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Trip Report Spring in London & Paris w/ kids: Climbing, Cooking, & Cold (very cold!)

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Spring Break in London and Paris with kids: Climbing (steps), Cooking (class) and Cold (very cold!)

Just back from a great trip!

Here is the Cliffs notes version:
Day 1: LHR arrival, Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio, London Eye
Day 2: slept in, Leeds Castle
Day 3: Leeds Castle maze, Dover Castle underground tunnels, helicopter tour
Day 4: photo walking tour/Muggles walking tour, St. Martins in the Fields brass rubbings, Trafalgar Square, National Portrait Gallery, Ceremony of the Keys
Day 5: St. Paul’s, Greenwich, climb O2 arena
Day 6: British Museum, Tower of London, Matilda (the musical)
Day 7: Fat Tire Bike Tour, Eurostar to Paris
Day 8: climb Notre Dame towers, Conciergerie, climb Eiffel Tower
Day 9: Versailles bike tour, Breakfast in America
Day 10: Musee d’Orsay, Musee de l’Orangerie, chocolate walking tour, Chez Francis
Day 11: Easter…spring forward, Palais Royal, THATLou hunt (Louvre), Arc de Triomphe
Day 12: Cook’n with Class (desserts), Sacre Coeur, Place du Tertre, BHV
Day 13: departure


Vacationers: surfmom (me), surfdad, surfgirl #1 (12 years), surfgirl #2 (11 years), and surfboy (9 years).

Apartments:
I’ll put this at the top in case anyone is interested. We loved both of our apartments and would stay in them again.

London:
www.vacationlondonapartments.com/index.php/our-apartments/140-south-kensington-charming-two-bedroom-mews-house.html

This was a Mews apartment with 2 beds/2 baths. The 5th person (ie. surfboy) slept on the couch upstairs. I have used this agency before and am very impressed with them. They meet you at the apartment to hand off the keys - making sure you understand how everything works. (There is also a nice binder in case you don’t remember in your jet-lagged state). They leave behind fresh flowers and a welcome basket with bread, jam, milk and juice – such a nice treat to start! Also, we had a few changes and they were extremely accommodating. We also arrived a few hours earlier than expected and when I called them, they were able to meet us there earlier. At the end, we stored our luggage in the apartment for a few hours before we checked out.

It is located a 3 minute walk from the Gloucester Road tube station – super easy to jump on the tube and that station has multiple lines, so it is easy to get most places. There is a Waitrose adjacent to the tube station, so it was easy and convenient to grocery shopping shopping there. There were also a number of restaurants and pubs nearby.

As to the apartment, bedrooms/bathrooms were downstairs and the kitchen and living room were upstairs. It was at the end of the Mews street, so it was very quiet. Occasionally at night, we would hear a siren or traffic in the distance, but nothing very loud. At night, we did hear the rumble of the tube below, but it wasn’t loud or didn’t disturb us in any way. In some ways, it reminded us of the distant rumble of thunder. The kitchen was one-person sized, but did have a dishwasher (which was a nice bonus). Also, I appreciated that there was a separate dryer from washing machine - it made the laundry process go faster. The table was large and comfortable to sit at. The couches were large and comfortable (for sleeping also). There were “real” window coverings, so you could make all the rooms dark. I was also impressed how there was an opening that went down to the ground floor – allowing the interior rooms to have windows. Overall, we loved this apartment and would stay there again or recommend it, without hesitation.

Paris:
www.specialapartments.com/15_leregrattier.html

This was an apartment on Ile St. Louis with lots of stairs. It was about 72 steps to the door (narrow!) and more inside. However, it felt like our own secret little home in Paris. On the first floor of the apartment was the kitchen (open to living room), dining room table (again, with real chairs and comfortable to eat at), and living room – one nice-sized couch and a few side chairs. Upstairs, there were 2 bedrooms and one full bath. (Again, a separate dryer - much appreciated.) Up a narrow flight of stairs (3rd floor inside apartment) was a 3rd bedroom and another bathroom (shower only).

This was the first time we used this agency – I thought they were responsive to emails, but I didn’t get the same feeling of personal service with the other apartment. We arrived about 7pm and stopped at the office to pick up keys. There were very specific instructions how to get into the front door at the office and get into the lockbox – we were able to follow those easily. The car service then continued along to our apartment. One thing I noticed is that there wasn’t a “binder of information” like the other apartment. For example, they asked us to turn down the heat when we left for the day, but we didn’t know how to do that since there were no instructions and it wasn’t obvious. However, the agency was able to arrange car service for us (as a family of 5 people, taxi’s are difficult) both from the train station and to the airport. Car service was on time and convenient, so I was pleased with that.

It is on a side street on Ile St. Louis – very convenient and a neat place to stay. It was about a 5 minute walk to metro station Pont Marie, however, depending on where we were going, sometimes we would walk to St. Michel or even Cite for a specific metro line. We became regulars at the mini-grocery store on Ile St. Louis and each morning, went to the boulangerie around the corner. Occasionally, we would hear a motorbike or vespa on the street – because of the high buildings, it echoes through. However, it wasn’t a big deal, but after the incredibly quiet apartment in London, it was more noticeable. We would stay here again.

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    Now onto the good stuff:

    Wed, 3/20 – departed PHL for LHR. Enjoyed the use of the lounge in PHL. Slept through dinner on BA (spoiled for life in Business Class). Note: We were using ff miles for Club World and debating its merits and BA announced a 25% Avios sale. Was cheaper (in miles) to take advantage of that than the original routing without the sale.

    Thur, 3/21 – LHR arrival, Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio, London Eye.
    Arrived LHR. Passport control was relatively fast, so we went to the Arrivals Lounge where we all showered and changed and had breakfast. Headed to Europcar to pickup our car (not an easy process and they tried to give us a manual transmission even though we confirmed automatic). I was disappointed in the service (or lack thereof) at Europcar and would think twice about using them again.

    Went to the Warner Brothers studio in Leavesden (where all the Harry Potter movies were filmed) – arrived about 9:45am (they open at 10am), so were in one of the earlier groups to go through. We enjoyed this very much as the surfboy is addicted to Harry Potter right now. Spent about 2 ½ hours there going through the studios. All in all, we thought it was very well done.

    If you are Harry Potter fans, this is a must do - you get to see the Great Hall, and many of the interior locations like the Gryffindor common room, the Potions classroom, Diagon Alley, for example. At the end, you see the scale model of Hogwarts used for aerial shots - the lighting changes, so you get to see it at sunrise, sunset, night, etc. During the tour, there is a spot where you can "fly" on a broomstick (green screen) and for a low low price, take home the photo of you doing just that. (they actually are kinda cool if you are a HP fan). I would recommend arriving early - we were there at 10am as they opened and when we left about noon, it was mobbed.

    Met our contact at our apartment near Gloucester Road tube – I had printed out a parking map from parkopedia, so I was able to direct us to a garage nearby. Got checked in, did a little unpacking, then walked to Waitrose for provisions. Everyone was hungry for a real meal, so we ended up at Garfunkel’s next to Gloucester Road (I know… egads! A chain… but sometimes the lowest common denominator is needed). We decided to cross something off the list, so we went to the London Eye – no problems walking on – and enjoyed that. Bedtime for all.

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    Enjoying your report. We did a similar trip in 2006 when our kids were 13 and 10. We too had a great time but it was also soooo cold. It was after that trip that we started looking for warmer destinations at spring break which led us to amazing trips to Morocco, Thailand/Cambodia, Argentina and Israel/Jordan. So much to see in the world!!

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    Yay! A new surfmom trip report!

    I love your reports and often wish my kids were younger as you find the coolest things to do that I know they would have loved at that age.

    And thanks to you, when we went to London last Spring Break, we went to St Dunstan's - gorgeous!

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    You're off to another great start, surfmom. As a parent of a school-aged child myself, I have always enjoyed your trip reports and other posts.

    (But secretly, I have also always harbored the desire to create a thread entitled, "Surfmom ruined my trip!". My son is NEVER as enthusiastic, engaged, or delightful as your children are when travelling. Our last trip overseas was a great case in point. And now we're preparing for a whole semester abroad. I will be reading with interest. And more than a bit of envy...:)

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    thanks guys!

    jgg, we've decided next year to visit a friend in Puerto Rico... but I'm already considering that for Thanksgiving to leave spring break open! We want to go back to Italy and do the southern parts - Amalfi Coast and Rome, so maybe next year.

    amamax2, too funny that you visited St. Dunstan's - I loved it. Sadly, we didn't get there this trip.

    pavot, I think you give me way too much credit. We have our fair share of meltdowns, sick kids, and disappointments. When I come back, I always feel like we skipped or missed things I would have liked to have done (ie. St. Dunstan's above)... or we should have spent longer in a museum... but yet, I feel like we are pretty active. I know my family needs a certain amount of down time - I hate when you wake up in the am and have to drag yourself out of bed and your legs are tired before you start. My goal is to avoid that! We take lots of tea and hot chocolate breaks and ate quite a few croissants, pains au chocolat, and crepes throughout this trip.

    side note: I had broken my foot in January, so I wasn't sure how things would go. I was happy to find a pair of shoes that I loved and were comfortable and honestly, I wore them 90% of the time. I was slower on climbing towers and steps, but that is probably as a results of the lack of cardio training since I was in a boot. Overall, my foot was great and I had minimal pain, so I was very happy about that! I did take my boot - I wore it on the plane. My thinking if that I needed it, it was there and if I didn't need it, I'd be thrilled. and I was.

    From a planning perspective, I found it allowed me more time to do research. I read a ton of trip reports, posting boards, and ideas. People ask where I find my ideas... I just start with a trip report, or reading blogs, and then follow links from there. I end up finding activities that I had no intention of when I started, but seem interesting. This trip was probably more "planned" with private tours and activities that other trips have been ... and I think we enjoyed it. We've learned - as a family of 5 people - by the time we pay for a tour or group, it isn't much more money to pay for a private tour and it is much more flexible and tailored to our needs. We were fortunate to be able to book a number of private tours throughout the trip.

    I also like to have a balance of planned things and unplanned time. I try to talk through ideas with the kids before we go, so I know what they are really interested in, and what they aren't. I try to find a balance of something that each kid is really excited about so we all have something to look forward to.

    anyway, enough of my rambling...

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    Fri, 3/22 – slept in, Leeds Castle
    Took the morning to sleep in (much needed). After lunch at the apartment, we retrieved the rental car, and headed to Leeds Castle. Getting out of London was the worst part, but all in all, it wasn’t too bad of a trip. Arrived in time to walk through Leeds Castle before it closed, but our favorite part of Leeds Castle was after everyone else had departed.

    First, we stopped at the coffee shop on the grounds and got tea and hot chocolate (it was cold) and then Surfgirl #1 and I went for a walk along the grounds before dark. (Surfdad went for a run and enjoyed the scenery). The kids played another round of House Hunters International – since we had two rooms (basically the same, but minor differences), they used those as part of the game.

    We stayed in the Maiden’s Tower – which is “inside the moat” next to Leeds Castle. This was recently renovated, and beautifully done. We had 2 rooms (not connecting doors) with a cot for the surfboy, and this was magical. We went to dinner at a nearby pub – The George Inn – which was very good. We had been directed out the ‘employee entrance’ but couldn’t get back in that way since it was late. We had asked directions when we left The George Inn, but it felt like we were getting lost. We were happy to get back in without too much of the “we’re lost” panic.

    When we got back to Leeds Castle, it felt special to be walking into the castle at 8pm. (We were the only guests in the Maiden’s Tower that evening). They were setting up the Castle and the Maiden’s Tower for weddings for Saturday evening, but when we came back after dinner, we were the only ones there. Loved Leeds Castle!

    Sat, 3/23 – Leeds Castle maze, Dover Castle underground tunnels, helicopter tour

    We were a bit discombobulated this morning – it was dawning grey and threatening rain, so we weren’t sure if the day would go as planned. After a bit of shopping at Leeds Castle (it was a fun gift shop), the surfboy and surfdad went through the maze. The females in the family thought it was a bit cold and spitting rain, so we patiently waited. At this point, we weren't even sure if Dover Castle would be open due to the winds (I noticed they had not opened about a week before for this exact reasons). We then drove to Dover Castle and went through the Underground Tunnels. This was very well done and explained the history of the Dunkirk Evacuation extremely well. They used a variety of techniques – a guide, videos, audio recordings, and walking through the tunnels. We took a break and had a late lunch at Dover Castle and then set off for Ramsgate.

