Category Archives: Travel

Paris for the Disabled

A 2005 French law requires that public accommodations be accesssible to the disabled within 10 years.  Line 14 of the metro is fully accessible and all buses in Paris are now equipped with ramps and special mechanisms to allow those in wheelchair residents to ride safely and comfortably.   Many crosswalks have sound signals at the crosswalk to indicate to the blind that the light has changed.  And public toilet facilities are also designed for wheelchair accessibility.  But other signs of progress are less obvious.

Since full access still seems to be a long way away, here are a few sites to help negotiate the streets and institutions of Paris.  In addition, we’re told that if you’re planning to have visitors who are disabled, it’s a good idea to do a dry run in advance of major tourist sites.  If you need to rent a wheelchair, check in at your neighborhood pharmacie.

Access in Paris: a guidebook mostly geared for tourists, you can download chapters one at a time.  Includes information on hotels, tourist sites, public transportation, and signage.

Disabled Access in Paris from Sage Traveling:  a helpful online guide with sections on transport, hotels and tourist attractions.  While the site is designed to get you to use the company’s services,  there is quite a bit of information posted here for all comers.

Tourisme et Handicap:  a downloadable brochure on 200 sites (lodging, tourist sites) in Ile de France noting their level of accessibility.

Infomobi:  Information on public transport for the disabled (those in wheelchairs, the blind, deaf, and with mental disabilities) throughout Ile de France (in French).

Les Compagnons du Voyage:  organization providing personalized assistance to elderly and disabled persons travelling on the SNCF and RATP.  There is a fee for this service (in French.)

Medias Sous Titres:  a site focused on closed captioning of television, film, and cultural events for the hearing impaired (in French).

And here’s an article from the Boston Globe (2013) commenting on the experience of a disabled American tourist in Paris.

Gîtes: A Friendly Twist to Your French Vacation

You have to admit:  you always have a better experience travelling when you get to interact with the locals.  How to do that in France where people value their privacy?  Pass on the hotel and make reservations at a gîte.   A what?  Gîtes are typically found in rural areas and smaller towns:  they can be bed and breakfasts, holiday homes, or even working farms, accommodating 2 to 10 guests.  You may sit down to breakfast with other families or even share dinner with your hosts.    What’s more, even if your French isn’t the greatest, for the most part, gîte owners want their guests to enjoy and value their region, its special sights and treasures, as much as they do, and in my experience, they’ll go the extra mile when it comes to communication.   There’s a gîte for everyone whether your tastes are rustic or deluxe.

To get started, go to the English language reservation site.  I’d recommend clicking on the button that reads “Criteria” that will allow you to be specific about your needs (number of rooms, distance to recreational activities, dinner with your hosts.)   All accommodations are rated according to ears of corn (as opposed to stars) with 5 ears being the highest quality, often in manor houses or chateaux with all kinds of fancy amenities.   Be aware that if you are renting a complete dwelling in the fall and winter months, you will be asked to pay heating charges in addition to the regular rental.  Also most expect payment in cash so be sure to stop by the ATM before you leave Paris.

Day Trips from Paris

Because there are so many great travel Web sites out there, we’ve shied away from giving advice on travel from Paris.   Recently, however, a number of folks have expressed interest in learning more about day trips from Paris.   Just what constitutes a day trip is open to interpretation, depending upon your means of transportation and how far you’re willing to travel.   Several of these destinations could easily become weekend visits.   That being said, here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

Auvers sur Oise:  Van Gogh’s final resting place and site of many of his famous paintings.  In addition to paying homage at his grave site, you can visit the inn where he lived and the home of Dr. Gachet, one of his patrons.  There is also a museum dedicated to the work of French artist Charles-François Daubigny and the Musee de l’Absinthe.  If the weather is nice, you may enjoy a self-guided walk through the town; along the route, there are placards of paintings you will recognize, placed at the very vantage point of the works themselves.  Auvers sur Oise is accessible by SNCF train from Gare du Nord.  Check with the tourist office for opening and closure information; many sites are closed during the winter months.

