Bye bye with Versailles – Day 13

Just like WWI and Marie Antoinette’s reign of France, our two-week European vacation ended with a trip to Versailles. We did have one more day, but all we did was shop. So, the last post will only be of our last meals in Paris.

Versailles is about a 1.5 hour train ride from Paris. We were lost in the train station for a bit, so it took us a little more time to get there. Tip: take any train that starts with a “V.”

When we got there, the weather was nasty. Cold, rainy and cloudy. The grand palace of Versailles was actually closed when we first got there due to poor weather. So, we decided to roam the famous gardens first. The place is huge! Rick Steve’s rule of thumb is 1.5 hours in the museum, 1.5 hours in the gardens and 1.5 hours at the chateaus. The gardens were beautiful, although I seemed to enjoy the Tivoli gardens near Rome more. I’ll blame it on the rainy weather. Also, Versailles’ garden is famous for it’s fountains, but unfortunately, they’re only open in the spring and summer so we didn’t get to see the garden at it’s full caliber. Here’s a funny story I’ve heard. Louis XIV built Versailles way before there was actual plumbing, so in order for the fountains to work, his servants would run from fountain to fountain to manually pump the water as the King roamed the garden.

K and I stopped for a quick lunch at one of the many restaurants in the garden. We each ordered a savory crepe which we were both dissatisfied with. The crepes must’ve been pre-made and frozen. The cheese was cold and hard, the crepe was almost as thick as a pancake and it was topped with perfectly cubed frozen veggies. Blegh!

We walked to the far end of the garden to see the Grand Trainon, a large pink chateau where Louis XIV used to spend time with his mistresses.

Nearby sits Petit Trainon, a chateau given to Marie Antoinette by Louis XIV.

Last but not least, we visited the grand palace. The rooms were filled with gold trim, velvet curtains, and crystal chandeliers. If there’s anything I’ve learned being here, it is that Louis XIV is not one to skimp. There was an exhibit for a Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami, on display at the palace and I found it really weird to see the modern cartoon sculptures sitting in each of these old rooms. Although it was very cute, I thought the exhibit took away Versailles’ limelight since most of the visitors were paying more attention to the sculptures rather than the rooms themselves.

We rushed back to Paris to see the Orsay before it closed. The Orsay was included in our Paris pass, so I figured, “Why not take advantage of the free admission?” We had about 30 minutes in this museum – only about 3 hours too short. It was very different than the other museums we’ve been to on this trip. The Orsay houses one of the world’s largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art which includes works by Van Gough, Monet, Manet and Gauguin. Unfortunately, a lot of the museum was on loan at SF’s de Young Museum. So when we were in Paris, the famous pieces were right in my home town. Bummer!

On our walk back to the hotel, K and I stopped at Angelina which serves the “best hot chocolate in Paris.” Although it was very good, I think the hot chocolate at Cacao Sampaka in Barcelona is the winner. Angelina’s hot chocolate was sweeter. I preferred Cacao Sampaka’s because it seemed to be made with a darker chocolate and I could really taste the complexity of flavors in the drink. If you’re not heading to Barcelona though, Angelina is a great alternative for a hot, thick, chocolaty drink. I can’t find my hot chocolate photos, but I’ll get them up soon.

Throughout this entire trip, I wanted so badly to go on a double-decker tour bus. We finally got around to it this day and paid a hefty amount for a night time tour around Paris. The sights are beautiful lit up, but for some reason, I couldn’t keep my eyes open! I was so exhausted, I kept nodding off. It wasn’t until I saw the Moulin Rouge that I stayed awake. That site was a must see on my list.

From here, we called it a night.

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Paris Adventures – Day 12

This post took me days to write! I am still shocked at the amount of activities we did on this day. Let’s get right into it.

The Louvre

Paris Louvre Day

Some say you can spend a whole day or more at the Louvre. K and I did it leisurely in 4 hours thanks to Rick Steves. In Rick Steve’s Paris 2010 book, he walks you through the Louvre in a 2 hour tour, but we added on sites along the way which stretched the tour to 3-4 hours. Here are some highlights:

The inverted pyramid – This is actually outside the Louvre in the Carrousel du Louvre, the museum’s underground mall. You may recognize this from the end of the Da Vinci Code. Robert Langdon finds the Holy Grail under the pyramid next to the Virgin Records.

