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Trip Report – My First Trip to Paris...I Can't Wait to Go Back!

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Hi, Fodorites! I’m Dave and my wife Lisa and I live in Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. We returned from an amazing trip to Paris on April 15. First, I want to thank everyone whose recommendations and advice REALLY helped us to be better prepared for our trip. One of the things I have enjoyed most is reading trip reports from folks who shared their thoughts, observations, and especially LESSONS LEARNED! So, that’s what I’m going to do...I’d like to share some things that I hope will help others feel more prepared and more comfortable traveling to this amazing city, especially if it will be your first time, like it was for me. Having said that, BE WARNED...this will NOT be a brief trip report. It’ll be more of a “travelogue,” I guess. Or, as a friend of mine might call it, a “travelquarium” of my first trip to Paris.

PART 1 – General Observations

Charles De Gaulle Airport: Customs and Getting a Cab
I’m 42 and I’ve traveled all over the U.S. (including Hawai’i), but this was my first time landing in a foreign country and I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turned out, my fears were completely unfounded. Of course, it probably helped that we landed at 7:00 a.m. on Easter Monday (a holiday in France) so Terminal 1 was not crowded at all. We took the cool moving walkways from Satellite 1 (where the United gates are) to the “outer ring” of the terminal and the Immigration checkpoint. If you’re flying pretty much any airline except Air France, you'll go through CDG Terminal 1, which is a “futuristic” round building with several levels and a series of “rings” on each level. It’s a bit confusing, but between our rudimentary understanding of French and signage that I would only call “adequate,” we managed to find our way from the checkpoint where our they stamped our passport to the arrival level via these cool, tube-enclosed moving walkways that connect the different levels through the open center of the “ring!”

At the “Arrival” level, we got our bags (from the crazy, accordion-like conveyer belts) and tried to find Customs (or la Douane). I was expecting lines of people with open suitcases, etc., but what we found instead was a little sliding glass window along one wall that looked like the receptionist’s desk at a doctor’s office (although we did see a room nearby where a couple of unlucky travelers were having their belongings gently rifled). The Customs officer behind the glass took one look at us (we must not have looked very threatening) and just motioned us through the opening that leads out of the secured area of the arrival ring. We were so stunned; we just sort of hovered there for a minute, looking at the mass of shuttle drivers and other “greeters” waiting to pick up arriving passengers. Then, I saw an opening in the crowd and figured that if we weren’t supposed to exit someone would stop us, so we slid through the crowd and out to freedom!

At this point, the signs seemed unclear (at least to me) about what level the taxi stand was on, but I had looked at the map at www.aeroportsdeparis.fr and knew it was on this level. Eventually, we found Door 18 and headed out to the row of waiting taxis. There was almost no queue, so we walked right over to a cab and we were off. Again, we lucked out because our cab driver had to be somebody’s mom! She was maybe 50, a sane driver, and she was kind enough to speak French slowly and even a little English so we could communicate with her. Since traffic was light, we were in town quickly, even though she drove the speed limit the whole way! Two blocks from the hotel, we did run into a minor glitch, which leads me to my next point.

Maps: Don’t Wait Until You Get There to Look at Them!
My theory is that one of the French presidential candidates or some other dignitary was attending Easter Monday services at a church near our hotel. As a result, a roughly two-block radius around our hotel was “cordoned off” to vehicle traffic. Fortunately, I am a map freak…I don’t know why, but I have always loved looking at maps! So, for our trip, I had no fewer than three of them to help us navigate Paris and I had studied them pretty thoroughly before we left. As it turned out, when our taxi driver reached a point where she could get us no closer to our hotel, we just told her that we would walk the rest of the way, since I pretty much knew where we were! This is also when I confirmed that our driver HAD to be somebody’s mom, because she seemed genuinely worried about letting us out without taking us all the way to our hotel! But, it was a beautiful day and we were so excited to be there, we just said, “Merci beaucoup,” gave her a nice tip, and headed for the Renaissance Vendome!

Anyway, my point here is get a good map or two (see my reviews below) and look them over before you go. Also, if you have specific places you want to see that may not be on the sightseeing maps (like Lafayette’s tomb…more about that later) or restaurants you want to try, pull ‘em up on Mapquest, print them out and take them with you! This paid off SEVERAL times, especially when we were in the St. Germain area and my Mapquest map reminded me that the Brasserie Lipp was only a couple of blocks away!

Map Reviews
Knopf Mapguides: Paris
This small (about 6” x 4” and maybe ½” thick) book covers most of Paris broken down into eight sections, each with a foldout map and tips for restaurants and attractions in each section. This was the most complete, easiest-to-use map we had, plus it wasn't all that conspicuous when we had to pull it out. I highly recommend it.

Inside-Out: Paris
Again, a small book with a plastic binding that has a compass built into it (and it works!). Two small, foldout, laminated maps of greater Paris and central Paris, followed by a brief guide to Paris attractions, restaurants, travel tips, etc. This was useful for planning our routes and sights for the day.

Streetwise Paris
Overrated. Okay for planning and general info, but I didn’t think it was divided into sections very well and it didn’t cover enough area for a map this size.

Learn the Language! At Least a Little…
Everything I read on here before our trip was spot-on! I bought the beginner’s version of “Learn French in Your Car,” popped the CDs in, and learned a lot while sitting in traffic. I also looked up a lot of phrases I thought I might use on http://babelfish.altavista.com. And, finally, I bought “French for Dummies,” which turned out to be a REALLY great resource. Reviewing the pocket-sized Marling Menu-Master for France before the trip was a big help, too. By the time I got done listening and studying, my pronunciation was pretty good and I felt pretty comfortable with the basics. It really paid off, as you could see the people we encountered “soften” as soon as we greeted them with “Bonjour” or “Bonsoir” and I tried out a little of my shaky French. I had to use, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” a couple of times, and only once did someone say, “Non,” and even then, I was able to muster enough French (as well as hand gestures) to communicate that we wanted a small assortment of these lovely chocolates! Everyone we met was at least courteous and professional, and I would say the majority were friendly and even warm! Even the guys selling the cheesy Eiffel Towers at the foot of the real thing said, “Merci, au revoir,” when we answered their sales pitch with, “Merci, non.” I’ll share more details as I get into my trip report, but suffice it to say that the people of Paris made us feel very welcome!

Pickpockets? We Didn’t See Any, But We Were Ready!
Before the trip, just about everyone I told that we were going to Paris had a story about being pickpocketed or knew someone who’d been pickpocketed! Combine that with a few stories I read on here about people having their wallets lifted, and I was pretty paranoid! So, taking the advice of several Fodorites, I purchased the Eagle Creek Hidden Pocket ($9.50 on Amazon.com) which slips onto your belt and then tucks down inside the waistband of your pants. I put it right behind my left front pants pocket where I was carrying my wallet. In my wallet was my driver’s license, one credit card, and a little cash. In the Hidden Pocket, I kept a copy of my passport (we locked our actual passports in the hotel safe), additional credit card, ATM card (which worked fine in Paris, by the way), and the majority of my cash. When we were walking around, I hardly noticed the Hidden Pocket unless I reached into my pants pocket (which I did more frequently when we got into crowds) just to reassure myself that everything was still there. And, it was really easy to use, since I didn’t have to practically get undressed to get to it. I just found a quiet corner, flipped it out, got what I needed, and tucked it back in…no fuss, no muss!

Museum Pass: Worth It!
The day we arrived, we asked the concierge at the Renaissance to procure a couple of six-day museum passes for us, which he did. As far as I’m concerned, this was money well-spent! We avoided lines, and used it pretty much every day. Oh, and we also enjoyed the evening hours at the Louvre (Wednesday and Friday until 9:45 pm) and the Orsay (Thursday until 9:45 pm). While still fairly crowded until about 7:00, the crowds thinned out considerably after that…we practically had the Orsay to ourselves. More about the museums later.

Metro Tickets: Didn’t Need Orange
As it turned out, our hotel was in such a great location we really didn’t need to get the Carte Orange like we’d planned before we left. We just bought two carnets (pronounced car-nay) which have 10 tickets each and that was all we needed, especially since we wound up not going to Versailles (since it was my first time, Paris sights had priority!). By the way, I love the Metro! It’s so much like our Metro here in DC, except with way more stops! And, on our very first Paris Metro ride, a man playing an accordion got on just after we did, stood right in front of us, and serenaded the car for a couple of stops. He passed his hat when he finished and my wife and I had to smile at the magic of Paris!

Picnicking? Just Say “Panini Parisienne”!
Again, my Fodors friends helped prepare me for grabbing quick, tasty meals while seeing the sights. We were able to find nice patisseries or boulangeries everywhere we went and just about all of them had a “sandwich counter” where you could get my new favorite delicacy, the Panini Parisienne! Okay, I only saw one place that actually called it that…most just listed it as “Jambon et Fromage Crudite.” Basically, take a baguette about the size of your average U.S. sub sandwich, add a slice of ham, a slice of Swiss(?) cheese, a couple of slices of tomato and sprinkle on some shredded gruyere before popping it into a sandwich press that toasts the bread, melts the cheese, and warms the tomatoes JUST right! Add a bottle of Coke Zero (which is TEN TIMES better in Paris than the Coke Zero we get here!) and a perfect spot (like the park outside the Invalides, the Louvre courtyard, or a wall overlooking the Tuilleries) and you’ve got a perfect Paris picnic! OH…don’t forget the éclairs!

Okay, those are my random thoughts for now…what follows will be daily reports from my journal that I hope you’ll find interesting and helpful. Oh, and that reminds me…keep a journal while you’re there! It makes me smile when I go back and read it now. Au revoir for now!

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