Monday, September 25, 2017

Explore Florence in one day

Florence or Firenze is not actually included in our Rome trip itinerary. It so happens that we have one remaining free day in Rome before our flight back to Paris.

The Filipino housekeeper in our hotel, Chic&Town, upon learning this suggested that we could visit Florence and Pisa for one day.

Within hours I booked an online round trip train tickets from Roma Tiburitini to Florence. In short, we reached Florence by train the following day. Upon arrival at Florence train station, we purchased return train tickets for our later visit to Pisa.

Baptistery in front of the cathedral
Horse carriage at Piazza del Duomo

A couple of kilometers from the train station is its most famous landmark and part of UNESCO World Heritage Site, “Piazza del Duomo” which includes the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Baptistery and Campanille. From here we strolled up to Palazzo Pitti passing through Ponte Vecchio, the oldest of all bridges crossing river Arno, with a coffee break at Piazza della Signora.

The centuries old gothic Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is the fourth largest cathedral in the world. Its exterior is covered with marble panels of varying shades. Upon setting our eyesight on this unique building the wife and I were speechless for some time. At first the structure seemed like a caricature or drawing; its uniqueness was simply indescribable. 

Piazza della Signora

We walked around the cathedral searching for the entrance but maybe we were too early, the cathedral was still closed so instead of waiting we opted to look for Ponte Vecchio. From here we reached Piazza della Signora after a couple of minutes of strolling; we had a coffee break and searched Google maps on how to reach Ponte Vecchio. This is our way of connecting to the internet in case we need to find the correct path to our destination, have a coffee and at the same time take some rest.

Love locks at Ponte Vechio

River Arno
Jewelry shops

In no time at all we reached Ponte Vecchio. It simply an old bridge crossing river Arno. Aside from the open space at the center the entire bridge is like a jewelry souk or market since shops lined both sidewalks of the bridge.

Palazzo Pitti

Garden at the back of Palazzo Pitti


Victor Hugo

From this bridge we followed the main road until we reached Palazzo Pitti. We bought entrance tickets and explore the four museums inside; the garden at the back requires separate tickets. Though we have visited Louvre and Orsay in Paris, we still find these museums worth visiting. We spent almost two hours exploring the place before we decided to return back to the train station to have our lunch and wait for our trip to Pisa.

Mercato del Porcellino

On our way back to the train station we passed again at Ponte Vecchio but this time we avoided Piazza della Signora and passed at Mercato del Porcellino, a 16th century covered market building. Most of the merchandises being sold here are leather goods thus even when your eyes are close you’d know that there are plenty of leather materials around due to its distinct smell. The wife’s eyes started exploring so I reminded her that we have a train to catch, LOL.

Florence is a walkable town. With Google map as our guide we were able to visit their famous landmarks and buildings on foot. When you get lost in Florence, just go with the flow of tourists and chances are you’ll end up at the place you are searching.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Dad's Review - Paris Museum pass

Having no time to book online and collect Paris Museum Pass (PMP) from their airport and city outlets we opted to purchase it ourselves from Galeries Lafayette (GL) since we would be staying at Champs Elysees area. GL is just a couple of kilometres away from our hotel.

Hence, upon arrival at the hotel we trekked towards Galeries Lafayette. Unbeknownst to us, there are three Galleries Lafayette buildings within the area, one for men, the other is for women and the third if I am not mistaken is a general department store. Long story short, we got our PMP from the tourist information counter at Galeries Lafayette Men’s building for 96 Euro (2 sets). The pass contains flyers showing the list of places you can visit within the validity period.

For complete details visit PMP official website: parismuseumpass

PMP covers your entrance fee to many Museums and tourist sites in and out of Paris City. You can purchase a 2-day, 4-day or 6-day pass. Validity period commences on the day you start using your PMP; on your first visit to any of those accredited places, the staff would stamp at the back of your PMP the date of your visit; timer starts ticking.

Since our initial stay in Paris is good for 5 days only before traveling to Rome we decided that a 2 day pass would be enough for us.

