OK, so it’s taken me a couple of months to actually start this series of posts talking about my trip to France in September 2011. This post will focus on the lead-up to the trip itself. The why and how to prepare and some hindsight from the trip.
First, the why. The short answer, Why Not!? Here is the much longer answer. When I decided that I needed to visit Europe for wine at least 2-3 years ago, I first had to decide which country to go to. Being Italian, going to Italy seemed a natural choice. This may be the one and only time I get a chance to visit Europe and going to Italy has been a dream of mine for decades, yes decades. I’m still a bit miffed that in 1985 I wasn’t able to go with my parents to Italy, but that was a trip for them and my aunt and uncle, not something for me to tag along. It was my first semester of college so it wasn’t like I could just up a take off.
With my growing interest in wine, Bordeaux was the one area that would always come up as the standard that all other wine is held to. OK, so is Burgundy, but Bordeaux is just a bit more mainstream if you can call it that. Anyway, I figured if I was going to make a wine trip, then Bordeaux is the place to start.
In the planning for this I thought and thought and thought out exactly how I wanted the trip to go. What city would I arrive in? What was my transportation? How long would I stay in each area? Can I work in Burgundy? Should I blow off Paris? Plus plenty of other questions not including what Chateaux I should visit.
I ended up decided that if I’m going to France that I have to visit Paris; even if for just a couple of days. It seemed like it’s international law that if you’re on your first visit to France, you can’t skip Paris. So after spending a lot of time figuring out how I wanted the trip to go, I went with this.
Arrive in Paris and then take the train to Bordeaux. Spend the next 4 days in Bordeaux and then come back to Paris. A large part of this was dictated by my “day job” that won’t let employees be off for more than 9 days in a row. In my industry we can typically manipulate our vacation days and days off to get 11. So that immediately ruled out a side trip to Burgundy, or really just anywhere but Bordeaux and Paris. Even without the side trip, I had to cut off a day in Bordeaux and Paris each from what I had intended to do.
OK, so now I know where and how long. Time to get the trip booked. Much of this was going to be determined on what Chateaux I was going to visit and what day of the week. I knew I was going to be there from Sunday night (at least that was the plan) until Thursday morning. So I had 3 full days plus a 1/2 day to really get in some amazing tours and interviews. Then 3 nights in Paris.
Now how in the world do I do all of this traveling? Well, I started searching the ‘net for who’s gone on a wine trip to France. There are lots of posts about how great their trip was and a couple pieces of advice, but really nothing saying, “1st step is this. 2nd is this.” Not a whole lot about the pitfalls that you may come across, laws to follow, etc. And I mean this as far as a single blog site. You can find pretty much all of this spread out all over the ‘net, just not in one place.
First, decide on the dates. Now I went during a time that be the worst time to visit Bordeaux – harvest time. Many of the Chateaux will not see visitors during this time unless you are a big time wine person. Since I’m not, I was prepared to get a lot of rejection. But for me, this was also a kind of birthday present to myself. My birthday is in the first part of September and I had originally thought to do it that week, but with Labor Day weekend being the beginning of that week, I decided that I needed to probably be at the “day job” more than galavanting around France. So I picked another week. And in my industry, September is typically a good time for vacation. People have spent a lot of money on “Back to School” stuff and they tend to be tighter with money for a good month or so.
So I’ve got the dates decided including what days I’ll be where. How to get there? This is completely up to where you live. Living in a non-hub city like San Antonio means I have to take at least 2 planes to get across the pond. This also means at least 15 hours in the air. I also need to figure out my return trip. Not just what flight gets me back the quickest, but what my port of entry will be into the United States. Now, I really didn’t think about that initially, but it’s significant as I’ll explain in a later post.
Most of the flights are about the same price, so this really comes down to what fits into your schedule and if you get miles with that airline. I can say this, book as early as possible. Even 4-6 months out, many of the flights were mostly full. To me this is the first thing to do. Book your flights and then plan the rest. You gotta get there first. Booking the hotel, rental car, and other stuff may have to change if you can’t get a flight there to begin with.
Flight booked? Check. Oh, wait, how am I going to get into France, and then back into the US. Well, that passport thingy is going to be needed. I already had gotten one the year prior when I had thought I was going to go, but that little legal thing got in the way. It actually caused me to get the passport and passport card as I wasn’t going to have a photo ID for at least a couple of months. See this episode for more on that: The Return
So passports. It’s pretty painless. You can go to most any post office and do the whole thing. Many will say you need an appointment. If you’re lucky enough to live near some smaller communities, the person there (many times the only person working) will tell you to just come on in right now, no appointment necessary. Here is the link for the Post Office Passport Page
Make sure you bring the proper documentation. In my case, I was lucky that the person accepted my paper ID from the Texas DPS as my driver’s license (which it legally was). While you don’t really need the Passport Card, I did get one to have as a photo ID while I didn’t have anything other than my paper one. It helped alleviate any issues once I got it. They can also expedite the delivery of your passport for a fee, which I did. Typically it’ll only take a couple months now if you opt for standard delivery. No more 6 month wait.
