France and Italy are always great vacation destinations. This summer I took a two-week trip there to check out what’s new, what’s worth seeing, and what has changed. Highlights included walking in the footsteps of the Impressionists in Giverny outside Paris, attending an evening Bach concert in Sainte-Chapelle steps from Notre Dame, exploring the streets of Rome at dawn before the crowds descended on Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, and being in the very first small group of people to enter the Sistine Chapel. It was amazing. This ten-part series will share discoveries, offer advice, and give you the information to plan your own dream trip.
Day One – Flight to Paris & Dinner in Giverny
I splurged on a Premium Economy ticket on Air France. Their double-deck Airbus 380 is the largest passenger plane (the wing span is 239 feet; the equivalent of two-thirds the length of a football field). The Premium Economy cabin is on the upper deck so it felt like we were on a small, intimate plane. The Airbus 380 is pressurized to 6,000 feet (rather than the normal 8,000 feet of altitude on most planes) which adds more oxygen and humidity and really helps on a long flight.
After arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I took the Roissy bus to the Opera and walked over to Gare d’Orsay to catch the afternoon train to the town of Vernon, a 45-minute ride northwest of Paris. Vernon’s train station is the closest to Giverny, located a few miles away (more on that later).
Giverny is a contrast in numbers – it is visited by over a half-million tourists a year (going to see the gardens and water lily ponds made famous by Claude Monet’s paintings), but the population of the village is only around 500 people. Most sightseers go for the day. I decided to spend two nights in the peaceful countryside surroundings to adapt to the 9-hour time difference. It is a restful and beautiful setting.
You’ll also get better rates at accommodations outside big cities. I found a lovely apartment (called Le Clos de l’Eglise, via Booking.com) on the main street, within easy walking distance of restaurants and Monet’s gardens, for $125 per night (the equivalent in Paris would cost at least twice as much).
Dinner the first night was at the Baudy restaurant, a few blocks from my apartment on Rue Claude Monet. The Baudy is a Giverny landmark, famous for being the meeting place of Monet and his fellow Impressionist painters (including Paul Cézanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir) more than a century ago. You feel as if you’ve stepped back in time with the dated French bistro furnishings. There is still a colorful garden in back that used to be a subject of the painters’ canvases. I ordered grilled salmon, which was delicious, and toasted my arrival in France with a coupe de champagne.
There is a big problem with theft in Paris. At Charles de Gaulle airport, a message plays on the loudspeaker every ten minutes warning people to watch their luggage closely. I’m told people have had their bags stolen off the curb while they were standing in line waiting for a cab.
When I was at the Gare d’Orsay train station, I was aware of a man moving very near my purse. I held it closer to my body, gave him a stern look and he moved away, but he continued to scan the crowd looking for an easier mark.
Caroline O’Connell is the author of five guidebooks on Paris and southern California, and she has written numerous travel articles covering Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, among others (www.carolinestraveltips.com).