My first trip to Europe was in 1983. A five week sojourn through seven countries took five weeks and cost me a mere nine hundred dollars, not including airfare. That amount wouldn’t last nine days today. Of course, my taste in hotels and food has changed appreciably since then.
That didn’t stop me from taking one of my children to Paris, as a college graduation gift.
The City of Lights is one of my favorite travel destinations, and has always been a non stop hive of activity. But in twenty years since my most recent visit, the number of cars seems to have increased dramatically, and is more congested than ever. The only thing that seems to have diminished in two decades, is the amount of dog poop on the streets. (There was almost none.)
From my experiences, the best way to engage the French citizens is to make any attempt to say something, anything in French. Even a simple “Bon jour” will change the perceived negative attitude that Parisians have towards Americans. They almost all speak English, but the effort to try some French goes a long way towards getting what you want.
Note: I have written prices in euros to give the reader an idea of our costs. The exchange rate I got from my credit card company was about $1.13 or $1.14 to the euro. I purposely used a credit card with no fees for foreign transactions, and a debit card from a bank that only charged a 1.5% fee. While merchants offer you the option to pay in dollars or euros, one should always choose the local currency.
Never was that auto logjam more apparent than during the trip from Charles DeGaulle airport to downtown Paris. A bus journey of 30 kilometers (19 miles) took more than an hour and a half at mid morning, whereas late at night, it would take barely a half an hour according to Google. Then, add the additional 3.2 km (2 miles) to our hotel which was thirty minutes taxi ride, instead of ten, and I’m suddenly re-thinking my departure strategy.
The Hotel Le Littre was a welcome sight at the end of this two hour ordeal, mostly because I was jet lagged and sleep deprived. The flight from Chicago seemed to have non stop of turbulence, and a rather zealous flight crew, The best news was that our room was ready, and we didn’t have to dump the luggage and kill some time. Throughout our stay the staff at the hotel could not have been more friendly and helpful, whether it was a food recommendation or directions to the nearest metro stop. 9 rue Littre hotellittreparis.com
My best remedy for jet lag is two pain relievers and a cat nap.
That done, it was time to explore. While back in the states, I ordered a two day pass from the hop on, hop off bus company L’Open Paris http://www.paris.opentour.com/en/. These are located in many large cities, including some in the US, and are a great way to get around and see the sights. The Paris system has four different routes covering most of the city’s major attraction. You can ride as much as you want during a fixed period with unlimited on and off privileges. We ordered our through Viator Tours. They offer tours, things to do, sightseeing tours, day trips and more, for cities around the world, not just Paris. Also available from your friendly travel agent.
If you want to use this option, make sure to print a copy of the map from the website. The stops are marked, but they are intermingled with Paris’ extensive bus system. It took some walking around to find the nearest one by trying to reconcile the names of the stops with our Paris map. In retrospect, I should have checked to see if the hotel had one. Ultimately, we did find one within three blocks of the hotel. That ended up being our main mode of transportation around town. It cost 37 euros for a two-day pass, and by the time we got on the bus, it was late in the day, and our driver gave us an extra day. We spent more time than expected as a passenger, because, just before we were going to hop off that afternoon, a torrential downpour started. We couldn’t even sit on the open upper deck. Water was cascading down the staircase to the top level.
Riders should also note that the service ends at 8 PM, and some drivers take that literally, as several buses seemed to be out of service, as we were waiting for what we thought was the last ride back towards the hotel.
Part of the afternoon also found me catching up with an old college classmate who was staying at the Hotel Regina. When he informed me that he was across from the Louvre Museum, he wasn’t kidding. This five star hotel could not have been any closer, across the Rue de Rivoli from the Musee des Arts Decoratives, and three blocks from the architect IM Pei’s fabulous pyramid entrance.
After two buses passed us, with no intention of stopping, we walked the kilometer or so back to our hotel, down the Boulevard St. Germain and Boulevard Raspail, two busy commercial avenues in the Left Bank, dotted with shops and offices.
