On the road again! We left Compiegne for our first ‘real’ day of traveling. The reason it is ‘real’ is that most days we don’t get a ‘base of operations’ we no longer get to check into the hotel, leave our bags, and then explore. Instead we have to work out of the car. This means that we each have to carry a backpack with ‘essentials’ in case we get robbed. Essentials means medicines and technologies.
We left Compiegne for Pierrefonds. This is my FAVORITE castle – it was my first castle andit still is amazing. You drive through the forest of Compiegne to get there – it is very much a storybook forest.
On the way we passed the Clearing of the Armistice – and while it wasn’t on our original list – I added it to the film. I mean how often do you get to stand on the place that WWI ended?! In 1940, Hitler made France sign a treaty (this time with Germany in control) in WWII on the same spot. There was a wagon that both treaties were signed in but Hitler destroyed it in 1945 because he didn’t want to have to sign a treaty in it himself!
In front of the museum they had a tank from WWI.
This tank wasn’t the only old vehicle we saw – the parking lot was filled with these ‘classic’ cars. It made Amanda and I feel better about leaving our luggage in the car.
This is a 3 wheeler!
After the Clearing of the Armistice we drove to Pierrefonds. The castle just LOOMS over the city. We grabbed a quick lunch before we went in. We ended up both getting meat trays (and then swapping bits off of each others plate).
I will say that this time Amanda picked better than I did. She had a giant thing of melted Brie – though we both got baked potatoes.
I love Pierrefonds. Did I say that? Each year I go back and take this SAME shot. It never gets old for me.
The Pelican-Bat-Frog is also an old friend! I think this shot is the best I have ever taken of it.
I noticed one of the decorations was a blacksmith!
Over the years, the displays have changed. The entire castle is in constant renovations and is used to make TV shows and Movies. Most recently the TV Series Merlin was set here so a lot of people really recognize it.
Several years ago they opened a crypt like area in the basement. It is filled with effigies of famous people and they have interesting lights and audio to make it a little ‘spooky’. The effect is great and you can tell that it really freaks out the school children who are visiting.
Speaking of children. One group of students on a field trip from Bushmead Primary school in Luton, England started talking to me and kept telling me that they loved my ‘American’ accent. They asked me if they sounded ‘posh’ to me with their English accent. They also kept asking me to say their names like Max, Lily, Jennifer, Megan. And would then giggle and laugh and ask me to say it again.
They also kept taking my picture!
While this all looks very academic – none of it was about the castle! They kept trying to get me to talk in an English accent for them.
Their teachers thought this was very funny and said they imagined their big ‘take-away’ from one of the greatest castles in the world was that they met an American.
For me, I loved going back to some of my favorite spots and getting better versions of my classic pictures – like this Griffin.
Or the chapel!
This drain spout is interesting and the last few times I saw it – it was green from moss or algae. I was disappointed to see it clean!
After we toured around – we headed out front to film my opening statements.
Now there I am on the lawn, Amanda is shooting and giving me direction and you can see some of the people who work there kind of watching me off to the side. Our rule when filming is to just be enthusiastic teachers/tourists and only reveal that we are shooting a film at the end when we are leaving (in case we get thrown out). I am doing take after take and can see them sitting and smiling – I got the impression that they were curious but not bothered. So I hand them our cards. The cards we carry have THIS castle on them and the logo is a stylized version of THIS castle.
Apparently this is a good thing.
One of the ladies who worked there asked if I knew about Michael Jackson and the castle? It turns out he loved the castle and had a replica built for Neverland Ranch. She asked if we wanted to see a picture and proceeded to take us back into the castle and into her office (which is IN the castle). I will be honest – I was freaking out – just getting to walk up a staircase that you never get to walk up!
We chatted for a bit – she was very nice to us – and then asked if we wanted to see a really special view. She then opened a door in her office and it opened up unto the courtyard – wow.
I can’t thank her enough for making this trip to Pierrefonds extra special!
Castle hunting is a lot of work so afterwards we stopped for ice-cream.
We then had to head back onto the road to get to Amiens by nightfall. We didn’t realize it at the time but the GPS was set to avoid tolls (and therefore the highway) but we got to Amiens by dusk and headed into the hotel. The hotel had a restaurant but he strongly suggested we eat elsewhere and headed down to the Quai which houses all of the fine dining. Along the way we passed Amiens Cathedral (which doesn’t count on today’s list because we don’t visit it till tomorrow).
