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Hausfrau's Belated Paris (& Environs) Trip Report (LONG!)

Hausfrau's Belated Paris (& Environs) Trip Report (LONG!)

Jan 1st, 2007, 06:10 AM
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Hausfrau's Belated Paris (& Environs) Trip Report (LONG!)

Hi all, I am finally posting my trip report from September. I wrote this as a full-blown travelogue for my family and friends in the U.S., so I apologize for its length, but taking the time to cut it down would mean I would probably never post it! So if you want a detailed description of our 5 days in Paris and trips to Chantilly and Versailles, with lots of food details, here it is! A special thanks to everyone who helped me choose the restaurants - they were all great!

DAY 1: STUTTGART TO PARIS
There are some major perks to being an expat in Europe, especially when your husband gets sent to Paris on business and you get to tag along for the ride! All we had to do is pay for my meals and one night in the hotel so that we could spend an extra day in Paris. Even better, J, a colleague of DH’s from the USA, was also coming, and he brought his wife, A, and we are all good friends. This means that A and I got to spend two days loose on the streets of Paris while our husbands worked, then all four of us had all day Saturday to spend together in Paris. J and A left Sunday morning, while DH and I spent two more days visiting Chantilly and Versailles.

We live in Stuttgart, Germany and the company was paying for our gas, so we decided to drive to Paris. It took about an hour to get to France, then we zoomed along for another four hours at 130 kph (about 80 mph, the standard speed limit on the French autoroute) on the A4 straight across northeastern France, through rolling farmland and World War I battlefields. We stopped for gas and figured out in a hurry that gazole is French for diesel. We switched drivers because DH decided he was going to do the driving in Paris (lucky him!).

We arrived on the outskirts of Paris around 5:30 p.m. It took a while to get to the Périphérique, the ring road surrounding Paris, built where the city’s ancient defensive wall once stood. It is said to be one of the busiest motorways in Europe and we arrived smack in the middle of rush hour, so we got to see the traffic at its very worst. Each exit is called a porte or “gateway” into the city. We headed counterclockwise around Paris, catching glimpses of Sacré-Coeur and the Eiffel Tower as we approached our target porte. Our navigation unit was pretty useless because she (our navi’s name is Susie) kept wanting to send us straight through the city rather than finding the shortest route from the Périphérique (naturally we wanted to spend as little time on the inner streets of Paris as possible). We soon learned that the motorcyclists and scooter-riders in Paris are completely insane. They drive between cars, splitting lanes at breakneck speeds, even when traffic is moving at a pretty brisk pace, apparently oblivious to the fact that a car might change lanes into them at any moment. Amazingly, we saw no accidents.

We followed the directions that I had printed off the hotel web site and got off at the right porte, but from there we couldn’t tell where we were supposed to go – cars zoomed by on all sides, and several major roads seemed to shoot off into the depths of Paris, so I just pointed in a direction that looked promising and, as luck would have it, we ended up on the right street. We went a few blocks into the heart of Paris and entered a busy intersection, which, like most major intersections in Paris, is a huge traffic circle, or roundabout.

Let me explain that there is a big difference between traffic circles in France and traffic circles in Germany. In Germany, everyone is very polite and waits their turn to enter the circle. If there is more than one lane in the traffic circle, everyone stays in their proper lane until they are ready to exit, often even using their turn signal to indicate that they are preparing to leave the traffic circle. In France, the rule apparently is whoever has the most guts and can get out in front the fastest gets the right of way, to hell with lanes, and by all means don’t make eye contact with anyone, just look straight ahead and hit the accelerator. There were cars everywhere pointing every which way, no discernable lanes (although apparently there was room for four or five cars abreast), and they routinely came within inches of hitting each other, and us. Don’t even get me started on the motorcycles and scooters. Needless to say, we were desperate to get out of that traffic circle, but I missed the sign for our street, so we had to make another agonizing loop. When we finally pulled up, somewhat dazed, in front of the Hilton a few minutes later, we were more than happy to turn over our keys to the valet and (completely out of character for us) actually looked forward to not seeing our car again for four days. I didn’t even try to speak French to the valet – I just tried to be polite and smiled a lot.

The Hilton Arc de Triomphe is a blocky, unremarkable, art nouveau building with an immense lobby outfitted with red velvet upholstery and black-and-gold trimmings. The people at the front desk and concierge were all very polite as we checked in and made our way to our room on the first floor (that’s the second floor for us Americans). Our room had two double beds but was on the small side, with a purple, gold, and cream décor and a miniscule green-and-cream marble bathroom. (Honestly, you barely had room to get inside and close the door behind you.) We had a nice view out to a large enclosed courtyard filled with palm trees.

As some of you may recall, A and I had spent several weeks agonizing over our restaurant reservations. We had done so much research that I actually made an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all of our restaurant options. Sick, I know, very sick. I have to thank all the nice Fodorites for helping me out. We finally settled on four highly-recommended restaurants (Chez Savy, P’tit Troquet, Fontaine de Mars, and Bastide Odeon) that all offer three-course dinners in the range of 30-40 Euro per person (considered mid-range by Paris standards). I emailed our requests to the hotel and asked them to make the reservations for us, which they did very promptly. (I figured this was one of the perks of staying in a four-star hotel and I was trying to avoid speaking French on the phone if at all possible!)

Once we were settled in, we called to check in with J and A, and then I had to scramble to see if I could add six of our husbands’ colleagues to our dinner reservation at Chez Savy. I went down to the concierge and asked them to call the restaurant for me. Chez Savy is a “Fodor’s Choice” recommended restaurant and I was a little worried about upping our reservation from four to ten people, but they had no problem with it.

We all met in the lobby at seven and walked to Chez Savy, which was the only place that A and I could find that was well-recommended, near the Champs-Élysées, and in our price range. It took us about half an hour to walk there; fortunately A had a good map and we navigated our large group with only a couple of wrong turns. We strolled part-way down the tree-lined Champs-Élysées, which was all lit up and looked pretty much like I remembered it from my brief visit to Paris in college. Eventually we found ourselves at the door of Chez Savy on Rue Bayard, a side street at the very end of the Champs-Élysées. It was a classic little French bistro with wooden booths and a brass-trimmed bar. Our group was seated in the back room, which was probably a good thing, since we were a bit noisy. The room was otherwise empty until we got up to leave around ten o’clock – at which point a group of Frenchwomen came in and sat down to dinner! The French do eat late, but even this surprised me, on a weeknight no less. Don’t people have to go to work in the morning?
Overall we enjoyed prompt, attentive, and patient service at Chez Savy, although the waitstaff had a surprisingly limited grasp of English. Normally this wouldn’t faze me but it became a bit of a problem when a member of our party announced that he had a gluten allergy and we had to figure out how to convey this to the waiter. Somehow everyone figured out that A and I knew the most French and pretty soon they were all looking to us to do all the talking, and the waiters started looking to us too. I finally got my wits about me enough to say to the waiter, “Il ne peut pas manger farine. Il a une allergie.” (I said “allergie” with a hard “g” German pronunciation instead of a soft “g,” but it did the trick.) I think that was the most French I have spoken (in public) in five years. I took a stab at ordering the wine; we started with a chablis and then had a very nice 1998 Haute Médoc burgundy.

DH and I weren’t feeling very hungry so we just had two of my favorite things in the whole world: foie gras and carpaccio de boeuf. The foie gras was served as a cold slab with toasted baguette slices and a big pot of cornichons. I was a little surprised by the very simple presentation – we literally got a big plate with a slab of foie gras on it and nothing else. The carpaccio was perfect, with shaved parmesan and a small salad of arugula, topped with olive oil and lemon. A had the sauccisson sec appetizer and beef with a shallot sauce and pommes frîtes. Again, the presentation was a little strange – she got a huge pile of sliced dry sausage with no accompaniments. J had the Assiette Cantal (a plate of cured meats and cheese) and steak tartare. I hadn’t tasted steak tartare in years so I had a bite – it is a classic French dish of raw ground sirloin seasoned with onion, capers, and fresh herbs. It was very good, but when you have a giant mound of raw beef on your plate and nothing else, it can be a little difficult to work your way through it. Almost everyone had crème brulée for dessert – it was a huge portion, and very good. DH had chocolate mint ice cream and I had the petit pot de crème with caramel salé (salted caramel), which was excellent.

Overall I was not terribly impressed with Chez Savy, but if you are looking for a small bistro with very simple, classic French cuisine near the Champs-Élysées, I suppose it is a reasonable choice. The front room definitely has better ambience than the back. I’m just not sure why it merits the “Fodor’s Choice” ranking.
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Jan 1st, 2007, 06:11 AM
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DAY 2: TWO GIRLS LOOSE IN PARIS
There may be some advantages to staying in a four-star hotel, but there are also some downsides. In the case of the Hilton, breakfast will put you back at least 19 Euro (and that’s just the continental breakfast – the full buffet is a whopping 30 Euro!). DH said that he couldn’t tell what the different was between the continental and full buffet, or who was keeping track, so he just stuck with the breads and cold cuts. The guys could expense their meals, but A and I were paying out of our own pockets, so we walked down the street to Café les Courcelles, where we sat outside in the sun and enjoyed café crèmes and flaky croissants for less than half the price. (Aside: Something I love about sidewalk cafés in Paris is how they line up all the chairs so that you are looking out at the street, blatantly acknowledging that people-watching is far more interesting than looking directly at your dining companion.)

Another downside to staying at the Hilton is that it really seems to cater to businesspeople, not tourists. While it is close to the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, it’s not convenient to much else in the way of tourist attractions, plus the nearest metro line is a sort of spur line, so we had to make two or three transfers any time we wanted to go anywhere. But heck, we weren’t in a hurry, and you can’t really complain when you aren’t paying for it, so we took it all in stride. Our first task once we descended underground at the Courcelles metro stop was to decipher the complex ticketing system. We stood back and looked at the sign for a few minutes, which was crammed with an awful lot of information in small print about zones and fare packages and such. I overheard someone buying a carnet of tickets and vaguely remembered that you could buy a packet of 10 tickets (costing about 11 Euro) that will take a tourist pretty much anywhere you want to go in Paris. So we each bought a carnet (the tickets are actually loose so you have to make sure you don’t lose them), went through the turnstile, and we were finally in the Paris Métro!

It took us three different subway lines and about thirty minutes to get to the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the 6th arrondisement on the Left Bank (Paris is organized into some 20 arrondisements, or boroughs, spiraling out from the center of city, marked by Notre Dame on Île de la Cit&eacute. This area is named for the 7th-century abbey of Saint-Germain and is famous for its cafés, shopping, and as the home of the existentialist movement (Sartre and Simone de Beauvier hung out here). All that remains of the ancient abbey is the 12th-century Église Saint-Germain, the oldest church in Paris, which was our first destination. We admired the sturdy medieval bell tower against a backdrop of blue sky, then went inside to escape the pigeons. It was very somber, with a dark but vividly painted interior. The ceiling was midnight blue with gold stars.

Next we headed towards the Jardin de Luxembourg, stumbling across Église Saint-Sulpice, the second-largest church in Paris after Notre Dame, along the way. One of its two round towers was unfortunately covered up with unsightly scaffolding. This is the church made famous in The Da Vinci Code, in which Dan Brown alludes to various connections between the church and the fabled Priory of Sion. The church features a massive pipe organ and a soaring, domed interior. You’ll be disappointed to hear that Saint-Sulpice’s infamous “Rose Line” bears no connection at all to the nearby Paris Meridian (a long-standing rival to the Greenwich Prime Meridian) and was probably part of a sundial. There is no evidence that the church stands on the ruins of a pagan temple, and the Priory of Sion is said to be a massive hoax. Nevertheless, we saw several people carefully observing the Rose Line (a gold line set into the floor of the church at an odd angle), including one woman who appeared to become quite emotional about it. In the wake of all this rumor and confusion, the Catholic Church actually refused to allow Ron Howard to film inside Saint-Sulpice, so what you see in the movie version of “The Da Vinci Code” is actually a computer-generated set.

We continued on to the Jardin de Luxembourg, built in the 17th century for the pleasure of the French royalty. It contains Luxembourg Palace, which today houses the French Senate. The vast garden is very popular among locals and tourists alike as a prime spot for serious relaxation, and today we tried it out to the best of our ability. The park is a seemingly endless maze of tree-lined esplanades, fountains, playgrounds, and tennis courts. We had wandered only a short way into the park when we simply had to stop at a little snack bar for a crêpe au beurre et sucre (crêpe filled with butter and sugar). We watched as the crêpe batter was poured paper-thin onto a special round griddle, cooked almost instantly to golden perfection, smeared with butter, and sprinkled with sugar. We sat at a little metal table and enjoyed these little bits of heaven.

We headed over to where the park opens up in front of the palace, overlooking a huge reflecting pool lined with colorful flower beds. I thought it was nice that there were metal chairs scattered everywhere, which people are free to move around and form into clusters depending on their whim – solitary reading, lounging, intense conversation, or group study. The pool is ringed with larger-than-life statues of famous French women, some dating back to the 7th century. We could see the tip of the Eiffel Tower off in the distance. We headed around the side of the palace, stopping to admire a pretty shaded fountain and some adorable baby ducklings. Just a block away from the gardens we found La Bastide Odéon, where we would be having dinner on our last night.

Next we headed towards Boulevard St-Germain to do some serious shopping. A was looking for gifts to bring home for her two little girls. First we found a small children’s clothing store with some really adorable things – but yikes! 100 Euro for a toddler’s dress? Fortunately we found another tiny store called “Berry’s Berry” that had really cute clothes at much more reasonable prices. It turned out to be a popular Japanese chain that had just opened this store – the first in Europe – a few months ago. The women that waited on us were very sweet and A found really cute outfits for the girls at terrific prices.

We stopped for lunch at a café right on Boulevard St-Germain called Le Mondrian, where we ate over-priced but tasty salads (mine had cantaloupe, ham, and mozzarella) and split a half-carafe of white wine. When we sat down our waitress brought us a little serving dish with twin bowls containing spiced olives and little pastel-hued marshmallows, which we thought was a rather odd touch. After lunch we ambled down the boulevard and found an awesome accessories store where we both bought scarves and sweaters at unbelievable prices (I bought two large scarves and two sweaters for 90 Euro), then we decided to call it a day and headed back to the hotel to relax before dinner.

The guys were a bit late getting back so we didn’t have time to go up the Eiffel Tower as we had originally planned. Our dinner reservation at Le P’Tit Troquet was at 7:30; before we left the hotel I tried calling to see if I could change it to 8:00 so we would have a little more time before dinner. The woman who answered was very apologetic and said that everyone was calling for 8:00, so it just wasn’t possible to change. I said no problem and confirmed our reservation for 7:30. You can imagine how pleased I was with myself that I made it through this entire phone call in French.

We checked A’s map before we left the hotel and we couldn’t quite find the street that the restaurant was on, but we decided we could surely figure it out later. We ended up heading over to the Eiffel Tower anyway (the restaurant was supposedly “in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower,” but that could be considered an area of several square miles) and got some very nice views of the tower as the light faded from the sky. DH isn’t easily impressed, and even he was awed by the sight of this most quintessential Parisian landmark. It’s just so huge, and the way the metalwork trim along the base looks like the edge of a lace doily – c’est magnifique! We stood there practically underneath the tower and looked at the map again for a few minutes, but still couldn’t find the street. Finally I tried calling the restaurant again, but my French totally failed me – I started to say something in German, and then slipped into English. Unfortunately the woman didn’t speak English so all she could do was tell me the name of a street nearby. I heard “Grenelles.” Unfortunately I missed the fact that she said “Rue des Grenelles” so we headed off towards “Boulevard des Grenelles,” which, it turns out, is a different street in the opposite direction.

