Impression: France - The Paris Portion

Jul 25th, 2011, 10:29 AM
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Impression: France - The Paris Portion

After several weeks, we’ve recovered sufficiently from our month in France (and more or less caught up with work and the overgrown yard) to start a little trip report. Okay, it’s a big trip report. In fact, I plan to divide it into three sections: Paris, Provence and Lot/Dordogne/Toulouse.

I would first like to thank the French-oriented Fodorites who helped me so much during the 18 months of joyful planning that went into our little adventure: StuDudley, StCirq, Carlux, cigalechante kerouac, FrenchMystiqueTours, ira, Michel_Paris, Michael, Stu Tower, tedgale, Christina and all the other fellow travelers who wrote about their own trips.

I will endeavor to post the per diem reports on a daily or every-other-day basis. After the first day, the remainder will all include links to our photos.

If and when you read my musings, please keep in mind that my reasons for creating the journal are threefold. 1) I am telling my friends and family about the trip on a separate blogsite where they can see the photos in one place; 2) I am posting on Fodors to help travelers seeking information or entertain those who simply want to reminisce; and 3) I am recording details of our experience for personal reasons to help us remember down the road. (It’s only been a few weeks and my husband reads the journal and says, “Oh, yeah. I forgot about that.”) Since I wasn’t about to write three separate trip reports, covering these bases means that I am providing background and details that will likely seem superfluous to those who are familiar with these places. I would also invite the experts to correct any mistakes they may see as we go along.

Okay, caveats complete. Anyone interested may now follow our family trip from June 6th through July 4, 2011. Phil, Shari and our youngest kid, 13-year-old Joe (and let me tell you, it was nice to travel with only one kid for a change).

* * *

Monday 6/6/11

It was of course a long haul at just under 11 hours, but pleasantly uneventful save for the fact that it was the maiden voyage of our Air France plane. The ginormous Airbus A380 was "christened" leaving the gate in San Francisco by the SF Fire Department. Trucks on either side of the taxi tarmac shot streaming arcs of water over the plane as we passed under like a monstrous football player breaking through a banner to enter the field.

The complimentary champagne and wine gave us another reason to appreciate the French d' avance.

* * *

Tuesday 6/7/11

Unless I'm staying in the same apartment or on the same street, I am most definitely taking a cab from the airport instead of trying to save a few bucks after a long, brain-anesthetizing flight.

When we finally found the train station after picking up our bags, we had to stand in line to get tickets because, as we all know, Americans don't have the chip credit cards the rest of the modern world now uses. Without the exact change in Euros, the multitude of shiny green and blue electronic ticket kiosks scattered around the station just stood their tauntingly and did us zero good.

The attendant at the ticket booth had a long-suffering air about him and all but rolled his eyes when I starting speaking to him in tentative French. Having calculated earlier how many metro tickets we would likely need for the week, we bought four carnets of T+ tickets at the same time we got the three RER tickets to get us into Paris. I had expected the carnets to come in perforated packs of 10, but they were all little individual strips. I hurried to gather up the 43 tiny tickets and juggled with my bags to follow Phil and Joe out to the main area, but then we couldn't find one of the three train tickets when we stopped to put our packs back on. Assuming that I must have dropped it, I got back in line to buy another one, ticked off that I was wasting more time and embarrassed when I ended up with the same snide ticket agent waiting on me again. (We later found the damn' thing mixed in with the stack of metro tickets, though we had thumbed through them multiple times.)

The train ride was quick and easy. The public transportation in Europe is always impressive and France is no exception. However, Phil was dismayed as he looked out the window and saw the abundance of graffiti decorating the buildings along the tracks. I reminded him that London and other great cities have the same problem; but in his fond memory from the Summer of '69, Paris had been pristine.

We were careful to follow the correct exit to the Left Bank side of the St-Michel/Notre Dame station. We were pleased to see how well-marked all the directions seemed to be - - but that was the end of my confidence that day.

We emerged from the RER station to a rainstorm and laughed in surprise. My humor was tamped down rather quickly, though, when I couldn't immediately find the Fontaine St Michel I was expecting to use as my "signpost" to turn into Rue St-Andre-des-Arts. It's always a bit disorienting to pop up from an underground station in an unfamiliar area, but the vision-obscuring sheets of water definitely added an extra challenge. My hands were too full to fish out my umbrella, much less hold it over my head; and I had to put my printed directions away as they were getting soaked.

