A Travellerspoint blog

Paris Day 1

Day 1. A two hour trip to Gare Montparsse in Paris on the SCNF fast train. Fast they may well be (320 kms per hour) but well-designed they are not. Pathetic allowance for baggage and overhead storage compartments that no average backpack could be accommodated in. Even the regional train in northern France was better equipped! The net result is that in a quarter-full carriage there were bags all over the place as everyone fought for storage space. Why they could not copy the Italian TGV trains I don't know, I would hate to see the chaos in a full train! We arrived at a very busy Paris station and caught a taxi to our accommodation in Rue Pont Neuf which is close to the Louvre. The hotel has been modernised and is very nice and has the fanciest toilet (see photo) we have ever seen - yes a heated seat is just the start! We unpacked and headed out to scout the city out. There was a tourism office just around the corner so we purchased 24 hour hop-on-hop-off bus tickets. We hopped on and went for about a third of the tour and got off at Champs Elysee close to the Arc de Triomphe. We had a bite to eat then headed up the the Arc and paid to walk the 284 steps to the top for some spectacular views. We caught the bus back but unfortunately both Julie & Pat were feeling a bit off colour and so the rest of the tour was a bit of a non-event for them and we will need to do it again. There are just so many iconic buildings and landmarks it hard to take in. We will see what tomorrow brings but our wish list includes a trip to Versailles, a Seine River cruise, going to the Louvre, going up to the top of the Eiffel Tour and doing a Paris by Night tour. We have three days and hopefully we are all up to it!

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Thursday 17th. We had a quite leisurely start to the day - which was good considering it was raining and just eased off as we trudged the 100 mtrs to Gare Lille Flandres station where we had breakfast before boarding the train to Bordeaux. The trip to Bordeaux took about four and three quarter hours. These trains are fast! The hum along (with virtually no swaying and are so quiet) at close to 200 miles per hour. Cars on the motorways look like they are going at a snails pace. Bordeaux station was a bit chaotic. Hard to find the taxi stand and when we got there it looked like there was a queue of people and no taxis. The line was actually for an adjacent bus stop but it was hard to tell. Accordingly we booked a taxi but had to wait 15 minutes for it as other taxis came and went. We could not get Uber on Johns mobile but did so shortly after we booked the taxi - Murphy's Law! The hotel is an apartment/hotel and has a kitchen and even a small dishwasher! We ventured out immediately as it was already close to 6pm and figured out a 24 hour pass on the trams at euros 4.60 each was good value - and so it proved to be. We caught the tram to the middle of Rue du St Catherine (2.3 miles straight, wide boulevard and vehicle-free) and wandered up to the Place de la Victorie before we had a shandy at a nearby bar (they actually sold Monteiths but the language barrier meant Patrick ended up with a local St Moritz instead). Julie & John had a shandy. We took a tram back to look at Cathedrale St Andre and Palais Rohan, both pretty impressive and then another tram back to the hotel for freshen up before heading out again by tram to the top of Rue du St Catherine where we went to a chinese wok place for dinner. We then wandered back down the boulevard before catching trams back to the hotel.
Friday 18th. Patrick awoke feeling a little under the weather and we were all a bit jet-lagged so we were a bit late in getting going. It was also looking a bit foreboding with rain and thunderstorms forecast. We had booked a wine tour for the afternoon going to St Emillion, one of the premier appellations in Bordeaux. We grabbed the trams out to the new Cite du Vin which is a fantastic new building celebrating Bordeaux wines and wine culture. We also took in the newish Pont Jacques Choban-Demas which is actually a new draw-bridge with four massive architecturally designed towers used to hoist the bridge up. We then walked along the riverside shopping centre which has a lot of outlet shops, mostly up market. It had started to rain so we took shelter in a brioche café where we had some nice mini-baguettes. It had stopped raining when the tour was due to start. It was a small tour with three Aussies, an Irishman and us three. Our guide was a young man called Yan who turned out to be an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. He explained at length the history and virtues of Bordeaux’s wines and the differences in the various appellations. He took us to Chateau La Croizille which is a ‘Grand Cru’ and hopes its wines to be ‘Grand Cru Classique’ in the near future. These are the top tier of producers in Bordeaux. We had a tour of the winery and sampled four different wines ranging from 2008 to 2013 vintages. The host at this Chateau, Carlos was also very engaging and personable. Yan then took us to the beautiful old town of St Emillion and lead us through some of the quieter streets not frequented by too many tourists before joining the madding throng in the main town centre. We then ventured to the Pomerol appellation and visited Chateau Chantecaille where we had another winery tour and sampled a further three wines all from their 2014 vintage. Yan had also prepared us some nibbles here of cheese and meats and bread which went down a treat. This tour took a little over five hours and we thought Yan was extremely professional and the tour was great. We got back just after 7pm and returned to the hotel by trams, taking in another amazing sight, the Place de la Bourse on the River Garonne waterfront on the way. We assembled our own light dinner with cheeses and meats from the local supermarket. Patrick and John ventured out later to get an ice-cream each. We leave Bordeaux for Paris tomorrow convinced that we would all like to come back again someday.

