A Travellerspoint blog

France

Versailles and Last Minute Trips

Parting ways with Mr. Greenhalgh

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This morning, we accidentally “slept in” until 8:45, when we had planned to get up at 8 to head to Versailles. We stopped at a brasserie (which is apparently a step up from a café) for breakfast. We originally stopped there because I saw omelets on the menu but after we sat down, the waiter told us that they didn’t serve them until noon which was strange. Pretty much the only thing you could get there was croissants and coffee or tea. We ordered croissants because we had gotten off to a late start which I suppose is soething you have to do at least once in France although they didn’t fill us up at all and have no nutritional value whatsoever. Apparently breakfast isn’t a big meal over here.

Versailles is on the countryside about a half hour from Paris so we had to get on a train to get there. In my guidebook, I saw that you could take the RER trains there for 3 euros (About $5) each way which wasn’t too bad. We had seen tours offered for around 50 euros (which I would hope covers the 20 euro admission but is nonetheless a crime). We were pleased with ourselves for managing to avoid that tourist trap. However, finding the RER was a different story. On the map, it looked like the train to Versailles left from Porte de Versailles which would have simply made too much sense. When we got there, we realized that we had walked about 10 minutes in the wrong direction and had to walk another 20 to get to the right place. Needless to say, we got to Versailles much later than we had hoped. As a result, the lines were mind-numbingly long to get in, though they proved to move relatively quickly. The 20 euro admission was covered by our 35 euro museum pass which has proved to be more than worth it. Although the food here is much more expensive than in London, at least it is much cheaper to see the sights, most of which cost 15 pounds (about $22) in London and other than Versailles averaged 7 euros (about $10) in Paris (but ended up being even cheaper because of our pass).

Versailles was a grand building. In case you didn’t know, it was built by Louis XIV as a demonstration of his power. Each room by itself was the most gaudy room you could imagine and yet this monstrous building had hundreds of rooms each of which was more extravagant than the last. We were definitely glad that we made the trip, as originally we weren’t sure that we would have time for it. I wish Kristine would have been here since she loves both French history and shiny, expensive things. The one disappointment of the trip was that we weren’t able to see the gardens because they had a water fountain show and charged an 8 euro admission whereas usually you can get into the gardens free of charge. It wasn’t worth the money for a 15 minute walk around the gardens, so we headed back toward the train station and stopped for lunch. I got a Panini-type sandwhich with ham/lettuce/tomato and unfortunately they were premade and had mayo. You cannot escape bread and mayonnaise on any sandwhich around here. Hunter also gets a kick out of it when I try to order Jambon (ham) because I can’t remember how to pronounce it and it usually ends up coming out sounding Spanish.

On the way home, we looked through my guidebook (Hunter thinks he left his somewhere in between Paris and Versailles and didn’t realize until too late) to plan the rest of our afternoon. We decided to hit the Musee d’Orsay for a little dose of culture. When we got off the train, a family asked for directions and I was actually able to guide them in the right direction. Not until after did I remember Hunter telling me how his book talked about a scam that was set up with a girl asking for directions, but I guess I got lucky. We were able to ride the tour bus there since the bus pass was good for two days (another thing much cheaper here – half the price of the London tour bus and good for twice as long). There were some famous Monet, Degas, Manet and Van Gogh paintings that I recognized including Van Gogh’s self-portrait. We ended up enjoying the museum much more than we had expected to with our limited art knowledge. It was still relatively early, but we hopped back on the bus to the Arc du Triumphe to walk down the Champs Elysees to find somewhere we wanted to eat dinner. On the bus, we saw the police raid a group of vendors at the Eiffel Tower.I hadn’t payed much attention before, but most of the vendors keep their wares on a small white cloth and when the cops came, they pulled on strins at the corners to make the cloth into a sack and ran away. Many escaped thanks to this little strategy. I saw beef tartar on a poster somewhere yesterday and decided I would get that for a real French meal. In both the UK and France, restaurants all post their menus outside which is nice because you can see if there is anything you would like before going in. I’m told by my guidebook that it’s by law, a law I wouldn’t mind adopting in the US. The Tartar du Boefe tasted pretty good going down, but a few hours later my stomach wasn’t so happy with my dinner choice. It was here that we parted ways. Hunter’s plane leaves so early that the subways aren’t even running yet and a cab to the airport costs upwards of 60 euros plus a 40% surcharge for late night/early morning travel. Instead he’s headed there on the last train tonight and will be spending around 5 hours at the airport.

