Paris and the South of France Tour

Day 18 Monday May 18, 2009
Turin - Paris

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The actual digital photos have much better resolution than the enlarged photos.

I woke up too early again. I soon found myself committing the mortal sin of fretting about things that would command my attention when we got back home. When I signed on to the Internet, I was surprised to discover that Nancy Kress had already sent me a link to a copy of the group picture that had been taken with her camera back in L’Isle-sur-le-Sorgue.

Sue loved breakfast.

My last few minutes of sleep had been dominated by weird dreams. In one I gave Tom Corcoran a bug trapper that resembled Tupperware. Don't ask me how it worked. Then there was some kind of eating contest. In order gain an advantage, someone was planning to paint a brace on his leg.

Once again I had to lather with soap when I shaved. No big deal. Afterwards I was dismayed that I could only find one pair of clean underwear in the suitcase, a serious problem in light of the fact that there were two more days left.[1] I thought that I had planned this carefully, but I would evidently have to wash a pair in the sink in the hotel in Paris.

I reassessed our liquidity situation. Together Sue and I had a little more than 150€. We still needed to pay for one short and one long cab ride, and cab rides always seemed to cost more than we expected. We also would need two lunches and one dinner. I figured that we might need to use the credit card for dinner.

Track #1 at Porta Susa saw little action.

Breakfast at the Hotel Genio was just as good as it had been on Sunday. However, I did not see the guy who took orders for specialty coffees. I would give my highest rating to this hotel. The Hotel Torre Guelfa in which we stayed in Florence in 2003 was fantastic, as were our suite of rooms in Lake Bled and the unbeatable setting of the Castello di Modanello. This was easily the best hotel on this trip. It just occurred to me that two of these four were Best Western hotels.

Most of the crowd on track #2 ignored both commuter trains.

Our plan for our last two days of vacation was more than a little crazy. Oon the penultimate day we planned to take the TGV, which departed from Turin’s Porta Susa station, to Paris. Thence we would hire a cab to drive us to our hotel, the Hilton at the Charles Du Gaulle Airport. This plan made perfect sense in terms of our original itinerary, which called for us to leave Paris at ten in the morning on the last day. Air France had, unfortunately, canceled that flight and booked us on one leaving three hours and fifty minutes later. By the time that we had learned of the change, however, I had already cashed in my HiltonHHonors points and made a reservation for a night at the airport Hilton. A more sensible plan would have been to stay in the center of Paris, do something memorable in the evening, and catch a cab to the airport the next morning. However, it did not seem worth the effort to scuttle our original plans, especially since they included a free hotel room in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I did not have enough points for any of the other Hiltons in Paris.

The TGV originated in Milan.

While we waited on the sidewalk outside the Hotel Genio for the cab, police cars sounding their sirens sped down Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II. Other drivers seemed surprisingly reluctant to yield the right of way to them. This episode reminded me of the strong anarchic component of driving in Italy.

When our taxi arrived at the station, the driver made a left turn in front of several cars. I could not figure out why they stopped for him, but all of them did. We were only charged 8€ for the cab ride and for helping with the luggage. This confirmed my suspicion that we had indeed been ripped off in Nice.

Porta Susa surprised me. Since the most modern trains, the TGV’s, departed from it, I had expected the quality and esthetics of the facilities to surpass those of Porta Nuova. This was not the case at all; it was not exactly dumpy, but it was much smaller and somewhat old-fashioned. Our train departed from track #2. We arrived about forty minutes early. Two trains were scheduled to depart on our track before ours. Both of them were apparently commuter trains. The first went to Lingotto, the second to Porta Nuova. A large number of people got off of both trains, but only a few boarded.

We were not very far from Turin when we saw our first snow-capped mountains.

The train to Paris was five minutes late. Our seats were for positions 61 and 62 in car #7. The conductor had informed Sue that #7 would be the penultimate car. We got in car #8 because there was another car, which admittedly looked a little different, after it. When we realized our mistake, we had to schlep our gear up to the next car. My red bag would not fit in the overhead rack, so we had to leave it in the luggage area between the cars.

This mountain stream ran a few meters south of the track.

The seats in our car were configured much like the ones on Amtrak trains. Almost everyone faced the front of the train. In the middle of the car four people could sit across from one another with a small table between them. We were on the left side right behind these middle seats. I took the window, and Sue had the aisle.

