Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Day 10 - Homeward Bound

After an uneventful ride to the airport in a Prius cab, a long flight to Dulles and a two-hour drive home (we took the back way this time), our adventure has come to an end. In our 25 years of marriage, we may have just had the best vacation ever.  We are already considering the next Euro Ramble, perhaps to Italy.

Until then, keep rambling.

Day 9 - Notre Dame and Le Tour

Your Ramblers' last full day in Paris was the hottest yet.  Which is not a great outcome when the plan was to spend most of the day in large crowds.  Another quick jolt of Starbucks coffee and the last of the croissants from the Cora in Caen served as breakfast.  We decided to check out the Metro today because of the distance to Notre Dame. Off we went and after some kiosk confusion (a recurring theme) a very helpful Metro attendant guided us through the steps.  I will say this for France, goods are/may seem expensive, but service is very good and very inexpensive/free. It is a pleasant tradeoff in many cases. Our Metro tokens acquired, we hopped the #1  train to the Hotel de Ville station across the Seine from Notre Dame and walked the short distance to the cathedral.  (Note:  For a good part of the trip, your Ramblers thought that "Hotel de Ville" was a hotel, until we noticed that most towns had one. After consulting our trusty iTranslate app, we discovered it means "City Hall".)

Notre Dame has been in existence in some form for 850 years and it is still in use. Your Ramblers got in the visitor line, but many folks got in the mass line. Since it was Sunday, morning mass was being held even while several hundred visitors circled the outer ring inside the cathedral. The cathedral is an amazing spectacle for the sheer engineering ingenuity and effort it took to build something like that over 800 years ago.  It is also steeped in history as one can imagine and walking through you can almost feel the intrigue, majesty, charity and horror that has taken place here. Your Ramblers decided to skip the upper tower tour because of the line, it was really getting hot, and with Le Tour finishing late in the evening it was going to be a long day.

We sought out some shade and refreshment (and a bathroom as well) and found it in a nearby café. A shady spot on the corner was ideal for a plate of sausages and frites with a small carafe of wine to serve as lunch. Our bellies full, we decided to reconnoiter the route Le Tour was taking in Paris and see if any good spots were available.  We found several, but since it was still six or seven hours before the riders would appear (and Rambler Rule #1 is short lines and don’t sit in the heat for a really long time) we had to take note and keep moving.  The course was already beginning to get early viewers staking out their spots.  The Norwegians had a premo spot just outside the Louvre.  Here is Rambler Jane amongst the throng.

Rambler Hance found a really great spot (at least better than anything except the finish, which was grandstanded up for VIPs and officials) at the 1 KM to go mark. He explained to Rambler Jane the racing at that point would be intense on the final lap. Rambler Jane seemed less than impressed.  C’est la vie.   After wandering in the general area for a while longer we set off for a Metro station to catch the train back to the hotel to take a rest.  The Paris Metro is actually cool (temp not cachet). The cars are all open from the front of the train to the rear and they are connected with flexible joints that when moving make the train resemble a snake but it allows a lot of airflow through the train. Anyone that has been on the NYC subway in hot weather knows that is not how the system works there.  The A/C in the hotel room felt wonderful and we settled in for a little blogging and a power nap.

We had been told quasi-reliably by two tourist guides to show up on the Le Tour route about 2 hours ahead of time. So at 5:30pm we left our hotel again to brave the heat.  Since the sun stays out until 10:30-11pm, this is similar to 3:30 for our Virginia readers. (A little latitude lesson: Paris is a degree or two south of 50 degrees North, similar to Ottawa, Canada.)  AKA it was still very hot at 5:30pm. The crowds were really starting to grow, and getting and keeping a premo viewing spot was one part heat preparation, one part crazy.  After walking a few blocks on the Champs-Elysees, your Ramblers pulled the "go to" card and went to a café with umbrellas for shade for dinner and some cold beers.  That killed an hour or so and the caravan that precedes Le Tour (all the sponsors have vehicles and floats that precede the race for the entire 21 days and every town along the route gets this little advertising parade) started to arrive, so your Ramblers decided to find a spot to try and watch the race. The crowd
continued to grow and by this point was three to five bodies deep as far along the course as we could see, which means the whole 5-6K loop inside Paris must have been this way.  Our spot staked out was next to some entertaining young Brits with three plastic shopping bags full of beer from McDonalds, and there we watched the caravan arrive and dance and wave and do a full on 3D advertising spectacle.  The crowd continued to grow and now was five to seven deep but strangely peaceful. The last stage of Le Tour is a sporting oddity.  Neither the final day’s race nor the overall race are really contested until the final lap when the sprinters go at it. It is more a parade celebrating the end of three weeks of physical effort for the riders. The presumed winner (presumed unless he dies on the course or has such a bad wreck he can’t pedal the rest of the way home) rides in yellow and drinks champagne on his bike with his team and managers and the peloton casually cruises through the French countryside, then parades into Paris with the team of the yellow jersey leading the whole peloton into Paris for one lap around the Paris course. All this cycling description is a long way to say the crowd knows how this ends and other than a little sprint excitement the whole day is really just a celebration of cycling, of your countrymen on whatever team and sort of a festival with closed off streets.  By the time the riders come into town and start traversing the looped circuit in earnest the crowd in total is probably a million people give or take.  It becomes difficult to see other than the big video boards deployed along the course and even those can be difficult to see over the heads of the tall, kids and girl friends on shoulders of others etc. If you really want to see the cycling – watch TV.  

