Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How to Plan Your Own Trip – And Save a Bundle!

For the tightwad traveler, independent travel is the best and cheapest way to go. Why spend $200-400 a day for an organized, commercial tour, when you can do it better yourself for less than $90 a day?

Planning your own vacation is also far more rewarding than signing up for an organized tour. While plotting your itinerary, you will learn the history of the places you plan to visit; you'll come to understand the local public transportation system so you'll feel like a native when you hop on the bus or subway; and, after researching apartment rentals or hotels, you'll have a “feel” for the area you couldn't get any other way.

Does planning your own trip take more time? Yes. But there's no better feeling than knowing you are the one in charge of your vacation--if you want to see four museums in one day or sleep late every morning, you can. You'll also find that doing your own planning increases your anticipation, and, after all, that's half the fun of any trip!

Arranging your own trip is not difficult, and, if you start six to twelve months in advance, you will be able to pace yourself so the planning is enjoyable rather than burdensome. Here are the steps that will make the process a pleasurable one.

If there are a number of destinations on your list that you'd like to visit over the next several years, it might be wise to narrow your choices by considering how your currency is faring right now in the countries you plan to visit. You may be able to save a considerable amount of money by traveling to a country this year with a favorable exchange rate and postponing the trip to the countries with unfavorable exchange rates until another time. For example, the UK is off-limits for David and me until the dollar is doing better compared to the pound; but we're seriously considering a trip to Southeast Asia where the dollar is thriving.

Once you know where you want to go, start thinking about airfare. If you're using frequent flyer miles, it is essential to reserve immediately because those seats disappear quickly. (Bear in mind that you can always change the dates of your FF flight, at no charge, should your plans change later.) If you're paying for your flight, you might want to check http://www.farecompare.com/ to see when the most economical fares are predicted. But, since your flight is one of the costliest aspects of a trip budget, you will not want to rely solely on predictions. You can assure yourself of getting the best rate possible by tracking the price over several months with frequent, detailed updates. Get that information with an airfare alert that will be sent to your e-mail in-box daily. The alert tells you whether the airfare you're seeking has increased or decreased in price, so you can buy when the price is right. I like http://www.kayak.com/, but there are many companies that perform this free service.

The next step involves the second most expensive item in your trip budget, the place you will sleep. I've said this several times before in previous articles, and Arthur Frommer, the travel expert himself, confirmed it in his blog last Friday (See blog post below.), that the cheapest accommodations in Europe right now are apartments.* If you are planning a week's stay in each location (Most apartment owners require a week's stay although, occasionally, you can find someone who will rent for only three-nights.), an apartment is the wisest choice. Not only can you prepare your own meals which results in tremendous financial savings, but you will have amenities that you cannot get in a hotel or B&B. And, on top of all that, you will find lovely apartments that are cheaper than budget hotels or even hostels!

Once you're convinced that an apartment is the best way to have a home away from home, you'll find that there are many resources to choose from. One of my favorites is http://www.slowtravel/ because the site prints honest reviews written by people, like you and me, who have actually stayed in the apartments. The reviews are lengthy and give excellent information about the room sizes, condition of the furniture, proximity to public transportation, price, and ease of working with the rental agent/owner. This is the site David and I used to locate our Paris apartment. Another source is Vacation Rentals by Owners http://www.vrbo.com/, a site where owners list their houses or apartments in locations all over the world. Many friends have used this site with great success. Another option in rural areas, of course, is to look for gites in France and agriturismo in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Or use your computer search engine to search for holiday apartment rentals in whatever area you are considering.

No matter which source you use, however, be sure to do your homework. Trustworthy owners/companies will be honest about the apartment's advantages and shortcomings. They will provide lots of information about the amount of furniture and its condition. It's helpful to know, for example, the number of beds- if you have a group of people - and their sizes -if you're as tall as David and I. (Some sites are unintentionally misleading. For example, an owner will state on his site that there is bedding for four, and he is correct as long as one couple doesn't mind sleeping on a fold-out couch in the living room! You need to read the descriptions carefully. Bedding that might be suitable for children may not be suitable for adults.) And, of course, learning you will have a washer/dryer, means you can pack far fewer clothes.

The site should supply the answers to all your questions. Here are a few questions we usually ask. Is there free parking? Is the apartment within walking distance of shops and public transportation? Are there stairs? Is there a cleaning fee or is the renter responsible for cleaning before he leaves? Is there a patio or terrace? Also look for lots of photographs (four is the minimum, and I love sites with ten to twenty!) to document the promises made in the text. The very best sites will also provide square footage and a diagram of the apartment's layout.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a listing, though, is that reviews from previous renters should be available to you. An owner who has nothing to hide should be proud to share his guest book with you. Read it and learn if what pleased or disappointed others will affect your vacation.

If you cannot find this basic information on the site, or if an owner/company does not promptly respond to your e-mails, move on to another. There are many owners/companies vying for your rental dollar, so deal with someone who will give you all the information you need to make an informed choice. After all, your rental will be your temporary home in a foreign country, so your selection needs to be a good one.

Now that you've got the two biggest expenses out of the way, it's time for the exciting part of the planning—deciding what you will see. You will want to invest in at least one or two current guidebooks because these sources are the lifeblood of an independent traveler. Here's one way of deciding which one you'll like best. Go to your favorite bookstore, gather every book on the shelves dealing with your chosen location, and find a chair to curl up in. Turn to the same section in each of the books, Paris, for example, and ask yourself some questions. Which book devotes the most pages to Paris? Which has the best maps and graphics? Which provides the most information about the sites in Paris that are high on my list? You'll soon know which guidebooks are the best ones for you.

Guidebooks are such a valuable commodity you will even find uses for old ones. Buy them at yard sales or used book stores for a quarter. Outdated guides are still helpful because the four-hundred-year-old sites you want to visit haven't changed much! When you've only spent pennies on a guidebook, you won't mind ripping out pages from several books. Organize these pages into one notebook to create your own personalized guidebook that will weigh far less than most novels.

That three-ring notebook will also hold information you'll gather from the Internet. While your just-purchased, current guidebook has up-to-the-minute information about hours of operation, costs, walking tours and itineraries; and your torn-apart, old guidebooks supply historical details about the sites you'll see, websites can often supply esoteric information that is not available anywhere else. For example, David and I were uncertain about finding the shuttle to our airport hotel on the last day. We found the information we needed on a Trip Advisor page. (We still got lost, but at least we didn't get lost quite as badly as we could have!) A New York Times article introduced us to macarons. (Though it would have been better for my waistline if macarons and I had never met!) So, don't overlook the Internet as a great source of information.

And, of course, you do not want to forget the information available on blogs. Type two words – the destination name and the word “blog” -- in any search engine, and you will discover scads of sites sharing their travel secrets with you. This is where you'll hear about the fabulous, tucked-away-in-a-back-alley restaurant where the food is divine and the bill negligible, or where you'll get tips on how to avoid the latest tourist scam. The information on blogs is invaluable; no matter where you're going, somebody's already been there and would love to give you a tip or two. Scour the site, follow the links, and take notes. Write a comment on the blog or ask a question. Most blog writers are anxious to share their knowledge and will enjoy re-living their trip while helping you at the same time.

After you've arranged your flight, rented an apartment, and planned your itinerary, sit back and relax. Bask in the good feeling that comes from being a tightwad traveler. You can be confident you've snagged the cheapest flight and saved hundreds of dollars per day by renting an apartment where you will prepare your own meals. You've also armed yourself with insider information about your destination because you've researched guidebooks, websites and blogs. You should be feeling something no tour company can provide right about now — satisfaction at having arranged the best and cheapest trip possible. Go ahead and enjoy it!

