Thursday, April 18, 2013

Caro's Big Adventure: A Week in Paris

What can one say about a week spent in the most romantic city in the world? *sigh*

I was very glad to have so much time in Paris this time, as I managed to do various standard touristy things, but also had time just to hang out, which was great.

After my first night in the city (an evening at the Moulin Rouge, and staying in the luxurious Radisson Blu Ambassador Hotel near the Paris Opera), I moved to my 'other' hotel, which would be my home for the rest of the week.

The Hotel du College de France, (Website here) on rue Thenard, in between the Boulevard Saint-Germain and rue des Ecoles, was obviously not the Radisson, but I actually enjoyed it much more. It was a smallish hotel, with six floors, with 3-5 rooms on each floor. I asked to book one of their superior rooms with balcony, but that was only available for the last four days of my stay, so for the first two nights, I was in a regular room, which was still ok, and comfortable enough. But my other room, when I moved into it, was not only much larger, it was on the top floor, and had a balcony that overlooked the rooftops of Paris, and even had a bit of a view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. The bathroom also had a great, deep, bathtub ( as did my first room), but also a bidet! Being the first time having this kind of amenity, I did a quick Google, to figure out how to use it, and by the end of my stay felt I was getting the hang of it.

The staff there were all lovely. M. Sadr, the receptionist, was lovely, and helped me with advice on the best ways to see Paris (eg that Paris L'Opentours -with the green buses-was a much better option of 'hop-on, hop-off' bus, than the CarsRouges-with the red buses; and that the Batobus was a bit overrated, and if I wanted to see sights from the river, I should just book a river cruise/tour). He also helped me to book an experience of the Eiffel Tower one evening, which involved being picked up from the hotel by a driver, conveyed to the Eiffel Tower for dinner in the restaurant, then a river cruise, and driven back to the hotel. Despite the rain, and the rowdy school group on the cruise, that was a lovely evening, and a great experience.

When I was out and about on the green buses, I saw a poster for a concert, 'Gospel Dream', on the Friday night at the church of Saint-Germain des Pres, and managed to get online to book a ticket through fnac (France's version of Ticketmaster etc), and M. Sadr printed it out for me. The concert was great; a group of nine women and four men, all black, singing a great repertoire of gospel songs and spirituals (and a rousing rendition of N'Kosi Sikelele Afrika :-) I bought some of their CDs, so will look forward to enjoying their music for a long time to come.

I also paid a return visit to Sacre Coeur and Montmartre, and enjoyed sitting quietly in the church for a longish time, after spending some Euros in the gift shop (which was closed when I was there on my last visit to Paris). But this time no entertaining adventures with street artists, but that was ok.

I decided not to go inside Notre Dame (or Sainte Chappelle- sorry Heather McK!), but the queues were too much to contemplate, and I did enjoy the inside of a few churches in Paris: Eglise Saint- Germain des Pres, Sacre Coeur and Saint-Severin, which was on the way back to my hotel from the bus stop near Notre Dame. All very old and beautiful inside, and I don't know that Notre Dame could really have added any more (apart from bragging rights that I'd been there). I also chose to enjoy the Louvre and Musee D'Orsay from the outside too. Maybe I'll go inside on another visit - gives me a reason to go back (as if I needed it!)

But I really did love just riding around the different parts of Paris on the tourist buses, which had informative commentary, and it was just great to be able to soak up the atmosphere on the second (and sometimes third) time round some of the places.

I had an interesting conversation with a homeless man at a bus stop in the city. I was waiting for a bus, and he engaged me in conversation, but when I explained that I couldn't understand him because I don't speak very good French, and that I was Australian, he got very excited. "Australien?! Kangarooooo!!"  I think I upset him when I said, "oui. Kangaroo. Et kangaroo c'est bon manger! Myam, myam!" (and made eating gestures). 

He was mortified. "Non!!"
"Oui!" I smiled back at him. Then my bus came, so I had to leave. ;-)

I met many interesting people around the town, and just loved it. So glad I spent more time there this time round, and am already looking forward to my next visit.