Paris Louvre Venus de Milo

Venus de Milo – This is one of the most famous sculptures from ancient Greece. It is believed to be of Aphrodite, but experts are still unsure. The fascination of this piece is that it’s history is mysterious. No one knows the artist, who it is depicted of, and what her arms may be doing in the sculpture.

Paris Louvre Winged Victory

Winged Victory – The Winged Victory is one of the most famed sculptures in the world. The sculpture of the Greek goddess, Nike of Samothrace, was constructed in 190 BC to honor a sea battle.

Paris Louvre Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa – No explanation here. It’s the Mona Lisa! It’s probably the most celebrated piece in the Louvre, and there’s no doubt judging by the crowd of people surrounding the painting. The size of the painting is much smaller than I expected and the colors were a dull as well. I wasn’t as excited as I thought I’d be, but it was still very cool to see it in person.

Paris Louvre Mummy

The Hall of Mummies – I actually don’t know if there’s a real name for this, but they have a room dedicated to mummies. So cool! I’m very fascinated with Egyptian history and I even have plans to travel to Egypt in the next year or two. In this room, they have several different mummy cases on display. At the end of the hall, they even have an actual Egyptian mummy enclosed in a glass case.

Paris Louvre Napoleon Apts

Napoleon’s III Apartments – In the Richelieu Wing at the Louvre, there are a several rooms on display where Napoleon III, the first president of the French Republic, used to live. This is not on Rick Steve’s itinerary, but I’m glad we added this in because it is the most different thing to see in this museum. With painted ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and decor of gold, marble, silk and velvet, it’s amazing to see these rooms in such good condition.

Lunch: Carrousel du Louvre

Paris Louvre Snack

The Louvre has a few cafes, but they can be expensive. We did take a break in the Louvre for an apple tart, a coke and a cafe au lait. That was a fun experience… sitting in the Louvre enjoying a snack. For lunch, I suggest walking over to the Carrousel du Louvre to their food court. K and I shared this Moroccan plate of couscous and chicken phyllo pastry. It wasn’t that great, but it was cheap.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Paris Notre Dame Exterior

We still had the afternoon, so we headed off to the Notre Dame. In case you haven’t seen the Hunchback at Notre Dame, this is a famous Gothic style church sitting on an island in the Seine River.

Point Zero

Paris Point Zero

In front of the cathedral is Point Zero, the official center of Paris. Distances from Paris to other cities are measured from here.

Sainte Chapelle

Paris Sainte Chapelle Stained Glass

Our last cathedral of the day was Sainte Chapelle, a French Gothic church made of 15 panels of stained glass depicting more than 1,100 scenes mostly from the Bible. The glass-work is so intricate, it would take months to actually look at every single panel. Unfortunately, the stained glass behind he altar was under construction, so I couldn’t get a photo of the entire interior. The Paris pass is not accepted here, so be prepared to pay around 8 euros to get in.

Dinner: Picnic in the hotel room

Paris Dinner Picnic

Hands down. This was our favorite meal throughout the entire trip. On our way back to the hotel from Sainte Chapelle, K and I stopped at a bakery and a meat and cheese shop to purchase a few items for dinner. We got 2 baguettes, a slice of paté and a round of chevre cheese, a soft and mild goat cheese. We took it back to our room and devoured everything. The paté isn’t the typical paté Americans are used to. This was more like a meatloaf consisting of pork, peas and carrots and other ingredients I couldn’t identify. Sounds scary, but it was delish. The combination of the creamy cheese and the salty paté with the crusty bread was to die for. This was the most fun I had during a meal on this entire trip.

Seine River Cruise

Paris Canal Tour Seine River

The night is still young! As if we hadn’t done enough already, K and I went back out to take a canal tour of the Seine River via the Bateaux Mouches cruise line. The cruise takes you on a hour long tour along the Seine from the Eiffel Tower to the Notre Dame. I suggest doing this at night since Paris is beautiful when it’s lit up. As soon as we took off, the Eiffel Tower began to twinkle as it did on our first night. Things couldn’t have been more perfect. The cruise comes with an audio tour that is translated in 10 different languages. I couldn’t really hear what the recording was saying, but it didn’t matter because I enjoyed being on the water. Best part is that this tour only costs 10 euros per person.

Paris Eiffel Tower Twinkle

From here, we trekked back home for a good night’s rest.

