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Paris, Je T’aime ― Mais Je Suis Raide: Touring Paris on a Budget

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Paris holds the key to your heart ― if only you could afford to go there. Last year, France earned top spots on multiple lists for “Most Expensive Places to Visit.” Though the Euro is not nearly at its healthiest, American travelers still pay a hefty price to see the City of Lights.paris louvre 

Get in

Airfare is the single biggest expense any traveler incurs, and flights to Europe are rarely affordable. However, with careful planning and mastery of smart booking techniques, anyone can secure a free plane ticket. First, every traveler knows the boon of travel rewards credit cards. By simply signing up for the most lucrative deals, which are usually offered by specific airlines like the American AAdvantage Card, you can earn hundreds of thousands of free miles. One card alone is usually worth a free domestic flight, which could substantially cut the costs of your trip to Paris.

However, it is essential that you understand the rules of your credit card before you start spending indiscriminately; the best rewards cards are extremely particular regarding which purchases earn you points. Additionally, there is a handful of tricks that make finding less expensive flights easier. For example, departing on a Wednesday and returning on a Tuesday has been shown to provide the cheapest fares to Europe. You should schedule your trip for the very end of summer and the beginning of fall, and you should book six months in advance for added discounts. paris from eiffeltower
 

Get Around

Perhaps the most easily forgotten expense during travel is transportation ― which in Paris can be an expensive mistake. Nearly every method of getting around costs crazy amounts of cash. Aside from the initial investment, a rental car incurs fees from toll roads, parking lots, and gas stations (at an absurd $5.54 per gallon). The Metro is perhaps the most cost-efficient, but purchased one-at-a-time, tickets still cost about $2 per ride. The smartest choice is to buy train tickets in bulk, which brings the per-ride price down to about $1.60.paris metro

Get a Place to Stay

Though you may dream of renting a luxury suite with panoramic views of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower, you will never ― and I mean never ― be able to afford that. In fact, staying anywhere near the tourist district is going to cost big bucks, since those rooms are highly sought-after year around. Instead, you should look to less-expensive neighborhoods, like the Latin Quarter (which is popular among students) or Le Marais. Even an avid budget traveler’s go-to lodgings, the steadfast hostel, can be pricey in Paris. Still, though some beds can breach $60 per night, at an average of about $30, the hostel remains the best accommodation option.paris sacre coeur

Get Shopping

It is hard not to lust after French fashion, and the haute couture you’ll spot around Paris will tempt you to empty your wallet at the most expensive boutiques. However, the secret to French style is not cost, it’s creativity and control. As long as you choose clothes that suit your body, you don’t have to drop dimes on designer duds. By shopping pop-up markets instead of high-fashion districts, you can find exceptional items worth wearing, and you don’t have to take out personal loans to cover them.Paris2

Get Eating

Food is a major factor of Parisian culture, which fortunately makes it one of the more affordable indulgences of your trip to the City of Lights. Though luxury French cuisine will deplete your savings, you can find classic and tasty French food in economical cafes and bistros. You can also save by ordering a fixed meal ― called a menu, formulae, or plat du jour ― which comes at a discounted price.paris france

Get Sightseeing

Everyone who visits Paris goes to the top of the Eiffel Tower, sees the “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre, and tours the Palais-Royal Gardens. However, few will tell you that each of those adventures costs over $15, which means that just a single day of sight-seeing can easily break the bank. Though there are plenty Parisian delights you cannot miss, you absolutely must plan ahead to prevent bankruptcy during your vacation. Most of the city’s museums are free on the first Sunday of the month, and there are a number of passes available at the Paris tourist office that bundle attraction tickets at a discount.Paris1

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An epic road trip to ring in the New Year

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The last quarter of the year just kicked off, which means it’s that time of year again when you start thinking about New Year’s Eve – at least if you’re into celebrating the beginning of a new year as much as I am. Who will I celebrate with, what am I going to do, where will I ring in the new year? I have to admit that I have absolutely no idea yet where I’ll be for New Year’s Eve, but since my most memorable celebration (which I’ll share below) was a last minute trip, I am not too worried about it yet.

fireworksFor me as a traveler, New Year’s Eve has always been a great excuse to go on a short getaway – especially whenever I happen to be in Europe for the Holidays. Distances are short, transportation is cheap (thanks to the wide selection of budget airlines) and there are plenty of great destinations to ring in the New Year, from the Hogmanay Festival in Edinburgh to the big open air party at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Memorable New Year’s celebrations included bar crawling in Prague, watching the fireworks over the Thames River in London, snowboarding and après ski fun in Austria. I have definitely had some of my best New Year’s Eve celebrations in Europe, and the ideas for most of my trips formed only a few days before 31 December. If you are also still looking for an unforgettable New Year’s Eve getaway, check out Contiki’s Festivals and Short Stays trips for some inspiration.

