Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Trip Wrap Up

with 3 comments

I got back yesterday after a ten hour flight, a nine hour time difference, and a bag full of dirty laundry.

The hotel in Paris did offer wi-fi – provided by Orange, for a price – but it only worked with PCs running Windows! This seems a bit contrary to Europe in general which has been very supportive officially of other systems and especially open source. And no help to us with an iMac and a Linux notebook.

This is just my impressions of Paris and by no means a thoroughly researched comparison.

The Eurostar from St Pancras was completely unremarkable, and almost devoid of any sensation. The train is very fast, but if you don’t have a window next to your seat – sadly an all too common experience when coaches are designed for first class seat pitch and then used for closer second class seating – there is nothing but the popping of your ears when entering a tunnel to indicate that. The trains are well used but not overcrowded – but people were using pull down seats in vestibules. Plenty of space for baggage (unlike the East Midlands trains Meridians) and two buffets (one for each half of the long train). We had a very nice lunch in the undercroft of the refurbished St Pancras so we did not need either. The Eurostar we were on stopped at both Ebbsfleet and Frethun – though neither produced the mob of people walking through the train you get on domestic services. And there was no on board ticket check. Running to time seems to be part of the culture, not a rare exception.  I was surprised that Channel ferries and local short hop airlines both seem to be competing effectively, but for my money the direct train service centre to centre still beats any other way to make this journey.

Paris has long had excellent Metro and RER (suburban rail) service. Buses are good too – lots of bus lanes – but not as popular as London, probably becuase they are not as well integrated. If you are using a carnet of tickets you need a separate one for bus and Metro. Much better to buy a day – or longer – period pass. But by far the best way to get around is the velib. This was a revelation – and something we should copy soon. There is a bike parking station every 300 metres – usually off the main boulevards. Becuase they are a city initiative  they are not in many many nationally controlled tourist attractions – where there is often a lot of unused space – but always close by. And with useful maps on both the bike stations, but stops and other civic amenities. Back streets are usually quite quiet, but frequently blocked by deliveries. If you do use the main boulkevards there is either a bus lane to share – or a marked bike path. Riding on sidewalks is not allowed. Parisian drivers seem to accept cyclists in a way that Vancouver drivers need to emulate. No helmet is needed. There are marked bike areas ahead of the stop line in many major intersections.

Velo Lib Park

Velib Park

The velib has a basket, stand and a lock for use away from stations. There is really nothing to it. You swipe your credit card the first time to have a deposit reserved, and you get an identity number and select a PIN. Thereafter you can pickup and drop off where ever it is convenient. There is also a longer term proximity read card for locals, which cuts the time needed for pushing buttons. The machines have English and Spanish instructions (as well as French, of course) and it is the most relaxing and easy way to get around – because once you have locked it back to its post at the station you can forget about it.

Bastille Day is a Big Deal – and central Paris gets closed down for a rehearsal on the 13th and the big parade on the 14th. On these days the Metro is the best way to avoid the road blocks. On July 14 the Louvre is free!

RER line C along the south (left) bank of the Seine is being reconstructed – lots of signs about replacement buses and closed stations. There is much less information though that this also affects the RER line B (which serves the airports). The station where this line connects to C is also inaccessible. Yes, there are people to advise on other ways to connect, but none of the labelling on maps or line diagrams which I think is needed.

The Euro is much stronger than the Canadian dollar, and Paris has never been a very cheap place. But still well worth every sou! I would not recommend the Bateux Parisiens from Notre Dame as a way of sight seeing – not that there is anything wrong with the boats, just the complete absence of crowd control. Other operators seem to have bigger craft with more facilities on board and ashore. The Mussee D’Orsay is unmissable – and allow more than a couple of hours. A whole day would be worthwhile there. If you have small children, model sailing boats in the Luxembourg gardens and the zoo at Jardin des Plantes should be on the list. (We didn’t – but still enjoyed both).  Quite why Parisians are willing to line up and drink coffee out of paper cups at Starbucks beats me. The typical cafe with seating on the sidewalk – and waiter service – seems to me to be far superior in every respect.

Charles de Gaulle airport is huge and Terminal 3 a long walk – outside – from the RER Terminal 1 station. There does not appear to be a shuttle service. The terminal itself is just a shed – with no airbridges at the gates. Instead shuttle buses (with few seats) take passengers to the planes on the apron. Accessibility seems to have a generally lower place in priorities – not just in the airport but across the board. And those big rolling suitcases are seen everywhere – and usually with the owner of them struggling with stairs, turnstiles and other obstacles.  And on the Metro not only are the turnstiles mostly unmanned – but even where staff are present the plight of encumbered passengers is more a source of amused observation than actual help. Other passengers are much more helpful.

In England and France, chip and PIN cards (both debit and credit) are universal. While our cards mostly worked, they do not always. So have some cash if you want to buy metro ticket – their machines do not accept our cards. Nor will Marks and Spencers let you get Euros with a Canadian card (they have a big business now in commission free currency exchanges).

And too late for me but maybe not for you the Guardian has a list of the top 10 Paris Bistros on a Budget (prix fixe for E25 to 30). I did not visit any of these but will happily recommend

Cafe des Beaux Arts (left bank near Pont des Arts)

Brasserie au Soleil de la Butte (Montmatre)

Cafe au Petit Suisse (Rue Corneille, Luxemburg gardens)

Polidor (St Germain des Pres)

Written by Stephen Rees

July 17, 2008 at 11:05 am

3 Responses

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  1. Even if you have a window seat on a Chunnel Train, most of what you see is your own reflection, and even if you focus beyond your own reflection, there isn’t much to see…. it’s like a 20 minute non-stop subway ride. The experience itself is rather mundane, it’s the concept of what you’re doing that makes it intersting.

    Paris is such a great walking city; my feet have never been so tired as they were returning to the hotel one night after doing the Louvre, the Catacombs, Père Lachaise Cemetery… just watch for the dog stuff.

    David Banks

    July 17, 2008 at 10:23 pm

  2. Thanks for the trip updates, Stephen. I’ll keep your advice in mind when I visit the UK, Ireland, and Paris later this summer.


    July 17, 2008 at 10:32 pm

  3. […] won’t go, since I have already had a chance to sample the Paris velib program, so I am already a convert! But one thing we will need to sort out is how is this program […]

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