Thank You: Merci!
Did you know that France was the #1 most visited country in 2012 and Paris was named the #1 Destination by Travelers’ Choice 2013? It only takes a few days to find out why.
Let’s start with Paris, a beautiful city with careful cultivation and respect for history while the citizens embrace change in how they live. Paris feels young and vibrant within its well preserved bones, like an elegant octogenarian who defies age. You can wander the streets indulging your senses with the architecture, the art, and the food. Paris is not a new discovery, but you will feel that way the first time you visit. That is not to diminish the impact it will have on seasoned travelers with each visit.
On my most recent trip, I arrived the morning after Easter, having taken the overnight train from Milan. If you can settle into the click clack of the train tracks and don’t mind sharing a sleeping car with strangers (women can request a “woman only” car), it’s one way to save on expenses by combining travel with one night hotel. Be prepared to have the train attendant take your passport for the duration of the ride.
To Do: Everything! Pick a couple of sights per day, leaving enough time to wander the streets to enjoy the unique shops and sit at leisure and indulge in people watching. To see the key sights, you can walk in a large circle - start with Notre Dame, walk up to the Eiffel Tower along the river, cross for L'Etoile and the Arc de Triumphe, wander down the Champs Elysee, and then on to the Louvre.
Other keys sights - Musee National d’Art Moderne, Versailles (allow a full day), Place de la République, and the list goes on. I recommend a travel guide to help you select the sights most appealing to you. From my last trip, a couple of recommendations:
Sacre Coeur - This beautiful church sits on a hill overlooking Paris but you need to climb the steps to the Dome to really appreciate it. On the day I visited a sign outside proclaimed “For over 125 years, HERE, night and day someone is praying to the Lord.” The crowds are thick so arrive early before the lines to enjoy the glorious views become too long. The crypt is not really that interesting versus some of the crypts in Italy, but it is fairly inexpensive to buy a ticket for both the crypt and the dome. The area around the church has plenty of small shops and cafes, so wander the streets, stop for lunch, then head down the hill to walk by the Moulin Rouge and the street full of sex shops.
Musée Carnavalet, the Musée de L’Histoire de Paris - This is a free museum in the Marais district, tucked into the neighborhood but a good way to spend a few hours to really immerse yourself in the history of the country. A few rooms are dedicated to the era of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, their lives and their deaths. It is a bit sobering to see the artifacts and paintings depicting these events.
The city is easy to navigate and enjoy and there are countless museums, churches, and the general culture and history to experience. Investigate the eclectic neighborhoods, and the fabulous food. Whether you are investigating a small tea shop that offers a multi-page menu of options, shopping for Christian Loubatin, or contemplating priceless art in any one of the museums, there seems to be an indulgence to fit every desire.
Metro: A convenient way to maneuver through the city when the walk is a bit too long and a good way to people watch, as in any city. DO NOT throw your metro ticket away until after your trip is complete! My friend and I learned this lesson on my first trip to Paris when she tossed her ticket and we were subsequently cornered by a metro police woman who demanded that she produce it or pay a fine. After digging through a trash can to no avail, we paid the fine and found out later it was a bit of a ruse with tourists who didn’t know any better.
Parlez en Francais: Practice your French and entertain the natives. They won’t fine you if you make a mistake but they may correct you. It is worth the effort and they appreciate it.
Excellent Eats: Paris is a city full of good food so try asking your hotel for local favorites. Why restrict yourself to the guide books? I found delightful options from my hotel staff’s recommendations and didn’t feel like I was in a tourist trap at any time.
La Vache Acrobate - I had the most wonderful canard tartare, potatoes and salad. It’s a tiny local bistro with excellent friendly service and great food.
Bofinger Brasserie - I went to this restaurant alone on a busy Saturday night, standing in my unsophisticated travel clothes while smart Parisians surrounded me. The maitre d’ finally seated me in a prime location where I had a view of almost the entire restaurant watching the evening’s performance unfold before me. The couple seated next to me initiated a conversation and shared that is was one of their favorite restaurants and a place they always visited on their yearly trip from Belgium. When I left, I thanked the maitre d’ for insuring my excellent dining experience rather than tucking me into a table in the back of the restaurant. One of the best dining experiences of my entire trip.
Also, check out the local market in the morning and buy a crepe for breakfast.
Lunch - For a great sandwich, walk over to the Jewish quarter and stop in one of the falafel shops for a cash and carry falafel sandwich. They are delicious and inexpensive for lunch. The lines can be long but it is worth the time to spend so little on a quick lunch.
Tea emporium: One of my favorites was the Mariage Freres tea shop where I quickly zeroed in on a Himalayan tea that sold for several hundred dollars per 100g. How can you not like a shop that sells tea at that price? I’d like to start every day with tea of that quality.
Travel outside of Paris: Check SNCF.com or RailEurope to book tickets. I found the fares were lower if I booked through SNCF but the site is in French, so brush up and resort to Google translate if necessary!
How I traveled: A biking trip booked through Adventure Center, and handled locally by Exodus.
For the more adventurous, why not take a self guided bike tour through the Loire Valley? My friend and I arranged to meet in Amboise, where we picked up our bikes and our maps for a week long adventure through the countryside. Amboise is an easy train ride (about 2 hours) from Paris.
The company arranged daily luggage transfer and we stayed in friendly bed and breakfast type lodges as we progressed through the countryside. Some hotels included dinner, which was excellent. For lunch, we stopped at local restaurants or went to a local shop to buy supplies for sandwiches and had our own picnic in the magnificent end of summer weather. I especially enjoyed the robust shouting of “Bonjour!” every time we rode past another cyclist.
I loved the freedom of starting and stopping whenever we liked, while enjoying the warm September days riding through fields ready for harvest. The daily rides were punctuated with stops at historic castles. The one mishap was a flat tire that was quickly repaired by some friendly French men helping a damsel in distress. Although I already had the wheel off the bike and was pulling off the tire when they arrived, it was my first flat and their expertise quickly surpassed my naive attempts at the repair. It didn’t help that the bike company had provided me with an inner tube that was the wrong size.
Places to visit in the Loire valley:
Another opportunity for adventure - rent a car with some friends and drive through the Dordogne region, inspecting castles and caves and enjoying evening apertifs over lively conversation.
There are gardens, castles, and caves to explore. You can stay at local bed and breakfasts, known as “gîtes”. One of my favorites was La Villa Mege, which included a friendly cat. Meow!
Some of the places we visited included: