Tuesday, November 11, 2003

We just got home from our weekend in Paris, and my head is spinning. I wish I had been able to blog periodically while we were there. There's just so much to remember now.

First of all, while I was excited about going on a trip, I wasn't especially excited that we were going to Paris. I felt a sense of obligation to show the kids Paris and was looking forward to scratching it off my list of Places to Visit. Well, it was just awesome! I kept walking around thinking, "So THIS is what it's like to have fun in Paris!" It was like falling in love with somebody you used to consider a grade-A jerkface.

The hotel

On Saturday, we took the morning train to Paris and went straight to our hotel. We chose to stay at the Hotel Marignan, which is located in the Latin Quarter. It's a small 1-star hotel and is not luxurious by any stretch of the imagination. It was absolutely perfect for us though! The walls of the foyer were papered with posters (in English!) giving information about the different attractions, how to get to them, how to save money at them, etc.

We were able to stay together in one room for 95 euros a night. That included breakfast each morning of French bread with butter and jam or cheese spread, a cup of fruit cocktail, and a choice of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. The staff was very friendly and helpful and even fixed breakfast trays last night for us to enjoy this morning before we left to catch our early train home.

We opted to save 25 euros a night take a room without a private shower. The shower was right next door though and was very clean. Given that the 4 of us took a grand total of 6 showers in Paris, it would have been hardly worth almost $100 for the privilege of having the shower in the room. I can think of better ways to spend a hundred bucks in Paris. Eating, for example.

The food

The food was excellent but EXPENSIVE!!!!! For a typical lunch, Mike and I ate croque monsiers, which are basically open-faced grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches, Fred ate a cold sandwich (plus Mike's untouched salad), and Annabelle ate spaghetti. Everybody but Annabelle left feeling hungry, and it always cost at least 35 euros.

We ate all of our suppers in the Latin Quarter. The first night we stopped at a Thai/Chinese restaurant that was quite tasty. Our big excitement for that meal was ordering and sharing 1-liter bottles of Evian water for only 4 euros. Much cheaper than the two 12-ounce Cokes we shared at lunch--to the tune of almost $10!

On the second night, we went to a fondue restaurant. We enjoyed the first pot of melted cheese so much that we ordered a second pot. Actually, 75 percent of us enjoyed the cheese; the other 25 percent (whose name is Annabelle) ate nothing but chunks of bread, a slice of ham, and water.

We had turned the kids on to the wonder of crepes (filled with Nutella, of course) at various crepe stands around Paris. So last night we decided to have our last Parisian meal at a creperie. The dinner crepes were good although perhaps not quite as good as the hame and cheese crepe we had near Invalides earlier that afternoon. The dessert crepes, however, were delicious. The kids went with their standard Nutella variety, Fred had one with strawberry jam, and I had one with Nutella, sliced banana, and whipped cream. Yum!

The first day

After we checked into our hotel, we walked a few blocks north and found ourselves standing in front of Notre Dame. The lines to get into the tower and the cathedral itself were pretty long though, so we walked on across the river in search of lunch. From there we continued north toward the Pompidou Center in search of a street performer.

Why, you might ask, were we searching for a street performer? I had devised a scavenger hunt to keep the kids on their toes and amused over the weekend. They had 20 items to find and photograph with their disposable cameras: a tower, an arch, a gargoyle, a farm animal, a street performer, a sundial, a Roman ruin, a dog, a toilet, an American flag, a famous grave, a carousel, a naked statue, a famous painting, a boat, a Metro sign, a puppet, a pyramid, a garden, a French flag.

We didn't find our street performer at the Pompidou. From there we moseyed over to the Louvre. We took the typical American tourist tour of the Louvre--"Look, kids! Mona Lisa! Winged Victory!"--and bang! we were out of there. Mike was upset that they closed the museum down before we were able to see the Venus de Milo, which he had been counting on to provide his naked statue for the scavenger hunt. But we reassured him that Paris is full of naked statues and headed back upriver to the Latin Quarter, our first supper in Paris, and ultimately our beds. The others passed out early, and even I lasted until only 9:30.

The second day

Our perfect weather on Saturday was not destined to last for Sunday. When we got up, it was grey and drizzly, but we decided to make the best of it.

We headed off to the Cluny Museum, which was just a couple blocks away from our hotel. The Cluny is built on the remains of a Roman bathhouse, and the kids and I enjoyed seeing this, as we have been studying the ancient Romans. They Cluny's other claim to fame is its collection of unicorn tapestries. We enjoyed reading the (English!) guidesheet that analyzed the tapestries and looking for the various elements in them.

From the Cluny, we walked over the the Seine and caught a bus on our way to the Arc de Triomphe. We took the bus instead of the Metro, because we wanted to stay above ground and see the sights. We got turned around though when we got off the bus and walked at least a half mile in the wrong direction before realizing our error and turning around. By the time we reached our destinate, we were quite worn out, but we still managed to climb to the top and look around.