My first instinct to turn right and head southwest ultimately proved correct (it was less than a block away), but I got flustered in the rain and couldn't find a sheltered spot on the quay to examine my map & notes. Feeling guilty about Phil and Joe staring at me expectantly with bags on their backs and rivulets streaming down their faces, I foolishly, inexplicably turned around and went the other direction

Rapidly snaking through the wet streets and alleys, I felt rushed by the relentless downpour, pressured by the angry vibes emanating from the big boys stumping along behind me and disoriented by how different the neighborhood was in reality compared to the way it looked on a map. I was trapped in a maze rather than following a pattern on paper. When we turned into the Rue Galande, I looked up and saw the old houses looming over me with their dark Mansard roofs blending into the stormy sky and I pushed down a wave of claustrophobia. As I picked my way over the wet cobblestones, it occurred to me that the narrow medieval rues walled in by the towering facades felt more like paths through deep woods than Parisian streets.

I knew something was off when I looked to my right and saw the damaged tower of St Julien le Pauvre and thought, "Gee, that looks familiar. I've seen it on Google Street View." Then we came smack in front of the Gothic hulk of St. Severin and I froze in my tracks. Crap - that means we're blocks away! The immense windows and blackened, vine-covered walls laced with gargoyles excited me, though, and I started to say, "You, know, this was first built in the 13th century . . .", until the stony looks on my companions' faces cut me off. No one was in the mood for sightseeing and history lessons. It was not until we reached Boulevard St. Michel, turned south and saw the Cluny that my brain began to properly register a sense of direction. At that point, I knew exactly where I had gone wrong, but Phil was clearly losing confidence in my navigation skills.

By the time we half-drowned rats at last found our cheese, we were completely drained of any initial excitement. I could tell that Phil didn't have much faith that I was going to be able to pull the whole thing off for a month and I was a bit nervous about that myself.

After we climbed the four flights of winding stairs to the cozy little apartment, Joe promptly threw down his backpack, fell on the bed and went to sleep. We thus decided to abandon the rest of the afternoon plans and stay in to dry off.

Besides being in a great location on the Left Bank, the apartment itself is really quite nice. It is in a lovely Louis XIV building of carved stone built by a wealthy baron in 1740 and spacious enough for up to four people. There is only one bed, but two sofa beds are available in the living room. The furnishings are not luxurious, but the unit is well-appointed in general and definitely more nicely decorated than many of the apartments we viewed online during our research that were within our price range. The kitchen was stocked with everything one would need to cook a full course meal, though I inevitably did not do so. A big plus was free Wi-Fi. Having the washer/dryer unit was also crucial, but it did take me awhile to figure it out as even the instruction manual I was able to unearth was in French, of course. (As it turns out, French dryers never quite dry the clothes and one is forced to hang them about for a few hours before they can be folded and put away.) Overall, I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again. If I could afford it, I would probably rather stay in the more upscale Paris Perfect apartments, but the terrific location of this little place at No. 52 on our favored 13th century Rue St Andre des Arts might still win out over an increase in luxury. It was so nice to see the big blue-green door to the courtyard when we returned home every afternoon. Moreover, the owners, who live in Dublin, were very friendly, communicative and organized during the entire rental process. The only drawback is the long climb up the stairs, but it did prepare us for the hill towns we visited later in the trip. (It is on the European 3rd floor, but to Americans, that means four flights up. The fact that it is listed as a historical building means that they are not allowed renovations to provide an elevator.) Here's a link to the apartment, which has better pictures than we were able to take.

Phil shortly left in search of provisions, but he got lost again in the unfamiliar streets and his temper soon followed. The crepe place I told him to look for was only a couple of blocks away near the Odeon, but he ended up following Bld. St. Germain all the way west to Rue de Bac before he realized something was wrong and called me to talk him back. Using the map I pulled up on the netbook, I felt like an air traffic controller directing a panicked passenger to land after the pilot had collapsed. It was 24 minutes and $9.36 of Call-in-Europe costs before I heard him climbing the stairs. Fortunately, he had found a boulangerie somewhere along the way and so we settled for stale croissants before crashing to bed. It was not the best of beginnings.
sap is offline  
Jul 25th, 2011, 11:07 AM
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Great start, but losing one's sense of direction in Paris is always tragic, since there are no straight streets and therefore no clear view of where you are going.
kerouac is offline  
Jul 25th, 2011, 11:09 AM
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Enjoying very much, looking forward to the rest of the report.
Tahuya is offline  
Jul 25th, 2011, 11:14 AM
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This is a good read! I look forward to many more episodes.
Michel_Paris is offline  
Jul 25th, 2011, 12:29 PM
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Good start. Reminds me of my experience trying to navigate roundabouts driving a standard shift vehicle (a van, no less) for the first time in years while trying to get from the Toulouse airport to the Dordogne. A cloudy, rainy, day (we arrived a few days after you, on June 10) didn't help me, either, as I didn't have the sun for some little bit of orientation.

