Saturday, April 27, 2013

Au Revoir, Paris

Our second day in Paris was Easter Sunday. The crowds were unimaginable. We walked along the Champs-Elysees along with hundreds of other tourists. Then we made our way to the Louvre. We opted not to go inside due to the crowds and our time restriction but we did see the Louvre Pyramid. Admittedly, all I really know about the Louvre is that it houses the Mona Lisa. What surprised me the most is how large the complex is. It seems to go on forever. It would take days to see everything!

The Paris I was really itching to see was the Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Not so many years ago, it was the haunt of Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. Just before our trip I read a book called The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter. The author is an expat who lives in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood and his commentary takes readers back to a time when Hemingway sat outside of Les Deux Magots cafe, sipping a cocktail while thinking about writing A Moveable Feast. The book is a good read but the travelers' tips at the end are priceless. They will save you money in Paris, to be sure.

Cafe di Flore is another famous cafe in the neighborhood. This cafe and Les Deux Magots are often considered rivals. Both boasted an impressive, elite clientele of literary geniuses and philosophers. They are
steps away from each other. I felt the need to go to both so we had lunch at Cafe di Flore and then sipped wine outside at Les Deux Magots. We managed to see Paris on the cheap, and this lunch and wine were the most expensive things we did. I knew that we were paying tourist prices but, like many others there, I was trying to soak up some literary genius by hopefully perching myself exactly where Fitzgerald or Hemingway once sat. My husband gamely complied and to his credit, didn't even blink when we were presented with the astronomical bill for two glasses of wine and some peanuts.

Next we decided to leave our mark on Paris at the Passerelle des Arts. This pedestrian bridge crosses the Seine River and thousands of padlocks with lovers' initials adorn the fence. You can purchase a cheap padlock from street vendors and then find an empty spot (difficult task) to attach your declaration of undying love. Again, a very touristy thing to do but also a perfect way to contribute to the whole "City of Love" vibe. It's a lot of fun to read the other padlocks and see names like Ludwig and Helga, knowing that people from all over the world have been standing right where you are, padlocking their names to a fence in Paris, vowing to return someday to see it still fixed there for all the world to see.

Our next stop was Notre Dame. Once again we were reminded how crazy it was to visit Paris on a holiday, and especially to visit Notre Dame on Easter Sunday. I don't know how many people were lined up outside of the cathedral but it really did appear to be thousands. We knew there was no chance of us going inside so we walked around the perimeter and commented about how beautiful and grand it all was.

Then we decided we'd had enough of our whirlwind tour. We felt as if we'd been almost everywhere worth seeing on your first trip to Paris, especially since we had only two days. We'd walked miles and miles, shouldering past throngs of tourists and bundling up against the cold. We both knew what time it was: pub time.

We consulted our guidebook and headed back to Saint Germain-des-Pres for a drink or two. I have already forgotten the name of the place we were going but it doesn't matter anyway because we never made it. When we reached the location, there was a sign indicating that it had moved. A crudely-drawn map showed us where to go and we found the "new and bigger" location about five minutes away-- closed for Easter Sunday. We didn't let our spirits sink too much because Le Pub beckoned to us from down the street. And I'm not joking about the name; it really is called Le Pub.

It was around 3pm so we were just about the only people there. We saddled up to the bar and ordered some fine Belgian beers (Grimbergen Blanche). Black and green olives and pretzels were complimentary and they were refilled every time our beers were... which was several times. My husband ordered some absinthe, just to clinch the experience. The bartender artfully prepared the absinthe and we felt truly hip. At one point my husband asked what time Happy Hour began and the bartender informed us we still had an hour. We shrugged and ordered more beers anyway. An hour hadn't passed by the time we needed the next rounds but the bartender plunked them down in front of us and with a wink and subtle smile as he said, "Now, it  is Happy Hour!" And you know what? He did give us Happy Hour prices for those beers. Who says the French are rude to tourists?!

We finally decided to pull ourselves away (reluctantly) from Le Pub because we had a long walk back to the hotel. Un Dimanche a Paris (A Sunday in Paris) is a chocolate shop close to Le Pub. We purchased a sampler set of 12 delicious truffles for dessert. They were the best truffles I've ever tasted!