Practicalities -

*If you're planning a trip to Southeast Asia, Mexico or South America, you may find that hotels are inexpensive and rental apartments are in short supply. In those countries, it may be just as inexpensive to eat locally and stay in hotels or B&Bs.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Vacation in a European Apartment

Today, Arthur Frommer, founder of Frommer's Travel Guides, discussed the advantage of renting an apartment or hostel for your next vacation in Europe.

We are getting to the point where, when you seek the U.S. dollar equivalent of a European price, you will always need to add about 60% to 70% to the prices you encounter. A European hotel room priced at €100 will end up costing you about $160. A British hotel room costing £100 will cost you about $175. It's an expensive world out there.

Your response, in my opinion, should be to seriously consider the use of alternative, cheaper lodgings for your next trip to Europe. You should think about lengthening your stay in each European city to a week so that you can rent an apartment at a considerable savings.

He cites only one savings advantage of renting an apartment/hostel rather than a hotel room, but I believe there's another major financial advantage. When you are able to prepare your own food and drink, the cost of your vacation decreases dramatically.

Click to read all of Arthur Frommer's advice today.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Weight-Loss Strategy

Weight control is not easy for me. I have to work at it. Three aerobic sessions per week at the gym are mandatory if I don't want to gain weight. If I actually want to lose a couple pounds over a period of months, I must limit calories and increase time at the gym. It's a slow process.

I suppose, if I were not a tightwad, I could spend a week at the beautiful Canyon Ranch Resort in Tucson, Arizona, where I'd stay in a deluxe room and enjoy three gourmet, albeit nutritious and low-calorie, meals a day for $730 per day. For that price I can also take fitness classes and bike, hike or walk to my heart's content.

Or I could stay a little closer to home at the Rancho La Puerta Spa, just one hour's drive south of San Diego in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico, which bills itself as an economy—but still deluxe—alternative to pricier resorts. Here I can enjoy a week's worth of accommodations and meals plus the same activities offered at Canyon Ranch for $494 a day.

But I think my approach is cheaper and a lot more interesting. I ate delicious food, slept in a lovely apartment, did all the walking I could handle, and enjoyed world-class museums for only $83 a day. And I lost weight. Eight pounds in all!

Every time I'm in Europe, I lose eight to ten pounds without even trying. (I lost ten pounds when I spent six weeks in France and Italy in 2007.) The trip in September was no exception. Despite devouring at least one chocolate croissant each day and ice cream more times than I care to recall (plus the usual three meals a day), David and I both dropped eight pounds. Is it because we walked for hours a day and did not snack between meals? Or is it because French food is much less caloric than American food? I don't know the answer, but I do know that I prefer travel as the best approach to weight loss. It's much more fun than aerobics and a whole lot cheaper than fancy spas.

Wouldn't you rather spend $581 for a week in Paris than $5110 for a week at Canyon Ranch or $3460 for a week at Rancho La Puerta? Besides, think how cosmopolitan you'll sound when you tell your friends you're going to Paris to lose weight!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Iced Drinks in Europe

Tightwad Travel Tip – Iced Drinks in Europe

My morning beverage of choice is iced tea, but ice is difficult to come by in Europe. So, since iced tea isn't iced tea without the ice, I make my own. I buy plastic ice cube trays at Wal-Mart (three for a dollar last August, 2oo9) which take little space in my suitcase since the trays nest together. This way I enjoy cold drinks during my vacation, but, because the trays are so inexpensive, I don't worry about packing them for the return trip home. I like to leave them behind for the next iced tea drinker who might happen by.

Monday, October 19, 2009

France Trip 2009 – Food

Market day in Sarlat

We're not foodies. While David and I enjoy tasty food — at home, I make almost everything “from scratch" - it's what's on sale this week that dictates our menu, not the latest recipes from gourmet magazines. On this trip to France, in the fall of 2009, we hoped to eat well, but, unlike many of our friends, we were more interested in using our funds to pay for museum tickets, not restaurant meals.

David's photo of the fish counter in the market

When we told people that we actually planned to use the kitchens in our rented apartments, several said they would not want to be stuck in the kitchen; a vacation meant freedom from cooking. We can understand that point. Still, since David's and my agreement is that one person cooks and the other cleans up, we didn't think it would take long, or be too much of an imposition, to prepare delicious meals.

Besides, there was simply no way to finance this trip if we ate in restaurants for three meals a day. With breakfasts consisting of a croissant, coffee and juice for 6 euros ($9 US) and fixed price lunches and dinners 11-18 euros ($16.50 - $27 US), three restaurant meals a day would have exceeded half our allotted daily budget per person! (We actually averaged $13 US per day for both of us.) When it came down to taking the trip and cooking ourselves or not going at all, the choice was easy.

David's photo of the cheese counter

Breakfasts were delicious. We usually had eggs in some form—fried, scrambled, or in an omelet with some herbs and cheese, or slices of quiche from a bakery—orange juice, hunks of excellent French bread with butter and strawberry jam, fruit, and either coffee or iced tea. It takes no more than five minutes to prepare or clean up after this breakfast, and we thought it a much more enjoyable and leisurely way to begin the day than going out in the chilly mornings to find a restaurant. Actually, although restaurants and cafes were nearby in Paris, we would have had to drive five miles or so in the Dodogne for a restaurant breakfast. It was much easier to eat at home!

Bakery in The Marais section of Paris

In Paris, lunch was usually whatever looked appealing in the bakery windows. Between 12-2:00, bakeries serve from a window that opens on to the sidewalk where you can order a croque monsieur, an open-faced sandwich of ham, cheese and bechamel sauce, pizza, or choose from several other finger foods. The bakery heats (chaud, s'il vous plait) your choice and you can sit on a bench or the steps of a building and enjoy your meal while watching the people pass by. If you've brought your water bottle, you don't even need to buy a drink, so the cost of your lunch is minimal. By the way, the French seem to love street-picnics. There were always a lot of them in line with us.

In the Dordogne, we took a different approach because we had a car which could conveniently hold the little cooler, a collapsible, insulated fabric model that we bought at a yard sale in the States for a dollar, until we were ready for a picnic. Our lunches didn't vary. You may think we'd tire of croissants, slathered with a Dijon mustard/mayonaisse, topped with ham (The French have wonderful ham products!) and Emmentaler cheese slices, but we didn't. Since we never have this type of sandwich at home, it was a treat the first time as well as the tenth time we ate it in France! We rounded out our picnics with fruit and a dessert of some sort that we'd picked up from a bakery.

I must confess that dinner, a couple times in Paris, consisted of no more than bread, cheese, and wine, not because we weren't hungry but because we were too exhausted to do more. On those days we almost had no energy left to eat! Still, given the diversity of French cheese and the quality of their bread and wine, this was not a bad way to end a day. Usually, though, we were more energetic and managed to spend a few minutes preparing very good dinners. We either bought frozen entrees from the grocery store (I maintain that any frozen French entree will always beat the best frozen American entree in a taste test.), took home a particularly interesting-looking main course from the market, or grilled a chicken breast or pork loin in a wine sauce. To that we added a salad from a prepared bag of greens we got at the grocery store or some vegetables, and more of that French bread and butter. Delicious!

A chocolate shop in the Latin Quarter, Paris

I suppose, if we had eaten this way much longer than three weeks, we might have craved a steak or a casserole, but our meals were nutritious, inexpensive, and satisfying. The ease of preparation and the inexpensive cost of our own cooking more than compensated for the slight lack of variety.

