Posts tagged ‘paris travel tips’

July 14, 2011

It’s Bastille Day and Versailles celebrates

versailles palace

Colossal and beautiful Versailles Palace. (Julia Pelish photo)

[Published in the Toronto Star on Bastille Day, 2011. I visited the Palace of Versailles for the first time in May and came away with a clear understanding of why there was a revolution!]

VERSAILLES, FRANCE — When Louis XIV built the Palace of Versailles he said he wanted it to be the envy of Europe. The man who believed he had divine right managed to outdo himself. He horded wealth, talent and labour to construct one of the most spectacularly grotesque displays of lavishness humanity’s ever known.

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May 27, 2011

Hôtel Maison Athénée a great place to stay in Paris

Hotel Athenee bedroom in Paris

The comfortable beds are a big reason why Hotel Maison Athenee gets strong reviews.

[Published in the Toronto Star.]

When you go to Paris and say you’re staying at the Athénée, expect eyes to balloon and voices to “ooooooh” with excitement and, perhaps, a tinge of jealousy. The Plaza Athénée is the super-luxury residence of choice for celebrities when they’re in Paris, a hotel made even more famous when it had a starring role in the final season of “Sex and the City.” The Hôtel Maison Athénée, on the other hand, is a recently refurbished and renamed boutique hotel with only 20 rooms on a narrow street in the 9th Arrondisement. It doesn’t have an Alain Ducasse restaurant or 250-euro airport shuttle service or an outrageous spa experience like the Dior Institut. What it does have, though, is beautifully appointed rooms with comfortable beds, room-darkening curtains, large bathrooms and a cheerful, welcoming staff.

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May 18, 2011

5 reasons why Paris isn’t so great

Quai Canal Saint Martin in Paris

You'd look away too if you just polished off all those bottles. Canal Saint Martin is a popular spot to hang out and drink in public in Paris. (Julia Pelish Photo)

PARIS — In the travel world it’s blasphemy to suggest Paris isn’t all that. For many people this is the most beautiful city in the world as well as the centre of all things great in cuisine and culture. After my recent stay and, having the fortune to visit some great cities in the past year or so, I found it fell short in some big ways. So, here goes: Five reasons why Paris isn’t as great as people say. [Write in with your disapproval – or agreement.]

Mediocre quality of service. In no other country do we excuse underwhelming performance as much as we do in France, particularly Paris. “Oh, it’s just the French,” is what so many people say when they’ve encountered a surly worker at a Metro information booth or a waiter who spends more time texting on his phone than refilling your water glass. You also run into shopkeepers who seem bothered that you spend a few minutes perusing their selections rather than ordering quickly and letting them go back to their game of Angry Birds. Of course, you’ve got some terrific service and hospitality workers. The Hotel Athenee, where I stayed for seven nights, was terrific and the staff were extremely friendly and helpful. Overall, though, the city’s service industry could use some shine.

The racism is boorish. Several expat Canadians who I met in Paris said the racism is so over the top it’s shocking. They tell me TV commentators are blatantly insulting to people of different races, especially blacks. Some say they end up having to back out of conversations that become too uncomfortable because of the racist language. Paris wants to be thought of as the epitome of cultural sophistication and civility, but you can’t do that when you still have the mentality of a 19th-century colonialist.

The Louvre is disappointing. As one patron of the Louvre told me, “You have an entire floor where you see one painting after another of the same thing painted by an Italian. It’s one version of Madonna and Child, next to another painting of Madonna and Child.” A little hyperbolic, but there’s some truth to the criticism. There is a sameness to some of the wings of the Louvre and there is also the annoyances: The crowds make you just want to get out of there; there aren’t enough washrooms; the food choices are few and they’re weak. And, yes, the Mona Lisa is a disappointment. That’s not to say seeing Winged Victory and the Venus de Milo isn’t a magnificent experience you must have for yourself. It’s just that as far as great museums go, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Met in New York offer more satisfying visits than the Louvre.

READ PARIS TRAVEL TIPS

The food could be better. A lot of it’s really great. And you can get good food at all price points (more on that in a later article). The “but” here is this: There’s a sameness to the cuisine. You’re going to have difficulty finding great sushi or Indian or Chinese, and as a visitor that’s okay. You’re here to enjoy French food the way the French do it. In this era of globalization, though, there’s got to be some adaptability. It’s happening, but slowly (more on that later too). Of the meals I ate in Paris the best by far was a home-cooked one, made by my friend Anil Murthy. Delicious shrimp biryani, butter chicken with only a pinch of butter (he swears) and homemade raita. Anil’s a damn good cook, so the Paris restaurants shouldn’t be ashamed!