I had looked up some nearby eateries on Yelp prior to leaving, and one that caught my eye featured a mix of French and Moroccan cuisine. Chez Bébert did not disappoint. We arrived to a packed house, but needed only two seats, we were quickly seated next to a man at a table for four. This gentleman, sitting by himself turned out to be a retired professor from Baltimore, and was very pleasant conversation throughout dinner. I had a crepe with tuna that was more of pastry, then for an entree, had a combo entire of chicken, meat, and merguez, a spicy lamb sausage. It arrived with a heaping plate of couscous, and side dishes of beans and chick peas in some kind of sauce. Needless to say, I struggled mightily, but could not finish. Dessert was out of the question. Dinner for two – 67€. Chez Bebert 71, Blvd du Montparnassee.
Full bellied, we returned to the hotel where I fell fast asleep.
The hotel had a decent breakfast with delicious coffee and warmed milk, plus juices, pastries, and several excellent cheese options. Only the scrambled eggs were a disappointment, but that is typical of most European eateries. Then, after heading in the wrong direction, we found the closest L’Open bus stop. We had to wait about twenty minutes for a bus, but then we took the orange line to the Hotel des Invalides (a complex of museums and monuments, all relating to the military history of France, as well as a hospital and a retirement home for war veterans,) before transferring to the green route. It was still cloudy, but with no rain in sight, we were able to sit on the upper deck this time, which makes a big difference as you gaze upon the many Parisian landmarks. That took us past the Place de la Concorde, the Opera, and some of Paris most fashionable stores, including Printemps, a department store dating back to 1965.
We disembarked at Notre Dame, a must see for any Paris trip. there was a short line, and security was looking at every bag entering the fabled landmark. We rented a portable audio guide for 5€ which had some nice information. After that we found a nearby cafe, where I had a smoked salmon crepe and bottled water. Lunch for two was 35€. Pricey, but very convenient, and a clean bathroom. Never underestimate that. As we were preparing to head out again, it began to rain, so as we got back in another bus, we had to relocate to the lower level. This portion of the journey took us down the Champs Elysee, similar to New York’s Fifth Avenue, with more high end stores.
Our destination was the Eiffel Tower, where we had pre bought tickets. The best we could do, even three weeks in advance was a three PM entry time. Still, the rain continued to come down, moderately at times. While you are probably not feeling sorry for me, it was a bit disappointing, as visibility was no more than a few miles. Security was once again very stringent. There were metal detectors, and screeners checking every bag.
We took the Orange line bus back, doubling part of the route we traversed yesterday. It did afford some more views of Boulevard St. Germain and the scenic Left bank. Next, we did some shopping and helped the local economy. We turbo charged our stamina for shopping with a detour via a cafe around the corner from the hotel, where we snacked on crepes, coffee, and hot chocolate – Crêperie La Duchess Anne. Total bill was 18€.
For dinner we asked the hotel for a place with traditional French food. Their recommendation of La Rotonde was spot on, as we had a three course meal for 44€ each that included a goat cheese crepe, sautéed sea bass, and creme brûlée for dessert. rotondemontparnasse.com 105 Blvd du Montparnasse.
After breakfast at the hotel, we had a short walk to one of three nearby metro stops, as we were en route to the rendezvous point for our guided tour of Versailles. A group of eighteen people, including us, boarded a commuter train for the journey to the palace and gardens of Versailles, located about twenty kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Paris. This huge estate, commissioned by Louis XIV in the seventeenth century, originally consisted of 20,000 acres, of which 2000 still remain. This swampy, forested brush was cleared by hand labor to create the luxurious gardens which remain to this day. Our guide walked us around major parts of the gardens for two hours, and explained the history of this beautiful landmark. Afterwards, she escorted us into the palace itself for a self guided tour. The audio tour provided a good description of each of these exquisite, ornate rooms. The place was very crowded, with tourists and students on field trips. Not recommended for the claustrophobic. While is lavish and grandiose, we couldn’t wait to get away from the mass of people. The train station is no more than a few blocks from the palace, and we hopped a train back to Paris, exiting at the Musee D’Orsay, which was our next destination.