One year when I was living in Germany, my girlfriends and I were not sure what we were going to do for NYE until 31 December. While we had set our minds on a dance party in the biggest club in town, we weren’t too happy with our choice. Tickets were expensive, and in the end it would just be like any other party night. Would it really be worth paying all that money for a night of clubbing?

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Paris in the winter

‘Why don’t we go to Paris instead?’, my friend Mel asked innocently, and we all looked at her as if she was crazy. But ten minutes later we all ran home to pack our bags for a quick getaway to the Eiffel Tower. We headed to the supermarket to pick up some champagne, snacks and fireworks, and were on our way to Paris shortly after. That’s one thing I just love about Europe: it is so compact that you can easily travel to another country within a day, starting your day with a German breakfast at home and having a pasta dinner in Italy – or in our case, a champagne dinner in France.

The spontaneous road trip to Paris was so much fun – girl talk, much laughter, lots of chocolate and impromptu photo stops along the highway. The essential stop for baguette, cheese and croissants after we crossed into France.

cheese board craft brew festivalSeven hours after we left our small town in Germany, we caught our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, beautifully lit up in changing colors and flickering lights. We even managed to find a parking lot in walking distance to the Champ De Mars, the wide open green space on which the Eiffel Tower is located. The closer we got to the Eiffel Tower, the louder we could hear the laughter and exciting chatter of the people, until we were finally in the midst of them. There was such a vibrant energy in the air, and I had to pinch myself to believe that I was really in Paris.

Paris Eiffel Tower New Years EveWe unpacked our champagne and chatted with other travelers while we were all waiting for the clock to strike twelve. At midnight, we were hugging strangers and I remember that there was a lot of cheek kissing as well.

Usually people pay a fortune for a hotel in Paris on New Year’s Eve, but we lucked out and found a cheap room in a hotel that wasn’t fully booked. We spent the next day exploring Paris in the snow, enjoying French pastries and strolled through the artist market in Montmartre, my favorite neighborhood.

Paris Bakery YumminessWhat started out as a trip on a whim ended as one of the best New Year’s Eve memories of all times.

What is your favorite New Year’s Eve memory, and do you already know where you’ll ring in the New Year in 2014? I’d love to hear your memories or plans to get some inspiration!

Montmartre Paris*Disclaimer: This post was written by me and brought to you by Contiki.
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Boulogne-Sur-Mer: The perfect French weekend getaway from London

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One of my favorite things about living in London was how easy it was to go on weekend getaways 0 not only in Britain, but also in mainland Europe. And not only easy, but it is also extremely cheap! Being home to four major airports means that London is served by just about any European budget airline, affordable train tickets are available as long as you book your travels a few weeks in advance and getting from London to France is made super easy thanks to the frequent ferry services. You drive onto the ferry in Dover and 90 minutes later you drive your car off the ferry in Calais. Once we noticed that there were ferry sales all the time and Enterprise had its fantastic weekend rates for car rentals, we started to look into the French coast to find the best places for a weekend getaway that would involve cheese, wine and fresh baguettes. Our list grew quickly: the Cap de la Hague and Cherbourg in Normandy, Mont St Michel, St Germain-sur-ay, Villers-sur-Mer – to name just a few places on our seemingly endless France travel wish list.

boulogne-sur-mer townsquareOne of our trips brought us to the coastal town of Boulogne-Sur-Mer, an over 2,000 year-old city that seemed just perfect for a weekend in France. Elegant French architecture, beaches and good food!

boulogne-sur-mer

We got to Boulogne-Sur-Mer in no time – we still had breakfast in our London apartment, and reached the city just in time for a lovely seaside lunch.

We fell in love with the town instantly: a charming fishing port, plenty of restaurants that serve fresh sea food, and an 11th century Belfry that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

boulogne-sur-mer castleThe Old Town is eye candy with its beautiful architecture and the quirky town square makes this a town like no other. Old cars and car parts stick out of the ground throughout the square and show once again that junk can actually be pretty cool, if you know how to present it!

boulogne-sur-mer flowerpotOn Wednesdays and Saturdays there is a morning market with fresh French wines, cheeses and other produce – the perfect place to stock up before you return to England.

boulogne-sur-mer town squareWhat Boulogne-Sur-Mer is most famous for  is its Medieval Castle, whose foundations date back to Roman times. We also found ourselves marveling at several stunning churches, including the basilica of Notre Dame with its 100m high dome and one of the largest crypts in France, and the Gothic church of St Nicholas which still houses several original statues from the 15 century.