Look forward to reading the rest.
twk is online now  
Jul 25th, 2011, 12:46 PM
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Carrying a small compass is not a bad idea in Paris.
Gretchen is offline  
Jul 25th, 2011, 07:16 PM
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Thanks for the replies, all. I actually did have a little compass buried at the bottom of my purse, but I forgot about it entirely until we were out of Paris and I didn't need it anymore. Kerouac, you are so right about no straight streets and no clear view.

I'll post Day 2 in the morning.
sap is offline  
Jul 25th, 2011, 08:17 PM
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You are visiting lots of my favourite places!

I'm sure your days improved in beautiful Paris. But you did have a "doosy" first day.

Enjoying your trip report. Looking forward to more.
aussie_10 is offline  
Jul 26th, 2011, 02:41 AM
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An honest report! Things go wrong, and you do not fall on the sofa with a case of the vapors! Looking forward to more.
Ackislander is offline  
Jul 26th, 2011, 04:14 AM
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Enjoying it so far., though how you could miss rue St Andre des Arts if you came up the stairs at St Michel to the place St Michel. It is right in front of you though a bit to the left!
avalon is offline  
Jul 26th, 2011, 05:27 AM
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Isn't it amazing how the men always rely on us to get them where they are going. My DH is always clueless too, I could lose him very easily. I always thought it would be nice if he too took some interest in where we were staying and locations.
owlwoman is offline  
Jul 26th, 2011, 05:30 AM
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I'm enjoying your writing style and details and looking forward to the rest of your report. I found it funny about the compass because we take one on our travels but always forget to use it.
TPAYT is offline  
Jul 26th, 2011, 05:58 AM
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Great start, looking forward to reading more!
LowCountryIslander is offline  
Jul 26th, 2011, 06:36 AM
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Wonderful, looking forward to the rest.

And stories like yours make me feel much less guilty about taking a taxi from the airport.
Nikki is online now  
Jul 26th, 2011, 06:41 AM
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Amen, Nikki!! I know perfectly well where rue St Andre des Arts is located but arriving jet-lagged and in a driving rain, I'm certain I'd be disoriented and lost!

Enjoying your report, sap.
Judy is offline  
Jul 26th, 2011, 06:45 AM
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Loving this, too! We leave Septembewr 4th for Toulouse, Dordogne area and Paris.

Owlwoman, our husbands must be related!
kansas is offline  
Jul 26th, 2011, 06:56 AM
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bilboburgler is offline  
Jul 26th, 2011, 08:23 AM
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Wednesday 6/8/11

Unlike the afternoon of our arrival, this first full day was good. Very good. We didn't get lost. We filled our plates -- literally and figuratively. It was in fact one of our favorite days in Paris.

We were all up by 4:30 a.m., bubbling with the flipside energy of jet-lagged circadian confusion - and we were more than a little hungry. Last night's meagre rations led to a little extra tug of urgency to find a blood sugar boost in any form. Phil ventured out sometime after 7:30 with Joe tagging along to snap pictures. They found Paul's, they passed the verger and another boulangerie down the rue, around a corner or two and back, but no. All shut tight, every one of them. Even Starbucks was closed. Who ever heard of a bakery not being open by 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning? The streets were virtually deserted, except for the morning power-washers in their green uniforms, sweeping the sidewalks as water flushed through the gutters.

As it turns out, Paul's doesn't even open until 10 a.m. We soon discovered that the French, especially Parisians, tend to stay up late every day of the week. They're still hitting the night scene when we're hitting the hay. Correspondingly, they roll out of bed a little more slowly than other sentient beings. As the days progressed, we learned to value those early hours of serenity and take advantage of the opportunity to beat the crowds and chaos.