We discovered other advantages to cooking our own food, besides the pleasure of having breakfast in our pajamas. Because we shopped in the local markets, bakeries, and grocery stores, we got to know some of the shop owners. The woman in my favorite patisserie in Paris frowned and corrected my French the first day, but soon she was smiling when she saw me opening the door. The grocery stores, three within a few blocks of our Paris apartment, were endlessly interesting to us because of the items they did, or did not, stock. We could not find fresh cream for coffee, but there were at least six kinds of butter. Eggs were clearly labeled as being from chickens raised in “fresh air” or from chickens raised in pens, and prices were accordingly quite high or very low. We also got a kick from loading our own grocery bags, and had new appreciation for all the services we received in the US. When we discovered the Carrefour grocery store in Sarlat, we wandered the aisles for hours. While only half the size of American stores, it was three times the size of the Paris places and stocked a lot more items.

But perhaps the best advantage to shopping and cooking our own food was that we felt, however briefly, as though we were French. We could pretend that we actually lived in this wonderful country, that we shopped the markets like everyone else, and that we prepared our meals using French cutlery, cookware and appliances. That was a feeling we couldn't have gotten any other way.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Independent Trips Compared to Tour Company Trips

Organized tours are advantageous for some countries where the language and custom barriers are too great to bridge, so David and I will probably use a commercial company when we travel to China, India, or Vietnam. But for trips to other parts of the world, we much prefer to travel independently.

Since organized-tour companies do all the planning, it is certainly easier for a traveler to arrange a trip this way, but we find tours unsatisfactory for many reasons. Perhaps the most important is that your days are scheduled according to the group's needs, not your own. If you want to sleep late some mornings or laze about in the afternoon sun, you cannot do either if the tour bus must leave the parking lot at 7:30 am or there's a city tour scheduled for the afternoon.

That tight scheduling also means that you see what the tour company wants you to see for whatever length of time the company decides, rather than spend time at places that interest you most. For example, I had no desire to see a furniture manufacturer in Sorrento, but there was no choice. The tour group spent well over an hour learning more than we wanted to know about marquetry when we could have been exploring the town instead. I couldn't help but wonder if the tour company received a portion of the sales made that day.

On another day, I was anticipating a particular stop along the bus route. After teaching Romeo and Juliet for many years, I was interested in seeing Verona where Shakespeare's play was set. Since the tale was supposedly based on a true story, I looked forward to going through Juliet's house and visiting her grave. The tour company allotted only an hour, though, and that included lunch. There was time only to see the outside of Juliet's house and grab a sandwich before climbing back on the bus.

That's the other thing that bothers us about tours. The bus. If you've booked a tour that promises many cities in a short amount of time, and the majority of tours are of this type, you see more of the bus than you do any of the sights. Spending four to six hours a day on a bus certainly allows you to see a lot of the countryside, but we prefer to visit places and museums instead.

That bus also limits where you go and what accommodations you get. A huge tour bus cannot reach some secluded sights that may be on your wish list. You can also forget that charming B&B in the heart of a historic village. The bus needs a huge parking lot and that dictates a large, often personality-less hotel, usually on the outskirts of town.

Perhaps the very worst thing about organized tours, however, is their price. There's a supposedly “budget-priced” seven-night independent Paris tour by a popular company being offered for $1365 dollars a person based on two people sharing the hotel room. The cost for two is therefore $2730, or $390 per day per couple. We saw all of Paris, including Versailles which is included in the tour package, and loved our apartment home-base for only $166 per day for the two of us. That's a difference of $224 a day!

Even more dramatic is the difference in price between a tour of the Dordogne, offered by the University of North Carolina, and the price we paid for a glorious week in this historic valley. Housed in Sarlat and traveling to two cave sites as well as many of the same towns and castle we visited, the seven-night trip sponsored by the University, in 2007, cost each person $2795 or $5590 per couple. That's $798 per day! Again, we saw the same caves and visited even more towns, including Oradour, for only $166 per the two of us per day. That's a whopping savings of $632 per day!

At least one company seems to be aware of the huge profit margins involved in organized tours, so they have developed their own niche by specializing in non-tours. The company touts the advantages of living in an apartment in Europe so you can feel as though you're part of the neighborhood and get a real feel for living as the Europeans do by shopping the local markets, using public transportation, and setting your own itinerary. There is an expert on-site should you need advice, but you are on your own in deciding what museums or sights to visit. Since this is the travel philosophy I believe in, I was hoping their prices for this immersion experience would be similar to those David and I experienced.

In the company's most recent catalog, a one-week experience in Paris, in an apartment the company has chosen, plus a Metro and museum pass, costs $1769 per person. They also throw in a guidebook and some pre-trip planning advice. The catch is that the rate assumes two people share the same apartment, so the cost then becomes $3538 for two people for one week in Paris. (Note that no meals are included in this price.) That is $505 per day for two people. Again, David and I had the same Paris experience with a lovely apartment, a Metro and museum pass, plus three meals a day, on only $166 a day for both of us. That is a difference of $339 a day per couple and our budget included food!

One point I find particularly galling with tour companies is that a per person price is quoted, yet two people must occupy the same hotel room (or apartment in the case of the non-tour company) or pay an additional fee. If you are traveling solo and insist on a single-room accommodation, the supplemental charge is around $600. Yet, when hotels list their prices, rates are quoted per room, not per person. The hotel assumes one or two people will occupy a room; the rate remains the same even if only one person spends the night. Why is it, then, that the tour company charges a supplemental fee for single rooms? I can only assume it's because they make a large share of their profit from charging each person for a hotel room that is rented to them by the hotels for two people.

Truly, given the advantages of independent travel and the huge difference in price between a do-it-yourself independent trip and a tour company trip, I find it difficult to understand why anyone opts for an organized tour.

If it is fear that keeps you from planning your own travel, I hope that this blog will help alleviate your concerns. Although a lot of work is involved, David and I truly enjoy planning our own trips. Studying guide books and reading material on-line not only makes us better informed when we arrive, but those preparations also build anticipation. And, after all, isn't anticipation part of the fun of going some place? We also appreciate the money we save by doing it ourselves because that means more frequent travel to more places. An upcoming article will focus on the steps needed to plan your own trip.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

France on $70 a Day – The Bottom Line

The title of this series of articles is “France on $70 a Day,” and you're probably wondering if we succeeded in keeping our budget to this amount for each of us. The short answer is Yes! More or less. Let me explain.

When we began planning this trip, the dollar was $1.30 to the euro. We did most of our financial planning last January and February, and calculated and re-calculated our budget during those months. I knew, then, without doubt, that we could manage the trip on $70 US a day per person.

Unfortunately, by the time we left eight months later, it took $1.50 to equal one euro, a 15% increase. In other words, through no fault of our budgeting, the trip was more costly than anticipated before we even set foot on French soil. The $70 per day budget had increased 15% to $80.50 per day per person before we left home!

I probably should have changed the title of the series to France on $80 a day, but, optimist that I am, I kept expecting the euro to drop. Even on the plane, I was hoping for a miracle. Still, although the daily cost was more than we anticipated, I don't feel as though I misled anyone about the low-budget cost of the trip. Even $80 a day is still a tremendous bargain.

So, did we bring it in for $80 a day? Almost. We got very close. Before I give you the details, I must issue a disclaimer.

There were good reasons why I majored in English rather than math. Despite my best efforts at conviviality, numbers and I do not get along. But I have learned to accommodate this failing with certain coping mechanisms. For example, I gave up balancing a checkbook years ago and now devote my time to hoping for the best each month. (So far, this has worked well. The credit union and I are on very good terms.)