As the tour came to and end it was close to 10pm and we retreated to the hotel room to watch the awards ceremony and the light show, which was great.  We were bushed and went to bed knowing we were headed for home tomorrow. 

Until then, au revoir and keep rambling.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Day 8 - Le Grand Musee

As the title of this post implies, this day’s activities centered around the Louvre. Your Ramblers hit the trail with a breakfast visit to the local McDonalds. A bacon and egg McMuffin and bacon and beef McMuffin (think bacon cheeseburger with English muffin instead of hamburger buns) later we headed down the Champs-Elysées to look at all the stores and make our way towards the Louvre. It was another hot day in Paris and we hugged the shady side of "le grande avenue".  Saw some really cool cars in the Peugeot store.  Wish they would bring some of the cool small cars sold here to the U.S. 

The Louvre is a really, really large former palace connected to a very large garden called the Tuileries Gardens.   We were afraid of the crowds at a place as prominent as the Louvre so we set out to find a museum pass that covers about 60 places in Paris and gives line priority.  We received assistance in our quest from a helpful young woman who told us to go back to the entrance, go underground, and go to a small snack shop that sold them. What a find!  Under the Louvre is an entire mall as well as multi-story parking facility.  We found the shop (and the air conditioning in the mall) and there was no line to purchase the passes. Win! We purchased two passes and rolled right on inside via the underground wonderland. The goals were simple. Hit the highlights and see some Egyptian artifacts for Rambler Jane.  We did the big three - Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory and Venus De Milo before viewing what must have been the contents of every pyramid, tomb and barbeque shack in ancient Egypt.  Art is impressive but quickly loses its wonder after seeing hundreds of objects.

After the Louvre we hit a Starbucks on the way out to grab some coffee for a caffeine jolt and some sandwiches to refuel. The sandwiches were surprisingly good, and we enjoyed them amidst the flora in the gardens.  We decided to walk back to the hotel with our new found energy  and hit the other side of the Champs-Elysées for some retail grazing. We also stopped to have a quick libation before hitting the hotel for showers and dinner.

We enjoyed the first Christian Constant restaurant so much we decided to try another. This time we hit up Violin d’Ingres.  We did not have reservations so there was some hope in our hearts. We arrived at 7:30 and got a table, not a great one, but a table. The staff did their best to make up for the seating and we had another fabulous meal.  Rambler Jane particularly liked the soufflé with caramel sauce she had for dessert--she is convinced that she has reached soufflé nirvana.  We wandered back by foot across the Seine and found our way to the Four Seasons George V for a drink. 

Some photos from the day. Tomorrow is Notre Dame and Le Tour.

HIgh End Hybrid Concept Car
Models at the entrance to Abercrombie & Fitch

Fountain on Place de La Concorde

Rambler Jane in Front of Louvre
You Know Who

Rambler Jane's Most Excellent Souffle!

The bar at Four Seasons George V

Until tomorrow, au revoir and keep rambling.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Day 7 - A Couple of Tourists in Paris

With the first air conditioned hotel room of the trip and our jet lag seeming to disappear, your Ramblers actually got a good full night's sleep.  Instead of sugar plum fairies we dreamed of the Starbucks right next to our hotel. Tres Bien! We have learned over the last week that France is not a nation of breakfast coffee drinkers (or water drinkers in general but that is another story) so your Ramblers have been cold turkey for 6 days - but on the 7th day God granted us coffee.  Rambler Jane was overcome.

After some coffee and a little "on the fly" planning, we decided to knock out the big three of the Paris tourist trail.  The Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and a Seine River boat cruise.

