Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Since it was our last full day in Paris, my in-laws decided that they wanted to see Versailles before we made our way back to Luxembourg. We had originally planned to go on Sunday as their first sight-seeing trip of the vacation, but we changed our minds thinking that 1) they may not be up for the amount of walking required to see it, and 2) it pretty much requires the whole day, so we would run the risk of having to rule out one of the other "must dos" on the list. Well, having covered most of the "must dos" on Monday, we were left with a free day to make the venture. Luckily for us, the RER train that leads to Versailles has a stop right near Notre Dame, so the walk to the station was only a 10 minute walk from the apartment. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was not ideal. Storms had ventured into Paris the night before and promised to stay for the remainder of our trip. We did have to bundle up a bit more as the temperatures had also dropped a bit.
The train ride was quick and we were soon within the gates of the palace, awaiting our turn to make our way through security and to the ticket office. The lines at Versailles can be very similar to those at the Louvre, so the Museum pass is very handy to have. When we bought our passes earlier in the week, it was before we had changed our plans. Therefore, by the time we got around to going to Versailles, our passes had expired. Thankfully, the lines were shorter than usual that day, so our wait was rather manageable.
It is unfortunate that what Louis XIV created was passed down to other Louises that were not as politically savvy as their ancestor. The helpful audio tour that accompanies your ticket is wonderful in summarizing the amazing history of the place, including the fall of Versailles under Louis XVI's rule. Some of the art is worthy of the Louvre (and in some cases, copies actually reside in the Louvre), and the Hall of Mirrors is a true sign of wealth and vanity given how precious mirrors were regarded back in the day. But again, the gardens take the palace to a whole different level. Unlike the Louvre, whose Tuilleries are quite lovely and have a rather similar feel, the gardens at Versailles are vast and impressive. You could spend hours visiting each walled garden and never fully see or appreciate the place. If you are fortunate enough to visit on a weekend during the high season, you have the added treat of seeing the various fountains in action, many of which are set to music similar to those at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Our visit last July with the kids was fantastic and we did manage to hit the palace on a Sunday. This trip, however, was on the early side, so most of the gardens had not been planted for the high season just yet. We did enjoy walking through some of the gardens and catching a quick lunch at one of the outdoor garden restaurants. Again, not the best of weather for eating outside, but the hot chocolate and burgers hit the spot.
Joe and I hadn't been to Montmartre since our 10th anniversary 9 years ago. It's probably the furthest tourist spot of the city and I had distinct memories of climbing numerous steps to get to the Sacre Coeur. I really hadn't planned to take the ILs there, but after talking to some friends in Lux I discovered that there is actually a small tram that you can take to avoid those ominous steps. Plus, my TripAdvisor research said that there was this great Sicilian restaurant called Tentazioni that promised traditional fare in a quaint, family run establishment. I couldn't resist - it was rated #3! I emailed with the proprietor's son and got the reservation.
So, a couple of hours before our reservation time we headed off to the train. After spending the day on the Champs-Elysee, Montmartre can be a bit jarring. Let's just say, you won't find Louis Vuitton or Chanel in this neighborhood. Again, my ILs are not snobs and they don't frequent the kind of establishments you will find on the Champs-Elysee, but Montmartre is more reminiscent of any touristy area in a big city (think Navy Pier in Chicago or Las Ramblas in Barcelona). It's not exactly seedy, but you do take extra care to hold on to your purse or wallet. We exited the train to a bustling city street loaded with souvenir shops and street performers. I know my FIL was not impressed. Nor was my MIL when she saw the sloped street that you had to ascend to get half way up to where the Sacre Coeur sits. We did manage to find the tram and made our way to the top. We stopped to watch this guy who obviously had quite a talent for balancing a soccer ball while doing some tightrope-like stunts that were really quite impressive. The boys were intrigued, but the ILs chalked him up as an elaborate panhandler and were ready to move on. We did take a quick tour of the church; however, for some reason we had a knack for picking times to visit churches when a service was in session. This time was no exception. I thought the singing nuns were lovely, but my oldest son was quick to say he was "creeped out," so we left. We decided to follow Rick Steve's walking tour of the area which quickly led us to the artists' square. More "panhandlers" (including Mr. Bean and some rather odd dancers), but at least there were some impressive artists displaying their art and doing portraits. I don't think it raised my FIL's opinion of the place much, but it was a chance to see a different part of Paris.