Between tunnels we saw some real mountains.

I had wondered if there would be any station stops at all before Lyon, but to my surprise the first one came after perhaps thirty minutes. I took some photos of the surrounding mountains when the train slowed down and then stopped in Bussoleno. After that we encountered quite a few tunnels as we neared the Alps.

I think that this was Bardonecchia.

Our next stop was at Oulx-Cesena. I was familiar with Cesena as the site of the massacre instigated by Cardinal Robert of Geneva in the late fourteenth century.[2] I had never heard of Oulx. It certainly did not sound Italian. After that short stop we traveled alongside a really fast stream of water flowing down from the Alps for a minute or two.

The French police checked passports between Bardonecchia and Modane.

Our last stop in Italy was at Bardonecchia. A sign there identified the location of the “Polizia Frontiera,” but the border police who came aboard there were French, not Italian. They checked our passports. After that we passed through a long tunnel and then sped past a picturesque village.

Back in France.

Modane was our first stop in France. I was beginning to wonder if we would ever make it to Paris with all of these stops. After the train picked up steam again, a man could be heard snoring from somewhere behind us. We were definitely still in mountainous country when we reached St. Jean de Maurienne.

Sue remarked about the nice little three-note tone that is played at all the French train stops. There was something really catchy about it.

St. Jean de Maurienne.

The lady who was sitting across from us got off at Chamberry. She had asked one of the conductors to arrange for a wheelchair for her, and the porter had it ready when she got off of the train. After Chamberry we saw mostly farm land, but there were a few hills that gradually decreased in significance. Thereafter, the track snaked through the countryside, but the ride was uniformly smooth.

Sue walked up to the car in which snacks were being sold. She purchased some paprika potato chips for me and some pear juice for herself. They cost 4.40€. The chips were not bad.

Posters for Night at the Museum II were everywhere in France.

We picked up speed as we traversed the countryside west of Chamberry. We encountered no towns at all for the longest time, and the scenery was rather monotonous. I kept waiting for us to arrive in Lyon, but we never did.

As 3:00 approached, an announcement about closing the bar could be heard on the intercom. It had become obvious even to someone as dense as myself that the train would not be stopping at all between Chamberry and Paris. How strange it seemed that they would schedule so many stops during the first one-third of the trip and none at all in the last two-thirds. The cynic in me suspected that politics was involved. I seemed to remember that people in northern Italy had protested the TGV.

My TGV trip consisted mostly of eating chips and using the computer.

The platform at Gare de Lyon.

We arrived at our destination, Gare de Lyon, on time or maybe even five minutes early. Sue and I gathered all of our stuff together and hauled it into the immense train station. While I kept my eye on the luggage, Sue went to the information desk and learned about various ways to get to the airport Hilton. She said that there was a bus that would take us to the airport. I vetoed that idea. We decided just to take a cab. We found the taxi stand and got in line. In five minutes or so it was our turn.

On the way to the airport our taxi was doing 120 km/hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and we were passed by a motorcycle. The cyclist was speeding down the white line between the lanes at an incredible clip.

Our train was #9242, the third line on the arrival board. We arrived at track J.

I did not expect to see members of the French Foreign Legion bearing automatic weapons in a train station in Paris.

Otherwise, the ride to the airport was unexciting. I was afraid that the driver might not have understood where we wanted to go, but he made it there in record time. The cost of the cab ride was only 40€. We would have been crazy to try to fight our way onto the bus with all of our luggage. Once we arrived in Roissypole, we would have needed to figure out where the Hilton was and then transport our luggage from the bus station to the hotel. The taxi brought us right to the entrance.

The Hilton at CDG Airport.

The Hilton was very large and cosmopolitan. The check-in went surprisingly smoothly. There was no hassle about using my Hilton points to pay for the room. We were not even asked to surrender our passports.

Room #803.

Long have I wondered what precisely made a hotel worthy of four stars. I strongly suspected that most of the difference was in the lobby. This one was very elegant with a strong international feel. The lobby was huge, and it contained a fairly large restaurant and a bar. Glass elevators sped us to our rooms.

I have always hated such a hotel because I felt that I was paying for things for which I had no use. I anticipated that we would spend exactly zero time in the lobby, and the food in hotel restaurants in my experience had usually been characterized by low quality and high price. In this case, however, we were not actually paying for the lobby, at least not in currency, so it grated on me a little less than usual.

