Posts in category travel - page 4

Travels in France, part 2

My apologies for the second part taking so long to arrive here. I wrote this section a while ago before Zoundry Blog Writer threw it away. Doubtful I could write again with as much enthusiasm I left it but a series of questions has prompted me to write it again. It was better the first time, I promise.

Versailles

We had left Disney behind us now, heading south-west to avoid the hot city streets of Paris and on towards Versailles. With high expectations of “the largest palace in Europe” we arrived underneath a hot midday July sun amid a mass of tourists. This did not bode too well.

Having seen the queues and general melee for entrance to the palace we skirted round to the back and the 300 year old gardens. We walked around a little of the gardens themselves, around a third by my estimation, but although I was daunted by the sheer size I found such a scale seemed to preclude individual attention to detail.

We managed to escape the sun by retreating into the shade of trees where we relaxed in each others arms and watched life slowly drift by. We shared a romantic moment until we noticed the small audience of school children. We decided against continuing the performance for their benefit and watched as better informed tourists toured the massive park in electric golf carts.

Rested and cooled we headed back to the palace but the crowds still swamped its walls and we vowed to come back another day. We wanted a smaller château we could have more to ourselves and within an hour or two we found one.

Château de Valançay

I can’t recall the inspiration for this visit as my guidebook doesn’t extend as far as the Loire Valley region. The château was acquired by Talleyrand in 1804 and as Napoléon’s foreign minister the château was soon used to dine and impress foreign dignitaries. It was also where Ferdinand VII of Spain (King) was held in luxurious captivity during Napoléon’s reign.

The scale of the château and gardens are much smaller than Versailles but that missing level of detail is restored. Hedges were perfectly trimmed, flowers blossoming everywhere and the main fountain spraying water clear enough to bathe in. If the restaurant had been open it would have been perfect though I doubt there were enough visitors to justify switching on an oven.

We drifted slowly through the château itself each receiving a guide in our own native language courtesy of devices vaguely resembling 90’s mobile phones. The rooms themselves were full of original furniture, partly because the château was untouched by the ravages of WWII when its owner the duc de Valancay established his personal neutrality as Prince de Sagan, therefore avoiding occupation on a technically.

The grounds are also home to a rather fun maze with locked doors, mirrors, smoke machines and historical puzzles to be solved if you wanted to get out. We were also treated to a small farm where you could feed various animals which was an experience in itself, perhaps one better enjoyed had there been a sink or somewhat where I could have washed the goat drool from my hand.

Somewhere to sleep

We spent much of the late afternoon hunting for somewhere nice to stay passing through Orléans and it’s surrounding villages. We stopped to ask for directions of the only person we’d seen in hours, a rather elderly gentleman. Clarissa ran up behind him, prompting him in French several times. He looked up at the sky as if being addressed by the heavens themselves before realizing it was a lost German girl standing behind him. Within seconds they’d switched to English, the man revealing himself to be American before giving us directions to our hotel. Directions that turned out to be completely wrong…

[)amien

Travels in France, part 1

Unlike my previous trips I had little access to the Internet while away and failed to take writing materials. Many of my observations and thoughts were lost but here’s what’s left in my mind:

Driving

Driving in France was less terrifying in my own car than in the left-hand drive rental cars I’ve used in the past. The run from St. Malo through Rennes, Le Mans and up to Paris was uneventful punctuated only by the unidentified random songs and the splatter of unfortunate insects emptying their stomachs onto my windscreen at 140kmh. I went through Paris, around the five lane ring-road several times and even drove along a section of road where I could see the fabled Arc de Triomphe, noted across Europe for being a top spot to avoid while driving because of it’s twelve avenue junction that surrounds it.

My trusty Nissan Silvia S14 (200SX) performed perfectly in the 1,426 miles I clocked in one week – impressive for somebody who lives on an island just nine miles long. The black-on-silver registration plate with it’s five numbers and no letters attracted some attention including a confused pedestrian who nearly made it the last thing he saw, and a driver at a petrol station who asked me where I was from before accidentally paying for my fuel. No doubt the confusion also saved me from the occasional horn beep when hesitating at a junction for a second or not meeting the French minimum speed of “sign-posted maximum speed + 35%”.