The lighting could not have been better!
The sun was setting perfectly across the facade.
On the way to dinner we passed a Marionette shop! Creepy.
The restaurant was very modern. My fois was served on a large slate slab!
The bacon wrapped scallops were perfect – though the fries and watercress was a bit much.
For dessert they had this platter with a drink and 5 mini desserts. It also had 5 spoons. I think I forgot to change my spoons though.
After dinner we passed by the cathedral and were awestruck by what we found!
At night they have a multimedia show where they project the original polychrome colors onto the facade and show what the brightly colored statues would have looked like 600 years ago.
It was truly awe-inspiring. Brilliant!
Even thinking of it now and re-looking at these pictures I get chills. A truly transformative experience. And to think we almost missed it by eating in the hotel. If you go to Amiens you MUST see the cathedral at night!
So this ends day 3. Tomorrow is another big day – we see the cathedral and 2 more castles.
Trip tally: 246 km traveled. 5 places visited (4 castles + 1 place of cultural significance).
As always we thank you for the support of this project be sure to Like us on Facebook & tell your friends.
(Sorry for the extended delays between posts- the Internet has been terrible and our nightly routine has been focusing on downloading and backing up data from all of the cameras and also charging all of the batteries – plus we have to pack and repack and load and unload the car daily!)
We left Senlis first thing in the morning loaded up the car and drove to Compiegne. This is the first city in France that I ever visited and have been back several times. I had planned on a slow start and we got to Compiegne right around 11:45am. With check-in at noon I asked if we could check in a little early and he said fine and handed me my door code and a bag of pink marshmallows! It turns out that the marshmallows are a promotion and the ones we threw away yesterday were ours to eat – damn! We tried them and they were awful. Not awful – like bad – but awful like if a marshmallow is going to be SOUR instead of sweet that you would want to know first. After the surprise wore off we ate the whole bag. We unloaded the car and headed out to have lunch and do some exploring.
After a quick lunch we headed to the Tour Bouregard. This is a funny little tower in the middle of a parking lot. It is also called the Tower of Joan of Arc in her honor because from this tower the captain of the city witnessed her being captured by the Burgundians. It is all that remains of a larger castle that once stood here.
From there we headed to the Chateau d’Compeigne. The castle has been built and rebuilt many times and was often a seat of royal power – it was also a hunting ‘cabin’. Most of the wall decor is painted to look real – but it is fake granite, fake marble, and fake carvings. Apparently painters work cheap!
It wasn’t too crowded but it took forever to get the picture of the back of the Chateau with no people! This one couple was sitting there just lounging around (and saw me trying to take a photo) when the man got up and asked if I would take THEIR photo. Of course! I took their photo and then they SAT BACK DOWN!
The dining room didn’t look made up in a fake way – it looked fresh – like people were about to sit down to eat.
This pinball looking table looked really fun – behind it there appears to be another game table like a shuffleboard.
The ballroom was huge. There was one guy in here who knew I was trying to take a picture and just kept dancing around the room with his audio tour – looking at the ceiling then at me – then the wall – then at me. I was patient – I think it pissed him off. I never ask people to step aside – I just wait.
I have been to this castle many times and I always love this bedroom.
Some of the furniture is so unusual – I wonder how comfortable it is to sit and talk in this.
I saw a painting of Pierrfonds (which is my favorite castle) – we visit it tomorrow!
After the castle we headed to the gardens – which were very expansive but not very floral – large fields of green and trees – we will be going to better and more visually attractive gardens soon. We headed into town where I took this photo in the parking lot:
It is of the Saint-Jacques Church of Compiègne. While the photo is pretty – it isn’t part of the film or the narrative (so it doesn’t count on my uber list of places visited). We then went shopping at the MonoPrix for some supplies. I love the fact that the supermarket has an entire display case dedicated to smoked salmons! We got a cooler bag and some big bottles of water – We also needed to get something to cover inside the car. The luggage all ‘fits’ inside the trunk but only if we move the seats forward slightly which means that a small amount of the trunk is visible. I got a black bed-sheet which we cover the inside of the trunk with to obscure the view when looking from outside.