They assigned us to room #803, which was on the “Executive” floor. It had two twin beds. The bathroom had both a European-style shower and a bath. There was a striking view of the runway and the Concorde that was posed in the front of the airport as a decoration. However, the window was so dirty that it was difficult to take photos. I also discovered an iron and an ironing board, the first that we had seen on the trip. I later noticed the telephone next to the toilet. Did someone pass a law that the only way for a hotel to get a fourth star was to put a telephone next to the toilet in every bathroom? There was also a mirror that magnified one’s reflection at least three or four times. The older that I get, the less that I want to look at myself that closely.

Big jets could be seen but not heard from our room’s window.

I decided to take a shower, which was one of the worst decisions that I made on the entire trip. The shower had two knobs – not for hot and cold but for temperature and water pressure. I turned the temperature up a little over halfway. It was still cold. I waited for a minute or so and then tried turning it as far as it would go. It approached a tolerable level, but I still could not get it to body temperature. I tried the sink, which had the usual hot and cold taps, and the hot water came on almost immediately. I decided to brave the shower in hopes that it would warm up, but it never did. To make matters worse, I soon discovered that the drain was not working. At the end the water was up to my ankles. The towel was nice and fluffy, so at least I got dry fast.

The Concorde was just for decoration.

Meanwhile Sue had decided to take advantage of the hotel’s heated pool and take a little swim. Paris Hilton lent her a bathrobe.

The gare had no suitable restaurants.

I held out a small hope that we might be able to find a restaurant nearby, so that we would not be subjected to the hotel’s restaurant. I went out on a little reconnaissance mission, but I found nothing except hotels and office buildings.

On her way to the pool, Sue had walked over to the Executive Lounge to see what was available for international wheeler-dealers like ourselves. She said that she saw the “gare” from there, and it looked promising. She took me to the window and showed me where it was.

Paris Hilton offered to lend me a bathrobe, too, but I did not need one.

I walked over to the gare, which was a combination bus and train station. There was a little “café” there, but it had no tables, and the food was wrapped in cellophane. Not exactly what we were expecting for our last meal in Paris. The only other place to eat was the restaurant at the Ibis Hotel, and it looked really cheesy. The Novotel, Ibis, and Hilton hotels all abutted the gare. I also came across several office buildings, most of which appeared to house various divisions of Air France. There were no serious restaurants that I could see.

The onion soup was almost a meal in itself.

So, we decided to eat at the Hilton's restaurant. It had no walls; it was just a section of the lobby that was segregated from the bar and the reception desk by a low railing. I ordered the onion soup for 11€ and the hot buffet for 27€. Sue ordered hot and cold buffet for 39€. She reported that there was a lot of good stuff in the cold buffet, but she nearly gagged on something that looked like sauerkraut. I liked the onion soup, which was served in a square bowl, but there was too much of it. It was almost a meal in itself. The hot buffet was OK, but it was not close to being worth the price.

Sue liked most of the cold buffet.

It really got my goat that the restaurant charged extra for the value-added tax. I had noticed the fine print on the menu that the prices listed were “net,” but nowhere did it indicate that the prices were net of the value-added tax.[3] It would be standard practice in the U.S. to list prices before sales tax, but this was the only time on the entire trip that any restaurant or retail establishment had done this. I could not remember any restaurant in any EU country that added the VAT to the listed price. It made me feel that I was being ripped off, and I did not like it a bit.

The hotel restaurant had an ample supply of waiters and other culinary staff, but we still had difficulty getting the attention of our server for the check. On the other hand, all of the staff members were nice to us. The waiter even let Sue take her dessert up to the room. I could hardly believe that he let her do that. It was, after all, a buffet.

I reluctantly decided to shell out 12€ for the Internet access. I discovered that I had received one e-mail that I needed to forward to the office immediately. So, it was probably a good thing that for once in my life I ignored my cheapskate tendencies.

Sue had the television on when I went to bed, but it did not prevent me from losing consciousness quite quickly almost as soon as I became supine.

[1]  No, I did not consider turning them inside-out.

[2]  I was wrong. That Cesena is on the other side of Italy near Rimini.

[3]  On July 1, 2009, the French government cut the VAT for restaurants from 19.6% to only 5.5%. Assuming that the restaurants passed on the savings, we would have saved close to 100€ if this had been done two months earlier.