Great Travel experience: Staying at a Chateau in France

Like many independent Catholic travelers, we like to try unusual things.  Although staying in a chateau is not terribly unusual, it was the first time for us and therefore we considered it outside the norm.  For some reason, we just don’t seem that keen on B&B’s.  Can’t explain it—just prefer hotels.  Perhaps we feel less privacy when staying in someone else’s house rather than a hotel. So when planning a trip to Normandy (mainly the Catholic pilgrimage site of Pontmain, Mont St. Michel & the D-Day beaches) we decided to try a chateau just to see what it was like.  We hopped a train (our favorite way to travel in Europe) from Paris to Lisieux to visit the Shrine of Saint Therese of Lisieux.  It’s only a little over an hour by train and so we spent a day there and then caught the high-speed TGV to the city of Rennes near the Normandy coast where we picked up our rental car.  From here it was a short drive to the Chateau de Bouceel, our choice for this trip.

Chateau Bouceel  in Normandy France
View of the Chateau Bouceel in Normandy France

As you can see, the setting was like something out of Downton Abbey (minus the staff & the British accent).  The chateau itself was beautifully maintained and definitely had atmosphere.  The chateau briefly housed the German army officers for a few months in the summer of 1940 but they later moved elsewhere since the chateau did not have electricity at that time.   The owner pointed out the front steps where his father, as a member of the French Resistance in World War II, was arrested by the Gestapo and was due to be shipped off to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp where he would no doubt be executed.  However, the rail lines had been bombed and since by now the Allies had landed on the Normandy beaches he eventually was freed by the Allies.   With all this history, staying here was a unique experience.

Breakfast at the Chateau Bouceel in Normandy France
A great way to start the day: fresh croissants, coffee, orange juice, cheese and more

We had a car and made day trips to nearby Mont St. Michel, the Normandy Beaches and Pontmain among other sites.

 Our host had a book of cartoons (in French), the cover of which is shown below, detailing his father’s experiences during the war which he signed as follows:

Chateau in Normandy note in book To the brave young heroes from the U.S., Canada, England, Australia….who gave their life and without whom my dad wouldn’t have come back, this book wouldn’t exist….I wouldn’t be here to sign it.

Let’s never forget!

Chateau France BookPeople who prefer a chateau or B& B cite advantages such as individually decorated rooms, direct contact with the owners or the chance to mingle with other independent travelers.

Those who prefer hotels cite the more flexible check-in times (often you cannot come and go as easily), more anonymity, usually a restaurant on the premises.  So I guess it is just a matter of taste.

Certainly, in our case, the chateau fulfilled all our expectations and then some.

How about you?  Do you have any experiences you would like to share with everyone?

 

 

 

How to make the most of those airport layovers

How we all hate those airport layovers!  Of, at least most of us do—endless hours of boredom, questionable airport food, endless CNN broadcasts (often in a language you don’t understand) and waiting that just tend to wear you out.  But…quite often direct flights are more expensive than those that require a layover so we end up with layovers.  Most of us hope to spend as little time as possible between flights; however, trying to avoid long layovers can come with its own set of problems. 

In this day of flight delays you sometimes you get a close (too close) connection that can cause you to skip that rest room that you really needed to use (should have gone on the plane!) and run breathlessly through the airport as you hear the dreaded announcement “final call” for your flight.  And as it sometimes happens, this is from one end of the airport to the other.  Of course the standard airline response to these close connections is:  “well, it’s a legal connection”.

Our advice is to opt for the longer connection in many instances.  The advantages?  Well, you may get to see some sights that will add to the pleasure of your trip without spending much more.  One time my husband and I had a flight on British Gatwick Express train to center LondonAirways arriving at London Gatwick around 9:00 a.m. and our Croatia Airlines flight to Zagreb did not depart until 7:00 p.m.  So we did a bit of research and found out that the Gatwick Express train could zip us into London in less than an hour.  The “helpful” guy at customs told it wouldn’t be worth it, but fortunately we ignored him. 