    One of the really fun things we had thought about doing was a helicopter tour around Dover Castle – primarily to see the “White Cliffs”. After some searching, I found a company that could do exactly that. As mentioned, though, the weather was not cooperating and we talked to the pilot about the forecast and the plans. Unfortunately, we were somewhat limited with regards to schedule, so today was the day or it was canceled. We decided to go for it – it looked to be clearing and the rain would stop. Being a family of 5 people has its costs – and this was one. The weather cleared enough that they were able to go, so I sent everyone else on the helicopter tour and read a book while they were gone. It was almost exactly an hour – they flew south over Dover Castle, and then saw Leeds Castle from the air, Salisbury, and then back. The kids had a great time and the pilot was very nice.

    We drove back to Heathrow, dropped off the car, and took the Piccadilly line back into London. Dinner was at the apartment and we were done for the night.

    Overall, the trip to Leeds was a lot - I think if we had done it in 3 days instead of 2 days, it would have been better. Or maybe gotten motivated a little bit earlier on our first day. I didn't want to take an extra day though away from London. However, we enjoyed it and found it worthwhile.

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    Nice idea, surfmom, to do an overnight away from the apartment. I don't know why more people don't think about doing that sort of thing, using the apartment as a base just like you would at home.

    I've only been to Leeds Castle once and that was for an evening visit when everyone else had gone home. it was also high summer so the gardens were spectacular!

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    Great reading so far!

    Tell me - and forgive me if I'm mistaken - but was it you who wrote a family-to-Paris trip report a few years ago and took a day trip on your own to Giverny, seeing along the way some strange creature like a giant hedgehog/porcupine/muntjac?

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this! I'm glad you had a good time.

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    Surfmom, your family always seems to have a good time and your planning pays off. Love hearing about travel with kids! I am looking forward to reading the rest of the story. thanks for sharing!

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    annhig, it really worked out well to sneak in our night at Leeds even though we double paid with the apartment. Much easier than moving an extra time and was easier to know where we were returning to at 7pm instead of checking in for the first time. Obviously, the transportation from Heathrow was much easier with small backpacks rather than everything (like my boot, which we were carrying!).

    janisj, it did work out very well! Thanks for your advice - we actually did less on Friday than we might have otherwise tried, but we needed that 'down time' as time-adjusting sanity measures.

    For background, I had originally thought about trying to do something in London on Friday morning (ie. Tower of London, British Museum, etc.) and leave central London about 4pm. janisj talked me out of that ... which was much appreciated!

    julia_t, sorry can't help there : ( but sounds like an interesting trip report!

    dorfan2, they *love* this game. It is actually somewhat amusing to hear them assume the tone and manner of critical adults!

    skatterfly, irishface, amelie ... thanks so much! been a crazy weekend, but I'm finally getting caught up.

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    Sun, 3/24 - photo walking tour/Muggles walking tour, St. Martins in the Fields brass rubbings, Trafalgar Square, National Portrait Gallery, Ceremony of the Keys

    A few years ago, I had done a photo walking tour and wanted to do it again – surfgirl #1 is expressing an interest in photography, so she came along. We met at 9:30am at Westminster and wow… was it cold! I won’t tell you his secrets, but I thought he did a really nice job explaining some basic camera functions and helping you get the exact shot. We ended up leaving about 11:45 (bailed early) because she was cold but I was happy with what we accomplished. We were close to Trafalgar Square, so we went to Café in the Crypt and got tea and croissants to warm us.

    The other half went on a Muggles walking tour – they started at London Bridge and walked some and then took the tube to Westminster and went from there. Surfgirl #2 got cold in the middle (it is the surfboy who is the Harry Potter addict), so I met them near No 10 Downing Street and she came back to Café in the Crypt with me to get hot chocolate and warm up.

    From surfdad and surfboy’s description, this was a great walking tour and they shared lots of fun facts over the next few days. The tour guide even engaged them on the tube with trivia questions. They found us at Café in the Crypt and the girls were busy doing brass rubbings while the boy got some tea to warm him up. (yes, I have tea drinkers… a bit odd, but convenient and easy to make happy!)

    After brass rubbings were complete, we walked to Waterstone’s and did some serious book shopping. We were prepared and had some English books scoped out before we got there (for example, we had books 1-4 of the Mr. Gum series, so we got the next four books of those). There also was a very knowledgeable employee who made some suggestions of books we couldn’t get at home.

    By this time, real hunger was setting in, so we walked over to the Lord Moon of the Mall on Whitehall. We had to stalk for a table, but the service and food was fast (you go up to a central ordering site but they deliver food to the table).

    We stopped at Trafalgar Square and took some photos and then walked back to the National Portrait Gallery and walked around a bit – they had some good family trails that the kids enjoyed. We were feeling worn out by this time, so we headed back to the apartment. In general, I am impressed with all the kids’ booklets and activity guides for them. Much more options and kid-oriented guides than in France, for example.

    Made some dinner… had some downtime and then it was time for Ceremony of the Keys. We decided to go to The Dickens Inn at St. Katharine’s Docks for dinner (adults), but the kids ended up eating a second dinner (cold and walking will do that). We walked over, waited patiently until our names were called, and watched the ceremony. (I felt bad – there was a group of 5 people waiting – their tour guide wasn’t there and she had the tickets.) I even got to yell (in French) at a woman who refused to stand on the curb where they ask you to stay. I found it rude that she was moving over and standing directly in front of a 9 yr old boy and told her so. I don’t think she appreciated it, but sometimes Mama Bear comes out. Surfdad and surfgirl #2 had decided not to come to the Ceremony (“it creeps me out” surfgirl #2 told us), so they got a chuckle out of the fact that surfmom yelled at a lady (in French) for not following directions. We wondered if they were getting disapproving looks while surfdad sat in a bar at 9:30pm on a Sunday while his 11 yr old daughter sat there coloring. Figured we made someone’s “bad parent” story for the night!

    www.photowalksoflondon.com

    www.muggletours.co.uk

    www.jdwetherspoon.co.uk/home/pubs/the-lord-moon-of-the-mall

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    oops, forgot the Dickens Inn link. In St. Katharine's Docks and extremely convenient for the Tower of London. I find St. Katharine's Docks a neat place and at night, when the lights are sparkling, it is really beautiful.

    www.dickensinn.co.uk

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    Great report! Thanks so much for the details on your apartments. We are up to two little ones now and still traveling annually (except for this year - youngest is a newborn), so I'm very interested in apartment reviews!

