By Michele Reed
When we were planning our first visit to France, and flying in to Barcelona, a friend from Oswego gave us the best travel advice: “Always use the first day in a new city to take the hop-on, hop-off city tour bus.” We’d never done such a thing before and, frankly, we prided ourselves on our “hit the ground and explore like a local” method of travel – which basically means walking the streets and exploring shops, restaurants and museums we find along the way until our feet give out. But he provided a brochure for the bus in Barcelona and insisted that we try his method.
We soon learned that, for adult travelers in a European city, it was the perfect solution. We bought a two-day ticket and used the first day to just look at everything the city had to offer. From the open top deck of a big red bus, we could see famous Camp Nou, which houses the championship FC Barcelona soccer team, the 1992 Olympic village, historic harbor and the castle on Mont Juic. We got great views of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) Cathedral, under construction for the past 100 years, and the Modernista creations of architect Antoni Gaudi and his early 20th Century contemporaries. Headphones provided commentary in close to two dozen languages from all around the world. The booklet that came with the ticket gave a description of what was at each stop and coupons for discounted admission to attractions. The next day we were able to plan an itinerary for ourselves, and use the bus to visit places we would never be able to walk to on foot. It was so successful, in fact, that every subsequent trip to Barcelona, when we welcome new visitors to our French home, we take them on the city bus tour and plan our second day of adventures around whatever intrigues them. We’ve seen most of the great sights in Barcelona that way. And at about $35 each for a two-day ticket, it more than pays for itself in the money we save over taxi cabs to get to the more far-flung attractions. The lack of sore knees and blistered toes is just a bonus!
Another great find is the little white “train.” We first encountered it in the beach town of Argeles-sur-Mer, where we spent two winters while exploring our options for a more permanent base in France. We thought it was just a feature of that touristy town, but we soon found that our new adopted city of Beziers had one, and so did Nice and Marseilles. Apparently it’s not just a French phenomenon, as we’ve seen the little train on episodes of “House Hunters International” set in Spain and Italy, too. So it must be a southern European specialty.
The little open air “train” cars, no wider than an automobile and pulled by a tractor dressed up like a locomotive, are narrow enough to drive right on the twisty medieval streets of the old town. Riders listen on headphones explaining the sights in several languages as the trains take them to the main attractions of each town. In Beziers, the train stops at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Canal du Midi, which links the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, cutting a swath across France. A bridge carries the canal over the Orb River and you can walk its length and marvel at the 17th-Century engineering feat. Beziers Cathedral is another stop on the train tour, and riders can hop off and explore the 13th-Century structure before returning to the center of town.
In Nice, the Petit Train took us through the Old Town, where we saw the harbor, the Old City Hall and Opera House. We visited the Colline du Chateau or Castle Hill, a ruined citadel that guarded the city centuries ago. Now a park, intricate mosaics and statuary decorate the grounds, along with secluded glens and an impressive waterfall. The train gives ample time for exploring on foot, including a lookout point with magnificent views of Nice harbor below. We’d never have been able to climb the hill on which these attractions are perched, so for adult travelers, the little train is a definite travel perk. And at about $8 a ticket for a half-day of adventure, it is a bargain to boot.
Our final travel tip is the guided side trip. We thought these were only available as add-ons to cruises and guided bus tours. But we learned that they are available through most cities’ tourist offices, and also on the internet. Your hotel reception desk can arrange a tour and the concierge will have brochures and full information about the options. They usually know which tour is the most reliable and has the best tour guides. We went with one our Nice hotel clerk recommended, through a company called Viator. Our driver picked us up in the hotel lobby and spoke perfect English. He had a lot of knowledge about the local attractions. Our half-day tour from Nice took us to the perfume-making town of Eze, where we climbed the steep hill to the neoclassical 18th-century church. Some of our fellow travelers chose to visit the perfume factory, where fragrances are made from the flowers that grow so abundantly there, and enjoyed the sampling and sales. One elderly man couldn’t do the walking for either outing and the driver suggested a nice café where he could enjoy a croissant and coffee while watching the world go by. Our final stop was Monaco, where we saw the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace, Princess Grace’s tomb in the Cathedral, Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Yellow Submarine, and the famous Casino at Monte Carlo.
The beauty of a small group tour is its flexibility. When I expressed a desire to see the Formula 1 course, our driver, a fellow racing fan, drove us along the entire route of the famous road race. An added thrill was the fear factor — the minivan clung to the edge of the narrow twisty road as we drove down the Grande Corniche from Monte Carlo, reminding us of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly’s chase scene in “To Catch a Thief.”
If you search the internet, you will see that a private tour of this type — visiting the very same sites — will cost you several hundred dollars. But by choosing the small-group option and sharing a minivan with up to eight people, we saved substantially. The entire half-day tour cost us $60 each, and a longer, full-day, version ran $100. There’s the added bonus of meeting some interesting fellow travelers. We shared our ride with a banker and his wife from Boston, a British couple and a retired teacher from Australia.
So for adult travelers looking to explore European cities, our best advice is: Look for the big red bus, the little white train and the minivan side tour. Your wallet — and your feet — will thank you.
Michele Reed retired after a career spanning four decades in public relations, advertising, journalism and higher education. She now writes travel articles, book reviews, haiku poetry and fiction. Bill Reed retired after four decades in social services with the county of Oswego, and now works at travel photography and photojournalism, along with writing book reviews.