Chantilly:  There’s plenty to do here besides eating whipped cream (although when in Rome….).  The chateau has an incredible art collection and the grounds have recently been renovated to include special activities of interest to kids such as a maze and a kangaroo farm.  Then there’s the horse museum which is a bit dated but still fun.  Call ahead for information on dressage demonstrations and the equestrian spectacle.  And you can always go to the races.  It’s a quick train ride from Paris; you can easily walk from the station into town.  If not, take the free city bus.

Chartres: This town, just 100 kilometers southwest of Paris, is best known for its Gothic cathedral dedicated by King Louis IX in the 13th century.   It is one of the few religious sites in France that was not substantially damaged during the French Revolution.   The stone floor is marked with a labryinth which pilgrims still walk.  In addition to the church, there is also a small museum of stained glass.   Trains run regularly between Gare Montparnasse and Chartres.

Euro Disney:   After initial grumbling, France and the rest of Europe seemed to have embraced Euro Disney with open arms.  Much smaller than its American counterparts, you can probably do it in one day although this depends upon the number of other visitors.   Heather Stimmler-Hall, author of the Secrets of Paris blog, has put up a post in two parts with great tips on making the most of your Disney experience.  You can get started at How To Survive Disneyland Paris Part 1.  Euro Disney is easily accessible by the RER A.

Fontainebleau:  Home of French kings for centuries, Fontainebleau grew in a fashion one can only describe as higgledy-piggeldy and thus there’s something here for everyone from the grand Renaissance to Napoleon’s library.   The park is vast and the nearby forest is a great place to explore and climb on the rocks.  The SNCF train from Gare de Lyon stops in Fontainbleau-Avon; from there, you can take a city bus to the chateau.  (It is a very long walk otherwise.)  If you have a car, plan on also visiting the nearby village of  Barbizon which was an artist’s colony in the early 19th century.  

Giverny:  The main attraction at this tiny town in Normandy is Claude Monet’s home and garden, the setting for many of his famous paintings of water lilies.  You won’t find any original Monets in the house but it is charming all the same.  The garden is spectacular in spring, summer, and fall.  There is also a small art museum dedicated to the work of the Impressionists just down the lane.   If you don’t have a car, take a train from Gare St. Lazare to Vernon where you can either take a bus or rent a bike to travel the remaining 5 kilometers to Giverny.  The buses are well-timed with arrivals and departures from Paris. 

Provins:  This fortified medieval town on the eastern edge of Ile de France is on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites.  The old town is perched on a hill above the new town where the train comes in.  You can walk the ramparts, climb the Tour César and visit a number of other historic buildings, and stroll to the sweet town square where you’ll want to get a bite to eat or linger over a drink.   Two different spectacles will delight your kids:  one featuring falcons and the other horses. 

Reims:  The cathedral in Reims is where the kings of France were crowned and is well worth the quick 45 minute ride on a TGV from Gare de l’Est and it’s not that much further by car.  Visit the Bishop’s Palace to learn more about the construction and restoration of the cathedral.  Reims is also the heart of Champagne and you can visit some of the big houses in town on foot including Veuve Cliquot, Charles de Cazanove, and Pommery.  For the others, you will need a car to get out into the countryside.  There’s also an automobile museum and a small exhibit at the site where Eisenhower as chief of the Allied Forces in World War II accepted the German surrender.  

Versailles:  There’s the grand chateau itself, the park, the Grand and Petit Trianon, and Marie Antoinette’s hamlet.  Take the RER C to the Rive Gauche station or the SNCF train to Rive Droite and make a day of it.  Picnicking is permitted on the grounds although not necessarily on the lawns.   During the summer and into the fall, the fountains are synchronized with music on Tuesdays.