Now for the foodies. I am not a big fan of mustard and though I have been slowly building a tolerance for the ‘flavor’ of mustard it still is a shock when you order Mayonnaise and get:
One of the great joys for me is the ability to order real hot chocolate after a meal (I am not a coffee drinker).
For lunch Amanda ordered the Croque Monsieur (ham and cheese) but I had the Croque Monsieur with Salmon – think lox and cheese served hot. Of course everything comes with Pommes Frites (French fries) and the salad has a nice bit of what type of salad dressing?You guessed it – Mustard.
For dinner we had a 3 course ‘menu’. The starter was a Mushroom Terrine – which is a meat spread. A little rich in flavor for Amanda – and the pink stuff is pickled onions – which neither of us ate.
We also had the steak and fries. While it was cooked it was also a red purple. We have to remember that meat is served VERY rare here and well-done = medium.
Of course I had to end my meal with the Creme Brulée – it was good – but then again I can’t think of a time I have ever had a bad one!
Amanda had the chocolate mousse.
Since we were staying in Compiegne – we were able to just go back to the hotel after dinner and relax.
So this ends day two. Trip totals: 3 places visited (all castles) and 111km traveled. Don’t worry the ramps up quick – I had to get us started a little slow to get us into the groove.
As always we thank you for the support of this project be sure to Like us on Facebook & tell your friends.
Let the adventure begin!
So we landed got the car – loaded it up and were good to go!
The trick of course is that we just got off a plane, were tired, and our bags and equipment weren’t ready to go just yet.
The closest castle to Paris is the Chateau Chantilly and while I would normally just drive there and visit the castle and then find a hotel – in 2004 when I did this the car was robbed – I mean empty – 3 hours into a 19 day trip and I had nothing to my name except for the cameras I was carrying. So in honor of the 2004 robbery I have become very suspicious of Chantilly and decided to check into the hotel first. We don’t often get to do this – because of the nature of the trip we will often be working out of the car.
We headed to Senlis to find our hotel but they wouldn’t let us check in until noon. Instead we found a Patisserie and had some Quiche and croissant (I had cherry & apple while Amanda had chocolate). Don’t ask me why but right in the center of Senlis is this statue:
Finally we checked into the hotel. We are mostly staying at IBIS Budgets (which were previously known as ETAPS) very basic accommodations – much like a dorm room – no AC this time – oops – but everything else was fine. Luckily we were on the first floor – because this one didn’t have a lift. The towels are barely towels and there was a package of pink marshmallows (sealed) on the desk in the room which made us wonder how well they cleaned the room if they missed the bag of marshmallows – we threw them away even though they were sealed.
I rented a mobile hotspot and had it shipped to the hotel before our arrival – they of course had no record of it – luckily we thought to check the IBIS (not Budget) next door and they had it so now we have Internet whenever we want though we have to budget so we don’t go over the usage allowance.
The castle was open until 6pm so we took a quick nap, loaded up our gear and then headed out.
The Chateau de Chantilly is a pretty cool place. This is the castle:
These are the stables:
And these are the servants quarters:
Funny right? If the castle and stables look familiar it might be because they were featured in the James Bond film “A View To a Kill”.
There were people lounging everywhere on the castle grounds which is a huge park. Lounging really isn’t the word though – making out is the word – all you could see were couples rolling around on the grass.
The castle houses the Conde Museum which has some of the finest collections of paintings, books, and prints in the world!
The details are amazing:
The library was great and had an exhibition of manuscripts that were really well displayed.
I particular liked this lion hanging on the wall.
Funny story – so there are couches and chairs all over the place with little ropes and signs that tell you not to sit on them – but every so often there is a couch you CAN sit on to enjoy the artwork. In one such room I was looking at some paintings and there were several people sitting on a big circular couch when Amanda decided she was also going to sit down to film some of the paintings. When the guard came up to yell at her, Amanda was sure it was about the video camera so she told the guard (very politely) that they said she could film – totally oblivious to the look of horror on the guard’s face as the guard was trying to explain that she was sitting on a real antique couch. It was awesome. We checked later and alas the exchange was not caught on camera.
