Friday, 28 September 2012

Paris off the beaten track: A tropical garden lost in the past

Paris is full of major must see monuments, sights, and museums. However, hidden within the small side streets of Paris and down some of the less traveled boulevards there are some hidden gems; secret sights that are off the beaten track but are well worth visiting. Not only will they give you some photos of Paris that are different from your friends and family, but they will also give you an insight into the real Paris of today, and the Paris of yesterday.

This weekend's off the beaten track site is Le Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale: The Garden of Tropical Agriculture. Credit for this off the beaten track post goes to to Kerouac2 whose awesome photo essay on the Any Port in a Storm website introduced me onto this garden. Kerouac2 called it the "Abandoned Garden of Desolation" which is a pretty good description.

The entrance to the Jardin

Visit this garden and the chances are you will be alone (or close to alone - when I went there was a small French tour group being guided around and maybe 3 other people) with the ghosts of France past.

Statues from the 1907 colonial exhibition
Memories of the Indochinese colony
Many of these statues have seen better days
The garden, at the North-east corner of the Bois de Vincennes has a fascinating history and makes for a unique outing from the busyness of the central Paris.

Dilapidated statues in the park
Originally, in 1899 the park was developed as a test garden for scientific exploration on tropical plants from French colonies. The aim was to improve production of products such as coffee, rubber and banana's.

Some of the old glasshouses

In 1907 the park became the site of the colonial exhibition. Six 'villages' were developed with the monuments representing the French colonies of the time. These were Indochina, Madagascar, Congo, Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco, Not only were monuments and buildings set up, but people from the colonies were bought to Paris to live in the villages, making them a live display, or what has been called a 'human zoo'. RFI France have an interesting article on the 1097 colonial exhibition in English.

Walking through the Jardin

After the exhibition was finished, the park was later used as a hospital for French colonial troops from the first world war, and was the site of the first mosque in Paris. This was removed when the new mosque was built in the 5th arrondisement. Also erected were memorials to the colonial troops who fought and died for France in the war.

Memorial for the troops colonial troops from Cambodia
and Laos who died fighting for France
Memorial for the colonial soldiers from Madagascar
Memorial for the Indochinese who died fighting for France
The park gradually fell into disrepair leaving a desolate, yet amazing collection of memorials and buildings. It is what French historian Pascal Blanchard referred to as "the junkyard of French colonial history....the memory of France's relations to its colonies over the last century is concentrated here".

One of the abandoned pavilions
Another deserted pavilion
However, it is the junkyard feel and overgrown nature of the park which gives it its charm and makes it so unique. Come around a bend in a path and you may come across a Chinese pagoda, or a unique disused building, or a Cambodian temple shaped monument which disappear quickly as you pass, and you are never quite sure what you will discover around the next overgrown corner.

The restored Indochina pavilion
Part of the remains of the Indochina village
Another view of the Indochina village
Recent years has seen money put into the redevelopment of the park. The paths have been cleared and delineated and the dilapidated buildings have been fenced off. The Indochina pavilion has been renovated and is home to the French Institute of Agricultural Research for countries of the South (CIRAD) and also houses an exhibition of photos which appear to be from former French colonial people (it wasn't open when I visited). Other buildings have suffered greatly. The Congo pavilion, for example, was destroyed by fire in 2004. The restoration appears to be ongoing, however running behind schedule. There is also an interesting collection of wooden sculpture which has been set up in the park designed by Johann le Guillerm.

The burnt out Congo Pavilion
One of Johann le Guillerm's sculptures
Another of Johann le Guillerm's sculptures
Johann le Guillerm's incorporated into one of the dilapidated pavilions
Today the park is great for a stroll. It is a surreal experience with the emptiness of the park and the memorials and buildings from different places and different times. Suitable for taking kids; the derelict buildings are fenced off - but there is also water around, so you will need to keep an eye on them. It will probably take you an hour or two to explore the park.

A view across the park 
One of the Indochinese bridges with its pond and waterfall
The garden is Nogent-sur-Marne. While you are there, you could also look at the Pavillon Baltard - Link to come.

How to get there: Take the RER A line to Nogent-sur-Marne. This is in the 3rd zone, so if you are travelling from Paris you will need to buy a specific ticket for this (ie the Paris Metro T+ ticket won't let you out). Take exit #1 from the Nogent-sue_Marne RER station and the direction to the park is well sign-posted from outside the door - follow the signs to Jardin Tropical. It is left from the station, take the first right, and follow this to the end. It is a 5 minute walk from the RER station to the garden.