Finally, we headed off to find the restaurant. Admittedly, I am not the best with maps or directions. I did take the time to mark my Rick Steve's book with what I thought was the general location of the street according to Googlemaps. However, my mistake was misspelling the name of the street. After several trips through the winding streets of Montmartre, we managed to find a nice valet who was kind enough to use his phone (and Googlemaps) to find the restaurant. We managed to be only 10 minutes late, but the meal was totally worth the effort. Francesco, the guy I had made the email reservation with, happened to be our waiter that night. The restaurant has only 4 tables, so reservations were definitely a must. I did get the sense from the reviews that it was a restaurant mostly frequented by locals, which was what I was looking for. The icing on the cake was the lovely family who owned and ran the place. Papa was the cook behind the counter, Mama was cashier, and the sons were waiting the tables. Francesco took the time to translate the menu for us and the handmade pasta was to die for. (I can't tell you how much I was regretting my Lent choices that night. My gnocchi was lovely, but my husband's truffle ravioli looked sinful.) In any case, the ILs enjoyed dinner and we were rewarded with a picture with Francesco in front of the restaurant and free glasses of Limoncello. :)
We did take a different route back to the train which allowed a quick look at the famous Moulin Rouge. No need to visit the place as we learned during our honeymoon. It is by far the biggest tourist trap in the city, so a view from the outside suffices. Overall, I think the visit to the neighborhood was worth the random excursions in search of the restaurant, though next time... I'll check my spelling.
Next on the list - "What are your thoughts about going to the Louvre?" I have to admit, I really do like the museum and there are some fantastic works of art there that are totally worth seeing. But, it is by far not my favorite museum in Paris. Again, the ridiculous lines to get in are part of the problem, but at least there are what I would consider Paris' version of "Fast Passes" called the Paris Museum Pass. This cute little booklet will easily have you by-passing those mile long lines in a heartbeat, so that obstacle can easily be circumvented. Really, my issue is with the resulting crowds that line creates. Add to that the fact that the often criticized glass pyramid by I.M Pei that is the entrance to the museum can create an atmosphere similar to a sauna in the museum, and I just cringe thinking of having to battle those crowds. So, again, MIL did not seem to be too determined to go. It also helped that she isn't a huge fan of the Mona Lisa. Quite frankly, it's a little disappointing given the hype. There are so many other impressive paintings in that museum!
Well, it got to be our third day in Paris and the jet lag had passed. My FIL was up and raring to see the sites. After a nice breakfast we decided to hit the museums. First on the list? The Louvre. What can I say? FIL was not in on the original conversation and I had been told by the husband that you can't very well go to Paris and not go to the Louvre. Besides, who knew if this may be their only trip to Paris? "You can't very well send them back to San Diego without having seen the Mona Lisa?" Really? Where was he when I had this conversation? Well, since we hadn't purchased our museum passes yet, we headed off to the Louvre with the intent of purchasing them there. We had purchased them there last summer when we went, so surely it wouldn't be an issue this time. Wrong. The line to enter without the passes was literally the length of the west wing of the museum. Plus, I had checked our travel guide and the English tours were at 11 and 2, so we definitely would not make the 11. So, we headed off through the Toulleries to the L'Orangerie. This actually is one of my favorite museums, so I was secretly relieved that we would be able to get this little gem in. The museum's permanent exhibit is Monet's water lily paintings, which are beautifully displayed with natural, filtered light in one of the most calming atmospheres in Paris. And, the line was short and the passes very easy to purchase!
After our trip through the L'Orangerie, we headed back to the Louvre in order to make it back in time for the 2:00 tour. We quickly bypassed the long line and entered the short "pass" line and worked are way downstairs and through the heat to the ticket office. As luck would have it, (mine anyway), the tour was sold out. I am guessing they were sold out several days earlier given the look I received from the sales office, but that was beside the point. Plan B was the quick Rick Steves' tour that quickly hits the highlights of the museum - the same and only tour Joe and I have ever done of the museum. Besides, everyone knows you can spend a week in that maze of buildings and still never see everything in there! Well, we got the highlights taken care of (Mona Lisa included), just in time to head back to the apartment, change for our Seine dinner cruise, and head off toward the Eiffel Tower where we would be boarding the boat.