Chez Janou in Paris

Chez Janou is a popular spot in the Marais district of Paris. (Julia Pelish Photo)

The price. In terms of cost, Paris is like London: very expensive. You don’t realize how much so until you leave it. I broke up my stay in Paris with four days in Vienna, where I found the cost of everything from wine and food to clothes to be deeply discounted, in some cases at half the price as in Paris. For travelers, cost is always at the top of mind, and the premium you have to pay in Paris may make you want to look for an alternative.

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May 10, 2011

5 travel tips for getting around Paris

Walking in Paris

Hey, you're walking in Paris, don't look so serious! (Julia Pelish Photo)

Paris is one of those great big cities that can overwhelm as well as frustrate travelers. Having just gotten back from a nearly two-week stay, here are some of my travel tips that are fresh in mind. These ones are transportation-related (although the first one is a bit of stretch to fit that category) and I’ll have some others on here later in the week:

1. Don’t stop – Book your tickets to the Louvre online. On many days, you can stand two hours in line before you enter the world’s most visited museum. While the glass Pyramid and the Louvre’s courtyard are beautiful to look at, doing so for 120 minutes will make you as mad as van Gogh. Not many people are aware you don’t have to endure the wait. Sign up for an account with FNAC Spectacles and you’ll be able to order your tickets online (for the Louvre and other attractions). FNAC is a ticket seller like TicketMaster. You’ll have to pick up your tickets before you go to the Louvre. FNAC has locations throughout Paris, with one of the main ones standing across the street from Saint Lazare Station, about a 20-minute walk to the museum. The cost of a single ticket through FNAC is 11.60 euros, only 1.60 euros more than the regular admission price, and that’s a small charge to pay to avoid the massive queue. Take your pre-purchased ticket to the entrance beneath the arch of Pavilion Richelieu in the courtyard. You can also buy tickets to special exhibits online, but I’d advise against doing so. Once you get inside, the lineups aren’t long to purchase extras and you can do so at some automatic machines that don’t charge the premium that ticket resellers do.

2. Travel underground. Buy Metro tickets in bulk (12 euros will get you a book of 10) and study the system so you know the most efficient way to get where you want to go. Don’t discard your ticket once you’ve passed through the turnstile; at some stations you will need to re-use your ticket to either exit or connect to another train (which happens if you’re traveling on a line that services suburban areas as well as the city). If you do have to change trains to reach your destination, budget five minutes to get from platform to platform. The tunnel system is vast and the lines can be far apart from each other. Beware that some older trains don’t have doors that open automatically. You’ll either have to push a button or turn a handle to get on or out. The Metro has 16 lines and runs from 5:30 a.m. until 1:15 a.m. from Sunday to Thursday and until 2:15 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. A single ride costs 1.80 euros.

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May 7, 2011

Paris travel tips from Canadians living abroad

The Marais area in Paris

The Marais is one of the areas Canadians living in Paris recommend you visit.

PARIS — Many Canadians are living the dream of spending extended time in the City of Light — some have even made it their permanent home. They offered me an insider’s view of Paris — from how to get the best meals at the best prices to what it’s really like to live here — and you’ll read about their thoughts on this site and in the Toronto Star’s Travel section in the next couple of months. For now, here are some of the best travel tips I received from those expats while spending time with some of them during this visit that I am wrapping up.

Food: The travel tip you’re most likely to take advantage of is this one from Dave Holmes: “When you go to a bistro, order the special of the day. You’re probably not going to go wrong. That’s what they’ve bought fresh that day and you can count on it being good.” Otherwise, he says, you might get something the restaurant has in the freezer that they just re-heat. Dave and his wife, Sarah, moved from Vancouver a couple of years ago and, being foodies, have enjoyed Parisian cuisine. They count a meal at Le Chateaubriand — recently named the top restaurant in France and the ninth best in the world by Restaurant Magazine — as their most memorable in Paris.

Gems you may not have heard of: Yvonne Martin, an interior designer from Toronto, introduced me to O’Neil, believed to be the first microbrewery in Paris. “Sometimes I just need a beer,” she says, and O’Neil serves four kinds — blonde, blanche, brune and amber. You’re sure to find one you like. The blanche was terrific. We didn’t try the food; Yvonne says it is only so-so. O’Neil is on the Left Bank, near the Latin Quarter. Other recommendations include the scene on Canal Saint Martin, walking Buttes-Chaumont Parc and living it up in the Marais. (More on those spots in the future.)

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