First, the Arc - What's to say?  It's massive, impressive and beautiful.  We hit this spot first and the lines were pretty limited.  It was built to honor those who fought and died in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and also contains the French tomb of the unknown soldier.

Inside the Arc de Triomphe

View of Eiffel Tower from Top of Arc de Triomphe

Arc from Middle of Champs-Elysées 
Next up was the Eiffel Tower. To Rambler Jane's chagrin, your Ramblers decided to walk the 30 minutes to the tower (her choice of footwear that morning turned out to be a bad one). It ended being a pleasant walk and we even found the Thomas Jefferson Garden on Place Des Etats-Unis.

Virginia:  woot-woot!
Paris is a great walking city and a great motorcycle city. Rambler Darryl would be excited. The drivers of said motorcycles especially in Paris are ...frankly...in a word...NUTS!  They cut between cars (legally) and speed and zig in and out of traffic like they are on a closed road course. One final comment on traffic in Paris: Rambler Hance thinks Paris stands for Park Anywhere Risk Is Small because people just stop and park in odd places, motorcycles and scooters park on the sidewalks and cars park pointing both ways on the same side of the street. France may be a quasi-socialist economy but the parking is all Ayn Rand.

Anyhoo, we made it to the Eiffel Tower in no time and found that the rest of the tourists in Paris were also there. After taking lots of pictures and being awed by the sight, your Ramblers decided to pass on the extremely long lines (especially on a hot day) and settle for the ground view. It is quite a view. And to think, the thing was going to be torn down after the 1889 World's Fair.

See, Not So big (view from Arc de Triomphe)

Crossing the Bridge over the Seine

Rambler Hance
Rambler Selfie
With the decision to avoid the lines of touri (pronounced tour-i) wanting to reach the top of the Eiffel Tower, your Ramblers decided to check out the boat cruises on the Seine that leave from the base of the tower. The prospect of sitting down for an hour and getting a quickie view of some of the main Paris must-sees also seemed appealing. After battling the glare of the ticket kiosk screen that was facing the sun, we just made the 12:30 boat and with our quad-lingual host and the multi-language audio guides at the ready, we set off.  It is a great and quick way to get a good view of Paris. The Seine is the heart of the city, and the original part of Paris that was settled over 2000 years ago was an island in the middle of the Seine. We passed several notable bridges, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the national legislative building (editors note: where a statement was made about the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man being the cornerstone of modern democracy --cough Declaration of Independence, 1776-- cough), the original island that was settled, and many others. It was well worth the 13 euros (per person).

French Russian Friendship Bridge

Notre Dame behind the River Wall

After a busy morning of monument stalking and floating down the Seine we were famished. We decided to try and walk to a nearly cafe recommended by two travel and foodie FORs (friend of the Ramblers) - Cafe Constant owned by Chef Christian Constant.  We made it in a few minutes with no navigation errors and there were still tables available.  It was hot day and we got seated upstairs which was a little stuffy but we opened one of the windows further and settled in to an hour of simple, yet exquisite goodness.  We started with a couple of entrees and then even though it was a hot day we ordered the beef stew because we had heard it was exceptional.  Awesome does not describe the food in this place. The only thing that would have made the stew better if it was 45 outside instead of 85.  Here is the view from the cheap seats.

A salmon appetizer

An artichoke and mushroom appetizer

Yummy beef stew

After being rejuvenated by the food, Rambler Hance persuaded Rambler Jane to continue the march across Paris to the nearly Rodin Museum that was recommended by the same FORs. The museum gives a pretty complete picture of the works of Rodin during his life and is viewable in 1-2 hours unless you really know or enjoy examining the nuances of works of art - your Ramblers do not. The best known (at least by layman) works by Rodin are these two:
The Thinker(s)

The Gates of Hell
After a long day (and no air conditioning in the Rodan museum) we made one final push to go next door and determine the source of this beautiful dome.

Come to find it out it was the Dome Church, part of the Les Invalides, where Napoleon is buried.  It might be worth a look on another day or another trip, but after a long day, your Ramblers did not feel the need to buy the tickets and tromp through another sight.

It was time to catch a cab and head home.  Luckily the former was rather quick and we arrived back at our hotel tout de suite. We decided to go have a quick drink before dinner and hit up another local cafe with an American name.

