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Vive la France!

At the end of January, our tour to Antarctica was canceled. My husband and I wanted to go somewhere, and we had the time blocked off, so…

Off we went to France in March. The theme of the trip was: Places in France I Have Always Wanted to Visit, but Never Have. Those places being Alsace, Burgundy, Provence, and the Alps. I figured three weeks would give us a nice taste of each. We enjoy walking around and soaking up the history, culture and atmosphere of European towns and villages. We also love beautiful scenery and trying local cuisine (though we aren’t foodies and prefer casual meals). This trip checked all our boxes.

Except for a bad spell in the Alps, we had perfect weather – sunny with highs in the sixties. We were able to eat outside most of the time, but we did dine indoors six or seven times. With Covid counts rising, it seemed a bit risky, but we really enjoyed those meals.

We ruled out driving, which limited where we could go, but we find it more relaxing to take trains, buses and an occasional tour. Except for Paris, we stayed in apartments, all booked through Booking.com except for one that I found through VRBO.

We had a wonderful time! Below, I will review each stop on our trip.

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Paris

We arrived with no glitches on March 19 and checked into our hotel at 4:00. Our first step was to see if our favorite creperie was still open. We hadn’t been to Paris for six years and we were wondering if it had survived the pandemic.

It did! We ordered savory crepes plus a sweet one to share and ate them on a bench in Luxembourg Gardens within earshot of an accordion player. Could there be a better way to start a vacation in France?! After eating, we walked around Paris for a couple of hours until we ran out of gas. I was in bed by 8:30.

Our hotel – Hotel Jardin de Cluny in the Latin Quarter (which I recommend) – had an inexpensive breakfast buffet, which we opted to pay for. Among other things, it included baguettes, croissants, and pains au chocolat – the French trifecta!

We had one full day in Paris, and one item on our agenda – the Museum of the Liberation of Paris. On the way, we stopped at Luxembourg Gardens because it was Sunday and we wanted to see the toy sailboats in the pond. The Parisiennes were out in force enjoying the beautiful spring weather. There were some tourists as well, but we saw (or heard) very few Americans, here or on the entire trip.

Being history buffs, we enjoyed the museum. We got lost coming back – I got Rue St. Jacques mixed up with Blvd. St. Jacques, and off we went in the wrong direction. Not that it was a problem; walking in Paris is delightful wherever you go. We went back to the creperie for lunch and stopped at Pret a Manger (my favorite takeaway spot in London, and now in Paris!) to get takeout for dinner. We dropped it off in our hotel frig and then headed out again, wandering in the direction of the Eiffel Tower. We arrived there just before the first twinkling of the night at 8:00. Ahhh! We returned to the Latin Quarter by walking along the Seine, which is not the fastest way, but the mostly likely way to avoid getting lost. According to my husband’s watch, we had walked nearly fourteen miles that day. No wonder, we were exhausted.

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Colmar

We didn’t feel much like walking around Paris again the next morning, so we had a leisurely breakfast. The two-mile walk to Gare De L’Est was plenty.

Shortly after boarding the train, there was an announcement (in French and English – so appreciated) that we would be delayed 30 minutes due to a train breaking down on the track. This turned into a one-hour delay, and they announced we would be going to Strasbourg instead of Colmar. Then I got an email from the French rail company telling me what train to get in Strasbourg and that we didn’t need a new ticket. Unfortunately, we ended up leaving 90 minutes late, too late to catch the suggested train. However, right after we got to Strasbourg, a train to Colmar appeared on the track next to ours. We arrived in Colmar a couple of hours behind schedule, not a big deal.

We got to our apartment (Les Appartements Saint-Martin – thumbs up) around dinner time. We had unwisely skipped lunch, so we were starving. We chose to get pizza at the Italian place across the street from our apartment because it was RIGHT THERE, and we judged it would be the fastest way to get food into our stomachs.

In the morning we discovered the joys of Colmar. It’s colorful and charming, a wonderful blend of France and Germany in both food and architecture. It’s big enough to have lots of places to eat and places to walk – in fact, we walked around the town all day. We had lunch al fresco in one of the picturesque squares. I had Tarte Flambee (like a pizza with a paper-thin crust, cheese, lard, and onions), and my husband had sauerkraut with sausage and potatoes.