Here is a link to some photos that I took around Paris during that time.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Caro's Big Adventure: the End of the Cruise

They say all good things must come to an end, and so it was with my lovely Rhone river cruise.

After our day at Macon (and Cluny) we sailed up the Saone (actually, we entered the Saone from Lyon, where there is a confluence of Le Rhone and La Saone, as the Rhone is not navigable north of Lyon), and ended up in Chalon.

Our last night on board was rather special, with a farewell cocktail party and special dinner, followed by a revue-style crew show. The so-called 'hidden talents' of the crew were best kept hidden, methinks, but it was a fun and funny evening, followed by some exuberant dancing (and at one point, Vojtech came up to me and dragged me onto the dance floor with him... my fantasy was then complete. He was so delightful, managed to do his job well, make me feel special, but there were no professional boundaries crossed, it was just some innocent fun *sigh*).

The next morning, however, the languid luxury was over, as it was 'Bags Out' at 7am (Gahhhhh!!!!) Being the organised kind of girl that I am (stop laughing!), and determined to suck the experience dry for all it was worth, I got up early, and had my shower and was packed up all before 7am. I put my bag out, and then waited for my usual morning coffee, which I had ordered for 7:30am. 

Even though the price of the cruise included all tips and gratuities, I felt that there were a few staff on board to whom I wanted to say a special thank you (the kind of 'thankyou' that involved a sum of Euros in a little card). These included Vojtech my butler (of course); the lovely Igor, the sweet young waiter who I had so much fun with in talking about my preferences for wine; Daniel the receptionist, who had taken me on a grand shopping spree in the ship's gift shop, and been generally delightful every time I had contact with him (when we were discussing my planned assault on the gift shop, he said that he would help me try on any of the jewellery in the shop, and was sure that everything would look lovely on such a beautiful lady. I asked him, "Are you flirting with me Daniel?" to which he replied, "Oh no, because that is not allowed!"), and also to the lovely Beata, my cabin stewardess. Beata was one of the behind-the-scenes staff, but whenever I ran into her, she would always greet me warmly, with a big smile. If it was in the morning, she would say, "have a nice day" and if it was in my way to dinner, "Bon appetit!"

Anyway, so bags were out, my morning coffee, and final farewell to Vojtech was done (sigh), and I was ready to leave the ship. I was on one of the two buses heading for Paris (different people were doing different things at the end of the cruise), and at 9am we set out on our 4hour drive from Chalon to Paris.

My cruise concluded with a night in Paris at the Radisson Blu hotel, near the Opera Garnier, in the centre of the city. Very luxurious and nice, but I was glad to only be there one night. It was the kind of luxury hotel you could find anywhere in the world, so not very Parisian in my opinion. On the advice of Nicholas, our tour guide on the bus trip, I booked myself into dinner and show at the Moulin Rouge for that night, and had a great time.

The Moulin Rouge is a Paris icon, and I felt it was a great way to spend my first in night in Paris for this visit. I was on my own, and was seated opposite an American woman who was also alone, and we had a great time chatting over dinner and talking about all kinds of things. It turned out that it was her birthday, and she was in Paris for work, deciding to treat herself at the Moulin Rouge for her birthday.  So when the mandatory photographer came round I suggested we get a photo as a souvenir, and it would be my birthday present to her. So we did.

Ahh, but before the evening, there was the afternoon! The hotel was very close to Les Galeries Lafayette, a huge department store in the heart of Paris. I had decided I wanted to buy an overcoat, so dutifully wandered around all the women's fashion floors, becoming more and more dejected that they only seemed to cater for what I tend to call the SGNT set (ie skinny girls with no tits). After seeking out a particular designer whom I had been assured catered for larger sizes, I still had no success. I bought myself a new suitcase, to fit in all my extra purchases, and some perfume (L'eau D'Issey, which also included a great swag of free samples from the salesgirl), did the paperwork to claim back the VAT on my purchases, and then wandered back towards the hotel. But then I saw it- a women's clothing store advertising 'les grandes tailles' in the window- so I was in there like a shot.