We got some nice shots and some video – it was the first day so I wasn’t as ‘on’ as I would have liked but the reality is that if we only get a minute of good footage per place then we have a feature length film. I had some nice stories to tell and I think it came out fine.
We stopped at the restaurant for a quick Lunch – I drank my Orangina (which you can get in the US but somehow tastes better in France):
We split a Croque Monsieur with fries. Our waitress actually disappeared on us – took our order and then we never saw here again – must have been a shift change or something. One of the stories of the chateau is that in 1671 the maître d’hotel, Francois Vatel committed suicide because the fish course was served late to Louis XIV. So in my mind she didn’t go home – she offed herself because of the lousy service.
But then got what we really came for. A bowl of Creme Chantilly (whipped cream) – you see while Creme Chantilly wasn’t invented at the Chateau Chantilly (which is the prevailing myth) it was indeed perfected there and WOW was it good. That is a macaroon in the center as well as a butter cookie and some berries. We split the one (though there remains great debate on the equity of the division) – which was a mistake – we should have ordered like 5 of them.
I know there are a lot of foodies who read this so I will try and end the daily posts with some notes about the meals. For dinner we stopped at a local Creperie in Senlis. I started with the Fois Gras – which I adore and will be having often – it came with a nice fig preserve. It was a little too rich in flavor for Amanda. Then we had savoy Crepes (called Galettes) – they were huge. Amanda had ham, cheese, and egg on hers while I had the salmon, ham, egg, nuts, and salad (which is pictured). Neither of us could finish our Galette and so we didn’t have dessert.
Exhausted we headed back to the hotel to figure out the WiFi and offload the data. I had some major technical issues – the GPS unit wouldn’t download on Windows 8 (fixed) and there was no audio on the video files (because I had the camera set to Linear PCM instead of Dolby) it turns out the audio IS there but harder to access not set properly.
All in all a good first day. One castle down – 76km driven!
Tune in for Day 2 – when the mystery of the pink marshmallows is finally revealed.
As always we thank you for the support of this project be sure to Like us on Facebook & tell your friends.
Sorry for the delays in posting the start of the trip – have run into some technical issues. First – I have been dead tired and yes this is a technical issue as my body needs to function for me to be able to write – second is the spotty Internet at the hotels. Hopefully it will get better – I do have a mobile hotspot – but more on that later!
This is technically the ‘Day 0’ entry about the travel itself. So no castles (or culture) yet!
It is amazing when you think about how much we need to bring on a trip – not only are we going to be gone for 30 days but we are also filming a movie so it is a lot of equipment. Both Amanda and myself agreed that we would each take only 3 bags – a backpack, a small carry-on suitcase and a single checked bag. The electronics would be carried on with us for safety sake. When we got to the airport we found my suitcase was overweight and that it was cheaper to have a second suitcase than to have a heavy one – so Amanda and I did a quick redistribution and got the weight down so no baggage fees (yet) – I think it was the tripod and the batteries that really added some heft. The wireless microphone takes AA batteries and rechargeables are always iffy so I just packed a lot of batteries – the good news is they won’t be coming back!
My suitcase of technology was going to be fun at security – not only was it filled with cameras and chargers but I also had a bag of spare batteries (which you are not supposed to check) and the quadcopter and transmitter. The guy at the x-ray machine kept cocking his head and pointing at the screen – rewinding – forwarding and then whispering to his colleagues. But in the end they did not need to open the bag – go figure.
We flew from Cleveland to Charlotte to Paris which seems weird but worked out fine. It was US Air to Paris – which also seems weird but was mostly fine.
There was some trouble with the inflight entertainment though:
Yes that looks like a blue screen of death on the screen (it isn’t but it’s close)!
They tried rebooting it for us several times. Amanda’s didn’t work. In the end we watched a film on my screen using a headphone splitter and then I switched seats with her when I went to sleep – the screen wouldn’t turn off but after a little prompting they gave us sleep masks.
A few days before the trip I got an email from US Air telling me that I could upgrade my meal for $20 to a cold gourmet meal. I look all over the Internet for reviews and only found announcements and some scoffing – no one had actually tried it. I figured what the hell. I got the beef for myself and the chicken for Amanda. I have to say I thought it was surprisingly good – the spring roll was great and had a little dipping sauce – the beef and noodles were not just tasty but also identifiable! It also came with a little salad (with a single shrimp), breadsticks, cheesecake, and a small bottle of wine. I would definitely do this again!