One of the nice things about Colmar is there are so many places you can get to by train or bus in less than an hour. On our second day, we took a bus to Ribeauvillé on the wine route (a 40-minute ride). Although we like wine, we are not big on wine-tastings. We just wanted to walk around the villages and countryside. Ribeauvillé was one of my favorite villages of the entire trip. It has a long main street full of colorful storybook buildings housing restaurants, shops, etc. Best of all, you can hike into the hills above the town and visit three ruined castles. That was really fun, and the views were great.

Back in the village, we got sandwiches for lunch and ate them on a park bench. We still had three hours until the next bus, which gave us enough time to hike through the vineyards to Riquewihr, another super cute wine village, where we could catch the next bus back to Colmar. When I read about hiking through the vineyards, I imagined vibrant green vines overflowing with grapes. What we actually saw were dead-looking stumps. Haha, I might have given some thought to the time of year! But it was still a pretty walk with the villages and hills in the distance.

By the time we got back to Colmar, we were tired from all the walking (lots of hills and no shade), so we rewarded ourselves with ice cream cones. For dinner, we decided to have the leftover pizza from two days before, because we were not interested in walking any further than the kitchen.

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Colmar cont.

For our third day in Colmar, we wanted to venture out of town again. We were undecided between Munster (France, not Germany) and Turckheim. We chose Munster (just 30 minutes away). When we got on the train, we discovered that it also stopped in Turckheim, so we were able to visit both.

Munster is a nice (but not exceptional) town in a valley surrounded by the Vosges mountains. It must be stunning in the summer when the trees are green. We climbed up one of the surrounding hills and hiked through the woods, enjoying some nice views of Munster below and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Turckheim is a beautiful little village surrounded by vineyards. We wandered around the town and were going to have lunch, but not much was open and there was nowhere to dine outside. So, we headed back to Colmar only to discover the outdoor cafes stopped serving food at 2:00, precisely the time we got off the train. We decided to head back to our apartment and finish off the baguette I had bought for breakfast.

In the evening, we found a nice, cozy restaurant and had an Alsatian specialty – baeckeoffe, which is leftover meat and onions baked in wine. It was hearty and delicious!

The next morning, we had 3½ hours to kill between leaving our apartment in Colmar and catching the train to Beaune – the downside of relying on public transportation, especially in the off season. We strolled around with our luggage until lunchtime (no hotel lobby to leave it in), then found a nice outdoor café with seating in the shade. We ordered rosti, which is grated potatoes with cheese and onions and whatever else you care to add. We loved it.

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Beaune

It took two trains to get to Beaune with a change in Dijon – 2½ hours total. We arrived in Beaune at 4:00 and got settled. After a trip to the grocery store and a quick snack in lieu of dinner, we walked to the nearby park and located the beginning of several hiking routes through the vineyards.

Beaune has a very different look from Colmar. It’s as French as French can be. All the buildings are shades of cream and gray and tan. It has sort of a shabby chic vibe and is utterly charming and beautiful.

Our apartment was a VRBO property called La Maison du Convent. It was very spacious with gorgeous old wood ceilings and beams, but spotty Wi-Fi. It was a short walk out of town in a quiet setting.

Saturday is market day in Beaune, so that’s where we headed in the morning. We love walking around markets checking out all the vegetables and other food. We bought gougeres (small puffy cheese pastries) and an apple tart.

Later that morning, we walked through more barren vineyards to Pommard, a village of 500 people two miles from Beaune. We were hoping some of those 500 people owned cafes or restaurants so we could eat lunch. Fortunately, we found an Italian place with outside seating. I had the best vegetarian pizza I’ve ever had. The crust was thin and there wasn’t a lot of cheese, so it was like eating fresh grilled vegetables. These included small round pickled ramps (wild onions). What a spark of flavor they provided! And what a pleasant day we had.

