Wales and France

Wales & France - 2004

Welcome to our Wales and France trip for 2004.  We decided to return to Wales after not having been there since 2001, and also decided to tour the south-central and western part of France for a change (rather than just Paris).  Since the trip to Wales was our second to the same area, I don't provide quite as much description of the trip to Wales although you will find links interspersed with descriptions of the various castles we visited.  The description of our trip to France is somewhat more detailed since we visited a new region (the Loire Valley and Normandy).  The trip descriptions below reference these wonderful places and I hope that you find them informative and enjoyable.

Castle Information - Check out this site to find info on various Castles in Wales.

Wales - 2004
Wales Pictures - 2004

France - 2004
France Pictures 2004 - Loire Valley

France Pictures 2004 - Normandy & Paris

Wales - 2004

This was our second trip to Wales (northern Wales) and we followed it with a trip to Paris, the Loire Valley, and Normandy as part of our France tour.  I also updated our European Trip Advice page to encompass a little more of what we discovered on this vacation, so be sure and check it out if you want to determine what worked best (and worst) for us and the things that can save you a lot of time for your trip to Europe (especially the U.K., Ireland, and France).

We began our trip by flying on Tuesday, June 8th, from Denver, Colorado to London Heathrow on a British Airways 777 non-stop flight.  As usual, we spent the first day recuperating from Jet Lag by walking around the British Museum (it's free and close to where we stay - the Bonnington Hotel) followed by going to The Swan pub for some nice English beer at 9PM and then to bed around 10:30PM.  We got up the next day (this time it was a Thursday as opposed to a Saturday in past years) and picked up our car at the local Hertz rental place for our drive to Betws-y-Coed in Northern Wales.  The drive to north Wales was uneventful and is close to a 4 hour drive if you include the rest breaks along the highway.  No trouble getting there since the roads are all good and there were no traffic delays.

Wales B&B
This year we decided to stay at a different B&B since the Aberconwy House rates had gone up significantly since our stay in 2001.  They have a nice place, but we thought we'd try something else and this time a little closer to downtown Betws-y-Coed (Betws).  I sent several emails to B&B and Hotel folks and one place was very good about answering the email and any questions I had while also offering many suggestions for what we could see while staying in the area.  Their rates were very reasonable and they did the best full English breakfast we've had while in Wales be it this trip or the one before.  Their rooms were quite nice as well and were as good as what we had at Aberconwy House.  The name of the B&B is Bod Hyfryd and is run by Alwena and Steve Lea.  They both were very helpful folks and gave us great suggestions on what to see while in northern Wales.  They are located within easy walking distance of the restaurants, pubs, and sightseeing areas in this small, beautiful town in Northern Wales.

Visiting Edward I Castles
We ended up visiting several of the Edward I castles that we had missed on the first trip a few years back as well as a couple others we had seen before since they were close and we wanted to see them again.  We ended up seeing Beaumaris,
Caernarfon, Dolbadarn, Dolwyddelan, Harlech, and Criccieth.  While at Harlech castle we got to see a rather interesting show of medieval swordsmanship and archery by some locals that we could tell really took their show seriously.

Betws-y-Coed Sights
We got a chance to see the Trefriw Woolen Mills in Betws-y-Coed which was pretty interesting.  It's a wonder that anyone that worked in this woolen mill could hear after working a day's work.  The looms saved a lot of time, but they were deafening when they were operating.  One thing I noticed is that the operator was constantly starting and stopping one of the looms due to broken wool strings and a variety of things that seemed to constantly go wrong when weaving.  I don't think it was the machinery, just the way things worked when using the old machines.

We also took a scenic ride on the Ffestiniog Railway steam train from Blaneau to Porthmadog and back.  This was following our trip to see the Llechwedd  slate mines since they have modernized the tour somewhat since the last time we were there.