Tourist Information Offices

Auvers sur Oise

Chantilly

Chartres

Giverny

Fontainebleau

Provins

Reims

Versailles

Other Resources

Great Day Trips from Paris (from Bonjour Paris)

Paris to Provins (from Budget Travel)

Paris Day Trips: Chartres (from Why Go Paris)

Surviving Your House Guests

You’re in Paris so it’s a pretty good bet that sooner or later, family and friends are going to come knocking on your door, delighted to know that they now have a free place to stay in one of the world’s most visited (and expensive) cities.   And while most of us don’t mind spending time with those near and dear, running a bed and breakfast is something else entirely.  Here are just a few thoughts to preserve your sanity.

Rule Number One.   Just because someone calls or sends an e-mail that they are coming to town doesn’t mean you have to put them up.   Parisian apartments are typically on the small side and having extra people in your space can be a real drag.   Remember you are not obligated to house anyone for any length of time.   So when they say, “We’re coming to Paris!”, keep these stock phrases in mind.

“We’d really love to see you but we just don’t have room for guests.   Can we meet you for  [fill in the blank: coffee, dinner, a drink, and afternoon, an evening]?”

“I’m so sorry but we’re going to be totally swamped when you are here.  Maybe next time.”

Or “Budget Travel and Rick Steves have some hotel recommendations that look pretty reasonable.”

Rule Number Two.  Set the ground rules in advance.   Make it clear what’s going on in your life while they visit including both your work and social commitments.   If you have to leave for work at eight o’clock and want a shower before you go, say so.   If you’re not doing dinner, suggest places in the neighborhood where they can get a bite.

Rule Number Three.   You don’t have to play tour guide unless you want to.  Tell your guests to get their sightseeing priorities in order before they arrive.  There’s way too much to do in Paris whether they’re staying for three days or heaven forbid, two weeks.   You may want to suggest particular restaurants or favorite shops or museums, but don’t get caught in the trap of planning their visit for them.   Most public libraries back home offer a nice selection of tourist guides so they don’t even have to buy a book.   Or send them links to your favorite Web sites.

Rule Number Four:   A few orienting basics can go a long way to forging independence.  Have an extra subway and city map on hand.  Collect some brochures for tours (such as Paris Walks , Fat Tire Bikes, or Open Tour) or tourist attractions.  (You can swing by one of the tourist information offices around town and take care of this in one fell swoop.)  Show them where to find the nearest ATM and how to buy their first carnet of metro tickets.  You might  also point out your neighborhood market and boulangerie.

Rule Number Five:   You do not have to pick up your guests at the airport.  Period.   Send the information on how to take public transportation, the Air France bus, or a cab to your place, including an idea of what it will cost.   And for your convenience, here are the options for getting into town from Orly and Charles de Gaulle.

Resources

Paris Convention and Visitors’ Bureau  (in English)

How to be  Good House Guest  (a link you can forward if you are either truly courageous or truly fed up)

Tips for Train Travel in France

Traveling by train is one of the many delights of living in Europe.  You go from city center to city center, no long lines for security and boarding,  seating is roomy, and with the TGV (train de grand vitesse), you cover large distances in no time flat.

Buying tickets is another story.  You can go directly to an SNCF Boutique or train station and deal with an agent, or you can buy them on-line.  And no, it’s not just you.  The SNCF Web site has got to be one of the least user friendly Web sites on the planet.  But if you are patient and flexible, there are some really good deals out there.    Here are just a few things to keep in mind.

Discount Cards

The SNCF offers four different discount cards

Carte 12-25:  As you might gather from the name, this card offers reductions to persons between the ages of 12 and 25.
Carte Senior:  For persons over the age of 60.
Carte Escapades :  For adults between 26 and 59 years.
Carte Enfant + :  For families with a child under 12 years.

Although the details vary, you buy one of these cards, good for one year, at a fee somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 70 euros, and you get significant reductions on train travel.  With the Carte Enfant +, for example,  the whole family (up to 4 accompanying travelers, whether kids or adults), benefits from at least a 20 percent reduction on all train travel and up to 50 percent for travel at nonpeak hours.   If you take one long trip on the TGV, you will recoup the cost of the card in one trip.   It’s worth noting that the reductions are for travel within France only so if you take a train trip beyond French borders, the reduction only applies to the French portion of the trip.  You may purchase the cards on-line; no supporting documentation is needed.  Pick up the card from the ticket window at any train station or from an SNCF boutique.