We needed to rest our tired feet for a bit, so we ambled down the street another block beyond the museum where we loaded a nice eatery. Paris-Orsay, 14 rue de Bellechasse, had pizza, burgers, and salads. I chose a chicken, spinach, tomato, corn salad. My daughter didn’t see anything that intrigued her, so she ordered a hamburger and fries. Plus bottled water, the tab was 37€.
If you love Impressionist paintings like I do, then the Musee D’Orsay is a must see. In addition to art from Manet, Monet, Cezzane, Van Gogh, and others, there are furniture, sculpture, and other rotating exhibits, housed in a beautifully restored train station. You can see the progression of French art from the mid nineteenth century to the early 1900’s. Admission is 12€, 9€ for those 18-25, free for those under 18.
We were fortunate that it did not rain during our Versailles trip, but the skies opened up again while we were in the museum. We would have probably stayed longer, but the early adventure was wearing us down. I personally could stay there all day, but I had others to attend to. We walked to the nearest hop on bus stop, pausing along the way at a pastry shop we discovered two days before, Maison Kayser, 18 rue de Bac http://www.maison-kayser.com/fr/. We ate our pastries, then waited, and we waited some more, but no bus came. Despite tired legs, we ambled back to the hotel, window shopping along the way.
I went back out in search of some souvenirs and a place to repair my watch. Galleries Lafayette, located in the Tour Montparnasse was a department store, not unlike a Macy’s back home. Fortunately, they had a Swatch department, where they fixed part of my watch band. Here’s an unsolicited plug. I’ve owned two watches in the past thirty years. Both Swatches. Their customer service is second to none. I can get my watched cleaned and serviced at any company store for free, so it was no surprise that my repair was gratis.
We thought about getting takeout, and having a simple dinner, but stumbled across a pizza restaurant in the square across from the skyscraper, so we dined in at Pizza Pino. We split a cheese, mushroom, and truffle pizza that was delicious. There are several items on my obligatory list, and that includes caprese salad (tomatoes mozzarella, basil, and olive oil, so we ordered that, along with a small bottle of red wine. Dessert was chocolate mousse which was part of the pizza deal. Total bill was 39€, the least expensive dinner so far. 57 Blvd du Montparnasse. As you can see, we dined mostly in the area around the hotel. There were plenty of choices, as the area is very popular.
We debated back and forth about the best return method to get to Charles DeGaulle airport. The bus did not seem timely, based on our arrival, and we’d still have to get ourselves to the pick up location, adjacent to the Paris Opera. Our “research” even included walking to the St. Placide metro stop, to gauge how easy or difficult it would be to lug our suitcases through the train stop. The cheapest way would have been to take the metro to the Gard Du Nord train station, and pick up a commuter rail to the airport. In the end, we opted for simplicity and got a taxi from the hotel. No bargain at 70 euros, but it did only take 50 minutes, as we traveled against the bumper to bumper traffic heading into town.
Of course we arrived at DeGaulle only to find our flight was delayed. The fog and dense cloud cover caused our flight to be two hours late. We may think our system of group boarding in the US is a pain, but let me tell you, there was no real boarding system on our Air Europa flight to Valencia, Spain. After business/first class boarding, it was a free for all. To make matters worse, there was another flight leaving from the same gate, with a departure about twenty minutes prior. So there were really two crowds massed at the departure point. Somehow it all worked out, even if we spent ten minutes on the jetway, as passengers were not actually boarding the plane itself. Go figure. I’ll never whine about group boarding in the US.
The story continues with our sojourn to Valencia.