In France, I kept a little spiral notebook in my purse so I could record every day's expenditures. These figures were then transferred to a larger notebook each evening in hopes that this bookkeeping system would make end-of-the-trip analysis easy. It didn't. I spent several frustrating evenings adding up all the columns and getting a slightly different figure each time. After throwing the notebook on the floor and declaring I would never touch a calculator again, David, a business major, came to my rescue. He suggested an approach to calculating our expenses that made good sense and, more importantly, was easy.

I totaled the ATM deductions I'd made in France, adding the 1% international transaction fees and the 75 cent usage fees, for a total of $1733 US. Next, David suggested I subtract the euros I had left over, convert them to US dollars and subtract that from the total. The result is $1373. This figure represents every expenditure made while in France.

In going through my notebook, though, I did not think it right to include my personal costs in that tally. I bought gifts, souvenirs for myself, wine, the special cream for my leg rash, and indulged in ice cream a few too many times. It seemed appropriate to deduct those costs from the total because they vary so much from person to person. You might spend a lot more or considerably less than I did for those items. So, I subtracted $150 from $1377 for a total of $1227.

Next, of course, David told me I needed to add the pre-paid items for those reservations and deposits we'd made before leaving the States. They were
$152 for my train tickets, $150 for my half of the car rental, $104 for my share of the deposit on the Magenta Paris apartment, and half the $28 cost of the Ibis Hotel at the airport for a total of $434.

That makes the total amount I spent (David's figures are almost identical though we varied in what we spent on personal items.) in France to $1661. That figure includes my share of the cost for accommodations in Paris, the Dordogne and the airport; transportation costs for the Metro, taxi, train, boat, car, gasoline and toll roads; all grocery, bakery, and restaurant costs; and museum pass, museum or cave admissions,and tour fees.

We feel that this trip was one of the best either one of us has ever taken. We ate well (more about that later), saw every museum or site we had the time and energy to see, and stayed in some of the loveliest accommodations available. And we did it all for $83 per person a day! Yes, we did exceed the $80 we had budgeted (Remember the euro had increased before we left, so that proposed $70 a day morphed into $80 through no fault of our own.), but not by much. Here's how David and I feel about the amount we spent.

Yeah, we did it!

Practicalities -

Our http://www.beau-paris.com/apartment, the Magenta, cost 660 euros for ten nights.

Our gite country house http://www.visitperigord.com/ in the Dordogne Valley cost 290 euros plus a 22 euro booking fee for seven nights.

David insists you will want to know these things, so here are some additional figures, all in US dollars. We budgeted $234 for grocery costs (This includes items from bakeries and markets as well as food from more traditional grocery stores.) but spent a little less--$230.55. We used $147.20 of gasoline to drive 1,097 kilometers, and we spent $21.75 on toll roads.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

France on $70 a Day – Going Home

Our rule is to use public transportation in cities and rental cars in rural areas, and that maxim served us well this trip.

We arrived in Libourne with two hours to spare before catching the train. Driving through the French countryside was easy. The secondary roads in France, more sinuous than American roads because they follow nature's geographical curves rather than man's desire for straight stretches of pavement, have convenient spots so slow-moving traffic can occasionally pull over to let other drivers pass. That speeds travel on the two-lane roads, and the toll roads allow even faster driving.

Although they are only four lanes, you can maintain a steady speed because there seem to be fewer drivers on the toll autoroutes, and Frenchmen are courteous about moving back into the right-hand lane after passing. No one hogs the passing lane. And the aires, rest stop areas for gas refueling and food, every twenty kilometers or so, means you can stop frequently if you get weary.

Although the drive was relatively easy (We did get lost just a bit trying to find the car rental return office.), we were disheartened when we saw the rail station. The large depots in big cities have escalators or ramps so you can reach the platform you need without lugging your suitcases up and down stairs, but, unfortunately, Libourne had neither.

David counted the stairs down and another staircase back up to arrive at our platform, and was convinced he could manage two relatively heavy suitcases, two carry-ons, plus a large hand-held bag up and down the 32 steps. Since I didn't know how to say, Call the paramedics, in French, I suggested an alternative.

Every rail station in France has the capability to provide help to travelers. There's always a wheelchair somewhere in their office (This is how Mary got to her train when she broke her leg in Arles. See “Is Travel Medical Insurance Necessary?” published in the July blog articles.), and I'd noticed elderly tourists being helped with their luggage.

I went outside and to the back of the station where the tracks are and looked for the Accueil sign. (I think accueil means reception, but no matter. I knew that's where we'd find help.) Sure enough, a nice man said he understood our wanting to avoid emergency medical care. Then he plopped a railroad cap on his head, took down a chain barricade, and led us straight across the tracks themselves to the correct platform. We gave him a two euro tip which was a whole lot cheaper than a heart attack!

We had chosen to leave from Libourne because that particular TGV route ended at the Charles de Gaulle Airport, thus saving us an expensive taxi ride from the center of Paris, but we had a difficult time trying to find the waiting area for the shuttle. Signs were confusing because the airport has a shuttle to take travelers to various terminals, and we didn't know how to distinguish the hotel shuttle signs from the airport shuttle signs. After wandering about for half an hour, we finally found two other lost souls, and between us we finally figured out what to do. We followed the taxi signs because we assumed that the hotel shuttles would probably also depart from this point. Luckily, we were correct.

David and I settled into the Ibis Charles de Gaulle Paris Nord 2 Hotel, enjoyed an excellent dinner at the restaurant nearby, and slept well even though we were sad to be leaving this country we loved.

Breakfast at the Ibis the next morning was filling and delicious, the shuttle was prompt, and we were on the plane heading for California before we had much time to think about it.

Perhaps it was just as well that everything went quickly that last morning. We had no time for regrets and, instead, on the sixteen-hour trip home, we remembered only the pleasure we'd experienced in this beautiful country.

And at night, back in California when we studied the sky, we'd see the same stars and moon that had graced the night sky over France. That's the thought we held on to all the way home.

Practicalities -

There's a tremendous amount of advice about driving in France on this thread on the Slow Travel website

Never hesitate to ask for help at a train station if there are too many stairs and too much luggage involved in reaching your platform. Request aid at the ticket counter where the agent will refer you to the proper person, or go to the back of the building and look for the “Accueil” sign.

If you arrive at the rail terminal at CDG Airport, do not pay any attention to the shuttle signs. Take the elevator up to the fifth level. Go outside and you will find the hotel shuttle stop. It may take twenty minutes for your shuttle, or navette as they're called in France, to arrive since a dozen serve the many hotels, but it will pick you up eventually.

We were very pleased with our room at the two-star Ibis Charles de Gaulle Paris Nord 2 Hotel. It was compact but comfortable. We slept well because the beds were heavenly, and there was absolutely no noise from the nearby airport. We were also quite pleased with the price. We'd reserved our no-changes-allowed room on-line in August for 39 euros; paying in advance was advantageous because the marquee in front of the hotel advertised the room rate as 85 euros. We saved over 100% by reserving early.

As a general rule, the Accor hotel chain, of which Ibis is a part, provides comfortable accommodations throughout Europe. There are eleven or so different hotel chains offering accommodations ranging from the luxurious Sofitel, with high prices to match, all the way to the budget -friendly (Motel 6-type) Etap and Formule 1 chains. The Ibis, similar to Holiday Inn Express in the US, is a choice between those two extremes. See this site for more information.