The result was a delightful day in London, catching a city tour bus, taking a cruise on the Themes and of course some fish and chips in a local pub.  Got back to the airport with plenty of time to spare and had some great memories of our day in London even though that was not part of our original plan.  Did not hit any Catholic sites that day but still it was a pleasant time.

Some people often extend their layover to an overnight stay.  Often this does not change the airfare so long as it is less than 24 hours.  Of course you will have the cost of your lodging but assuming you are some place interesting then it’s a great way to get even more enjoyment out of your travels.

Check out any Catholic sites that may be nearby: perhaps a chance to visit a nearby shrine or even attend Mass.  Two examples among many are the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport or the Shrine of Our Lady of All Nations near Amsterdam’s SchipolAirport.  And you can easily whisk in to Paris from Charles de Gaulle airport and catch Notre Dame, the Miraculous Medal or one of the many other Catholic sites in Paris.

Or if you are not up to going anywhere but are just dead after that long overseas flight and have a later departure that day, consider grabbing a hotel room for a day rate.  You can catch a few hours of sleep, take a shower and be bright eyed and bushy-tailed as you resume your journey later that day.  Many airport hotels offer day rates at less than the normal nightly rate and a Google search for “Airport Hotel Layover Rates” will even pull up a couple of websites dedicated to just that.  Be sure to leave a wake-up call!

How about you?  Do you have a suggestion on any Catholic sites to visit during a layover.  Let others know.

 

How to avoid the crowds in the Sistine Chapel

A portion of the Sistine ChapelAs the tourist season comes into full swing in Rome, one of the most popular attractions not only for Catholics but many non-Catholics as well is the Sistine Chapel.  Actually part of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel can be so crowded during the height of the season (an estimated 20,000 visitors per day) that you cannot really have quiet time to enjoy it.  When you are packed in like sardines it is hard to enjoy the beauty of the artwork.  And some tourists just cannot be quiet while the guards saying “silencio” are equally distracting.  Unfortunately, such crowds also attract pickpockets which can really ruin your visit.  You either worry about getting pick-pocketed or actually do become a victim.  It is not all that likely, but it does happen.  

If you are an independent traveler you might want to consider a private guided tour of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.  These tours are not cheap—about $300 per person–so they will not fit everyone’s budget.  Those who can afford one may find it worth the expense as you will probably be in a small group of 10-15 people. These tours, as mentioned above, include the Vatican Museums as well as the Sistine Chapel. You will normally have about 30 minutes in the Sistine Chapel without the crowds and noise.

Most Catholic tour groups will include a visit to the Museums and Sistine Chapel during regular hours; however if you have planned to make the Sistine Chapel one of the highlights of your trip to Rome then you can probably take a private tour since most of these tours are after-hours when the daytime activities of the tour group are finished.

Be sure to check around since there are several companies offering these tours and you want to be sure that you choose the right one. Some of these “private” tours offered are during regular hours and although they are much less expensive (about $90 per person), they are not private in the sense that you avoid the huge crowds.  You do, however, have your own private guide and usually a group of about 15-20 people.  For independent travelers who don’t want the after-hours private tour this is a good alternative.

Flooding in Lourdes

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The heavy rains in Europe have made visiting Lourdes, France a challenge.  On June 18th the Grotto was again flooded, as it had been in 2012.  There have been interruptions due to flooding.  If you heading there on your own you may want to check ahead, but don’t let that stop you from visiting the shrine. We expect the situation to return to normal within a few days. 

Click here for a video from the official Lourdes website.

Just a side note:  some independent travelers are mis-spelling Lourdes in their  GPS, leaving the  letter S off the town’s name and thereby going to the wrong town.  There actually is a town named Lourde just south of Toulouse, so be careful that you are headed in the right direction.  The shrine at Lourdes is roughly 100 miles Southwest  of Toulouse whereas the small town of Lourde is only a few miles south of Toulouse.   

Non-Stop Houston to Istanbul

Until now if you wanted non-stop travel to Istanbul from the U.S. you had to depart from Chicago, New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles.  You can now add Houston to that list.  Turkish Airways began  non-stop Houston to Istanbul in April 2013.  They were voted best European airline by Skytrax.