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    Mon, 3/25 – St. Paul’s, Greenwich, climb O2

    Since the night before was a late one, we had another lazy morning and slept in a bit (probably awake 8:30ish - sleeping in takes on a whole new meaning with kids). Once we were motivated, we headed to St. Paul’s and climbed to the Whispering Gallery. It really works! We would have climbed outside all the way, but it was closed for a few more days, so we had to make do with the Whispering Gallery.

    We had read in a book that there was a statue where you could see the burn marks from the Great Fire of 1666, so we went and found it (a guard was very kind and walked us there and explained more about it - apparently a former priest had his statue sculpted with him wrapped in "cloth" ... as the floor collapsed, it went straight through without any arms sticking out to break off, so it remained intact). Then we walked downstairs and saw more of the burned statues – apparently, it got so hot, some of them actually exploded.

    After a quick snack break from Paul (across the courtyard), we went back to the tube and headed to Greenwich. We used DLR to get there (which worked out great and had amazing views going through Canary Wharf).

    In Greenwich, I had arranged a private half-day tour in the afternoon. We met our guide at the Sir Walter Raleigh statue and were off. Unfortunately, the first part was getting up to to the Observatory, so we were freezing by the time we had completed that walk. We enjoyed seeing the Observatory and the Prime Meridian and learned why it was so important from a historical perspective. We even got to see the various iterations of clocks that John Harrison invented. And were amazed that he was so dedicated to this that he took over 40 years to be successful! (And finally only won the prize after the King petitioned Parliament on his behalf). All in all, pretty interesting historical stuff. Of course, we took the requisite photo straddling the prime meridian! (The 13 yo was particularly excited about this because of what they had learned in school).

    Walked down to the Maritime Museum where the kids played in the Children’s Gallery (some good blow off steam time) and we stopped and had tea and a snack and were back on our way. Next destination was the Cutty Sark. Although the building around the Cutty Sark has received negative press, we actually liked it. I thought it was an excellent way to let in the natural light. I guess I liked it from the inside, but certainly understand the criticism from the outside.

    We finished up with a walk-by of the market (closed since it was Monday) and Graham, our guide, took us to the bus stop. We had a bus to catch to O2 arena.

    Next was the highlight of the day… climbing O2! It is called “Up at the O2” and was one of the highlights of the trip. Luckily, we were dressed warmly, but did manage to purchase the ski hats (which were worn throughout the rest of the trip and since we’ve been home, I have worn it to a baseball game). They give you nylon suits that fit over your clothes – we think this is so there aren’t any strings or bits from your clothes that could catch on the equipment. They strap you into a harness and you are off. You actually attach your safety lines onto a guard wire and have to move your cleat through a series of connecting cleats as you ascend. At the top, you are free to walk around and take pictures (inside a fence). We were impressed watching the planes scream overhead. The down trek is actually more steep (30 degree slope) than going up.

    We were the only ones in our group – which made it a little more fun. Our guide, Adam, was great. The whole thing took about an hour from check in, to safety video, to taking off the nylon coveralls. By this time, we were hungry, so we stopped at Las Iguanas in the O2 complex for dinner. All were happy because they got food that was recognizable. Headed back to the apartment for ice cream and bed.

    this was one of the days of climbing that inspired the title.... climbing St. Paul's and O2.

    links:
    Greenwich walking tour: www.greenwichroyaltours.com
    Up at the O2: www.theo2.co.uk/upattheo2
    Las Iguanas: www.iguanas.co.uk

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    Tue, 3/26 – British Museum, Tower of London, Matilda (the musical)

    Today was our “ketchup and mustard day” … as my creative child called it. This meant we were going to catchup on all the things we would regret if we missed. (Prior to going, we had done some research together and decided what we definitely wanted to see, what would be nice, and what to skip. Helps me with planning…)

    We started the day at the British Museum – full of school groups, but we did one of the Kids’ Trails finding clues along the way. We then did a scavenger hunt with Huntzz – a phone app – but didn’t finish and bailed halfway through. The kids were getting tired and it was getting more crowded, so we decided to be happy with what was done. (We did have fun checking out the souvenirs - like the Rosetta Stone calculator and some other goofy, fun, inexpensive things).

    We walked to the Tube (first had to stop at a bookstore and buy “Magic Money” that we had seen in the window…it is made up of the Harry Potter characters for the HP freak in the family). We then headed to the Tower of London. We decided not to do a Yeoman’s Warder tour and instead wandered about by ourselves. The line for the Crown Jewels was long and no one really seemed to care, so we avoided that and instead, walked through the White Tower and saw the suits of armor (crowded, but we had fun finding the mini and the giant suits of armor). We went into the restaurant and had something to eat - we ate a late lunch here since we'd just be snacking all day. With full bellies, we enjoyed walking up on the walls and decided to call it a day. Headed back to the apartment for a break.

    Kids ate dinner and I, being the brave and kind soul that I am, took the tube one stop to Uniqlo. We had a bike tour scheduled for Wednesday and given the weather, were concerned the kids would be cold. I found silk long underwear tops for each of them and by the time I got back, it was time to go back out again. I would recommend Uniqlo for basics that you’ve forgotten or discover you need. I was in and out quickly, so didn’t browse much, but could be a good, low cost option if needed (and in this case, was!).