On Sunday we took the train to a slightly larger village called Meursault – just a four-minute train ride and 20-minute walk from Beaune. We walked back through the vineyards, passing through Pommard. I would have loved another vegetarian pizza, but unfortunately, that café was closed. When we got back to Beaune, we were starving so we decided to make lunch our main meal. It was the perfect time for beef bourguignon. Wow, it was good! After lunch, we walked around the village and park, then had the gougeres and apple tart for dinner in our apartment.

On Monday, we took the train to Dijon. The architecture is similar to Beaune, but it’s bigger and has grander buildings. We liked it a lot, but decided Beaune is much more charming and comfortable and a better base for Burgundy than Dijon. We walked all over the city and had sandwiches and ice cream cones in the grand and beautiful main plaza.

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Chamonix

I never wavered in my desire to visit Alsace, Burgundy and Provence, but I wasn’t sure about the Alps. I was concerned about the weather (we don’t ski), and it was not easy to get there. But I knew the lifts would be open. While we could not expect to do any hiking in the mountains due to snow, we could enjoy stunning views if the weather cooperated. We decided to go for it, but I cut the stay to three nights in Chamonix based on helpful advice I got from the Forum.

The transportation was a little daunting – it took three trains and a bus over the course of eight hours to get from Beaune to Chamonix. Needless to say, that’s far from ideal. However, the second half of the trip had pretty mountain scenery and ended with a dramatic climb into snow-covered mountains.

The bigger problem was the weather. The forecast (which turned out to be accurate) was for rain the next four days, totally killing our plan to take the lifts and enjoy spectacular views. I researched possible day trips, but the forecast was the same everywhere. I even thought about eating the cost of our Chamonix apartment and going to Lyon instead. At least it offered more activities for a rainy day. But we decided to stick with our original plan and make the best of it.

Chamonix is a pretty standard ski town, with the added benefit of French bakeries. Everything was geared to tourists, primarily tourists who ski. I’m sure it’s glorious when you can see the surrounding mountains. But the night we arrived, it was gray and overcast, and you could only see the bottom half of the mountains.

We stayed at an apartment at Le Genepy hotel, which had an arrangement I love – an apartment with breakfast included and a hotel lobby staffed 24/7. A very good choice, though the view of Mount Blanc was MIA.

By the next morning, the mountains were no longer visible at all. It was raining lightly, so we were able to walk around the town. By noon the rain stopped and the sun sort of, almost came out. We walked through the woods and along the river to the village of La Praz. It was a pleasant walk, and invigorating – the temperature was in the forties.

The best way to rescue the day was to have a hearty Swiss meal. We found a warm, cozy restaurant and ordered raclette, which included cold cuts, potatoes, pickled onions, and bread. We’ve had raclette before, but never with the interesting contraption they put on our table. It had a triangular chunk of cheese standing upright with a metal “roof” over it. On the underside of the roof were hot coils which slowly melted the cheese onto a plate on each side. On a gray night with thirty-degree temperatures, Swiss comfort food with a glass of wine totally fit the bill.

We woke up – again – to light rain, gray skies and no mountains in sight. We lounged around after breakfast and waited until it stopped raining at 1:00 to head outside. We walked along the river in the opposite direction from our walk the day before. About an hour or so into it, we could see some of the mountains. In another 15 minutes, we actually saw some blue sky. As the minutes passed, there was more and more blue along with fluffy white clouds, and we could see the tops of some of the mountains! This only lasted for an hour or so until it started to cloud up again, but it was an unexpected thrill. Another hearty Swiss dinner and wine capped off the day.

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Chamonix cont.

On our last morning in Chamonix, we woke to snow-covered mountains. Not that you could see much of them; it was still overcast. After we ate breakfast and checked out, we had three and a half hours to kill before our bus departed. We left our luggage at the hotel and walked along the river again. Big white snowflakes were falling gently, blanketing the ground and pine trees – it was just enchanting! At least for a while. After an hour, I got tired of the snow blowing into my face. We headed back to Chamonix where we had crepes for lunch. I started dreaming of Provence where we would be in a couple of days and where the forecast was for sunshine and high sixties.

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Annecy

We took a bus and train through a winter wonderland to Annecy (just under three hours). We could only spare two nights, which was fine. But if the weather had been better, I would have wanted another night there. Unfortunately, the forecast was for snow the next 24 hours.