The flight was pretty routine – I slept a little (thank you wine) – and when we arrived our luggage was there (after a little wait).
The car was a real surprise – it is much bigger than I thought! It has a USB for my iPhone (hello music) and a nice GPS unit. What is weird is the color – everyone else was getting black or silver and then they pull up in this bright blue car for us. I love it. It has taken some time to get used to driving it though – it is an automatic but not like the automatics are at home – it really is a manual car with an automatic shifter and clutch – it drives like a manual car that someone else is shifting. It also has no Park – you stop the car – put it in neutral and apply the parking break.
So that’s the ‘transit entry’ we have arrived in France and all is well.
In case you want to read more about the planning of the trip be sure to check out the planning entries here:
People often laugh when I talk about wardrobe for the film. I am not known as a fashion guru. But the reality is – with 90 stops in 30 days and a feature length film I could easily be seen in a different set of clothes every 3 minutes! So for continuity sake (and ease of editing) I choose to wear the same outfit every day. Let me rephrase – I choose to be seen wearing an outfit that looks the same every day – I do in fact change my clothes.
Continuity with the 2009 start of the film is a problem – but it really isn’t. To be practical – in 2009 I weighed more, had a pony tail, and used a poorer quality microphone – so no matter what I do the 2009 footage of me will not match. However the interviews and b-roll are still good as I am not in them – so really only the footage ‘of me’ from 2009 is not useable and that’s not that much footage.
This gives me a clean visual slate. So what will I wear?
I love my blue shirts – I like the look of a blue polo and the feel of a polyester golf shirt is perfect for a hot summer day. I think the royal blue stands out and isn’t too overbearing – hopefully the color will stand the test of time. To that end I just ordered 12 new Izod golf shirts for the film. With 10 days between laundry days 12 is a safe number.
For pants I always wear black jeans. I know for many this is too hot – but I just find them comfortable in all situations and if they are crisp and new they can look dressy enough from afar. Of course my jeans will be Levis.
Normally I wear big black boots. Year round. People always laugh at them because they are huge & heavy but this year I decided to treat myself and upgraded to real hiking shoes and purchased some Merrells. I am amazed at how many people have asked me about my shoes since I started to break them in! They are very comfortable and I always add Dr Scholls custom fit orthotics (you know the machine at the store that measures your feet) it is like walking on air. And for a trip I always just buy new socks – it’s the big treat.
So, Merrells on the feet, Black Levis, Blue Izods. What else is left?
Whenever I travel I need a vest. I didn’t want to look sloppy so I got a well fitting black photographers vest (2 in fact to cycle regularly).
And to top it off a nice safari hat – there is still debate as to whether or not I need a new one or if my slightly worn hat has character – we shall see.
I did my one concession and will pack a single ‘trendy’ outfit for one of the nights in Paris – how this will play out in life or on film will be interesting.
A full equipment breakdown will be another blog entry as we get closer to packing – but the question here is what will be visible when I am on camera.
Equipment wise everything fits in my backpack – though reviewing the footage from 2009 I realize you can only see me wearing the backpack on occasion. I will need to pay close attention to that detail this year.
So what am I bringing and what am I not?
As a photographer I am bringing (and wearing) my digital SLR – it iss the Pentax K-5 with 2 lenses. This means a camera on a strap and one lens carrier on my belt. I got a new shoulder strap that hangs my camera at hip level. It’s part of my visual look.
As much as I love my toys I am NOT bringing: they Lytro camera, any 3D cameras, or any panoramic camera rigs.
This is a movie so I need to focus on filming.
The small Sony HD video camera (which I for the most part won’t be carrying and the audience will never see) has a nice built in microphone but I will also wear a wireless lapel microphone for the entire 30 days – this shouldn’t be visible if rigged properly.
In addition to the Sony camcorder I have my Pivothead HD video sunglasses, my iPhone, and a new GoProHD Black.
The Pivothead HD sunglasses will be in a lot of the shots because in my opinion nothing looks worse then seeing someone squint into the sun as they talk! The other two I don’t expect to be seen by the audience.