    Tonight, we had tickets for Matilda, the musical. We booked too late and couldn’t get 5 good seats together, so we ended up sitting 3 together (me, surfboy and surfgirl #1) in the Dress Circle. Then we had two singles about 5 rows apart on the aisle in the Stalls section. Surfgirl #2 ended up sitting in Row G… but she was behind a Trunchbull sized person – the couple next to her actually switched and had her sit in the 3rd seat in from the aisle so she could see. I thought that was so kind and she had an amazing view of the show. The theatre was small enough that we were able to easily spot each other across the room. We thought the show was great – and in fact, the kids have stolen one of the ideas. During the show, tall swings hang down and they have a choreographed song and dance with the swings in unision or alternating. The surfkids like to do this at home (we have 3 swings) and make the swings all go together or alternate appropriately. I would recommend this for a family – we all enjoyed it, it is age appropriate, and from a book that my kids loved. (In fact, on a different trip, I went to a Quentin Blake talk and he personalized a Matilda print for Surfgirl #1).

    Afterwards, we decided to find a dessert so we walked to Covent Garden. Many of the restaurants were closing, but we ended up sitting down at Maxwell’s, which was really good. I think we, once again, had fries and dessert. Maybe a burger mixed in for variety… All tired people, we headed home for bed.

    links:
    Huntzz: www.huntzz.com
    Matilda: http://uk.matildathemusical.com
    Uniqlo: www.uniqlo.com/us/

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    Wed, 3/27 – Fat Tire Bike Tour, Eurostar to Paris

    I had arranged a private Fat Tire Bike Tour since our schedule would have been too crammed with the regularly scheduled one (it basically would take an entire day – meeting at 11am and finished about 3pm). We met our guide at 9am at the office, quickly geared up, and were off. It was great having a private tour – because we could be more flexible and work other things into the tour that couldn’t happen with a group. For example, we were able to swing by and see the Changing of the Horse Guards since we were in the area at the time. (We also worked in a stop at Pret a Manger for hot chocolate, croissants, and hot tea). We also had time to stop and take more photo breaks than you could do otherwise.

    If you can afford a private bike tour, we really liked it. We could go at our pace (faster with the speedster surfkids), stop for photos, and tailor things to our schedule. Even if you can't do the private one, the bike tour is excellent way to see London and be active and outside!

    We finished that about 1pm, headed back to the apartment, ate a quick lunch, and checked out of the apartment. They had arranged for a car service, which was great since 5 people doesn’t always work so easily. The car service was on time and we were off to St. Pancras.

    We arrived at St. Pancras about an hour before our departure time and were glad for the extra time! The lines through security were long and the lounge was packed with people. We boarded when our train was arrived and were glad we did, because the late arrivals had a hard time finding space for their luggage. Our seats were on a family car – and there were definitely lots of kids! I had waited a bit since we were still figuring out our schedule, so we were slightly separated – two across from each other at a table – and a single across the aisle on a table (and both of the rest of those tables were filled out with kids and moms), and then the final two behind the table. All in all, they were decent seats, but the kids (not mine) were very loud. We were happy to arrive in Paris. (I thought it funny that my kids complained about how loud the other ones were... they were happy for some peace and quiet!)

    We took a car service to the apartment (again, with 5 people, it is easier to pre-arrange) – with a detour to pick up the keys. The kids had fun checking out the apartment (and playing House Hunters International) so we did a little unpacking first. We walked to find somewhere to eat and ended up at an Italian restaurant - Sens'o - on Ile St. Louis. They were great - pasta, wood fired pizzas - we were happy for the leftovers to go home.

    links:
    bike tour: http://fattirebiketours.com/london

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    Funny you should mention HouseHunters. I was in Paris at the weekend, and walking down one side street, the way was blocked by a cameraman and microphone assistant, camera trained on an over-tanned and hairdyed man with a couple of young women looking up at the outside of the block, and a conversation of rather forced jollity about the building, after which he produced some keys and let them in, pointing out the security arrangements. Obviously a local "we'll find you a home" show in the making.

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    thanks guys... trying to power through it and finish.

    It really was a fun trip...I think it helps that kids are at an age where they are interested in things, but yet, we like to be active, too.

    Patrick... too funny that you saw the show! The kids like to watch it and we try to find fun cities to see those episodes -

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    Thur, 3/28 – climb Notre Dame towers, Conciergerie, climb Eiffel Tower, Musee Quai Branly

    Since the previous night was relatively late, we slept in a bit and decided to head straight to the Notre Dame towers. We got in line about 9:45am and estimated about a 45 minute line. (Which was a pretty good guess). They have changed the process – instead of buying tickets right inside the door, you climb the equivalent of one or two flights and buy tickets in the gift shop (oh, so convenient to buying souvenirs!). We did purchase museum passes here since we wanted them for the days ahead.

    After climbing to the first level, we decided to go on and climb to the top of the South Tower – fun, as always. It was windy and cold up top, but the views were amazing. It was overcast and cloudy, so not the deep blue sky, but we were happy with no rain!

    We decided it was time for 2nd breakfast, so we stopped in a café and had tea and hot chocolate, and crepes. Yes, we paid the exhorbitant “next to Notre Dame” prices, but sometimes keeping kids’ bellies happy is of higher importance. We then walked to the Conciergerie and while we didn’t spend a ton of time there, it was an interesting introduction to the Revolution. One thing I really liked was the list of all 2,780 names of people (and their professions) who were guillotined during the Revolution. I think it made it real for the kids - instead of a number (2,780), these were all the names of people - from nobles, to carpenters, to bakers.

    We decided to go to the Eiffel Tower while there wasn’t any rain, so we headed to the Trocadero and walked down the steps. I find that is the most impressive way to get there.

    We had decided to climb… I’m not sure why… I guess because we hate the long lines with the elevators. The longest part of the line was waiting to purchase tickets – about 10 minutes and we constantly moved, so it didn’t feel long. The nice thing about walking is that you truly go at your own pace and it wasn’t a steady stream of traffic (like Notre Dame), so you can stop and take a break easily. I was glad the kids had decided not to go to the 3rd level, as that made logistics easier (we didn't have to wait in that brutal line to go up or down). It was breezy and overcast – but no rain – so while further away things were hard to see, we didn’t get wet! My photos aren’t anything fabulous except lots of gray clouds.