Ok, so now I have a flight and my papers. Time to figure out hotels. In France this isn’t like finding hotels in the U.S. While Paris does have its share of chain hotels to stay in, the Bordeaux area doesn’t. And since I was staying in the northern part of the area and not in the city itself, choices of hotels becomes more limited.
I had some decision-making to do here with Bordeaux. Since I was going to see the entire area, staying in the city itself seemed to be the best bet. And if I was going to do this again, I might consider it. However, the advice I got was to stay in a couple different towns since there really aren’t any major Chateaux in Bordeaux itself. Since I was planning on trying to visit a few Pauillac area Chateaux, I opted to try there.
I tried to stay at a Chateau named Cordeillan Bages at the advice of a John C. Dvorak who happens to be a wine enthusiast and tech blogger among other things. Unfortunately they were booked for the dates I wanted. I decided on Le Vignoble in Pauillac. This is acutally two hotels with Le Vignoble being the newer part and better accommodations. I would recommend it to anyone staying in Pauillac. It’s convenient to everything in town, the room was a good size, wi-fi, and very nice staff. I was also in walking distance to a few restaurants other than theirs. Though some of them weren’t always open for dinner. You could tell it was the slow season.
I was going to also stay in Saint-Emilion for a night since I was going there, but the hotels I contacted (really only a couple) were also booked or too pricey. These are small hotels so like your plane flight, book as early as possible. Again, probably a good thing in general that I stayed at one place. Really just because I didn’t need to worry about packing and unpacking and the hauling my stuff to yet another hotel.
The down side to all of this, was that I only visited one Chateau in the Pauillac area (Chateau Beychevelle in Saint-Julien). The rest of the places were at least an hour drive to get to. My advice if you are planning a trip there is to stay in one area instead of trying to see all of Bordeaux. For my purposes, I felt that I needed to see a bit of everything. So if I try this again, I may end up staying in Bordeaux itself.
In Paris, well, it’s kind of a crap shoot. Depending on what Arrondissement or District you stay in is up to you. Since I really want to see the Eiffel Tower I decided to stay close to it. But there were a few other factors in my stay. Of course price was a big one. For amenities, all I cared about was free wi-fi. The hotel having a restaurant wasn’t a factor as I planned on eating elsewhere for every meal. But the really big factor was proximity to the Metro (subway/elevated) system. Since I experienced the convenience of well designed public transportation in Chicago (yes CTA has its issues, but it got me to where I needed to go), I knew that to visit everywhere I wanted to see, the Metro would get me there.
Once I narrowed down what Arrondissement the Eiffel Tower was in (7th), I just used the various travel search engines like Hotwire, Kayak, Hotels.com, etc. to find hotels. I also checked some of the chains I’m a member of to see if any of them were close to where I wanted to be and if they were reasonably priced. Basically the major chains were outside of my budget.
I decided on this hotel after all of my searching – Hotel Eiffel Capitol. This hotel is in the 15th Arrondissement which is right next to the 7th. The districts of Paris are numbered 1-20 and are layed out in a spiral. So the 7th and 15th are neighboring districts. The hotel was almost literally across the street from the Metro station and I did walk to the Eiffel in about the 10 minutes the website claims it takes.
How do I get around the rest of the country? Train and Car. First let’s talk trains. While I could have rented a car from Paris and driven to Bordeaux and back to Paris for less money than taking the train instead, I felt it was going to be easier to take the train to Bordeaux and back. Booking your train ticket is pretty straight forward. Just go to Rail Europe’s page and pick the trains you want. The main difference between 1st and 2nd class cars is that in 1st class you have an assigned seat and the possibility of a power connection. I stress possibility here. While each set of seats has a connection, it’s only one outlet depending on the train and seat you get. So you might be SOL. Also, the 1st class cars has a bar car attached where you can get snacks, drinks, and just chill if you want. The BIGGEST thing to know is if you have a 1st class ticket is to get on the correct car! I’ll cover that more in another post, but suffice to say pay attention to if the car has 1er or 2nd on the side by the doors. 1er is 1st class 2me is, well, 2nd class.
Rental Car. Plenty of options here. I pretty much went by price AND the ability to rent a car with an automatic transmission. These will cost you double or more than a manual. Most people in Europe drive stick, but automatic is a luxury of sorts. Not that I can’t drive stick, I can albeit poorly, but why do I wan’t to mess with that in a foreign country? The chains we are familiar with here in the U.S. typically were the most expensive. So I went with EuropCar. Another caveat. In Bordeaux their counter closes early on Sundays. It’s not super clear on their website what time it closes. I got conflicting information. From what I could tell it closes at 7PM, but someone mentioned they closed at noon. I find noon hard to believe, but I do believe 7 since I had issues even getting to Bordeaux – again more in another post. If nothing else, contact the location directly.
All of these are in place. Next time I’ll talk about other details such as cell phones, power requirements, legal stuff, other equipment, how to contact Chateaux, etc.
This will very likely be a pretty long series of posts as I want to not only be as thorough about the trip as possible, but also talk about each Chateau in a separate post. See you next time!
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