After the Arc we walked down the Champs Elysees. We stopped for lunch at a cafe and then headed down George V Boulevard to find the American cathedral. From there we crossed back over the river and wandered (and wandered and wandered) over to Invalides. We just admired it from the outside and made plans to return the next day to go inside. We went across the street from Invalides to the Rodin museum so the kids could get the naked statue on their scavenger hunt: The Thinker. We hopped on the metro at the Varenne station and were whisked back to the Latin Quarter for our fondue supper and another early bedtime.

The third day

The weather on Monday was unbelievably beautiful. At times we even wound up carrying our jackets, which is very rare indeed over here in November.

Our first stop was the tour of the tower at Notre Dame. The hike to the top was brutal, but getting to come face to face with the amazing gargoyles made it worth the hike. After the tower, we toured the inside of the cathedral and then strolled over to Saint Chapelle to see the famous stained glass windows.

In preparation for our trip to Paris, we had checked out a travel video by Rick Steves from the post library. Rick Steves suggests going to the top of the Samaritaine department store for the view and the (relatively) inexpensive cafe. So Mike was adamant that we add Samaritaine to our list of things to do. We enjoyed sitting up on top of the city in the glorious weather and eating our (ha ha! NOT) cheap lunch. The kids even took advantage of the down time to dash off a few postcards.

We got on the Metro in the basement of Samaritaine and high-tailed it back across the river to Invalides again. This time we went inside and saw Napoleon's tomb. His dog (dead and stuffed, of course) is there in the museum, so we went in search of that. We had expected that Napoleon to have owned a small yippy-type dog, but we were wrong. Here's a picture I found on the internet:

From Invalides we walked (and walked and walked) over to the Eiffel Tower. We had timed it to be there when the sun went down and the lights went on, and I'm glad we did. It's truly a stunning scene at night. I wish weather hadn't been quite as hazy so the view from the top would have been better, but I really can't complain. The kids had fun taking the elevator ride, though it made me a little queasy. The only real downside was the long wait in line at the second floor to catch the elevator that continues the journey to the top. The wind was really cold up there!

The tower was the final big scene of our Paris trip. Once we got back on the ground, we took the bus back to the Latin Quarter. On the hike back to the hotel, we found a man playing a piano on the sidewalk, so the kids were able to get their sidewalk-performer photograph for the scavenger hunt. I think the only picture we were not able to get was one of a puppet, and that's only because we didn't have time to visit Luxembourg Gardens.

Having finished my magazine the night before, I borrowed a Paris guidebook from the hotel lobby and read it in bed. We ran so fast from one sight to another and had such an amazing time, but I was struck by all the things we had missed: we didn't go through the first garden; we didn't see Sacre Coeur or Montmartre; and we didn't make it to the Pantheon. We would have loved to have seen Versailles, but there just wasn't enough room in our schedule. So we're already starting to think ahead for what we'll do on our NEXT trip to Paris. Pretty amazing turnabout for somebody who went to Paris out of a sense of obligation, eh?

Lessons learned (for those of you who were counting on us to "take notes" for you to use in planning YOUR trip to Paris)

(1) Save the money; skip the shower. I can be a total weenie about this sort of thing, and it honestly was no big deal. We took one pair of shower shoes (Fred's, of course, because how on earth would he fit into Annabelle's?!) and took turns with them. Wear your jammies in and wear your jammies out; save the actual getting dressed for the room. Your clothes will stay dry that way.

(2) The map makes everything look REALLY close. Whatever it is, it's farther away than you think. When we used the bus or metro system, we used point-to-point tickets. They're cheaper (only one euro each) if you buy them in sets of 10 (called a carnet--say "gar-NAY"). You can also get day and week passes that turn out to be a better bargain. I wish we had either gotten a 3-day pass or used the double-decker tourbus that runs past all the major attractions. You buy a 2-day ticket for something like 22 euros and you can hop on and off the bus as you like. It's more expensive than using the Paris mass transit system but also a lot more convenient.

(3) Even if your hotel takes a credit card to reserve your room, this doesn't mean they will necessarily let you pay for your room with a credit card. Ask in advance, or else you too can wander the neighborhood looking for an ATM when all you really want is a restaurant and your bed.

(4) Water--carry your own whenever you can for drinking along the way. We bought a couple of bottles for only one euro each at a little grocery store, but that stuff is EXPENSIVE in restaurants. We tried to get tap water in one cafe but wound up with Vittel. An elderly French gentleman sat at the next table enjoying a carafe of tap water, but he spoke French and therefore probably knew how to ask for it. I'm afraid my international signal for turning the tap was misconstrued as the similar international symbol for unscrewing a cap.

(5) We could have saved a ton of money if we had eaten out of grocery stores. Then again, it would have taken time, which we did not have in great abundance. Also, sometimes it was worth the money just to get in from the cold for a little while.

(6) You can buy a pass for admission to a bazillion different museums. Do this. We bought the 1-day pass, but we should have done the 2-day pass. Also, there are places covered by this pass (like Invalides!) that are not listed in the brochure.

(7) If you take the train in, you'll have an easier time of it if you confine your luggage to one backpack per person. We did see people on the train with more and larger luggage (and even a cello!), but it does hamper one's ability to fit comfortably in the space allotted, not to mention your movement on the metro to and from your hotel. We were glad that we had just the 4 backpacks and a small totebag of snacks.

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