevertheless I liked the hotel, because it was in such a great location -- and everyone was friendly.
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It was an unseasonably warm night, my room lacked air conditioning, and the scaffolding made easy access for burglars. I had to get creative protecting myself, while at the same time allowing fresh air to come in. So I used this chair as a lock while I slept. When I went out, I locked the windows and my laptop using a special lock I got from Detective Kevin Coffey (a friend of mine who is a safety expert, and has appeared on Oprah). Besides the free internet, the best part of the hostel was the room rate. Where can you find a hotel in Paris, during Fashion Week, for €48 a night? And a Parisian breakfast was included. Hotel Caulaincourt Square, 2 Square Caulaincourt, 75018 Paris; tel: 33-(0)1-46-06-46-06.
This short trip to Paris was a watershed for me. After many visits and countless times getting lost on the subway, I finally figured out the Metro system. I was like, duh! It’s was definitely because I rode the Metro a lot this trip, most of the time by myself, so I was forced to learn. It’s not difficult, but don’t think I can explain it. My advice is to ride it by yourself a couple of times. If that doesn’t help, here’s a useful guide I found.
GARE DE LYON
I conquered the Metro after I got lost, and ended up 30 minutes late for a dinner meeting with French rail executives. Don’t you hate being late because of your own stupidity? That happens to me a lot. Anyway, my French hosts chose an appropriate location and restaurant for the meal. The restaurant, Le Train Bleu, is located in the eastern Paris business district, at the Gare de Lyon (If you haven’t figured it out by now, "Gare" in French means "train station." Don’t feel bad -- it took me a while too). Gare de Lyon is one of Paris’ six international railway stations. This magnificent 1901 crowded train station serves passengers heading to the South of France, the Alps, Switzerland, Italy and Greece.
LE TRAIN BLEU
Le Train Bleu is one reason Gare de Lyon is so fantastic. The restaurant is located above the main entry. Not only does it have professional waiters who serve excellent food, but the interior is so gorgeous it’s hard to concentrate on conversation. The restaurant’s 41 spectacular frescos illustrate cities served by the Station -- no wonder it’s been listed as a historic monument since 1972. I wish I knew about this restaurant when I was in the station a couple of months ago while traveling to Geneva. Le Train Bleu Restaurant, Place Louis Armand, 75012 Paris; tel.: 01-43-43-09-06.
Although I did like the youth hostel, I can’t be running down the hall in the middle of the night to use the loo. So after a side trip to western France (which we’ll get to next week) I checked into the closest hotel to Gare de Lyon. I figured, what the heck; since I’m writing about Gare de Lyon, I might as well have the best (or most convenient) hotel to the station. Besides, it was the only hotel with a vacancy. Hotel Mercure, attached to Gare de Lyon, is a clean 3-star, 364-room hotel. I loved it because I didn’t have to walk far for the Metro (located in the station) to wander or meet friends for dinner. My room had full size beds and a clean bathroom. Wireless internet was available through an independent company that allows users to purchase 24 hours or just 2 hours of stop-and-go anytime minutes. Breakfast costs €12. Room rates begin at €100. Hotel Mercure, 77 rue de Bercy, 75012 Paris; tel.: 1-53465050.
TRAIN TO LA ROCHELLE
Unfortunately, I learned the train I was headed on didn’t depart from Gare de Lyon. I needed to jump on the Metro to Gare Montparnasse (in the 15th Arrondissement). Gare Montparnasse is one Paris’ oldest stations (built in 1840), but it was completely rebuilt after World War II. Today it has a very modern interior. Its trains head to Brittany and western France. That’s where I took the TGV Atlantique to visit some friends on an island that reminded me a lot of Nantucket.
Next week we travel to a small island off the west coast of France. We then make our way back to America and another international destination.
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Cherbourg & Paris
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|LIVE WEB CAMS OF THE WEEK|
This week’s webcams are both in France. One is in Paris; this other is at a popular surfing spot on the coast.
|WEBSITE OF THE WEEK|
I love to watch planes (especially 747s) take off and land -- it gives me a huge rush. If you think I’m crazy, check out this quick video I took at my favorite place to plane spot (In-N-Out Burger near LAX). I’m usually not the only freak out there. In fact, some of the others have radio transmitters they bought at Radio Shack, so they can listen to air traffic control. Now, thanks to this site (and many others ) you don’t need a special device to listen in. All it takes is a computer and internet connection to log on to Canadian air traffic controllers. Visitors can not only listen to live air traffic controller feeds from Canada but all over the globe.
Last week the Boeing's new 777-200LR aircraft broke the record for distanced traveled by a commercial airplane record when it traveled 11,664 miles from Hong Kong to London. I was on the innaugarul longest commercial flight when I flew Singapore to Newark on June 28, 2004.
Check out this amazing illusion. It’s a good way to see how our brain works.
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|GOOD TO KNOW!|
Chasing upgrades, scoring better seats |
"How can I upgrade to a better seat?"
Certainly, there's no question why travelers would want to upgrade. On most lines, today's coach is a truly bad product: little legroom and seats three inches too narrow.
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