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Monday 14th,. Having decided that Amsterdam to Bruges by train with four transfers (two with 7 minute and 9 minute transfer connection windows) was too fraught with 'issues' (even free with Eurorail Pass) we decided to go by bus so we booked on Eurolines. It meant a two hour earlier start (8am) but the prospect of lugging our bags around railway stations we knew nothing about trying to get to connections meant we were prepared to trade that for one mode of transport - even if it took two hours longer. As it was Belgium roads are horrendously busy (or inadequate) and it seemed every city we went through had 'peak hour' issues even in late morning/early afternoon! Accordingly we were 30 minutes late into Bruges, arriving at 14:15, but unfrazzled - which was the point! The drop off was the central station and we got a minvan to the hotel. The driver was Iraqi who said he had carried plenty of Kiwis and Aussies in Bruges. We needed to find a laundry so that was the first order of business. We found one not too far away and having got that sorted we went to look at central Bruges. Seems it has been discovered by the tourists! Thousands of them - mainly Poms from what we could ascertain. The town is old and has fantastic old buildings and a canal system that unfortunately doesn't seem to have any flow - you certainly would not want to fall into it! However the charm of an old city with such history and charm can't be denied! We had a cappuccino at a chocolate store and then went to put the clothes in the dryer before another walk around town. This took us into some quieter parts but gave us a better idea of the layout and residential varieties. We collected our clothes (John found some red wine at a local store whilst we waited) and went back to the Hotel. John then went to find a supermarket to see if he could get some wine glasses but only came back with plastic cups but had bought a bottle of Martini Rosso and some Sprite for Julie. We then adjourned to the garden and John & Patrick proceeded to deal to the wine and Julie put a dent in the Martini! After a freshen up we went out for dinner. There is no shortage of eateries here, particularly around the main square. We chose a Lebanese called Amon close to our hotel. The food was great and reasonably priced. We strolled around Bruges central afterwards and admired the beautifully-lit old buildings.

Tuesday 14th. Awoke to thunder & lightning and heavy rain on and off. A late arising, as we had no imperative to get up early. Pat had got up somewhat earlier and gone for a walk. We ventured out around 10:30 and we were luckily in McDonalds having breakfast when what proved to be last downpour occurred. It was coolish but not uncomfortable. We went to the main museum and took in a very creative and enjoyable recreation of life in Bruges in the 1400s. We then had another wander through and around the town for a couple of hours enjoying the various buildings and canals and architectural features of the old city, before having a late lunch at 3:30. Then back to the hotel for a siesta (Pat) whilst John caught up with work and Julie, social media. We went for another walk around 3pm taking in more parts of the city we had missed and decided to share a bottle of Cote de Rhone at a sunny cafe as the sun poked its head out late in the day. We returned to the Square for a quick meal before retiring as we have another early start to Lille and Le Quesnoy tomorrow. One major disappointment in Belgium was not being able to find a Belgian biscuit!

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Lille & Le Quesnoy

Wednesday 16th. Boy what a jamb-packed day this turned out to be! We had decided on an early start to try and squeeze a trip to Le Quesnoy whilst in Lille. To accommodate train schedules we caught the 8:05 from Bruges. An early arrival in Lille gave us some flexibility. Luckily our hotel was also only 100 metres from the station. We dropped our bags and went for a walk and had breakfast at a café near the main square. We then walked around some more, called into the Tourist Info Office and decided we would do the one hour ‘City tour’ by bus at 12 noon. We walked around a few more outskirts before hopping on the bus for a 16km ride around the city. It is certainly a city of diversity – magnificent old buildings and magnificent new ones. Lille is the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle and there are historical references to this of course. It appears to be quite a clean place especially around the town centre but had some ‘seedy’ areas as well. Quite a few homeless and beggars. We caught the train to Le Quesnoy at 13:35 to see the town the NZ troops liberated in one of the last actions of WW I. The kiwis scaled the city walls using ladders and totally caught the Germans by surprise and they surrendered quickly after holding the town for four years. There are plenty of references to this including a street named Rue De Nouvelle Zealande and a memorial. They hold a service on the 4th of November each year to commemorate the town’s liberation. Well worth the visit. We got back to Lille around 5pm and Julie & John decided to hire bikes to try and ride around the Parc del la Citadel which is a large area adjacent to the main city centre. After a couple of hairy moments negotiating tight city streets we got out to the park and had a lovely ride around the canal, old city ramparts and tree-lined wide pathways which were being shared with heaps of joggers, walkers and cyclists. We found our way back with less hassle after about 90 minutes riding and showered before getting a meal (yet another underwhelming one) at one of the Brassieres’ in the square. Given we didn’t have to get up early we didn’t hit the hay until around midnight. Bordeaux tomorrow.