Return To London
I ended up driving about 900 miles between the trip from London to north Wales and back to London, so felt like I got some good driving time in on the left side of the road.  I think I'm up to over 10,000 miles of driving on the left side of the road after this trip.  Even with all the driving, this trip was a good time for us and we got to spend a little more time at the castles than our trip in 2001 when we crammed in a lot of stuff in a short time.  We ran out of time to see the old Roman town of Chester and Conwy castle, but this trip seemed relaxing and felt like we got to see plenty for the time we were there.  I haven't seen everything in north Wales but I feel like I've covered the northern part of the country quite a bit between the 2004 and 2001 trips, so I think we'll give it a few years before we return.  We will probably go to the southwest areas of England followed by southern Wales next year.

The countryside in Wales is beautiful and second to none for hikers and nature-lovers with one of the best collections of old castles, so I'd definitely recommend you give north Wales a try.  I think Betws-y-Coed is probably the best place to use as a sight-seeing base since it is in close proximity to most everything you would want to see.  I also have pictures of our trip to Wales.

 

France - 2004

We decided to go to somewhere different in France this time other than Paris.  It was our third trip since 1999 and we felt that we probably saw just about enough of Paris to last us for a few years.  As an added change, we decided to take the Chunnel from Waterloo station in London, to Gare du Nord station in Paris rather than flying from London to Paris.  The Chunnel turned out to be a decent experience when compared with flying.  None of the usual crap that goes on when you try to fly somewhere, or for that matter - anywhere.  Our plan was to take the Chunnel to Paris, stay there for two days, drive South to the Loire Valley area for about a week, then Northwest to Normandy for about 4 days, drive back to Paris and spend the night, and then take the Chunnel back to London where we stayed a couple of days before returning home.

Leaving England
Starting our trip to France, we took a Taxi from the Bonnington Hotel in London (near British Museum) to the Waterloo station for about 20 Pounds.  The guy dropped our luggage and us off at the entrance to the train station.  Walked to a ticket counter and gave them the ticket information they had sent me through postal mail, and they generated the tickets for us telling us to go through to the security area with our luggage (2 suitcases plus a carry-on - a far cry from the 4 suitcases we used years ago).  Security at the train station was somewhat like an airport's, but not quite.  Mostly a magnetometer and some police that eye you over pretty good.  I didn't see anyone getting searched as I do here in the States at the airport where they like to pull aside a child for a thorough search since we all know that the 911 folks consisted of children.  Leave it up to us Americans to have some dopey idiots in charge that want to be "sensitive" and not offend anyone.  You can bet your bottom dollar they wouldn't do that crap in Europe.  Anyway, we hoisted our suitcases up on the inspection belt that is similar to an airport's, did the normal take off the shoes, the belt, loose change (always have tons of that in London), and whatever else that was metallic, and passed through the screening area.

The Chunnel
Once past the security area, we went to the Customs check station, showed our passports, got a stamp, and then walked on through to the waiting area.  No delay at all in this area and it seemed like they do this so much that it's a wonder there's a customs station at all.  In fact, when we first went through they just looked at our four passports and waved us through.  I ended up going back after I thought about it for a few minutes so that I could get our four passports stamped showing we were going to France.  From there we just hung around waiting for the Eurostar train to leave.  Your baggage is with you on the Chunnel ride, so it's best to stand with your luggage up near where they open the gate to get on the train, know your coach and then immediately walk to it once they open the gate.  If you are lucky, store your luggage in the same car you are riding in.  If you screw around and take too long to get to your coach you may find that you have to put your luggage in another coach.  We parked our luggage (two pieces) right as we got on the coach and took the carry-on with us to our seats and put it in an overhead area.  We had four seats in total, with two behind two (there are 4 seats per row on the train, two on one side, two on the other).  Just about the time the train was to leave, we noticed that at the center of the coach there are two seats facing another two seats with a fold out table between them.  We moved to those seats so we could sit across from each other.  You may want to consider making reservations ahead of time for those seats if you'd like to play cards or sit opposite each other to talk.  I'll book the reservations like this the next time I travel on the Chunnel.