We visited these places using PMP:
-          Louvre Museum
-      Orsay Museum
-          Notre Dame Church (but it was open for public on the day we visited it)
-          Sainte-Chapelle
-          Conciergerie
-          Arc de Triomphe
-          Chateau Versailles (Garden not included – extra fee of 8.50 Euro to enter the garden)

I can say that PMP is bang for the buck. Aside from huge savings you can also save time because your queue is different from the general admission though you still have to fall in line for security check. After security check, you proceed directly to “reserve” line or what they call as "skip the line." Sometimes they would require you to get an admission voucher from a "reserve line" counters. Just show your PMP and enjoy the site.

Because we want to maximise the benefit of PMP, the wife and I decided to pay a visit at Arc de Triomphe viewing deck instead of just strolling around the vicinity. Doing so I had a claustrophobic attack on our way to the viewing deck, thankfully the attack was manageable, LOL.

Read my experience at Arc de Triomphe

Friday, September 15, 2017

Hotel Augustin Astotel Paris

Paris boutique hotels are truly a class of their own. You'd immediately recognize the artistic design / decoration and the comfort it offers to its guests but don't expect to enjoy the flat screen since all TV channels are in French while English movies are dubbed in French as well.

Surprisingly, they gave us corner "attic" room thus we had 2 balconies overlooking the streets below. It was terrific on our first couple of days but after noticing that nearby buildings' upper floors were unoccupied we never opened our windows during night time anymore.

lovely interior



Due to its minuscule size, our room doesn't have any walk in closet; they just install a metal frame with hangers. We couldn't even open our mid size luggage comfortably. We even took our room service dinner on bed.

As expected, bedding and towels are in good condition while basic toiletries are provided except toothbrush and slippers.

The thickly carpeted room has a small electronic vault, electric kettle, hair dryer, cooler and flat screen. All beverages (non-alcoholic) inside the cooler are free and refilled daily. Wifi connection is also stable and fast.

Though the complimentary buffet breakfast is just a basic meal such as breads, fruits, flavored yogurt, sausages, eggs and fruit juices we enjoyed authentic croissant and French bread. Brewed coffee and milk would be brought to your table upon request.

typical breakfast
room service - great food except the rock solid bread

Just a reminder, if you're a couple then don't occupy the table for four otherwise you'd be asked to transfer to a table for two; we learned this on our second day.

Our hotel is a member of Astotel chain of hotels thus during our check-in they provided us list of their member hotels where we can have free snacks from 2 pm to 1 am. You read it right, our hotel offers free snack.

The nearest metro station is Saint Augustin; locate the hotel from Google map before traveling. Being confident in our previous travels in Asia, we never bothered to locate its exact location thus we ended up paying 7 Euro for a kilometer ride from Saint Lazare metro station. Anyway, taxicab in Paris is quite an experience, they use limousine type vehicles while the drivers are well dressed and groomed.

Be aware though that during summer they leave the windows open to enjoy the warm air breeze. On our last day, we asked the reception to book us a taxi, a few minutes later a coat and tie guy arrived and drove us all the way to Gare de Lyon.

Though the hotel offers room service, the food is arranged and delivered by an outside company or restaurant. The hefty serving is quite tasty but pricey compared when you dine outside.

Reception is 24/7 hence on our last day, we checked out, paid our bills using my credit card and arranged a taxi at 5 am without any ado.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dad's Review - Practical tips for Paris Metro Trains

an old metro station at Montmartre
If you have traveled around Asia then chances are you'll be able to cope up with Paris Metro including their RER trains without any major difficulties. Similar to Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, Paris metro stations are intertwined both above and under ground. Comparing Paris Metro with the 3 places I mentioned earlier, don't be surprised that many metro stations in Paris look dilapidated and some of them seem abandoned while others are reeking of urine probably due to lack of toilets. Nevertheless they are relatively safe since CCTV abound each station aside from manned Service Counter. In our case, we haven't encountered any untoward incidents while we were using the metro for seven days except those train beggars who asked for alms.

scroll type ticket machine - you insert your credit card at the slot on top of numeric keypad

subway metro station - creepy isn't it?

