Posts Tagged ‘luxury’

Rail trip across France, Spain

May 23, 2014

“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Trying to get back to Europe is no easy feat (lorsque le temps viendrait!). Airline tickets can cost, at the cheapest, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,800 per person. Decent hotels in big cities like London, Paris and Madrid are usually over $200 a night. Forget about hotels by the beach in July and August. And while rail travel is still relatively inexpensive, it’s not what it used to be. Of course, you can definitely do Europe on a budget. Staying in hostals and sharing a shower with a bunch of backpacking twentysomethings is probably your top best budget saver. But, really? Not for a family of four.  So…bide your time, save your money and try to devote a few hours per week to perusing TripAdvisor for deals and tips and soon enough, you’ll have a realistic idea of how much you’ll need for the trip of your dreams.

Style, budget and space, check!

A rail trip across France and into Spain not only requires money but time. Reasearch time, in particular. Hours of Google searching went into each of these hotels, painstakingly trying to find ones that fit into my budget, without compromising that one commodity I just don’t ever want to give up: atmosphere.  Being the hotel snob that I am, any place I stay must have that certain je ne sais quoi, that ambience that delivers a true “I’m in Europe” feel. And believe it or not, that “feel” is not easy to find. Many hotels across Europe are plain, simple, and at best, functional. They may have a stunning reception area, but rooms oftentimes can be barren (a bed, end table, TV and bathroom), and lacking in what I call an American idealized version of what we think a hotel in Europe should be. Worse yet, is that in certain cities the hotel fashion at the moment happens to be all-American, New England, circa 1982 (ahem, Madrid, I’m talking about you. You go from the sublime to the ridiculous). The worst though are the hotels along the coast in France and Spain. Little seaside resorts that are inundated in summer with European travelers. Booking three months in advance isn’t soon enough. You need to grab some of the better hotels six months to a year in advance, or get stuck with the typical highrise hotel room that makes you feel more like you’re in Wildwood, NJ than on the Costa Brava.  Lastly, and most importantly, is that when you travel as a family through Europe, it’s almost impossible to find big rooms with a separate living area. Many times what they offer are quadruple rooms, or “quads” which is basically two double beds smushed together in one small room. And while that may save you money, you just may end up killing each other by the end of your trip. I hate to be a whiny, privileged American girl, but — when you’re traveling together for 18 days straight, you need your space. So, all of the rooms I booked either had connecting rooms, a separate bedroom area or, we simply rented two rooms.

OK, so…the particulars… This particular itinerary is an 18-day rail trip, consisting of  seven stops, beginning in London and ending in Madrid. Because my kids’ grandparents live in Madrid, we saved it for last, where we will stay for five days in an apartment, not a hotel (I’ll get to why, below). Every other stop along the way will be a two-day stop. Had we not extended our stay in Madrid, we probably would have gone from Barcelona over to Pamplona (one day) then to Bilbao (two days) and then Madrid. Each hotel is in walking distance of public transportation, either directly walking from the main train stations, or by connecting Metro stops. The only time where this is not the case is in Annecy, France, where we plan to rent a car from Paris and drive to Annecy (in the French Alps). We are doing this for two reasons: once in Annecy, we would like to take what we believe is a 45-minute car ride to Geneva, Switzerland (a train ride from Annecy to Geneva apparently takes three hours, due to a gazillion stops and layovers along the way), and so that when my husband has to go back to Paris the next day, to head home, he can simply take the car back, and drop it off at Charles du Gaul airport. If you would like actual cost of the trip, or hotel recommendations, please feel free to comment. And of course, when I get back, I will give my firsthand account of how it all panned out!

LONDON, ENGLAND • HOTEL: The Academy Hotel,
 21 Gower Street, Bloomsbury 
London
WC1E (Tube Goodge Street- Northern Line 6HG)(Two night, family room) I chose this hotel (instead of the Think Apartment Hotel, which I had originally booked) because it was a little cheaper and it was a little more central to where I wanted to be. This hotel is in the literary Bloomsbury district in walking distance to Covent Garden. Their family room consists of two separate bedrooms and a living area. It doesn’t look too fancy, but London hotels are extremely expensive. We’re lucky to have found what we hope will be a nice place. • TRAIN: Aprox. 2 hours, EuroRail Train London-Saint Pancras to Paris Nord (four persons $459)

PARIS, FRANCE • HOTEL: Villa Pantheon, 41 Rue Des Ecoles 5th arr. – Quartier Latin Paris, 75005 (Metro Maubert Mutualite) (Adjoining rooms) Also pricey are hotels in Paris. This is a British-style hotel supposedly in the Latin Quarter, but it’s if it is, it’s on the very edge. It’s much closer to the Saint-Germain-des-Près area, farther south-east. But the area itself is another favorite area of mine–right by the Pantheon, and of course, in the heart of Paris, on the left bank. Here, we reserved connecting rooms. • Rental Car Company: Auto Europe. Picking up a midsize car at the Gare du Lyon around the corner and heading to Annecy (aprox 5h 30m )

