Oui to Our OE!

After 20 months of living in the UK, we finally made it away to mainland Europe! Bonjour la France! It's about time we met.

Well, we did it.

We couldn’t possibly live in London for 2 years and not make it across to Europe.

We couldn’t possibly live 15 mins walk from St Pancras and not pop over to Paris on the Eurostar.

Surely.

Eiffel Tower lights animation

For a while there, I had lost hope that we’d make it “across the ditch” (as us Kiwis and Aussies would put it). How could we say we’d done our big Overseas Experience without leaving the UK?

Leading up to our trip, France had been in its own travel restrictions category ‘Amber Plus’ meaning that people travelling from France to the UK had to isolate upon arrival and take Day 2 & 8 tests, but this changed on August 8th, giving us the all-clear to travel on August 11th!

Travel in this day and age would be basically impossible without being double-vaxxed. I suppose you could fork out money for PCR tests every couple of days but paying for one per trip was more than enough for me.

Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord

Needless to say, there was a bit of extra admin involved to travel in Covid times. Here’s what we needed to do:

  • Get proof of double-vaccination with the second dose being at least 14 days ago (NHS app and official letter from the NHS)

  • Download the TousAntiCovid app and update proof of vaccination (pass sanitaire required for entry into indoor spaces including hotels, indoor dining, museums and long-distance trains and buses)

  • Print and sign a ‘sworn statement’ (déclaration sur l’honneur) form self-certifying we were not suffering from symptoms associated with Covid-19

  • Book a Covid-19 Day 2 Test for Fully Vaccinated Amber Arrivals

  • Bring N95/FFP2 and N99/FFP3 masks and hand sanitiser!

  • Organise an Antigen test to take within 72 hours of travel back to the UK and get proof of a negative result to present at the airport

  • Complete a Passenger Locator form before flying back to the UK

Ok, so thoughts on France?

Loved it!

I get why the t-shirts say ‘J'adore Paris’. From the cobbled roads in Montmartre to the wide avenue, Champs-Élysées, and sparkling River Seine, I’m not ashamed to say I got swept away by the charm of the city.

I get why Brits flock to the French Riviera every summer. We had blue skies, sun and perfect beach weather every day of our trip. It made our current 18°C “summer” in England seem like a bit of a joke.

Not only was the weather perfect but we were pleasantly surprised with the hospitality of everyone we came across. My assumption was that locals would turn their noses up at us as silly-old-English-people who didn’t speak French. But that was far from the reality. I think that everyone appreciated that we at least tried to communicate in French and didn’t mind that it was probably far from perfect.

By the third day of our trip (after a billion lessons from Simon who had, to his own surprise, retained some French from Year 9 & 10 at school), I’d finally perfected my favourite phrase:

Je ne parle pas Français”, I don’t speak French, followed by “Parlez-vous Anglais?”, Do you speak English?

and had oui, non, merci, désolé, excusez-moi, pardon, Je ne sais pas, Bonjour and Bonsoir nailed. I was slightly gutted that there wasn’t any situation where I got to introduce myself with an oh-so-cultured “Je m'appelle Katherine” whilst wearing a beret and wearing a striped shirt, but then again, maybe that was a good thing.

Outside the Louvre museum

We split our trip up into two parts; Paris and Southern France, with 3 and 5 full days in each, respectively. Here’s a summary of what we got up to each day:


Day 1:

  • Walked for 15 mins from home to get to London St Pancras and got whizzed away on the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord

  • Headed up to Sacré-Cœur, narrowly escaping the infamous “String Men” and Petition scammers, and took in the view over the city

  • Passed the Vignes du Clos Montmartre, the oldest functioning vineyard in Paris

  • Strolled around Place du Tertre and ended up getting our portraits sketched!

  • Spotted crowds of people standing outside Lionel Messi’s luxury 5-star hotel accommodation (supposedly costing 17,000 euros per night)

  • Took terrible photos of the Arc de Triomphe, assuming that we’d have time to go back again (but we didn’t), then strolled down Avenue de Champs-Elysees, constantly in awe of the street’s buildings, shops and charming atmosphere

  • Snapped pictures of Place de la Concorde, the River Seine and the Eiffel Tower (you’d have thought this was an afterthought given this was one of the last things we did this day)

Thoughts: Step aside London. I’d heard people say that Paris was dirty and didn’t live up to expectations. I beg to differ. I found it nothing short of enchanting and such a beautiful feast for the eyes! Maybe my standards have dropped living in London where rubbish lands up on our doorstep without fail every day from the people at the bus stop, but the streets looked pristine from what I could see. I’m stoked that we made the spontaneous decision to get our portraits sketched. It was incredible watching the artist in his element and his intense concentration as he spent almost an hour sketching each of us. Bring on tomorrow!

