This would not be an itinerary I’d choose for a first-time visit to Europe in general, nor for a first-time visit to France specifically. This is a combination of destinations suitable to a more seasoned European traveler, and moreover, someone having experienced France previously. Having been to France in the past, I’ve visited the Paris area, Normandy, Alsace-Lorraine, Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire Valley, Burgundy, Provence, and Hautes Alpes. I truly wouldn’t have seen the rest of Europe had I not taken time off from visiting France specifically!
The south-central slice of France comprising Lyon at its eastern end, and Bordeaux to the west, with the Massif Central at its center, held for me unexplored portions of the country, promising cuisine, wine, history, and architecture to be discovered. In particular, the cuisine in the historic city of Lyon, with their traditional Bouchons, was waiting to be explored. And of course the wines of the Bordeaux region, known across France and the world, were also on the list for discovery. Both cities are UNESCO world heritage sites, and both cities have opportunities for day trips to explore the surrounding region and countryside.
With Atlanta as my home base in the US, direct flights from there to Paris Charles de Gaulle are frequent, but generally not competitively priced. Delta and Air France have a lock on direct flights from Atlanta, and they’re codeshare partners, where codeshare is “code” for monopoly from a consumer perspective. A workable alternative would have been Atlanta to Heathrow, with a connecting flight either to Lyon, or to Bordeaux. Because I had Delta Frequent Flyer miles to burn, Atlanta to Paris Charles de Gaulle was the most convenient option, with a 55 minute connecting flight to Lyon as the second leg of the itinerary to start the trip.
I secured a rental car from Sixt, my favorite car rental company in Europe. I requested a BMW 5-series for 6 days, but received a Volvo S60, which turned out to be fairly competitive to the German car for quality and road worthiness. I like Sixt because they generally have German cars, and the quality of service has been very good in the past. I like German cars because they are designed for high speeds and handle very well. While the French speed limit is 130 KPH (80 MPH), there are wide open stretches where one could hit much higher speeds were one so inclined. Driving any faster than 130 KPH is unsafe in a vehicle not engineered and equipped for that purpose. Driving in Europe is not for the meek at heart, nor for the timid driver. I can understand the “horror” stories recounted by some US tourists of their driving experiences in Europe. Personally, driving is part of the immersive experience in travel. It’s not like home, but it’s not meant to be. And in some ways, it’s much better than driving at home. For example, European drivers generally yield the left-hand lane to those intending to pass when practical. Compare that to the doddering old coot perpetually in the left hand lane with his left turn signal on in your favorite locale in the US. In general, highways in France are less crowded than in the US, but only away from major population centers. In the cities, the French roads are every bit as congested as name-your-nightmare rush hour in the US.
Having secured a car for day trips in Lyon and Bordeaux, as well as the connection to Bordeaux from Lyon, what remained was the transportation from Bordeaux back to Paris Charles de Gaulle to start the first leg of the return trip home. To train or not to train, that is the question. I decided on First Class TGV accommodations from Bordeaux Saint Jean to Charles de Gaulle terminal 2. Yes, the TGV (Tres Grande Vitesse) does take longer than a 1 hour “puddle jumper” from Bordeaux to Paris. But sometimes it’s not about the quickest route. The train does take longer, but that’s actually a good thing. Enjoying the company of your fellow travelers, taking in the sun-soaked countryside, and catching up on one’s blog posts are all things possible in comfort with first class train tickets. And it beats sitting around Charles de Gaulle terminal 2 for hours on end, hunting down a place to sit with access to power for portable devices.
My choice for basic itinerary was to split the 8 nights available for this trip evenly between Lyon and Bordeaux. In retrospect, 8 nights is not enough time for a thorough immersion in both destinations. But the reality is that there is never enough time, so the even split was a best effort immersion starter – and there’s always the next time for those things we invariably miss, no matter how well considered and planned we make our itineraries.
Definitely apartments over hotel rooms for this trip. As mentioned earlier, both cities are UNESCO world heritage sites, steeped in history and architecture. Lyon has 2000 years of history, including a well preserved Roman amphitheater, a medieval and Renaissance Vieille Ville portion of the city (Old Town), and a charming Presqu’ile residential area on the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. Lyon is the culinary capital of France – not Paris. The choice of apartments for Lyon was brilliant, with panoramic views over the Saone river to the Notre Dame de Fourviere at the top of the hill. The views at night were particularly stunning, with little justice provided by photographs taken as compared to being there, no matter the effort undertaken to take the right photo, under the right conditions. Seeing the views in real time always beats the pictures taken. That’s why we travel. It’s not the same as the photos we bring back. The views from the apartment in the centrally located Presqu’ile neighborhood were simply not available from a hotel. And the price would have been many times more for the hotel as compared to the apartment had it been possible. Moreover, it’s difficult to have the same level of immersion from a hotel experience as compared to being a temporary resident, in a residential city neighborhood for a few days.