So fashion police, how does this sound?
Jared Bendis – Co-Director, Executive Producer, Writer, Guide
Amanda Almon – Co-Director, Cinematographer, Editor
Tom Hayes – Writer
Pari Naraghipour – Production Assistant, Research, Transcription & Translation
Susan Almon-Pesch at Market4Profit.com – Public Relations
Road tripping around France can be fun but you really need to think ahead. We don’t simply need to rent a car for a day or two – we need to rent a car for 23 days – and we will be putting some real miles (excuse me KM) on it!
Most people just head to their favorite car rental agency – the problem is that renting a car in Europe isn’t as customizable as it is in the US and I really need to control the options in the car.
First, I need an automatic – I can’t drive stick (very well) and I don’t want to deal with stick. Most rentals in Europe are stick.
Second, I want diesel. Remember in Europe diesel is cheaper and it gets better mileage and you want the most bang for the buck.
Third, and this is the kicker, what is the deductible in case of theft, vandalism, or accident? Most companies have deductibles of over $1,000 which would be something you would need to budget for in case of emergency. The MasterCard program that allows you to ‘waive’ insurance is only for 14 days or under (if that program still exists) and therefore doesn’t work here.
So instead of trying to rent a car I go through a leasing company out of NYC – http://www.ideamerge.com/
Here they actually sell you a new car (as a very short term lease). You are the first owner – it is brand new! Then when the trip is over – they take it back and resell it. I am told it is all about taxes on new vs. used cars and somehow it makes sense. And not only can I pick the exact car I want (Automatic, Diesel, GPS) – but it is totally covered by insurance with zero deductible.
The lease for 23 days is like $1,500 and I am estimating about $550 for gas and tolls.
To estimate KM, travel time, and tolls I use – http://en.mappy.com/ which I have found is a little better for France than Google Maps.
I then check my France petrol prices here – http://www.aaireland.ie/AA/Motoring-advice/Petrol-Prices.aspx
Since the car is new the stated mileage is usually pretty close. Though they don’t use Miles/Gallon they use Liters/100KM which involves math but you can calculate a good estimate from.
For the 23 days we are estimating – 4200km (or 55 hours of driving) and 158 Euros in tolls.
The downside with leasing the car is that the license plate is red (indicating foreign owner) and both times I have done this I have had my car broken into (though there were other contributing factors and people say that thieves can spot rental cars just as easily).
So let’s talk about those contributing factors.
In 2004, I rented too small a car that had no covered trunk. I drove from Paris to Chantilly (which is a tourist trap right off the highway) and left my car (with the luggage visible in the trunk) in a wooded parking lot. When I came back the car was empty but no damage to the car (they jimmied the lock). It was very frustrating and I spent the afternoon and the police station. I had good renters insurance at the time and my contents were covered with the police report. Lessons learned? Don’t leave stuff exposed in a car, get the right sized car so your stuff is covered. I could not have left stuff in the hotel because I didn’t have one yet. I could have brought the bags into the castle and asked them to watch them and I have occasionally done this since. This year we check into the hotel before Chantilly – I am superstitious about this place.
In 2009 it was a little trickier. The rule when traveling by car is as follows – never go into the trunk right before you leave the car. If you need something out of the trunk you get it as you go INTO the car but not as you leave it. This takes some careful thinking. When we were in Marseilles we were going to see the Chateau D’If which is in Marseilles harbor. So we needed to park the car downtown and take a boat. We found street parking on a side street but before we left the car one of the members of our trip remembered something they needed out of the back and against my better judgement I opened the trunk for them.
When we returned to the car several hours later I noticed broken glass next to the car. They had smashed one of the small windows and gotten into the car. The broke the arm rest (thinking it opened) and grabbed one bag from the car – in fact the reached into the trunk. Ironically, the grabbed the one bag on top which was the bag of the guy who made me open the trunk in the first place. While not a lot was stolen – the broken window meant I had to spend several hours in the Marseilles police station (which was rough) and while I could have had the window replaced we instead opted to just stuff a jacket in the hole for the remaining day and a half we had the car. It changed the schedule a bit but in the end all was ok (except when it rained).
I have arranged that for this trip to Marseilles – our hotel is walking distance to the dock so we can leave the car secured and our bags in the hotel.