The dinner cruise, a 1 1/2 hour trip up and down the Seine, was lovely. I did a bit of research (a la TripAdvisor) to make sure we booked a cruise that would hopefully meet up to my in-laws approval. This is not to say they are foodies or food snobs, but they do put a lot on proper service and a refilled coffee cup - not always attainable in Paris. So, we went with Bateaux Parisiens. They provide a lovely three course meal with a choice of 3 options for each course, wine for the adults, and juice for the kids. So, the only minor hiccup with that is that my in-laws don't drink so coffee and pineapple juice had to suffice. Good news? Joe and I had that much more wine to enjoy. Good thing since I would be needing it.
After an early cruise that ended at 8:00 we headed up the stairs to see the tower. We had ventured down to see it the night before, but we weren't up to staying until it was dark enough for the light show to start (the tower twinkles on the hour with thousands of lights flashing, but apparently not until 9:00 p.m. with the time change.) Well, that night before my FIL had announced that he was raring and ready to go to the top. What? Again, another part of the conversation that he obviously hadn't been in on. And, once again, the husband had to agree - "You can't come to Paris and not go to the top of the Eiffel Tower." Really? Well, we had agreed that we would give it a shot after the cruise, but I just knew the lines would still be crazy long (we had actually gotten in line the night before but bailed when we learned that there was only one working elevator and that it was taking over 3 hours to get to the ticket office). I just figured we would walk back, see the crazy long lines again, and agree to try again the next day. No such luck. The line (still, only one working elevator) did admittedly look much shorter than the day before and I had a determined FIL. So, we got in line...right in front of a group of about 50 young Russian students and their adult chaperones. The kids were actually very well behaved given the time of night and the length of the line (most were about 8-11 years old), but I can't say the same of their adult companions. About half way through the line (about 1 1/2 hours in), the ladies in the group decided that they didn't need to abide by the line and began making their way up the line - cutting! Now, this did not go over well with the husband, especially when one of the women decided that she would just try diving under the metal barriers to catch up with her rather brazen friends that had cut in front of about 30 of us in a matter of 5 minutes without any problem from the rather ineffective security guards that were stationed at the front of the metal barriers. The husband headed her off and the rest of the English speaking tourists near us were giving him that "look". That "I would give you a high 5 if it didn't mean I would have to get out of this line to do it" look. Not that it really did much in the end. The line gets crazy at the ticket office where it seems just a mass of folks rush the sales windows and it becomes a free-for-all. The Russian ladies did make it up the elevator before us. No worries. We ascended the tower with some very lovely Irish high school boys there on a field trip. They were much more pleasant than the manner-lacking Russians!
Well, 3 1/2 hours later we had this wonderful view of the City of Lights. My feet were killing me (I had worn new flats to dinner - not what I would have chosen had I known better) and it was freezing at the top, but I have to say - the view was lovely. We basically "closed" the tower that night - we were on the last elevator going down at midnight. We quickly made our way to the train station - not an easy feat since the closest one is the Trocadero, a good mile walk from the tower. Furthermore, it took 2 trains to get back to Ile St. Louis. We managed to get the first one, but the train stations shut down by the time we tried to board the second. Needless to say, we had no idea that that particular train station shut down at 1 a.m.. The MIL and the kids and I found a cab and headed back in no time. The husband and the FIL? Well, determined walkers, and admitted cheap skates, they walked. I wasn't about to do that to the MIL, only to have her walk 6 flights of stairs up to bed. Besides, we still had Versailles to see!
Friday, April 6, 2012
|Rodin's The Thinker|
No matter how many days you spend in Paris, it never seems possible to see everything. This being my in-laws first trip, we thought we would take things slowly and try to cover the highlights. We did start the day off with brunch back at the St. Regis cafe. While the kids slept in for the morning, the adults had the opportunity to indulge in some wicked pancakes and Pain Perdue (otherwise known as French toast - funny how they don't use that term there!) The coffee and freshly squeezed OJ was wonderful, despite the typically long meal. We were ready to get our day started!
Sunday happened to be the first Sunday of the month, which meant many of the museums had free admission. It also means many of them, including the Louvre, would be insanely crowded, so we thought we would cover at least one of the smaller ones. The Rodin museum, located near Les Invilades, is actually one of my favorite museums. The actual museum is currently under renovation, so the gardens (which I actually prefer) were open to the public that day. Rodin's wonderful sculptures, including The Thinker and the Doors to Hates are fascinating themselves, but set in the beautiful gardens around the museum with the spring flowers, they are really quite stunning. Everyone seemed to be out enjoying the wonderful weather and taking advantage of what really amounts to an outdoor museum.
