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.

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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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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.

Planning a Holiday 101

It takes a bit of effort and a fair deal of research to plan a good holiday. Be prepared to spend a decent amount of time flipping through the pages of Lonely Planet and looking up travel itineraries on Google. Here’s my absolute must do when I start planning a trip.

  • Lonely Planet Guidebook
  • Hostel World app
  • Fodor / Frommer’s Itineraries

Here’s how and why these are an excellent base to plan a trip. Lonely Planet is fantastic when it comes to detail and gives you a lot of information on city passes, timings and cost of tickets to museums, palaces, etc. Frommer’s gives you draft itineraries for your chosen destination. You don’t have to follow any of these, but you now have an inkling of what is doable in a given span of time. When you have decided which cities to visit, you should have a map that looks something like this:

Germany-Austria-Czech

Decide the direction of your trip along with the starting point. For example, it will never make sense to start from Berlin if you are travelling from India. There aren’t any direct flights. Essentially, you will stop over at Munich or Frankfurt. So, it would be better to get off at either and do a full circle to the other city. Now, the next important part is looking up suitable connections between the cities. This will also help you determine how many nights you will spend in a particular town before moving to the next one. Don’t book any hostel beds until you have sorted out inter-city travel! Remember this mantra: there is always a way to travel cheap. If you are in France, I suggest you familiarize yourself with SNCF. It is expensive but you can get some fabulous discounts with a Carte Jeune. Travelling by TGV is an experience you don’t want to miss out on! The SNCF card works in France, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium from what I remember. But of course, there are much cheaper ways of inter-country travel. My ultimate favorite is MegaBus. The buses are never late, have WiFi, a super tiny cramped WC, comfortable seats and charging points! What more do you need, eh? The best part, unlike SNCF, is that MegaBus website is available in English (so is SNCF, but I will tell you why you shouldn’t use it in a separate post). Similar to Megabus, you have MeinFernBus and FlixBus in Germany. The tickets come with printable luggage tags! For those travelling in groups, it might be worthwhile to opt for carpooling. BlaBla Car and Mitfahrgelegenheit are your best options. Remember that there can be baggage restrictions in these cases and you will need a functional cell phone number to get in touch with the car owner. What about air travel? Sure, there are a lot of low cost airlines operating in Europe that actually fly ok. Ryan Air, if you ask me, is pretty shitty in terms of travel quality. But hey, it is cheap and efficient travel. And for that, I love them!

Look up travel time, cost and ease of travel before you make your decision. Take into account connectivity to the bus/train station or airport before you finalize anything. In Frankfurt, Berlin, Rome, and Barcelona, the airports are connected by train and bus. In Rome and Barcelona, you will get bus information at the airport Tourism office. In Frankfurt and Berlin, you can take the U-Bahn to wherever you are staying in town.

Once you have figured out inter-city travel options, make a list of your preferences with the details of bus / train stations or airport details. This is where you need Google Maps. Fire up the search engine on Hostel World and start looking at your options. There are a lot of factors you need to consider when booking your accommodation. I will write a more detailed note on that later. If you are travelling in a group of 3 or more, it might be worth your while to book a private room. If you are a solo traveler, depending on what you are comfortable with, you can pick a gender specific / mixed dorm. Make sure you check the hostel address on Google Maps to ensure accessibility to the train / bus stations. It will be a rubbish choice to stay far away from the main city because you would end up spending on train / tram tickets to see anything worthwhile. Most European towns can be covered on foot and I highly recommend this.

Okay, so we are almost done. Put all this together and you will have a holiday plan complete with draft itineraries, intercity / inter-country travel bookings, and accommodation!