First day in Paris


Day 2:

  • Faced a chaotic buffet breakfast at our hotel, luckily sweetened up by the abundance of mini crepes and fresh pastries

  • Jumped on a walking tour, taking us past the Spanish Quarter, Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, through to the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries

  • Visited the Louvre Museum and bypassed the proper queue to photograph the Mona Lisa - it may be an average photo but it still counts!

  • Finally found a free sparkling water fountain and made a lengthy pit stop drinking and refilling our drink bottles - hey, it was a hot day and the water was perfectly chilled!

  • Had a picnic under the Eiffel Tower then proceeded up the 674 steps to the 2nd floor, comfortably in time to catch the sunset

  • Saw the 5 min Eiffel Tower lights show at 10pm whilst still up the tower and then again at 11pm on our way home

Thoughts: A big tick off the bucket list! I reckon we chose the perfect time of day to go up and enjoy the view from the Eiffel Tower. It definitely helped having done the walking tour early in the day so we knew what we were looking at, unlike the day before! We generally aren’t huge museum fans but were both very impressed with the collection at the Louvre - worth the visit.

The Louvre

View from Eiffel Tower

Sunset from Eiffel Tower


Day 3:

  • Zipped away on a train to Versailles and spent the day at the palace

  • Saw the impressive artwork and architecture of the palace and fell in love with the Hall of Mirrors room

  • Marvelled at the vast gardens, watched water fountain displays and chilled in the shade while watching people row around the lake

  • Snapped up dinner from a busy Paris restaurant for 46 euros including two small bottles of wine, entrees, mains and dessert, ashamedly not braving the snails or frog legs

Thoughts: Well, call me vain but I know what my dream room looks like now! If I lived at the Palace of Versailles, I think I’d spend hours in the Hall of Mirrors room dancing and sliding along the hall in socks (step aside Hugh Grant) while soaking in the beautiful gardens from the balconies. We’d been back-and-forth about going to Versailles versus spending another day in Paris but we were glad that we went with the former.

Hall of Mirrors Versailles


Day 4:

  • Basically just a full travel day to get to Cannes via Marseilles

  • Walked across the city to Paris Gare de Lyon, resisting the temptation to attach a padlock to the Pont des Arts as it’s no longer allowed (sad!)

  • Joked about being like Mr Bean in ‘Mr Bean’s Holiday’; ready to catch the train to Cannes but somehow messing up and ending up stranded without his luggage. We probably joked a bit too soon about that as we ended up having to disembark to move carriages and found ourselves sprinting down the platform at the last minute before the train departed. Oops

  • Were pretty amazed by the high speed train to Marseilles. 10/10 for efficiency!

  • Ended up stuck on our next train not moving for almost 4 hours as there was a fire at a station further along the line

Thoughts: Realised it all becomes a bit of a mystery when you get announcements in French and there’s no English translation… Thankfully there was a lovely French man who did his best to relay the train announcements to us. I suppose we could tell that most of the announcements were bad news because we heard groans from everyone on the carriage and even saw a lady burst into tears. The best part of the day was when we finally started moving and a simultaneous wave of applause broke out across the carriage. Shame we couldn’t make it down to the beach in Cannes but of all days to have a delay, this was the ideal one.

Padlocks on Pont des Artes


Day 5:

  • Chilled start to the day exploring the streets near the Église Notre-Dame d'Espérance followed by nothing other than a shop for breakfast and lunch at our favourite supermarket: Aldi!

  • Hit the beach to swim!

  • Rinse and repeat

  • Ate Macca’s on the beach while watching the Cannes Firework Festival & Competition

  • Strolled along the Promenade de la Croisette watching street performers and soaking up the nightlife atmosphere

Thoughts: Ahhh. Oh to have a day just to chill at the beach, the only scheduled activity being the fireworks display to music at 10pm. We definitely noticed a more Mediterranean vibe (and very tanned beach-goer population) and saw a distinct transition from beach to nightlife as every person we passed on the street from 7pm was dressed up and ready for a night out. Can’t say I’m much of a party person but the vibe was buzzing!