Finally, with 7:30 quickly approaching, A and I went into a smoky bar to ask for directions. The bartender was very nice, and although he didn’t know the street we were looking for, he pulled out a little Paris atlas and looked it up for us. While he was helping us another customer at the bar asked for something and the bartender said something to the effect of, “Can’t you see I’m helping these two pretty young ladies?” The customer asked jokingly why we weren’t eating there instead, so A told him in French that we’d come back tomorrow, which made them both laugh. The bartender ended up giving us perfect directions – we had to walk back across the Champs de Mars (the vast grassy esplanade in front of the Eiffel Tower), go down a street past a brasserie called Le Dôme (which looked an awful lot like the place where I had an awesome bowl of onion soup on my first trip to Paris fifteen years ago), and down three blocks to the street in question. En route we walked right past La Fontaine de Mars, where we will be eating tomorrow night. At least we’ll know where we are going.

The bartender’s directions were right on the mark and we ended up finding our street, Rue de la Révolution or whatever it was, which could very well be the narrowest street in Paris. Needless to say we didn’t show up at the door of Le P’tit Troquet until 7:45, but the woman who seemed to be running the place (and probably was the person I had spoken to twice now on the phone) greeted us merrily and showed us to our cozy little table right in the front window.

I can’t say enough good things about this restaurant. The décor is as charming as everyone says – darling little painted glass lamps, white lace curtains, walls crammed with kitschy metal signs, antique Parisian advertisements and old photographs, and a cute little bar in the corner. I think there were nine tables squeezed into the front room and there may have been another room in the back, but it was quite a small place. The woman who greeted and served us was sweet and funny, letting us struggle through our broken French without a hint of impatience. She was assisted by a younger, equally amiable woman who may have been her daughter. We celebrated our little escapade and successful arrival with a round of Kir Royales (champagne flavored with crème de cassis). DH fell in love with these at once and insisted that we make them at home.

The meal was excellent. I had a tiny pot of duck paté, lamb “stewed with oregano for seven hours” accompanied by cheesy mashed potatoes and mixed squash, and a delicate peach soup flavored with mint. DH had a green salad, duck with currant sauce, and chocolate cake with coffee ice cream. A said her mushroom risotto was the best ever (I had a taste and I have to agree!), followed by a nice scallop dish, and J had pumpkin soup and the duck. Everyone came away very satisfied. There are obvious reasons why Le P’tit Troquet is so popular with tourists (we did notice that the other patrons were predominately American), but they are good reasons! I am just surprised that no one ever mentioned the fact that the place is so dang difficult to find!

We strolled back to the Eiffel Tower after dinner, thinking we had missed the evening light show at ten o’clock, so we just walked around and took pictures of the Tower all a-glow in warm yellow light. It turns out that the light show happens at eleven o’clock too, so we got to see it just as we were getting ready to head back to the subway. The entire tower is covered with little white strobe lights that flash randomly, so the tower sparkles like a giant disco ball. It was one of those special Paris moments that takes your breath away…at least until some guy comes up trying to sell you a flashing Eiffel Tower key chain…
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Jan 1st, 2007, 06:14 AM
  #3  
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DAY 3: MORE GIRL TIME IN PARIS
It was a touch cloudier this morning but still warm. A and I repeated our breakfast routine and then hopped on the metro heading for Île de la Cité, the première arrondissement, the very heart of Paris. I must say that while the Paris subway system is very convenient, it was incredibly stuffy and hot down there, and I was always anxious to come back out into the fresh air. I can only imagine what it must have been like during the heat wave this past summer, going from the sauna-like subway to the equally stifling outdoors! Fortunately some of the newer trains have no doors between the cars, so if the windows are open you get a nice breeze.

We got off at the Louvre and walked around a bit. We peeked in the window at one of the sculpture gardens and took pictures of the infamous Pyramide entrance, but didn’t go inside, since DH and I are planning to come back on Sunday and A has already seen it. We walked over to the Carousel, the monumental arch in front of the Louvre, from which you can see all the way through the Jardin des Tuileries and Place de la Concorde, up the Champs-Élysées, to the Arc de Triomphe way off in the distance.

We took our time strolling along the river, catching a few glimpses of the Tour Eiffel off in the distance, and then walked across the arches of Pont Neuf to the island that marks the center of Paris. We decided to visit Sainte-Chapelle first, but we were totally unprepared for the huge line that stretched for half a block outside the entrance. Once again we weren’t in a hurry and the weather was wonderful, so we decided to wait. (I had never seen Sainte-Chapelle and A didn’t mind seeing it again.) We had fun listening to the Americans around us who were debating whether it was worth the wait. I guess if you’re not sure if it’s “worth seeing” Sainte-Chapelle, maybe you really shouldn’t bother.

We ended up waiting about 45 minutes, which in the greater scheme of things was not all that bad. Most of the wait was due to delays at the security checkpoint, where you have to put your bags through an X-ray machine. When I got to the front of the line, the security guards started pointing and laughing at the metal clasp on the front of my George, Gina & Lucy shoulder bag (the only fashionable accessory I have acquired in Stuttgart). I admit, the clasp looks a lot like a miniature handcuff. I looked at the guards with joking indignation and insisted that my bag was “trés chic” and “haute couture.” Which just made them laugh more. As I went through the metal detector, the guard on the other side put his wrists together as if he was handcuffed. I’m glad I got to bring a little humor to their day – I mean, how many people can say that they made the security guards at Sainte-Chapelle laugh?

We finally were inside the “compound” that houses Sainte-Chapelle – a marvelously ornate little Gothic church hidden within the walls of the Palais de Justice. It was constructed for the very devout Louis IX as his royal chapel and reliquary and was consecrated in 1248. We paid our 6,50 Euro (we decided that since it is not an active church anymore, they are allowed to charge an entrance fee) and entered on the ground floor, which is a low vaulted chapel with a lovely painted ceiling. You take a spiral staircase up to the second floor to see the real attraction – the fifteen stained-glass panels that make up the walls of the upper chapel. I was actually surprised by how dark it was inside, despite the fact that virtually the entire structure is composed of glass supported by delicate stone columns. An odd blue light filled the space, emphasized by the dark blue ceiling studded with gold stars. Each window panel tells a biblical story; the room is lined with chairs if you want to sit and slowly work your way through the stories using the laminated handout provided, but the details in the windows are so tiny that you practically need binoculars to see them. The chapel was used as an administrative storage room during the French Revolution, a lowly existence which probably protected the windows from certain vandalism. Now the place has been restored in all of its magnificence and is used for concerts.

After Sainte-Chapelle we made our way across the island to Notre Dame, walking through the Marché aux Oiseaux, or bird market, along the way. The center of the square in front of Notre Dame is considered Point Zéro: the point from which all distances on highways starting in Paris are measured. We had sandwiches outside at a little sidewalk café looking straight up the north side of the cathedral. It was the priciest Croque-Monsieur (grilled-cheese sandwich) I’ve ever had, but you can’t beat the location!

After lunch we toured the cathedral, entering through one of the three massive portals on the west façade. Notre Dame is nowhere near being the tallest or largest cathedral in France, but it is certainly one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world. Its construction spanned nearly two centuries (1160-1345) and was guided by at least four architects, as demonstrated by its somewhat disjointed design. It was one of the first structures to feature flying buttresses, which were added to support the dangerously thin walls that started to fracture even before the cathedral was completed. The buttresses were considered an ugly addition to the cathedral for many years before they were accepted as part of the architecture. Inside, words can’t do it justice, so I won’t even try. The beautiful vaulted ceilings, numerous side chapels, impressive organ, and incredible stained glass windows are truly a sight to behold. The cathedral is perhaps most famous for housing two of the oldest and loveliest rose windows in existence. The French were so worried about these windows that they were removed for safekeeping during World War II and then carefully replaced at war’s end.