boulogne-sur-mer medieval gateAfter exploring the town and indulging in too many French pastries, we decided to head to the beach to walk off some calories before a cheese-rich French dinner. It was too cold already for a swim, the summer season had just ended, but we decided to come back during the summer season one day.
boulogne-sur-mer beachThe countryside around Boulogne is also stunning – lush green rolling hills, grazing horses, impressive white cliffs and sweeping views over the Atlantic – a welcome change from our usual city escapes to Paris!

northern france

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How to experience the true romance of Paris

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We’ve been to Paris several times and every time we went, we fell more in love with the City Of Lights (La Ville Lumière). There is something so incredibly romantic about this city, but truth be told it isn’t the Paris you see depicted in so many romance movies; it is the Paris beyond the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame. We’re not saying that Paris’ main attractions aren’t breathtaking – they sure are – but it is only when venturing off the beaten path that the city’s true essence shines through.

There is just something about watching Parisians go about their day, or soaking up the bohemian atmosphere unique to the Montparnasse neighborhood, or sitting in a café and watching the world go by for a couple hours at a time, just like Parisians do. These all sound simple, but there is a spirit, an energy, that you only have in Paris and in order to soak it up, you have to spend more than a couple of days here after ticking off those main attractions to feel it for yourself.

paris maraisIf you want to experience the authentic Paris that the locals love so much, here are our tips for how you can get a true feel for the city:

1 Stay in an apartment

Parisian apartments are a big part of the experience. Sure, they can be tiny and cramped, but they are also enchanting, gorgeous even, in a way that you just don’t have in equally tiny Manhattan apartments, for example. The neoclassical buildings, the history of each one, the unique design touches, the balconies and windows that run floor to ceiling and overlook your own little neighborhood street.

With so many vacation apartment websites competing these days, rates for an apartment in a central location can be as low as $80 per night. You’ll save money compared to a hotel, plus you can stop in to your local bakery, market or grocery store to pick up yummy local food to prepare at home. Walking home with a baguette under your arm just as the Parisians do will make you feel right at home.

I personally recommend using AirBnb, and if you haven’t signed up yet – sign up through this referral link and get $20 off your first booking!

Avalon Hotel Paris France2 Just wander

The best way to see the real Paris is to just wander. The Metro is great to get from point A to point B, but to soak in the city, avoid dark tunnels and sweaty armpits and get lost on a walk through the city instead.

If the idea of leaving it all to fate is a problem you can plan your trip to Paris with little effort by using CityTripPlanner. This is a website that helps you make the most of your stay in Paris or any other European city by offering totally free personalized itineraries. So you just choose what you’re most interested in seeing (top attractions, nature, churches, museums, or streets and squares) and the website creates an itinerary for you based on your preferences and the amount of days you’re going to spend in the city.

When I used the site to see which places it would recommend to me (setting my preferences on ‘streets and squares’), I was impressed with the itinerary CityTripPlanner put together for me. Not only did it suggest some great routes, but also some places that we haven’t even been to yet. The best part was that it then sent me an email with the itinerary, detailed directions, travel times, maps and a suggested amount of time for each place to print out and take along with me.

City Trip PlannerThis led me to want to book a trip to Paris immediately.

But even just getting lost, you’ll pass by many of those must-see iconic sights and also get a feel for other neighborhoods outside of your apartment or hotel.

You’ll be surprised how many unexpected but beautiful things you will see, from hidden plazas and parks to charming little churches and magnificent cemeteries. One of our favorite days in Paris was following Canal St Martin and stumbling upon fruit & vegetable markets, artsy cafés and picnic areas along the water.paris chez marie cafe3 Explore your neighborhood

No matter if you’re staying in an apartment or a hotel, and no matter how limited your time is to just wander, definitely take the time to explore your own neighborhood at least.

Stop in to have a coffee and croissant at the nearest café, look out for a local restaurant for dinner instead of tourist traps around the main sights. After two or three days, the vegetable vendor on the corner will recognize you for sure, and if you’re confident enough, you can even practice your French and strike up a conversation.

Better still, go for a run in the mornings – that way you can soak up a lot of the city at once and not feel guilty for all that delicious cheese and wine you’ll consume later on.

ParisHave you explored Paris off-the-beaten path? Share the hidden gems you have found with everyone in the comments below! 

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In search of the perfect European vacation with kids

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After spending the last six weeks in Germany close to family and friends, we have realized one thing: our travel style is about to change radically!