I actually enjoyed driving in France and Paris, but then Clarissa made a great navigator and I’d selected calming music including Magical Sound Shower

Disneyland Park

Little had changed since my previous visit, same rides, same long queues and the same blistering heat punctuated with a shower. The Maz was closed as was the center of the square and the Mexican themed restaurant. The paddlers were not in operation and looked quite decayed from the train Star Tours was either going for added realism of an olfactory nature or else somebody had recently emptied their bladder inside, either way the result was quite unpleasant. Space Mountain had been upgraded to a new 2.0 ride but alas we couldn’t ride this for our own reasons.

One new feature is the FastPass which means you can get a ticket for a ride and come back between the times it mentions, joining the shorter FastPass queue. Alas, not all rides support FastPass yet and on Thunder Mountain the FastPass queue still took 25 minutes. You can also only have one FastPass active at any one time, and the longest queue was for Peter Pan again with FastPass machines switched off. Europeans not used to the heat and it still amazes me that Disney can’t fork out a few quid to cover the queuing areas. As it was we saw one woman pass out in the queue for Peter Pan.

The parade was rather short and disappointed Clarissa who had fond memories from a trip many years ago when she stayed at the rather wonderful Bayport view.

I came away from Disney Land a little unimpressed, it was very busy and really is aimed at young children and their parents. I couldn’t help but feel suffocated in Main Street with almost every shop selling a variety of garish Disney merchandise. There are a few exceptions such as the photographic store, the hair dressers, the story shop and a couple of the food bars but would it kill Disney to try and theme the shop to what it says on the outside or stock merchandise that’s less in-your-face. Many designer brands get away with small logos and the Disney ears could be very subtle yet easily recognizable…

One pleasant surprise was the restaurant located right next to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride which had a wonderful atmosphere, the ride itself passing through it at one point. Through my own oversight we missed Pooh’s story time and the main indoor show.

Tips</p>
  • Avoid the big Disney ticket desk queues by getting your ticket in advance or from your hotel
  • Get your hand stamped on the way out, you’ll need it and your ticket if you want to get back in or to to go the other park
  • Movenpick, Explorers and Kyriad hotels are just a minute or two from the Disney hotels and are much cheaper, especially if you book with them direct

Walt Disney Studios

This whole park was new to Clarissa and myself and made up for my disappointments with the main park. Access was included in our three day hopper passes and everything in here was impressive from the back lot studio tour with it’s great physical effects to the Aerosmith themed indoor roller-coaster (which stopped part way through and we got to see it all with the lights on), the space-station simulation ride, a build-your-own-virtual-roller-coaster played back in a 360′ simulator, and a live stunt show.

This stunt show deserves a special mention, it was quite possibly the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen in person. Five cars driving at high speed performing stunts, jumps, two-wheels, simulated crashes with people being shot and falling from the top of buildings to motorbikes doing stoppies, crashing and the riders catching fire. The most amazing thing was it all worked perfectly and that these guys perform all this twice a day… Wow!

Queues were very short, about 5-10 minutes maximum and there were very few shops instead there were many things to look at such as the Disney history and the tour of Disney Europe’s actual TV studio which is hosted here. You could learn about how a Disney character comes to life (in this case Mushu from Mulan) or enrol in a drawing class and learn how to draw the mouse himself. Most impressive!

Still to come… Versailles, the The Château of Valançay and Parc Asterix!

[)amien

Travel tips and in-tray surprises

The agenda for my trip is coming together although various changes had to be accommodated because of factors outside of my control, the biggest one being me now returning home right after Nuremberg followed closely by the change to take my car across for the French leg.

The timetables from Saint Malo are sketchy at best and we still needed to get around between Saint Malo, Disneyland, Paris and Charles De Gaulle airport. So with haste I equipped my Nissan Silvia S14 (200SX) with the headlight converters, first-aid kit, warning triangle, jump leads and a spare bulb kit. A map, torch and compass may also be useful if I can find decent ones locally, failing that I’ll muddle through. It is being serviced tomorrow night and hopefully the Pioneer iPod adapter will spark to life too.

