We travel for many reasons, sometimes it is for a simple desire to see the sun and relax on a beach, but often we travel to get a sense of history, to see monuments of previous glory or to experience a different culture through tastes and sights. France may not be as exotic as ancient Egypt or China, but it does have history. And a wonderful appreciation of food and wine!
France is not the original home of wine, but in this age it is home to its heart and soul. The Bordeaux style of blended wine is made all over the world and Bordeaux is the yardstick by which all else are measured. If Bordeaux has wine’s heart, to me its sensual soul resides in Burgundy. Pinot Noir is a notoriously difficult grape to grow, but in the this small region, wine makers pour their souls into this grape and its unique perspective on terroir. Where others travel to stand in awe of the great pyramids or China’s great wall, a wine lover is drawn to the famous names of Margaux, St. Emilion, Gevrey Chambertin and Montrachet. It has been my experience that you really don’t understand these regions or the wines they produce until you visit them. Burgundy is especially difficult because of its focus on where the vines are planted on the slope of the hill.
Not knowing the language is not as big a barrier as you may think, as most of the hotels and larger restaurants will have staff that speak some English. Even in the smaller towns, you can get by. Of course having a little bit of knowledge will help understand menus!
France has an amazing train system that you should be aware of if you decide to travel there. High speed connections now exist with neighbouring countries and you can even take the Eurostar from St. Pancras Station in London, travel under the English Channel and arrive in the core of Paris in just a few hours! Within the borders of Paris proper, there are six train stations or Gares as they are known, which are spread around the city, but which are all fairly close to the centre. There is a new, seventh station at Terminal 2 of Charles de Gaulle airport. All of these stations are linked by the metro to the core of the city, so you don’t need to take a taxi or rent a car. You can also take a shuttle bus from the airport, which drops you at the Arc de Triomphe, or at some of the train stations. If you do fly into the airport, do not leave your luggage unattended. They take security very seriously and will call for the bomb squad to detonate it!
On my most recent trip, upon our arrival we were directed outside of the terminal by the military as they waited for the bomb squad. I thought that was quite extraordinary, until our last night in France. We were having dinner at one of the airport hotels when we heard a loud explosion. The staff was surprisingly casual about it! They explained that it happens on a regular basis.
Normally I would not recommend staying at one of the hotel airports, but on this occasion the convenience factor outweighed the expense. We came in by TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, which means really fast train in English!) from Avignon and it made the most sense to take the train to the airport rather than a station in the city and then get out to the airport for my 6 am flight the next day.
The Eurostar and TGV trains (both are electric) are amazing, they travel at over 300km/hr (almost 170mph) and their suspension systems make it seem that you are hardly moving at all. When two trains meet each other going in the opposite direction, the trains are rocked apart by the air pressure between them. The Eurostar trains are almost 400 metres long (1300 feet) and once up to full speed, will pass each other in seconds! Within France, the TGV trains are a great way to move between major centres, where you can then transfer to slower regional trains or rent a car. Buying tickets is easy, you can look up Eurostar, TGV or Rail Europe on the internet. The sites are available in English, so you can be confident of what you are ordering. Rail Europe has offices in North America and the UK and will ship your tickets out to you.
When staying in Paris, there are lots of choices from hotels to renting an apartment for a week or more. If you are only staying a night or two, then hotels are often the easiest choice. The major chains are available, but if you want to save money, consider looking at small local hotels. The rooms can be small, but if you are only there to sleep, who cares? The internet makes it easy to shop around for hotels, and Paris is divided into 20 neighbourhoods called arrondissements. These are numbered and begin at 1 (Premier or denoted as 1er) which is where the Louvre is situated and spiral clockwise out from there. The Eiffel Tower is in the 7ème, Gare de Lyon which connects to Dijon and the Burgundy area is in the 12ème and Gare Montparnasse, which connects to Bordeaux is in the 14ème arrondissement. Each neighbourhood has is own character and areas of interest. Again this information is easily available online and then you can search for hotels by the sector you wish to be in.
The train ride from Paris to Bordeaux is just over 3 hours long. The trains are very comfortable, have a bar car and food is available. Bordeaux is a wonderful old city on the Garonne, which is the western of the pair of rivers that merge into the Gironde. The St. Jean train station is linked by a ground level tramway that takes you right into the core of the old city, just a few minutes away. We stayed overnight at the Hotel Majestic, which is walking distance with luggage from the tram station and is close to the Opera House and a great plaza with restaurants and shops. In the plaza there is a great wine shop built inside a tower, a spiral stair case goes up 4 floors with the wine displayed along the outside of the spiral.
The city is fascinating, but we are here to visit the wineries and to do that you need a car. The next day we went back to the train station to pick up a diesel mini van. If you are going to drive around Europe, diesel is the cheapest way to go. We rented a Citroën mini van that seated seven people, which had a surprising amount of pick up and go! Diesel technology has really changed. And they are still efficient, we drove almost 1000 km (620 miles) on 90 litres of fuel (24 US gallons)! France has a great system of modern motorways that allow you to efficiently drive across the country. But you will need to carry coins as they are toll roads. There is also a system of regional roads without tolls which take you through the country side and towns. oregon wine tours