While we were wandering around, we had the pleasure of hearing the organ play, which was quite an extraordinary experience. We walked around the back of the cathedral to admire its other angles before strolling over the bridge to Île Saint-Louis. A jazz band was camped out in the middle of the bridge entertaining a small crowd of onlookers as we walked past. Île Saint-Louis may very well be my favorite place in Paris. It is truly a calm oasis amidst all the traffic and noise of the city. The island is mostly residential, with narrow one-way streets, a few small hotels, and a long row of tiny shops. When I visit Paris again, I want to stay here!

We did a little shopping – I bought some crystal earrings and A found a darling little toy store where she bought a few more gifts for the girls, including “Barbapapa” plates. The Barbapapas are characters in a series of 1970s-era French children’s books. J and A somehow know all about the Barbapapas and have copies of the books translated into English. Apparently I have truly missed out because I have never heard of the Barbapapas. A was beside herself with joy to find Barbapapa plates, T-shirts, and figurines in several shops on the streets of Île-Saint-Louis. We also found the famous Berthillon ice cream shop and enjoyed delicious double cones (I had “extra dark” chocolate and coffee with chocolate-covered coffee beans). We walked the length of the island and then crossed back over the Seine to a metro stop and headed back to the hotel.

On our way into the metro this evening I got stuck in the turnstiles. I don’t know why these things always happen to me, but they do. The strap of my shoulder bag got caught on the arm of the turnstile and I had to stop to unhook it. When I went to push through the double swinging doors (sort of a modern version of those swinging louvered doors in a Wild West bar), they wouldn’t open, and I was stuck in the two feet or so between the turnstile and the doors. DH was the only person who hadn’t gone through the turnstile yet, so it was up to him to get me out of there. He backed up and looked in the window at the guy behind the ticket counter and said, “Excusez-moi, monsieur,” (which I believe are the only French words DH knows!) and pointed desperately at me, his dear wife, trapped in the space-time continuum that is the turnstile of the Courcelles metro stop. The guy flipped a switch or something and yelled, “Allez, allez!” and I made it through to safety.

Our evening’s agenda included a Bateau-Mouche ride on the Seine. No trip to Paris is complete without a river cruise, from which you can see many of the most famous sites within the space of an hour. Unfortunately for me, my trips to Paris seem to also involve a boat trip in the rain since this is the second time I’ve done it and it has rained both times. We knew our lucky weather streak couldn’t last forever, and fortunately it only sprinkled for the last fifteen minutes or so. We found the boat dock at Pont de l’Alma, paid our 8 Euros each, and found seats on the roof of the boat. A recording tells you what sights you are passing in about five different languages. We headed towards Île de la Cité, passing the golden dome of Les Invalides, the Egyptian obelisk in Place de la Concorde, the old train station of Musée D’Orsay with its huge glass clock, and the imposing walls and square towers of the Louvre.

We floated along the south side of Île de la Cité, past Notre Dame, turned around in front of Île Saint-Louis, and came back along the north side of Île de la Cité. On this side we could see the Hotel de Ville on the right and the stocky medieval towers of the Conciergerie, which used to be a prison, on the left. We passed the boat dock at Pont de l’Alma and continued on past the Eiffel Tower and the Palais de Chaillot, down to a “modern” area of tall, ugly buildings called Centre Beaugrenelle, and turned around in front of the miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty – and odd sight, with the Eiffel Tower looming in the background. Finally we made it back to Pont de l’Alma and disembarked, when it promptly stopped raining.

We walked towards the Eiffel Tower and the clouds parted just in time for us to enjoy a glowing pink sunset. We realized we still didn’t have enough time to go up the tower before dinner, so we vowed to make it our first stop on Saturday morning. We had some time to kill and we were starving, so we got a snack of waffles and pommes-frîtes and hung out under the tower for a while, just soaking it all in and trying to avoid the boys hawking flashing Eiffel Tower key chains.

Finally we headed off to La Fontaine de Mars, which, you will recall, we had passed on our way to Le P’tit Troquet, so we had no trouble with directions tonight. We were seated inside, although I think it might have been more fun to sit outside along the tiny square. I was a bit disappointed overall by our experience there – the service was brusque and impersonal, they gave us English menus even though we didn’t ask for them, and there was no fixed-price menu option, which made it the most expensive meal of the trip.

I had a crab salad with green beans that was okay, followed by lapin au moutarde (rabbit with mustard sauce), served with peas and more green beans (I guess I got my veggies today), which was good but not fantastic. My dessert, however, was fabulous – a dark chocolate mousse topped with nut crumble and chocolate ice cream. DH had pâté de foie gras, duck confit (which he said was too dry) with potatoes, and the same choclate dessert. A also had the duck, and J had seared tuna. It had been a long day and we were happy to get back to the hotel and turn in for a good night’s sleep before our last full day in Paris.
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Jan 1st, 2007, 06:21 AM
  #4  
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DAY 4: SO MUCH TO SEE, SO LITTLE TIME…
Alas, the good night’s sleep was not to be – a malfunctioning fire alarm kept J and A up all night. We could hear it in our room too, but only distantly. We had breakfast at the hotel, being sure to eat only what we considered the “continental breakfast” items. But the little problems continued – when A requested milk for our coffee, they brought her a café crème instead and we had to ask two more times before they actually brought us a pitcher of milk. I have to say that all in all we were pretty unimpressed with the Hilton.

After breakfast we headed straight for the Eiffel Tower and decided to go up to the middle level. The lines at 10 am on a Saturday morning weren’t too bad, but when we got to the middle there was no question of going to the top because the lines there were ridiculously long and it was a bit hazy, so we figured we’d get the best views at the middle level anyway. We took our time walking around the huge platform, taking pictures of the magnificent view from every possible angle. The sun came out and shone down on Sacré-Coeur in the distance, the golden dome of Les Invalides gleamed, and the Seine cut a deep blue-green ribbon through the middle of it all. We did a little shopping in the tourist shop (I bought the world’s most expensive magnet, only to bring it home and discover that somewhere along the way the magnet had fallen off the back!) and then went back down, walked across the river to the Palais de Chaillot (which houses the Museum of Man and the Naval Museum), took some more pictures, and snacked on crêpes (I splurged and got Grand Marnier on mine).

Next we hopped on the metro and headed for Montmartre and Sacré-Coeur. I really can’t get over how easy it is to get around with the metro, although it is rather odd to disappear underground in one place and come up somewhere else without seeing anything in-between. We got off at the Pigalle stop (I think, or maybe it was one stop further), inadvertently finding ourselves at the edge of the red-light district, and hiked up a crazy, crowded street lined with shops selling rugs, fabric, and cheap souvenirs, past African street vendors hawking knock-off leather purses and trying to tie strings around your fingers. I think they were trying to do some sort of trick to get you to buy their bracelets, but they were quite aggressive and said rude things when we tried to move past them. It looked like a genuinely good ploy to occupy your hands so they could steal your wallet!

We made it all the way up the hill – the highest point in Paris! – to the doors of Sacré-Coeur and took a few minutes to admire the gleaming white façade with its multiple domes and towers. The clouds had cleared so the stark black-and-white profile of the church was outlined magnificently against a brilliant blue sky. The church is relatively new – construction did not begin until 1870, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, and it was completed in 1914. It was extremely crowded inside – worse than Notre Dame – and I was surprised to see people acting more, shall we say, devout, than they had in most of the churches we had visited. One man was praying with his hand on the foot of the statue of a saint, and others were quite emotional. There are no famous relics or tombs housed there, so I was sort of perplexed by this show of devotion. Perhaps it has to do with Saint Denis, the patron saint of France, who is said to have been martyred on this hilltop around the year 250.

The real treat was climbing up to the viewing gallery circling the central dome of the church. J and A stayed down below while DH and I went up through a maze of spiral staircases and passageways up to the roof, where a few too many pigeons had nested over the years. From the top we were rewarded with the most magnificent views of the city. It was strange to think that we were even higher than the top of the Eiffel Tower. The sky was a perfect crystalline blue scattered with billowy white clouds, and the streets and rooftops of Paris stretched out before us like a giant puzzle.