The Rodin museum is located just around the block from Les Invilades, where that famous little dictator is laid to rest in the most obnoxiously large marble crypt one could imagine. The crypt is located in a chapel on one end of a campus of buildings that were at one time used as a military hospital. The buildings functioned like a small village, housing up to 4,000 injured soldiers and the necessary personnel to care for them. Now days the buildings house several military museums (NOT free on the first Sunday of the month), covering wars and their respective memorabilia from the medieval ages through the great world wars. Though we did meander through some of the older exhibits (basically a menagerie of coats of armor and medieval weapons), we moved our way on to the more interesting wings that cover WWI and WWII.
My memory of high school history is a short unit that covered both of these wars from the American perspective, hitting the highlights of the major battles but never diving into too much detail. Honestly, at that time, it was enough for me. History seems to be honored more the older you get. I have always been a pretty avid reader, but since moving to Europe, I have become particularly interested in historical novels that cover this period of time. My interest in this devastating time period was actually fueled years ago when I met Joe's grandfather, Robert Gilmour. He was a Navy commander during WWII and would often tell family stories about his experiences. Though he never shared too much detail, he did often have interesting if not funny stories of his experiences. I have read through many of the documents he saved from that time period, as well as many of the newspaper articles and pictures the family saved. So, walking through a museum that covers the war from the European perspective, and the undeniable respect and gratefulness the Europeans had of the Allies back then, really does resonate with me. You can't help but gain a new perspective on the world when you can look around you and know that many of the buildings you pass had to be rebuilt after the devastation of these wars, not to mention the millions of people whose lives were personally affected. Coming from someone who has never served in the military, it gives you a whole new perspective on how much folks truly sacrificed for the freedom we so often take for granted.
Dinner Sunday night was a "home" event with ingredients bought from all of the little stores on Ile St. Louis - cheese from the fromagerie, baguettes from the boulangerie, beef filet from the boucherie, white asparagus from the epicerie and, of course, some great French red wine. Even the accompanying music from our jazz band the previous night added to the ambiance of the evening, filling it with the songs that came from that same time period we had paid our respects to earlier. Who could possibly deny that our heroes from the 30's and 40's really were part of the world's greatest generation?
In an effort to take things easy their first day in Paris, Joe met his parents at Charles DeGaulle airport and helped them navigate the Metro to Ile St. Louis. After getting them settled into the apartment, we ventured our for lunch and went to a really cute bistrot just down the block - Les Fous de L'Ile. The place had been packed the day before, mostly with locals, so we thought we would give it a shot. We enjoyed a great meal that included veal in mushroom sauce, pork cheek in a burgundy sauce, cod in a lemon sauce, and cheeseburgers for the kids. It was also an introduction to a typical European lunch - long and somewhat at the mercy of when the food is delivered to the table. Tables are served as the plates are completed, not held until everyone's plate is ready. This can be a bit inconvenient for those left waiting, but it has been pretty common for us. The service was friendly, though, which always helps smooth over the cultural differences!
After lunch, my in-laws headed up the stairs for a nap. That night we had reservations for a great little crepe restaurant located in the St. Germain area of Paris. From Ile St. Louis, you walk through the Latin Quarter, also a great, lively area of town, and manage your way parallel to the Seine. Not having been to this restaurant before, it did take a bit of time to locate. Little Breizh is located on a tiny street and has maybe 15 tables or so. I am a huge fan of TripAdvisor and this restaurant was listed as the #3 recommended restaurant in Paris. Now, I'm not sure what the deal is with TripAdvisor in that it does not really take into account the number of reviews the restaurant receives, only the rating. So, a restaurant with only 20 ratings of 5 stars can be ranked really high compared to one with hundreds of ratings but only an average of 4.5 stars. In any case, I have learned to dig through the details and often (once you have dismissed the ridiculously expensive Michelin starred choices that are often high on the list) you can find a diamond in the rough lingering in that top stratosphere of restaurants. Luckily for us, this was the first of a couple such finds we enjoyed on our trip. Little Breizh serves crepes in their traditional Brittany flair - buckwheat crepes with hearty fillings and generally served with a crisp cider (yes, the alcoholic variety). It was also a restaurant filled again with mostly local Parisians enjoying dinner out with their partner or family (I say this since I would venture to say we were the only Americans there that evening.) Joe and I ordered the scallop and bacon filled crepes, while the kids and MIL ordered the breakfast version with bacon and eggs. My FIL ventured to the more traditional goat cheese and honey filled, though I'm not sure he would order that version again. It was on the more adventurous side for him, though I think I would order it next time since the salad we ordered to accompany the crepes was very similar - they used a similar crepe as the "croutons" for the salad. For dessert, the kids opted for the gelato at the Amorino location down the block from the restaurant, while Joe and I splurged for the dessert crepes - Choc and Croc for me (basically chocolate and carmel) and a create-your-own apples and rum for Joe. Both were wonderful.