Discounts are also available for families with three or more children who have applied for the carte familles nombreuses.  You must apply for this card and send supporting documentation.  Thus if you want to take advantage of the discount, apply well in advance of your travel.

Tickets are also cheaper at certain times of the year or days of the week.  For example, there aren’t too many deals if you’re leaving town the day that schools get out for the Christmas holidays.   But like all things SNCF, there’s no easy answer about when it’s most economical to travel.    Check here for a calendar (by route) showing the période normale (times when travel is expected to be light and thus priced cheaper) and the période pointe  (typically the holiday rush period) when your trip will cost more. 

The SNCF is experimenting with e-tickets.  At the moment, you can pick up tickets you order on-line at either an SNCF Boutique, in any station, or from an automated kiosk in every station.

Book Early

Like hotel and plane fares, the cost of train travel tends to go up as the travel date approaches.    Fares on the Eurostar (the train that takes the Chunnel between Paris and London) are at their rock bottom (about 80 euros round trip) if you reserve three months in advance.  Reserve at the last minute and you will pay four to five times that much.

For domestic travel, the SNCF releases a limited quantity of tickets designated as tarif prem’s 90 days in advance and that’s when you will get the best prices.   The prem’s tickets cannot be exchanged, however.  If you think your plans might change, look for the tarif loisirs.  It pays to pay attention; sometimes you can travel in first class for the same price as second class.  That being said, second class is generally quite comfortable and clean.

There is also a fare called iDTGV which is sold exclusively on-line and only to a limited number of destinations.  But they can be reserved as early as 6 months or as late as 5 days in advance of your travel.   iDGTV tickets are exchangeable but not reimbursable if you don’t use them.   These can have some very attractive prices, particularly if you don’t mind travelling at odd hours.

Types of Trains

Get ready for lots of different types of names and initials when it comes to train service:

The TGV is the high speed train that runs at top speed at 300 km/hour to a growing network of destinations.   That means you can get from Paris to Avignon in 2 hours and 38 minutes, easily an 8 hour trip by car.

Corail designates the non-TGV lines.   They are comfortable, just not as fast.

The Eurostar is the high speed train that travels between Paris and London.

The Thalys train is also high speed and goes to Brussels, Amsterdam, and Cologne.

Lunea designates overnight service with either couchettes (simple berths) or a 4 couchette sleeping compartment.

iDTGV is a marketing gimmick by the SNCF to make train travel more appealing to young people.  You can choose iDzen (the quiet car), iDzap (portable electronics friendly), or iDNIGHT.

Before You Leave

Before you hop on the metro or in a cab on the way to the train station, make sure you know from which station you will be departing.  There is no central train station in Paris (good news because that means no railroads crossing through the center of the city).  Instead each of the train stations handles departures for certain destinations.  These are as follows:

Gare du Nord:  Destinations in the north of France; Eurostar to London;  Thalys to Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne; Berlin and Moscow

Gare de l’Est: Eastern France (Reims, Strasbourg), Zurich, Basel, Frankfurt, and Munich

Gare d’Austerlitz:  Limoges, Toulouse, Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, Lourdes, Biarritz, Madrid, and Barcelona

Gare de Lyon: Lyon (of course!) plus Avignon, Marseille, Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, Nîmes, Montpellier, Narbonne, Perpignan

Gare Montparnasse:  Brittany, Bordeaux and other destinations in the southwest of France

Gare St. Lazare: Dieppe, Normandy and other northern destinations

And finally, before you board the train, don’t forget to “compost” your ticket.  There are  yellow machines at the end of each platform.  Simply insert your ticket in the slot and it will be mechanically time and date-stamped. 

Resources

Train Travel in France:  A Beginner’s Guide

TGV routes in France  (note all trains do not stop at all stations)

SNCF Guide du Voyageur (in French)

Eurostar bookings