We had lunch at a pizzeria near the church (the pizza was okay, but we could have done without the canned mushrooms) and then slowly worked our way through the streets of Montmartre. This is the traditional artists’ quarter – every great 19th-century French painter you can think of probably spent some time here…Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, and so on. The tradition lives on today in the lovely tree-shaded Place du Tertre, which is filled with hundreds of artists selling their work – sometimes painting right in front of you.

The artists must receive special permission to sell their work here so you are guaranteed to see good-quality, original pieces. There are also dozens of portrait artists who will sketch you on the spot if you are willing to pay the price. The ones I saw in progress were really quite good. We made two slow loops of the square just soaking it all in. We saw a few things we really liked but they were out of our price range. We continued on down the street, admiring the quaintness and relative calm of Montmartre. It really is a whole other side of Paris that many people don’t see – more like a small town than a huge metropolis. On our way back down the hill we stopped at a really interesting Art Nouveau-style church that had an unusual dark wood interior. Then we got back on the metro and headed back to the hotel to rest and change for dinner.

We stopped to buy some pastries and found a nice bench in Parc de Monceau near our hotel to sit and enjoy them. I should mention that the entrance to this park is guarded by an immense black iron scrollwork gate embellished with gold gilt – perhaps the most ornate gate I’ve ever seen. The park is a hidden gem – lined with beautiful apartment buildings, it is a green oasis of lush lawns and trees and broad walking paths lined with benches. It was filled with people jogging and kids playing on this lovely Saturday afternoon.

Our last dinner in Paris turned out to be the best, as it should be. We gave ourselves enough time to get back to Saint-Germain, but not enough to stop at the Luxembourg Garden. After getting just a little confused about our directions, we found the cheerful red awnings of La Bastide Odéon on a side street near the Opera. We were greeted warmly, our coats were whisked away upstairs, and we were seated at a cozy corner table in the back. We shrugged off the English menu that we were offered, vowing to trust our amazing grasp of French (we ended up borrowing the English menu from the three Americans sitting next to us). Most of the other guests seemed to be French, including what was obviously a theater crowd that came in late. The waitstaff could not have been friendlier, patiently letting us struggle with our French.

We started with a last celebratory round of Kir Royales, of course. I had a fabulous creamy mussel soup, followed by quail with mushroom risotto. It wasn’t quite as fabulous as Le P’tit Troquet’s risotto, but still very tasty! For dessert I had a hearty portion of fabulous homemade millefeuille – literally, “thousand sheets” – a classic French dessert with many layers of delicate puff pastry layered with vanilla custard. DH had a salad of figs, artichoke hearts, and mozzarella, followed by roast chicken with mushrooms, and raspberry sorbet in a chocolate “soup.” A had a white bean salad and the quail, and J had the fig salad and some sort of fish which I am forgetting now. For the combination of good food and excellent service, I definitely have to rate this as the culinary highlight of our stay in Paris.

We said our goodbyes to J and A before we turned in. It was definitely a special treat to spend a few days in Paris with good friends!
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Jan 1st, 2007, 06:22 AM
  #5  
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DAY 5: AU REVOIR, PARIS – HELLO, ERMENONVILLE
DH and I had breakfast at the hotel since we weren’t sure if the café would be open on a Sunday morning. We packed up and went to check out and sure enough, they had charged us the full 30 Euros for every single breakfast. They had no problem changing it when DH pointed out that we had the continental breakfast. They also hadn’t included the parking charge, which came to a staggering 140 Euro. Afterwards, since we realized that our name was not affiliated with the valet parking ticket, I wondered if we would have been charged for the parking if DH hadn’t mentioned it. Fortunately we are not paying for it!

I have to say I was definitely not impressed with the Hilton, and I was doubly unhappy that we had to spend 350 Euro on an extra night there. In retrospect we should have switched to another hotel. I forgot to mention that when we came back to our room one late afternoon to get ready for dinner, the room had not even been made up yet. A housekeeper arrived while I was in the shower and was quite flustered when DH turned her away; later on a hotel manager-type person came by wanting to let the housekeeper in to make up our room. We said we would be leaving soon and could they come back in ten minutes, but this was apparently the end of the day for the daytime staff and the evening staff do not make up rooms, they just do the turn-down service! I didn’t really care about not having fresh towels, but it’s the principle of not having your room made up in a four-star 350 Euro-per-night hotel that gets to me!

We left our bags with the concierge, who gave me a city map (since A went home with the one we had been using). I said we were going to Notre Dame and the Louvre, and the concierge informed me that the Louvre is free admission today because it is the first Sunday of the month (oh, great – it will be even more crowded!) With map in hand we set off on a grand promenade through Paris. We headed first to the Arc de Triomphe, taking the underground passageway underneath the world’s craziest traffic circle at Place Charles de Gaulle to come up at the base of the monumental arch. It was a strange feeling standing out there on that concrete island surrounded by all that whirling traffic, like being in the eye of a hurricane, with the gigantic arch looming above us. We walked around the base of the arch reading all of the inscriptions, including the impassioned speech made by Charles de Gaulle when the French government retreated from Paris during World War II, vowing to return to fight for the liberation of France. We decided not to go to the top of the arch since we were planning to climb Notre Dame later in the day. We admired the view down the Champs-Élysées, and, in the other direction, towards the Arc de Triomphe’s modern twin, the imposing Grande Arche in La Défense, and then crossed back underneath to start our long walk down the entire length of the Champs-Élysées. Interestingly, about half the stores were open on this Sunday morning, including all of the fancy car showrooms. The Renault showroom had an interesting automotive-themed modern art exhibit and lots of Formula 1 gear celebrating the current champion, Renault driver Ferdinand Alonso.

We continued past the designer boutiques and cafés and brasseries that make the Champs-Élysées the most famous shopping street in the world. We headed straight on to Place de la Concorde, where such notables as King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were guillotined during the French Revolution. Where the guillotine stood there is now a 3,300-year-old Egyptian obelisk (ostensibly Paris’ oldest landmark) that once marked the entrance to the temple of Luxor. The obelisk is flanked by two impressive gilded fountains; a dance video of some sort was being filmed in front of one of them and there were guards shooing away the passersby and gawkers, so we didn’t linger for long. From Place de la Concorde we looked back towards the Arc de Triomphe, and could once again see the Eiffel Tower off in the distance. Continuing on past a giant circular reflecting pool and through the tree-lined Jardin des Tuileries to the Carousel arch in front of the Louvre, we found ourselves looking back every now and then to admire the metamorphing view. The flower gardens in front of the Louvre were past their prime, but there were still plenty of people out enjoying a Sunday stroll.

Today the line for the Louvre wound halfway around the Pyramide, but it moved very quickly. Within a few minutes we were through the security checkpoint, descending underground by way of an escalator underneath the glass pyramid, and found ourselves let loose in the mobbed basement lobby of the world’s largest art museum. It felt a bit like being in an airport terminal on a very busy holiday weekend. I snagged a map from an information booth and we formulated a plan to see a few of “the big ones” – the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, and Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. First we wound our way through a couple of the French and Italian sculpture gardens, which are cavernous glass-roofed rooms full of larger-than-life statues of all shapes and sizes, then we followed the signs to the Venus de Milo, which we viewed from across the room, over the heads of a hundred tourists holding their cameras in the air. Please, I understand it’s really old and quite a lovely statue, but what’s the big deal??

Next we found ourselves retracing our steps in search of La Gioconda, a.k.a. the Mona Lisa. Honestly, I think it would be quite easy to get lost in this place. We probably walked over a mile and we were only there for an hour or two. The World’s Most Famous Painting is housed in its own climate-controlled chamber behind bullet-proof glass (someone had the gall to throw a rock at her once) in a large room off of the Italian hall. I prepared myself for her to be small (a guy stole the painting in 1911 by hiding it under his coat, after all), but she was really small! I stood in the back while DH waded through the crowds to get a closer look. I would have taken a picture from afar, but they were not allowing photography in an effort to move people through faster.