The trip takes about 3 and 1/2 hours from London to Paris and the train hits over 100 mph at various places along the railway.  They slow the train down just before entering the Chunnel and announce that you are entering the Chunnel and it will take about 20 minutes to come out the other side.  It's dark in the Chunnel so you don't see anything outside the rail car.  Just your reflection in the windows due to the interior lighting.  They slow down on the other side of the Chunnel and made a brief stop at Calais before continuing on to Paris.  It's this long stretch between Calais and Paris where they fly along over 100 mph.  You can tell the train is moving pretty fast since in places you can see a major highway running parallel with the train tracks and assuming the autos are traveling at 70 mph, the train was moving quite a bit faster than the cars.

Arriving In Paris (and being ripped-off)
Eventually we made it to Gare du Nord where we grabbed our suitcases and went to the street level to get a Taxi to Bersoly's Hotel.  Here's where I got ripped off yet again while being in Paris.  There was a long line of people (more than 50) waiting for Taxis outside the train station.  I noticed a guy walking up to us from an area where there were a couple of mini-vans, and he asked me in English where we were going.  I told him near Musee D'Orsay, he looked at his price sheet and said it would cost 90 Euros.  That seemed like a lot of money to me, but given that France is in the EU and has converted to Euros, I thought that just like Ireland, all the prices had doubled or tripled.  So it seemed somewhat reasonable.  Upon arriving at the hotel, the driver asked me if I wanted a receipt.  I told him no since I didn't see what I would do with the receipt other than throw it away.  Turns out that was a mistake too.  Once inside the hotel, we met our old friend Said (pronounced Syed) whereupon I asked him what I should have paid for the Taxi ride.  My father always told me not to ask a question I didn't want to know the answer to, but I did anyway.  He told me maybe 25 Euros!!!  Jeesh, what a rip-off.  So here's some advice for you travelers that need to take a Taxi from the airport or a train station to your hotel:  ASK YOUR HOTEL OR B&B WHAT THE TAXI SHOULD COST BASED ON THE NUMBER OF PASSENGERS AND THE NUMBER OF BAGS BEFORE YOUR TRIP.  They will tell you and you won't make the kind of mistake I made.  My mistake cost me around 70 Euros and hopefully you will use this advice to keep these rip-off folks from making another penny on an unsuspecting traveler.  I don't consider myself a naive traveler, but on that Taxi ride I sure was.

We decided to go for a walk along the Seine river which is always relaxing, and then we walked over to the Louvre and did some people watching.  Eventually it was time to head back to the hotel, so we went back and then headed off to dinner based on a recommendation by Said.  Note that many restaurants in Paris don't even open until 7:30PM (kind of late for us).  It was still somewhat early so we went to Le Deux Magots where we got some beer, olives, and hung around watching people walk by.  I could do that for hours.  So could the Parisians based on the number of people that were hanging around people-watching.  We got some nice French food nearby that cost us about 80 Euros for the four of us.  That's pretty expensive in my book, but that's what the meals were going for in that area of town (about 100 dollars).  The next day we went to the Musee D'Orsay and spent a few hours walking around admiring 1800s artwork.  This is always a good bet if you are looking for Impressionist artwork.

Picking Up The Rental Car
The next day we checked out of the hotel and headed for Esplanade Invalides (the Air France building) to pick up our Eurocar rental.  The car turned out to be a diesel BMW 320i which I think is kind of small, but it is classified as a full size car by Eurocar.  I didn't care for this bait and switch tactic since it was supposed to be a larger Peugeot we were to rent.  The downside is that after you rent the car, you have to drag your luggage a couple of blocks to a Total station which is underground and in to a parking area to pick up the car.  By the time we saw how small the car was, I didn't feel like walking all the way back to complain, so we just took the car they gave us.  I learned a valuable lesson here as well.  Ask the rental desk folks how and where you are to return the rental car.  Since we walked to the area to pick up the car, I didn't realize that the road was one-way and required some driving around a circle and some other streets to return the car to where we picked it up.  It would have also saved some time returning the car since I ended up driving to the rental desk area and asking them where they wanted me to return the car.  Turns out that I had to drive to the underground Total station (and car parking area), park the car anywhere on the second floor, and then drop the keys off in a drop box.  From there we dragged our suitcases back up to the ground level and then back to the Bersoly's hotel again for a one-night stay.