Even worse, we awoke to rain and sleet, so we lounged around all morning. Luckily, we had a very nice apartment with an insanely long name (L'Appart' du 10 - T3 4 au centre ville d'Annecy avec vue sur le canal), but an excellent canal-side location and cool view of the old town. Around noon, the rain stopped, so we went for a walk. It was only 32 and a little damp, but I was thrilled it was no longer raining.

Annecy is a gorgeous town. The cobbled lanes, old stone buildings, clay tile roofs, canals and bridges make for a winning combination. And it’s on a beautiful lake with a promenade and mountains for a backdrop, not that we could see much of the mountains. It must be heaven on a warm, sunny day. I had planned to take the boat around the lake, but in the windy wintry weather, it would have been miserable. So, we walked around the town and had a nice take-out dinner in our apartment.

The next morning, we awoke to partially blue skies and sunshine. We had time for a walk around Annecy before boarding our train to Provence. I had to wear sunglasses! And it was market day! Such a promising start to our day…

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The Day I Screwed Up Big Time and Reacquired Humility

Our trip to Arles was scheduled to take 5½ hours on two trains. If only…

The destination of our first train was Valence Ville. About ten minutes before we were due to arrive, the train slowed to a stop and my husband said, “This is our stop.” Being paranoid about the short time they give you to exit the trains, I quickly gathered my belongings and practically ran off the train. Once inside the station, I discovered our next train to Arles was not on the departure screen. I went over to the ticket counter, showed the man my ticket, and asked him why my train was not on the schedule. He told me I could catch the next train to Valence Ville on track #1. “But this is Valence Ville,” I said. He did not respond but proceeded to write down the information about the train from Valence Ville to Arles. Then it hit me – we had gotten off the train too soon!

We had to wait 90 minutes for the next train to Valence Ville, which allowed plenty of time for my husband and me to “discuss” whose fault this was. “You said this was our stop.” “No, I didn’t.” “Yes, you did.” Eventually, we figured out that he had said, “Is this our stop?” not “This is our stop.”

How could I have been this stupid? I do all the planning, and my husband is happy to leave all the details to me. I should have known he would never say “This is our stop,” because he never knows what stop we are going to.

The train to Valence Ville took 10 minutes, then we had a 45-minute wait until our train to Arles. Shortly before we were scheduled to leave, there was an announcement in French. The only words I could make out were Gare d’Arles (Arles Station). I looked around to see if anyone was getting off the train, and when no one exited our car, I assumed that it was nothing major, probably just a delay.

As we got close to when we were scheduled to reach Arles, I stopped reading and started looking out the window. It seemed to be taking much longer than it should to get there, and apparently, I was telegraphing my anxiety (a specialty of mine). The young man across the aisle called over, “Did you want to get off in Arles?” When I said yes, he explained that we weren’t going to Arles because there was a fire in the station. He apologized for not telling me this before the train left. (As if it was his responsibility to know my travel plans and inability to speak French.)

I wanted to shoot myself! Why, WHY? did I not just ask someone what the announcement was about when they did not repeat it in English?

There is no good answer to this question.

I had been feeling really good about the job I did planning this trip. We loved every town we had stayed in, the places we stayed were all nice, we stayed the right number of days in each town, I had packed just the right amount of clothes, etc. In truth, I was feeling a bit smug about my travel skills. Clearly, I was ripe for a comeuppance.

To continue with the story… I went off in search of the ticket taker to see what our options were. I was wondering how late the trains ran on Sunday nights in March.

When I got back to my seat (having had no luck finding the ticket taker), my husband told me the guy in front of us had overheard our conversation and was looking up the train schedule for us. (In my state of panic, I had not thought to do this.) He wrote down the station where we should get off and the schedule for trains back to Arles from there. People can be so nice!

Fifteen minutes later, it was time to get off. I went to the ticket counter (thankfully, still open) and asked about getting a new ticket to Arles. I was hoping they would not make me pay for it.

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The Day I Screwed Up cont.