By this point we were getting pretty fed up with the crowds. We walked further down the Italian hall and saw the Raft of the Medusa and several other massive pieces that we recognized from our art history textbooks. Fortunately they had cushioned benches in the middle so at least we could take a rest. Now I know why I’ve been to Paris four or five times without visiting the Louvre. Even DH said he didn’t need to go back there anytime soon. I know there are many other interesting exhibits (I hear the Egyptian collection is stunning), but it is just too much to absorb all at once and I can think of better ways to spend my time in Paris. So, after I posed for a picture with a statue of a wild boar, we slowly made our way out to the metro station and proceeded to Île de la Cité.

It was getting on in the afternoon so we decided to find a place to eat before going back to tour Notre Dame. We walked behind the cathedral and over to Île Saint-Louis to eat at Brasserie Île Saint-Louis, which has an Alsatian theme and was listed in Fodor’s. The place was hopping and service was a little slow. I had a big slice of onion tart (good but not inspired) with a side salad and DH had a huge plate of choucroute – a classic Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and various smoked meats – that was also just okay. I guess living in Germany has spoiled us. We did have a nice bottle of Alsatian Riesling (interesting to see how different it is from our Baden-Württemberg Rieslings) and then headed off to get our ice cream fix at Berthillon.

We came back to Notre Dame a little after four o’clock only to discover that they weren’t letting anyone else get in line to climb the tower that day. I was not happy because we had checked the posted hours and it was supposed to be open until five o’clock – but I suppose that means they want everyone out by five. I guess we’ll just have to come back someday! We went inside instead, so DH could have a look around, then walked back across the river, enjoying one last view of the Seine, and headed back to the hotel to pick up our car.

In sum, I have to say that there are a few things I dislike about Paris…the crowds, the traffic, the general lack of green space, and most of all, the excess of dog waste on the sidewalks. (No wonder they hose the streets off every morning – it is absolutely disgusting! All I can say is, don’t swim in the Seine.) So what do I love about Paris? It’s the city of lights, the city of love, the city of history, food, wine, and romantic vistas so spectacular, you think you’ve died and gone to heaven. What surprised me? We didn’t get an ounce of that infamous Parisian attitude. I’m glad I got to go back. I’m sure we’ll be back again someday, but in the meantime, there are many other areas of France I want to explore.

We had a little adventure navigating our way back to the Périphérique, but we found it eventually and headed off towards Chantilly. We followed the navi’s directions to our hotel, Chateau d’Ermenonville, situated in a park-like setting on the outskirts of a tiny town known primarily for its sprawling English-style garden, which once housed the tomb of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. We arrived just before sunset and the setting was simply ethereal – a perfect little moated 18th-century castle with two turreted towers and a lovely lake in back populated by a small collection of swans and ducks. We checked in and I spoke some French. We relaxed into our comfortable if slightly shabby room, which had a beautiful view out over the lake. We rested a bit and then went down to the dining room, which was on the ground floor in the other wing of the castle. There was some sort of large party going on in the next room, but there was only one other couple and a party of six sharing the dining room with us. We were seated at a very romantic table in front of one of two tall picture windows; draped with heavy brocade curtains on either side, it made for a very cozy little nook.

Dinner was exceptional. We had purchased the Arrêt d’un Soir package, which includes one night’s stay and Le Menu Philosophe (normally 52 Euro per person), plus breakfast. We expected a typical four-course menu (appetizer, main course, cheese, and dessert), but it actually turned into a six-course meal, as I will explain. First we were offered a mise en bouche or “taste of the chef,” which was a thimble-size serving of squash soup topped with a paper-thin pancetta “crisp” and sprinkled with pistachios. I could have easily downed a whole bowl. Between the two of us we sampled everything on the Philosophe menu. I had the “variations des langoustines” (various preparations of crayfish) which was incredible – sesame-grilled crayfish with an Asian cucumber salad, thinly sliced raw crayfish on a bed of fresh herbs, and a cold crayfish salad wrapped in a slice of smoked salmon. My main course was red snapper topped with a sweet-tart glaze, with a vegetable-potato purée and baguette toasts. DH’s appetizer was foie gras with mango salad and melba toasts, and his main course was gâteau de ris de veau (“cake” of veal sweetbreads – yes, we suspected that’s what it was even though I didn’t have my dictionary with me) with mushrooms and mixed vegetables. We were unsure of what to order from the voluminous wine list that would be good with red snapper and veal sweetbreads, so we requested the assistance of the sommelier. He turned out to be really wonderful – he started off speaking French but as soon as I started translating (what I could) for DH, he asked if we would prefer English. He suggested several different wines in our price range, telling us the nuances of each, and we eventually chose a 2002 Coteaux des Moines Bourgogne (or something like that). Next came the cheese course, and then we were surprised with a sort of pre-dessert – a miniature chocolate-cherry tiramisu that was quite heavenly.

I could have happily ended the meal right there, because the dessert course was the only disappointment of the night. I have a feeling that they do not have a pastry chef on staff, because our desserts seemed, shall we say, past their prime. Or maybe they never had a prime to begin with. I chose the macarons, which were nothing like American coconut macaroons – it was a trio of tiny tasteless meringue cookies with an overly sweet, slightly chewy white paste sandwiched in between them. DH had the chocolate “Snickers” specialty which was just a lot of chocolate and nougat sandwiched into a long bar. It was too rich and not spectacular. We finished with espressos, which came with even more dessert – three miniature tartlettes, which were better than the real dessert course! I’d give the restaurant full marks if it weren’t for the dessert fiasco.

I have to say that all of the reviews that I have read of Chateau d’Ermenonville were right on target – the place itself is gorgeous, the service excellent, and the restaurant incredible; the somewhat shabby rooms simply don’t quite live up to the rest of the atmosphere, which is really a shame (ours had stained carpet and slightly threadbare fabrics). With a little work they could turn it into a real gem.
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Jan 1st, 2007, 06:23 AM
  #6  
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DAY 6: CHANTILLY AND THE MUSÉE VIVANT DU CHEVAL
We went down to breakfast and from the looks of the people who were checking out, we determined that the big party from the night before must have been a wedding reception. We were all but alone in the dining room for breakfast, where we had croissants, meats, and cheese, with squeeze-it-yourself fresh orange juice, and of course great coffee. After breakfast we took our time, taking a little walk around the town, which was all but deserted, and sitting by the lake behind the château (it’s not often you get to stroll around the private grounds of a castle, after all). Finally we checked out around eleven and set the navi for the Musée Vivant du Cheval (Living Museum of the Horse) in Chantilly. We stopped along the way to contemplate the ruins of the 13th-century Abbaye de Chaalis from afar, then stopped in the lovely medieval town of Senlis to see its famous cathedral and find something for lunch. We parked on the outskirts of town and walked along the crooked streets, passing the decrepit church of St-Pierre, which literally had moss and various other plants growing out of its roof. (I wanted to go in but all of the doors were locked.) Senlis’ own Cathédrale Notre-Dame is one of France’s “oldest and narrowest” cathedrals, according to Fodor’s. Its graceful Gothic spire dates from 1240 and its transept and beautiful rose windows were added in the 16th century.

After wandering a few of Senlis’ picturesque streets we found a boulangerie-pâtisserie that appeared to be quite popular, as a line of what looked to be high school students quickly formed and extended out the door while we waited. We bought a little quiche for me and a ham-and-cheese panini sandwich for DH, both of which the lady behind the counter kindly heated up for us, along with dessert, of course – a flaky palmier for DH and a tarte au chocolate for moi. We took our lunch back to the car, hoping to find a nice bench in the park across the street, but apparently it was a park with no benches – quelles horreurs! – and we had to eat in the car.

