Category Archives: Travel

Killing Time at Paris Gare du Nord (and other European stations)

If you're in the mood for apres-ski but the next best snuggle up at the Atrio Alpine ski bar. Don't worry, the furs are fake.

If you’re in the mood for apres-ski but can’t get to the mountains, snuggle up at the Atrio Alpine ski bar at Zurich Hauptbahnhof. Don’t worry, the furs are fake.

As a blogger for Eurail, I’ve spent a lot of time killing time–eating, drinking, reading, waiting, people watching––in Europe’s biggest (and sometimes, tiniest) train stations. I’ve devoured lackluster sandwiches, run hungry to make train connections only to discover that no dining car existed on the route, and slowly learned where to eat–and more importantly, where not to eat–around these transport hubs glutted with teeming masses of commuters, students, and confused tourists. For tips on where to find decent food and drinks in and around some of the continent’s most sprawling, beautiful, and disorienting stations––Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Zurich Hauptbahnhof, Amsterdam Centraal, Antwerp Centraal, and Prague hlavní nádraží––here’s the story.

If you’re heading on the Eurostar, the Thalys, or the TGV through Paris’ Gare du Nord––whose particular chaos is equal parts maddening and fascinating––then read on.

Where to eat and drink in Gare du Nord:

With few exceptions, don’t eat in the station. It’s loud. It’s freezing––unless it’s summer, in which case it’s sweltering. The exception is to grab breakfast from Paul, a bakery that’s ubiquitous to French train stations. While it’s not the best croissant you’ll find in Paris, it’s still a better croissant than you’ll find in most of the world. There’s fresh squeezed orange juice and coffees, too.

Where to eat and drink near Gare du Nord:

Walking out into Paris Nord after alighting from the relatively serenity of the Thalys train can be slightly nerve-wracking. It’s full of pushy taxi drivers, bewildered tourists, pickpockets,and annoyed Parisians, as well as plenty of waiters desperate to get you inside their restaurants. Ignore the hawkers: cross Rue de Dunkerque, which runs parallel to the front of the station, and head straight to Terminus Nord at 23 Rue de Dunkerque. This art deco treasure serves French bistro classics (oysters! Chateaubriand! Boullabaisse!) until midnight. The danger here isn’t mediocre food: it’s that you’ll splurge on the warm chocolate profiteroles and miss your train to Nice.

Devotees of Indian food should head east of the station, where the streets are lined with sari shops and relatively inexpensive, authentic Indian restaurants. At 170 Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis, I like the South Indian vegetarian at Saravanaa Bhavan.

 

 

 

How to Take the Train Like Agent 007

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Champagne served in crystal glasses by tuxedoed waiters in the dining car. Grand dames encrusted in pearls casting frosty gazes as their ladies-in-waiting struggle with heavy steamer trunks.

Apparently, my first enchanting impressions of train travel were formed by watching a whole lot of old black and white films––which led me to believe that someone like Dame Maggie Smith’s character on Downton Abbey would be my seatmate.

In the 21st century, First Class amenities, with a few exceptions such as luxury lines like the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, don’t live up to these romantic, old world standards. Yet First Class remains fabulous, even if it’s not necessarily white glove service. That being said, I’ve done the majority of my travel on Second Class and it’s been equally wonderful. More social. Cheaper. I’ve met more locals, shared bottles of wine, and had more impromptu conversations––as well as a few singalongs.

At this new post on the Eurail Blog, I hash out the myths and realities of First Class versus Second Class train travel.

Yes, it’s true: James Bond does always seem to take First Class…

And who doesn’t want to travel like James Bond? To recreate his dinner with the inimitable Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, all you have to do is book a First Class seat on the Czech Railways Pendolino fast train, order a bottle of wine, invite a fetching stranger to join you, and utter something cryptic like “I’m the money” or “The treasury has agreed to stake you in the game.”

In the film, Bond and Vesper Lynd are heading to a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. Of course, the actual Pendolino goes from Prague through the Czech countryside to Bratislava and Vienna––not even close to Montenegro.