Monday, October 12, 2009

France on $70 a Day – Last Day in the Dordogne

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

We'd been blessed with good weather on this trip—jacket weather in the cool mornings and evenings, and T-shirt weather in the hot afternoons—and our last day in the Dordogne was no exception. The day dawned bright and clear, but there was no time to linger on the terrace enjoying the sunshine as there were several items on our to-do list. We hurried into Sarlat.

After a twenty-minute walk, we found the Internet cafe where David wanted to double-check our driving directions (printed before we left home) to Libourne. We wanted to make sure we'd get to the EuropCar rental office on time tomorrow to return the Peugeot and it would help if, for once, we didn't get lost. It was closed. Next we stopped at the little complex where the gas station and Carrefour grocery store were located. Both were closed.

Then we remembered. It was Sunday and most of the people in France were enjoying spending time with their families. Since we didn't have much choice, we decided to do the same. We'd relax and enjoy our last day in this beautiful valley.

We drove into Les Eyzies and had lunch on the terrace of a restaurant we'd admired every time we'd visited the town. Then we headed home where we said goodbye to Donkey. We're probably the only tourists in France who had a donkey as a borrowed pet, but he came every time we called (the chunks of bread we fed him probably had something to do with his promptness), and we'd grown quite fond of him.

As we sat on the terrace eating some of the cheese we'd collected the past week (With hundreds to choose from, this country is a cheese-lovers paradise.), we tried to decide whether we were obligated to clean the gite. Stephanie, at the tourist office, had said we were not, but some of the gite information said renters did need to do this. We'd never seen Jean-Francois, the caretaker, again and certainly didn't want to bother him on a Sunday, so we decided to do a little cleaning in hopes that would suffice.

David swept while I cleaned the bathrooms and kitchen. We packed our belongings, said goodbye yet again to the geese and Donkey, and relocated the lizard, that regularly climbed into the bedroom through the open window, to the outdoors one last time. Our minimal chores were finished.

After a candle-lit dinner, we watched the stars one last time and concluded that maybe the French were on to something. This relaxing day, when we enjoyed the time with each other instead of Getting Things Done was one of the best we'd had during our entire trip. Yes, the French definitely had the right idea about Sundays.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Splitting Expenses

David and I split grocery and transportation costs (gasoline, toll roads) equally. Rather than tediously figuring who owes what with each transaction, we draw from the zippered pouch we use as a kitty. Each of us contributes $20 (or 20 euros or whatever denomination we're using) to the pouch, and shared expenses are withdrawn from this fund which is replenished as needed.

Friday, October 9, 2009

France on $70 a Day – A Unique World War II Memorial

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

In the small French village of Oradour, a town with three schools, bakeries, a blacksmith shop, and tailors, two hundred SS troops marched into the main street on 10 June 1944. They had already secured the only exits to the village so the townspeople, lacking any escape, were forced to follow the SS commands as the troops combed through the houses and shops.

The men of the town, 198 of them, were herded into barns while the women and children were forced into the local church. Told that the village was going to be searched for weapons, the men, who knew there were no weapons, were confident of a quick release. The children were encouraged to sing on their way to the church.

When the people were securely barricaded, the men were shot with machine guns and later, even though some were still clinging to life, burned. A bomb was thrown into the church to asphyxiate the 444 women and children, but it proved ineffective. The SS went in, shot their victims to subdue them, and then threw logs atop their prone, but still-conscious, bodies and lit a fire. Many of the SS watched the carnage from the windows of the church.

Although five men and one woman managed, despite injuries, to escape, the SS killed every one of the other 642 inhabitants. When they had finished murdering, the troops moved on to loot the houses and then burn down the entire village.

To this day, no one is sure what motivated the Nazis. Oradour was not part of the French Resistance. It was, up until 10 June 1944, one of the sleepiest and most peaceful villages in France.

David and I watched this historical horror story unfold via slides and narration, in the auditorium of the Centre de la Memoire, a memorial dedicated to the innocent victims of Oradour. We sat there, long after the credits had rolled by, wondering how it was possible for the SS to have treated these innocent people so cruelly. How could they have watched children burn to death? Two children's charred bodies had been found holding on to each other. What sort of monster could allow that to happen?

Lost in our thoughts, we slowly walked from the auditorium. Surely an atrocity of this type could never happen again. These SS were not human beings, but savages. Human beings could not have demolished an entire town and tortured the townspeople before killing them. Human beings would not stand outside church windows and listen to the screams and pleas of injured people slowly being burned to death. No, these Nazis were a breed apart, monsters who existed only during that devastating war.

David and I entered the next room which was dimly lit. As our eyes adjusted to the low light, we saw that parts of the glass floor were illuminated with what, at first glance, looked like headstones, but were, in fact, quotes from famous people about the atrocities of war.

As we studied them, I had the uneasy feeling that someone was behind me. Finally turning around, I saw that the entire back wall of this room was a mirror. And, there, David and I had our answer in the mirror's reflection. The Nazis were not monsters, not a breed apart, after all. They were, given the right conditions of time and place, just like you and me.



The village has been left just as it was in June, 1944, as a memorial to the people who died in the senseless war, while a second “new” Oradour has been built nearby.

The town is roughly twelve miles northwest of Limoges. Parking is free. You can only enter the Oradour ruins, at no cost, via the Memorial's gates, but if you decide to tour the Memorial first to learn of the events leading up to the massacre, the cost is 7.60 euros.

See this site for further information: http://www.oradour.info/

When we were there in September, there was another touring exhibition on display. We paid another 2 euros to view the Memorial to 9/11 where, among many artifacts, the misshapen cornerstone of the World Trade Centers, parts of the planes, and portions of the fence (that became a memorial at the site), were displayed.

I fought back emotions as I wandered through the room, but a painting by Italian artist Piero Capobianco brought tears. The Statue of Liberty, impaled on the cross created by the two World Trade Centers, reminded me, yet again, that atrocities are not limited to the distant past. Sadly, Oradour and New York City have a lot in common.

Painting by Piero Capobianco


Tightwad Travel Tip – Driving in France (without getting lost)

If you plan to travel far afield from your “home base,” as we did from Bordeaux to Sarlat and again from Sarlat to Oradour, it is helpful to use Google Maps.com, Mappy.com, or Via Michelin.com, to plan your driving directions. We also found it more practical to do this before we left home, with our own computers and printers, because it's often difficult to find the English version of these sites using European computers in Internet cafes. Using your own printer also means you won't pay a fee for printing copies at a cafe.

When you get the directions, be sure to get them coming AND going. You may think it would be easy to re-trace your steps, but it is all but impossible to do so. For example, exit 16 might be easy to find on the way to Oradour but impossible to locate on the return trip.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I forgot this important point for the return trip from Oradour, and, had it not been for a Portuguese truck driver in an aires (the French rest stop with a service station and restaurant located every 20 kilometers or so along toll autoroutes) who spoke excellent English and knew how to read maps better than we did, we might still be driving around the Dordogne countryside.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

France on $70 a Day – The Dordogne Valley

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

The Dordogne Valley, with whole towns seemingly carved out of the steep limestone cliffs flanking the river, is stunning whether viewed from a car or a bike, but perhaps the best way to appreciate the scenery is from a boat. The river provides the vantage point of traveling the boundary that, during The Hundred Years War, separated French territory from the English. The Beynac boat tour offers an ideal way to see the French and English castles that faced each other across the river banks. In two kilometers, there are five castles: Fayrac, Castelnaud, Marqueyssac, Beynac and Milandes.

We wished we'd had time to explore Castelnaud and its museum of medieval weaponry, built in the 1400s and refurbished over the past 35 years; and Milandes, owned by American Josephine Baker who raised twelve children of different nationalities there, but we had time only to see Beynac Castle.