Following dinner we took a stroll through St. Germain on the way back to the apartment. Ironically, Joe and I had been chatting earlier that day about this jazz band we had seen on our 10th anniversary trip to Paris (9 years ago) who used to perform on the bridge that links Ile. St. Louis with the Ile de la Cite (the island where Notre Dame is). We would spend an hour or so almost each night we were there listening to them and talking about how much my FIL would love them. Well, not two blocks from the restaurant we heard jazz music coming from what appeared to be a street band tucked between a couple of cafes and in front of a closed store front. Sure enough, it was the very band we had seen 9 years earlier. We must have spent a good hour listening to 1930-40's music, and the FIL knew every single one. We left awhile later with copies of both of their cd's that they were peddling. Joe and his dad listened to them as soon as we got back to the apartment. Needless to say, the trip was off to a great start - great dinner, wonderful music and a wonderfully lively city to entice the family.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Well, needless to say, we did start planning a bit for this trip a few weeks ago. For one thing, hotel rooms in Paris tend to be very small. You know the type - reminiscent of dorm rooms in college with a bathroom you can barely turn around in. Also, they can be expensive or (if not) located quite a distance from the majority of the attractions. So, rather than jamming ourselves into two expensive, tiny hotel rooms for 5 nights, we opted to rent an apartment on the Isle St. Louis, right smack in the middle of Paris. The island is one of the highest rent locations in Paris, mostly due to its great proximity to everything. It also is one of the older sections of the city, so we knew going into this venture that accommodations may not be equal to that of some hotels. However, after looking at hundreds of options on the internet, we finally located this one at a (sort of) reasonable rate with 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a kitchen and living space. We figured that the kitchen would allow for us to have quick breakfasts at the apartment before venturing out for the day, and laundry facilities available so that we would not have to pack too much and lug heavy luggage on and off the trains and up and down stairs - a good thing since this apartment was located on the 3rd floor, was 3 stories high and had no elevator.
Our family arrived on Friday, the day before my in-laws were scheduled to arrive in Paris. This gave us time to locate the apartment, buy some groceries, and check out the city a little before hand. We took the early train from Lux and arrived in Paris around 8:30 a.m.. Our only wait was for the rental agency to arrive with the keys, so we spent a couple of hours hanging out at the St. Regis cafe just down the block from our apartment. Our waiter was wonderful, allowing us to park our bags in the corner and order a "leisurely" breakfast, and lots of coffee. At noon, we met our hostess and were given the tour of our temporary home. The apartment was definitely old, but very clean and roomy for Paris standards. We also had a phone that could make free calls to a list of countries (including the US) and free wifi. (That was all the kids needed to know - their computers were out in a heartbeat). So, we settled in, hit the grocery store (as well as the local patisserie, fromagerie, boulangerie, etc.) to stock up for the week.
Once we had things settled, we hit the streets to check out Paris in all of its springtime glory. We were not disappointed. The weather was a beautiful 60 degrees and many of the tulips and cherry trees were in full bloom along the Tuilleries and the Champs-Elysees. We made mental plans of what we wanted to see that week and prioritize based on what we thought my in-laws would enjoy most. After our walk, we decided to head to the Bercy area of Paris and return to one of out favorite restaurants that serves some terrific moules frites and cider. It was a long metro ride, but the frites alone made it worth it.
Our night ended on an obligatory trip to Amorino for gelato. Any guide book will tell you that Berthillon is the place to go for ice cream on Isle St. Louis, but even Rick Steves will tell you - real gelato lovers head to Amorino for bigger servings and the classic flower-shaped cones that can hold up to 3 or 4 different flavors of some of the best gelato available in Europe. With gelato in hand, we made our way back to the apartment to hit the hay. The next day would begin our adventure sharing the city of lights with my in-laws - we needed our rest! :)