 It is about a 12 hour flight going East, a bit longer coming back. As of now they have three flights a week but we expect that to grow.

Fill up at the pump in Italy…..but wine, not gasoline.

Those of us who dream of living in Italy for an extended period of time….which is just about everyone reading this blog I suppose….often wonder what it would really be like.  Not the glossy images of the travel brochures or what we see in the movies, but the day-to-day lifestyle. 

Filling up wine jugs in Italy
Locals bring their empty bottles and jugs or just buy new ones and fill up with great local wines, at a fraction of what the bottled wines cost.

Of course when we imagine life in Italy we think, I suppose, of food and wine.  Most small towns or even mid-sized ones have farmer’s co-ops that offer great bargains and fresh produce.    When it comes to wine, you can get a good bottle of red or white for a decent price.  But what many locals do is bring their empty jugs to the local co-op and just fill them up for a lot less. 

getting wine in Italy
Bring your own bottles and just have them filled for you.

These wines have the nickname “landlord wines” meaning the grapes are locally grown, harvested and fermented. In some cases they appear in restaurants as “vino della casa” or the house wine of the establishment.  For those lucky enough to be staying in private residences you just show up with your 5-liter (1.3 US gallon) jugs and fill them up.  The cost?  About 2 Euros per liter.  For the mathematically inclined that means you get a bottle (750ml) of good table wine for about 1.75 euros or $2.25 U.S.  Don’t have any bottles?  No problem, they will gladly sell you some.

We would imagine the health benefits might even be superior to just about any bottled wine…..not that we are knocking Italian wines, just that the closer you eat or drink to the food source the better in our opinion.  The taste may not impress any “wine snobs” who talk about fruity flavors or bold finish and such,  but for a lot of us on a budget these wines are just great!  

And…this pretty much applies throughout Europe.  Pick just about any country and if you are staying at a local home or inn then chances are the grapes are locally grown.  Many families have their own vineyards and produce enough for their needs and perhaps sell some that is left over.

New Calendar of Upcoming Events on Catholic Travel Blog

You may notice on our Navigation Menu that we have added a “CALENDAR OF UPCOMING EVENTS” link.  We are in the process of putting up a calendar of various Catholic events around the world.

There are so many events around the world that we felt this might be a good way to list them all in one place.  

We welcome any contributions….if you know of an event that might be of interest to Catholic travelers please let us know at  info@thecatholictravelguide.com

Breakfast in London, Lunch in Paris, Dinner in Barcelona?

Yes, this is possible and welcomed news! Those traveling from Paris to Barcelona have always had the option of taking a high-speed train, but it had one serious drawback. Due to the fact that France and Spain use different rolling stock, you had the inconvenience of having to change trains near the border between the two countries. With the construction of a new high-speed rail line that links the two cities directly, that problem has been eliminated…no change of trains is necessary.

The upper level in the first class coach.  Second class is basically the same, but with more seats.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
The upper level in the first class coach. Second class is basically the same, but with two seats on each side of the aisle. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The trains clip along at a speed of about 200 mph (320 kph ), enough to get you there in a hurry but slow enough to see quaint French villages with the majestic Alps in the background and then, on the final leg, the beautiful Mediterranean coastline of Spain. For a better view, try a seat on the upper deck (these are bi-level carriages).

The Paris-Barcelona trains run from Gare de Lyon station, one of five stations in Paris.

Le Train Bleu Restaurant inside Gare de Lyon Station (photo courtesy wikipedia)
Le Train Bleu Restaurant inside Gare de Lyon Station. A step back in time to the golden age of travel. (photo courtesy wikipedia)

By happy coincidence one of our favorite lunch spots in Paris just happens to be in a train stationTrain Bleu Restaurant  inside Gare du Lyon.  Sit down, have lunch from the set menu (which includes a half-bottle of red) and then at train time you just walk a few yards (meters) directly on to the train.

There are currently two trains each day, with a travel time of approximately 6 and a half hours from Paris to Barcelona making several stops in France and a couple in Spain. In March 2014 that will be increased to four trains per day.

