All things free – Paris!

Since I have been away for a while, I decided to come back with a freebie post! I didn’t make enough money in Paris to fund my backpacking trip and live a super glamorous life. But that doesn’t mean you have to forego certain joys like going to an organ concert or getting a fancy haircut!

  • Fashion Shows: Oh yes, you can actually attend free fashion shows in Paris. A 30 minute show is conducted every Friday afternoon at the Galerie Lafayette. It requires prior registration and the entry is free for up to 14 persons. You can find out the details here and reserve your place here.
  • Music Concerts: You have more than one option when it comes to music. And they are all pretty cool.
    • The American Church: The Atelier concerts are hosted every Sunday evening and you can register with the Music Director to receive updates on upcoming events.
    • The Notre Dame organ concert: Recitals take place on Saturdays at 8pm and on Sunday afternoons before the Vespers service (except on Sundays during Lent). No prior registration is required. You can attend a concert on Sunday afternoon and follow it with a book/poetry reading at Shakespeare & Co. across the street.
    • La Défense Metro Station: I lived in Courbevoie and took the metro Line 1 to work from La Défense. On Friday mornings around 7:45-8, students from a local conservatoire play at the metro station. Oh, and they are good! I am not sure how regular they are because I didn’t stop to chat with them, but may be you could do that and find out!
  • For the love of books: I mentioned that you could go to a literature event right across the street from Notre Dame. Well, Shakespeare & Co. is where you’re headed. Check out their upcoming events here. I am pretty sure they have something every weekend.
  • Haircuts: Sounds too good to be true, eh? JCB charges women upwards of 40 euros even for a trim and for someone one a shoe-string budget, that’s pretty steep! I actually resorted to trimming my own bangs and accidentally cut more that what I was supposed to ! So, here’s your solution. Toni & Guy Hairdressing Academy gives you free haircuts and you can find out about it here.

If you like this freebie post, don’t forget to share it with your peeps coz hey – spread the freebie love ♥♥

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Annecy

Back to Gare de Lyon – where it all started when I made the first day trip to Fontainebleau in November 2014. I didn’t sleep for more than 2 hours because that run to Nord (Lille) still gives me nightmares. I took the RER to Gare de Lyon and was well in time for the train. I had a connection at Lyon Part Dieux and it was a one hour wait. So, I had two hours to sleep. I was quite dead to the world when my neighbour elbowed me – the SNCF staff was here to check tickets! Damn, it is amazing how my body has programmed itself to switch off when I travel. I don’t even need a travel pillow these days.

I reached Lyon Part Dieux at 9 and scoured a Relay store for food. Miracle of miracles – they had a section of books in a foreign language! And guess what I found – Bones Never Lie, by Kathy Reichs! I have no idea why she is famous in France because this isn’t the first time I have seen her books being sold here. The last time I saw a copy was in Latin Quarter and it was an old, battered French edition. I was over the moon to find a copy in English and so I bought it!

I had brought along Gone Girl to finish but I switched to Bones for obvious reasons. I reached Annecy as scheduled at noon. One smart thing that I have started doing is picking up maps at the SNCF stations. This way, your trip isn’t ruined if you can’t locate the Office de Tourismus. I always believed that they place incorrect signs on the roads so that you will never find their offices. I got proof this time! Anyway, so I picked up a map and decided to go to the lake and have a snack.

Once you get out of the SNCF station, Rue de la Gare is on your right. That is the new part of the town. The Office de Tourismus, the lake, and the old town are on your left. I followed the map and found the tourist office. It was closed for lunch. So, I went to the lake to eat my Milka cookies – my travel food on every trip. It began to drizzle so I walked back around the lake to the centre of the town. It is funny that all ice cream shops have the word “glacier” in their name. I picked up Nutella flavoured ice cream before my walk in the old town. The shopping opportunities here, I must say, are excellent! I picked up these really cute gloves with beavers on them, a scarf, a bag, and an umbrella (out of pure necessity). The rain worsened and I was forced to find my way to the hostel.

