France

Thursday April 15: Barcelona to Nîmes

After a pleasant train journey from Spain, we arrived in Nîmes at around 14:00. We found the hotel and checked in, then immediately went out to walk around the town. We went into the Nîmes arena, one of the town's major attractions. It's like a smaller version of the Colosseum, but in far better condition despite being almost 2000 years old. With a capacity of 23,000, it's still big enough to be impressive. At least it would have been, if they weren't dismantling the temporary roof structure at the time. With that taking place, we were restricted to where we could go, we had to stick with a French language tour, and the effect of the structure was lost. Entry cost €3.50, and on a good day would probably be far more worthwhile.

Nimes Arena
Nîmes Arena

We walked to Maison Carrée, a Roman temple that surprisingly isn't overrun with tourists. There isn't much to see and do there apart from looking at the building itself.

Maison Carree, Nimes
Maison Carrée, Nîmes

As the light afternoon rain started to fall, we wealked up to the huge park and gardens at Jardins de la Fontaine. Then we walked back into town, and had a crepe, as you do when in France. It took a while before we found a restaurant where we could buy dinner, but we found one eventually. They didn't start serving until 19:00, so we had to waste some time in a pub drinking beer. Terrible! But the restaurant was worth waiting for, an excellent value with a three course meal costing €10.90. I had fish soup served with crusty bread, grated cheese and mustard to start. I don't know what the mustard was for. Main course was piéce de bœf with chips and ratatouille, with a chocolate mousse for dessert.

Friday April 16 - Nîmes

The €5 hotel breakfast was a simple affair - croissant and bits of bread with jam, honey, marmalade, and hot chocolate. I made the mistake of asking for café instead of café au lait for my fiancée.

We walked up to the Jardins de la Fontaine, but the weather was as uninspiring as the previous day with light drizzle that never seemed to stop. We walked through the gardens right up to the top of the hill, then climbed Tour Magne (€2.50). We were rewarded with an excellent view of the town and the region, but it would have been even better on a fine day.

View of Nimes
Nîmes from Tour Magne
View of Nimes
Nîmes from Tour Magne

My Lonely Planet book mentioned that the Pont du Gard was worth a visit. Since it was out of town we went into the tourist information place to find out if we could get there without a car. The staff at tourist information were excellent and told us all we needed to know. Since we had a bit of time to kill before we could get a bus, we spent an hour in an internet cafe and booked out honeymoon with Qantas Frequent Flyer points.

At 13:00 we caught a bus from the station (€5.60), taking about 35 minutes to get there. It was about 10 minutes walk in the light rain to the visitors' centre, and then another 5 minutes to the Pont du Gard. But it was so worthwhile! The Romans constructed the bridge around 45AD as part of the Nîmes aqueduct, which carried water 50km into the town. It's still in excellent condition.

Pont du Gard
Approaching Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard

With nothing else planned for the day, we decided to take a look through the exhibits at the visitors' centre. Admission costs €6, and provides an interesting look at the history of the bridge and the aqueduct. They also look at Roman life, with a particular focus on their use of water. Definitely worth a visit.

We caught the 16:55 bus back into Nîmes, spent a bit of time in our hotel room, then went back out to get dinner. We decided on Vietnamese this time, and we had an excellent three course meal with drinks for €27 for the two of us.

Saturday April 17 - Nîmes to Paris

We had a leisurely breakfast, checked out of the hotel, and took our suitcases for a five minute walk down to the train station. Our train arrived right on time, and at 10:06 we were on our way. Three hours later we were in Paris, and we took the metro to République and found the Grand Hotel de l'Avenue nearby. Then it was time to start exploring Paris. We bought a carnet of metro tickets - 10 tickets for €10.

We began at the Arc de Triomphe, where we invested €36 each in a three day museum pass. We used it straight away to climb the Arc. At the time it was overcast and almost raining. Atmospheric, but with a limited view.

Arc de Triomphe
Arc de Triomphe
Overcast Paris
Paris from the
Arc de Triomphe

We walked down the Champs-Elysées, stopping every few metres for my fiancée to look at the shops. The shops made her happy. Then we took the metro to Notre Dame, walked through the cathedral, and climbed the towers. It was free with the museum pass, but we had to queue for some time. Entry was restricted to 20 people every 10 minutes. The change in the weather from earlier in the afternoon was remarkable. The pictures tell the story...

Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral
Eiffel Tower from Notre Dame
The Eiffel Tower
from Notre Dame
Paris Skyline
Paris Skyline
Monkey gargoyle and Paris skyline
Monkey Gargoyle and Paris
Bird gargoyle looking towards Sacre Coeur
Bird Gargoyle looking
towards the Sacré Cœur

We walked around the Latin Quarter for a while looking for somewhere French for dinner. I had escargot, then beef in a rocquefort cheese sauce with chips, and fine chocolate cake, costing €15. It was an excellent meal! We walked around a bit more looking at the shops and restaurants then headed back to the hotel.