No, no – we are not settling down – not for a long time! But with two baby nieces and a nephew on the way, we know that we want to instill a love of travel in the family’s next generation, so we are are already pondering where in Europe we’ll be taking them on family vacations as soon as they are old enough to start traveling with their Aunties! Instead of taking them on a plane just yet, we will be taking advantage of the relative proximity of Germany’s neighboring countries, all of which offer their own benefits for travel with kids – in Austria, we can introduce them to the mountains, in Italy they’ll get to know what real gelato tastes like and in Romania we can show them what old-fashioned village life in Eastern Europe looks like.

GelatoFrance holidays with kids

But first, we will take them to France! We both just love France, and when we lived in London, we took weekend breaks to the City of Love several times, as it was conveniently only 2-hours away on the Eurostar high speed train. There is just something about sitting in a street café in Paris sipping a café au lait, picking up a fresh baguette at a boulangerie and some sweet pastries at a patisserie, go to the fromagerie for fresh cheese and have a picnic in the park or strolling through the food and vegetable markets in the Marais neighborhood. That stuff is only fun for grown-ups, though, we know that. That’s why we are re-evaluating and looking at ways to have fun their with the kids as well.

A few days in Paris will be the perfect introduction to a country that is not too different to what they’re used to and close enough to be able to drive there.

paris chez marie cafeHow to enjoy Paris with kids

The most obvious destination for Paris holidays with kids is of course Disneyland, where they will meet Mickey and Minnie and experience their first roller coasters! Many Disney Park lovers claim that it’s the second best Disney Resort in the world! It’s only 30 minutes from Paris, and the TGV train stops right in front of the gate of the resort, so there is no excuse not to take the kids there on a trip to Paris.

Our tips for visiting Disneyland Paris: Take at least two days to explore Disneyland – you could obviously spend much more time there, but trying to cram everything into one day will cause unnecessary stress. We are planning to go just before the girls go to school, so that we can take advantage of non-vacation times. The park can get pretty packed in the summer months, but May or September are ideal times to visit. And if you have limited time, skip the Disneyland Studios and head only to the Theme Park.

Disney castle Paris by topalaska on Flickr
Disney castle Paris by topalaska on Flickr

While Paris itself – one of the most visited cities in the world, known for its crowds and long waiting times at tourist attractions – might not seem like a good idea with two little girls, it is actually a very kid-friendly destination with plenty of attractions to keep children entertained, and will show us grown-ups a completely different side of the city.

The sacrifice you will have to make is to bypass the main sights – at least this time. If you are planning to go up on the Eiffel tower or visit the Louvre, you will have to be aware that the kids will already be tired and grumpy before you even reach the end of the line.

Instead, be open to explore some lesser known neighborhoods and places around the city and plan a cultural trip when the kids are actually old enough to relate to the sights, i.e. when they learn about the Mona Lisa and about French history in school, they will appreciate the Louvre and the palace of Versailles much more.

paris louvreYounger kids will enjoy La Ménagerie, a zoo dating back to the 18th century with reptile rooms, monkeys and big cats such as panthers.

The National Museum of Natural history is also extremely kid-friendly, with a merry-go-round and 17th century gardens which are perfect for a picnic lunch. The museum itself has a fascinating collection of animal skeletons on the ground floor, and plenty of other natural wonders to keep kids in awe.

Kid-friendly parks in Paris

Most of the parks in Paris are kid-friendly, but there are three that shouldn’t be missed. One is the Jardin de Luxembourg, where you’ll also find an enclosed play area, toy sailboats in the central basin and pony rides.

Another fantastic park is the Jardin Tuileries near the Louvre Museum, one of Paris’ prettiest parks. Grown-ups can enjoy comfortable lounge chairs while kids will love the merry-go-round, the big sculptural playground and the in-ground trampolines.

The third park is Parc des Buttes-Chaumont which features a grotto, several playgrounds, a merry-go-round and a temple on top of a peak in the middle of a lake, reached by suspension bridges, which are great fun for kids.

Jardin Tuileries ParisExplore Montmartre

The best neighborhood to explore with kids is the Montmartre. They can enjoy a ride on the merry-go-round at the bottom of the park between Square Louise Michel and Sacre Coeur before heading up the stairs (or taking the funicular) to Sacre Coeur basilica. The church itself is fascinating enough for a quick look from the outside, but the winding cobble-stone streets always offer something interesting for kids – the artists who paint on the Place du Tertre, little shops selling interesting trinkets or crepes stands. Try to do this early in the day though, as this neighborhood tends to get packed mid-morning until late in the evening.

paris sacre coeurFascinating markets

Another highlight for kids is a tour of the local markets. On Sundays, the popular flower and bird market takes place at the Place Lois Lepine on the Ile de la Cite near Notre Dame cathedral, and children are usually in wonder seeing all the different birds. To show them more of an ethnic food market, take them to the Marché des Enfants Rouges, the city’s oldest market where you’ll find Lebanese, North African and even Japanese foods. If you come during the week (Tue-Fri), you’ll beat the weekend crowds – the later in the day you get there, the emptier it will be.