We returned to the hotel to catch up on blogging, take a quick nap, shower and make dinner plans. We decided to try and eat at Zinc Caius, listed on one of the food blogs recommended by a FOR and got the hotel to make reservations. We set out a little after 8pm to find the establishment. When we arrived on the street at the address, it wasn't there. We asked a nearly local and they pointed back up the street from whence we came. ????  We spied a sign that had a big C that looked like the Caius portion of the establishment we were looking for and in our pigeon French asked about our intended destination. The staff said it had closed and been turned into an Italian restaurant. Well, your Ramblers did not come to Paris to eat I-talian. So in a reverse Seinfeld move, we made the reservation, but did not hold the reservation. We were coaxed into trying what turned out to be Caius. Long story short, the food was excellent, it was the larger and more expensive sibling of our original destination, and why the hotel did not figure out that the place we asked them to make reservations for no longer existed, we are not sure. The hotel is 0 for 2 on the dinner thing and your Ramblers think they will go it alone from now on. The food was excellent and our waiter Jen (he said "Yen") was the best yet in France. He also helped us find some strategic Tour de France viewing sites. He was so helpful and friendly that we left our first tip since the Coke guy in the bar in Vouvray, when did not know any better.

Our waiter at Casius

After a long day and a delicious dinner, it was time for bed. Tomorrow is another tourist day and we are undecided what spots to hit, but Notre Dame and the Louvre (depending on the lines) are at the top of our list.

Until then, au revoir and keep rambling.

Day 6 - Trip to Paris

Another travel day dawned bright and early and your Ramblers started out by driving to Caen, turning in the rental car and catching the train to Paris.  Checkout was quick and seamless and after loading the car with luggage we pointed Gabrielle at the Hertz location in Caen, which fortunately was located right next to the train station.   Although we had prepaid for fuel, we could get a credit if we returned the car filled. So, as we neared Caen, we asked Gabrielle to find us a petrol station.  The first try ended up being a big hole in the ground that might have been a BP in a former life. Who knows?  The next spot was near the train station but when we got there, BP was nowhere to be seen. C’est la vie.  Since the petrol was paid for, it was a small loss in a grand adventure and we attempted to find Hertz.  Lets just say inner city rental car offices are similar to their hotel counterparts, which is to say nothing like their airport cousins. We finally located the office on a little back street where we turned into what looked like a service station bay, handed them the keys and setoff down the block to the train station.  We're convinced that Gabrielle and her GPS cousins are not reliable when it comes to navigating near airports and to rental car returns, since this is the second time we've had trouble relying on them to gas up and return a rental car.  One positive, the price they charge for petrol is the same as local service stations, unlike the highway robbery that is charged in the U.S. (I’m talking about you, Boston, and your $9.72/gallon).  We had prepaid the train tickets and all we had to do is go to a kiosk and print them out. However, kiosks, all in French, can be quite hard to decipher so Rambler Hance joined the line to talk to a human and quickly got the tickets and instructions.  After grabbing lunches to go (Coca-Cola Zeros in plastic bottles (boo), two baguettes sandwiches and some yogurt--not bad for train station food) we made the train with no problem. The train was a good chance to catch up on blog posts.  We arrived in Paris in less than two hours (passed by lots of graffiti again), hailed a cab, found the hotel and checked in. With dinner reservations procured it was time to hit the town.

Paris St Lazare Train Station

What to do when you get to Paris? Head to a cafe for a drink of course!  After a little libation we did some scouting around our hotel, which was about 200 meters from the Arc de Triomphe. After a few pics we moved two streets over to the grand avenue, the Champs-Elysées.  The preparation for the Tour de France was already underway with barriers in place, the army and police forces visible and the video boards going up.
End of Our Street, Avenue de Wagram

Our Hotel, Emeraude Plaza Etoile

The Champs-Elysées has some premo shopping so we stopped at the Louis Vuitton store.  Hokie colors are "in" this season, with orange and maroon purses, scarves, wallets etc. distributed through the store.  Nice to look at but will leave the buying to others for now.

After shopping, we wandered back to our hotel and learned the first lesson of navigating Paris near the Place Charles de Gaulle, which is basically a bicycle wheel with 12 spokes--always take the non-linear angles into account and thus lean the way you want to go rather than going straight.

We ate dinner at a small cafe (12-15ish tables total) around the corner from and recommended by the hotel called Chez Gabriel. It was ok (or maybe we have gotten spoiled).  Rambler Hance grants 3 stars while Rambler Jane's scallops rated 4 stars.  We will split the difference and rate it 3.5 stars.  By the time we finished dinner and made a short run to the market for some bottled water, it was 10:30.  It was still a little light out but after a long and satisfying day, it was time for bed.

Tomorrow is tourist day in Paris.

Until then au revoir, and keep rambling.