    We stopped at the café and got snacks – French fries, waffle, beer, and caffeine and had a nice little break. We then walked our way back down the stairs. One of the funny things (for those of you with kids…) is that along the way, there were photos of different Eiffel Towers around the world – Las Vegas, etc. I was surprised that surfboy knew the red and white Eiffel Tower was in Tokyo – I asked him how he knew that… Phineas and Ferb. I should have known!

    For reference, we would climb again. You aren't stuck waiting in a monster line and smushed in the elevator. While there are a lot of steps, they are wide (unlike Notre Dame) and easy to take breaks at the landings when they turn without holding up people. There weren't a ton of people climbing, so we could go our own speed (faster for the kids, slower for the adults).

    We had decided to visit Quai Branly based on a friend’s recommendation, so we used our museum passes again. We didn’t really have a plan, but just wandered around the first level – very fun and interesting things on display. There was a “hair” exhibit, so we walked upstairs to see that. It was a combination of traditional museum ‘stuff’ on display – pictures of famous people with stylish hair of their period, plus wigs, and sculptures, but also had a video of extreme hair styles from today and how they mirror similar ones from history. Finally, we saw the thing that I was really excited about – shrunken heads! Surfgirl #2 (the creative one) wasn't really interested and was a bit creeped out, but surfgirl #1 and I were fascinated - in a macabre way. I was interested enough to come home and read more information about when they were popular and where they came from and a reference to another trip - the Kon-Tiki in Oslo (Thor Hyerdal had a problem finding local guides because they were afraid of head hunters... we saw the Kon-Tiki a few years ago!) All in all, it was interesting, but we were running out of steam by that point, so decided to head home.

    We metro’d back to the apartment … stopped at the mini-grocery store on the way … climbed the 70 or so stairs… and ate in.

    Steps/stairs climbed? Many.. Notre Dame towers, Eiffel Tower, apartment = tired dogs.

    links:
    Quai Branly: www.quaibranly.fr/en/
    (all the others are obvious ones)

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    Loving your report! Our first trip to Europe was when the kids were 9 & 11 and it was all about climbing towers too - we went to Paris and Italy and climbed everything! It's such a perfect age for travel.

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    Me too. Enjoying your organised and well composed report very much.

    With two recent trips both to London and Paris (2011 and 2012), your report is reminding me of many things I saw and did, and making me feel as if I'm there again this year.
    Thanks for sharing.

    M

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    Fri, 3/29 – Versailles bike tour, Breakfast in America

    Surfgirl #1 (12yo) was very excited about seeing Versailles and doing a bike tour there. I had neglected to book this (awaiting other scheduling) and Friday was the only day they had room. I quickly contacted our walking tour and they were able to move it to Saturday (thank you Paris Walks!), so we had all Friday to spend at Versailles.

    We had to be at Fat Tire Bike Tour's office (in the 7th) by 9am, so we walked out of the apartment about 8:15am and made it with 10 minutes to spare. They took us through a quick orientation, and walked to the RER. The guide handed everyone a paper ticket to Versailles and reminded us not to lose them. (According to him, since that route is a lot of tourists, the ticket police will frequent that route more than other trains with more locals). When we got off in Versailles, we headed to the office – about a 5 minute walk. The office is located adjacent to a square – which is a nice place to wait while he gets everyone their bikes. Since the office is so tiny, he only takes in one person at a time, so it took 15-20 minutes for everyone to get bikes and organized. Finally, we were off!

    We rode through town at the beginning and headed to the market. The guide watches bikes (and can lock them if necessary), and gave us about 45 minutes to walk around the market and gather lunch and food. We were extremely impressed with the quality of the produce – we got some amazing strawberries for the kids! We also stopped in a boulangerie and got baguettes for the kids and sandwiches for the adults. We put them in our backpack (some people put their lunches in the box on the back of the guide’s bike).

    From here, we rode into the back entrance of Versailles – back by Marie Antoinnet’s Hamlet. We also passed by the Petit Trianon and then around the Grand Canal. We stopped about ¾ of the way around and sat in the grass and had our picnic lunch (watch for the goose poop!) and then were back on the bikes. (We didn't get a chance to go inside the Petit Trianon, which was disappointing).

    Unfortunately, the next part of the trip was nicknamed “Flat Tire Bike Tour” because yours truly had a flat tire. I couldn’t figure out why I was pedaling so hard to keep up – I was really working and kept falling behind. I didn’t think I ate THAT much?!? I knew I was recovering from a foot injury, but jeez, I couldn’t keep up with the old people… oh yeah, that was us. Still…

    Finally, I looked down and realized that my portion of the tour had changed and called for our guide. Sadly, he didn’t have his pump along with him, so he had to call one of the other guides (there were three groups doing the same tour that day), who rode back and brought the pump. First, they turned it upside down and spun it for about 5 minutes – apparently, he had filled the tires with some gooey bike stuff that will fill a hole. Then he pumped up the tire. It held and we were back on the road again!

    It was much easier keeping up at this point… yeah, surfmom isn’t so wimpy! Apparently, I should have had surfdad’s bike, which was named “You could have been walking faster Robinson" (we had fun reading all the names of the bikes. We laughed at the people rowing on the Grand Canal being blown about by the wind. We debated it we would actually row once we figured out how cold it was on the water (since paid for), or if we’d bail (ha!) to save sanity.

    We rode back to the office and dropped off the bikes… one by one again. Surfboy was the last to turn in his bike, as he still had energy and literally rode around in circles in the square (rode around in squares just doesn't sound right) waiting for everyone to turn them in. At this point, we walked back to Versailles. The guide gave us our tickets for entry and also for the train home. He showed us a meeting point and a meeting time, but we were free to make our own way back if we wanted.

    The line to get in was about 15 minutes and once in, we headed straight to the State Apartments. It was very crowded inside – each of the rooms was filled with people either listening to a guide, or the guided tour (on a handset). After being outside all day, quite honestly, we felt a bit claustrophobic, so we quickly walked through to the Hall of Mirrors. We tried to go to Angelina's (inside Versailles) to get dessert or snack, but by this point (3:30pm), they had hardly anything left in the case. We decided our best bet was to cut our losses and head back to the train station with hopefully an ice cream stop en route.

