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France and Spain 12/27/19-1/8/20

I just finished a 12-day trip with my two nephews ages 16 and 21 starting in Paris and ending in Madrid.
We went from Paris to Carcassonne to Collioure to Cadaques to Barcelona to Montserrat to Zaragoza ending in Madrid.
Here is a report in words and pictures https://photos.app.goo.gl/aqnkhhRE7kr6LZCv5

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Day 1
In all of my nine previous trips to Paris solo and with others, I have always used the RER B to get to the city center. However this time with the strike I used Le Bus Direct at a cost of 18 euros a piece to take us to Gare Montparnasse, about a block away from our hotel the ibis Paris Gare Montparnasse 15th at 71 boulevard de Vaugirard. Next time I will try a taxi.

I am personally happy that despite a lack of practice that my French language skills (I earned BA degree at the age of 40 in French Literature) are still good enough to check into hotels without the reception or I having to resort to English. Nonetheless I love the language I am going to restart French classes at the Alliance Française in Chicago this February.

After checking in we relaxed for minute and then headed out on foot walking all the way about 30 minutes to see what my nephew's wanted first: the Eiffel Tower. From there using a smart phone map, we walked all the way to see the Arc de Triomphe up close. Finally we wlked all the way back from the Champs Elysees to the Tour Montparnasse, paying the 18 euros to go all the way to the 56 floor which gives you 360 degrees views over Paris. Not bad this was my first time and my nephew's idea. Leaving Tour Montparnasse, we went back to the hotel, relaxed bit before heading to dinner at Cafe L'inspiration

I recommend it

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Day 2
We slept in catching up from the long travel day before not leaving til afternoon and had lunch at a café close to the Catacombes, as we the steeply priced skip the line tickets for 2:30 pm. When we got to the Catacombes it turned out it had not opened at its regular time 10 am due to the strike and was due to open at 2 pm. So many that had advanced tickets say at 1 pm queued up in the skip the line. Nevertheless, we all got in not too long a wait.

From the Catacombs, we walked to the Louvre visiting churches along the way. My nephews loved seeing the churches ending up at the Madeleine. Somehow using the smartphone we managed get on a bus packed without paying that took us back close to Montparnasse. For dinner, that night we ate at Italian restaurant chosen by my nephews based on reviews called La scuderia Montparnasse

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Day 3
We went to visit the Natural History Museum https://www.mnhn.fr/. My nephews chose this and I really enjoyed it. FYI: all of the signage is in French. From there we walked stopping here and there all the way to the Sacre Coeur because the of the RATP strike and my nephews don't mind walking. They loved the Sacre Coeur and the view of the sun setting over Paris from there; finally using a smart phone we managed to find a bus extremely crowded from Montmartre that took us all the way close to our hotel in Montparnasse. For dinner we ate at Pietro Pizza Montparnasse

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Day 4
Happy that our 8:50 am Ouigo train from Gare Montparnasse to Toulouse (part of the reason I chose to stay in that area) to Toulouse on the way to Carcassonne was not canceled due to the strike. However when we got to Toulouse the TER train that would have brought us to Carcassonne to see it before the sunset was canceled (strike related).

So we ended up touring the old town of Toulouse (my nephews liked the contrasts with Paris) for an hour or so before finally making our way to Carcassonne.

Arriving Outside the Gare de Carcassonne my nephews got a kick out of a demonstration including the use of loud fireworks by the Parti communiste français (Communist party of France) against the government proposal to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62 for certain public workers. We walked from the train station to our hotel the ibis Carcassonne Centre la Cité 5, square Gambetta. After checking in sucessfully en Francais we went to see the old city. It is very impressive to see from afar on a the bridge but once inside it is pretty mediocre. For dinner we ate at Kebab Le Casablanca

Posted by
189 posts

Looking forward to more, as I am planning on travelling to some of the same areas in South France/Barcelona/Northeast Spain in September.

One question I have is whether we should invest a night in Carcassone or not. Seems to be pretty sharply split opinions on that issue.

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6387 posts

One question I have is whether we should invest a night in Carcassone or not. Seems to be pretty sharply split opinions on that issue.

I think you should see it from distance day and night but you don't necessarily need to to see or stay inside it.
My nephews mentioned they liked Carcassonne but I am thinking it is only because I got each of us separate rooms with queen size beds after our tiny room experience that comes with lodging in Paris,

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Day 5 New Years Eve
I found out (the night before) due to the SNCF rail strike that all TER trains from Carcassonne to Perpignan to Collioure were canceled. However SNCF during the strike always has some alternatives to get people where they need or want to go albeit at odd hours and all the info is in French, you have to dig for it and this could seem that only a seasoned traveler or a native could figure out.

So, to get from Carcassonne to Perpignan on our way to Collioure we had to catch a bus at 6 am. The concierge was not prepared for that kind of early check out (mais Je les ai explique c’etait a cause de la greve).

On foot to the Gare de Carcassonne at 6am to catch the bus we stopped at a convenience store/gas station that amazingly had fresh baked baguettes, nothing else was open. You got to love France for that kind of care given to bread sold at a gas station.

