Planes, Trains, and Vehicles – Getting Around Europe (Part 2)

Onward to Brussels!

I thought three weeks would be enough time to make a train reservation from Paris to Brussels. The cities are less than 200 miles apart and a high-speed train could get me there in an hour and a half. My plan was to arrive in Brussels early on Friday and leave for Amsterdam on Monday. My new friend, Mollie, was expecting me. Plus, I wanted to get there in time to check out Marolles Flea Market at Place Jeu de Balle.

Alas, travel by train was not to be. I scoured train schedules, and a 10:45 p.m. arrival on Friday was the best I could do. I was on the phone with my sister, Cheryl, as I waged battle with the Thalys reservation system; and then surrendered. She knew I was frustrated when we hung up. How else could I get from Paris to Brussels?  About a minute later, I had my answer. I was excited! I immediately called Cheryl to tell her I would be traveling by….

Megabus

Megabus! This is the same bus company I use to go to New York. It’s cheap and comfortable on the East Coast. And it’s really cheap and comfortable in Europe. My bus ticket from Paris to Brussels cost just under $13! For that price, I didn’t care that the ride would be three hours longer than the high-speed train. My Megabus was going to get me to Brussels by 12:20 pm!

Sweet!

Megabus departs from Porte Maillot, which is on the Metro line. The station is within sight of the Arc de Triomphe and the cars racing around L’Etoile.

Arc de Triomphe et L'Etoile

I left the apartment around 6 a.m. and walked along empty streets to the subway. It was still dark outside when I arrived at Porte Maillot. I didn’t know the lay of the land so I gave myself plenty of time to get lost. At Porte Maillot, I glommed onto another traveler, who was also looking for her bus. She was headed home to Germany on another cheap ride — FlixBus. Europeans really know how to get around, don’t they?

Au revoir, Paris! A bientôt!

The bus ride was relaxing, and I was able to sleep a bit. We had one 30 minute stop for water, snacks, and the restroom; otherwise, we went straight in to Brussels. I snapped photos of the scenery along the way.

The bus pulled into Brussels Nord (North) Station. I missed an opportunity to photograph the train station exterior because I was desperate to find le toilette. Durn! Now I need to return to Brussels someday to photograph the train station. Speaking of les toilettes, keep coins handy because a trip to a stall will cost you.

There wasn’t a lot of action at the train station when I arrived. Why? Train employees were on strike that day. Strikes are planned in advance and probably the reason why I couldn’t buy a ticket for a train that would get me to Brussels at a decent hour. No matter… I had discovered Megabus.

I took the flea market off the itinerary. I was starved and needed to meet up with Mollie. She’d given me instructions on how to reach her office building via Brussels Metro. The Metro is great, and includes subway and tram lines. Have I mentioned before that I love mass transit?

Brussels Metro stations have interesting artwork. I remembered that from when I was there in 2007. Photographing the art in all the Metro stations is another good reason to return to Belgium. (Every excuse will do.)

Metro station - BelgiumBelgian Metro station art

Although mass transit factored large in getting around cities, I’ll give a shout-out to walking as an underrated mode of transportation. Mollie and I enjoyed a long walk to National Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It’s popularly known as Koekelberg Basilica.

The Basilica is a marvel of Art Deco-style architecture, and it is the fifth largest church in the world. Construction started in the early 20th century, but was interrupted by two world wars. It finally opened in the 1970s.

Basilica - BrusselsBasilica interior 2Basilica interior - BrusselsBasilica exterior - Brussels

After visiting the stunning Basilica, we took Metro into the city.

Metro stop with Basilica in background

Metro stop with Basilica in background

With Mollie in Brussels

Grand Place is an iconic Brussels site I wanted to see again. This town square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its scale, compared to other town squares in Belgium, or elsewhere in Europe, is immense and majestic. Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), constructed in early to mid-15th century, is located there.

Hotel de Ville is surrounded by guild houses because tradesmen and merchants were held in high regard. Guild houses are sort of like trade unions in the U.S.  The great French writer, Victor Hugo, had a house on Grand Place as well.  You can find Grand Place in miniature, along with other iconic European Union structures, at Brussels’ Mini-Europe.

Day trips are incredibly easy from Brussels because of its three major train stations: Nord (North), Zuid (South), and Central (Central).  Back in 2007, my mother and I took day trips to Brugge, Antwerp, Ghent, Liege, Namur, and Tournai. Those cities, along with Brussels, are in six of 10 Belgian provinces and Brussels-Capital Region.

Mollie and I went to Brugge for the day. It’s a city in West Flanders province, popularly known by its French name, Bruges.  You can reach Brugge from Brussels in a little over an hour by train for about €30 roundtrip. Advance reservations aren’t necessary. (Tip: Check the website’s Stations and Trains page for a list of “Disturbances.” It will notify customers of strikes.)

Once in Brugge, you can rent a bike, take a boat ride, or walk. This small city is perfection.

Brussels is a wonderful destination in its own right. It is also a great base for day trips throughout Belgium. I highly recommend it!

Next … the finale of Getting Around Europe (Part 3).

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Planes, Trains, and Vehicles – Getting Around Europe (Part 1)

As you know by now, I love to plan my travel. This year, I traveled to Paris, and went from there to Brussels, then Amsterdam, and back to Paris. The European Union includes France, Belgium, and The Netherlands, making travel through open borders especially sweet. My only passport stamp, despite visiting three countries, was from France. That was in October 2015. Who knows how this may change since the November 13 attacks on Paris.