There is only one hostel in Annecy and I recommend that you do NOT go there. Sure, it is a 20 minute walk from the station and not very far from the old town. But it is the most dingy place I have ever laid my eyes upon! I have a thing against tiny spaces but that’s not my only strike against the hostel. It was small, damp, and smelly. Also, it just happened to be next to a fuckin’ cemetery. With all due respect to the dead, the non-living creep me out. I had no energy to walk in the rain to find another place to stay. So I went straight up to my room and slept. It was only 5PM but I slept so I didn’t have to think about the burly Algerian dudes in my room (seriously, why do hostels take in people over 35?) I refused to wake up until 8am the next day. I showered, picked up my bags and ran out as fast as I could.

The original plan was to go to Geneva for the day. But I found out that there was nothing scenic about the route, and also the few hours wouldn’t be worth the cost of the trip. So I decided to explore the Sunday market which btw was fabulous. If you are a local, that’s the place to buy your bread and meat. If you are a tourist, shop to your heart’s content! I bought some more scarves, a wooden box and a tray for my tea, a wicker basket, and a donkey.

It started raining again when I reached the canals and the ice cream shop from the day before. There was an Italian church just opposite to the shop so I went in. I prayed for a while before going to the lake for lunch. The panini and the coffee I had in the market was long digested. Since the rain refused to stop, I headed to the SNCF station for some respite. I couldn’t move my tickets to another train – too expensive. So I sat there watching Downtown Abbey until my train home. All in all, it wasn’t the best weekend.

Mont St. Michel

Okay, so this was by far my most anticipated trip. I had my heart set on Mont St. Michel ever since I saw it in The Savy Backpacker’s list. I mean, c’mon! What’s not to like about an abbey built on rocks off the coast in Normandy?!

The thing with MSM is that you need a bit of planning. It is a long and slightly tiring journey if you make this a daytrip, but it is very much doable. The whole trip takes about 3.5 hours. Tickets can be booked at the SNCF centres or online on their website. From Paris to Dol de Bretagne or Rennes is a train journey and from either Dol de Bretagne or Rennes, you have to board a bus that takes you to MSM. The whole journey can be booked together and the connection time is around ten minutes. It isn’t tight because the bus is waiting just for your train. Dol de Bretagne is a tiny terminus, so your train probably is headed to St. Malo.

My train in the morning dropped me off at Dol de Bretagne. It was misty and slightly cold. It didn’t help that I had barely recovered from the nasty bout of flu I had been suffering from. The bus dropped me off (quite literally) in the middle of nowhere – turns out that the bus only plies between the train terminus and the Brittany information office. The information office is quite amazing and you should totally take some time to go through the stuff they have on display – it is quite interesting! There are free shuttles every ten minutes from the information bureau that take you to the base of MSM and there is another Tourist Office there. The climb to the top is not very long despite what the pictures make you believe. It is a ten minute walk and there are a LOT of shops, bakeries, and quick-eat outlets on the way.

I stopped for a panini and some hot chocolate to soothe my sinuses before starting the climb. On the way there was a tiny chapel of St. Eglise. I stopped to sit and pray for a while. It was quite small and peaceful (read that as no influx of selfie-crazed Asians).

The tickets for the abbey are sold at the entrance and you get a discount if you are under 25 / or if you’re booking a family package. The audio guide is available separately and I recommend buying it unless you have read up on the abbey already.

The view from the top wasn’t great because of the fog but the architecture is awe-worthy. Here are some pictures :

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Versailles

Versailles is huge and you absolutely need a full day to take it all in. If you decide to go on a free Sunday, I strongly recommend getting there before the invasion of the masses (read tourist buses). I found a really easy way to get there. Turns out that the T2 tram behind my apartment building (Direction Porte de Versailles) drops you off at Musee de Sevres, and from there you just have to reach the bridge overhead to catch Bus 171 that goes to the chateau. Easy-peasy, right? This saves a lot of money, train changes, and waiting time.

I got there just before 9 to see the masses arrive. The €13 ticket includes the audio guide but unlike Fontainebleau, this one isn’t GPS enabled. So, you will have to search for the number cards and key them in. The tour begins with a glimpse of the Royal Chapel and then progresses to the Grand Apartments. The opera is open only to private tours but you can catch the organ concert in the Royal Chapel in the afternoon during select periods. Check out the Chateau’s website for more details. If you decide to attend the organ concert, approach the Information desk  outside the entrance to the Royal Chapel and ask them for “Concert” sticker. Only a limited number of seats are available. I stopped at the gift shop before continuing to the Petit Apartments. The exit from the Petit Apartments leaves you behind the palace and in the grounds facing the fountain and the approach to the Grand and Petit Trianon. If you are not interested in walking, you can take the golf cart trains.

