Caspar Institute logoitinerary   < 27 June Montréal   5 October Ashland >

Caspar 4 July 2016


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<p>Third of July Lunch personnel</p>

Third of July Lunch personnel

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Reflections on the Trip of a Lifetime

First off, this trip was just about as perfect as travel gets. Our biggest inconvenience: a train cancelled from Le Mans, causing a two-hour delay. The biggest loss: a toss-up between Rochelle's hat, disappeared in Collioure and replaced the next day with one she likes better, and Michael's glasses, swallowed by Air Canada's Business class high-tech seat and subsequently retrieved by an engineer. Travel doesn't get much easier than that.

So why ever travel again?

At right is a summary of our expenses by major category. One conclusion: since it costs so much to get there, one better have a whee! of a time once you land!


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Reflections on the Trip of a Lifetime

Getting There

We have heretofore found it difficult to justify spending business class money on long flights, but our marathon return from Naples via Munich in 2011 changed our minds. A tourist class seat may reduce travel cost by as much as 75%, but the traveler, especially one carrying a certain amount of age, is debilitated for a day or two on each end. Far better to spend the money, fly in comfort, and arrive (more or less) intact!

Even better yet, break the trip into pieces. Our flight from SFO to Barcelona via Istanbul was still a marathon that left us limp the first day in Barcelona. It may be argued that the simple matter of crossing nine time zones will play enough chaos with one's circadian rhythms that the day(s) following a flight will be fuzzy. Our experience on this trip and our first time traveling Business Class (so called; see my remarks on "class" here) is that the difference is appreciable, and worth the bump.

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Reflections on the Trip of a Lifetime

Getting There

Getting Around

Europcar was superb, this trip and in Italy in 2011. Easy online access, nice vehicles, good English speaking helpers (with senses of humor!) and easy locations (at railway stations) for pick-up and drop-off.

I wish I could say the same for driving back roads in France. The motorways are awesome, if sometimes busy and expensive, but it seems sensible, given the alternatives, to put the costs of building and maintaining right on the users rather than the indirect way our freeways are financed. When you get to the toll booth, be sure you have a credit card that the machinery recognizes, or stand ready for a lengthy, difficult discussion with a faraway operator with little English. This only happened to us twice (out of half a dozen toll booths) but each time it came at a bad time.

For folks used to being able to head off across country on secondary and tertiary roads, France is a mess. Whoever puts up the signs seems to take malicious pleasure in signing the obvious forks and turns while putting signs on the crucial and ambivalent ones for tiny little out-of-the-way towns that aren't on your map. Forget about using the road numbers; they aren't there for drivers' convenience, but apparently as a continuation of the policy of obfuscation noted above. Heading out across country, go prepared with a comprehensive mental map and list of towns you might like to drive toward.

Don't try to map out trips with Google (and I suspect that GPS-based systems are, as soon as you're off the primary roads, equally useless.) One day I tried to list all the road numbers we'd take in a two hour cross-country drive. The first three (of twenty-odd) worked okay, but then the numbering appeared to be done by a random number generator. Nothing we drove on was on our map or the Google list. We got where we meant to go by dead reckoning and only after several false starts and turn-abouts. 

The train system is superb, if somewhat hard to understand. There is a national system and then regional systems. Under some circumstances, you can buy tickets for one on the machines of the other; other times, not. Whatever you do, don't forget to composter by sticking your ticket into one of the yellow machines in the stations. 

In Paris, the train system is beyond superb, and even more complicated. There are zones and at least two systems beside the national system. The bus and metro systems are integrated and use the same tickets. Google France is an excellent way to figure out how to get around, right down to telling you when the next bus or train leaves your station. Transport in France makes our systems look like the third world transit systems they are.  

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Reflections on the Trip of a Lifetime

Getting There

Getting Around

Lodging

Except for our week in the narrowboat on the Canal du Midi and hotels on our two airport days (Barcelona and Montreal), we were in AirBnB accommodations. France has long had a tradition of gites, holiday apartments and cottages occupied by visitors especially during those long August vacations that Europeans get. AirBnB fits into this system beautifully, and lengthens the season for gite hosts. 

We were off the regular tourist grid, and so stayed in several AirBnBs that weren't completely accustomed to hosting USers. Sometimes the cooking facilities were pretty simple, as French folks on vacation eat out a lot. A couple of places had what they termed "American kitchens" which meant a somewhat better selection of facilities. 

We had one problem connecting with an AirBnB host, right at the beginning, and got heroic help from the AirBnB main office that resolved the problem in plenty of time. We're confirmed AirBnB travelers now, this being our second big trip with nearly all AirBnB accommodations. I'm sure the competitors are good too; I just like the way AirBnB organizes their website and makes it easy for me to stay where I want to be. 

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Reflections on the Trip of a Lifetime

Getting There

Getting Around

Lodging

Omigod, the FOOD!

You have already been regaled with my enthusiasms about the food. As a place to practice food tourism, the southwest of France is wonderful. It's hard to find a bad meal ...although it's clear to me that if you paint yourself into a corner by going too far off the beaten path and then expecting to find a great meal, you may be disappointed. 

One other tip if you crave disappointment: try to eat like you eat at home. In particular, travel with some inflexible food fanaticism like gluten intolerance. Staying in AirBnBs or other accommodations with kitchens, and shopping in farmers markets and health food stores, you can approximate a restrictive diet. Best strategy: pretend you're a native of the place your in, and eat the way the natives do.

TripAdvisor is a fairly good source of information, but must be taken with a grain of salt. No effort is made to discriminate between Burger Kings (and their French equivalents) and serious restaurants, and so, as in the US, the #1 restaurant in a town may be the Dairy Queen (or its European clone.) TripAdvisor reviews are about 50% polluted by restaurant customers who can't or won't adjust their expectations to fit the local culture (see the foregoing paragraph); they want it to be just like Omaha, and when it isn't, they grouse.

French food starts out being cheaper than US food, in part because there's not such a predominant mega-mart, dislocation-from-source culture. Yes, there are megamarts, but the average French person, and most restaurants, either shop enthusiastically at the local farmers markets or develop relationships with farmers and first-tier purveyors. There's no such thing, as far as I could tell, as Sysco. Without so many middlemen, and so much displacement between source and destination, the raw materials are better and cost less by as much as a factor of three.

French food preparation is an order of magnitude more careful than in the US. Every kitchen pays attention to presentation as well as flavor. Large servings are uncommon; diversity is a key. The chef rules, and the safest course is to eat what he's offering (French chefs being predominantly male.) Eat when the French do, at 1pm, and avoid the extortionate costs levied against tourists at dinnertime. Plan ahead on Sunday lunch (when French families go out to eat) and Mondays (when French restaurateurs take a day off.) Of course all these rules apply somewhat less strictly in cities than in the provinces. If you "can't see Paris from here" expect a certain level of local custom, and celebrate it: it's what makes regional French cuisine the most varied and best in the world. 

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Reflections on the Trip of a Lifetime

Getting There

Getting Around

Lodging

Omigod, the FOOD!

Tickets to Attractions

Use the internet. You can save yourself hours in Paris, and long lines elsewhere by getting your tickets online the day before. Sometimes, you even save money; sometimes, you'll get to go on a tour when the drop-ins are being turned away. The French plan their trips meticulously in advance; when in France, doing as the French do saves a lot of bother.  

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