I’m a little nervous about driving in France again, the last two trips I’ve hired a left-hand-drive car so I kept to the “you still need to be sitting in the middle of the road, just like back home” school of thought to keep me driving on the right.

With my car being obviously right-hand-drive it might make for unfortunately interesting times. I’ve also been warned that the French police now hand out some pretty severe on-the-spot speeding fines but I doubt I’ll be going fast enough to garner any attention from them.

Okay, I promised some travel tips;

  1. When booking items individually start with the items that have the best refund policy or failing that, the cheapest.
  2. Don’t book late at night – systems update, become unavailable and prices suddenly recalculate. Tired eyes could also miss a painful typo.
  3. Some budget airlines won’t appear on LastMinute, Expedia or Travelocity. Head over to the airport official web sites for arrival/departure timetables to find out if any budget airlines service your route.
  4. If you don’t want to fork out for route finding or GPS gear then try the free route planners from ViaMichelin (indicates speed cameras) or RAC (more detailed inner-city directions).
  5. If staying in a country for more than a week and using a mobile phone consider acquiring a local prepay SIM card. As well as saving a small fortune in receiving/making calls and text messages you can text the temporary number to only the important people to keep holiday interruptions to a minimum. You will need to ensure your mobile is not locked to a specific network SIM – this is often the case with heavily discounted phones offered with a contract.
  6. While Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are jam packed with useful information you may find the fun and educational DK Eyewitness Travel Guides more useful for short trips.
  7. Visit cash machines on holiday with your Visa Debit card to obtain local money at a good rate without having to mess around with travelers checks and rip-off currency exchange shops.

“You’ve got kittens!”

While I’m used to the odd cutesy kitten picture in my e-mail inbox having them turn up to play in your desks in-tray is much more fun.

Two kittens in an in-tray

[)amien

Illness, travel and the French

My girlfriend Clarissa has given me a bug, and not the sometimes fun type that involves single-stepping to locate and subsequently fix. She has a very high temperature and her doctor has signed her off work for a week.

Either I’ve got that to come or I’ve been lucky. Why is the human body so incapable of signaling to the brain exactly what the problem is, perhaps with a shopping list of useful nutrients and vitamins it could do with to help the fight?

I’m off traveling for a month starting June 20th with a few days in Disneyland Paris with Clarissa to enjoy rides, fireworks and queuing (it’s what us Brit’s are good at apparently). After that we’re going to head down to Paris itself and take in the local atmosphere and attractions. I was going to write culture but that might have implied I’d be eating food typically associated with the French.

I’ve always been a bit mistrusting of the French, they drive far too fast and I remember them blocking the docks to England when they didn’t want our beef after the BSE scare when the EU had finally given it the all-clear. Well, I guess that’s up to them, but then they blocked it again when we then refused their not-yet-all-cleared beef! While we’re on the subject why is it that if you try and speak French and mispronounce a few words the listener acts completely lost and confused? In English we’re grateful you’re making the effort and can decipher the most hideous accents, pronunciations, missing words and incorrect order. Either the English language is more robust to such problems or the listeners are more tolerant…

Anyway, my opinion of the French went up this week when they took to the streets and told their government to stick it with regards to the EU Constitution. With hindsight the French government telling the USA they wouldn’t be part of their Iraq invasion plans was also a good stance. I still have to bear the shame and guilt bestowed upon me by the actions of my English government even if my expatriate status means I don’t get a vote. :(

After France we’re heading up to Germany, Höchstadt, just north-west of Nuremberg to meet Clarissa’s family and friends. My German is practically non-existent so I’m sure I’ll be totally lost in a non-physical sense. At this point Clarissa has to go back to work so I’ll be heading south and chewing through the remaining 21 days of my holiday by heading into Switzerland and then on to Italy. At this point I’m pretty sure the physical sense of being lost will kick in.

Time for a cup of tea, wish I had a snack in the cupboard.

[)amien