Oleg Ryskine is the IT Manager at tripcentral.ca. A self-proclaimed run-away from Russia, Oleg grew up in Saint Petersburg, has good survival skills (but is an unskilled traveler), and enjoys providing comic relief in the office. He tells the story of his most recent trip to Europe, where he travelled on an Avalon river cruise with others from the tripcentral.ca team:
It was 2012 when I was in Paris the last time; this city has a magnificent footprint in human history and it is extending its cultural presence into almost every far part of our planet. You feel it right away with the first steps off the airplane and this emotion will never leave you up until you actually take off again. Charles De Gaulle airport was meeting us by the long queue of passengers waiting for only two custom officers available for paper checks – strikes are not exclusive North American symbol, they do have it in Europe, too.
A short ride on the bus through crazy-spring-blooming trees and bushes along the highway and you dive into the full-of-life Paris streets. Pullman Hotel, where we were staying, seems a little academic among other architectural buildings and squares. It has a nice street market close by and lots of typical cafes manicured around with Parisians enjoying wine early morning: a very distinctive sign you are in France and not Canada. Hey, Paris, I missed you too, buddy. Long time no talk…
Tip 1: If you are going through Paris from North America to connect with further destinations, like us going for an Avalon River Cruise, make sure you have a place to rest. You are travelling through the night and your body thinks it is early morning of the previous day.
Later in the afternoon we quickly passed the famous Eiffel Tower area to get to Seine River to navigate toward Normandy. Our brand new Avalon ship represents world class river cruise fleet with three levels and multiple lounges to hang out in, a fitness center and huge open-air balconies. All is luxury and comfortable in all dimensions, nice innovative cabins fitting all the possible equipment: TV, Wi-Fi, and pleasantly done bathroom, small and convenient furniture and excellent ship crew, prepared for every surprise. On my first day I hopelessly asked for power converter as mine wasn’t fitting deep plugs and the next second they just get it out from the table like they knew I would screw up my travel packaging. Never been on cruise ships before, never been in Normandy, what a shame!
If you happened to be a Russian who was born in the center of Soviet Union cultural nursery – Saint Petersburg – you were enforced by your parents to visit world-known museums located there, so was I. It does create perspective of things. After seeing how Russian czars and upper class lived centuries ago having excess in everything and leaving nothing behind but cold rich palaces, it is hard to impress me with sizes. But it’s the history that makes France so special. History of human power and liberty and democracy that was born first in ancient Athens, then preserved in Roman empire, almost disappeared in Middle Ages and finally bloomed again in Europe in 17th century through the chain of dramatic events known as a Great French Revolution spreading around Europe and crushing institutional countries and monarchies while forming republics and liberal democracies. It changed world political landscape once and for all and we live now in aftermath.
Tip 2: Take aside few minutes to get to know some historical facts related to the places you see in France. It will double the impression and give you an opportunity to connect with your guide at a different level. France is a unique source of civilizational topics, it is a charming land with charismatic people and past still on display even now. Make sure you are prepared for that!
Avalon Waterways’ Normandy cruise takes you to a few beautiful cities covering long-gone history and former fame starting from the castle that has been built by Richard Lion Heart near Les Andelys and going closer back to 20th century to Normandy beaches that become well-known as a place for allied forces landing at D-day when 2 million soldiers were invading Normandy under commanding of general Eisenhower to launch another front against Nazi army. The scale and bygone significance is leaving you thirsty for more. You will see Vernon, with its antique houses of 500 hundred years old, still solid and sometimes for sale, making interesting real estate investments. Then you drop at Rouen with its amazing Cathedrals and small streets packed with boutiques and restaurants – loveliest place to shop or taste pastry with glass of beer early sunrise pretending to be French. At every city, ship stays for about half a day and you can easily get off to wander on your own.
Tip 3: You can rent bikes right off the ship and use your time in each city and port to ride around…an extremely useful option!
A trip within a trip
I have relatives living in Brussels and could not pass this opportunity to pay a visit while being in Paris. It is somewhat close – approximately 300 km – but how do you cover that distance fast?