Sunday April 18 - Paris

We had a very full day, starting with a continental breakfast at the hotel with croissant, bread, and hot chocolate. It was raining consistently throughout the day, so we tried to focus on indoor activities. We started at the Musée de la Musique, free with the museum pass. It was surprisingly good. The main attraction was the large collection of instruments dating from the 16th century onwards. The museum also provides automatic audioguides which activate based on your proximity to the exhibits. It worked ok, but I think I prefer the manual ones better.

We had a look at the hospital museum (also free with the museum pass) but it wasn't very interesting. It was my fiancée who was most interested in going there, but she didn't think it was very good either. The focus is on the development of hospitals in Paris rather than general developments in medicine.

Next up we looked at the archeological exhibit in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. They have a few old ruins but nothing exciting. Lunch was at McDonalds, with Cheese Royales all round, as all Pulp Fiction fans must do when in Paris.

We visted the catacombs, which are incredible. The long tunnels, 25 metres beneath the surface, are stacked on both sides with bones. They're arranged in various orderly patterns, very neat, and very methodical. The remains were moved to the catacombs from Paris cemetaries starting in 1785 to relieve problems of overcrowding.

Paris catacombs
Paris Catacombs
Paris catacombs
Paris Catacombs

We emerged several blocks from where we started, so we just walked in a random direction until we found a metro station. We decided we had time to visit the Rodin Museum, one of my favourite arty places. It was getting late in the day, but we just managed to see everything prior to closing time.

Rodin's Thinker
Rodin's The Thinker
Rodin's The Kiss
Rodin's The Kiss

As evening approached, we made our way to the Latin Quarter (again) for dinner. This time we had a reasonable Indian meal. As the sun set over Paris, we headed to the Moulin Rouge. Our budget prevented us from seeing a show, but we could still appreciate the big red windmill from the outside.

Moulin Rouge at dusk
Moulin Rouge at dusk
Moulin Rouge after dark
Moulin Rouge after dark

The last stop of our long day was the Musée de l'Érotisme, which unfortunately was not included with the museum pass (entry costs €7). This museum was bigger and better than the one in Barcelona.

Monday April 19 - Paris

Our last day in Paris was another busy day, and finally the weather was looking nicer. After breakfast we took the metro up to the Sacré Cœur, where we walked up the hill, through the church, and back down again. The inside of the church is incredible, but photos are not allowed.

The Sacre Coeur
The Sacré Cœur
The Sacre Coeur
The Sacré Cœur
The Sacre Coeur
The Sacré Cœur

We had been saving the Eiffel Tower in the hope that the weather would improve, and today was the day that the gamble paid off. As always, there was a long queue, to the delight of the crap-sellers who plague the area. When we got to the front the top level was overcrowded so they weren't selling tickets, so we purchased a ticket to go half way up instead. We weren't disheartened, knowing that supplementary tickets can be purchased on the middle level. We had a long queue to get to the top, then spent some time looking at the amazing view. Then we queued twice to get back down.

The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower

Last on our list of Paris attactions was the Louvre, but we didn't make it inside until about 15:50 after a quick stop in the food court for lunch at Universal Burger. We looked at the sculptures first, and appreciated many of them. We saw the Venus de Milo (excellent), and the Mona Lisa (somewhat disappointing). And of course we saw lots of paintings as we searched unsuccessfully for Renoir.

Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo
Louvre Ceiling
Louvre Ceiling
Mona Lisa Crowds
Mona Lisa Crowds

For the third night in a row we went to the Latin Quarter for dinner, but this time it was a bit of a disappointment. I started with onion soup (ok) then had chicken with mushroom sauce for main course (excellent). Dessert was not good, the menu said cheese and that's exactly what it was - a large slice of soft cheese served by itself.

Tuesday April 20 - Paris to Milan

We had breakfast at the hotel, and left around 08:45 to head to the airport for our flight to Milan. The ticket machine wasn't willing to accept our credit cards, so be bought our tickets from a person. We took the metro to Gard du Nord, RER line B to Antony, then light rail (with no driver!) to Paris Orly for €8.60 each. Sounds complicated but it was a good system, especially compared with our experiences in Milan later that day.

Checkin was interesting. The checkin agent tried to tell us that the wheels on my fiancée's case wouldn't be allowed on the plane, which was total rubbish. I have no idea what she was talking about. We both got through security without any trouble. Once we found out what gate we were using, we played the low cost airline game by joining the queue even before our aircraft arrived.

We got some decent seats on the flight, the departure was right on time, and we enjoyed some fabulous views of snow-covered Alps during our flight of about an hour.

The story continues in Italy.
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