Up next – how you map out 30 days of adventure!
Planning the hotels is really a chicken & egg thing. You can’t choose your hotels until you pick your cities and you can’t pick your cities until you pick your destinations, you can’t pick your destinations unless you know your schedule, and your schedule revolves around which cities you are going to be in. Suffice it to say – there will be another post explaining how I built my big map around France.
The trick is to pick a city to spend the night that is not too far from the next day’s first visit. I want the rhythm of the trip to be: get up, eat breakfast, and start filming. While there will be some driving during the day – I want all of the big stretches to be at the end of the day when things are closed (usually around 6pm-7pm) leaving flexibility enough to eat, drive, and check-in as I like.
Traveling like this is tricky because we don’t get a ‘base of operations’ (until we hit Paris). Most of the time – we are working out of the car. Though for security reasons there are several times that we do check into a hotel first. I had my car broken into on two previous trips to France and I do try and be cautious when I can.
For the 29 nights we will be in France we will be staying in 23 different cities!
The first challenge is: Sure it looks good on the map – but are there even hotels in those cities (and then rooms on those dates)?
In 2004 I tried to just wing it – didn’t make any reservations – didn’t have any plans – just drove and stopped. I ended up having to sleep in the car 4 times. Don’t laugh – sleeping in the car – kills your body. One night I was trying to find a place to park where there were no street lights and found that I can pulled off the road next to a cemetery – freaked me out – had to drive to the other side of town. So winging it really isn’t an option.
In 2009 we stayed at B&Bs. This seemed like a good idea – especially because we were trying to get interviews but in reality most of them didn’t pan out and quaintness usually doesn’t translate into basic comforts. Not everyone has Internet, elevators, or air conditioning!
So this year I opted to stay at hotels. Normally I use hotels.com to book my hotels because I like the idea of getting all of my travel rewards in one place (even when staying with multiple companies) but I also wanted to try for a better discount and the Accor hotel chain (IBIS, ETAP) let me sign up for a business account (and a loyalty card) – they also offered to help me get a discount in Paris which is 7 nights.
On my previous trip to Paris I stayed at this great little hotel that is really off the grid. Very nice and all but the last day they couldn’t run my card and wanted me to pay in cash. I don’t think so. The adventure we planned on having shouldn’t be about the hotels!
I created a spreadsheet with dates and locations and started to go through the Accor database. They often have multiple hotels in each city and sometimes give a 30% discount if you prepay. All of the hotels have free wifi and some ofter free breakfast. Some have free parking and some have pay for parking – and as I found out some don’t have ANY parking which I am glad I caught before I booked.
8 hotels have charge for parking but 9 hotels have free breakfast so you take the good with the bad!
Of the 29 nights in France I booked 24 nights with Accor hotels. The prices vary greatly but I not only have reservations in-hand but most are prepaid which means we can even check in late if we need to.
So what about the other 5 nights?
I had budgeted roughly $3,100 for the 29 nights of hotel. And as I started to book each night – the saving started to add up nicely.
I have 2 free nights from hotels.com and I wanted to take advantage of them before they expired – that saved a little more money.
So I sent some emails explaining the project and for 3 nights we are actually staying at castles that are allowing us both to film at then and to conduct interviews!
The three castles are:
The 18th century Château de Rochecotte, formerly the private home of the Duchess Dorothée of Dino and Prince of Talleyrand, it is situated in the heart of the Loire Valley. We filmed there in 2009 and they were very gracious to us and took us around the grounds and gave a lot of history.
Built in 1224, the Château de Pray is also in the Loire Valley – it’s pretty cool looking!
The Château de Etoges is near Epernay, built in the 17th century it was visited by Louis XIV, the Sun King and also by Louis XVI during his flight to Varennes in 1791, it is said that even Napoleon Bonaparte visited (and now us).
In the end the hotels cost right around $3,000 which is a pretty good deal for a month in France in high-season!
Up next – how I booked the car!
People are always asking me about how I plan a trip and manage all of these complex details at once.
It really isn’t that hard once you break it down into its core components.
First we start with the plane tickets.