Wine drinker or otherwise, most people have heard of Bordeaux as the famed hub of the French wine growing region. Wine growing is the most common denominator when it comes to first thoughts on the region of Bordeaux, but the city has so much more to offer. UNESCO recognized for its beautiful, and consistent architecture, the city center is clean and well maintained. Other French cities aspire to be as well-kempt as Bordeaux. Due to its smaller size, Bordeaux has a more intimate feel than Lyon. The old town is laid out in a series of medieval streets that open onto plazas and grander boulevards. Historic sites, parks, and things that simply catch the eye are peppered throughout the old part of the city. The apartment selected for Bordeaux was centrally located, right in the heart of Rue Saint Catherine, just a few minutes’ walk from the Garonne riverfront. This apartment was more about location than views, with immediate and easy pedestrian access to all city attractions, and restaurants. Bordeaux is the type of city an enthusiast could easily walk through all day , not realizing until the end that 10 miles had pleasantly passed.
Absolutely can’t live without google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers. I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Lyon and Bordeaux. Once I have my flight schedule selected, I add my flights to the alert list for price changes, and patiently wait for a good price to come my way.
I rely on several sites for apartment rentals. In the order of preference: HomeAway, booking.com, Tripadvisor, and last and definitely least, Airbnb. Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them. Their business model simply doesn’t suit me, and they have basic functional deficiencies. I’ll have to put together a Travel Tips blog post on apartment selection, and share my perspective on the challenges in using some sites versus others. But on this particular trip, I did end up using Airbnb for Lyon as they had the best apartment, and I was able to circumvent the Airbnb location ambiguity to my satisfaction before booking it. I used booking.com for the Bordeaux apartment as they had the closest to the heart of the old town. I did use the other two apartment hunting resources, but their facilities were not competitive on this particular trip with the dates I had in mind.
google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of purpose. France has great cellular coverage, so I didn’t have to resort to downloading maps for offline usage, like on other trips (Chile). However, France also has the so-called “safety cameras” peppered throughout their roadway systems, mostly on their 130 kph divided highways. In the many previous trips driving in France, I have received only one speeding violation in the mail. Considering my love of driving with vigor, I consider myself lucky. This time I used waze to help me navigate around the misnamed safety cameras. The app worked pretty well, alerting upon entry to and exit from the “enforcement zones.” I do have to caution that it is a data-hungry beast when in continuous use on a long drive, chewing up a lot of roaming data, which will be of concern to those on expensive international roaming plans.
Tripadvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, as well as finding a decent restaurant on the spot. When I use it for this purpose, I select “near me now/restaurants” and filter on “open now”. Then I sort by distance – not highest rated. When I’m hungry enough to find an unplanned restaurant, I want closest, then best. Of note is the Michelin restaurant app, which I did use both in Lyon and Bordeaux. But I always cross-referenced whatever restaurants the Michelin app recommended with the Tripadvisor app, and selected what made the most sense. It was usually Tripadvisor. Yelp is not particularly useful, and I don’t even have it installed on my phone any more.
Uber works in France, and it does come in handy. It is much better than trying to hire a taxi because you need not have any communication with the driver if language challenged, aside from properly identifying yourself on pickup. I used Uber from the airport to central Lyon, as well as around town when I simply tired of walking – once or twice.
With google translate on my phone at the ready, I seek out restaurants that have no English menu available. Going to countries where I don’t speak the language, and have bare familiarity with the alphabet is possible with google translate installed. Game changer for traveling off the beaten path – or even on the beaten path where language challenged. It’s important to note that language modules are downloadable for offline usage. Again not an issue in France because the coverage is so good, but it may save some money for those on expensive roaming plans.
Meteo-France is worth a mention as a useful resource. A better weather forecasting app for France doesn’t exist. It’s nice to have a sense for the day’s weather as I set out in the morning.
An Opportunity Missed
I love to plan because good planning usually yields a better experience, to the extent that planning can do that. But there is no such thing as perfect planning. Too much planning is a bad thing. Good travel, immersive travel, happens with a certain element of “being there” decisions, and even chance, that simply can’t and shouldn’t be planned. So, that’s the beginning of the conversation I have with anyone asking how I enjoyed the “wine tours” of Bordeaux. I didn’t do any wine tours in Bordeaux. The village hopping we did on our one-day excursion by car from Bordeaux was my choice for an immersive experience. And Bordeaux was too lovely to spend any less time exploring her. I do like wine. A lot. So there’s definitely an opportunity when I return to Bordeaux. And there are many more villages to explore in the region. In fact, so many that it would take months to visit every little village just one day at a time from Bordeaux. And I do love little villages. And so, I may not make the wine tour next time either. Of course the real solution is to move to Bordeaux, perhaps not permanently, but at least for a year. I could hit all the wine-maker’s chateaux, and all the villages from my centrally located Bordeaux apartment, just off the Garonne River. It’s a lovely thought.