ANNECY, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Les Tresoms 3 Boulevard De La Corniche Annecy, France TELEPHONE: +33-450514384 I wanted to splurge a bit at this location. When will we ever be back in the French Alps? Why not have a hotel room on Lake Annecy? A bit over budget, but hopefully worth it. • TRAIN to Aix-en Provence (aprox 3h39m)

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Aquabella 2 Rue Des Etuves, Aix-en-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhone, 13100 This hotel is right in the center of town 11 minutes walking distance from the main train station. I can’t forget to have some ratatouille while here, and of course, a little bit of red wine de Provence. We reserved two separate rooms at this hotel because of their size. And unfortunately, there is only one late night train to Aix from Annecy, so we will pretty much lose a day here. Quel dommage! • TRAIN: (About 2h30m to Sete)

Update: this hotel was a huge disappointment–very unclean and definitely not as up-to-date as the photos would have you think. However, it is very close to a charming plaza right off the rue Merindol, before you hit the the Place Forum de Cardeurs where we had a great Moroccan dinner in an outdoor cafe, called Le Pe’tit Tagine. My suggestion: if you want to experience Aix, rent a house in the countryside

SETE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Le Grand Hotel, 17 Quai Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, Sète, France. This is one of those places that has probably become far grander in my imagine that it is in reality. I say this because the hotel looks amazing, yet the town looks completely lacking. In fact, it looks as if it’s just a canal town. And yet, it’s Provence. I’ll make the best of it. • TRAIN: (aprox 3h3m)

BARCELONA, SPAIN • HOTEL: Hotel Duquesa de Cardona 4* Sup.Passeig Colom 12 – 08002 (Metro: Jaume 1 or Drassanes) Barcelona (España). This is another stuning hotel with a roof top bar and pool overlooking the sea. Here, we will be staying in their largest room, the Junior Suite La Duquesa, with double balconies and a separate bedroom. Once I arrive in Spain I believe I can finally relax! I speak Spanish far better than French, and I am far more at ease here as I know the customs much better. Además, este es el país del padre de mis hijos. • TRAIN: (about 3 h 5 m)

MADRID, SPAIN • HOTEL: Apartment Plaza de Santa Ana 1, 2º Dcha B, 28004, Madrid (Metro: Anton Martin. Apartment arrivals can be made between 4.00 pm. and 9.00 pm. Last but not least! Madrid, my old home! Because we normally stay with my in-laws, I have never had need for a hotel in Madrid. However, now that my sons are so big, and we all take up so much room, it’s time we got a place of our own. When I looked into hotels in Madrid, I was greatly disappointed. And then I remembered apartment rentals for a similar price. Bingo! For under the cost of a hotel room with two double beds and a bath, we will be renting a two bedroom apartment on the Plaza Santa Ana (one of the most popular plazas in the center of town), a huge living room, kitchen two bathrooms and a dining room. Outrageous. It’s also right near the Tirso de Molina metro stop, which means it’s a direct line to my kids’ grandparents’ house in Vallecas.

Feel free to share this itinerary. And if you have any questions, comment below!

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Dust balls

August 25, 2009

So. I’m invited to this woman’s house over in one of those new, treeless McMansion developments. Her name is Gisa, and as she explains, it’s short for the Germanic Gisela meaning “to pledge” (why I even mention this will make sense later). The development, like all suburban upper-class new construction sprawl is a development I’ve passed many times before, but never felt privileged enough to enter—us middle class types know well enough to stay out of cul-de-sacs called things such as “The Sanctuary,” or “Le Grande,” figuring membership cards are required in order to lurk around. But, her son and my son go to preschool together and as she wanted her little Merlin to grow up with “the people, ” for whatever reason, she denied him a private education.  I’d be in the parking lot of the school waiting for the closing bell and Gisa would always pull up with minutes to spare in this hideously grotesque conversion van with like, 20 doors on it. She never wore makeup and just moved here from Germany. I thought, yes! My kind of friend. Surely we have lots in common. So, she invites me over one afternoon. And as a mother who is incessantly looking for ways to occupy her kid, let alone herself, I took her up on the offer. Besides, I thought, it might be nice to bring a pie or something. If that conversion van is any indication of her newly acquired “status,” in this country, a pie will certainly be appreciated.

So, we head out, one Tuesday afternoon, me and my son, in my 2003 mini-van, driving a bit farther than our town’s comfort zone. According to my printed-out Mapquest directions (I don’t have a GPS) it’s the next left. I pull onto her street and one by one the houses get bigger and bigger and as they do, me and my mini-van seem to get smaller and smaller. Huge houses, then mansions, then estates. Her house is, of course, one of the biggest. I’m intimidated by the size let alone the two front doors. I didn’t know houses had two front doors. After about ten strenuous minutes of hoping that some previously learned, front-door etiquette comes back to me I end up choosing the door on the right. This one leads to the mud room for people who might have dirt on their feet (that’s us). We say our hellos and I hand her the pie, which she casually places atop the laundry machine and quickly redirects our small talk back to the fact that we need to take off our shoes.