With the rest of my night, I planned to go back to the Arc du Triumphe because I so enjoyed the view from the top yesterday and thought it would be cool to see at night since its open until 11pm. After consulting my guide book, however, I saw a few other points of interest. Montmarte is a part of Paris on Paris’ largest hill and has the Basilica du Sacre Coure (Sacred Heart - getting its name because it claims to have a piece of Christ’s heart). My book claimed it was a fantastic view of Paris, so I decided to do that, plus on the way I would pass by the Moulin Rouge. Montmarte is an awesome neighborhood, with lots of character. Since its on a hill, its roads are very steep and they have to work with the space they have. For example, there was a cool little jazz club I passed by on a rooftop that offered a great view of the city. At the top, the Basilica was beautiful and they hold a service every hour so there was nuns singing and the organ playing. The acoustics in the church were incredible. Then I sat on the steps at the highest ground in Paris to watch dusk settle in and the City of Light turn on. Once it got dark, I caught the metro over to the Arc du Triumphe. Though it was after 11 and I couldn’t go to the top, it was still a sight to see. Hunter and I had talked about how the City of Light wasn;t so bright from the top of the Eiffel tower and while it’s true that it lacks the bright skyline of New York City, Paris’ monuments are instead lit subly from underneath, making the skyline less inmpressive but also making the monuments look truly majestic at night from up close. While I mention NYC, I have now also seen I heart Paris, Berlin, Rome and a few others in addition to the London shirts I saw a few days ago. Some of the Paris ones at least said J’Adore Paris which switched it up a little bit. By this time it was pretty late and I was exhausted so I headed back home. On my way past the Eiffel Tower, I passed through a park, Jardin du Trocadero, which offered some of the best views of the Eiffel Tower and yet I was the only one there. It was definitely a cool find.

Both the Champs Elysees and the Eiffel tower were absolutely packed today, noticeably more than in the last few days. We finally realized that the Tour de France was ending here tomorrow. I remembered checking on that for the trip and have a little regret that I could see Lance finish his last tour. Had he been in position to win I might have ate the Airline ticket and first night’s stay in Rome, but it just didn’t seem worth it to wait around for hours to watch him bike by for a split second and not even get to see him on the podium or anything.

Well, my stay in Paris is drawing to a close. First, a few random notes… There were no showers in our hotel. All we had was a bath and a handheld shower thing. It was kind of weird but Hunter and I both ended up taking a few baths for our tired legs. We estimated that we walk around 5 miles per day. Doing that every day with a pack on your back takes its toll. Also, I don’t know what we would do without our guidebooks. They give us suggested itineraries, restaurants, hours of different attractions and maps. Hunter and I affectionately call them Rick (Steves) and Arthur (Frommer), respectively after the authors and frequently thank them or blame them depending on how we feel about their suggestions. I’m a bit sad to be leaving Paris but I feel like we really saw just about everything in our whirlwind tour. The only things I might add next time are getting to the top of the Eiffel tower, and going to the Sainte Chapelle which is behind Notre Dame and claims to have the Roman lance that pierced Christ as well as parts of his cross and his crown of thorns. Apparently the stained glass windows are unreal.

I have to get up around 6:30 tomorrow to leave by 7 and get to the airport by 7:45-8ish for a 9:30 flight. I’m a little nervous about waking up, not only because Hunter isn’t here but also because his watch isn’t here. Our hotel room has no clock and my phone is way off because it doesn’t have the Verizon network to keep time. I had to check some public clocks on buildings to figure out what time to set it for (12:50) so that I would wake up at 6:30. Hope I did the math right!

Posted by atbrady 13:06 Archived in France Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Getting Cultured in Paris

Louvre, Notre Dame, an evening on the Eiffel Tower and confirming stereotypes

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This morning we woke up early to get to the tour bus almost as soon as it opened. We stopped for breakfast on the way. I was able to get an omelet, my favorite breakfast meal at home, although it was rather expensive. Hunter got orange juice with his meal which ended up being more expensive than last night’s Bordeaux. Coca cola is also ridiculously expensive here at 2-3 euros (4-5 dollars) for a bottle smaller than the ones at home. Though I’m not one for soft drinks, Hunter has had to cut down. Everything here seems to be much less expensive than London (bus tours, museum/attraction admissions) except for the food, which is astronomically higher. Curiously, we were given mustard with breakfast just like we for last night’s dinner, apparently it’s relatively common in Paris? It’s very spicy and interestingly tastes like it contains Wasabi. If I spoke French, I might ask. While the food comes out faster in Europe, the check can take forever. I suppose Americans don’t sit around to relax after their meal like the Europeans do, which is part of the issue.

