Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Because I travel without a fixed itinerary and on a strict budget, I usually move around countries/continents by bus. But as I began making plans to visit France, friends warned me that this would not be an option, as France does not have a well established bus system. Everyone insisted that the only way I could visit some of the places on my wish list would be to rent a car, but after my stressful experience driving around Spain, I dismissed this idea. Instead, I trusted that I would find my way around, somehow. In the end I was able to visit all the destinations on my list, but I had to figure all this out after arriving, which was stressful and required many hours that could have been better used sightseeing. I kept meticulous notes, which I’ve detailed below in order to help others planning to visit France.

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Paris has the most convenient, well-planned metro system (subway) that I have ever encountered

How to Use the Metro System (City Subway) in Paris:

The map below is widely available all over Paris and posted in every metro station, both at the upper level, in the tunnels/platforms, and inside the metro cars. First, find the name of the station to which you will be traveling. Note the number and color of the line, as well as the name of the station at the end of the line. Once inside the Metro, simply follow the color and number coded signs to the correct platform. If you must change to a connecting line (very likely), keep in mind that you will need to note the name of the terminal station on each line. So for instance, if I was at the Châtelet station (center of the map below, next to the River Seine) and wanted to get to the Arc du Triomphe, which is at Charles de Gaulle station to the west, I would descend into the Châtelet station and follow the signs for line seven (pink) with a final destination of La Corneuve. I would disembark at Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre and follow the signs to line one (gold), with a final destination of Esplanade de La Défense. Read More

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Experts disagree how Paris came to be known as the “City of Light.” According to the official City of Paris website, the nickname was originally bestowed upon the city “because it was a vast center of education and ideas during the Age of Enlightenment.” Other sources state Paris was dubbed City of Light in 1828 when it began lighting the Champs-Elysées with gas lamps, the first European city to do so. Still others claim the moniker came into fashion when Emperor Napoleon III tore down whole quarters of houses dating back to the Middle Ages in order to make way for large avenues that let light pour into the former Medieval city. Whichever story is correct, there is no doubt that the name is apropos; today Paris has no less than 242 illuminated hotels, churches, statues, fountains and national buildings.

I definitely wanted to see the city by night, but where to start? Even in broad daylight, touring a new city can be challenging, but by night it’s a daunting proposition. Fortunately, I had a home-grown tour guide. My friend Jérôme Gobin, who had recently returned to France after traveling the world for a year, was eager to show me how to get around Paris. We met up at the Arc de Triomphe at dusk and ducked beneath the immense arch to shelter from the persistent drizzle (refer to #1 on the map at bottom of article). For the next several hours he treated me to a breathtaking walking tour of Paris by night, which I recreate here so others can follow our path.

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Arc de Triomphe on a chilly, drizzly fall evening

As darkness descended, reflections from the eternal flame of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier flickered on the cold stone walls, engraved with names of French war victories and generals. Beyond the memorial lay the Champs Elysee (#2), Paris’ famous upscale shopping street, with storefronts representing the world’s most famous merchants. We wandered along the rain-slicked pavement, past stately horse chestnut trees, peering into the windows of Cartier, Louis Vuitton and the largest Adidas store in the world. Read More

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I had a plan for the Louvre Museum in Paris. According to the museum’s website, nearly six million people each year view some of the 35,000 works of art displayed in its 652,000+ square feet of exhibition space. Because most of these six million want to see the museum’s most famous lady, the Mona Lisa is surrounded by crowds much of the time. Like everyone else, I wanted a first-hand view Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, but I hate crowds. Even the thought of being trapped in the midst of a jostling, jockeying throng, bombarded on all sides by people’s energy, makes me positively ill. Hoping to avoid the cattle call, I opted to leave the lady with the enigmatic smile for last, right before closing time.

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Richelieu wing of the Louvre Museum, with corner of the famous glass pyramid that serves as the main entrance of the museum

Inside the famous glass pyramid I descended to the main entry hall, already choked with tourists at 9 a.m. Hastily, I grabbed a map and fled into the Denon Wing on the lower ground floor, which was strangely bereft of traffic. At the end of a long gallery filled with Northern European Sculptures I came face to face with Saint Mary Magdalene, a unique early 16th century wood sculpture finished in polychrome. According to legend, Mary Magdalene was a repentant sinner who lived a life of seclusion in the cave of Sainte-Baume, clothed only by her hair. Every day the angels raised her up in the sky to hear the heavenly chorus. Read More

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People describe my lifestyle in many ways. I’ve been called a digital nomad, a location independent travel writer, perpetual traveler… even an extreme telecommuter. Whatever you call it, living a nomadic life with no permanent base is emerging as a new trend around the globe. Recognizing this growing movement, Travel and Escape TV, Canada’s Travel channel, decided to document nine travel bloggers (including me) who gave up their homes to wander the world, and the reasons that drove us to make this choice.