We walked through the Louvre once more, heading toward the towering Eiffel growing larger and larger as we made our way. We decided to stop off at a grocery store to buy bread, cheese, olives, meats, grapes, and wine for a dinner on the rooftop of our hotel. It was the perfect way to end our Paris vacation: sipping wine over the top of the city, with the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower sparkling in front of us. 

Eventually the cold became too much for us to ignore and we began clearing away our dinner to go back down to the room. As we reached the stairs, I looked back for one last glimpse at the tower and suddenly it began sparkling and the lights changed colors. I yelled for my husband to come back because I was worried it would stop as fast as it began. Luckily for us, the light show went on for a long time and we held hands, mesmerized by the beauty of it all. It was a perfect moment. 

Did I fall in love with Paris? Oui! I can't wait to return. Next time we'll be able to enter some of the museums and see things we missed. The city is HUGE! I don't know why that surprised me. I think we did a good job with the time we had and I wouldn't change anything about my first time in Paris. 

It is true that Paris is an expensive city but there are ways to make it affordable. We didn't dine at a Michelin restaurant but I doubt any of those restaurants have the views we enjoyed eating our pizza in Montmarte and our baguettes on our hotel's rooftop. Just keep that in mind.

So go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, and everything else important we missed. But make sure to leave your love lock on the bridge, have a cheap picnic somewhere with a nice view, and definitely go to Le Pub and order one or four Grimbergen Blanches. And top it off with some chocolate from Un Dimanche a Paris. 

Au revoir, Paris. But hopefully not for long.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

First Day in Paris

We just returned from a whirlwind tour of Paris! It was my first time in "The City of Light" and it was amazing. Our last-minute plans put us in a budget hotel, the Adagio Access Paris Tilsitt. It's across from the Belgian Embassy, 150 yards from the Arc de Ttriomphe and 300 yards from the Champs-Elysees. It was a
Arc de Triomphe
great choice because of the location and, most importantly, the rooftop terrace that provided superb views of the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower in the distance.

We arrived in the late afternoon on our first day. The drive from Reims wasn't long but we left the car at Disneyland Paris since the parking rates are much more reasonable than those within the city. It's an easy 40-minute train ride from Disneyland into Paris. We emerged from the Metro right under the Arc de Triomphe. In all honesty, it really took my breath away. It was a great moment and the perfect way to begin our weekend in Paris.

After we checked into the hotel we got right down to sightseeing. I'm sure you already know this, and I think I probably also knew this before I visited Paris, but it didn't really hit me until I was actually there; Paris is HUGE! Perhaps I thought the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur (and on, and on, and on....) would all be in a neat little row. They aren't. And we decided to walk to all of them. If you plan to do the same, allow me to assure you of this: Those delectable baguettes, croissants, and chocolates won't go anywhere near your thighs because you'll burn the calories off as fast as you eat them.

The first stop, of course, was the Eiffel Tower. It was still cold during Easter, so cold in fact that snow flurries were blowing around when we came out of the Metro. One of my top things to do in Paris was to have a picnic at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. I don't think this sort of thing really becomes popular until the weather is warmer but we did our best by grabbing some jambon et fromage baguettes and sitting on a park bench enjoying the tourists' cacophony from a distance. It was really nice, even though we were shivering.

We decided to forego the visit to the top of the tower this time. The line was insanely long. Very fortunately for us, we'll have at least one more opportunity to visit Paris again and  wait along with everyone else. And when I say everyone, I literally mean everyone in Paris (at least every tourist in Paris).

Lunch gave us the energy to continue our stroll/power-walk. We made it to Place de la Concorde, the largest square in Paris. During the French Revolution it was called Place de la Revolution. At a guillotine in the center, 1119 people were beheaded over just a few years. Notable victims of the guillotine include King Louis XVI and Marie-Antionette. The obelisk in the center of Place de la Concorde is called Cleopatra's Needle. It's from the temple of Ramses II and was installed in the 19th century.

Cleopatra's Needle

View from Montmartre
We continued on to our final destination of the day: Montmartre. A friend suggested that we grab a bottle of French wine, pizza from an outdoor vendor, and find a spot on the hill to have dinner atop Paris. We took the advice to heart and climbed the steps to the the top of the hill with our pizza and Beaujolais in hand. We watched as the sky darkened and the City of Light came to life. There was an older French couple on the bench beside us having the same dinner and that made us feel très Parisian.

