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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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