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.

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