Beach in Cannes


Day 6:

  • Rented a car from Avis and went through the mind-f of driving on the “wrong” side of the road and adhering to the random give way rule ‘La priorité à droite‎’

  • Made our way to Nice and soaked in the view over the city from Parc du Mont Boron

  • Drove through windy and mountainous roads through the Verdon Gorge to Pont du Galetas for a dip in the freshwater lake

  • Wrapped up the day on the road in Avignon with dinner at the only place open: KFC

Thoughts: Going around roundabouts was one of the most confusing things when driving on the other side of the road - your brain tells you one thing but your instincts say another. Nice looked like a pretty nice city so it’s a bit of a pity that we didn’t have the chance to explore it. To be fair, we’d had plenty of time at the beach the day before so we were glad to instead have the time to make it for a freshwater swim by Pont du Galetas. The water was super refreshing although we somehow seemed to be getting constantly attacked by bits of a tree which was growing in the water. Didn’t read that in the brochures.

Pont du Galetas


Day 7:

  • Headed into Avignon city centre, roughly following a self-guided walking tour

  • Daydreamt listening to the soulful street musician outside the Palais des Papes and soaked in the view of the city from the top of Jardin des Doms (although almost got blown away in the blustery wind)

  • Got Covid tests at a pharmacy...a slip back into reality but both got negative results at least

  • Explored the shops, markets and chilled in the Square Agricol Perdiguier

Thoughts: We both enjoyed the day exploring Avignon even though we had no real focus. It could have been cool to have done some organised walking tours - there was a food tasting one but we left planning too much to the last minute to get onto anything. We were pretty stoked with how easy it was to get out Antigen tests done at the pharmacy and were relieved to get our PDF and printed out certificates showing negative test results.

Avignon view


Day 8:

  • Spent the day at Pont du Gard, a 1st-Century Roman aqueduct bridge with three tiers of arches

  • Swam, ate, tanned. Say no more.

  • Visited the Pont du Gard museum and started drooling at the tourism exhibit at the end showcasing other sites in Southern France

  • Hung around to watch the evening light show projected onto the bridge, not leaving until 11.58pm!

Thoughts: Oui, oui, oui! We loved spending the whole day in one location. It was great having the car to get there, especially given that we stayed until midnight - that wouldn’t have been possible if we’d been reliant on public transport. The water was stunningly blue, clear and fresh. We may not have attempted manus but jumping off the rocks was great fun. There were a lot of people who hired kayaks to paddle around the river - and when I say ‘a lot’, I mean that the stream of people didn’t stop all day (I have no idea where they all appeared from!). There was a great atmosphere in the evening as there was actually also a wine festival alongside the river which brought with it food stalls and live music...neat!

Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct


Day 9:

  • Packed up for the last time and drove through Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Les Baux-de-Provence (wish we had time to stop and explore the rocks), pit stop at Lidl, then onwards to Cassis

  • Wasted forever driving around looking for a car park before giving up and heading up the mountainside to get an amazing view out over the town

  • Got pretty proficient at going through toll gates (there were a lot of them on this trip!)

  • Ended up bypassing Marseilles (sorry y’all!) to go straight to the airport to return the hire car ready for our evening flight

  • Panicked about our Day 2 Return PCR tests not having arrived yet at our flat in London

Thoughts: Definitely could have planned this day better. A car is great sometimes, and others, just the biggest inconvenience. Les Baux-de-Provence looked like a great place to explore and we also saw many cyclists heading along the scenic winding roads (including a family of 4 all in matching lycra kit on one tandem bike, a ‘quadracycle’, powering up a hill #lifegoals). The day before, we’d booked Day 2 Return PCR tests from a second company as a back-up option but realising that this still wouldn’t get delivered to our flat in time, had to fork up and book in-person PCR tests for the next day. When you complete your Passenger Locator Form to return to the UK, you have to enter the reference number from your PCR test booking so we needed to be sure about the test provider we ended up going with.


So, it appears Covid restrictions dominated both ends and a smidge of the middle of our trip. But if we chop those parts out, we had a stellar time on this holiday in France! A bit of culture, some evening shows, exploration and, importantly, time to relax. We’re stoked that we had plenty of time to swim and chill out, while still making it to a handful of locations.

Eiffel Tower

If we manage to make it back to France again, we’re keen to check out the northern and western parts, and need to head back to Paris for the Moulin Rouge when it reopens and, as our tour guide stated a hundred times, see the inside of the stunning Sainte-Chapelle.

Until then, au revoir mon ami!


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