The bus tour again proved to be a good investment, taking us directly to the major attractions while filling in the gaps with tidbits about Paris and other buildings rich with history. Our first stop was the Louvre. The building itself was unbelievable. It was once a palace and includes all the grand architecture and sculpture that goes along with that. Neither Hunter nor I are all that into art, so we mostly hit the three most famous works while stopping at whatever looked interesting along the way. Winged Victory was perhaps the most impressive of the three, partially because of its placement in an enormous hallway at the top of a grand set of stairs. I had heard the Mona Lisa is smaller than most expect and often disappoints, but even going in with such tempered expectations it still seemed less than the masterpiece it is made out to be. I would have been interested to get closer and see more detail of the painting, but as you might expect, there are both velvet ropes and hoards of people gathered around it. Its presentation also makes it look quite small, on an otherwise barren wall in a room filled with paintings 4-10 times its size. Another famous work, the Venus de Milo, was in the Greek sculpture wing. I can’t say that it stood out from the other Greek sculptures. In fact, there were many sculptures I found more impressive. Overall, it was definitely a worthwhile experience even for someone with no real knowledge in art.

After the Louvre, we hopped back on the bus until the next stop at Notre Dame on the Isle de City, an island that is the oldest part of Paris. The cathedral was an impressive building, not only for its size but also its intricacies. We were a bit disappointed to see that the line to go up to the towers went the length of the tower itself and decided an afternoon in line would not be well spent. We went to the nearby isle de Saint Micheal, another ancient part of Paris full of centuries-old mansions and lined with quaint restaurants and shops. We both had crepes at the restaurant, which were authentic and enjoyable.

We re-boarded a tour bus which took us down the famous Champs Elysees, one of Paris’ most famous streets, full of high end shops and restaurants. At the end is the Arc du Triumphe, which was commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate his military victories. It was an impressive building, but the view from the top was the true gem. The spiral staircase to the top seemed to never end, but once on top, the skyline was beyond words. This was probably my favorite part of the day so far. It made me realize that Paris was far larger than I could have imagined, with buildings as far as the eye could see in every direction. I may have to come back tomorrow night to see the City of Lights at night. Also, under the arc lies France’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was here that we experienced our first rain of the trip. Luckily, it lasted no more than five minutes before the sun came back out.

Hopping back on the bus, Hunter and I went to an internet café to confirm our respective airline reservations for Sunday morning. I was able to thankfully find a European converter plug to recharge my camera battery. We also figured out that Hunter’s parents had received a call from his hospital visit, leaving both our families worried. Typing on a French keyboard was also quite the experience , with about half the letters in the same place. It was of course a smaller issue than they made it out to be, but our lack of internet between this hotel and the WiFi in London on our last day has left us disconnected from the world.