We found a little cafe in town where we had the only unpleasant encounter during the whole trip. Usually restaurants are happy to supply, for free, a chilled carafe of water with two glasses. This man, though, said--No carafes d'eau--and pointed to a sign on the wall that prohibited bringing in your own drinks. I put my water bottle back in my purse. After reprimanding us, the owner smiled and asked what we'd like to drink with our meal. He seemed surprised when we said we wanted nothing.

Despite the unpleasantness of the owner, David and I enjoyed our meal before we started arguing about how to reach Beynac Castle itself. He wanted to hike twenty minutes through town and up a relatively steep hill, while I preferred to drive. By this time on our vacation, my whole body, not just my feet, ached. I tried to save energy for the sites themselves rather than expend energy getting to them. David finally agreed with me, and we drove up and up and up to park, free, just a few hundred yards from the castle itself.

David's photo of Beynac Castle

We paid 7.65 each for tickets and an English-language brochure (There are no free brochures.) describing the property. Beynac Castle, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, and owned by the English—Richard the Lionheart from 1189-1199—and the French, is now a historic monument that is privately owned.

We were impressed by the huge rooms, a floor made of pise, paving made of stones resembling teeth which are nailed into the floor bed, and a stunning spiral staircase, but it was the view from the top level keeps and terraces which took our breath away. At 450 feet above the river, the vista of river and valley was one of the most beautiful we'd seen. It was obvious that the owners of these castles, who built atop the highest cliffs, would have had no difficulty seeing approaching enemies.

The view from the top.

In order to see where the peasants lived, we moved on to La Roque-Gageac, a town so picture-perfect it's difficult to believe it's not a set for a Disney theme park. The oatmeal-colored buildings cling to the cliff, seemingly protected by an escarpment, and there's only one way to reach them—by going up.

David's photo

The tourist office gave us a map directing us to climb a staircase which led to a tropical garden, possible because of the micro-climates existing in this part of France; a lovely rustic church; the home of a long-time resident of La Roque; and troglodyte caves.

David's photo
Finishing up our visit by sitting in a outdoor cafe, eating our ice cream cones while staring at this village ranked one of the prettiest in France, was a great way to end the day.

David's photo

Practicalities -

The 50-minute Gabarres de Beynac river tour, 7.50 euros, departs from the dock located near the free public parking area in town.

From the town of Beynac, you can walk or drive to the castle. The tourist office will provide you with a map and directions.

Perhaps because it was not prime tourist season, parking was not a problem in either Beynac or La Roque-Gageac. Evidently the towns are doing their best, though, to encourage visitors because parking was free in both locations.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Items We Wish We'd Taken

On our most recent trip to France, there were two items we wish we'd tucked into our suitcases. We would have liked a small roll of tape to repair maps; our wonderful Paris city map was torn in three places after only a few days. We also wish we'd had one of those tiny staplers, because it would have helped us attach receipts to brochures and organize our papers.

Tightwad Travel Tip – Item We're Glad We Packed

Tightwad Travel Tip – Item We're Glad We Packed

We packed a small, 5X7 inch, yellow legal pad and used it for a couple important purposes. In Paris, David noted our Metro route on a sheet each day so we wouldn't have to re-think our connections. Having a paper with the Metro stops clearly defined was especially helpful at the end of a long, tiring day. In the Dordogne, we used it to record our driving route each day. We still consulted maps, but it was easier to find our way with a tentative route in hand. We also used the pad to list items we needed from the grocery store or market.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

France on $70 a Day – Font de Gaume Cave

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

Last night we took chairs outside to study the sky. It was an especially clear night with little light from the new moon. When we both saw the shooting star, we knew it was a good luck sign commemorating our 21-month anniversary. (Okay, so maybe nobody else would have thought so, but, then, it was our shooting star so we still stand by our interpretation!)

This morning we got ready for our second trip back in time. We had tickets, purchased from the Tourist Bureau in Sarlat three days ago, to the Font de Gaume cave. It is necessary to purchase tickets in advance because only 180 visitors are allowed per day. Even with this limitation, our English-speaking guide hinted that it might close, too, eventually, if the cave develops the same problems that closed Lascaux.

Knowing this cave is the only one of its type (the others are Lascaux in Montignac, France, and Altimira in northern Spain) still open to the public adds a certain excitement to the visit. And, even though the Lascaux II reproduction—called the Sistine Chapel of Caves—may have been more vivid, we were looking at the actual drawings made by man over 19,000 years ago.

Our guide was particularly reverential in the cave, implying, as had the Lascaux guide, that the cave drawings probably had a spiritual purpose for Cro-Magnons. At one point, he stood silently to allow us the opportunity to absorb the knowledge that we were staring at drawings our ancestors had made thousands of years ago. What compelled these people to communicate will always remain a mystery, I suppose, but I will never forget the connection I felt to them that day in the dark cave.

Wanting to know still more about our ancestors, David and I headed to the Musee National de Prehistoire just up the road a mile or so in Les Eyzies. This lovely and unusual museum, seemingly hewn from the cliff itself, traces the history of mankind's development over the past 400,000 years. There are English information sheets in every section to help you understand the many displays.

As we studied the rocks, called flakes, that early man used for cutting and for weapons, I was struck by this comment from the information sheet:

What distinguishes man is not walking on two feet (chickens do, too) but
the refusal to accept biological limitations. Man uses tools to shape his
existence and maneuver the world's resources for his uses......tools
indicate that there was, consciously or not, a refusal to accept the place
in nature determined by biology: an evolved primitive primate transforms
materials to his needs and endows it, through cleverness, with a power
inaccessible to his own body.

We looked at as many displays as we could before hunger drove us back to the car for our ham and cheese croissant sandwiches. After finishing lunch on a pleasant park bench, we explored Les Eyzies, a one-street tourist town, in hopes of finding a memento of this special day.

We discovered a store, owned by an archaeologist, that sold remarkable, to us at least, fossilized creatures trapped in rocks millions of years ago for reasonable prices. David bought a sea-oursin (looks like a sand dollar) which is 165 million years old, and I got an orthoceras (ancestor of the cuttlefish) which is 380 million years old.

With much to think about, we let our car meander through the countryside to Le Bugue, a pleasant but not remarkable town, and then headed back to our home in the countryside.

Because only 180 visitors are allowed to visit Font de Gaume daily, it is necessary to make reservations in advance. Purchase your tickets from a tourist bureau in the area, or before you go by telephone (33-05) or by fax, (33-05) The ticket costs 7.50 euros and entitles you to a 1.50 euro discount (3.50 instead of 5 euros) at the nearby Musee National de Prehistoire.

Note that there is a steep climb to reach the cave that some visitors might find too difficult. It might be wise to check the ascent before you make reservations because no refunds are given. Also, cyclists should note that bike shoes are not allowed in the cave.

We were not allowed to take photos inside the cave, but this site displays many and provides more information.

Tightwad Travel Tip – Night Lights

David and I are blind without our glasses or contacts. Rather than stumble around a dark vacation accommodation at night, we use small three-inch-long flashlights to find our way if we must get up. The tiny flashlights provide just enough light to find the bathroom without awakening a sleeping partner.

Monday, October 5, 2009

France on $70 a Day – Sarlat-la-Caneda

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

To celebrate our 21-month anniversary today, we ate breakfast in town at one of the bakeries where you place your order at the counter and then enjoy your petit dejeuner at one of the tables on the sidewalk. Then we wound our way through the market-day streets clogged with merchants selling bread, wine, cheese, pastries, herbs, paintings, and wine to the tourist bureau for the tour of the town.