The very nice saleswoman spoke no English, but I managed to convey what I 
wanted. She tried on a couple of rather glam coats (one of which had a price tag of around 3000€, which almost gave me a heart attack), and when I said to her, "non, trop cher" (too dear) she got one of the other women, who spoke English, to come and help. We eventually found a gorgeous black cape-like coat that is made of wool and cashmere, with fox fur collar and cuffs, and the cut means it fits ok, and was a price I was willing to pay (especially with more VAT refund- I mustn't forget to get all that paperwork stamped and posted when I'm leaving Heathrow).

So I wore this gorgeous garment on my outing to the Moulin Rouge. 
First night in Paris-resounding success! :-)

Caro's Big Adventure: Lyon and Macon

We spent all day in Lyon, with a general guided tour of the city (by bus) in the morning, and then a choice in the afternoon. I chose the silk shop option.

Lyon was an interesting city, probably the first out of the places we'd been to be significantly modern (either that, or we had just focused on the ancient, medieval parts of the previous towns we'd visited). I managed to take a lot of photos from the bus window, but unfortunately can't share them here due to foibles with the iPad not letting me access photos using Blogger :-( So you'll just have to imagine...
Addenda- Here are some pics around Lyon.

The silk tour involved a visit to a traditional silk workshop, where we were shown the workings of a hand loom, used for the very expensive fabrics (the girl said that the fabric she was working on would sell for around 2000€ per metre, and a full day's work at the loom for her, going like the proverbial clappers, would result in about 30cm of fabric produced, so that explains why it's so expensive. After that, we went across the road, for a talk about the history and logistics of silk production. Given that I think just about every Australian kid kept silk worms as pets, and got to observe their life cycles first hand, there wasn't really anything new in this for me, but it was good to sit down and listen for a bit. 

Then, there was shopping! There were some beautiful silk products in the gift shop, so once again I put that advice into action, and bought lots of presents for folks back home, but also something gorgeous for myself.

After this we went to view some 'silk painting', which in actual fact was the practice of silk screen printing onto silk scarves for the tourist trade. Our group was really too large to fit comfortably into the workshop, and my knees were killing me by this stage (and I had seen and done plenty of silk screen printing in my youth), so I sat myself down on a step at the back of the workshop and waited till it was time to leave. There was apparently a shop upstairs, but when I asked about it, one of the women in our group told me, "there are some scarves up there, but all very expensive, and NOTHING as nice as what I saw you buy at the last place!" So I didn't feel the need to go up the stairs :-)

Again, when we got back to the ship, I hung out in the lounge, writing post cards and relaxing. I think by this stage I had also discovered the quite comprehensive cocktail menu of the lounge bar (all included in the price of the cruise) and had started my quest to drink my way through it.

The next day we were in Macon, and I had some icky feelings, having seen the Peter Greenaway film, 'The Baby of Macon' some years ago, and feeling physically sick as a result (and those of you who know me well, know I have quite a strong stomach, so you can imagine what the film was like :-/ ). But we didn't stay in the town, and I was able to allay my collywobbles by taking a trip tithe monastic town of Cluny, where we got to explore what was once the biggest and most significant Abbey in France. (The Benedictine bits of my soul enjoyed this :-)

Again, we had plenty of time to explore the town after the formal tour of the Abbey. again, my knees were not up to much more walking, so I parked myself in the cafe, and enjoyed chatting to others in our group, and later hearing what some of the others got up to in the town (apparently there was a patisserie to die for... Probably a good thing I didn't find it)
And here are some pictures around Cluny.

Our group, that went to Cluny, was much smaller than the other, which went to the Beaujolais wine region... funny that... 

And thus ended Days 6 and 7... Nearly at the end!

Caro's Big Adventure: Viviers to Lyon

After our day in Avignon, we sailed overnight to Viviers, and so this day, we had a busy day. The morning held a walking tour of Viviers, a very old town, built on a big hill, boasting the smallest Cathedral in France. The town was gorgeous, but I found the walk, with a lot of uneven, cobbled ground, and steep climbs (although it was the coming down that I found worse than the going up), Allan bit stressful on my knees.