Anyhow, we manged to get the bus to Perpignan and then changed to another one operated by https://lio.laregion.fr/Transport-interurbain that stopped directly in from of our hotel the Ibis Styles Collioure Porte Vendres. The hotel is not really in Collioure but a few hundred feet from the border. They have rooms with balconies facing the Mediterranean sea. It is nice 2.9 kilometer walk to the center of Collioure that we covered in 30 minutes. All of the hotels in Collioure were sold out or very expensive on
New Years eve; many come from towns north and south to attend a big out door party with a light project show and the fireworks at midnight. This year the theme was Bollywood. https://anglophone-direct.com/event/collioure-couleurs-son-et-lumiere/.

Before attending the New Year's Eve fest we hiked to the top of Forte Saint Elm https://www.fortsaintelme.fr/en/ , it was closed until February 9 2020 and the little tourist train that Rick recommended was not running http://www.petit-train-touristique.com/collioure-port-vendres/index.html

However we still got to experience the great views facing north down toward the town and sea. It is a nice hike and we saw many on the trail. The sun was shining and the temperatures were in the mid to upper 50's perfect for hiking

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5017 posts

One question I have is whether we should invest a night in Carcassone or not. Seems to be pretty sharply split opinions on that issue.

If you're going to visit Carcassone, definitely spend the night. Not necessarily to be in the old city at night, but to be there a few hours in the morning and late afternoon/early evening without the crush of day visitors. It's an impressive place (especially when the crowds are gone).

Posted by
679 posts

Looking forward to the rest of your report. It sounds like your nephews are good travelers and that you all can go with the flow.

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6387 posts

Day 6 New Year Day 2020

We had breakfast at the hotel and pretty much spent most of the day sleeping in to recover from the all we did the previous day. At around 16:00 we headed out on the 30 minute walk to the old town Collioure to see it without the crowds. It is a serene town at sunset; I could see where Matisse got that mix of lavender and vermilion and pink colors that he used in his paintings naturally.
Dinner in Collioure on New Years Day started after 7pm. We had our most expensive dinner of the trip mostly seafood at a restaurant Le Puits

It was good we all cleared our plates

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Day 7 January 2
SNCF canceled our train to Figueres, Spain due to strike so I arranged for the hotel to call a taxi that took us all the way to train station in Portbou, Spain. That is an incredible ride on a two lane road along the Meditreran coast, we felt a little car sick from the twists and turns. The old pre-Schengen zone border control booths between France and Spain are still there vacant tagged with graffiti. The taxi ride was only 57 euros for the 3 of us.
At Portbou we caught a train to Figueres transferring to catch a bus to Cadaques. Cadaques is a nice little town on the Costa Brava unspoiled not easy to reach. There is only one road through the hills to get there aside from by boat. I had reserved a 16:30 entry time to tour the house where Salvador Dali lived and worked for 50 years from 1930. The house is right next to Hotel Port Lligat where we stayed. Similar to the experience in Collioure & Matisse you can see the natural color of the landscape in Cadaques that Dali used in many paintings.

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Day 8
We got up again at the crack of dawn; this time to catch a bus to Barcelona scheduled at 7:45 am. In retrospect I wish I had stayed a couple of nights longer in Cadaques and I got that feeling of trying to do too much traveling too fast that many here on the forum discourage.

We arrived at Barcelona North station at around 10:45, too early to check in but made an efficient use of time doing laundry. (Just from doing laundry one thing I notice about new travelers unfamiliar with the euro currency, is that they neglect to spend those 2 and 1 euro coins and all coins for that matter. Both of my nephews thought they were out money when they had 7 to 10 euros worth coins in their neck wallets. Those coins come in handy when you need to go to the public toilet in France or if you want to do laundry spontaneously).

After checking into the Ibis Styles Barcelona Centre located in the Eixample are at Calle Provenca 340 we headed out visiting from the outside Gaudi's Casa Mila and the Casa Batlló then strolling all the way down the Passeig de gracia to the over-hyped Las Ramblas having a stack stop at the Mercado de La Boqueria which one of my nephews who has a limited exposure to the varieties of food in the world found difficult. From there we covered the Bari Gotic, and I was surprised to see that you now have to buy a ticket online to get in to the Barcelona Cathedral.

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Day 9
Nice sunny day in the high 50's; we just chilled out in a park nearby La Sagrada Familia before our entry at 16:30.

Day 10
We took a daytrip from Barcelona to Montserrat visiting the church and then hiking in the mountains.

Day 11
We took a train to Zaragoza experiencing the worse weather of the trip. The Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar is magnificent.

Posted by
1792 posts

Glad you liked the Pilar Cathedral in Zaragoza, it looks like the weather was in true Zaragoza fashion too, we joke in Spain that Zaragoza has the worst weather in the country, too cold in winter and too hot in summer lol!

The bad weather comes down from El Moncayo, just west of Zaragoza, a mountainous and desolate area supposedly cursed by evil witches and sorcerers ;-)

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1503 posts

Thanks for this report, we will be in Paris soon! Not sure how I missed it when you first posted!

Posted by
927 posts

One question I have is whether we should invest a night in Carcassone
or not. Seems to be pretty sharply split opinions on that issue.

Carcassonne is crazy busy, and what the OP said about seeing it from a distance is correct, but an overnight stay means you have after 8pm and before 8am to yourself within the walls, and it is well worth it. Also Sunset and sunrise shining against the walls is spectacular.