Exit #1 from the RER
You can see the first sign to the Jardin through the door
For other activities that are off the beaten track and to get a taste of the real France, explore options for day trips from Paris using public transport on

Keep up to date with upcoming "off the beaten track" locations, and ideas for day trips from Paris on our Facebook page and our Twitter account.

A final view of the remains of the Indochinese village

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Train Tip - Buying train tickets at the station

Whichever station you head to for your day trip from Paris you have a couple of options.

Of course, you can buy your tickets in advance from an SNCF Boutique. But, if you are like us, and you don't decide until the day you are going to leave that you are going somewhere it is just as easy to buy the tickets at the train station.

In each train station there are two options: either buying tickets at the counter, or using the automated machines.

Buying tickets at the counter is pretty easy, especially if you have written down where you want to go. Most of the tellers speak some English, and its pretty obvious what you want to do. Every time I have need to use a counter the staff have been very helpful. However, there are often very long lines to get to the counter. And, as most people who are using them are either changing an existing booking or there is a reason they aren't using automated teller machines, it can take a long time for the queue to move.

Important: to use the yellow machines you need to have a "chip" credit card. If you don't, you can't use these machines and will need to buy your ticket from the ticket counter.

One of the many collections of yellow ticket machines

The automated teller machines are yellow (the green ones are for RER and Metro tickets only) and are touch screen and you need a credit card with a chip to use them (they do not take cash).

The main screen of the automated ticket machine
Select your language in the top left of the main screen

Don't panic if you don't speak French, you can select the option of English, German, Italian, Spanish, or Dutch. On the assumption that you are reading this blog in English, I have selected English. From here you just need to follow the onscreen instructions to buy your ticket.

Options (in English) on the main screen

Firstly, you need to decide when you want to go - either immediate departure (which will give you the option to pick any of the next three or four trains heading to the destination you select) or a later train. You also have the option to collect electronic tickets using the "File and Electronic Ticket Collection" option. If you have a chip credit card you have the option of booking your ticket online and collecting them from these machines at the station. You cannot use American Express for this option and it is only available in France and Luxembourg however, you can pick up tickets for any station in Europe as long as you collect them in France.

Options for immediate departure from Gare du Nord

If you want to head off for your day trip now (or very soon), select "Immediate Departure". If you are in a major train station the machine will assume that you want a ticket from that station. In this example I am Gare du Nord and the machine will insert this for me and give me the most popular destinations from this station. If you are in a station in an outlying area (for example, Chantilly) you may need to enter the station you are leaving from first.

Next, select where you want to go. In this case, Lille. If the destination you want is not listed you can select "other destinations" on the bottom right - this will allow you to enter your destination on a keypad. Normally you only need to enter three letters before the machine will give you the list of possible destinations. The keyboard will remove letters that you can't use for a place name to ensure you spell it correctly.

List of options for Lille - note some are Lille Europe
and some are Lille Flanders. Its good to know which you need

Once you have selected the destination you want the machine will display the upcoming train options, departure time, arrival time, total travel time (including changes), and changes and the final destination. For Lille, (for example) there are two stations (Lille Europe and Lille Flanders) and no changes on route. Select the train you want by pressing the option on the screen.

See the right side of the screen for the selection of one way
or return options. This can be easy to miss.
The next step is whether you want one way or return. If the train is a TGV, reservations are required, therefore we will normally buy our return ticket and choose the time before we go. All of the other trains do not require a reservation and have no limit on the number of passengers they will take (this does not mean everyone will get a seat). In this case, you may as well buy your ticket when you are ready to leave rather than deciding at the beginning of the day when you will return - that way you can take advantage of any opportunities that the day may present to you. However, it always pays to know when the last train home is regardless of whether you choose to buy now or later.

First or second class option

You then have the option of choosing first class or second class. See my post on the difference between first class and second class to help you decide. We always choose second class.

Selecting one passenger

The following screen lets you select the number of passengers. The trick to this screen, and all screens thereafter, is you need to also press "confirm" in the bottom right-hand side of the screen after you select. This can be quite frustrating especially when you are in a hurry.