Paris MarketNeed more recommendations? Check out these 14 ideas from Fodor’s for what to do in Paris with kids!

Have you been to Paris with kids? Do you have advice on kid-friendly activities in the City of Lights?

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A profile of France: From vineyards and ski slopes to the bustling streets of Paris

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France is an often romanticized but truly amazing country, and the sheer volume of activities it has for visitors is nearly unparalleled. From skiing and snowboarding on fresh white snow, visits through the wine country, shopping, eating and drinking, and learning more about the long and interesting history of this beautiful country, you will not be disappointed you decided to make the trip.

Paris

You almost have to start in Paris. You’ll most likely by flying into the French capital anyway, so why not spend some time exploring this interesting and beautiful city? History appeals to those of us from relatively new countries, and you won’t be disappointed here. Not only is Paris the backdrop to some of history’s most important events, but it’s also home to some of the most unique and famous art in the world. The Eiffel Tower, Louvre and Moulin Rouge must be on your list, but do some research and you’ll find some amazing off-the-beaten-path activities that you’ll remember forever. Although it’s a bit of a cliché, Paris truly has something for everyone.

paris sacre coeur
Sacre Coeur Church in Paris

Central France

Make your way towards the South East of Paris and you’ll find yourself in beautiful Burgundy, or Bourgogne, home of delicious red wine and Dijon mustard. Between Dijon, Beaune, and Auxerre you’ll find a range of wine related activities, great shopping, and some stunning, old French architecture. The Hospices de Beaune is probably the most stunning example of Burgundian roofing, which is really distinct as it uses a number of different colors in tiles geometrically arranged. This region is fairly expensive, though, so I’d make sure that you’re very keen on wine and architecture if you’re going to visit.

Lyon

A bit further south is Lyon, a beautiful city full of culture and things to do. This is a must-see if you’re fond of eating your way through a place as it’s considered the capital of French gastronomy. They also have a leading football team if you enjoy a bit of sports, and this combined with a stunning Basilica, some beautiful winding lanes and the remains of a Roman amphitheater.

Lyon
Lyon by Guerrin on Flickr.com

South of France

I probably don’t need to convince you to visit the south of France. The epicenter of glamor, movie stars, and quintessential continental luxury! Again, there are parts of this region that are very expensive, like Cannes and Antibes, but you’ll be able to enjoy the beaches, heat and culture of this area in some neighboring towns, like Nice or a bit further west in Aix-en-Provence.

North of France

Although quite sleepy, in the North of France you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the charm of the region as a whole. As the site of the D-Day invasions, you’ll find numerous Second World War graveyards and monuments. This area is fairly inexpensive and does have a large number of markets, old buildings and small museums tucked away, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the country. Rouen, Caen, and Dieppe are particularly nice, and if you take the train, they’re all really easy to get to. Don’t forget to make a stop at Mont Saint-Michel, which is a giant fortified monastery on an Island.

Mont Saint Michel
Mont Saint Michel by Jesper Krogh on Flickr.com

Skiing

If you love skiing, you absolutely must visit the French Alps once in your life, at least! Hugely popular with Brits and other Europeans, as well as other world travelers keen to experience the slopes in another part of the world, the range (no pun intended) of locations and mountains to explore means that whether you’re just starting to ski or you’re at an advanced level there is resort that will be just what you need. Look for a ticket to the Rhône-Alpes region in South East France, near the borders of Switzerland to the North and Italy to the East. Val d’Isère offers a range of on and off piste skiing and is well suited for advanced skiers, but will be a great experience for new or intermediate skiers as well. Another classic example of a French skiing wonderland for the experienced is Chamonix, a brilliant (but expensive) example of a French ski town. For beginners, heading for Courchevel or Morzine is a good idea as both offer intermediate terrain.

When to Go:

Depending on which cities and towns you plan to visit, some times of the year are better than others. For instance, Paris is lovely all year round but visit in the spring for a particularly special time. The summer is when they have an influx of tourists and this can make popular destinations like museums and sights really crowded. Tours of wine country are beautiful in the fall when the leaves are changing, and skiing is best in winter of course. The summer is a great time to explore the legendary beaches of Cannes, Marseille and Nice, or island of Corsica.