When your ship goes down the stream to Normandy it takes about four days slowly moving away from Paris. It is not that far, yet will take you a few hours to get back to big town, as there is no direct trains to Brussels from Normandy. We had gone as far as Rouen or even further. If you are unfamiliar with Europe transportation it might feel little uncomfortable to get off the boat that has become your drifting home and take the route further on, by yourself. Well, being an opportunist, I decided to wait to see if I’d have a better chance and I was rewarded. On the way back, Avalon makes a stop at Conflans, pleasant little area nearby Paris. Dock is just 5 minutes stretch from the train station and then it takes you 7-8 quick stops to get to Paris and another 15 minutes to connect to Gare de Nurd station – the place you want to be if you need to get to Brussels by train. There are a number of ticket machines inside and I managed to get on the train leaving just 15 minutes later; by 1 p.m. I was in the middle of Belgium. I left the boat at 10 a.m. Nice and easy: 2.5-3 hours at most.
I was returning the next day and it took me the same backward course with a little difference upon arrival in Paris – I had to take cab back to ship (as it now came to Paris dock). Total transport expenses toward this adventure came to approximately 260Euro for everything but the experience you get in exchange is worth it to penny.
Tip 4: Thalys is a famous high-speed train leaving to Brussels hourly. A nice, convenient and very fast moving way to travel, up to 300km per hour. Don’t miss this opportunity to visit this beautiful place if you are in Paris. It will cost you no more than 5-10% of your total voyage expense.
Travel with luxury with Avalon river cruise
Did I mention before that Avalon cruise boats are a contented place to travel the river? It is that outstanding level of coziness that you wouldn’t know otherwise exists, starting from the moment you enter the ship and continuing all the way through; room service was quick and stealthy to an almost scary point. On the second day of being aboard, I discovered small little triangle fold on the toilet paper roll that somebody’s attentive hands put at the edge. This fetish thing has been appearing in the washroom with mathematical punctuality driving me little crazy. Triangles showed up instantly and seamlessly as soon as you get out of the cabin, few times a day. (Who knew this is just a common practice hotels follow around the globe to assure guests that room has been cleaned. I am inexperienced tripper!!).
Just only once I got to meet Adrianna, from housekeeping, Eastern-European girl who didn’t manage to disappear before I came. I smiled, she did too, and guess what? Next day upon my return I found little cute piggy sitting right on my bed. Ah man…made of towels and wearing sort of glasses this creature was looking at me playfully like it was for me, especially for me, you know…was it? Thanks God I am at the age when I learned to never persuade on such shaky ground like this one, but the thought was funny. So you understand my friend, you are not that special, you just get your room service timely done, with no delays and at the highest possible altitude, higher than even the planes fly.
A cheesy situation in France
It is not a question of what do you taste in France, it is more of how it is being delivered to you. Food experience was at the same extreme level as everything else; I got lost in menu and was drowning daily in it, stuffing myself with everything I could reach. Guilt for this fiesta is still following me even now, one month later. And yes I got to taste some cheese in France. That deserves a little stopping gap to give you some perspective. The facts are, I love cheese. I am not pro and I am not gourmet, but I like cheese, so…
Upon my return from Brussels right at the entry point into my cabin my nose caught a little extra flavor that hadn’t been there before. It was a little glimpse, a preview of what actually was waiting for me inside. It was like something was very, very dead in my room. For sure I didn’t kill anyone before I left the ship. I opened the sliding door outside not believing the Seine could smell that bad, and the aroma disappeared for a second, but it wasn’t gone completely. Soon after balcony was closed it started filling the room again. What a horrible, dreadful odor like I was in Dracula’s vault. I didn’t have much choice at this point. I fell down on my knees and started crawling around sniffing the air like good Russian greyhound. It took me about a minute to discover the strongest shedding source under my bed and it was…cheese! Nice round piece of strong, smelly cheese very providently opened and placed somewhere at the head under my bed.
Tip 5: Be cautious when choosing who you are travelling with
In my case, I teamed up with people who obviously knows no limits. Taking my extra key I had trustfully given to a colleague on-board, choosing the most sickeningly stinking piece of cheese, setting it all up under my bed. Who would do that to you? Everyone who I met on the boat was compassionately wondering if my return was uneventful – no it wasn’t, not at all! I felt myself like a celebrity having very little clue what is going on, cheesy one. And clearly, the word revenge cannot describe in full what is coming back one day. Remember…I am opportunist. I learned to wait. My co-workers are in for a treat.
Tip 6: Travel agents are worth every penny
tripcentral.ca top agents are very knowledgeable travel industry professionals (and like to have fun when they travel!). Most of the places you want to go, they have visited personally, getting first-hand experience. Talk to them before you travel…it will save you time and money.