For British travelers this new service will also allow you to take the Eurostar to Paris, change stations and then catch the train to Barcelona.  So it is possible to have breakfast in London, lunch in Paris and dinner in Barcelona.  What a convenience and a great entry for your travel journal!

Those of you coming from the UK might also want to check out Loco 2.  This booking website gets great reviews.

We are big believers in train travel in Europe.  First, the romance of train travel is hard to resist, especially since air travel has long since lost any semblance of romance and the wait to check in can often be longer than the flight itself.  Also, since most train stations are located downtown, you avoid a long (and often expensive) trip from the airport to the city.  

Certainly more relaxing than flying....and the food is better!
Why anyone would choose fly rather than take the train eludes me. Certainly more relaxing than flying….and the food is better!

Most importantly, you can actually see the countryside and its people rather than looking down from 30,000 feet.    

You can get up, walk to the snack or restaurant car, and socialize with others.  This is the beauty of train travel, it’s definitely more rewarding than just the utilitarian need to get from one place to the other.  

So, sit back, relax, meet new friends….whatever. That’s probably the whole reason you’re traveling in the first place.

For a more in-depth look at train travel in Europe we recommend the website called the Man in Seat 61.

Looking for a Sunday Brunch in Rome?

Picture breakfasting in Italy! Those of you who have been to this magnificent country before perhaps found the traditional Italian breakfast of a hard roll and coffee somewhat disappointing.  But, good news, due to popular demand from tourists, some hotels have begun offering a ‘reinforced breakfast” that includes cereals, eggs, etc.  

And we were truly ecstatic when we recently discovered that Cafe Pompi, a popular local Roman restaurant, offers a fantastic Sunday Brunch.  Their specialties are poached and scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, toast, butter and jam, baked beans, tasty sausages, pancakes, fluffy muffins, donuts, yogurt with cereal, fruit salad, all invariably accompanied by orange juice and a steaming cup of coffee.  The cost is pretty reasonable for an Italian brunch of this quality: about 10 Euros.

But if you don’t happen to be here on a Sunday morning, then consider stopping here some time for their famous Tiramisu, which is their main claim to fame. Many consider it the best they have ever tasted.  You can get all kinds of flavors, but their original is still a big draw.

I can’t decide whether I want the brunch or the Tiramisu, but I am not in Rome that often, so I’ll have both!

They have a couple of new locations, but we recommend the original one at Via Albalonga 7 in the San Giovanni neighborhood. Open Tuesday thru Sunday 6:30 AM to 1:30 AM.  Metro to Re di Roma stop and two minutes walk to restaurant.  The restaurant is south of the Termini Train station. 

Been there?  Please let us know how you

By the way, we are not compensated in any way for this review.  Just wanted to pass this on to everyone.

Don’t let fear stop you from Independent Travel

As we approach the busy travel season in Europe, one of the things that people worry about is getting scammed in one way or another. 

Unfortunately, although violent crime is rare, pickpockets in cities such as Paris and Rome tend to be very active and it seems that the authorities do little to combat them.  

Fortunately, you can take some basic precautions that will minimize your exposure.  Just a few are:

1.  Do not wear flashy jewelry…leave that back home.

2.  Use cross-body straps on purses, camera cases, etc. so that even if your hands are occupied you won’t present an opportunity for a thief.  

3.  If you see a disturbance on the street, keep walking. These can be staged events designed to distract you while someone helps themselves to your wallet or purse.  

4.  If someone approaches you with a “lost” ring or other valuable, ignore them and keep on walking.  Again, this is designed to distract you and is one of the more popular methods of taking your belongings.  

5.  Do not open your wallet in public, and never allow anyone to help you at an ATM machine.  

6.  Keep your money (and credit cards) in more than one place…if you do become a victim you won’t lose everything at once.  Use a money belt for walking around.

7.  Leave your passport in the hotel safe.

8.  Use old, beat-up luggage.  Using flashy, expensive luggage is asking for trouble.  Same applies to backpacks.  Let’s face it, if you are a thief you are going to go where the money is!

So, have we scared you?  Hopefully not…..we hope we have assuaged any fears you might have.  Taking a few precautions mean that you are much likely to become a victim.