Our guide was again a local, and very well informed and informative about the local area. Our tour also included a half hour organ recital in the cathedral, featuring the cathedral organist, playing some well known pieces, as well as some lesser known French compositions. It was a lovely treat, and another unexpected delight, was to be greeted at the entrance of the cathedral by a very friendly, fluffy white cat (which I later learned belonged to the organist). As I sat on a low wall near the door, the cat came and nuzzled into me, rubbing against my hands, my pack pack and nuzzling into my side. Very cute :-)

We returned to the ship at 11am, and set sail immediately, so during lunch and the afternoon we were en route to Tournon. That evening was very special. We had the option of sharing a meal with a local family in Tournon, and I was part of a group of 8, mostly Australians, from the ship, who dined with Pierre and Genevieve. They had no English, and most of our group had no French, so it was pretty much up to me, and another woman (whose French was a bit better than mine) to act as translators. We walked from the ship to their home, which took about half an hour (my poor knees!), but this was because we dawdled, as P and G showed us significant things around the town along the way. Genevieve was very canny, and worked out that I and the other woman (whose name was also Genevieve) had some French, so she seated us close to her and Pierre, so we could act as translators of sorts. It was a great evening, and despite the language issues, we managed to communicate, and laugh, and sing and eat and drink together. They gave us their card, with email address on it, as we had taken some photos, and they wanted copies.

Back on the ship,  I relaxed in the lounge, with a hot Baileys coffee and my iPad, and emailed the photos to P and G straight away.

The next morning found us in Vienne. The weather wasn't great, the first day that it had actually rained, and I was glad that I had booked into the mini train tour of the town (although I still got a bit cold and wet). It was still a great adventure, and I was annoyed at some of the people who seemed to do nothing but complain and nit-pick the whole time. I was determined to have fun, and nothing dampened my spirits! :-)

Because of the cold conditions, the group decided to cut our tour short and go back to the warmth of the ship. Given my knees were still recovering from the previous day's assaults, I didn't complain about this, and enjoyed relaxing for the rest of the day. That afternoon, we cruised into Lyon, and it was great to be propped up on my bed, with my curtains open, watching the scenery as we sped along the river and came into port.

So, thus ended Days 4 and 5.

Caro's Big Adventure: Tarascon to Avignon and Uzes

We arrived at the ship in Tarascon on the afternoon of Day 1. We stayed there for the next day, allowing day trips to a choice of  either Les Baux or St-Remy. We offered such choices, my selection was often governed by the level of difficulty of the walking involved. Les Baux was in difficult terrain, so St-Remy it was. 

A great day, exploring the local area, wandering around the town, under the watchful eye of a nice local guide, and then a visit to the Saint Paul de Mausole Monastery, where Van Gogh had lived for a year as a patient in the mental asylum there. Sitting in the cloister of the old monastery, I could feel the sense of peace from many centuries of prayerful contemplation still present in the place. I commented to our guide that such a peaceful place really did make for a good venue for the care of patients with mental illness... and it would have been more successful, if only the 'treatment' modalities had been a little less inhumane.

Here are some photos of St-Remy, and the monastery where Van Gogh spent a year.

We remained in port at Tarascon that afternoon, and we were free to wander around the town at will, but I needed to pace myself, so relaxed on board. That evening I was invited to dine in the special upper class restaurant, and had a lovely meal, with far too much wine, starting with a glass of Veuve Cliquot champagne. Those waiters sure were good at topping up the wine glasses. I ended up feeling a bit squiffy by the end of the night.

That evening, we set sail for Avignon, and during dinner, I experienced my first ever European river lock. Weird (and I could see the captain still sitting and socialising in the lounge... so WHO WAS DRIVING THE SHIP??!!!!) but all was well, and we came into Avignon later in the evening, and it was spectacular by night. The captain took us under the famous Pont d'Avignon, which was also pretty special.

The next morning, still feeling the effects of jet lag, I woke at 4am, and finally managed to get back to sleep, to be awakened by my butler, the lovely Vojtech, knocking on my door with my morning coffee.  I think I groaned incoherently at him, to which he replied, "don't worry, coffee will make it better. Here, let me pour it for you."