If you want to play poker before embarking on the Pendolino, you can always go to the Casino Royale Prague––although I wouldn’t recommend it. There are more opulent ones in the center, although the rumor is that they’re run by the mafia. I’m not going to say which mafia, because this isn’t a mafia-sponsored post and I don’t want to promote any particular mafia organization. But I can tell you it’s not the New Jersey mafia, in any case. Oh, and a word of warning on Prague casinos in general: don’t expect to walk out with any cash. From my experience playing blackjack at one of the fancier Prague casinos, I am relatively certain the odds were far worse compared to Las Vegas––which is already a place where the house, as the saying goes, always wins.

Quite a few scenes in Casino Royale were actually filmed in Prague. Locations include the modern Danube House (where Bond kills offs two villains in the pre-title sequence) and the National Museum on Wenceslas Square (interior shots of the Venice hotel where Vesper and James bunk down for the night).

For more Casino Royale locations––and to confirm your suspicion that the Miami museum looked oddly like a certain central European Ministry of Transport office––check out this BBC Travel story.

 

The Beauty of the Silent Car, and other Rail Secrets

This elegant fountain greets arrivals to Zurich's Hauptbahnhof. Not a bad station in which to kill a few hours in case you do miss your connection.

This elegant fountain greets arrivals to Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof. Not a bad station in which to kill a few hours in case you do miss your connection.

My newest post on the Eurail Blog is fittingly titled 10 Hacks for an Epic Eurail Trip. Hack, as you probably know, refers to a trick or shortcut producing greater efficiency or productivity. When it comes to travel, as in many other arenas, I’ve found that the only way to properly hack something is to first fail at it.

To miserably fail. In travel terms, that would mean utterly botching your transport plans and winding up alone at night in a chilly rural station because you missed the proverbial last train. A station that, while not technically god-forsaken or in the middle of nowhere, is in a remote part of town where the cafes and shops are shuttered past six. Most likely the restrooms are shuttered, too.

Or it could mean waiting until the last minute to buy a TGV to Paris (I’ve done this and don’t recommend it, as it can be surprisingly expensive). Or spending your whole day traveling to, say, Venice, only to crash in a pricey mediocre hotel––when you could have bunked down on the night train and saved yourself a night of lodging, as well as daylight hours better spent museum binging.                           

Slightly disheveled but thrilled to make my connection to the City Night Line train in Zurich, after dallying too long at a traditional beer hall dinner on the first day of Fasnacht, the Swiss version of Carnival.

Slightly disheveled but thrilled to make my connection to the City Night Line train in Zurich, after dallying too long at a traditional beer hall dinner on the first day of Fasnacht, the Swiss version of Carnival.

 

 

To PIN or not to PIN: There’s really no question

My latest travel story for CNBC Road Warrior is all about plastic: the good (chip and PIN cards), the not-so-bad (signature and PIN cards), and the ugly (magnetic stripe cards).

Forget the old-fashioned Visa card. Paris wants your cash.Forget the old-fashioned Visa card. Paris wants your cash.

One thing I learned while researching this story is that no matter how respectable or trustworthy you may appear, it’s difficult to loiter around train station ticket counters or machines to interview tourists without them thinking you’re trying to rob them.

American tourists, who have been adamantly warned that pickpockets are rampant in Europe, sometimes seem convinced they are about to be robbed even if all evidence points to the contrary. David Sedaris wrote an extremely funny essay about this peculiar phenomenon, which he reads here on This American Life.

Unfortunately, wearing fanny packs, bulky money belts, and other awkward accessories that scream I’m a tourist may make one more likely to actually get pickpocketed…

Jazz Caves and Pig Roasts in the Languedoc

On the way to Caunes-Minervois.

On the way to Caunes-Minervois

On Friday nights in Caunes-Minervois, people come for the pig roast, but they stay for the jazz. There are other places to eat in town, but La Mangeoire is not only charming, it’s an amazing deal: €15 for a hunk of roasted pig, plus dessert and coffee? You won’t find that in Paris. Then again, it’s unlikely you’ll find a pig roast in Paris.

Like Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, I don’t dig on swine. So, on the infrequent occasion that I happen to attend a pig roast–and it’s usually in France that I end up at a pig roast––I don’t think “pork.” I think “pig.” Swine, yes. But not pork. Even in France, I don’t think porc––I think cochon.

