We were lost in a maze of road construction in Dijon rushing to make a train to Avignon. The train station markings we had been told to expect were absent, and GPS is worthless in construction areas. Now the heat was on as we pulled into a tire-changing outpost unlikely to be staffed by multi linguists. Walking up to one of the workers, I rolled out my limited but workable road French and got a quick shake of the head to the negative on Bonjour, Monsieur, parlez vous anglais?
A little more clutch and grab French and he motioned me to follow him into a tiny office where he drew a map that would prove to put us spot on to the Dijon station in plenty of time to catch our train.
Next up would be actually catching the correct train and boarding so as not to end up in a rugby-like scrum. One must select the correct car on the first shot or a potential logistical nightmare awaits. It continues to astound me how many Americans (not Europeans) insist on traveling as if on safari. You know, luggage the size of steamer trunks too large to be muscled about by even NFL size nose tackles. These beasts get jammed in narrow aisles and are of course impossible to heft overhead, where there’s barely enough room to wedge your overcoat. The end result is gridlock and a plugged aisle. You, if you have stumbled on to the wrong car and must move onward, are out of luck. The sure way to prevent such unpleasantry is to check in advance with the electronic seating digital graphic on the platform. It displays your train, car by car, with numbers that correspond to A-Z signs on the platform that show exactly where your car will stop. You can be perfectly positioned to jump on the right car on the first try.
On you go with your two carry-ons. Be sure to check out the new polycarb spinner bags. These ultra-light babies have wheels that spin 360-degree and are a marvel to maneuver through crowds. Don’t forget, you’ll be hauling your luggage through train stations, facing at least one flight of stairs (no elevator, escalator or red cap service), so no travel behemoths and certainly no checked luggage. In Europe you will find bag racks at both ends of your TGV high-speed train. If the first rack is full, have no fear. You should be good at the other end of the car. Keep the smaller of your two carry-ons with you at your seat. Your travel agent can provide you with hard copy train tickets well in advance of your trip, but do your own homework on the Internet to ensure that your get the best connections. Wherever possible, you want to go first class on the high speed TGV. The French have us beat hands down in all forms of travel from the TGV to the Paris underground system, above ground bus system, and certainly Air France versus an American option.
Travel through Paris Charles de Gaulle is first rate. Travel through Boston and the prison-break security madhouse, coupled with the frat house business class lounge, is anything but a pleasant experience. And we are assured that the body scans we are now forced to endure are more akin to the radiation from Buster Brown foot scanners we all remember from the fifties. But who today would ever think of subjecting their children or grandkids to one of those? It’s nuts.
So, a little advance homework will do you no end of good. In our four trips to Paris, we have found the French without exception to be warm and helpful. Perhaps this is because we have worked hard on our bistro and travel French, dress appropriately, and can work with a French menu and wine list pretty much without a hitch. Get Andy Herbach’s Eating & Drinking in Paris and your ability to do business and travel in France will be off on the right foot. (In the next couple of weeks, I’ll list a number of other books and apps that we’ve found helpful.)
Your next top priority is whether to hotel it on the right or left bank and in which of Paris’ 20 arrondissments (neighborhoods). Paris has over 50 five star hotels and many more four stars. FiveStar Alliance.com is a great website to help you in the great fun of selecting a hotel. All but a handful of the five star palace hotels are on the right bank, and those mostly in the 8th arrondissment. Hotel Lutetia and Hotel Pont Royal are on the left bank. We have plenty of experience with both La Rive Gauche and La Rive Droite, and prefer the left, which ultimately narrows our choice to Hotel Lutetia. Unfortunately, Hotel Lutetia, along with the Paris Ritz (spectacular) and Hotel de Crillon, is closing for a two-year massive renovation next spring (so there’s still a little time left). With selected exceptions, we confine our hotel stays to the right bank 8th and the left bank 6th and 7th, where we have innumerable choices for walking access to museums, top tourists sights, and bistros and restaurants.
Booking in a five star gives the added benefit of first class concierge services. François-Xavier Berenger, head concierge at Hotel Lutetia, has helped Debbie and me out of a number of jams and greased the skids with aplomb on as many other occasions. We have found the assistance of a top-flight concierge in Paris a must. Do not book bistro reservations on your own. Instead have your concierge front run your French dining experience for you. It is important to reconfirm a day in advance. During scouting trips around Paris, Debbie and I usually do a field visit so we know where we are going beforehand.
Remember, Sunday in Paris can be a tough as many of the A-list selections are closed. Sunday night is a good night to try some of the historical brasseries like The Dome or the Hotel Lutetia’s brasserie. A little advance work will serve you well and make your time in France the best it can possibly be.
Good fortune and warm regards,