That day, there were choices to visit the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) in Avignon, or the small town of Uzes. I'd already been to both places on my last visit to the south of France, and so thought that Uzes could do with a second visit.  Tis option also included a visit to the Pont du Gard, which I didn't get to the last time I was in the region.

The tour guide was great, and we visited parts of the city I hadn't seen last time, and had plenty of free time for shopping, and hanging out in cafes...  as one does in France. I partnered up with Jenny and Tenelle, a mother and daughter from Aust, and they were impressed by my command of French as I took charge in ordering our coffee and hot chocolate from the cafe. We also did some shopping, bought some souvenirs for friends back home, and a lovely pair of silver earrings for myself. A good friend of Mum's told me before I left that if I saw anything I wanted in m y travels, I should buy it, as I don't know when or infill ever be back in that part of the world again. The earrings marked the start of my taking her advice very seriously.

Some pics of the Pont du Gard, and Uzes.

The afternoon was spent on board, with a bit of snoozage. And drinks in the lounge... And dinner... 

So this, dear reader, takes us to the end of Day three of the cruise.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Caro's Big Adventure: The Cruise REALLY Begins

So, on Easter Monday, mid-afternoon, we finally reached the MS Scenic Emerald, berthed in Tarascon sur Rhone. 

(Unfortunately, because I'm operating from my iPad, for some reason Blogger won't find the photos on my iPad, so it won't allow me to post photos here)

It was all very exciting. We were welcomed n board by the captain, and a host of the impressively uniformed crew, who all went running to collect our bags from the coach and load them on board the ship.

We were invited to gather in the lounge, where the Hotel Manager, one of the senior officers, welcomed us all, and told us how he would handle the check in process. I was among on of the first groups to be checked in, and once I got my room key, one of the staff carried my hand luggage for me, a young officer helped me down the stairs from Reception to deck 2, where mu cabin was, when he saw me struggling, and all the ladies were given a white rose as we left reception to head for our cabins (and in the cabin was a small vase, with water already in it, on the desk, ready to receive the rose). So right from the start there was a sense of luxury and attention to fine detail. I was gone...

As I looked around my cabin, reading the various notes that were on my bed, and in the portfolio on the desk, I saw the cards from the butler. I had been rather excited about the fact that all cabins had a personal butler service, and was looking forward to this level of ridiculous luxury that I had never before experienced. There was one general card, introducing the butler service, and listing what services were available through my butler. The other card had the name and phone number of my butler, Vojtech. As I was pondering these details, there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, Isaw a rather handsome young man, who introduced himself as Vojtech, my butler, and he enquired whether I had found the details of the services he would offer during the cruise. I assured him I had indeed found the cards, and his parting words to me were,"Don't hesitate to call me if you need anything, and I hope to see a lot of you during the cruise".

My cabin was quite generous in size. The bed was king sized, and had two single duvets on top of it, which is apparently quite common in Europe. The couples I spoke to said that they thought it was great to have their own duvets, so they could regulate their own sleeping temperature, and not have the covers stolen by their partner. I found it a bit weird the first couple of nights, but eventually got used to having to adjust the covers whenever I did a roll from one side of the bed to the other, as I often do. Considering that space is usually at a premium on board ships, I was surprised at how spacious the bedroom and bathroom both were. So all in all the accommodations were very comfortable. The rooms were serviced twice daily; firstly in the morning the beds were made, the towels changed, and a couple of days there were also very clever origami-styled towel animals left on the bed by the cabin stewardess. During the late afternoon port talk and dinner period, the room was serviced again, this time the beds were turned down, a chocolate left on the pillow, the curtains closed, lights turned on, and the mini bar and towels again replenished if needed.

The bathroom was supplied with L'Occitaine toiletries, so I was in heaven :-)

This season, for the first time, Scenic Cruises had an 'all inclusive' policy. This meant that all items in the minibar were included, as we're all the drinks in the lounge throughout the day, and it wasn't just the wine and beer at meals that was included, as had been the case in the past. I took the opportunity to work my way through the cocktail menu, and at various times enjoyed the likes of maitais, Brandy Alexander, Long Island Iced Tea, Rusty Nail, and every day had a 'cocktail of the day', and I was especially partial to one called a BBC (which contained Baileys, banana, coconut cream, and I'm not sure what else, all blended up with ice, to form a creamy banana smoothie with a kick).