Sacre Coeur
Sated and buzzed, we decided to get lost in the cobbled streets of Montmartre. There were so many shops, bars, and cozy restaurants tucked into small alleys. There were still a lot of tourists but it was a little quieter away from the hill. We could see the Basilica of Sacre Coeur from almost every spot and it was majestic, its stark white facade softly illuminated against the dark Parisian sky. We found a charming little piano bar off the beaten path. The Vin du Mois (Wine of the Month) went down smoothly and was an affordable surprise at only 5 Euros per glass.

Since it was late and cold we took the Metro back to the hotel. On the way, we detoured over to that most famous of cabarets, the Moulin Rouge. We didn't see any shows but we did stand outside long enough to snap some very touristy photos.

At the end of my first day in Paris, I had two important observations:

1.) It's filled with tourists! It's one of the world's most visited cities and it certainly feels that way. Granted, we were there on Easter weekend so we were vying for sidewalk space with spring breakers and other vacationers, but I can't imagine the crowds dwindling over the next few months and I don't think I would ever want to visit in the middle of summer.

2.) I'd heard so many horror stories about how rude the French are and that all of them are unwilling to speak anything other than French. I took three levels of French in college so I wasn't too concerned about being about to navigate, even if it was clumsily. Much to my surprise, we didn't come across one rude Frenchman. Or woman. They weren't only kind and accommodating; some even switched to English once they realized it was our native language. Maybe it was a fluke, or perhaps the Parisians have an unfair reputation.

The visit isn't over just yet...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Some Bubbly in Reims, France

Pommery Champagne House
We took advantage of the long Easter weekend by driving to Paris! We made a pit-stop in Reims, in the Champagne region. It was a nice way to break up the drive and sample some champagne. Because our trip was so last-minute, we didn't have time to make the reservations required for visiting some of the champagne houses. As a result, we ended up in one that was nice but felt really touristy.

Construction of the Pommery Champagne House was completed in 1888. The estate grounds encompass nearly 124 acres. This includes the house, cellars, and chalk pits. We took the one-hour cellar tour. It begins with a 124-step descent to the bowels of the estate. Our guide described the champagne-making process in detail and showed us store rooms filled with thousands of bottles of champagne earmarked for destinations all over the world. Interestingly, contemporary artwork is interspersed throughout the cellars. I found it a bit confusing.

The tasting happened at the very end of the tour in the lobby. It was crowded and sort of felt like a cattle call as we all lined up to collect our samples. You choose your champagne with the purchase of your tickets. Of course we wanted to try as much as possible so my husband selected the 30 Euros option with a tasting of the Cuvee Louise 1999, Pommery's signature, prestigious champagne, and I chose the 21 Euros option with a tasting of two champagnes of your choice (except the Cuvee Louise).

The champagne was good and the tour was interesting. If we had more time to plan, we would have made reservations at one of the smaller champagne houses (Ruinart was our first choice). It was a very decadent thing to do, considering we also each had an 8 Euro glass of champagne while we waiting for our tour to begin.

At the end of the day, I suppose I'm a true product of being raised in a tiny Southern town; champagne is champagne to me. I don't really taste the difference between a $50 bottle and a $35 bottle. Granted, I've never had premium champagnes like Dom Perignon or Veuve Clicquot so maybe there is a difference and angels sing as the cork pops. I'll let you know if I ever experience this. Before we moved here I didn't even realize there was a region in France called Champagne. I've learned a lot! And I've consumed some bubbly to go along with my education so I still feel high-class.

We'd arrived in Reims in the late afternoon and our hotel was on the outskirts of town, close to the highway. This left a limited amount of time for us to sight-see in the city but we did manage to make it to the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims. The first religious structure was built on the site at the beginning of the 5th century. It's a Gothic masterpiece filled with incredible stone sculptures illuminated by the light pouring in from breathtaking stained glass windows.

We spent a long time wandering through the cathedral, once the site of the coronation of French kings. It is also where General de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenauer set the seal on the reconciliation between France and Germany on July 8th, 1962. It is one of the most beautiful and interesting churches I've seen in Europe and definitely worth a visit if you're ever in Reims.

The City of Light is up next. Au revoir, mes amis!