After terrorist events in 2001, the U.S. had a period of restricted air travel.  Transit infrastructure was damaged and service suspended. A behemoth federal government department for all things security was created. We lived for years under daily Code Orange security threats. Worldwide, travelers now tack on more wait-time at airports due to robust security screening. Even though things changed immediately after 9/11, people are back in the skies, back on the trains, and they’ve accepted the new normal.

I’m betting on Paris to rebound like New York did. Parisiens will eventually get their joie de vivre back. If I only had more time from work and the money, I’d return there in a heartbeat. However things may change, don’t give up on any of these cities. I still highly recommend Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam as beautiful, historical, and accessible destinations.

Getting to Paris

Google Flights was my first great discovery. This website was better for searching flights than all these subscriptions I had that were clogging up my email. Through Google Flights, I found my second great discovery: Aer Lingus, Ireland’s national airline. This airline had the best prices and travel times to Paris.

Sure, I could have paid a crazy cheap roundtrip fare on a particular new airline I will not name, but the flight would have arrived in Paris anywhere from 11-14 hours after I left Washington, D.C. I wanted savings in money and time. Maybe if I had all the time in the world, I wouldn’t care. This is what worked for me: a flight from D.C. to Dublin, short layover, and then a flight from Dublin to Paris.  Aer Lingus gave the best bargain for price and flight time.

Another big plus for Aer Lingus is the flights were not over-sold and were all ON TIME.  What??!!!  (Now, I’m a fan.)

Aer Lingus over Dublin

Aer Lingus Landing in Dublin

Getting from the Airport to the Apartment

When I arrived at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, I had some options for reaching my Airbnb apartment. A cab would have been more than 50€. Mass transit from the airport is an option at most major cities.  I took the train from the airport and transferred to the subway. The apartment was near several subway stops. The cost? €10. Much better.

Using Paris Metro

The most economical thing was to buy Metro tickets in “bulk,” so I bought 10. I did this twice, and have a few tickets left over to give my sister when she travels there next year.

Paris Metro tickets

Three things I loved about using Paris Metro:

  • The subway system has outstanding connectivity, especially when I compare it with some major transit systems in North America. I loved navigating the system and figuring out which route to take.

Paris Metro map

  • Subway tunnel entertainment is a cut above the usual. I saw an opera singer, vibraphonist, and jazz singers. Parisians were blasé, but not I! I took a moment to check out this dramatic opera singer (lip syncher?) and give him a couple of euros. After all, I really was entertained. (Beware the volume for this one!)
Arts et Metiers subway station

Arts et Metiers Subway Station (Paris Metro)

Train in Arts et Metiers

Train at platform in Arts et Metiers Station

Champs-Elysees Clemenceau (Paris Metro)

Champs-Elysees Clemenceau (Paris Metro)

Two things that were not lovable about using the subway in Paris:

  • Wheelchair-bound or mobility-challenged people can’t use the subway. I only saw stairs everywhere. (If I’m mistaken, someone please tell me.)
  • If you’ve overpacked your bags, you will not be happy pulling, carrying, or dragging that bulk up and down the stairs to get to your subway platform. My backpack and small bag were manageable, but that doesn’t mean I was happy when I had to carry them up a flight of stairs.

Although I didn’t do it, I also recommend using buses to get from Point A to Point B so you can have a surface-level view of the city. It adds something to the transportation experience. But, I walked…a lot. I wish I’d known about the fitness app that was already on my Smartphone so I could have tracked my steps!

Day Trips

Europe has an awesome rail network. Paris has seven train stations, including the one at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Day trips are easy to do. Check out the train schedules to various destinations and figure out how much time you want to commit to traveling somewhere just for the day. I have a book, Day Trips – France, that counts Lyon as a day trip. Lyon is 288 miles from Paris, but those miles fly by when you’re on a high speed train. The cost is variable, depending on when you buy your ticket, and the trip is two hours each way.

I wanted to make good use of my days, wherever I would decide to go. I chose Chartres and we caught the train from Gare Montparnasse. Chartres is a little over an hour from Paris by train, and the schedule gave us plenty of options. The cost:  €30roundtrip. I’d been to Chartres before, but felt like I hadn’t spent time in the city. This time, I hung out in Chartres with my new local friend, Charlotte.

Gare de Chartres

Chartres is best known for its Cathedrale Notre Dame de Chartres. It is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and is a magnificent example of Gothic architecture. You can see it from anywhere in the city. Notice the Cathedral’s distinctive, mismatched towers.

Chartres Cathedrale

How could a city of 40,000 support such a massive cathedral? Chartres belongs to the faithful world-wide and those who want to marvel at its architecture and original stained glass. There have been pilgrimages to Chartres Cathedral since the early Middle Ages. It is on a pilgrimage route called Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle (Way of St. James). The Spanish portion of the route is known as the Camino de Santiago.

Chemin de Saint-Jacques plaque

Charlotte wandered off while I took a tour of the Cathedral. There was scaffolding in places for the long-term restoration, including cleaning grime from the stone. Despite this, the Cathedral inspired awe and wonder.

After the Cathedral, I finally saw a bit more of Chartres. Leisure was the theme of the day. We had lunch at one cafe, explored shops and streets, and then stopped at another cafe for dessert and people-watching.

Our only time constraints were train arrival and departure times. In the hours in between, we hung out and enjoyed Chartres on a beautiful day!

Stay tuned for Planes, Trains, and Vehicles: Getting Around Europe (Part 2).