    While we didn’t find any ice cream stores along the way, we ended up in a café across from the Versailles train station, where we had fries, ice cream, tea, and beer. Odd combination, I know, but all were happy with this!

    We struggled with the train station – it was extremely crowded and we couldn’t figure out why… we soon discovered the reason. In addition to all the day trippers wanting to get back to Paris, there clearly was a problem with the ticket machines – surfdad’s ticket wasn’t accepted going through the machine. Unfortunately, he was last (we had learned to send the kids in-between us in case there was a problem) and both the ticket purchase machines and the windows were mobbed (and he doesn’t speak French). He was extremely frustrated and these weren’t the kind you could easily jump – they had the solid barrier. A kind man grabbed surfdad and told him to stay close and they just squeezed through together. I guess I would have sent him to buy another ticket, but it was a pain. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones with this problem because there were a number of other people shouting through the barriers what to do as well as people being turned away after they had put their tickets through.

    The train back to Paris was mobbed – we stood (smushed) the entire way. Ironically, we saw someone else from our bike tour on our train so that at least made the time pass faster. Luckily, we were able to take the RER all the way to St. Michel and just walk to Ile St. Louis from there, so it avoided transferring lines on the metro at 5pm on the Friday before Easter.

    After a break at the apartment … and some re-grouping, we decided to venture out for dinner. We walked to Breakfast in America in the Marais. This is as close to an American diner in Paris that you will find. We had to wait about 15-20 minutes for a table (it was probably 7:30/8pm by this point), but when we left, the line was significantly longer. The kids had pancakes and French toast (yum), surfdad had “CC’s Big Mess” – an omelet with lots of stuff, and I had a special – BBQ pork. I love pulled pork and didn’t pay attention – this wasn’t pulled pork, but was slices of pork with BBQ sauce. I should have stuck with a burger, but the rest of the food was good. Surfboy was thrilled to get a rootbeer float (his favorite), but the girls wanted Berthillon ice cream so they waited until we "got back to the island". Breakfast in America was a fun treat and the kids loved getting pancakes for supper (and ate extremely well!). I would do it again.

    We walked back to Ile St. Louis (via ice cream, of course), and everyone slept well after an active day of being outside and then filling our bellies.

    links:
    Fat Tire Bike Tour: http://fattirebiketours.com/paris/tours/versailles-bike
    Breakfast in America: www.breakfast-in-america.com

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    Sat, 3/30 – Musee d’Orsay, Musee l’Orangerie, chocolate walking tour, Chez Francis

    We started the morning by going to Musee d’Orsay. I had taken a photograph 6 years ago of the girls only in front of the large clock at Musee d’Orsay. When we were in Paris 3 years ago, the museum was under construction and cameras were not allowed. Since surfboy was feeling left out (I had the photo printed onto canvas and it hangs over the kids’ desk), I had to make sure that we could replicate the photo this time. I had emailed the press department about 3 months prior to the trip and received permission to bring a camera in. As it turned out, lots of people had cameras and many were taking photos of the clock. In fact, we had to wait our turn to make sure we didn’t have other random tourists in the shot.

    After we took the photo, we walked through the 5th floor and spent some time looking at artwork (unfortunately thought, Degas' Little Dancer was not on display... foiled again). I was surprised how crowded it was given that the museum had only been open for about 30 minutes. However, we had blown past the line in the beginning and once again, were very happy for our museum passes.

    After visiting artwork, we walked past the café and little eyes lit up at the croissants… so we sat down and had croissants and tea. Sometimes I felt like our entire trip was spent feeding kids croissants, tea, fries and ice cream!

    We spent some time downstairs walking around different areas, but I could feel a lack of motivation, so we decided to leave. We walked over to the Musee de l’Orangerie to see the water lilies. The line was long to get in (and it was cold and windy), but we blew past all that with our trusty museum passes. In fact, once we were past the initial line, we even blew past the people waiting at the metal detector. They weren’t waiting for inspection, they were backed up from the ticket window. We were incredibly thankful for the museum passes when we walked back out (after spending about 15 minutes looking at the water lilies) and someone we had been next to in line was still waiting to pay. We decided that we wouldn’t even go downstairs and see the other artwork. While I know we missed some neat stuff, the kids weren’t interested, it was crowded, and I believe that the forced Art Death March is more harmful than good.

    At this point, it was about 12:30 and we had to meet our tour guide at 2:30, so we decided to explore a little and then get some lunch. We walked along rue de rivoli (next to the Tuileries), but didn’t find anything that caught our eye. We walked over a block and ended up eating at Carr’s – an Irish pub. We were one of the first for the day, but they filled up quickly while we were eating there. The food was good (I had shredded chicken in whiskey sauce) and it was a great place to take a break. We walked back to Laduree to get some macarons, but since the line was outside the store, I figured we’d get some on our next stop.

    We were a few minutes early, but met our guide, Brigitte, outside the Tuileries metro stop (she was already there – I like that!). This was the tour that surfgirl #2 was excited about – we were doing a chocolate walking tour! We talked to Paris Walks and thought about doing the group one, but since surfboy doesn’t eat chocolate (I know, what is wrong with him?!?), we thought that a private tour might be more engaging for him and a tour guide could be more flexible finding different options for him. We walked through the Tuileries and into the Carrousel du Louvre (the shopping mall) - our first stop was Maison du Chocolat. Brigitte got our purchases, and we headed out from there. We sat down in Palais Royal and tasted our chocolate and learned more about the history of chocolate. We then continued on to 3 or 4 different chocolate stores on our walk. Surfboy had a variety of white chocolate and macarons as we went along. One of them even included a small cup of hot chocolate – yum! By the end, our feet were tired, our taste buds were happy, but we were ready to be out of the crowds.

    Since it was the Saturday before Easter, many people were out doing their shopping and the stores were extremely crowded. We had to be flexible and sometimes we were only in a store for a moment while Brigitte collected our samples. There were a few times that we made some personal purchases – a box of macarons to take home, a few more truffles, or chocolate bars. We ended next to the Madeleine, and while I would have like to stop at Fauchon and do some shopping, I could tell we needed to get back to the apartment and away from the crowds.