First select your tariff
Then if you are part of a loyalty programme

You will then have options for selecting age, and various options for ticket prices which unless you are living in France you select "no" for. The TGV has two options which are shown here - TGV PRO 2nd and TGV Plein Tarif Loisir. The TGV PRO 2nd is the more expensive option and is probably better know to western travelers as a fully flexible ticket. You can change or cancel the ticket up to the time of departure and, under certain circumstances, after departure. The TGV Plein Tarif Loisir is the full price (ie no discount) leisure ticket. It is generally cheaper. If you are purchasing the ticket several days in advance, it is free to change the Plein Tarif Loisir up to the day of departure. If you change it on the day of departure there is a 10 Euro charge and it is non-refundable and non-exchangeable after departure. But, it is the cheaper option.

You will then also have to select if you are part of a loyalty programme - generally the answer will be no.

Then, the option for a French discount card. Again, if you are visiting, the answer will be no.

Then any applicable discount cards
Annoyingly, you will need to do these for each person, and make sure you push the option, followed by "validate" in the bottom right of the screen to continue to the next option.

This can be the most frustrating part of the whole experience, especially if there are several of you in the group and the train is not too far away. It can feel like it is taking forever (and actually it can be - they aren't always the quickest of machines)

Summary of your order

Touch the "Pay this order" option
Once you have selected your travel options you will be presented with your final selection. The left-hand side will show the destination with the date, departure time, any changes, total travel time and the train type and class. The right-hand side will show the number of passengers, the fare types for each of them and the total price.

Touch the "Pay this order" box with the price in the bottom right corner. This will then activate the credit card slot and the pinpad for completing the payment.

Use the credit card slot on the right
side of the screen


Remember, you must have a "chip" card to use these machines. This means that on the front of your card, on the right hand side, there will be a gold "chip". If you don't have one, or are not sure, you should go to a counter, because it is incredibly frustrating to get to this stage and find out that you can't pay.

Once you have successfully paid for the ticket the machine will ask you if you want a receipt before printing out the tickets. These will appear from one of the slots beneath the machine.

If you are travelling on a train other than the TGV you must ensure you composte or validate your ticket prior to boarding the train.

We will often decide the night before, or on the day that we want to head somewhere. We always check that there is a train heading to where we want to go using the SNCF website or the SNCF app which will also tell you which train station you need to go to. There are seven around Paris. Then we arrive about 20 - 30 minutes before the train is due to depart to buy our tickets. We have been as late as 7 minutes before the train is due to depart. However, the yellow machines can be painfully slow, especially when you have left it late to buy the ticket.

If you are late to the train and don't have time to buy a ticket it is possible to purchase these on the train. It's better to have the ticket first, because technically if you don't have a ticket you should not board the train. However, if it's critical get on and find the conductor and explain the situation. If he comes to you, you are more likely to get fined for not having a ticket. All SNCF conductors carry mobile ticketing machines that take cash and major credit cards.

If you are aren't sure of somewhere to go on your day trip from Paris, check out the options for day trips from Paris.  

Friday, 21 September 2012

Paris off the beaten track: Parc Monceau

Paris is full of major must see monuments, sights, and museums. However, hidden within the small side streets of Paris and down some of the less traveled boulevards there are some hidden gems; secret sights that are off the beaten track but are well worth visiting. Not only will they give you some photos of Paris that are different from your friends and family, but they will also give you an insight into the real Paris of today, and the Paris of yesterday.

This weekend's off the beaten track site is a park located in the 8th arrondissement not far from the Arc de Triomphe: Parc Monceau.
The entrance off Avenue Hoche

The nice thing about Parc Monceau is that is a park that doesn't need especially fine weather to enjoy it. Because of the contents of the park it is reasonably interesting even on an overcast day (although perhaps not so interesting on a rainy day).

The Roman Colonnade

The park is at the junction of Boulevard de Courcelles, Rue de Prony and Rue Georges Berger and the easiest metro stop to take is Monceau on Line 2 which is right outside the park. For a nice walk you can take 1, 2, or 6 metro line or the A RER line to Charles de Gaulle Etoile and walk down Avenue Hoche which runs straight to the park.

A lonesome arch

The history of the park dates back to 1778 when the cousin of King Louis XVI, Duke of Chartres, Phillippe d'Orleans decided to create a public park on this space. The duke, who was a friend of the Prince of Wales in England decided that he wanted to create an English garden rather than a traditional French style (in the style of Versailles for example). Thus the park has a number of informal trails throughout the park which wind back and forth.

The rotunda at the main entrance

Another feature of the park is the collection of different objects from antiquity. These were part of d'Orleans conception, as some English gardens also had. They are known as follies - scaled down architectural models of buildings from different ages and different continents.