Then it was on to Chantilly and the horse museum. I’d heard that there were famous stables at Chantilly, and since we couldn’t visit Versailles until Tuesday (it’s closed Mondays), I convinced DH that immersing ourselves in everything horse would be a nice way to spend a Monday afternoon. (I was a horse nut as a kid.) Just seeing the exterior of the Château de Chantilly is worth the visit – it is a beautiful sight, set off in the middle of its own private lake surrounded by broad green lawns. We parked near the castle and walked up the road to the Grandes Écuries – the 18th-century royal stables, which now house the world’s largest museum dedicated to the horse. They are so grande, you could easily mistake the stables for a château in their own right. DH says it should be called the world’s largest museum of horse art – and he has a point. We toured room after room of paintings depicting breeds of horses, various horse sporting events, and the horse in modern art, plus a room full of antique carousel horses and another one of rocking horses and other horse-related toys. There were a few rooms with displays of livery and a carriage or two. Several rooms were devoted to the history of horse medicine and featured graphic descriptions of horrific horse ailments, along with some rather bizarre preserved horse parts, of which I’ll spare you the details. Perhaps most interesting was a collection of postcards, organized chronologically, capturing horses during various periods in history – wars, expeditions, etc. One set chronicled the use of horses in mines in Alsace – the ponies were lowered down the mine shafts using ropes and pullies and they never saw the light of day again, staying there until they died.

The most impressive room was a huge, barrel-vaulted corridor lined with life-size models of more than two dozen horse breeds from around the world, including their traditional livery and, in some cases, a mannequin dressed in accompanying horse-riding garb. We timed our visit to see the “live demonstration” in a domed exhibition area in the middle of the stables. The demonstration itself was a bit of a disappointment – just two young women who gave a little talk about horsemanship (in French, of course), and demonstrated a few basic dressage training manouevers on their lovely white Portuguese horses – but the setting was fantastic.

True to the name, the museum also features a “live” display of twenty or so horse breeds from around the world. They were exhibited in a long row of stalls inside another barrel-vaulted stable, although most of them were happily munching on hay with their rumps facing the corridor, so you couldn’t actually get a very good look at them. There were some really beautiful horses and it was so tempting to give them a pat on the nose (strictly forbidden, of course). It was starting to drizzle as we made our way back to the car. On the way out, we watched two of the stable employees bring out a couple of horses for their afternoon walk – a beautiful dapple gray and a huge black stallion with the most gorgeous mane and tail, either of which I would have been happy to take for a ride. It didn’t look like a bad life for a horse.

Our destination for the evening was Domaine du Verbois, a picture-perfect, pretty-in-pink 19th-century hotel (originally a home built by a Parisian antiques dealer for one of his mistresses) set on the outskirts of Neauphle-le-Château, an otherwise unremarkable town that happens to be the home of Grand Marnier, the world-famous orange liquor. We were greeted by the friendly desk staff, who showed us to our pleasant garden-view room on the second floor, nicely decorated in cream with red and black accents, with a lovely gray-and-white tile bathroom complete with claw-foot tub. By this point it was raining steadily and we settled in for a relaxing evening.

We ate in the hotel’s small, elegant dining room with just two other couples, who happened to be German, while a small birthday party was taking place in the next room. Our waiter was very sweet and put up with my attempts at French smalltalk. We started with glasses of champagne and a little tray of appetizer toasts. The meal was uninspired but pleasant. I had shrimp cocktail with aubergine caviar and beef with a foie gras reduction, followed by the “house dessert” of vanilla ice cream with mandarin orange slices topped with – naturally – Grand Marnier. DH had a scallop salad and duck breast, and he can’t remember what he had for dessert. A little boy kept sneaking out of the birthday party and coming through the dining room through a door just behind me. Finally our waiter got fed up and chastised him, which was quite funny. Our only complaint was that we figured out about halfway through dinner that the stereo system was playing the same annoying French song over and over and over again. DH thought he was going to go mad, so he made me go say something to the waiter (who was doing double-duty at the front desk). I worked up my courage and searched my vocabulary to come up with “Je pense, qu’il ya une probléme avec la musique…c’est la même chanson…?” (“I think there is a problem with the music…it’s the same song…?”) He got my meaning immediately and quickly rectified the situation!
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Jan 1st, 2007, 06:24 AM
  #7  
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DAY 7: VERSAILLES AT LAST!
Versailles…what can one say that hasn’t already been said? Versailles is the palace to end all palaces. From modest beginnings as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII; transformed into a monument of Baroque extravagance by the Sun King, Louis XIV, in an effort to escape Paris and demonstrate the all-encompassing power of the French monarchy; transformed yet again by Louis XV in a more “livable” Rococo style; and finally, backdrop to the downfall of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution…but wait, first we have to get there. Little did we know this would pose such a challenge. We enjoyed a perfect, classic French petit déjeuner at Domaine du Verbois: croissants, baguettes, butter, jam, and coffee. When we checked out, the woman at the front desk recognized my name and greeted me in German. I remember when I emailed our reservation request in English, she responded in German, obviously assuming that someone writing from Stuttgart with a German last name had to be German! I explained that, despite the obvious clues, we were in fact American.

We got on the road at about 8:30, heading for the autoroute, and soon found ourselves in the world’s worst traffic jam. No, forgive me, apparently this was just weekday rush-hour traffic in the suburbs of Paris. Egads! Quick, DH, turn around before we get stuck on the freeway! We ended up driving the backroads to Versailles (thank you, navi!), but what should have been an easy fifteen-minute drive ended up taking almost an hour.

We still arrived before the big crowds and were able to park quite close, walking over the lumpy cobblestone courtyard to the gilded gates of the world’s biggest party house. (They are currently restoring part of the cobblestones to what I presume will be a more uniform topography.)

In spite of ordering tickets in advance, it took us forever to get started on the audio tour because we had to wait in line for security, then once we were inside, we were informed that the bathrooms were outside and we would have to go through security all over again! (Mental note: next time, ask about restrooms first.) Fortunately, since we were on a tight schedule, the audio tour only took an hour.

The first and last time I visited Versailles was after my sophomore year in high school, on my first trip to France, when my brother and I stayed with a French family on their farm north of Paris. They took us to Versailles for a day trip and, as I recall, we took a guided tour that left me completely overwhelmed. The only thing I really remember is getting yelled at for accidentally using my camera flash. It was, after all, my first exposure to all things French – and my first time seeing the exceedingly extravagant excesses of the French monarchy. This time around, I was a bit better prepared, and even DH, who was visiting for the first time, was impressed but not overawed. It was so crowded that it was really difficult to take everything in. When you can’t see halfway across the room because of the sea of people in front of you, you can’t really comprehend the vastness of the spaces and the sheer opulence of all the gold gilt, marble, and endless paintings.

We started off in the chapel, where I was chastised for using my camera – even without the flash. I am always very careful about making sure it is acceptable to take photographs, and I quite honestly missed the “camera-with-a-line-through-it” sign near the entrance to the chapel. They do allow non-flash photography throughout the rest of the palace (except in the theater, for whatever reason), so I think I should be forgiven for being confused. Next was a long hall with a black-and-white parquet floor lined with statues of kings, then the royal theater, which was gold gilt from floor to ceiling. We climbed to the second floor and looked out over the rooftop of the palace at a giant pool of water, which was used to provide water pressure for the fountains in the gardens below. Then there was another long hall of statues (they were really fond of long halls of statues), then a series of over-the-top ornate rooms, filled with gold gilt and marble and silk-covered walls and countless paintings plastering the ceilings. It gets quite exhausting after a while, craning your neck up to look at everything.

The major disappointment (which I was prepared for) was that the Hall of Mirrors is currently undergoing extensive renovations, so you can only see about half of what is perhaps Versailles’ most impressive room. The whole backside of the palace is one long gallery of mirrors and gold gilt, with every inch of the barrel-vaulted ceiling covered with paintings. They have created a clever mirrored screen to lessen the impact of the restoration. Even though you can only see half the hall, you see the mirror image of that half reflected back at you, so you more or less get the effect of seeing the entire length of the hall.