Most of the crew were eastern European, mainly Ukrainian, Slovakian, Hungarian, with a few others (Spanish, French, German). They were all amazing. Professionally skilful in executing their jobs, but also really nice and friendly; able to have some playful interactions with the guests, without being too familiar or inappropriate. I fund this to be consistent across all of the crew (and other guests also commented on it to me), and it really made the cruise more enjoyable.

There was one young waiter called Igor (I kid you not), who was rather sweet, the first couple of meals, when he presented the wines (usually one red and one white), I commented to him that he would eventually learn it was pointless to show me any white wines, as I only drink red. Ever since I made that comment, we would have the conversation where I would say, "you don't have to ask me, do you?" And he would say,"You'll have the red, Ma'am?"

Towards the end of the cruise I said to Igor, "maybe one day I'll ask for white, just to mess with your mind," and he laughed. I discovered later, when talking to the restaurant manager (another of the senior officers), that Igor was indeed quite young, and this was his first cruise with Scenic. I also told him about my threat to mess with Igor's mind, and he said, with a twinkle in his eye, "If you do, let me know. I'd like to see his face when you say that."

There were also some lovely people on the cruise.  The nationality demographic was mostly Canadians, Aussies and English, with a few Americans, Irish and others thrown in. I enjoyed meeting some lovely people, and exchanged cards with some, in the hope of keeping in touch afterwards, so I guess time will tell on that one.

There were some people who had done many similar cruises before, and some were a bit nit-picky about some stuff, but as for me, I loved EVERYTHING, and just had a wonderful time.

I especially enjoyed the butler morning coffee service (which was effectively breakfast for me). Just imagine, as a single woman of a certain age, travelling alone, to wake up every morning to a handsome young man knocking on my door, with a smile on his face and coffee in his hands. It felt like I'd died and gone to heaven :-) 
(I should also mention that the ship had five butlers, who between them served all the cabins. Two of them were female, and I thought I'd hit the jackpot to score a very cute young man as my butler)

Caro's Big Adventure: the Cruise Begins!

So, Easter Sunday saw me arriving in Paris for a brief overnighter, before proceeding to Nice to meet up with the tour guide from Scenic. As a solo traveller, in a country where I know only a very little of the language, and am not overly familiar with the way things are done, I felt very proud of myself that I managed so well to get myself to the airport and onto my Air France flight from CDG to Nice.

Thanks to advice from friends, and my experience on my previous visit to France, I have two general rules:
1. I always try my best to speak French (even if it's really crappy French)  to anyone I meet for the first time
2. I always try to identify myself as Australian.

Therefore, my usual opening line tends to be:
"Bonjour. Je suis Australien, et je ne parle-pas tres bien francais. Parlez-vous anglais?"

This is usually met with one or more of the following:
1. A smile
2. Being cut off as soon as I say "Australien", with "English is ok"
3. A big smile and surprised expression, and "but your French is very good" (spoken either in English or French)
4.  An apologetic shake of the head, and some kind of indication that the person doesn't
speak English. (After which we battle on together as best we can, with my broken French and various sign language. This happened on my last visit, when I was in Aigues-Mort, and Alan had wandered off to look in another store, and I went into the Tabac to buy some postcards and stamps. The fact that the postcards I bought there -and the stamps- got home to Aust destinations eventually, meant we must have gotten it right, despite the lack of common language)

Anyway, back to the present. I managed to get from the hotel shuttle bus stop to the part of the airport I needed to get to. (Have I mentioned before that Charles de Gaulle airport is huge?) in the terminal 2F, I was then faced with many, many different check in and departure windows, and so I went up to the first official looking person I could see, and asked where I should check in, showing her my e-ticket. She didn't speak English, but was very helpful and pointed me to the right place. 