    Sometimes traveling with kids means that plans are cut short, or you can’t do everything you want, but it keeps everyone happy. I’m a believer that I’d rather walk away doing less, but be happy with it, than overdo it and be so tired you have meltdowns and grumpiness. I also like to believe that I’ll be back and I put it on my list of ‘to-do’s’ for next time.

    Tonight was one of our favorite restaurants – Chez Francis. We have eaten here each time we’ve been in Paris for the last five times and every time, they’ve been great. Chez Francis is located at Pont de l’Alma – across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. I had requested a window table (you can see the Tower twinkle!), and we were shown to a wonderful round window table with a great view of the Eiffel Tower. We had made a reservation at 8pm and saw the 8pm twinkle as we were being seated. We then saw the 9pm twinkle as we were eating, and walking onto the metro, we saw the 10pm twinkle. Surfgirl #1 had the roast chicken – very good. Tender and juicy and she was kind enough to share.

    Years ago at Chez Francis, when surfgirl #2 was about 4 years old, they had run out of ketchup. She was crestfallen. The waiter was kind enough to run next door (they also own Crazy Horse next door) and got her ketchup. She lit up … and we still talk about that!

    We stumbled home and headed to bed after a successful day.

    links:
    Paris Walks: www.paris-walks.com
    Chez Francis: www.chezfrancis-restaurant.com

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    Sun, 3/31 – Easter…spring forward, Palais Royal, THATLou hunt, Arc de Triomphe

    This was Easter Sunday and while I entertained thoughts of going to Notre Dame for early services, my need for sleep outweighed that. This was also spring forward day, so it was even a later day than normal and late morning before we got motivated. We headed to Palais Royal – the kids wanted to play on the black and white columns, so we spent about 30 minutes climbing and jumping on them. They decided they were hungry again, so we went to Carrousel du Louvre and had lunch. We were taking part in THATLou scavenger hunt (Treasure Hunt At The Louvre) and the coordinator, Daisy, was very clear to be on time.

    We used our museum passes to enter the Louvre under the passageway from Palais Royal (groups and ticket holder entrance only – we saw someone turned away before us) – we didn’t have to wait at all to go through security. We stopped at coat check and deposited coats, had bathroom breaks and were ready to go! (By the way, if you have museum passes, this is really a great entrance).

    Everyone was on time, so Daisy handed out the hunt and we determined our strategy. Normally, people are teams of 2-4 people, but we wanted to stay together as a family, so we competed as one group. (There were about 20-25 people total, so maybe about 8 groups total?) The “hunt” is a list of items to find – each with a different amount of points and some may have bonus points attached. You are to photograph your team in front of the specific item. She also hands you a map of the Louvre with areas highlighted and crossed out. The crossed out areas do not have any of the items you are looking for – I would say about 25% of the Louvre was crossed out, leaving a large section to find stuff. We strategized about where we were going to go and headed in that direction.

    I won’t give away any of her secrets, but it is a very fun and innovative way to see the Louvre. If you are like me and end up wandering around a museum reading bits and pieces here and there and get overwhelmed, it is a fun way to “see” the museum. I’m not sure how much we really learned, but the kids enjoyed it. (For the record, we finished in second place - not bad behind a group of enthusiastic 20 year olds!)

    Afterwards, the group walked to a local café to share results and have a snack, but since it was Easter, everything was extremely crowded … instead, we bailed on the group and found a cafe near Palais Royal and had a snack. I think it if wasn't Easter Sunday, this might be a nice way to meet people and make friends. She will also match up individual families if you want to do a "private" hunt so that you can find someone to compete against. I think sitting down for a snack/meal afterwards would be fun to compare notes, too.

    We took the metro to Arc de Triomphe, climbed up and enjoyed the view and watching the traffic around the Arc. We walked down the Champs Elysees a little bit, but were feeling overwhelmed by the crowds, so we headed back to the apartment. Finally made Berthillon before they closed (we’d been getting ice cream at the other stands on the island, but not the mothership) … so dinner was later at the apartment.

    Felt like we didn't accomplish as much as other days, but as the trip winds down, I find we need to adjust days to match energy levels. It worked out great and gave us something fun to focus on and do on Easter.

    Links:
    THATLou: http://thatlou.com

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    I am so enjoying your report. We are planning another week in Paris next February and I cannot wait. One thing I want to revisit is the Orsay. We have not been in years. If you are interestedin Degas I would suggest you read the novel The Painted Girls. It is very good and it is a fictionalized account of the real girl the Little Dancer statue is modeled after. We were in Paris March 12-17 this year and when we were at Place du Tertre, I turned around and there was a copy of the Little Dancer looking back at me from the window of a private art gallery. I almost cried. She was beautiful.

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    As always, you have found such amazing activities to do with your children!

    Your travel style and philosophy should be "must-reading" for anyone planning on traveling with children. Finding engaging activities for them, frequent "fuel" stops, being flexible and willing to bail or only spend 15 min in a museum - all of these things will contribute to an enjoyable trip for all and make life-long travelers of your children.

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    lrock5, I know exactly the art gallery you are talking about - because we saw her there, too! Good suggestion for a novel - I just looked it up and I think it sounds great - thanks for that!

    anamax2, thank you for your nice words. This trip was our most successful yet - I think it has taken a few years for our travel style to evolve as well as the kids now know what to expect when we travel. It really is trial and error ... being overscheduled is probably a greater danger than being underscheduled for kids - as least for mine. If we don't have anything planned, we are happy to go explore, or play a game, or read a book.

    almost at the end... just finishing up typing the last day. and then my random thoughts and ideas for traveling with kids.

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    We actually went in and between my French and the lady that worked there's English we found out that the statue was 1.5 million euro. She said it was one of the 20 the family commissioned. I think that may be wrong as I would expect ALOT of security if so. But who knows maybe it really was. In any case, she was just spectacular.

    We looked at all of the art there for sale and it was from a private collector. There were some Picasso, and alot of Dali.

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    lrock5, that is amazing. We didn't go in (I know our limitations when traveling with kids and anywhere with lots of glass and expensive things is not a good idea), but we had fun window shopping!

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