A winter break in Paris, followed by a holiday in England over Christmas and New Year. What a great idea! The concept appealed particularly to my wife, Alison, who is English and was keen to catch up with her family again. Our sons Harry, 11 and Felix, aged seven would obviously come with us. After initial discussions and decisions, planning began in earnest. The boys liked the sound of a winter holiday, as they were keen to experience snow.
We flew to Paris on December 17th, returning from the UK three and a half weeks later. Airfares tend to rise around Christmas and after much shopping around, we eventually booked the cheapest option, Korean Air. It turned out to be a sound decision. Service was friendly, seats comfortable, and while western food is available, the Korean favourite bibimbap – a bowl of warm white rice topped with sauteed vegetables and other ingredients – was popular with us all. On the Seoul/Paris leg we encountered a boon for young travellers – seat-back movie screens.
Snow blanketed Seoul when we touched down and the boys, delighted, ran out of the terminal to touch their first snow. They soon dashed back in again, freezing. It turned out to be the only snow we encountered on holiday – Paris and London were far too warm.
From Seoul, our journey continued to Paris, where our plan was to catch the RER train and Metro to our hotel, Hotel aux Trois Portes, near the Bastille. We changed our minds when young Felix mutinied, tired and teary. We caught a cab instead – much easier when travelling with children and luggage. Flexibility is the key. Our room was small but clean, with two double beds and ensuite bathroom. A double room costs about AU$110 a night – cheap by Parisian standards.
Jetlag meant odd waking hours for the boys for the next few days. France has no daylight saving so 8am in December is still dark. We set out to explore central Paris, browsing an open-air market in le Marais district. Pancake (crepe) stalls were cheap and popular. Felix, after careful coaching, plucked up the courage to walk into a patisserie and ask for “deux pains au chocolat, s’il vous plait”. (It worked – he got his two chocolate croissants!)
We visited the Pompidou Centre, captivated by jugglers and mimes outside, escalators in perspex tubes and great views. Inside, modern art captivates all ages. We tackled the Eiffel Tower next evening – a wondrous sight, bedecked with strobe lights. The queue outside took about 20 minutes but the lifts are speedy. On the way down, Harry and I got off halfway and ran down the stairs in an attempt to beat the queue for the lifts. We ran for about 15 minutes, around and around, with the heat of the giant lights on our faces – incredible!
Our decision to book the Eurostar train across the Channel proved inspired. The airports were fogged in, with no planes taking off. On Eurostar we sat in ‘family’ seats – four facing each other with a table in the middle; much roomier than ordinary economy.
Make sure you visit the London Eye. The queue was just 20 minutes long, unlike the two hour wait in summer. Commentary on The Eye refers to “your flight” – and it’s a bit like that; nothing like a ferris wheel at all. It’s very subtle; there’s no vertigo and little perception of moving in a circle. I lived in London for eight years, and this is the best view I have ever had of the city, which lacks high places for grand views.
We then explored some of southern England in a rented six speed VW diesel sedan. Highlights included an ascent of mysterious Glastonbury Tor in Somerset. Tor means rocky hill or peak and this one, surmounted by a stone tower, has been a holy hill for centuries – the mythic Isle of Avalon, associated with King Arthur and the King of the Fairies. It was so windy at the top, we could actually lean into the wind without falling over.
On New Year’s Day we visited the town of Battle to watch the local hunt ride forth. They no longer hunt foxes but form a grand old English spectacle, with beautifully groomed horses, riders in red coats (called “hunting pink” by the English) and foxhounds trotting alongside. In the city of Bath, we set up headquarters in the YHA Bath, a budget hostel housed in a fine Italianate mansion. At a cost of about AU$31 per adult and AU$21.50 per child, it was a real bargain. While seeing the sights I popped into the Volunteer Rifleman for a pint of Durdle Door old ale, followed by a pint of Bellringer. Now, that’s a holiday!
By Peter Needham
Paris and London are served by most international airlines operating out of Australia. Flying to either city takes about 21 hours via Asia. Visas: Britain does not require visiting Australians to hold a visa. For France, visa conditions change regularly. Australian tourists may qualify for entry into France under the 90-day visa waiver program.
English is widely understood in French cities but making an attempt to speak French, at least at the outset when beginning a conversation, is polite.
Britain’s weather is highly changeable, whatever the season. When packing, take layers. France has a more continental climate, with greater extremes of cold in winter and heat in summer.
Tipping is accepted in both countries; 10 percent is standard. In France, you are legally obliged to offer assistance to any “person in danger” – so if you ignore appeals for help or urgent assistance, you may be charged.