In order to have smooth Paris metro train trip consider the following points:
  1. Download from net an updated Paris Metro map. To know whether your downloaded map is updated, RER train line "L" should be on the map.
  2. Plan your trip beforehand so that you'll know which station to get off and which stations are connected to other train lines. More so, due to unique name of places or stations, know the end route of the train you plan to board to avoid traveling in opposite direction. A couple of times we encountered tourists waiting for their train at the opposite direction.
  3. Ticket machine accepts Euro coins and credit card only; debit cards are not accepted. If you have Philippine issued Visa/MasterCard credit card then you are safe, I used mine flawlessly.  Make sure though that the machine is online otherwise it won't accept any cards; just like an offline ATM machine.
  4. Ticket machine can either touch screen or scroll and push button type. No worries since you can always select the language you prefer to use and just follow the instructions. In my case, I simply select U.K. Flag (English). One time use of this machine is enough for you to remember its functions.
  5. If you are not using Navigo card then make sure that the ticket machine is marked as Navigo / Ticket. The other type of ticket machine is solely used to charge Navigo cards (Navigo Recharge). You won't be able to buy single trip ticket from this type of machine.
  6. You need to be careful in selecting your route. Within Paris, just select Paris from the screen which will cost you 1.90 Euro for one way trip. For places outside Paris such as Disneyland, Chateau Versailles and Charles de Gaulle airport the fares are different. In this case select from the screen your proper destination. If you're not sure then inquire or buy your ticket from the "Service" counters. Don't even think of using a Paris only ticket in traveling to airport or other far places. Trust me, we have seen a group of ticket inspectors suddenly and randomly appearing and catching those individuals using "wrong" ticket. I believe you'll be asked to pay steep fine. 
  7. Some Paris metro trains are using manual button or lever to open the train doors. If nobody is getting off or embarking the doors will remain closed even upon reaching the station. So once you see a stainless button or lever on train doors then activate them once the train stops. You can do this at both sides of the doors.
  8. Your ticket is good for one "entrance" use only. If you commit mistake and pass the turnstiles then you won't be able to go back; you need to purchase another ticket. Moreover, disembarking from the airport (RER) train, some stations have no direct access to the metro train thus you won't be able to enter the turnstile. In this case, look for any manual door to pass. If there are no manual access door then look for any metro staff around and show your airport ticket, they'll use their badge to allow you to get inside the metro station.
  9. To exit, usually, you just pass through the exit (one way) turnstiles without using your ticket. 
  10. Be careful regarding some unscrupulous individuals. While using a ticket machine, an old lady approached us and tried to sell metro ticket for 1.50 Euro which is cheaper than the normal ticket. My wife and I refused because the ticket she was selling could be a "used" ticket. Once you bought it, the lady would disappear and you would end up having a useless ticket since it wouldn't be accepted by turnstile. Furthermore, I narrated this event to my French colleague and he told me that is considered "ticket black market" and it is considered illegal.
  11. Finally, when in doubt or confuse, don't be afraid to ask. Even in broken English, locals will try their best to assist you; one time when the wife and I were discussing about our route a French lady approached us and asked whether we need assistance. Another time we got lost searching for the nearest metro station we asked the only person we met while walking, he was drunk and reeking of alcohol and didn't know how to speak English but used body language to show us the correct way. Before I forget, when asking for assistance about places and location it is better to just type it on your mobile phone and show it. The way they pronounce the words most of the times are completely different from the usual English pronunciation like when we were asking for Saint Lazare station, the lady couldn't understand us but when we showed her the place on Google map the lady said SA' LAZAR, it sounded like Salazar; the same with the metro station near our hotel, Saint Augustin, they pronounce it SA' AGUSTA. It will take sometime before you get used to it.
Paris only metro ticket - 1.90 Euro