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If you’ve never chanced to witness a pig roast, it’s a bit of a mess. Flesh, everywhere. A sticky-sweet, burnt smell permeates the air. In French, the verb cochonner means to make a mess of something. I prefer cochonner to cochon itself, but even as a former longtime vegetarian I could appreciate the festive air in the courtyard as diners lined up to watch the pit master (that’s what they call the person who presides over barbecue pits in Texas––I’m unsure if such a term exists for pig roasts) pile their plates with meat. Because it’s France, it’s more of a modest portion than a pile, of course.

A pig skewered and roasted on a spit as people congregate around the flames, waiting to be fed…

Yes, it feels like a Pagan sacrifice. But one has to admit it’s more humane than McDonald’s. At least there is no denial: as you stand there, you are absolutely certain you are eating an animal––that an animal has been slaughtered for your sustenance and your pleasure. Maybe the pig roast somehow pays homage to this morally ambiguous trade-off. If I were a pig, I’d prefer to make my finale this way, rather than winding up wrapped up in plastic and sold as pork chops at the supermarket.

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I was squeamish about taking a photo of the outdoor spit, which I now regret. The pit master, as I shall call him, was a cheerful British expat who seemed to genuinely enjoy serving everyone. He was a pig roast evangelist to the point he almost convinced me to order the €15 jazz formule. Instead, I had a salad. The Americans and the Brits milling about the courtyard seemed relieved to safely partake in excesses of the flesh that were authentically French, yet had nothing to do with extramarital affairs or Gerard Depardieu.

Caunes-Minervois sits in the lush green lowlands at the foot of les Montagnes Noires, or the Black Mountains. If that sounds mysteriously fetching, it is. Part of the Languedoc, this is geographically and historically speaking one of the most enigmatic parts of France.

Languedoc comes from Langue D’Oc, or the Occitan language. While Occitan is now generally considered to be a dialect of French (although locals may not agree) it was the widely spoken language of this part of southern France in the Middle Ages, made famous in literature by the troubadours. Of course, back then, this region did not belong to the French crown, but rather was governed peacefully between the King of Aragon and the Count of Toulouse. It was also home to the legendary Cathars: Christians who rejected the lavish accoutrements, tithing, and many of the sacaments of the Roman Catholic Church and were thus considered heretics. In the 13th century, after a brutal 20-year crusade waged by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism, the Languedoc was annexed to the Kingdom of France.

It’s interesting how the language of oppressors becomes institutionalized: while France promotes Cathar Country as an up-and-coming tourist destination, the very word “cathar” was a slang word used as an insult by the Roman Catholic papacy.

On a more frivolous note, when the Romans settled here, they established vineyards and wine-making. “Minervois” probably derives from the Roman goddess Minerva, who, as goddesses go, was a bit of a dilettante: though she might be best known as a goddess of war (like Athena, but probably better at making pizza), she also served time as the goddess of the professions, the arts, and, strangely, handicrafts.

Just imagine: before there was unemployment insurance, before there were job search engines, before there were the want ads and Monster.com and headhunters and unions and LinkedIn, there was Minerva, goddess of the professions. A big job–I doubt she had much time to mess with handicrafts.

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Jazz au Caveau (Jazz in the Cave) is a marvelous place to hang out and drink wine with the locals––everyone and their mother from the whole area seems to come out for the packed shows. Concerts, which run about once a month from September to June, cost €12. Considering a glass of wine costs €2, the Jazz au Caveau is serious cheap date material.

Scratch that. As my friend Colette, an American journalist living in Paris, has oft informed me,  the French do not date. They do many things well: bread, cheese, films, wine, maternity leave, government bureaucracy, mime, and making smoking still look cool. But they do not do dating well.*

*I just went to a disco in Paris and was reminded that they don’t do dancing (not ballet or jazz, but the kind you might do with a cocktail in your hand) all that well, either. And being that most of the clubs I’ve been to the past few years were in the Netherlands, Belgium or the Czech Republic, my standard of what constitutes dancing is suspiciously low. But that is another post.