Our English-speaking guide led us through the historic center of this town that's existed since Gallo-Roman times. It was the first town to benefit from culture minister Andre Malraux's law which was designed to protect and preserve historic buildings, and, thanks to a major restoration, it is now perhaps the best representative of a town from 14th century France. I could write more, but it's probably best to experience this beautiful town in photos.

Practicalities -

The English-language tour is offered every Wednesday at 11:00. Go to the tourist bureau around 10:45 to pay your 5 euro fee and then wait outside for the guide.

Tightwad Travel Tip – Secure and Unique Way to Carry Money

On his first trip to Europe, David's greatest fear was being robbed. After weeks of research, he packed a neck pouch as well as a money belt, but both of them proved unsuitable for different reasons.

He used the neck pouch only two days because it chafed and added a strange protrusion to his chest. The cumbersome waist money belt didn't work much better. At the end of one long, exhausting day when he was reaching for the belt to pay for some dinner croissants, he found himself absent-mindedly undoing his jeans zipper while trying to get to his money. The money belt certainly kept his cash secure, but being arrested for indecent exposure would be too high a price to pay!

That night he developed a solution that worked beautifully for the rest of the trip. He inserted his belt in the cord that held the neck pouch and then wrapped the cord several times around his belt. (Use a belt that's the same color as the pouch cord if you can.) Making sure he left enough slack to allow easy use, he slipped the neck pouch deep into his front jeans pocket.

This technique worked beautifully. The pouch was easy to reach in David's front pocket, but it was secured by the looped-many-times-around-the-belt cord. Also, the unusual position (David usually carries a wallet in his back pocket.) was comfortable yet kept him aware of the wallet's whereabouts. I suppose a pickpocket could have tried to rip the wallet out of David's front pocket, but he would have had to drag a 6'5” man behind him to get away with it!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

France on $70 a Day – Lascaux Cave II and Forte de Reignac

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

We slept so well that it was almost 8:00 before we got up, and then we had to scurry to reach the cave site before the office ran out of tickets. Our most important reason for visiting this valley of prehistory was to study what we could of Cro-Magnon man, and our first stop would be, perhaps, the most famous cave, Lascaux II.

We drove to Montignac where we easily found free parking and a short walk to the ticket office. The clerk assured us we'd be able to get to the 11:45 tour because the caves were only a five-minute drive away. She was right.

We joined the small group of fifteen or so and were led into the cave reproduction by our English-speaking guide. She explained that the caves were discovered in September, 1940, by some fourteen-year-old boys. When they rescued the dog, Robot, that had fallen down a hole, they stumbled upon the cave. The boys' vow to keep the cave a secret lasted all of a few days (They were fourteen-year-olds after all.), and soon archaeologists and scientists were studying these amazing 16,000 year old drawings.

The cave opened to the public in 1948 but was closed in 1963. Visitors' shoes were tracking in contaminants, and the breath of so many guests was causing damage to the paintings. In the mid-70s, though, when it was decided that a re-creation of the caves could be made available to the public, work began on Lascaux II.

The caves were painstakingly reproduced using resin and modern materials, and then one artist labored six years to create the drawings and etchings. The artist discovered the methods used by Cro-Magnon painters and employed them herself in the re-creation. One technique involved putting the pigment material in her mouth to mix with saliva and then blowing the result on the cave wall. Obviously, she was dedicated to her craft.

As we stood in Lascaux II, which surely is every bit as fascinating as the actual cave, our guide explained that Cro-Magnon man lived outside in the forest and used the cave walls for his art. Scaffolding must have been used because the drawings are high up on the walls, with light provided by primitive animal-fat “candles.” It is assumed, because of certain variances in style, that five artists created the drawings and signs that depict bison and the almost-extinct oryx. In the Lascaux cave, there is only one drawing of a human figure and no depictions of the deer that was hunted for food. No one knows why the artists chose the subjects they did for their drawings, but our guide hinted that there must have been a spiritual reason.

After leaving the cave, we blinked outside in the sunlight as we thanked our guide and gave her a 2 euro tip. Much as we'd loved seeing Lascaux II, we were anticipating our drive down the sinuous D 706 and whatever surprises it might hold for us.

We ate our picnic lunch on the grounds of a castle—there seems to be a castle every few miles in the Dordogne—then drove on until we reached the Maison Forte de Reignac.

This unusual castle, built high up on the cliff under an escarpment, has been home to man for 20,000 years. The brochure says it is, “...the only monument in France of the 'Chateau Falaise' type totally intact and preserved in exceptional condition, with period furnishings throughout.” It was not open to the public until 2006, so David and I felt almost like pioneers as we climbed the hill to reach the entrance.

The View from the Upper Floors

The entire back of the mansion is a cliff, of course, with walls and floors added to the front to comprise the mansion built during Louis XIV's time. We saw dining rooms, living rooms, kitchens and even a tiny chapel and a dungeon. The period furniture was fascinating, and I was particularly intrigued by the huge chair, beside the lady of the house's bed, that contained the chamberpot. She evidently had one of the first en suite bathrooms!

The En Suite Bathroom

After leaving the mansion, we toured the exhibition space next door which housed items of torture from the Middle Ages to today. This traveling exhibition, which has been shown in Mexico, San Francisco, Tokyo, Madrid, and Florence, contains authentic instruments of torture and execution. The aim of the presentation is to make people aware of the use of torture; judging by David's and my horrified response, the presentation certainly succeeded.

When we go outside tonight, I hope we'll forget the worst man can do with torture devices, and think, instead, of the beauty he can create with cave paintings. Cro-Magnon artists don't have much in common with David and me, but I'll bet we both looked at the same stars. That's what I want to remember tonight.


For a thorough explanation of Lascaux, see http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/#/en/00.xml
Tickets must be purchased in the village of Montignac (not at the tourist bureau but close by), 8.50 euros, and the cave is a short drive away.

For a brief explanation of Maison Fort de Reignac, see
http://scenicdordogne.com/Forte_de_Reignac__g67.htmlTickets were 6.50.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

France on $70 a Day - Finding a Gite

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

After a fitful night's sleep, we were out the door before 8:00 this morning. On a side street cafe in Sarlat, David and I discussed our options over coffee and croissants. We really didn't have many choices, though, as a hotel would have been too much for our budget and not provided any of the amenities we needed, like a kitchen and washing machine, and a large house rental would have been prohibitively expensive. Still, no matter how reasonably priced, we knew we did not want to spend another night, let alone a week, in Tapis Vert 2.

Fortunately, I remembered that the tourist bureaus in most French towns help travelers find accommodations. As we finished our petit dejeuner (Doesn't that sound more romantic than breakfast?), we decided to try our luck at that office. We hoped to find a gite that would work for us.

I'd been studying gites (pronounced zheet and rhyming with beet) for some time and knew there were many English websites that listed particularly desirable ones, but we had neither the time nor a computer for a thorough search. Still, a gite would be the perfect answer for us. Though the term originally referred to rudimentary shelters, gites today can be converted barns or workers' cottages which offer basic one-star accommodations all the way up to luxurious four-star mansions with swimming pools and tennis courts. Gites are usually located in rural areas far from public transportation, but that typically is not a problem for travelers since a car is required to visit the more bucolic areas of France anyway. There's further reassurance about this type of accommodation because the French government encourages the development of gites to improve tourism, and they require gite owners to comply with their rules, regulations and insurance requirements.

