So the age-old question, one that I reckon I’ve answered a hundred times since getting home.
“How was your trip”?
The answer? Really good. Not great, not awesome, not life-changing, but really good. Let me explain.
What we loved:
What a beautiful city. OK, so it has its problems (which we’ll get to later), but on the whole it’s one of the few cities I’d be happy just to be dumped into with a few days to just explore. The museums, the shops, the bistros, the markets, the boulevards – what’s not to love?
Sadly we didn’t get to see a lot of Burgundy, but what we did see around Beaune, Mâcon, and on our trip to Chateau Rully for lunch were absolute highlights. Great wine, great food and beautiful scenery.
Truffles, olives, wine, castles, villages – the main reason we wanted to do this trip in the first place, and for the most part it didn’t disappoint. Our day in Viviers was an unexpected treat, and the city of Arles was also a highlight.
For a destination that was really just tacked on at the end as a way to move on from our river cruise without having to head all the way back to Paris on the same day we disembarked, Nîmes turned out to be one of the real eye-openers of the trip. In hindsight, we probably could have stayed another day or two and really got to know the place, but the night’s accommodation at Antichambre and dinner at The Bird were two amazing experiences that we will cherish forever.
Tacky, sleazy, overrun by tourists and scam artists – but get away from the main crowds at the Sacré-Cœur Basilica and find a quiet café, or browse through rolls of decadent materials at one of the scores of fabric stores and you get a whole new appreciation for this part of Paris.
Bistros and Cafés
You could eat out every day for lunch and dinner in Paris and still not visit every bistro and café – some can be a bit clichéd and over-the-top, but if you look out for the ones that have their menus in French, and preferably handwritten on chalkboards, you’re well on your way to finding a good one. Of course, it’s not just in Paris either – as I’ve already mentioned, one of the highlights of the trip the fantastic dinner we had at The Bird in Nîmes.
One of the main reasons we chose to take a cruise with UniWorld rather than APT or Scenic was that being an American based company, we expected a different client base that would give us the ability to meet people from different backgrounds. We did, and we came away with some great new friends thanks to the experience.
What we didn’t love:
The summer heat
You look at the weather reports that say temperatures in the mid to high 30s, and as an Aussie you think that’s not too bad – we get that sort of weather pretty much every day in Summer. But then you think, for the most part on days like that we’re probably at work in front of an air conditioner, or inside a cool house – not hiking up a hill in full sun through narrow, limestone lined streets to get to the castle at the top.
The SS Catherine
Millions of dollars worth of artwork, waterfalls, crystal chandeliers and a Murano glass horse are all well and good, but when you can’t provide adequate air conditioning during dinner or afternoon briefings, it’s as much good as lipstick on a pig. And it doesn’t matter how comfortable your bed is, when your room rattles and shakes all night from the shuddering of the engines, sleep is a luxury that is very hard to come by. Last overhauled in 2014, it seems to have come to a point in its life where it is looking a little tired and it is definitely not fit for travel in the full summer heat of Provence.
Claims of “all-inclusive” just don’t stack up when you’re being asked to put your hand in your pocket for $100+ per person for what amounts to a bus trip to a village for an hour’s free time. The food and the service on board the ship for the most part were excellent, with a couple of exceptions, but the organisation of tours was pretty ordinary and some of the tours themselves were seriously lacking in value. Lack of on board entertainment, slow kitchen service at dinner and nothing in the way of useful information about our destinations also made this supposedly five-star service look more like a three or four star – in other words, still good, but not as good as others in its price range.
Everywhere you go in France, the streets are filled with cigarette smoke, day and night. With smoking banned indoors in public areas, the smokers are all forced to congregate on the narrow streets, and for people like myself with compromised respiration systems, just walking down the street can be a real chore. In the heat of the summer, most bistros are stifling inside, so they open the windows, meaning the air inside becomes just as smoky as out on the street in no time at all.
Paris is an awesome city to just get lost in and wander through the streets, but all the while that you are doing it, you need to keep one eye firmly planted on the pavement in front of you. Lots of Parisiens seem to own dogs, and despite the fact that most of them live in apartments, some of those dogs are not exactly what you’d call apartment sized. Nor are their deposits, which few Parisiens seem interested in cleaning up afterwards. I guess that’s why they have roaming crews with water tanks driving around the streets hosing down the footpaths.
Paris is always crowded, but it goes up a notch at this time of the year, and when you add the extreme heat to the equation, suddenly the fact that you have to queue for up to an hour to visit any of the sites really starts to lose its lustre. We found ourselves skipping many of the items on our itinerary just because the thought of standing in those queues was too depressing.
Despite the fact that we had Premium Economy seats to and from France, nearly 30 hours in transit each way is just the pits, not to mention the jet lag at the end, and the chest cold we both managed to pick up on the way home. The sooner someone invents a teleporter, the better!