The woman at the counter spoke very little English. It was not hard to ask for a ticket to Arles (I remember a little bit of French from high school), but it was really hard to explain why I did not want to buy a new ticket. I got out my phone and showed her a screen with the schedule of the train we had been on. It showed that the train had not stopped in Arles. “Ah, oui, oui,” she said and printed out new tickets to Arles for us. In the meantime, my husband saw a notice on the departures screen that the Arles train station was expected to be back in operation shortly.

The train to Arles was to leave in 55 minutes. We were so tired of waiting for trains at that point. But at least there was a train to wait for. However, the train was delayed another 45 minutes, then 10 more minutes, then 5 more minutes. We ended up waiting an hour and fifty-five minutes for that train! It was agony.

We walked out of the station in Arles at 8:20. We were tired, hungry and thirsty and faced a 15-minute walk to our apartment in the dark. We were wondering if there would be anyplace to get food on a Sunday night. The only place we passed that was open was the tiniest convenience store I’ve ever seen — it only had beverages and junk food. But happily, one of those beverages was beer, which I knew my husband desperately needed.

We trudged on with the aid of Google maps and found our place at 8:40, TEN HOURS and FORTY MINUTES after we left Annecy.

But oh, what a place it was! A charming old apartment (Arles Rental-Cote Forum) off Place du Forum, which is one of the most enchanting squares I’ve ever seen. And it had a pizza place WHICH WAS OPEN, so we had take-out pizza for dinner! And to prove conclusively that our luck had turned, there was a bottle of wine in the frig! As my husband said, “All’s well that ends well.” (He would never have said that if it weren’t for the beer.)

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Arles

Arles is beautiful! It’s full of narrow alleys, attractive squares and sandy-colored buildings. A bit worn around the edges, it feels lived in. And as a bonus, it’s sprinkled with Roman ruins. To be in such a charming town with that kind of history just knocked my socks off. The return to warm sunny weather was pretty great too.

Our goal for our first day was not to get on a train. We visited the ancient history museum in the morning, which was very good, and had a wonderful lunch at a creperie. Then we walked around all afternoon. While my husband napped, I visited the foundations of the old forum (which was okay) and the Roman arena (which was awesome). Being Monday, hardly any restaurants were open, and we weren’t very hungry, so we bought a baguette and split it for dinner. Half a baguette with butter and a glass of wine is a delightful meal in my book!

There are so many wonderful places to visit in Provence, but many were challenging, if not impossible, to get to without a car. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a ten-hour mini-bus tour that included several of the places I was longing to see. Ten hours seemed like a long time to be on a tour, and my husband would have to forgo his nap, but he said it was okay, so I booked it. (The tour company is Time 4 Provence.)

It turned out to be a great decision. We had a very cheerful and knowledgeable guide, and the only other people on the tour were a nice young couple from Boston. The places we visited were Fontaine de Vaucluse, Roussillon (where we had time for lunch), Les Baux de Provence, Saint-Remy-de-Provence, and Pont-du-Gard. We also stopped at Gordes and Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque for photo opps. Ten hours was not too long (at least for me); I enjoyed every minute. My husband mostly agreed with my assessment, but I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t floating in nirvana like I was. Provence is just so pretty, and Pont-du-Gard – Wow!

On our last day in Provence, we took a short train ride to Avignon, which is quite a bit larger than Arles, but lacking in Roman ruins. It’s a nice town and would certainly work as a base for Provence, but we preferred smaller, quieter Arles. Our favorite spot in Avignon was across the river in Villeneuve-les-Avignon. There is a beautiful botanical garden inside the fort that we enjoyed very much.

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Back to Paris

All that remained was our train back to Paris. We had an hour layover in Nimes, which gave us enough time to see the Roman amphitheater. Wow, it was impressive!

We arrived in Paris at 1:00 and immediately found a pharmacy to get a Covid test. My sadness about the end of our vacation turned into euphoria when our Covid tests came out negative! We celebrated by eating crepes – again – in Luxembourg Gardens.