Paris to Chateau Versailles tickets - 4.45 Euro

Paris to Disneyland ticket - 7.60 Euro

Paris to Charles De Gaulle airport tickets - 10.30 Euro / but when traveling from the airport to Paris the ticket costs 15 Euro

Don't fret if you have started accumulating Euro coins while in Paris, it will surely happen, since it is preferable to have coins for metro trains rather than use your credit card, you're losing around 1 pesos for each Euro in credit card exchange rate.

typical map at bus station - metro stations are represented by letters M and RER

In case you get lost don't panic and argue with your companion, fortunately the wife has no time to read my blog, LOL. The easiest way to locate the nearest metro station is to look for bus station where a street map is normally posted. You'll find them at every corner of the streets.

All told, nothing beats a prepared and relaxed tourist.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Spotted - Elevator's negative floor

I have visited many countries not only in Asia but in Middle-East and Africa as well and this is the first time I have seen minus or negative floors.

In our recent trip to Paris we stayed in two hotel and both of them were using negative floors rather than basement.

Not only that, they also consider ground floor as zero floor thus the next upper floor is 1st floor. The entire concept is quite logical, isn't it?

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Claustrophobic attack while climbing Arc de Triomphe viewing deck.

First thing first, if you have health problem like hypertension or you're claustrophobic then ask their staff if you can use the elevator. Usually, they herd the paying guests to the main entrance where a long and winding spiral staircase leads to the viewing deck above.

It is normal to see people grasping for breath along the way, wife and I included, before reaching the viewing deck. But in my case, I had a claustrophobic attack on our way as well, I had cold sweat and felt suffocated; I was hyperventilating. I knew I was having this kind of panic attack since I had one when we explored Chu-Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City many years back. Fortunately, we were a few steps away from the deck otherwise I would sit there, close my eyes for a while until I get relaxed. 

The circular and narrow steps, barely enough for two persons, could be as high as 8 storey building if I may say so. There is no landing where you can have a rest nor windows where you can have fresh air. Trust me, it is like a narrow cylindrical closed concrete room. Aside from that, during peak season, hordes of visitors would be blocked if a person decides to stop somewhere in the middle. 

Actually, we never plan to climb the viewing deck due to our health's condition but to maximize our Museum  Pass we decided to have a go after reading on net that an access elevator is open to the public. In reality they restrict the use of elevator for PWD (person with disability) only.

wide boulevard and historical buildings

First glimpse of Eiffel Tower

Basilica of Sacre Coeur from a distant

Anyway, upon reaching the viewing deck, you'd forget all your pains and difficulty in climbing since the view was truly amazing. That was the first time we had a glimpse of Eiffel Tower and Basilica of Sacre Coeur. The wide boulevards and historical buildings would make anybody speechless. 

After a good one hour and countless of selfies we decided to go down. Though it is obviously easier to go down the wife and I are anxious due to what we have experienced earlier. Luckily, a staff was about to go down using the elevator, we begged if we can go with him. We were lucky he agreed; another guest also went with us. What a relief for the wife and I.

Upon reaching the ground, we were greeted by some armed military personnel and a dozen of flag bearing old guys. It seemed they were celebrating some unknown soldiers day.

We retraced our steps back to the Charles de Gaulle Etoile Metro Station through underground pathway. Within the metro station entrance vicinity are several performing street artists and souvenir vendors.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Paris to Rome by trains (TGV and Frecciarossa)

We booked our online tickets at Loco2 website. They sent our e-vouchers for Paris to Milan trip while they just provided reference numbers for our Milan to Rome trip. Thus you need to make a decent printout of your Paris to Milan ticket while you need to have a copy of your reference number for a paperless ticket from Milan to Rome.

We checked out from our hotel at 5 am and asked our hotel receptionist to arrange a taxi since it would be very inconvenient to walk towards Saint Lazare station with 2 big luggage in tow; the wife was also afraid of homeless persons along the way. In less than 5 minutes our taxi arrived. It charged us additional 5 euro for night trip. From Saint Augustin area to Gare de Lyon we paid 19.50 euro for a 15 min trip.

