Leaving North America we were up early and off to Manhattan on the subway. We took the shuttle to JFK from Grand Central Station a bit early because whenever we add just one more activity, we end up being the last ones on with many glares. When our kids travelled with us, their reaction was embarrassment, angst and anger. Parents. One day the plane will leave without us. But not this time. Subway, shuttle, Flight JFK-CDG. Check! Bonjour Paris!!
We met our Vancouver Island friends, Luba and Bill, at Charles de Gaulle. It all was clicking in to place. After lining up to buy our train ticket to Gentilly, where our hostel was, the transit assistant at the airport advised us that the cost would be less to buy a multi-day pass for all the trains, in all 5 districts that layer out from Paris centre. So back into another line-up, our friends on their train to their accommodation, Albert and I got our tickets. BUT, the tickets require a photo, so the ticket seller directed us to a photo booth and we attempted to navigate the directions. Three tries and we had our card of photos, no scissors, and we tore the photos to fit the passes.
Not an easy endeavour with the time difference knowing we were almost there. We met up with Luba and Bill for delicious Bread and Cheese later that day.
The hostel we booked was called Jo and Joe in Gentilly, just south of the first zone and all the Paris centre arrondissements. It was just steps from the train and subway system and surrounded by pizza restaurants and small bars. Inside the hostel is a front desk, a bar, a room with heavy plywood picnic tables and benches and a few daybeds for lounging. Outside in the courtyard there was a few more comfy lounge areas, the largest patio umbrella we have ever seen, a pingpong table and fruit trees. Our private room was super modern, simple, quiet, comfortable, black walls (easy to sleep), clean bathroom with a rain shower, and the toilet had scuba graphics. The vibe was young, energetic, comfortable and we had self serve beer on tap activated by a pre-paid magnetic card reloadable at the central bar area!! Breakfast was 6 Euros with fresh bread, fruit, coffee, croissants, cereals, ham, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and excellent tunes! We would stay there again. And if you don’t need a Fairmont we highly recommend it.
This was my fourth time in Paris and Albert’s second. We had seen many of the touristy sites and frankly, crowd scenes get tiring. Therefore traveling to Europe in September was a good choice compared to June-August. Lineups also involve hot weather during those months and the temperatures in Europe are killer at those times. We decided the Louvre and Palais Versailles were going to be our big crowded sight seeing venues. We purchased tickets online for the Louvre thus skipping the ticket purchase line. And we chose a later time so the line was minimal. I was in the Louvre in the 1980s when I lived and worked in Switzerland. Tourism has increased exponentially since then. Back then taking a photo of a famous art piece was strictly forbidden. With the onset of the smart phone and free marketing people have been sharing their “been there done that” photos from all angles, selfies, floor to ceiling, timed, flash-free shots by the millions.
We got our little map and we were off to the historical portion of the castle that is “The Louvre”. Meters below the surface are the foundations of the castle’s beginning and we followed the mob. Then on to the works of art and those ceilings!! The Louvre in itself is an art masterpiece. It is organized according to numerous art forms. Egyptian, Greek, Renaissance, American, Roman, sculpture, design, paintings, etc. etc. so finding what we were interested in was easy. The museum is so big that there is no way you can take it all in in just a few hours. However, when we arrived at the room that usually houses the Mona Lisa, she had been moved and the door was staffed with someone who could redirect people. Honestly, that had to be a crappy job, repeating the same information for hours on end to people with no intention of following her advice. On her direction the masses moved to Mona’s new space. She was down two flights of stairs or escalators, across the base of the pyramid, then up another series of escalators and stairs and voila! there she is. It took about 90 minutes in line to briefly pass by her, Louvre staff yelling, “MOO-VE ALONG! ONE PHOTO OONLY, THEN MOO-VE ALONG! YOU CAN STAND CLOSER TO EACH OTHER! MOO-VE IN! MOO-VE IN!”. We were most certainly “les vaches”, cattle, being herded into a roped off pen. Phones clicking, selfies, children screaming as they were only waist high and could see none of it. The spectacle of the people upstaged the magic of the painting. So we did our been-there-done-that-we-will-never-pass-by-there-again-photo and hit the road.
When we went to the Palais Versailles, we didn’t buy tickets in advance. Luckily on the last stretch of road up to the golden gates, there was a tourism office that sells tickets. It was noon and apparently the lines (both to buy tickets and to enter the palace) were approximately 2 hours long. The knowledgable staff gave us the option to purchase garden tickets, palace tickets and Marie Antoinette Estate tickets separately or a pass for all of them that was a bit cheaper. We chose the pass, went through the gardens and the Marie Antoinette estate then hit the Palais when the lines had vanished at 4pm.