After touring the royal bedchambers, the throne room, and a string of libraries, parlors, audience rooms, etc., we turned in our audio devices and emerged out into the gardens. Despite the light drizzle, it was a relief to be outside and away from the hordes of people. The weather actually seemed to be keeping most people inside; after dropping down a few flights of stairs to the main level of the gardens, the crowds literally melted away. We almost felt like we had the place to ourselves. I think the famed fountains only run on Sundays now, so we had to imagine what they would look like on a sunny day, spouts of water shooting out of the mouths of various frogs, dolphins, and other mythical creatures. We wandered down to the Grand Canal and took a path down a long, tree-lined esplanade to the Grand Trianon, one of several “satellite” palaces on the grounds of Versailles, to which members of the royal family liked to escape in their free time. This one was all pink marble columns and tall multi-paned windows. The manicured flower gardens in back were particularly pretty, even this late in the year. The Grand Trianon was open for visits but we really wanted to see Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon and Le Hameau, so we didn’t go inside.

At the Petit Trianon there was another security check and I managed to make yet another security guard smile over the “handcuff” clasp on my bag. He examined the clasp with exaggerated care, looked inside the bag feigning concern, then handed it back to me and wiped his hand across his brow, saying, “Whew!”

I could understand why Marie Antoinette had this little palace built to escape from the stifling atmosphere and etiquette of Versailles. Everything about it was on a smaller, quainter scale – more like a country cottage (okay, a very luxurious country cottage) than a grand mansion. I particularly liked the drawing room with a harp and chairs set up as if at any moment “Toinette” and her friends would come in for an impromptu concert. Her bedroom was also very sweet, with a tiny canopied bed and all the furnishings upholstered in a matching girlish floral print.

Back outside, we headed for the vast compound known as le Hameau (the Hamlet) – Marie Antoinette’s answer to the gossip and innuendo of courtly life at Versailles. Here she had everything her heart could desire – an unearthly “grotto” with a waterfall cascading down a tumble of rocky ruins; two Greek “temples” where she could enjoy informal summer concerts; an exquisite little theater where she liked to play the role of servant girl; a meandering river lined with bridle paths; a lake full of ducks and swans crowned by her very own private lighthouse; and, at the heart of it all, her very own peasant village, where she milked cows and tended her flock of perfumed sheep. The falsely rustic but cheerfully quaint Hameau is one of the more amazing things I’ve seen in France. It felt like something out of Disneyland. Complete with thatched-roof cottages, vegetable garden, vineyard, and water-powered mill, it draws a clear portrait of a young, naïve girl trapped unwillingly in the role of Queen of France. I have yet to see Sophia Coppola’s interpretation of Marie Antoinette’s life, but I expect that it does a fair job of illustrating the young queen’s efforts to build a protective wall between herself and the realities of life as a monarch. Dare I say that I feel sorry for her?

We walked back to the Grand Canal and had lunch at the restaurant there. This was the first and only time we encountered any hint of rudeness on our trip – when we asked the waiter if there was a non-smoking section, he sort of sneered and tossed our menus on a small café table in the “lobby” of the restaurant, right next to the swinging front doors with the cold air blowing in. Needless to say we refused to sit there, and we didn’t give him a good tip either. We had buckwheat crêpes with ham and cheese and I had a bowl of onion soup (which was quite good), since I had managed to go the whole trip without sampling my favorite French classic!

We didn’t make it back to the car until 3:00 (we had probably walked two miles roundtrip from Versailles to the Trianon palaces and back), two hours later than we had originally planned. I tried to make it up to DH, who had to go to work the next day, by driving all the way home to Stuttgart. Fortunately we skirted south of Paris and only hit a little evening traffic. At that point it started raining and it didn’t stop for five hours. It was pouring so hard that I didn’t dare go over 120 kph, so it took more than six and a half hours to get home. We finally got back safe and sound, thoroughly exhausted, but thrilled with our brief sojourn in France!

And that's all she wrote...Happy New Year everyone!
hausfrau is offline  
Jan 1st, 2007, 08:43 AM
  #8  
mms
 
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Wonderful reading, thank you! We are headed to Paris in June, just a girls trip, so your details will help. Two of us have been there before, but not the 3rd. If you can think of the name of the shop where you got the scarves and sweaters for such a reasonable price, I would love it.
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Jan 1st, 2007, 09:05 AM
  #9  
 
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Nice report, Hausfrau. Very interesting and informative...we will use some of your restaurant suggestions this summer.
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Jan 2nd, 2007, 03:51 AM
  #10  
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Hi mms,
Glad you enjoyed it! I am sure you will have a great girls trip! I found my receipt - the shop is called Miss Coquines and the address is 110 Boulevard St. Germain. It looks like a shoe store in front but they have loads of sweaters, scarves, and other accessories in the back. It's a fun shop for inexpensive accessories (I can't guarantee they're actually made in France though!) and the women who helped us were very friendly.
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Jan 2nd, 2007, 10:49 AM
  #11  
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I forgot to mention, for those who helped me with restaurants, that I would rank them in the following order:

1. Bastide Odeon (barely beat out #2, for overall food quality and service)
2. Le P'Tit Troquet
3. La Fontaine de Mars
4. Chez Savy

They were all good in their own way, and we were not "disappointed" by any of them, but I have to stay that the restaurant at Chateau d'Ermenonville had them all beat!
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Jan 4th, 2007, 08:34 PM
  #12  
schubert70
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Great travelogue. Thank you, Hausfrau.
 
Jan 5th, 2007, 11:17 AM
  #13  
 
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I enjoyed your report, hausfrau! I missed it when you first posted it, but I remember your other thread where you were first asking about restaurants.

It's always nice to hear back from someone about how it all turned out!
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Jan 5th, 2007, 11:21 AM
  #14  
 
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Thank you, Hausfrau for this informative and beautiful report. We shall go in May to Paris for to Paris and we shall take some ideas from your report.
Paris is the city where I am ready to return (if I could) every year!
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Jan 10th, 2007, 04:49 PM
  #15  
ComfyShoes
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Yes, one of the nicest travel report I have read.
 
Jan 10th, 2007, 05:08 PM
  #16  
 
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Hausfrau: Interesting trip report especially following all your pre-trip restaurant questions. Nice to find out how you liked the restaurants you chose. While we find interesting restaurants in Paris each time we go and the food is usually good, sometimes excellent or superb, the food always seems better outside of Paris. We have had wonderful memorable meals in many parts of France.

To this day I can vividly remember the escargot in puff pastry that I ate in Cluny nearly 20 years ago, the salad with warm shellfish and a light vinagrette in Rouen, the venison stew in Aix Les Bains. Yet my fondest meals in Paris are always simple, a croissant and hot chocolate or cheese and bread from a local market.

For me Paris is sparkly and sensual, the food is just frosting on the cake.
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Jan 10th, 2007, 05:09 PM
  #17  
ComfyShoes
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Paris is sparkly and sensual, food is just the frosting on the cake....

Wow! I plan to use that tomorrow at work. Well, replacing "Paris" and "food" with something else.

 
Jan 11th, 2007, 12:39 PM
  #18  
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Is it considered immodest to top one's own post to thank everyone for their kind remarks? ;-) Anyway, thanks everyone, glad you enjoyed it.

sylvia, I think you nailed it - you could probably get the food experience of a lifetime in Paris if you paid enough for it, but for us, just "being" in Paris was the best part!
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Jan 24th, 2007, 09:23 AM
  #19  
rhapsody
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Is your spreadsheet on Paris restaurants useful enough to post somehow or is everything covered above? Lucy
 
Jan 24th, 2007, 12:17 PM
  #20  
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Lucy, I don't know any convenient way to post my spreadsheet, but it basically covered the 20-odd restaurants listed in my original post, with contact info and a brief summary of the reviews that I found for each place. Of the twenty or so restaurants that I researched, I basically chose the four that received the most positive comments (from this forum and other online reviews) and were most convenient based on our rough itinerary.
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