We found a restaurant nearby recommended in Hunter’s guidebook that was great because we were probably the only tourists there. The downside was that there was no English menu or English speaking wait staff, so we had to rely on Hunter’s French and his dictionary to decipher the menu. It was taking forever to look up words in the dictionary so I panicked and ordered the pasta dish because it was the only thing I had any idea what I was getting into. I was pissed at myself for ordering pasta when I would be in Rome in just a few days, but it wasn’t at all an Italian dish and was probably my favorite meal so far. Nevertheless, I vowed to be more adventurous with my food selection in the future. We also ordered a carafe of the house wine which was fantastic and ridiculously cheap. It made last night’s wine seem just ordinary. It’s funny how they pack you into a restaurant around here. Hunter and I were in a tiny corner, with so little clearance for passersby that at one point a waitress moved our carafe from one edge of the table to the other against the wall to prevent a spill. Almost all of the tables here are small two person tables, and when you’re not in a corner, you tend to be in a row of these tables so that you are right on top of the people at the table next to you. It does make for an intimate, cozy feeling and tonight’s dinner felt truly authentic.
To end the night, we hopped on the Metro to the Champs de Mars which is near the Eiffel Tower. We stopped along the way for a few glasses of wine and laughed because we thing the waiter thought we were a couple. Hunter decided he wanted ice cream and they brought it out with two spoons which was pretty funny. Dusk had just settled in making it dark enough for the lights to turn on. It is truly a wonder to look at, especially because the sky was a deep blue/purple in the background. After a long but not unbearable line, we took the stairs up to the first two level and then the second, taking pictures along the way. Part of what makes the Eiffel Tower so unbelievable is that there is nothing even remotely close to its height anywhere near it. Unlike New York, where you can’t see the Empire State Building until you are at its base, the Eiffel Tower can be seen from quite a distance in the city. So you can imagine that at the second level, you can see for quite a distance in all directions. I would be interested to see what it looks like in the day, as I’m told you can see for over 30 miles. Unfortunately, we were unable to get to the very top of the tower as it is tiny and often closed due to congestion and by the time they reopened it, we didn’t make it to the front of the line. It was fantastic nonetheless, as even from the second level, you are towering over Paris. At night, many of Paris’s most famous monuments were lit, but overall, the city looked sleepy (granted it was 12:30). We decided that what truly gives Paris the reputation as the city of lights is the Eiffel Tower itself. On the hour, white lights flash all over the tower giving it the appearance of a glistening jewel. No picture I could take did it any kind of justice, but it is a sight I will never forget. Also, on the way home, we passed the Ecole Military which looked truly majestic at night.

Many of the stereotypes about France are true. For example, at every meal so far, the person who brought out our food really does say bon appétit. Also, at dinner tonight, I noticed a few locals greet each other with kisses on both cheeks, even between two male friends (good luck with that in America). Also, the Public Displays of Affection (PDA) have been spotted all over town, with couples making out at restaurants, on the Eiffel tower and on the street as if nobody else were there. Furthermore, we noticed that police in France get a mixed bag. On one hand, they carry guns which we noticed few British police did, yet they don’t get to drive BMWs, instead sporting Puegeots. The streets in Paris are often hard to follow. Many intersections involve several streets meeting in a central location so that you could keep walking straight but be on a different street. Sometimes, the street name changes without any warning at all, and rarely do you see uniform blocks laid out.

As I head to sleep after my second day in Paris, it has really grown on me. Now that I have seen the character in the small restaurants and those frequented by locals as well as the tourist attractions, I can say that this is an unbelievable city. In my eyes, London may still have the edge because its kept cleaner and every street seems quaint and cozy even though you are in one of the world’s largest cities. However, both deserve their reputation and have been unforgettable.

Posted by atbrady 12:56 Archived in France Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Getting Acclimated All Over Again

A lot tougher this time around...

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We had walked by the Ecole Militare (Military School) on our way to the hotel and saw on the map that the Hotel des Invalides was also close by. This was their military museum which also contained the tomb of Napoleon under an enormous dome that was covered with 12 kilograms of gold! We quickly noticed a statue that had graffiti on it, which we had not seen anywhere in London (maybe their CCTV is working after all). London also seems to be much cleaner than Paris, which is littered with more cigarette butts than you could imagine. I’m not as familiar with French History as with British, so it was cool to learn about Charles de Gaulle (namesake of Paris’ airport), their General that lead the Free France movement after occupation by Germany. We also went into the wing of earlier military history which contained an endless series of rooms containing uniforms and weapons from the Napoleonic era. This was interesting but also started to get monotonous. I enjoy reading about the famous storylines in history to get a big picture more than seeing centuries worth of military attire. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed the WWI and WWII section of the museum so much. It told the story from the French perspective, which varied from the story told in American schools, mostly because we entered the war late but tend to skip over the events that beforehand. We ended our visit with Napoleon’s tomb which was pretty impressively presented.

It was starting to get late and we had had a long day, so Hunter suggested the Champ de Mars, a nearby square recommended in his guidebook that we stopped at for dinner. The first thing I noticed was a couple nearby that was making out the entire time we were at the restaurant. I know Paris is supposed to be a romantic city, but only time will tell if this is common practice. I had a steamed salmon and veggies dish with a glass of wine that wasn’t too bad. Hunter luckily saved me from ordering the raw salmon with the help of his French-English dictionary. Afterward, we decided to walk along the river to get our bearings in the city in search of some cool finds. Walking by the Eiffel tower was pretty impressive, although we were disappointed to see that the park leading up to it was littered with millions of beer caps and cigarette butts. It seems as if everyone around here is smoking, not unlike London. Our final destination was at the other end of the city where we hoped to take a night bus tour to see “The City of Lights.” So far, reactions from Parisians have been mixed: while some have stopped to help virtually every time we open a map looking lost, you do catch an occasional dirty look. On the other hand, the Brits seemed somewhat indifferent to our existence. We also noticed a small gathering of homeless people that we realized we had never seen in London.