Then, the next achievement- automated check in using a kiosk thingy. I managed to check in and produce a boarding pass and luggage tag all by myself, and then got in the queue to drop my bag. This was the most fun part. As I was waiting at the head of the queue, there was a couple at the desk who seemed a bit dithery. They had their suitcase open, and were going through it, with stuff all over the floor, and at one point the guy behind the counter caught my eye, and I smiled at him, and he rolled his eyes rather comically. I think we shared a moment. 

When I got to the desk, he smiled at me, and I started my opening speech. He waved his hand and said, "in English?". I said, "yes, merci, but I try to speak French, because I think it's polite to at least try." We then had quite a pleasant little chat and a few laughs, whilst he did the paperwork he needed to do, and checked my passport (even for a domestic flight; I was surprised at this). When it was all done, I asked him, "so where do I go now?" and he smiled and directed me to the security gate.

The flight to Nice was quite pleasant. My seat was towards the rear of the plane, behind a curtain of sorts (in the cheap seats, I suspect), but I had no one next to me, and so was very comfortable (even the seatbelt was quite commodious, as on most domestic flights in Aust, generally I have to ask for an extender, or else it only just fits, and is a bit tight. But there were no problems, and I settled in for the flight. The in flight magazine was written in French and English, so I amused myself by reading the French bits, and trying to work out what they were saying, before looking at the English translations to see how ll I'd done. Interestingly, there were some bits that I'm certain where the English translations weren't totally accurate ( I think there was extra detail in the French bits that wasn't included in the English), so again I was feeling reasonably happy that my French is perhaps not as bad as I had thought. This was also a great exercise to improve my French, so it was good all round.

Upon arrival I was met by the Scenic Tours person, who was concerned that there were only about six of us on that flight, when there should have been something like 26. So she went running around trying to find out why Nd happened to the others. In the meantime, I got chatting to the rather nice Canadian couple who were sitting, waiting, with me. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, we eventually got on the coach, and were on our way to Taraascon, and the ship.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Caro's Big Adventure: Flying Business Class

Flying Business Class was a big treat. After checking in at the Etihad desk, I was given two pieces of paper in addition to my boarding pass: a pass to go into the Air NZ lounge (as Etihad don't have their own lounge at Sydney airport) and an Express Pass for the customs and passport departure section, so that I didn't have to stand in the longish queue, but went pretty much straight through.

So, after passing through all the official channels, I found my way to the lounge, and, like the hayseed come to town that I was, marvelled at the treats available on the buffet, and the self-serve bar, including various spirits as well as wine and beer.

 Eventually it came time to board, and I was ensconced in my own little cocoon (because that's what the BC seats feel like.) I was served champagne by the friendly flight attendant, and was asked to peruse the in-flight menu, to select what I would like to be served once we were in the air. A pre-dinner drink, followed by choices of entree and main course for 'dinner' that was served around midnight, once we were in the air.

During my meal. I watched a movie on the in flight entertainment system, and by the time the movie finished, it was about 1:30am (I kept my watch on Sydney time till we were almost at Abu Dhabi), and then decided to have a snooze. Now, I need to talk about the seats in BC. The seats have automated recline functions, so at the press of a button, I could move my chair forwards (for shorties like me, who might want to still sit up straight, but put their feet on the footstool), I could select 'upright' or 'relax' or 'bed' options from the automatic settings, or else manipulate the level of recline of the back of the seat, and/or how far forward the whole seat was...but wait, there's more!

There was also a massage function, with a variety of settings for location and pattern of vibrations. Needless to say, I had A LOT of fun playing with all this. 

So, after the movie, I flattened the seat out to bed mode, put the sleep mask on to black out all the extraneous light, and settled down for some kip. I remember doing a bit of tossing and turning, and needing to take the occasional sip of water from my water bottle, but before I knew it, I looked at ,u watch, and it was around 8am. So I figured I must have had around 6-7 hours' sleep; perhaps not the best quality, but at least I slept, and actually felt ok when I woke up.

So then, of course, came the breakfast service.... And it was around this time that I adjusted my watch to Abu Dhabi time.