Driving In Paris (yikes!)
If you haven't driven before in Paris, maybe you shouldn't.  I think I should have taken a train to somewhere outside of Paris and picked up the rental car that way.  The car rental place was on the left bank not too far from Musee D'Orsay and just getting there was a nightmare.  Unbelievable experience.  Since we returned from Normandy, we were coming in from the Northwest.  The streets are very busy and usually have no signage at all.  This means you have no idea of where you are.  We spent 2 and 1/2 hours trying to return our car to the rental place once we were in Paris.  That's because we kept getting on streets that would take us everywhere but where we wanted to be.  They had one-way streets and streets blocked off, and all kinds of crap that kept us from easily driving to the drop-off point.  We were coming in from the other side of Arc de Triomphe and heading toward the Seine river.  People often hang around the Arc de Triomphe just so they can watch the traffic show and the many fender-benders that go on in that area.  There are no painted lanes so people driver everywhere sometimes 6 or 7 cars wide.  Cars were cutting in front of us, getting within inches of the car doors, motorcycles zigzagging in and out and just utter mayhem and confusion.  We survived it unscathed, but I would never suggest a person doing that drive unless they want to experience that mess.  I certainly won't do it again although I can say that I did it.

Drive To Amboise
Drove down to Amboise in the Loire Valley area and it was very easy with the occasional stops for paying tolls.  We got to Amboise in a few hours (taking it easy) and parked the car and walked around this rather quaint town.  Lots of shops and easy going right beside the Loire river.  After a couple of hours we drove to our B&B which turned out to be a Chateau known as Chateau de la Barre which is owned by Patricia and Michel Marliere.  Beautiful place with a grand entrance through some tall trees.  Our rooms were very nice and there was something even better that I didn't know about.  Michel (the chef and proprietor) will cook a multi-course French dinner for cheaper than you can get at a restaurant.  On top of that, it's the best French food I have ever had.  Ever!  Unfortunately, I didn't know that we had to arrange for the dinner BEFORE we arrived.  So although we ate in a restaurant the first night, the next few nights we ate Michel's dinners.  This guy is a top quality chef!  Patricia was an excellent hostess and if staying in the Amboise area, be sure and give this place a try.  We also got to meet John and Jacqui Turnbull while staying at Chateau de la Barre and perhaps some day we may meet again.  They are from Australia and often travel to France.  Good folks.  Our last night included Michel bringing out a kind of liquor (we weren't too sure exactly what it was) to celebrate with John, Jacqui, Chris, and me, and I haven't laughed that hard in a while.  That was very nice of Michel and a memory we will not soon forget.

Visiting Chateaus And Renaissance Castles
We used Amboise as our base and traveled to most of the popular Chateaus and Renaissance Castles you may hear about.  After having been in many castles in the U.K., I'm not sure I would call these places castles.  They were really more of a residence than a castle since they didn't appear all that easy to defend (except for Amboise Castle).  A better description might be a "fairytale castle."  We went to Chenonceau, Chaumont, Cheverny, Amboise, Beauregard, and of course - Chambord.  Chambord was huge and crowded with a hunting competition going on.  Chambord is a striking chateau and occupies a rather large area.  I suppose my favorite place was Chenonceau mostly due to the beauty of the chateau itself as well as its grounds, garden, and the Cher river.  Beauregard has probably the best portrait gallery of famous people.  Cheverny has some beautiful gardens as well as the chateau itself.  Chaumont had some construction going on but was a nice tour as well.  The climb up the hill to Chaumont is something you probably won't forget.  I would recommend you see all of these places since none of them are more than an hour away and most less than that.  They are also quite close to each other since they are near the Loire river, so you can see a couple of Chateaus rather easily in one day.  There are many others that are somewhat further away that we didn't see, but these are some of the top ones to see in the Loire Valley area.  We also saw where Leonardo Da Vinci spent his final days in Amboise at Le Clos Luce.  They have some exhibits of various inventions by Da Vinci and it's a short walk from the Amboise castle.  I would call Amboise more of a castle than a chateau since it did look quite defensible.  You get a great view from the castle of the town as well as the river area.