Passing through the Latin Quarter, so named because it was the area where schools are located in Paris and students would speak Latin, we saw a variety of restaurants from French to Greek to Chinese as well as some nightspots that looked to be a good time. Nonetheless, we continued to the tour bus office. We ended up getting there only a few minutes after it had closed and realized just how long our stroll had taken. In three hours, we had traversed less about a quarter of the length of the river as it passed through the city and quickly realized just how sprawling a city Paris is. So far, I would have to say that I like London better than Paris, partially because everything in Paris is so spread out, but also because it is not as well kempt, with graffiti on a few monuments and a larger homeless problem. However, it’s still early. Tomorrow we’ll be buying another hop-on-hop-off tour bus ticket, this time good for two days as well as a museum pass good for just about all of the sights in Paris excluding the Eiffel Tower.

Posted by atbrady 12:52 Archived in France Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

No I am not French

Oui, Merci, and that's all I know

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We were the only ones left in our hostel room of those that were there on our first night. It was a brief slumber however, as we had to wake up at 6:30 to get to the train station for our 8:30 train ride to Paris. Breakfast starts at 7:00 at the Generator, so we were able to grab a quick bowl of bran before setting off to the train station. Luckily, we were familiar with the train station because it was right next door to the station we arrived at from the airport just 3 days ago. It was about a twenty five minute walk with all of our gear to Kings Cross St. Pancras. I thought I packed light, but trekking around for that long with both with my backpack and duffel bag makes me reconsider each thing I packed. I probably could have packed even lighter.

Getting on the train was more or less like getting on an airplane at home with metal detectors and x-ray machines. I would love to tell you all that the British and French country-sides are beautiful and that it was cool going through the chunnel, but I slept the entire way. Before I even got off the train I hit the first rough patches of the Parisian part of the trip. At the beginning and end of each train car, there is a set of shelves where people can put their baggage. When I got off the train, my duffel was not where I left it. I looked around on the different shelves but it was nowhere to be found. I was happy that I had at least kept my backpack that held all of my valuables under my seat. My duffel simply held my clothes and I would have simply bought a few shirts in a souvenir shop. Luckily, after a few frantic minutes, I found my duffel in an overhead compartment. Apparently someone had moved it for some reason. Disaster was averted, but it was only a sign of more trouble to come.

Learning from our mistakes in London, we left the train station to find a bank just across the street that offered a significantly better exchange rate. However, they apparently have tight security in French banks because there were double doors, the second of which would not open until the first was closed and you pressed a button. I had been safe with Hunter who spoke basic French, but after he went through the doors, the security guard tried to talk to me and needless to say I was completely lost. The button wasn’t working for me and I was trapped between the doors before finally being let through. After heading back to the terminal and buying a map, we took the subway to a stop that was only about a block from our hotel. This seemingly simple task also proved difficult for me. When exiting the subway, you apparently have to lift a latch in order for the doors to open. As the first one in line to get off the subway, it took me a second to realize that the doors were not opening and I needed to pull the latch and I proceeded to press it down, probably annoying a few Parisians for what was probably a few seconds but seemed like forever. In a new city that speaks a language you are altogether unfamiliar with, such simple things are much more difficult that you might think. For this reason, I would highly recommend making London the first stop on any European trip to at least eliminate the language barrier.

My first thoughts of Paris were that it was exactly what you might expect. Our hotel, the Hotel Mon Reve (Hotel of my Dreams, I believe) is on Rue de Felix Faure which is a Parisian street straight out of a novel, with cafes lining the street and spilling over onto the sidewalks. We dropped off our things at the hotel but had another hour until check in, so we went down the street for Lunch, grabbing a few sandwiches on stereotypical French rolls and taking them to a nearby park. Europeans sure do love their bread. I feel like we can’t eat a meal without it. We returned to the hotel and quickly threw our things into what most would call a small hotel room, but what seems like a palace after spending the last three nights in a hostel room that was about as big but with six beds instead of two. I’ve never before been so happy to have a private bathroom.

Posted by atbrady 12:49 Archived in France Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

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