Even though we were carting our luggage, we wanted to take one last opportunity to walk around Paris. It was nice and cool and mostly sunny, but it was really really windy. My euphoria gradually faded as I got tired of my hair blowing in my eyes and mouth. Also, I needed a restroom. After two hours, we reluctantly admitted this was just not fun, and we decided to go to our hotel at the airport. But first we picked up a bottle of wine and stopped at Pret a Manger to get sandwiches for a relaxing dinner in our hotel room. This may not sound like the best way to end a vacation, especially in Paris. But there was no wind in our room. And it had a toilet.

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Thanks for the fantastic trip report. We returned home from a 6 week trip on May 1st from a trip with similar goals, places I wanted to go in France but hadn’t been there yet. The exception was a week in Paris and we did go to the Netherlands for a week because it was the last week in April and…flowers! We got snow in Colmar in late March. I think it was snowing everywhere at that time. It sounds like you had a mostly wonderful trip.

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Wow!! What a Trip! Thanks so much for the TR. Too bad about the snow in Chamonix and yikes on the train situation going in to Arles. My word.

I've found people very helpful on trains when there is a problem. I was stopped on a train to Quimper one time and couldn't understand a word of what was happening. Several people nearby helped me to understand. I'm glad they helped you as well and that the ticket seller could see what was going on and issued you a ticket.

Colmar is so neat, isn't it? I also loved Arles. Totally different from Colmar but so very interesting! That museum in Arles is wonderful.

You know someone is going to want to know the name of your crepe place, lol!!

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A truly fantastic report, informative. detailed , and enlightening. Great theme. Merci bien !

"...when they did not repeat it in English" That gives me even more incentive to learn and acquire enough French to function effectively in the language. No repeat in English, that does happen quite often especially on the regional trains. Then , why should they? Valence station I stopped at twice coming from Paris, but had no time to get off and spend a couple of hours exploring. The town is connected to Napoleon, if you're interested in that.

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Very good Trip report- sometimes I think remember the oops-mistakes- more than the triumphs of a trip. I enjoyed your honesty- and humor- immensely! We were in Germany recently, and it seemed like a late winter and a cold spring this year.
Thanks so much for sharing!

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Oh my, you had me laughing out loud!! Great trip report, I have added all those towns to my to visit list!

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People can be so nice!

As much as I enjoyed your entire trip report, that sentence is my favourite of what you wrote. We read a lot lately about rude behaviour, so it's nice to read that people stepped up when you needed help.

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Oh my Carroll, I loved your TR! Especially the part where you and your husband discussed whose “fault” it was with the train stop! Ahhh, the perils of being the trip planner! I can so relate! Eventually we all get our comeuppance! Thank you so much for sharing, I can’t wait to go to some of your places on my next trip to France!

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What a wonderful trip report! Your candor, humor and perseverance is to be commended. Appreciated your easy to read report and most of all you had a wonderful time! I am bookmarking for future reference.

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Thank you to everyone who read my report and came up with something nice to say.

Andrea, I hope you enjoyed the tulips in the Netherlands. We were there in early April a few years ago. It was too early for the fields, but Keukenhof was just amazing.

Pam, I have had excellent luck asking people on trains for translations of announcements in other languages. I almost always ask someone if I'm on the correct train every time I get on one -- just to be safe. That makes it even harder to understand why I didn't just ask someone on this trip. The creperie in Paris is Il Fornil. The reason we like it so much is that the owner is super friendly and he works really hard. Just an awesome guy,

Allan, One of the best things about travel is meeting nice people. They are everywhere.

Fred, I agree that the French trains have no obligation to make announcements in English. It would be awfully helpful though, since so many tourists in Europe have English as their second or third language. I would love to relearn French, but it's not going to happen. At age 68, my brain is overloaded and there is very little room remaining in my memory bank.

Tammy, I love being the trip planner, but it does have it's downside!

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@ Carroll....Not only European tourists have English as their 2nd or 3rd language but also tourists from Asia whose only foreign language is going to be English (for whatever reason). Not only do you find the non-English aspect on regional trains in France but I've seen that also on the ICE trains in Germany.

Almost always the ICE staff say the announcements in German and English but there are those few times when I saw that given only in German. I noticed that the first time when going from Berlin to Jena on the ICE a few years ago.