The project was released a couple of days ago and the interviews are truly fascinating. If you’ve ever considered chucking it all to travel, or if you’re just curious about the life I lead, check out their video series they call “The New Nomads.”

Can’t view Travel and Escape’s YouTube video about digital nomads? Click here.

If you enjoyed my story, I’d appreciate it if you’d share it around to your friends and through your social circles. T+E is offering a prize of $1,000 for the video that has the most views between now and noon on March 29, 2013. Travel writing doesn’t earn me much money, so I’m always just barely scraping by and that extra grand would sure come in handy!

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It didn’t have a great view. I slept on a click-clack sofa bed that was little more than an Ikea futon and the kitchen was the size of a postage stamp. But the location of my little vacation rental apartment in Paris more than made up for its minor shortcomings.

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Living room/bedroom of “Opera Bohemia” vacation rental apartment in the 9th Arrondissement in Paris

The longer I travel, the more I strive to connect with the culture of every destination I visit. One of my secrets for accomplishing this has always been to haunt coffee houses, where I meet locals rather than other tourists. On this trip to France, I added a new weapon to my arsenal when I accepted an offer from HomeAway.co.uk, the UK’s number one holiday rentals site. HomeAway connects private property owners with vacationers around the world who enjoy the freedom and value of a holiday rental home over a hotel. I jumped at the chance when they offered to put me up in  an apartment located in a residential Paris neighborhood, where I would be more likely to have a local experience. Read More

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I frequently travel solo to developing countries in the remotest corners of the world without the least bit of fear, but when it came time to visit France I was totally rattled. I don’t speak a word of French, but the inability to speak the local language had never bothered me before, yet every time I thought about my upcoming flight to Paris, my stomach lurched. For advice, I turned to my friend Heather Cowper, who writes the travel blog Heather on her Travels, since she is based in England and has traveled extensively in France.

“I’m really worried, Heather. I don’t read or speak the language and I’ve heard the French can be so rude.”

“The French, especially Parisians, are a very reserved people. Just remember to start every conversation with ‘Bonjour Madame‘ or ‘Bonjour Monsieur.’ If you do that, you’ll be fine,” she insisted.

A few days later I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and boarded the Roissybus for the city center, relieved to find that signs were in English and French. Less than an hour later the bus pulled up next to the Palais Garnier opera house. I hefted my backpack and small rolling bag down the steps and looked around for the Opera Metro station but it was not immediately visible; I had no idea which way to walk.

Bonjour Monsieur,” I said to a man standing nearby. “Do you speak English?

Non,” he replied, shaking his head.

I was approaching a second person when man walked up beside me and, in perfect English, asked if he could help.

Yes,” I said, relieved. “I’m looking for the Opera Metro station.” To my surprise, the gentleman grabbed my suitcase and led me to the entrance of the Metro, then pressed a ticket into my hand. I reached for my wallet but he stopped me. “No it’s my pleasure. Welcome to Paris.” With a smile he turned and disappeared into the subway tunnel.

This scenario was repeated time and again over the next two weeks. That same evening I realized my hotel was within easy walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, so I headed out for my first look at Paris by night. Laser lights beaming from the tower provided a ready road map and twenty minutes later I stood on the grassy esplanade, gaping at the iconic Paris landmark. Goosebumps broke out on my arms as I tipped my bead back, taking in the entire length of the illuminated tower, as high as an 81-story building. I made my way past entwined couples to its base, where I rode the elevator to the top and soaked in the spectacular views of the City of Light.

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I spent my first night in Paris at the Eiffel Tower, more magnificent than any photo can convey

Finally, exhaustion set in and I started back to the hotel, but I soon realized I’d been so in awe of my surroundings that I’d paid little attention to my route. By the time I’d walked four blocks I was hopelessly lost; nothing looked familiar and I had no map. Again I begged for help. The owner of a small gift shop whipped out his mobile, entered the name of my hotel, and his GPS displayed the route. He didn’t even try to sell me anything.  Read More