Stepping out into the street again at 9:00 a.m., we found that the Parisian world was ever so gradually coming to life. Shopkeepers were putting out their signs; tourists and businessmen exchanged bonjours (though not usually with each other); and the traffic gendarme at Place St. Michel was blowing madly on his whistle with little effect. The only thing on our minds was breakfast, though, and that remained surprisingly elusive. At last we found a cafe open on the quay across from Notre Dame. We ordered trois Parisian breakfasts (coffee, toasted baguettes and croissants) and noticed that the couple at another table were drinking large beers. Hard to say whether they were starting or ending their day.

Across the street from us on the island sat Notre Dame and she certainly is a grand old dame. Like Paris herself, she is inspiring and perhaps grows more beautiful with age. Draped in a lacy stone gown beribboned with buttresses, she wears the Kings of Judea like a carved ivory necklace. Really, I think she is ridiculously overdressed, but she somehow pulls it off with persistent pride. Better still, we found the immense skirt of her courtyard was nearly empty, so we could be the first of her daily admirers. If you don't count the pigeons.

Quite often our pre-impression of a place is greater than the reality. I had been unexpectedly disappointed in London's St. Paul; but Notre Dame held her ground. We spent a quiet, meditative hour wandering inside, circling the facade and paying our respects in general. We decided against the tower climb, took several pictures at Square Jean XXIII -- mostly of strangers on benches as that is one of Phil's endearing quirks -- and left just as the tour buses were parking. Yes, it was going to be a good day.

Maybe 10 a.m. is still too early to expect much activity, but the Marche aux Fleurs was a misser. I'm not sure what I had in mind - open stalls brimming with a kaleidoscope of colors, exotic scents and old ladies shopping for their drawing room bouquet -- something closer to a real outdoor market at least. Instead, it merely consisted of a couple of long permanent green stalls selling potted plants. Frankly, the nursery at my local Home Depot is more attractive.

We then bought two six-day museum passes from the tourist office in front of the Hotel Dieu and waited for the Crypte Archeologique to open. Since Joe was under 18 and thus free at nearly every site, we only needed the two adult passes. Of course, he made up for that savings by ordering soda at every opportunity the next four weeks, which so oddly costs more than wine.

The archaeological excavations below Notre Dame's parvis were mildly interesting. I had expected to like that museum more. It's one of those subjects that is compelling to me in theory, but leaves me rather cold, even bored on site. As much as Roman history fascinates me, I can't seem to get appropriately excited about seeing the ruined foundations of villas when they have been reduced to nothing more than stone outlines and crumbling stacks of tiles like some sort of ancient Roxaboxen. We didn't dislike it. The reconstructed models and images were helpful, but overall it required more imagination than we possessed that first jet-lagged day. Besides, the grand dame had already stolen the show.

Passing by Notre Dame again on the way to Isle St. Louis, we were briefly swallowed by the rapidly expanding crowd and amazed to see that the line for the tower trek now stretched down the block.

Sadly, the Deportation Memorial was closed. I had been quite looking forward to it. Naturally, no reason was given - just a terse note: "Ferme."

We continued over the bridge to the lovely little Isle St. Louis and down its short main drag lined with charming, but overpriced shops and gourmet food stores. Phil has mentioned many times since how much he liked the Isle St. Louis, but he must be remembering its genteel ambiance in general as we made few stops. I had thought we might visit the fromageries, the epiceries, a verger or two, but lunch was still a long way off and I couldn't get the boys to bite. Really, it was too cold for the picnic on the quay I had planned anyway. We did pop into Nicolas for a couple of bottles of Rhone, but it was basically all window-shopping until we reached the famous Berthillon ice cream shop. Now this was something to interest Joe no matter what the temp or time of day! We were naturally the only patrons on a cloudy morning at 11 a.m. and that was perfect. The coffee and salted butter caramel flavors (parfums) were incredible, especially accompanied by an express. Two scoops each piled in a footed bowl with a toasted crepe on top. That was all it took to forget that being lost in the rain yesterday had ever happened.

Unfortunately, Berthillon's didn't take credit and Phil had to access the stash of euros in his money belt. As the waiter went back in the kitchen I looked over in horror to see that Phil was unbuttoning the top of his jeans and I gasped, "You're supposed to do that in the restroom!" He protested, "Do you see a bathroom anywhere?" I could see that he had a point and we were the only ones in the cafe, but did I mention that we were in a window seat? Joe almost fell over laughing. I wanted to slide under the table with embarrassment. I tried to shield the activity with my napkin as I looked nervously over my shoulder at the window. Thankfully, the classy waiter had the tact to avert his eyes coming back to the table while Phil finished securing his Levis again. The next day and for the rest of the trip, Phil wisely wore a silk neck pouch under his shirt instead.