The gardens are amazing and in a word, “amazing” does not do them justice. It is absolutely impossible to capture the moment, the music, or the grandeur in a two dimensional frame. But we tried. We spent 4 hours wandering through the gardens and made our way towards Marie Antoinettes Estate but only covered about one side of the gardens, 2 of the 50 fountains and the Trianon Palace that simply leads to Marie’s estate. Behind the trees and green space we could hear stringed instruments playing. Every 10 minutes the Mirror Pool fountain (one of the three choreographed fountains playing that day) played to the music, and as we walked along, we realized the whole place was wired and kept us feeling royal.
We checked the time and realized we had to get back so that we could enter the Palais in time to be herded through. Inside we were whisked right in. We grabbed our headsets and started the self guided tour. However, the first doorway brought the bottleneck of souls that created our cattle speed plod through the palais. Historical videos first gave an overall picture of the massive undertaking that was the palais, the gardens, Marie Antoinettes English village and Trianon, the hall of mirrors, the French Revolution and Napoleon. Then we went through. It is massive. The Hall of Mirrors is spectacular but the people “looking” at it WEREN’T! I think tourism, once again, is so caught up in been-there-done-that-got-the-picture, that they didn’t look beyond their mini screens and really take it all in. The Hall of Mirrors is like a giant glitter party. Gold lines everything and crystal makes it feel like you are walking through a football field size diamond ring. We had to remember that mirrors were very rare when this room was built. The 80’s probably put this to shame with the onset of brass and glass, but truly this is one of those wonders of the world that shouldn’t be missed even with the ridiculous crowd.
I suggest a sunny day in February might be a better time. While Louis XIV built this jewel for himself and his people, the French revolution happened and it became a place of government, a museum and finally a national monument. This little shack has 2300 rooms. It is a must see so if you go, plan your day ahead of time. September was busy but it would have been less than pleasant from June to August.
Another bucket list thing to do was to cycle along the Seine. Paris “Velib”consulted Montreal with their “Bixi” bike share infrastructure and with the app on our phones and the maps downloaded, we were able to get a couple of bikes, without needing to turn on our data, and poke along the river. We logged about 30k with multiple bikes. Why multiple bikes? Flat tires, worn bearings and access to electric bikes gave us a fun, funny and enjoyable rides.
We signed up for Easy Roam on our phones meaning we were able to receive texts and calls from home for no added cost. We chose not to use our data unless in an emergency and we were able to find free wifi in many places around the city. Technology is so amazing. We were able to make audio calls on communication apps (Messenger, Facetime, WhatsApp) to our friends who were with us around town plus the odd call to our families in Canada. All our accommodations had Wifi so we were always able to be in touch and plan our days. The other option was to get a sim card but it would have cost $80 Euro for the 6 weeks away on top of our Telus plan in BC. The best and most surprising call was to Luba while standing over the Seine beside Notre Dame looking out at the tour-boats, tourists, locals and freight haulers on the river. Vive la Paris!
We did manage to see some other places that were free, beautiful, and new to us. We walked the Tuileries Gardens beside the Seine. These gardens leave the Louvre and follow parallel to the Seine, ending at the Place de la Concourse which leads to the Champs Elysées. Our last time here we were with our kids who were 9 and 10 and were not that interested in walking in gardens. We also went to the Luxembourg garden that was truly an oasis in a busy city. We had a look at the carcass that was Notre Dame de Grace. The repairs were well under way. The subways are always in some state of repair and some of the upgrades included some incredibly beautiful mosaic tile work.
Every day involved baguette, exceptional cheese, charcuterie, fruit and coffee. From there we ventured into wood oven pizza, moule et frites, more bread and cheese, anything with truffle in it, ratatouille, brochettes, more bread and cheese, wine, wine, wine. C’est tout!
On our last day in Paris, our friends Lori and Mike arrived. Lori and I have been friends since before time. We were 3 when we met ….over 50 years ago!! And we still play together!! In fact, Lori introduced me to the aforementioned Luba. They were still functioning in the Canadian Mountain time zone so we did a bunch of stuff before getting to their hotel with, you guessed it, bread and cheese!! Luba and Bill arrived, the party started, we ate, we drank and we finished early with lots of laughs, and headed back to our hostel. That night there were professional musicians backing up an open mike session in the lobby of the hostel. We loaded our room card and tasted from 4 or 5 different self serve taps and enjoyed the music. We did our best to blend discretely into the youthful atmosphere. What a great last night in Paris!! Earlier in the day we skipped up to the airport to pick up our car and arranged to meet them for dinner. Hooray, GPS came with the car!! After 5 days our time came to an end in Paris, we easily packed our stuff into the car and headed north to Normandy and Britney. And a peek at Claude Monet’s garden.