The Egyptian Pyramid

While the park is now smaller than its original layout, it still contains an Egyptian Pyramid, a Chinese fort, a Dutch Windmill and Corinthian pillars as well as a number of water features and bridges. Scattered through the park are statues of famous French figures including Guy de Maupassant, Frederic Chopin, Charles Gounod, Ambroise Thomas, Alfred de Musset and Edouard Pailleron.

One of the bridges

The park is great for strolling or jogging, has a play area for children, and free wi-fi. It makes it a nicer place to check your email or update your blog than Starbucks or McCafe.
The park is also a little unusual in that it is a public/private park. While the park is open from sunrise to sunset every day there are a number of apartments which surround the park who have access to the park all the time.

How to get there: Parc Monceau can be accessed by taking the metro to the "Monceau" station. This station is on the 2 line. For a nice walk you can take 1, 2, or 6 metro line or the RER A line to "Charles de Gaulle Etoile" and walk down Avenue Hoche which runs straight to the park.

For other activities that are off the beaten track and to get a taste of the real France, explore options for day trips from Paris using public transport on

Keep up to date with upcoming "off the beaten track" locations, and ideas for day trips from Paris on our Facebook page and our Twitter account.

Another view of the  colonnade and the arch

The colonnade

The pyramid

Greco-Roman pillars

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Hints if you want to visit the l'elysee Palace

On the weekend we visited l'elysee palace - the home of the President of the Republic.

Normally the residence is off limits to the public however, once a year, for the Journee du Patrimoine when many of the buildings normally closed are open for people to visit, it is open to visit.

But some hints if you are going to visit it next year.

Firstly, assume that the only place you are going to visit on that day is the palace. It seems like everyone in Paris is in line to see the palace. You will have to wait a while to get in, and so it takes up a lot of the day, but is also quite exhausting time standing for such a long time. You might be able to fit in another place - but don't count on it.

Secondly, as alluded to above - be prepared to wait. We arrived at the time the palace opened to the public at 8am. The entrance to the palace is through the front garden on Avenue Gabriel. At 8am the queue was along Avenue Gabriel all the way to Place de la Concorde, along the side of Place de la Concorde and halfway back along the Avenue des Champs Elysee.

The time to get to the front of the queue was about 3 and a half hours. This was to get to the entrance of the l'eysee palace garden. At one point we thought we had a mirage of coffee and croissants. Someone was selling them along one point in the line (about 2.5 hours in). We were sure that they would run out just as we got to them, and each time we got close, they moved further down the line away from us. When we finally reached them and confirmed that they were not a mirage.

At the front of the queue at the entrance to the Elysee gardens we had to go through metal detectors and into the palace grounds. We overheard a policeman at about 9am or 9:30 saying that the queue was then about 5 hours to get to the front of the queue to get into the grounds.

Once you are through the metal detectors and into the gardens, there is another queue to get into the palace itself. It was another hour and a half to get to the front of the queue inside the grounds and into the palace. All up, 5 hours to get in, and that was arriving at 8am. The line was getting longer and longer as we waited. so arriving later would take longer than this. Ironically, if you arrive much earlier, you would need to wait for quite some time  until the doors open at 8am. Apparently at 7:30 the line was already as far back as Place de la Concorde, so it is a trade off between how early you want to get up and where you want to wait. To be at the front of the queue (to minimise the time waiting after the doors open) you probably need to get there at sometime with a 6 at the beginning of it - but then you need to wait for 2 hours anyway.

The palace itself is amazing. There are some amazing rooms that you can visit. The highlights for me were the Silver Room, the ultra modern dining room from Francois Miterands' time in office, and the Presidents office. The tour is an amazing insight into an amazing building.

However, be aware, if you want to be able to see it, you need to put in the time to get there. It makes the queue at Versailles look positively minimal. And of course, you will need to wait a year.

Looking through the fountain at the Concorde end of the gardens

The l'elysee palace with the queue in front (3 - 3.5 hours into the wait)
Entrance is on the far right of the photo - Presidential office is second floor, middle

Garden beside the palace

The Silver Room with its Republican Guard
lots of white gold in the room

A piece of art I really liked

The Eating Room built in 1972 by Georges Pompidou
The most modern room in the palace

The presidential library

The formal dining room

Close up of the place setting
The room where ambassadors to France are received

The tapestry in the Salon Pompadour

The Presidential desk

Another view of the Presidential desk

Looking over the Cour d'honneur