On the way back to the apartment for a midday break, we visited the oldest church in Paris, St. Julien de Pauvre, and the aforementioned Gothic beast of St Severin. This time, I knew precisely where we were and where to go. For some mysterious reason, Joey absolutely loved St. Severin and thanked me for taking him there. It was certainly a very nice church, but he seemed almost spiritual about it. (Maybe he was still coming off an ice cream high). He told me later that day that he liked it more than Notre Dame and Ste. Chapelle. In fact, he announced at the end of the trip that he thought it was the best church we had visited in France.

We then found the Monoprix on Boul St Mich to stock up on snacks and supplies. It's always such fun to visit grocery stores in foreign places. Even familiar, everyday things seem different. Different yet the same, just like the people.

Back at the apartment, we rested our feet and sipped coffee while we weighed our afternoon options. There was a smorgasbord of possibilities on the table, but we both agreed that the itinerary I had formulated back home at my desk now seemed too ambitious for his back and my feet. (This is a recurring theme when we take trips, but I would rather plan too much than too little.) In the end, Phil's determination to keep the rest of the day short and sweet won the round. Roasted chicken was a priority. I didn't argue with that, but I did insist on Ste. Chappelle.

I was eager to see "the stained glass church" and knew it was best to wait for the afternoon light. While it proved to be a cloudy day instead, I personally liked Ste. Chappelle very, very much.

Since Ste Chappelle shares a courtyard with the Palais de Justice, there is a security line to enter. It stretched down the block a bit, but moved quickly. I earned an extra wave of the wand when I forgot to remove a chunky bracelet.

Joe was ready to crash again and sleepily gave the stained glass a "meh" in comparison to his beloved St. Severin. Phil said that he thought it was overwhelming -- almost too much detail to digest. In reality, I think it was the crowds that detracted from the experience. On my next trip to Paris, I'll forgot about the afternoon sun and see how the place looks in peace and quiet.

Our final mission of the day was to hunt down a roast chicken vendor. By now, we were really starting to acclimate to the Rive Gauche and know our way around. The pedestrianized Rue St Andre des Arts and surrounding avenues are filled end to end with cafes, bars, theaters and food stalls. By day, the tourist throngs gawk and the souvenir shops thrive, but the neighborhood changes character in the afternoons when the Parisians get off work and the restaurants open. Rue du Buci became a favorite go-to in the evenings and it was J.L.F. Traiteur where we found the chicken. The menu was rounded out by pastries from Eric Kayser around the corner on rue de l'Ancienne Comedie. While the chicken was quite good, it was no better than I make at home. On the other hand, the potatoes roasted in the drippings lived up to their delicious reputation. God knows what their fat content must have been, but who cares when you're on vacation? With our feet up and a bottle of rouge, we could just sit back and listen to Paris come alive on the street below.

NB #1: While we prefer to view the pictures in the full-screen slideshow format, we noticed that it tends to cut off edges of the photos and scrunch the captions.

NB #2: Please be aware that the photos from day one are pretty bad. This is not Phil's fault. We made a mistake that first day by uploading the photos to Shutterfly and then deleting them from both the camera and the jump drive. When we got home and downloaded them back to our computer for sorting/editing, the quality had severely degraded in the transfer. Fortunately, all the photos thereafter were stored on our jump drive-- so better pics tomorrow.
sap is offline  
Jul 26th, 2011, 09:03 AM
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Excellent report sap. Can't wait for more. I also love St. Severin.
Micheline is offline  
Jul 26th, 2011, 09:17 AM
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Great report, but it makes me want to beg you: don't stay in the center of the city next time! We Parisians in the outer arrondissements are up at 6am and the cafés and boulangeries are open (well, not all of them, but it is easy to find one open since there is a boulangerie every 50 meters).

I am also wondering what you spent for a rotisserie chicken because in my neighborhood in the 18th, they cost 5€ each or 2 for 9€. I am generally horrified by the prices I see in central tourist Paris.

Central Parisians are disgusting sluggards and layabouts. Tourists should try not to mistake them for real Parisians.
kerouac is offline  

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