French adventure

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Paris is a well-connected European city and many view it as a less pricey alternative to the likes of the UK and Germany. If you find yourself headed to the French capital, you’re in for a treat, as Kate Kennedy discovered.

America’s third President, Thomas Jefferson once said: “A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.”

I’m not sure about the latter, but on my recent trip to Paris, I definitely experienced the history and beauty and learned lessons in both. On top of that, the whole travel experience was seamless.

AIRPORT EXPERIENCE

Charles de Gaulle Airport is massive, with the complex sprawling over 32 square kilometres. There are three main terminals and seven sub terminals inside Terminal 2, all of which are connected by trains and busses. It is Europe’s second largest airport, and it processes nearly 70 million passengers per year. It is the hub of Air France, the country’s national carrier, but also welcomes upwards of 150 other airlines.

So, CDG is big and busy and a tad confusing for first-time visitors. Once you reach passport control from your outlying terminal, the chances of a long queue are good. Immigration officers are fairly efficient, scanning and stamping passports with a minimum of fuss, but it takes a while to process the number of passengers arriving from all over the world. My Saturday morning arrival was a busy time at passport control and I waited nearly an hour in a long, winding queue to gain entry into Paris.

Flying out of Paris from CDG, you’ll most likely be checking in, or you could find yourself on and off busses and dragging your luggage from pillar to post, as I was. Thankfully, I was at the airport with plenty of time to spare, so I wasn’t rushed or stressed about missing my flight. I did find the landside staff very helpful, though.

Air France has self-serve terminals for you to print your luggage tags and boarding pass and you can drop off you bags without the aid of a staff member.

HOTELS

“Paris has a huge offering of meetings and conference spaces, and hotels and venues can facilitate almost everything you could need or want from a business trip,” says Scott Alboni, UK/EU Marketing Director of Corporate Travel Management in an interview for the company’s blog.

In a report titled Tourism in Paris – Key Figures, it references the fact that there were a little over 118,000 hotel rooms in the greater Paris region in 2016. But demand for accommodation is increasing and there are plans to build an additional 12,000 rooms (mostly two and three-star hotels) between now and 2020.

All the usual suspects are present – Hilton, Marriott, Radisson, InterContinental, Accor, Four Seasons, Hyatt, Kempinski – along with a number of smaller, non-branded guesthouses. My trip included two nights on a barge docked along the Quai de l’Oise, courtesy of CroisiEurope, which operates a number of barges that tour the waterways of Europe. Its all-inclusive packages, which include onboard wi-fi, are very reasonable, and its range of themed cruises are popular.

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay on Raymonde, which is staffed with a chef, purser, captain and waitress. The 11 cabins on Raymonde are compact, with twosingle beds and a small desk, but the layout makes good use of the space available. The dining room served a buffet breakfast (don’t pass up the croissants) and plated lunches and dinners (a four-course affair every night) of simple French cuisine. The bar is always open and the lounge and sun deck are great places to relax.

I also spent two nights at Accor’s Novotel Paris Centre Tour Eiffel. From certain upper floor rooms you can see the Eiffel Tower, while other rooms look onto the River Seine. Its location gives easy access to the popular French tourism sites – the Champs-Elysees, Notre Dame, the Louvre and more. The hotel is touted as a mid-scale hotel for business or leisure. My room on the sixth floor was well-sized, with a king-size bed, tub shower, work desk, mini-fridge, flat screen TV and a fair amount of cupboard space.

It’s easy to conduct business here, with 32 meeting rooms and free wi-fi. Amenities include a heated indoor pool, a fitness area, and souvenir and convenience stores. A buffet breakfast is served in N’Café, which offers the standard fare in both hot and cold buffets. Uncomplicated, but tasty and a good way to start your day.

GETTING AROUND

Paris sits in the north of France, almost equidistant from the country’s east and west borders. The city is circular, with the River Seine separating the south west quadrant from the rest of the city.

There are a number of ways to travel around Paris without getting behind the wheel of a car. You can take the bus, tram, metro, train or a taxi.

Taxis are best ordered ahead of time and all operators charge a standard fee per trip (not per passenger, making it a fair option if you’re travelling with a colleague or two). This will get you to your destination with a minimum of fuss.

Public transport is definitely cheaper and very comprehensive, but is a bit daunting and confusing if you’re not accustomed to it. That being said, it doesn’t take long tofigure out the metro – you just need to know the station you’re heading to and to pay attention to the announcements – and be prepared for a bit of walking. Thankfully, Paris is pedestrian-friendly, and you’ll join locals on your way to and from metro stations and bus stops.

The bus is a great way to get a little sight-seeing in while you travel, but you need to know which bus line to catch and where to hop off, otherwise you could get yourself hopelessly lost. It’s not as easy to navigate as the metro, but if you can find a helpful operator to give you directions, it’s worth it.

You will, of course, need to buy a ticket for your travels. Thankfully, the RATP website sets out your options in an easy-to-understand manner, so that you can decide which pass is the most suitable for you. Once you know what ticket you need, you can purchase it from a metro station vending machine or ticket desk.

The public transportation network continues to grow, thanks to major projects such as the construction of the Grand Paris Express — the largest construction site in railway infrastructure in Europe — and the future CDG Express, which in 2023 will connect Charles de Gaulle Airport with the heart of Paris in 20 minutes by train.

VISAS

Most African citizens require a Schengen visa to enter France. The French embassy in South Africa has appointed Capago as its visa application centre. The application process is simple and quick.

You start with an online application form, which you print out and take to a pre-arranged appointment at the Capago offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban or Pretoria. There is a stack of supportingdocumentation that you need to gather for your appointment, but this is clearly laid out in an email.

The appointment is basically a chance to hand in your paperwork and photos and have your biometrics recorded. Your passport is ready for you to collect, or have delivered (for a fee), in about 48 hours.

Overall, I found this process pretty straightforward and cheaper than other visas. I was also granted a multi-entry visa without even requesting one. I was notified to collect my passport from the Sandton office in just over 24 hours.

MICE

In 2016, Paris organised 1,180 congresses, conventions and conferences and hosted 854,000 delegates. These numbers are up from 2015, so although the 2017 edition of Tourism in Paris – Key Figures hasn’t been released yet, it’s fair to assume that there were even more events and delegates last year.

Each year, the city holds around 400 fairs and trade shows, attracting nearly 10 million visitors and 100,000 exhibitors. The International Congress and Convention Association recently declared Paris ‘the world’s leading city for hosting international congresses’.

Venues include 17 congress and exhibition centres, around 100 meeting rooms and even more classic, modern and unconventional venues.

“To gear up for the 2024 Olympics and retain its ranking as a world leader in the MICE industry, the destination is modernising its airports and developing new urban transport solutions,” says Pierre Schapira, President of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It also has a brand-new congress centre, the biggest in Europe, designed to host major international events.”

CONCLUSION

Not just a desirable or romantic leisure destination, but a MICE location of note, with much to offer the open-minded delegate.

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