Drive To Normandy
We drove about 4 hours to the Normandy area and stayed in Bayeux at La Ferme du Pressoir.  This is an apple farm (Ferme) where they make (press) apple cider.  They also have chickens and cows on the farm.  Being that we live in the city here in Colorado, the kids had never seen a chicken or rooster up close so this was kind of interesting to see.  This was a nice place to stay and Odile Delalande has done a wonderful job anticipating tourist questions regarding what to see, directions, restaurant recommendations, etc.  Steffanie and Derek ended up being our translators on this trip (rather than just me since my French is pretty crummy) and it looks like Steffie's French paid off since she never seemed to have any trouble conversing in French.  The owner of the B&B said we should send Steffie there to live in the summer since her French was so good.  This was necessary since the owner didn't really speak English and there was no one else around to do translations.  I actually like that kind of situation since it's less touristy.  We couldn't really walk to the city of Bayeux (the first town to be liberated during WWII after the Normandy D-Day invasion) since it was a little too far, but parking was never an issue in town.  They also had a very cheap laundry service in town that I would highly recommend if you need to get your clothes washed.  The only problem we ran in to was that all the recommended restaurants were closed for some reason.  The last night we were there we were able to get some good pizzas that we took back to the B&B to eat while watching a Euro 2004 soccer match.

Bayeux Tapestry
We drove from our B&B to see the Bayeux cathedral as well as the Bayeux Tapestry.  A couple of good links that describe the Tapestry are the U.K. version of the Tapestry, and also here.  The Tapestry depicts the Battle of Hastings in England during 1066 by William the Conqueror who was the Duke of Normandy at the time.  It's very interesting to see the French version of why William decided to oust Harold the king of England, and England's view of the events.  The French thought William was named by Edward the Confessor to take over as the next King, the English saw it as an invasion by William.  Not sure who was right, but probably a little bit of both.  I'd probably side with the English on this one.  We also went to Normandy to see the American Cemetery and Omaha Beach which was quite impressive.  There are many tombstones at the American Cemetery, but something like 60% of the tombstones are of soldiers that did not die at Normandy, but were "repatriated" with their brethren.  I guess if you participated in D-Day you could be buried with the many folks that were killed during the invasion.  It was raining lightly on and off but was still a visit that was worthwhile.  We also got to see the Cornille-Havard Bell Foundry in Villedieu les Poeles where bell making has been going on since the Middle Ages. It was kind of interesting although a rather small operation which can be toured in an hour.  Of course I've never seen a bell factory so it was interesting.  We also visited Mont St. Michel which was quite interesting and a very scenic place.  We walked around a couple of small medieval towns (such as Villedieu les Poeles and Bayeux) and took in the sights and kept things rather leisurely paced.  One thing we discovered is that people in the smaller towns take off for lunch, and with the exception of restaurants, many businesses are closed for about 2 hours while they eat.  Even the Tourist Information centers were closed for lunch.

We took plenty of pictures while in France and I have posted a few of them here.

Conclusion
From Normandy we drove back to Paris which took us a couple of hours to reach, then a couple more hours to get to the hotel (due to the insane traffic in Paris).  We left the next day via the Chunnel to London where we stayed for a couple more days before returning home.  In conclusion, I would say that we really enjoyed the trip to France and next time plan to head over to the eastern parts to see even more.  Chris and I probably thought the single biggest highlight of the trip was the Bayeux Tapestry since we have spent so much time in England and it's interesting to see the major changes that occurred as a result of William the Conqueror.  The chateaus, although quite different than castle ruins in the U.K., were beautiful and we will probably return in a couple of years to see even more in the Loire Valley area.  The drive back to the car rental place in Paris had to be one of the nuttiest experiences I have ever had, but was quite memorable. We didn't know it at the time, but GPS systems would become common place and the need for viewing paper maps would all but disappear. At least this freed Chris to take in the scenery instead of having to be on top of the map situation when driving in cities.

If you'd like more info on what we saw and our recommendations, send me an email and I'll try and answer your questions.

Remember to check out my page on European trip advice to align expectations that you may have about traveling to Europe as well as ways to make your travel experience a little simpler.

   

 

 

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