I wish I could tell you I had some magic formula about when to travel and when to purchase. In the past I have tried to plan the trips a little bit ‘off-season’ to reduce costs. But while traveling ‘off-season’ to Europe can indeed make the flights and the hotel cheaper – you may also find that many places have reduced hours. Regardless, my schedule for this trip (and the past few) has been dictated by the schedule of my life. My teaching responsibilities ground me through mid-May (which can be a lovely time to go to Europe both weather and price wise) and my big academic conference and other class take place in June which pushes me into early July. Since I have to be back in August to get ready for the next semester I am pretty much stuck with traveling in July (and the first week in August). This is the worst time to travel to Europe from a price perspective.
With my dates pretty much set I start looking at the usual websites (Travelocity & Expedia) to see what is possible. I know there are tons of websites out there for purchasing flights but the reality is that there are very few ‘deals’ when you are trying to plan precisely. For this trip I found that the best prices (and flights) were via US Air and United. Don’t be afraid to go directly to the carrier you think you will be flying – often the prices are the same or even a little better and from a customer service standpoint there are fewer things to go wrong if you purchase direct.
For this trip I found the flights from Cleveland to Paris were around $1,560 per person. I started looking about 4-5 months out and used $1,600 as a budget item which is my worst case scenario. Watching flight prices can be maddening – it goes up and down and then up again and you could easily miss the sweet spot. I never look for the lowest price – I look for the lowest price with enough lead time to make me feel comfortable about the rest of the trip. You shouldn’t make your hotel and car reservations if your flights aren’t booked!
This year it was even trickier because I found some flights as low as $1,350 per person but with a 23 hour layover in Philadelphia! That’s crazy! I don’t even want a 4 hour layover in Chicago. I know I can’t fly direct – but ideally I want a quick commuter flight, a quick layover, and then a long flight that I can sleep on.
I also avoid the multi-carrier tricks you see on Travelocity – its a great way to lose your luggage or get hit with extra baggage fees.
Baggage fees are something else to look into. Most carriers will give you carry-on luggage plus one bag for international – but I know I might need that extra bag or two and $100 each-bag each-way could add $400 to the price of the flights. One carrier charges $70 per bag which would be a worst case scenario of $280.
Friends often suggest I look into alternate airports. I know one person who drove from Cleveland to Toronto and left her car in Toronto. I don’t care how much money she saved – I don’t see any savings. I’m also driving not to Akron and leaving my car there for 30 days. I’m gonna fly out of Cleveland and figure out which friend is going to take me (and maybe pick me up) – remembering a taxi ride could add another $100 round trip.
What about frequent flyer miles? After all these years of travel I have a ton of miles – but July/August travel isn’t the time to try and use them – I always look but am rarely surprised when the dates just don’t work out.
For my purposes I want to fly out on a Saturday and fly home on a Sunday. This year however I was able to squeeze an extra day out of the office and will return on a Monday. I like to leave on a Saturday so I can finish work on Friday, enjoy the chaos of packing, and then arrive early on Sunday morning ready to start the adventure (yes we start the moment we land).
So – I check the prices every day, see the shifts in schedule and try to purchase right around 2 months out. Some people will tell you that 6 weeks is better and while they might be right I have to get all of the other details arranged and you can’t risk waiting for last minute on everything.
Last week I noticed the prices dipping from $1,560 to $1,525 – then $1,512. I almost bought at 1,512 but my patience paid off and I got each ticket for $1,463.50. I feel good about that price.
Once you get your tickets – you have to STOP LOOKING! If the price goes up you won’t feel anywhere near as good as how bad you will feel if the price goes down. It’s like a slot machine – its not your business what happens when the next person spins the reels.
Tickets in hand it’s time to get a car.
People were asking us about the educational component of the film.
So we just added this to the project description:
Educator’s Resource Guide & Factbook
As a supplement to the film, we are producing an “Educator’s Resource Guide & Factbook”. The Guide/Factbook is targeted at middle & high school students and offers additional insights on many subjects including: French Culture, French Cuisine, French Language (on a practical and introductory level), French & World History, & Art History. We also include smart & economical travel tips to assist students (and adults) on their own adventures. While the film is designed to be ‘edutainment’ (educational & entertaining) both of the filmmakers are educators and the Guide/Factbook will mirror much of the research that has gone into the planning of the film. The final Guide/Factbook will be published in print and also made available as a free eBook.