I bumped into a group of boys in the square inside the palace. They asked me to take a picture for them, and conversation ensued. Bombay people always connect. We decided to cover the grounds together. It was drizzling but not enough to dampen our enjoyment. The grounds are huge and require a fairly decent bit of time. I don’t believe all of Versailles can be seen in one day alone. We explored a few trails that Chaitanya Krishna (the photographer) and the other dude (their un-official tour guide) insisted on.

I insisted on going back to the Chapel for the concert. Btw, there is a limit to the number of people who can fit inside. So, make sure you pick up stickers at the information counter before you proceed to the Petit Apartments. Also, once you are in the grounds, the only way to go in is to re-enter the chateau. This also means you need to re-do the security check.

It was almost 5:30 when we were done. And since it was winter, it was already getting dark. The boys were put up in Evry (Paris ka Virar, as Rishi put it) but La Defénse would take longer so I decided to call it a day. Retrace your steps back to the city; it’s quite straightforward.

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Up Next: Mont St. Michel

Paris : English bookstores

I love to read and I end up collecting books in every city / town I live in. So when I moved to Paris, my biggest challenge was finding bookstores that sold books in a foreign language – English!

Shakespeare & Company
No list can start without this dream of a store. The original store established by Sylvia Beach hosted Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald among many others. With makeshift sleeping quarters on the top, this store has housed as many as 40,000 struggling writers. This is every reader and aspiring writer’s home away from home.
The store is located at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, near Notre Dame, over the Seine. The closest metro / RER stations are St. Michel (Line 4), St. Michel Notre-Dame (RER B and RER C).
Given the tiny space inside crammed with books old and new, you might have to wait outside for a bit. They allow only a few people at a time to enter. Photography inside the store is prohibited. On my first visit, someone on their staff was at the piano upstairs. It was so beautiful that I had to sit down and cry for a bit. You’ll find everything from Austen to HONY here. They also organise poetry readings and book clubs on Sunday evenings. You can attend one after the weekly organ concert at Notre Dame (held on Sunday afternoons around 4).

WHSmith
This is usually my airport stop (Bombay-Hyderabad-Bangalore). But a good old dependable store like this one comes handy in a non-English speaking country. Located right outside Concorde (Metro Lines 1,8, and 12), this store to the left of Jardin des Tuileries, if you are facing towards The Louvre. It’s quite hard to miss. If you’re looking for Lonely Planet travel guides in English, this is where you’ll find them. If you’re sneaking in here in your lunch break, fear not for they have you sorted. On the ground floor, there is a mini café next to the magazine section.

Gilbert Joseph
This is a chain of stores but there’s a huge one just behind the Notre Dame. They sell French and English books along with art supplies, stationery, and postcards. The closest metro / RER stations are St. Michel (Line 4), St. Michel Notre-Dame (RER B and RER C).

There are certainly more bookstores that sell English books but the above three are your best bet if you’re looking for well known titles. There are a lot of booksellers outside the Notre Dame, but I doubt you’ll find anything in English here. Don’t let my experience stop you from checking out these second hand book stalls though.

Fontainebleau

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If you are in France, chateaus are a must. Whether you pick Versailles, The Loire Valley, Pierrefonds, or – Fontainebleau! Museums, palaces, and some other monuments like the Arc de Triomph are free on the first Sunday of the month. The fee for Versailles is slightly steep, so I would recommend saving that for the first Sunday.

The 45 minute journey from Paris to Fontainebleau is pretty straightforward. There are trains leaving from Gare de Lyon. You can buy your tickets at the yellow Ile de France machines (if you have a chip and pin credit card) or from the ticket counter. You are actually taking the RER D and it leaves from the platform upstairs and not underground. Look for trains going to Laroche-Migennes, Montargis, Montereau, or Sens. Fontainebleau Avon should be one of the stops on your journey. The TV monitors on the platforms will display a list of stops for each journey. The Savy Backpacker says that your Navigo valid from Zones 1-5 should work as well, but we didn’t try. Right outside the Fontainebleau Avon station, a bus will be waiting to take you to the castle. There is only one bus, so you really can’t get confused. It costs about a euro-fifty and you can buy the ticket on the bus.