We were first in line when the tourist office doors opened and were quickly being helped by Stephanie, who spoke fluent English. We told her what we needed—a place with a kitchen, a washing machine and a bit of charm—and she found three choices. The one we chose was a two-star gite, ideally situated midway between the towns of Sarlat and Les Eyzies, with two bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, washing machine, and garden terrace with picnic table. The cost was 290 euros for the week, plus a 22 euro processing fee. This translates to 44.57 euros a night which, for each of us, amounted to 22 or so euros per night. That's less expensive than most hostel rooms!

We paid the fees, got a map, and walked out of the office somewhat dazed. We had been going to pay 400 euros a week for the shabby, 484 square foot Tapis Vert 2 in Sarlat, but now we had a veritable mansion of 1184 square feet for 88 euros less per week. More square feet, another bedroom and bathroom, and $127 US less money! Now all we could do was hope the place was as charming as Stephanie had made it sound. David muttered that he hoped we hadn't gone from the frying pan into the fire. Before we could find out, though, we had to settle up with Pierre-Henri and give him the unpleasant news that we would be leaving.

We found him outside his chambres d'hote, the historic La Maison du Notaire Royal, in central Sarlat and explained our problem; the apartment was not what we expected and David kept hitting his head on the bathroom doorway. Pierre-Henri was gracious and accepted our explanation and the 56 euros we gave him for last night's stay.

After we shopped for groceries at the Carrefour, we drove the seven kilometers to the easy-to-find gite just off the main road. We'd been told the caretaker would be waiting for us. Jean-Francois led us through the house, not speaking a word of English, but explaining by gesture and demonstration how to operate the washing machine, stove and heating system. When he left, David and I whooped with joy.

We were in a simple, rustic farmhouse that was exactly what we were hoping for. The rooms were huge and furnished simply with beautiful, sturdy antiques. There were two sets of French doors in the dining room and one set in the living room leading to the terrace, so sunshine flooded the whole house. But, at night, when we wanted privacy and darkness, there were wooden shutters we could close.

We sat at the picnic table for a minute admiring our view of the rolling hills in front of us and the pond, complete with four geese, on our left. David, always a country boy at heart, was so excited I thought he'd never unpack. In fact, as I write this now, he's been out for an hour taking photographs of the entire property. Every once in a while, he pops back in to tell me of a new discovery—There are horses and a donkey out back beyond the fence! The road in the distance must lead to a small village! There are fish in the pond! Tonight, he tells me, because there's a new moon and will be little light, we'll be able to see all the stars.

The city of Paris dazzled us with her many charms, and, now, I guess, it's Mother Nature's turn.

We'll sleep well tonight.

Our Pond at Dusk

Practicalities -
Gites can be wonderful and inexpensive accommodations. There are many websites dedicated to helping you find the right place for your vacation. You can also access the French government's site at http://www.gites-de-france.com/gites/uk/rural_gites
If you'd like to take a look at the gite we called home for a week, here's the link. Enter this number in the direct access blank 04 0050 in the lower right hand corner of the page.

Friday, October 2, 2009

France on $70 a Day - On to the Dordogne

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

Sundays have travel disadvantages because most shops, restaurants, and car rental agencies are closed, but one advantage is that there is little traffic on usually busy city streets. Instead of taking forty-five minutes to get to the Montparnasse Rail Station, the taxi took only twenty and cost just 20 euros, not the expected 25-30.

David and I were there early, but that did not prove to be an advantage. While you can find your platform number ahead of time in the smaller train stations,--at least an hour in advance--in the larger stations, the voie, or platform number, is not listed until twenty minutes before boarding. Then there's a mad scramble to validate your ticket in one of the machines (Don't forget to do this as an unstamped ticket results in a fine.), find your coach number, and heft the suitcases into the train. We sat around for an hour, bored and restless, and then rushed to get on the train.

The train system in France is impressive, but one area ripe for improvement is the system of numbering coaches. The coaches do not progress in an orderly numerical fashion, so finding your coach can be confusing. Number five might be followed by twelve. You must find the right coach, though, because often a train "splits" by leaving some cars behind. If you're not in the right car, you might find yourself in Poitiers instead of Bordeaux!

So, use the coding system you will find on the platform itself. This electronic bar organizes the coach numbers and groups them with letters so you can find the general area of your coach. For example, coaches 10, 11, 12 and 13 will be in section "C." Once you know what area you need, consult the letters you see posted alongside the train platform and go to that section. (In this example, the corresponding letter C.) Once you're in that section, and looking only at three or four coach numbers instead of forty coach numbers in the train, it becomes much easier to find the one you need.

The TGV, fast train, is a joy to ride. There's ample seating in second class, especially when compared to airline seating, and there's a club car with a bar and restaurant. Of course, we had our own sandwiches (croissants with ham and Emmentaler cheese), but it was a pleasure to "picnic" while watching the countryside speed by.

Our Peugeot 207 was ready and waiting for us in Bordeaux, and after getting a map and checking out the car for dings, we set off. I hadn't driven a stick for five years, but the car shifted so effortlessly, I had no problem driving.

I did have problems, though, with heavy rain (Note that the speed limit on toll highways is twenty miles slower during inclement weather. 110 k instead of 130)and toll booths. I didn't realize that when I approached the toll booths, I should have entered one of the ones on the left. I went to the far right one which turned out to be an exit. After ten miles, with David constantly consulting the map and saying, "I think we're on the wrong road." we realized our mistake and backtracked to get on the toll road again. It was supposed to be a two-hour drive to Sarlat, but it took us three.

Entering Sarlat at dusk was also frustrating. This beautiful, medieval city is lovely to look at and amazingly easy to get lost in! We finally gave up trying to find the Toulemon Gite and parked near the center of town at a hotel. The hotel let me borrow the phone and Pierre-Henri was quick to walk over to find us. Turns out we were only a block away, but it might as well have been a dozen. We would never have found the place on our own.

Pierre-Henri graciously led us to the apartment and flipped on lights and the refrigerator, explaining the door locks as he went. When he left, though, and David and I were alone in the apartment, we were disappointed. The Toulemon gites in the center of town were highly recommended, but this apartment just 300 meters away was not what we expected. The "living room" had two single beds with one wicker chair and a table. Low wattage lights dangled precariously from the ceiling. The bathroom doorway was so low, 6'5" David hit his head every time he went through it. The window blind in the "living room" fell down if you tried to raise or lower it, and the rest of the rooms (only a kitchen and a bedroom) had lacy curtains that would not shield us from the sun or prying eyes.

The Living Room

We put sheets on the bed and knew, when we discovered the pillows, that this place would not work for us. The pillows seemed to be a hundred cotton balls gathered in a cloth covering. Neither one of us felt like punching our pillows into some semblance of normalcy every night.

We walked into town where, at 9:00 at night, we could not find a single open restaurant. We sat on the plaza sharing a beer to discuss our situation. Pierre-Henri had been kind to us, every e-mail had confirmed his pleasant disposition, and he'd even offered to fetch us from the train station in Sarlat for free before our plans changed. He hadn't even asked for a deposit for our eight-day stay. Still, as nice as he'd been, we knew we could not stay in that apartment. After just having come from Paris, where we had every amenity that made us feel so at home, this place in Sarlat was an especially disappointing place.

We slowly climbed the cobblestone street back to the apartment worrying the questions over and over again. Would we have to stay in a hotel that would destroy our budget for the trip? Would it be possible to find an apartment on such short notice? How would we explain to Pierre-Henri that we could not stay in his gite? If he demanded a significant penalty for cancelling our reservation, would we be stuck in that awful place?

Maybe tomorrow, when we're fresher, we'll find some answers.