Upon entering Gare de Lyon we checked the massive LCD screens at Hall 1, we found our train to Milano Porta Garibaldi would leave from Hall 2 so we followed the direction towards Hall 2.

Shops in Gare de Lyon open at 6 am but you can buy chocolates, biscuits, candies and even waffles from vending machines, including coffee.

The platform where our train would depart appeared on the giant LCD screen at around 6:10 am. Our train left at exactly 6:27 am. Locate your coach number at small LCD screen at the entrance of each coaches; don't depend on the painted number on the coach body. Inside, you may leave your big luggage at designated luggage racks while small trolley and bags can be accommodated at overhead compartments. Toilets are at the end of the coach.

A few minutes after the train has left Gare de Lyon, a ticket inspector scanned our printed ticket using a portable scanner.

inside TGV train

After 30 minutes, a train staff started pushing food cart along the aisle. He went around three times during the entire Paris to Milan trip. You can buy hot and cold drinks, alcoholic beverages and sandwiches. In our case, while waiting for our trip we bought a couple of bottled water and sandwich from "RELAY," a convenience shop inside Hall 2 of Gare de Lyon. There is also a bar/cafe coach at the middle and accessible from all coaches.

you can have fresh croissant
As the train approaches small towns it slows down and gain speed once it passes these towns. The train stopped at several selected stations to pickup and unload passengers.

We reached Modane at 10:50 am; it was our last stop in France. Our train stopped for 5 minutes while several armed personnel wearing bulletproof vest entered our coach. While on our way, we were surprised when the two armed personnel, one was a lady, started demanding for our tickets and passports. They also asked how much money we have in our possession though they didn't require us to show physically our money. After they have confirmed that we were genuine tourists and we'd go back to Paris after 5 days in Rome before returning to Philippines they bade us good trip. 

Furthermore, these armed guys asked a black lady and an Arab looking guy to open their luggage located at the luggage rack. It was a bit frightening since these burly armed personnel were conducting inspections and interrogation while the train was traveling inside a long tunnel; it was completely dark outside. My wife asked me in case they'd find somebody who is not supposed to be in the train what they'd do. I told her they might dumped him inside the tunnel while the train was running, LOL.

The armed personnels alighted from the train at next station, Bardonecchia, Italy.

At 11:55 am, our tickets were checked again by a new inspector. 

The train arrived at Milano Porta Garibaldi at 1:48 pm; 2 minutes earlier than schedule. We hurriedly checked the LCD screens for our train. We saw "Frecciarossa 9569" but showing Salermo and not Romano Tiburtini. Nevertheless we knew it was our train. It would arrive at 2:15 pm; meaning we have 3 min to locate and settle down on our seats. However, platform number wasn't shown yet. 

The Italian language was entirely new to us and since we had only 28 minutes layover we immediately asked around for the location of our train. We were directed to the lower floor; we noticed that the platform number is now showing on the LCD screen. We searched for platform no 14 with Salermo destination; the LCD screen also showed that the train would pass at Romano Tiburtina station before proceeding to Salermo.

our free snack; the pouch contains refreshing towel, small packet of biscuit and disposable cup

In short, we're able to catch our train to Rome. Here, the coach number is marked at the platform so you know exactly where to wait. As expected, our train stopped for 3 min only. We got a welcome snack; unfortunately, the free wifi wasn't working. A ticket inspector validated our reference number.

The train stopped at several stations and passes at other small towns train stations.

At exactly 5:43 pm we reached Romano Tiburtini station. We followed the exit sign and boarded a waiting white taxi. Yes, taxi in Rome is colored white.

Aside from the interrogation, our trip from Paris to Rome was flawless.

Finally, to have a smooth trip I suggest that you follow these basic rules:
- Arrive at least 30 minutes before your trip so as to familiarize yourself in Gare de Lyon.
- Have Euro coins for vending machines if your train will leave early.
- Good quality ticket printout.
- Gadgets for entertainment since there is no wifi inside the train
- Time is of the essence due to tight layover thus don't be afraid to ask or request assistance from the train staff or locals.