Getting Around:

It is so easy to get around France. The train system operates in what seems like two parts, with the TGV and the TER operating throughout the country. The TGV is the high-speed service operating all over the country, meaning you can get from one place to the next fairly quickly and easily. The TER is rail service run by the regional councils, and offers shorter services between towns. This is a cheap and brilliant way to get from one small town to another, and one of my favorite ways to discover the charm and character of the small towns and cities of France.

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Dani & Jess with a high-speed train in France

Safety:

When I was in France, I didn’t feel unsafe. I was extremely careful, however, and didn’t venture out too far into the suburbs or away from main streets after dark. Like any other large, tourist friendly city, there are pick pockets in popular areas and on public transport, so stay vigilant and keep your things close to you. The French police are a visible presence in most locations like train stations, which does make you feel a bit more comfortable, but again, particularly if you’re traveling alone, avoid small lanes and dark areas at night or take a taxi, which you can find at a ‘station de taxi’, or hail.

This article was written by Rachel Gardner, a travel writer who spent six months living in France.

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Exploring France by train: Our top five train rides in France

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France is one of our favorite countries in Western Europe and living in London, we were able to hop on over for a French getaway. Once we even went just for the day, leaving London in the dark, early morning in our rental car, hopped on the car ferry and docked in France just after 9am, which gave us a full day to explore the country side, enjoy some French crepes and stock up on French cheese and wine.

Our favorite way to see France, however, is by train. With one of the best rail networks in Europe, France has over 32,000 kilometers of railway, and 14,000 trains running every day. The trains are comfy and fast, especially the TGV, France’s high speed train, which hits speeds over 300 kilometers per hour, and even at those speeds it is easier to relax and take in the scenery instead of maneuvering a car and paying expensive highway tolls.  Not only is rail travel more comfortable, it is also pretty cheap – you can always find great deals for the TGV.

Here are our top five train routes in France:

Paris to Nice

The train ride from Paris to the Cote d’Azur in Southern France passes by some of the country’s most remarkable scenery, from the Rhone valley, quaint little villages dotting the countryside, and in the spring, the beautiful purple lavender fields in the Provence region, to the beaches of the Mediterranean. Many of the trains on this route are double-deck Duplex TGVs which offer the best views from the upper level.

Nimes to Clermont Ferrand

This 5.5-hour train journey takes you through the Cevennes, a mountain range in southern France, and with 106 tunnels and 1,300 bridges (including the 41-arch Chamborigaud Viaduct) it makes for a spectacular ride. Passengers can barely put their cameras down, thanks to the magnificent viaducts and bridges.The train connection has been built in 1870 – a notable construction achievement at the time. The Cevennes Railway is also known for its popular hiking path that follows the rails.

Villefranche to Latour de Carol

This train journey through the Pyrenees – the highest train tracks in France – is covered by Le Petit Train Jaune, a little yellow train that travel high up in the mountains. In the summer months open carriages are used which offer stunning mountain vistas and passengers can enjoy the impressive gorges, river valleys and viaducts along the way. The distance between Villefranche-de-Conflentand La Tour de Carol is only 63 kilometers long, but takes three hours – enough time to truly enjoy some of the country’s most spectacular scenery. There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites along the way:  the historical town of Villefranche and Mont Luis – we recommend you get off at these two stops and wander around the beautiful mountain town and France’s highest fortress.

Train Jaune Viaduct by A1AA1A on Wikicommons

Le Petit Train des Combes

Le Petit Train des Combes is also known as the Two Valleys train and still uses steam and diesel locomotives on a 60cm narrow gauge railway. The train operators between Les Combes and Le Creusot in the Burgundy region of France. During the 1.5 hour train ride passengers can enjoy scenic views of the town and the natural park it goes through.

Nice to Digne-Les-Bains

Even though this is a very touristy train ride, it is well worth the experience since the train passes through some of France’s most marvelous scenery. It starts in Nice on the Cote d’Azur and travels 3.5 hours up the Verdon Valley to an altitude of over 1000 meters. You start with palm trees in and around Nice, later on passing through the lavender fields, vineyards and finally steep-sided mountain valleys, before pulling into Digne-Les-Bains. Most of the stations along the way are the original ones from the beginning of the 20th century, when this rail line opened.

Have you taken train rides in France? We would love to hear your recommendations for train journeys in the comments below.

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Paris on a Budget: Top 5 Things To Do

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.Have you heard that infamous urban legend that Paris is one of the most expensive cities in the world? We had, too, and we even believed it – until we booked cheap flights to Paris and booked relatively inexpensive accommodation on several occasions.