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Friday 11th. Our bus left at 8:45 to connect to a canal tour boat which took us on a guided tour around the Amsterdam canals. The buildings are amazing – some a tad lopsided as their piles have given way (The call them ‘dancing houses’ here). The canals and bridges offer some lovely photo opportunities and as usual we took plenty! The canal boat then dropped us at a diamond factory before we had a guided walking tour back to the city centre. We passed a lot of Amsterdam history on these tours – Anne Franks house, the old Jewish quarter and some magnificent old ‘gentry’ houses that are so valuable now only companies can afford to operate in them. There were also remnants of the previous week’s Gay Festival still in evidence. Apparently it is huge. We also passed a number of ‘Coffee Shoppes’ experiencing an overwhelming smell of weed emanating from within. We also skirted the red light district. We went back to the boat for lunch and then took another bus ride out to see the windmills, cheese factory and clog makers. This was another worthwhile excursion. The windmills are now owned by a society but are kept in commercial production and whilst clearly no longer commercially-viable the tourist trade will certainly be paying for the upkeep. Windmills are amazing constructions and to think they are nearly 400 years old and can still function is fantastic. The cheese making demonstration was a bit weak but the cheese itself was very nice! The demonstration of the making of a clog was also good – it was hard to believe the amount of water that the maker ‘blew’ out of the raw clog after forming it on two lathes – apparently they then duty them for three weeks. We had the ‘bistro’ dinner this evening with Richard & Robyn from Hawkes Bay and Fred & Sandy from Brisbane. It was a real treat, every one of the 10 or so dishes was a delight and we all left the table fully sated! Hopefully we will be able to stay in touch with these couples as we had a lot of fun with them on and off board the boat.

Saturday 12th. Awoke to a miserable morning in Amsterdam. Raining and dreary. We had breakfast and then awaited our taxi to transfer to hotel at 9:30. The taxi, organised by Avalon was a rip-off. 25 euros for a trip that should have been 10 max! Fortunately our hotel is right next to the central rail station so we won’t need a taxi to get there on Monday. We went to the station to check our trip to Bruges and found its three transfers (Antewerp, Brussells, Ghent) so a bit of a mission. We decided to check a bus option and grabbed a tram, missed the drop-off point and decided to stay on for the ride as it was peeing down. We went out to the outskirts of Amsterdam and back again and eventually found the Eurolines office only to find it closed. An online check showed there was a bus but it left from another station at 8am – we decided that was a no-goer and we would stick with the train option. We then visited the Royal Palace which is open to the public when not used for state duties. It was originally the town call but was converted by Naploeon (Bonaparte’s brother) in 1810 to his palace and after he left in 1812 it was given by the City to Wilhem III. It was given back to the city at some point. It is an amazing building inside (once described as the 8th Wonder of the world. Fabulous sculptures, paintings, marble floors and walls, Emperine (French Naploenic) furniture, wall coverings and drapes. It was easy to spend an hour or more here just gaping at the ostentatiousness of it all. I am sure the visiting dignitaries appreciate it. After that we visited the Sex Museum for a laugh. It was that. It housed an amazing array of erotic art, sculptures, figurines from all cultures and of course endless photographs going back to the mid 1800s. It seemed to be highly popular with all ages. After that we found a café and had a Panini and cappuccino before catching a tram back to the hotel. We had dinner at the Eastwood Restaurant on the bottom floor of the hotel – not bad at all, and then ventured out to see the famous red light district. Some of the evening (scenic) views around the canals were magic. We agreed the girls in general were quite ‘tidy’ but the whole thing was a bit ho-hum and really quite degrading for the ladies of the night.

Sunday 13th. Clearly it had rained heavily overnight but had cleared by the morning. If we thought Saturday in Amsterdam was busy we hadn’t seen Sunday! Honestly I don’t think I have seen so many people in a major city since Hong Kong. We decided to go for a wander through Vondelpark but grabbed an ‘all you can eat’ breakfast at the not-so-aptly named Grand Hotel downtown first. The place was dark and dingy but nonetheless the food was good. Julie left her hat behind but it was well looked after and we retrieved it on the way back around 5pm. We then caught a number 2 tram to near Vondelpark and having walked a wee bit of it decided we would need to hire bikes to do it properly so we did from a nearby bike rental that was doing a very brisk trade. We spent an hour or more roving around the park and then the nearby ‘posh’ area full of grand houses and pricey cars (A nice part of town to live in obviously). We stopped for a coffee and it was timely as it started to spit with rain whilst we were there. The park was packed with people biking, walking, jogging, exercising, playing and generally enjoying the park and its surrounds. It was busy! We then walked around the Leideseplein area and the Museum area adjacent. We then decided as we were close by to do the Heineken Experience. It was pretty good and Heineken have done their best to ‘sex it up’ and haven’t done a bad job at all. We caught a tram back to closer to our hotel and walking along the canals it was wall-to-wall cafes and restaurants doing great business. In the retail area it was a constant throng no matter which street or alleyway you chose. We had a cappuccino at Starbucks in the hotel and then went to the nearby supermarket to get supplies for the next day as we are leaving by bus at 8am for Bruges.

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