You can buy your tickets to the chateau at their website to avoid the long queue once you reach there. An alternative is to buy the tickets at the Tourism Office. Office de Tourismus is right opposite the castle and opens at 10am. They have free WiFi !!! Okay, so here you can get your free maps for the castle grounds and the forest trails.

Be prepared for your first view of the chateau. If this is your first experience, it is going to take your breath away. I like Fontainebleau the best – and it is not only because it was my first. I think the horseshoe entrance did it for me. For your day, you can start with the castle, followed by a walk in the castle grounds, and then if you still have time – you can try one of the trails suggested by the Tourism Office.

The 11€ ticket does not include the audio guide. You can purchase it separately inside the castle for 5€. I would recommend taking the audio guide. It is one of the few guides that is GPS enabled, which means that you don’t have to constantly look at your map to key in numbers – the device starts the relevant audio track based on your location. Cool, isn’t it?

Flavia and I were overwhelmed by the sweet locals we met on the bus and were already in love with the town before we reached the palace. The bus dropped us a street away from the chateau and the Tourism Office was right there. Btw – these guys are super punctual. They open at 10 and we were there at 9:59. So, they asked us to come back a minute later!

The tour of the palace didn’t take very long and we were done by 1PM. We decided to take a stroll in the gardens behind the chateau and take some pictures. FT wanted to be back in Paris before evening so we left by 3 and skipped the forest trails suggested by the Tourism office.

Fontainebleau, November 29, 2014.

in the Palace grounds

in the Palace grounds

Up Next: Versailles

Paris : Airports

OMG you are going to Paris! That’s great. But how are you getting there? Paris has 3 airports and even more train stations. So, let’s take a look at airports today.

Charles de Gaulle also known as the Roissy airport is the main international airport in Zone 5. All major flights from all over the world get in here. It is roughly 27kms (say about 30 mins) from Nord. If you have a lot of bags or are a part of a large group, I suggest you hire a cab. They are available right outside the exit. If you decide to use cheaper means of local transport, head over to the RER from Terminal 2. You can buy tickets from the machines. Don’t worry if you don’t speak French. Use the roll bar to select English and opt for the RER ticket. If you’re just arriving and don’t have a color printed copy of the metro map, now would be a good time to get one. There is no way to figure out rail connections with a black and white copy. All metro lines and RER are in different colours and you will end up lost. The CDG Aéroport is the last stop on the RER B3. This RER covers Nord and Chatelet which means that it’s pretty easy to reach Zone 1. If you don’t want to experience the metro, your other option is to take the Air France shuttle that plies between the airport and Porte Maillot (Line 1 Metro).

Paris Beauvais is a tiny airport that my parents thought looked like someone’s farm. Appearances aside, this airport is your cheap connection to weekend destinations in France and the rest of Europe. If you are a frequent flyer with Ryan Air, this is your stop. The only way to get here from Paris (or to enter the city) is the Airport Bus Service to and from Porte Maillot Pershing bus station. The tickets can be booked online (they cost more at the Pershing station) here. Don’t worry too much about calculating travel time. When you select your flight, the website will automatically suggest a travel slot. Also, these tickets are valid for an entire month starting from the day prior to booked travel date. All tickets have a barcode; make sure you carry a good printout or have the ticket on your handheld device.

Paris Orly can be reached by RER C. Make sure you read the display board on the platform (the Voie) before you board the train. Ensure that the train halts at Pont de Rungis Aéroport d’Orly. The other option is the bus service from Pershing (Porte Maillot) bus station.

Voila! Now you know your Paris airports.

Up Next: English bookstores in Paris

first impressions – Paris

My flight to Paris was scheduled hours after my L2 FRM exam. This did not help matters even a teensy bit considering that these exams are always in some godforsaken, inaccessible corner of the city! I rushed through heavy traffic at K R Puram and just prayed that I would have enough time to do some last minute packing and reach the airport in time.

The flight itself was quite uneventful. I had a super boring co-passenger who cribbed about how he now had to travel economy because of budget cuts in his company. I yawned and zoned him out. I have this awesome ability to fall asleep before take-off and wake up after we hit the tarmac. And I did just that.

