Keeping Up With The Joneses

There is always a first time for everything. And that includes this summer’s ambitious travel plan to make it to our final destination in one shot: taxi to Newark airport–flight to Paris–taxi to Montparnasse train station–train ride to Bordeaux–and then taxi to Bordeaux apartment. Typically, we would break it up and fly from New York to Paris and stay over for a night before continuing to Bordeaux, but we thought we would streamline the travel with one continuous journey.

It all seemed rather straightforward and efficient. And it we thought, hey, we would even save us a few bucks, since a hotel in Bordeaux would be cheaper than one in Paris! And besides…we could sleep on the plane and again on the train and totally avoid jet lag!

But this “carefully” planned travel agenda was ignoring a rather obvious factor that can affect anyone traveling…the weather.

When we arrived at our gate, we found out that our plane was stuck at an arrival gate on the other side of Newark Airport. For whatever reason, it had not been able to get to the correct departure gate, so what was supposed to be a 7PM flight became an 8PM flight and then a 9PM flight. And then, as soon as we boarded the plane and everyone got settled into their seats, a thunderstorm passed through the area, lashing out heavy rain and lightening. This was to be followed by another two cells of severe weather which grounded all flights indefinitely. We sat on the runway for 3 hours. Honestly, it would not be fair to complain too much because, yes, we were in business class, in very roomy and comfortable seats…and we had cell service. But we had not eaten dinner and we were hungry.

When the Captain came on to announce the new expected arrival time, our expedited travel plan started unwinding. Our new arrival time ended any possibility of us making the TGV train in Paris. By this time, it was late in the evening, and I nervously fumbled through the TGV website to try to figure out how to change our train tickets. It appeared that the only seats available at a later time would require us to pay another $200. I begrudgingly made the payment and the crisis was diverted. [Note: In hindsight, had I looked more carefully, the TGV tickets could have been rescheduled for a later time that day for no fee. You live and learn!]

There was finally a break in the storm, and we took off into a very turbulent sky, but eventually, things did settle down, and it was a great 7 hour flight. We flew La Compagnie, which is a small, boutique airline that flies direct from New York to Paris (and now to Nice)…and all of the 76 seats are business class. We actually flew on this airline a few years ago and were eager to fly on it again, especially since the plane was only a few weeks old—a brand new A321neo aircraft. If you are in the NYC to Paris market, I’d definitely check out this airline.

One thing to note about La Companie’s flight to Paris–you arrive at Orly airport, as opposed to Charles De Gaulle (CDG). I honestly don’t know all of the facts and figures of Orly vs. CDG, but as a traveler, I can say that going through customs and picking up our luggage at Orly went much quicker and smoother. We were off the plane and in a Taxi in a jiffy. And Orly is actually closer to the center of Paris, so getting to the train station was pretty cheap at € 30 (NYC to Newark was $70!!!).

TGV vs Ouigo

We arrived at Montparnasse train station, which we have been to before, but it was definitely more confusing this time. There are various “Halls” which contain the tracks (for arrivals and departures) as well as places to eat and shop. It’s pretty crowded and people are coming and going and have no time for clueless tourists. I’m a bit disappointed in our ineptness, as New Yorkers we are always taking trains from Grand Central or Penn Station, which are huge, busy train stations. But we were not on home turf, there was the jet lag brain fog and the foreign language thing…so we did do quite a bit of walking in circles.

There was also a some confusion in figuring out which train to get on. Our original train tickets for a TGV train….but the replacement tickets I purchased on the flight over were for a Ouigo train. They are both owned and run by SNCF, but they are different trains with different schedules, logos, staff uniforms, etc.

From what I understand, Ouigo is considered a more budget friendly alternative to the standard TGV (which is now called TGV InOui). For us, this difference was particularly confusing at the departure tracks for our Ouigo train to Bordeaux. We made our way to the correct Hall only to find a holding pen with hundreds of people waiting in a crowed…not in an orderly line (queue). There were no announcements on screens or over the loudspeaker….just some young folks in turquoise and pink uniforms shouting instructions to us. Eventually, they opened the gates, and everyone pushed forward to get to the train. It’s not “first come first serve” seating….even on the Ouigo, you are assigned a seat, so the chaos of getting to the train seemed out of character compared to all of the other train rides we’ve taken in Europe.

Despite the annoying boarding procedure, we got on the train, had a place to put our luggage (which would never have fit in the tiny overhead space) and found our seats, which were very comfortable. There was AC, a plug to charge our phone (which we had to pay extra for) and we were off for our 3 hour journey down to Bordeaux.

It was a Thursday afternoon in late July…so I’m not sure why, but this train was packed to the brim–it seemed like everyone was headed to Bordeaux. When we arrived at the train station, we slowly crawled through the massive crowd out to the taxi stand and luckily, after such a long travel experience, finding a taxi was pretty simple and our apartment was only a short drive away.

I love arriving in a new place for the first time. After hours of reading travel guides and watching Youtube videos…not to mention Google-mapping the street views all over town, it is fascinating to finally be there and see how a new place lives up to your expectations. I liked what I saw so far in Bordeaux, but I was reserving judgement.

Our apartment was located on narrow little street that did not allow car traffic (except if you lived on the street)…so our taxi dropped us at the end of the street. We unloaded our luggage and began the journey up the lovely little cobblestone lane. I don’t want to overly romanticize the scene, but the afternoon light was very pretty on the yellow stone facades…it was a the perfect summer temperature outside, and for the first time on the trip, it was time to have the “aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh, we are in Europe” moment. As an (American) traveler, it just feels a certain sort of way when you are in Europe, especially when you find yourself surrounded by quaint 17th and 18th century buildings and a stylish woman rides by on her bike with a baguette sticking out of her bag. You know you’ve arrived.

In the trip planning phase, we debated back and forth about staying in a hotel or finding an apartment to rent for the night. In the end, we chose the apartment. It was very close to the historic city center and all of the touristy things to see, and it was cheaper than the hotel. And for me, the private roof terrace sealed the deal! When we showed up at the apartment, the local caretaker was outside on the steps. She greeted us and showed us around the apartment–all in French. I think my wife and I understood most of what she said…but everything was self-explanatory, so it didn’t really matter.

We were pretty exhausted and not really in the mood to research restaurants. It was also 7PM and we had not made any reservations (which I’ve mentioned in several posts, is important in France). So, we walked a few blocks to a grocery store and picked up some pre-made food, cold cuts and wine and made a little roof-top picnic for ourselves.

It was a very long travel experience, but the evening was beautiful and we were so happy to finally be in France, so we pushed ourselves to go out for an evening stroll.

We’d only been in Bordeaux for a few hours, but we quickly realized how beautiful this city is…and is at such an approachable scale (compared to big sister Paris). There is all of the grand architecture, sense of history, smells of delicious food wafting through the air, people from all different parts of the world living together, but without the touristy vibe that you get in a lot of popular European cities. The ratio of tourist to local definitely seemed to favor the local side–which for me, is always a good thing.

We’ve only got one day to explore Bordeaux before we have to take off for the Dordogne, which is too bad because this city deserves a few days of exploration. Sometimes, “layover” stops turn out to be our favorite parts of a trip. This happened when we stayed in Bologna for a day and half. It was, and still is, one of my favorite places in Europe.

We made our way back to our apartment, enjoyed a glass of wine on the roof terrace and turned in for the night. Day one for France 2019 had come to an end.

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