Not long after that we got into Abu Dhabi, and were told we could go to the Etihad Business Class Lounge in the airport (where I made like a Hobbit, and had a second breakfast). After a three hour layover, we were off again, en route to Paris. Again, I was plied with alcohol, bot pre-flight, and in the air, given an extravagant meal service (not only do they have real glasses, crockery and cutlery, but they also put a napkin tablecloth on the tray table before putting the meal tray down. All very elegant).

By the time I got to Charles de Gaulle airport, I was starting to feel a bit the worse for wear, despite my hours of sleep on the plane. CDG is a big airport, and surprisingly, once i got my suitcase, there was no real customs or quarantine checkpoint to speak of. I just walked out. Then, after asking a couple of people for directions to the hotel shuttle pick up point, and walking from one end of the terminal to the other (and my poor knees were not happy), I finally found the bus I needed, and got to my hotel. The first thing I did was have a long shower, and boy, was that good. By this stage it was obloquy 4pm Paris time, and I had been in transit for about 27 hours since leaving Sydney at 10pm on the Sat night. I was starting to fade, but didn't want to crash until after dinner, and sometime closer to 'normal' bedtime in that timezone.

All up I coped ok with the travel, but was very grateful for the comfort of Business Class (and especially those bed-seats, which really helped me to get some sleep)

So, I've arrived in France... More later.

J'aime France

Well, here I am in Paris, watching the rain gently falling from the window of my hotel room on the rue Thenard in the Latin Quarter. I've been in France now for over a week, having left Sydney on Easter Saturday. I'm conscious that I've been remiss in my blogging, so those of you who aren't my friends on Facebook won't have a clue what I've been up to. Sorry for that, and now that I have a bit of time, I'll try to bring things up to date. (I should warn you that I'm typing on an iPad, which isn't as easy as a regular computer, so please excuse any typos I might miss).

Mum's house was sold at auction on March 23, and after some mad packing up and clearing out activity, (and huge thanks to friends and neighbours who helped so much with it all) I was ready to leave the country the following Saturday.

Because this is the 'grande vaconce' that will be a kind of once in a lifetime thing, to help me recover, refresh and recuperate from the long and hard slog of caring for Mum through her illness and coping with the emotional and administrative effects of her death; and to reorient my head, to become ready to go back home and to work. Because of this, (and the fact that I now have access to all of Mum's assets, which is m ore than I have ever had in my life) I have made some deliberate choices about the level of comfort, luxury and indulgence I am prepared to allow myself, and I am trying hard not to feel guilty or uncomfortable about that.

So, my flights from Sydney to Paris (and the future return flights) are business class. I had a wonderful time being spoilt by the lovely Etihad crew, and enjoying a very comfortable seat, that reclined all the way back into a flat bed (so that I even managed to get around 6-7 hours of sleep on the first, long leg, from Sydney to Abu Dhabi).

The overall outline for the trip is as follows:
* Fly Sydney to Paris via Abu Dhabi (arrive Easter Sunday). Stay overnight in airport hotel near CDG.
* Fly Paris to Nice, where I met the liaison person for transfer to Tarascon (on the Rhone river) to commence a 9 day river cruise on the MS Scenic Emerald from Tarascon to Chalon sur Saone, finishing up with a transfer to Paris and overnight in a very flash hotel in the centre of Paris.
* spend the following 6 nights in Paris, at a cute little hotel in the Latin Quarter.
* train (TGV) to Nimes, to stay for three nights with friends in Gaian, just out of Nimes.
* train back to Paris, and stay one last night in Paris (in the same hotel I stayed in last trip, for old time's sake)
* train (Eurostar) to London- to spend some time catching up with various friends in London, Oxford, Thame and elsewhere, before heading back to Sydney from Heathrow
* arrive Sydney (hopefully not too savagely jet-lagged) on Sat 27 April, and stay in a nice hotel in North Ryde for 4 nights or so to tie up any loose ends, say goodbyes etc and then fly home, and re-enter my 'normal' life, after being away for 10 months.

So, that's it in a nutshell. I'm thinking that rather than writing a huge long post to give all the details of all my adventures so far, I'll break it up into a number of smaller travelogue-y blog posts, hopefully with links to some pretty pictures.