Our welcome in Paris more than made up for the lack of drama enroute! We landed early (too early for most Parisians to open an eyelid and acknowledge the weekend) on Sunday morning. By the time Rakesh and I were done with immigration, we had already lost a considerable amount of time. The driver was expected to wait for 45 minutes and we still had to locate the correct carousel. By the time we made it out, he was gone! A few phone calls (that went unanswered) and plenty of debate later, we decided to hire a cab ourselves. Slight glitch there – neither of us spoke any French!

We stepped out of the airport and in the freezing cold. While I toyed with my breath on the wind, Rakesh convinced a cabbie to take us to Residhome. What followed was a long game of dumb charades! The ride was beautiful but neither of us were sure if the driver had understood where to take us! After a particularly tiring night, we were already dreaming of our warm beds.

Residhome Aparthotel is a single building in Courbevoie along the circumference of Parc du Millenaire. It is a few hundred meters from Fauborg de l’Arche tram (T2) station and about a km walk away from the La Défense metro station on Line 1. Nabil – the concierge decided to annoy Rakesh and flirt with me – the latter we continued long after that morning.

Our tiny apartments came with super tiny kitchens that needed to be stocked. After we’d eaten some of  our pre-packed food, we decided to step out and buy some regular fresh food. Turns out we did require a fair bit of French to know what we were buying. For starters we couldn’t understand why there were so many different types of milk! They had different colored labels and yet everything was called lait. Cheese was a whole different ball game altogether!

In hindsight, I can say that it gets easier. Within a week you’ll know that poulet is chicken and that buerre is butter (there’s salted and unsalted of course). You’ll realise that those tiny round slices of bread are used for foie gras (the French love duck)! Also, the rice you find in Mono Prix (in sky blue packets) is super soft and great for risotto.

Up Next: Local transport in the city – what is RATP and how do you get the best out of it?

SNCF

SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français) is France’s national state-owned railway company and manages the rail traffic in France and the Principality of Monaco. SNCF operates the country’s national rail services, including the TGV, France’s high-speed rail network. Believe me, you don’t want to miss the TGV experience. What works in your favor, is that there is plenty of competition in the transport sector. This means that there will always be cheaper ways for train travel in France, unlike in Germany.

You will need a fair bit of patience with this one. The SNCF website, though available in English, is not recommended. It happens to be connected to an English vendor. If your booking is stuck, or you cancel it, the refund might not be directed to you immediately. In fact, I never got my refund for the tickets I booked to Nice. And those were expensive! SNCF also has a phone app. I used it to track ticket rates. I found it useful to check the trend of the rates before I booked them. Even advance tickets can get expensive, so it is advisable that you verify tourist season and make your bookings early. The tickets can be printed at home (make sure the bar code isn’t damaged) or you can keep a PDF version on your phone/tablet.

OK, now here comes the best part about SNCF. They have loyalty programs! Ta-Da! This is a very good reason to celebrate if you plan to live in France and travel extensively like I did. SNCF calls these Cartes de réduction. If you are between 12 and 27 years of age, Ma Carte Jeune is the one for you. If you are neither young, nor a senior, then I am afraid, you can only use the Ma Carte Week-end. I was 24 and promptly got a Carte Jeune. For a mere €50, you can use this card for a whole year. If you travel long distances, you will get your value back in as less as 3 trips. Also, there is a waiver on renewal of this card for the second year. You can buy your card at any SNCF office. The major ones are La Défense, Lazare and Nord. But really, you can get them at any SNCF office. Make sure you always carry it when you travel. They check quite rigorously!

How does the SNCF card work? If you look at the picture below, you will see that I selected my age and the Reduction Scheme. You can try to check a fare without this selection and compare the difference. Believe me, you will wish you had a discount card!

Reservez votreLike I said earlier, the French website might look difficult but it will grow on you in time. After initially using it book tickets, I moved on to just finding cheap fares. I liked the security of the hard printed ticket and a physical transaction (after I lost money on the Nice fare). But don’t let my experience with the English website stop you from using the French one. I have the highest recommendation for it. Don’t be afraid to change the departure and arrival time window. You can get some pretty good deals if you move your travel time by an hour. Do choose Fenetre (window) when you book tickets. Don’t be tempted by ‘First Class’. The second class is quite royal!

If you have questions or need assistance, feel free to ask.

P.S. – I traveled with SNCF quite extensively. I covered Fontainebleau, Lille, Provins, Nice, Amiens, Rouen, Chartes, Blois, Chantilly, Mont St. Michel and Annecy in 3 months.