In Paris, most of the major sights have free or reduced-rate visiting times and there are plenty of inexpensive bakeries or markets to pick up a baguette, some delicious French cheese and wine and have a picnic lunch for no more than 10€ ($14) for two.  Paris on a budget is all about advance planning, so we have listed here our top five inexpensive things to do in Paris.

Our Top Five Things to do in Paris

1. Explore Montmartre

Montmartre is the name of the highest hill in Paris (130meters) as well as the surrounding neighborhood. Montmartre, which has been featured in movies like Amelie or Moulin Rouge, began to attract artists in the mid-19th century. Famous painters such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Henri Matisse, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec have all lived in Montmartre, and the neighborhood still draws many artists. Up here on the hill, you’ll spot painters on the Place Du Tertre, stroll through the cobble-stone streets, sit down for a café au lait in one of the many cafes and listen to the street musicians playing the violin. Montmartre is also home to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica on top of the hill. The basilica features the most unique architecture of any church in Paris, combining Romanesque and Byzantine styles, and the breathtaking views over Paris are even more spectacular from the top of the church.

paris sacre coeur2. Marvel at the Eiffel Tower

Without a doubt, the city’s most iconic landmark is a must for a first-time (or tenth-time) visitor to Paris. The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 for the World Expo, and no one ever expected that this structure would continue to be the most iconic symbol of Paris with six million annual visitors over a century later.  If you’re on a tight budget, there’s no need to ride to the top of Gustav Eiffel’s masterpiece, as the whole visit feels electric just visiting tower. If you do choose to pay for the visit up to the viewing tower, the views over Paris are so worth it – both during the day as well as at night, when the City of Lights earns its romantic nickname.

3. The Louvre

There is a reason that the Louvre is the most visited art museum in the world, and it is not solely because of the Mona Lisa. This massive museum houses over 35,000 pieces of art, so make sure to plan in enough time for your visit. Plan in at least one day and wear comfortable shoes, as you’ll be traversing 652,300 square feet to visit this impressive 12th century structure. Tip: Admission to the Louvre is free for all visitors on every first Sunday of the month, and on Friday evenings after 6pm if you’re under 26.

paris louvre4. Stroll along the Champs-Elysées

The Champs-Elysées, a long chestnut tree-lined boulevard, stretches from the Place de la Concorde and the Jardin de Tuileries to the Arc de Triomphe in what is a grand Parisian thoroughfare. The Champs-Elysées is well-known for the many designer shops that line the avenue, but it doesn’t cost a penny to peek into the many cafes, cinemas, car showrooms and hotels. Walk the nearly 2km (1.2 mi) avenue toward the Arc de Triomphe at night to witness the chestnut trees lit with sparkling white lights, and it is no question why some consider this to be the most beautiful avenue of the world.

5. A cheap sightseeing bus tour

There are plenty of tour companies that offer sightseeing bus tours in Paris, but most of them are very expensive. Instead, scrape together just €1.30 and take the No. 29 bus from the Gare St Lazare to Bastille district. Passing through some of the most beautiful areas in Paris, the bus passes the Opera house, through the Marais district, including the beautiful square Place des Vosges and past plenty of peaceful side streets you may never otherwise spot. Alternatively, you can consider a Paris hop on hop off bus, which stops at all major sights.

paris marais

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Cities in Europe we could live in

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Our recent flight to Toronto was bittersweet and as Europe disappeared behind us, a feeling of melancholy won out over the rush of excitement we normally feel when stepping into our next major phase of travel. We reminisced about the amazing fourteen weeks we spent in Europe this spring and summer, where we discovered new treasures, re-visited old favorites, reveled in the comfort, beauty and style of European life. It had been awhile since we had been in Europe and we found ourselves wondering – if we were to ever stop traveling, which European city could we see ourselves actually living in? There are so many great cities in Italy, Germany and Spain, we loved spending time in Prague, Oslo and Amsterdam, had a wonderful time in Innsbruck and so many other places, but putting down roots is another prospect entirely. We may have narrowed it down to the following cities in Europe we think we could live in.

Lady in Lisbon, Portugal

London

A wise man once said, “If you tire of London, you tire of life,” and even after three years of life in London before becoming nomads, we never got tired of exploring the city’s neighborhoods. Creative Shoreditch, glamorous Chelsea, the punks of Camden and up-and-coming areas like Dalston, Deptford and Stoke Newington. London is easily the greenest city we have lived in, with massive open spaces in Hyde Park, Greenwich Park and Richmond. London is also a foodie paradise – Borough Market and enough eateries to keep us chowing down all year round. We loved cycling along the Thames or through unknown neighborhoods, finding cute independent shops, pubs and street art.