A few awkward moments later, we go in. And even though I’m catching site of a three-story high cathedral ceiling, a fireplace with Texas longhorns above the mantle and not one living room but four, all I keep thinking of is the atrocity that I’m wearing sweatpants. My favorite line from Seinfeld re-runs streams through my brain when Jerry tells George that “wearing sweatpants in public is like telling the world you’ve given up.”

Oh well, I think. At least they’re not gathered with elastic at the ankles.

So as Gisa leads me around, from room to room, I secretly feel like a third class citizen from coach peeking into first class. But suddenly, I notice what I’d like to believe is a personality tick—Gisa, as it turns out, is hyper-neurotic about dust. In instances like these, you can only hope for such an obvious shortcoming. “See? See? Do you see the dust?” she says to me in her thick German accent upon entering each expanse of a room. Her finger courses over blond wood table tops. But there’s no dust. Literally. It’s as if there’s a plastic bubble free of all pathogens encircling the house and all its immune deficient inhabitants. I’ve never seen a cleaner place.

I think of my home. My little rancher. I have dust balls bigger than Arizona tumbleweeds. They roll around my floor like city trash caught up in a wind pocket, attacking me and my socks and my kids. I have the massive lint ball that hovers between the laundry room and the kitchen. There’s the clump of my husband’s chest hair under the baseboard heater in the bathroom. And there’s the ever-present motionless entity of dust and Fruit Loops that, fortunately, live under the sofa in the living room and cannot be detected by the untrained eye.

No, I say. I don’t see the dust.

As we make our way back to the kitchen, hovering over her granite bar and cherry wood cabinetry, I come to the bitter conclusion that this woman and I have nothing in common except maybe the van. I think: this is how envy gets a hold of people. This is what the Christians warn about, coveting thy neighbor’s goods. This is not “keeping up with the Joneses” because you’re not even one of them. Maybe you clean for them. But you’re certainly not a Jones.

I think how it takes massive amounts of confidence to be content within your own life when you are confronted with so much luxury and wealth. And despite the fact that every appliance in her house was shipped over from Germany, all her furniture too, that she’s got a sunken tub in the master bedroom with Andalusian tile and a fireplace the size of my living room, four walk-in closets, and a bathroom in all five bedrooms…despite all that, I think of my little life and I wonder how I can still feel quite proud of what I’ve got.

Very possibly, I think, it’s because I’ve got nothing. As a child growing up, we had nothing. My family came from nothing. My grandparents before them came from nothing. For generations we affectionately and proudly described ourselves as “peasant stock,” vindicating the obvious deficiency of worldly goods. Instead, we assigned value to immaterial things– our voices, our musical talents, our minds, our creativity, our humor and our closeness as a family. Those were the things that really mattered. Not all the “stuff.” Even my unconventional religious upbringing– a combination of Buddhism, Christianity and Native American spirituality–taught me the importance of giving up all but a few necessities in order that we may not be deceived by unconsciously clinging to worldly possessions. So, it is at these moments, when I am faced with such abundance, that I recall the worth and value in that which cannot be seen, touched, shipped overseas or purchased with a Visa card.

Gisa and I notice how well the kids are getting along. And aside from the occasional assault upon the children she makes to not touch the white walls, she seems happy that Merlin has found a friend. I want to say that I imagine it’s quite lonely for the little guy being so far from him native country and family. I even want to tell her that her obsessive-compulsive fear of dust is merely a manifestation of Freudian guilt for having too much stuff. But I hold off. I don’t want to seem contemptuous.

“How about we come to your place later this afternoon? You can show me your house,” she says. And I choke on my Chai tea latte she just whipped up for me on her espresso maker from Norway.

I have a pizza box still sitting on the counter from the weekend, month-old oatmeal ground into the Berber, and the lingering smell of a diaper that was discarded three diapers ago is possibly still wafting out of the family room. I imagine little Merlin playing some middle-class version of blocks at my house, rolling around, as kids do, on the floor. It would take eons to pick the dustballs off his Karl Lagerfeld designer toddler wear.

“Well,” I manage to say, “I’ve been having problems with my Audi (I don’t have one). I simply must get it into the shop. And, to be quite honest,” I add, as I clear my throat, “my cleaning lady took the month off (don’t have one of those either). The place is a little messy.”

So much for pride in peasant stock.

She tries to be laid back about the fact that I might have a messy house. “You don’t have to clean on my account,” she says, but she flinches and quickly adds, “another time might be better.” Her name in German doesn’t so much mean “to” pledge, I think, as it means to keep a bottle of Pledge handy under any circumstance.

I coolly agree.

We head back into the mud room to put on our shoes and say our goodbyes. Tonight, she says, she and her husband will take a stroll through “their woods” (three acres worth). He’s a triathlon. An Ironman. A glass designer by day. Oh. I say. How nice. I’m headed over to Wal-Mart to buy a pizza cutter. Mine mysteriously disappeared (could have been the dust ball in the kitchen). We don’t have much more to say. Finally, she asks me, “you work out?” I know she’s referring to my sweatpants.