London Camden High StreetThe accommodation options are endless, too, ranging from cheap hostels to five-star hotels, free couchsurfing options to affordable hotels in London. At times, you could easily feel as if you are in the center of the pop culture universe  – art exhibitions at London’s free museums, blockbuster movie premieres on Leicester Square and the concerts…never in our lives have we been to so many shows as the time we spent in London.

Despite the city’s fascinating cultural diversity, international cuisine and constant stream of new things to discover, there is a major drawback to London life  – a serious vitamin D deficiency. The gloomy winters and frequent rain keep us from laying down permanent roots here for now, but we would definitely spend a summer in London again soon.

London market coffee house

Barcelona

We spent less than a week here, but Barcelona is easy to love – from the fabulous Gaudi buildings to the hip hop dancers on Las Ramblas, the city and its people ooze a kind of creativity that we immediately connected with – passionate, yet practical, anti-establishment but success-driven. In Barcelona, we walked the beach and discovered the former Olympic area, devoured fresh gelato, undertook the task of infinite tapas tasting, discovered retro bars and modern art galleries and never once did we get bored.

Barcelona gaudi park guellWe also both feel very comfortable speaking Spanish and would be excited to learn to converse in Catalan. Whether or not Barcelona could be forever remains to be seen, but we would most certainly attempt an extended stay.

Barcelona beach at sunset

Paris

We love Paris! Before you get to any oh-so-typical eye-rolling, we couldn’t believe it either. After our first few hours in the French capital, however, we were both hooked, and after several subsequent trips over from London to Paris on the Eurostar express train, there just isn’t much about Paris not to love. We pick up a baguette  for under a buck, some gruyere or brie or camembert, a good, cheap bottle of Merlot or Beaujolais and head to Parc de la Villette or Jardin du Luxembourg or along the river Seine for a picnic.

Paris sweetsWe munch  on macaroons, eclairs, croissants as we explore the streets of Le Marais or the Latin Quarter and sneak up to Montmartre, the artists quarter, in the morning before the tourists arrive. We could spend countless afternoons strolling through the extravagant cemeteries like the Pere Lachaise and evenings watching French couples dance tango on the shore of the Seine as the sun sets. For all the flowery fine art, there is just as much angst-inspired contemporary urban work, and there are as many hang-out spots for intellectuals and artists as punks and fashion icons.

Paris Je t'aimeHowever, our French is fairly basic (but we could learn), and Paris can be expensive, so while the dream exists to spend a glorious life in the City of Lights, it might be more logical to consider a month, maybe two, housesitting in a French apartment, eating, drinking and exploring Paris.

Lisbon

It was a risky last-minute, on-the-fly decision to spend nearly the entire month of June in Lisbon. The decision turned out to be the best we’ve made in a long time. Neither of us had ever been to Lisbon, we knew almost nothing about it and when we arrived, it took us a few days to fall for the city.

View over LisbonOnce we got out and explored, however, we discovered narrow city streets filled with tiled houses, countless neighborhood pastelerias (bakeries), seven hills with unbeatable views of the ocean and the Tagus river, nearby golden beaches and the Ponte de 25 April bridge, which looks like an exact replica of the Golden Gate Bridge.  We found the trendy area of Bairro Alto teeming with creative concept bars and countless Indian restaurants. There are galleries, markets, sun and sand, and a cosmopolitan composition rivaled only by London.

Lisboa street art graffiti lisbonBest of all, Lisbon is easily the most affordable capital city in Europe – food, drink, transportation and accommodation are fairly priced and manageable. The people are laid-back, friendly, and we picked up enough Portuguese to get by. Of all the cities in all of Europe, we could not be happier to have discovered Lisbon, and the city is now our top choice to live in Europe.

Lisbon tramWhat European city could you see yourself living in? Let us know in the comments!

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Polaroid of the week: Was Napoleon a gelato lover, too?

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polaroid of the week france corsica ajaccio napoleon gelateriaDuring our Mediterranean cruise last week we stopped at the French island of Corsica, birthplace of France’s great emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite never returning to his home island of Corsica, Napoleon is still the island’s most famous son. Especially in Ajaccio, the town where his birth house can still be visited, his likeness is used to market almost anything! There are museums, monuments, statues, and not to forget all the souvenirs that carry his name or face. Hotels and restaurants also like to use his name, like the ice cream place that has him selling gelato. So did Napoleon really like Gelato? We are sure that even with his many ‘complexes’, he did!

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