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Bonjour, Paris! – Day 11

The title of this post comes from a song in “Funny Face,” one of my favorite Audrey Hepburn movies. In this movie, Audrey is discovered by a big name fashion magazine editor and is taken to Paris to become a model. When they first land in the city, Audrey, Fred Astaire, and the magazine editor visit several famous sites from the Eiffel Tower to the Latin Quarter while singing, “Bonjour, Paris!” – which was my inspiration for this Parisian itinerary.

Hotel Beaubourg

This day was mostly a travel day for us. We really only had time to do one sight and have dinner after checking in. We had previously stayed in vacation apartment retails in both Rome and Barcelona, but we decided to end our trip at a cute 3-star Parisian hotel, Hotel Beaubourg, in the 2nd arrondissement. It was in such a convenient location. Just moments away from Notre Dame and the Louvre. It’s close to a grocery store, a bakery, and several meat and cheese shops too. The only thing this place lacked was a complimentary breakfast. Their breakfast was at around 9 euro per person.

Eiffel Tower

Paris Eiffel Tower View

I pre-purchased tickets to the Eiffel Tower for a 6pm entrance time so K and I could bypass the ticket line. Thank God I did because it was about 20°F and I could not wait outside in a line an hour long. We eventually spent that hour in another line for the elevator to get to the top of the tower. I chose 6pm because I wanted to catch the sunset from the summit, and luckily, we made it just in time. It was amazing. Watching the large orange sun sink behind the city of Paris was breathtaking. I did kind of have to fight my way to the front of the window as the sun was going down, but once I stopped and actually looked at the view, I immersed myself in the experience. I was at the top of the Eiffel Tower watching a sun set over Paris in a cloudless sky. How many people get to experience that? Well, I’m sure many, but now I am one of them.

Paris Eiffel Tower Night

The one Cliffbar I had during the day wore out about 4 hours before, so I was ready for dinner. On our way to the closest restaurant we could find, the Eiffel Tower began twinkling! Just like a Christmas tree! Every night at 9pm the Eiffel Tower twinkles for about 10 minutes. The picture above is not of a twinkling Eiffel Tower.

Dinner: Le Champ de Mars Brasserie

Paris Champ de Mars Cafe

The first restaurant we found was Le Champ de Mars Brasserie, a cute little French cafe at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower. Since it was my first authentic French meal, I went all out. I ordered coq au vin (chicken cooked in wine) with the French onion soup to start. Parisians actually don’t drink French onion soup, but I wanted it anyway. The chicken was amazing. So tender and juicy, the meat fell off the bone. The fettuccine served with was naked. No sauce at all. That’s because you’re supposed to use the wine reduction sauce from the chicken to wet the noodles. Oh mannn, so good. French onion soup can often be salty, but it wasn’t the case for this one. You could actually taste the onions and the crusty cheese on top. K got the steak frites and the escargot. He was a happy camper because he never gets to eat snails (I don’t like them). The snails were swimming in a butter, garlic and parsley sauce, but for some reason, K was a little unsatisfied. After his first bite, he mentioned he actually preferred the Chinese snails over this. His steak, however, was a winner. Beautifully charred and seasoned, the medium rare steak was tender and juicy. Rick Steves says that Parisian steaks are a little more rare than what Americans are used to. Tip: order medium if you want medium rare.
Paris French Onion Soup

Paris Escargot

Paris Steak Frites

Champs-Élysées

Paris Arc de Triomph

After dinner, we headed for the Champs-Élysées, Paris’ famous shopping street, to see the Arc De Triomphe. It was about 11pm at this time, and the street was still filled with people. Thank goodness we made our way here because we found an H&M that seemed to be open 24 hours. Did I mention it was about 20°F? We stocked up on gloves and scarves to keep us warm.
Paris Louve Pyramid Night

We trekked back home by foot and stopped at the Lourve for a night time photo op. Gosh it was beautiful. The white lights shining through the glass pyramids lit up the museum square.

We finally made it home and called it a night for our next full day of Parisian fun.

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Planning For Our Trip to Europe

Let’s begin planning for our trip, these are the main topics we are focused on right now:

  1. What is our budget?
  2. Where are we going?
  3. When are we going?

Budget

moneySince S and I do not want to use up all of our vacation at once, we decided to take a 2-week vacation.  So, we now know the length.  Next we asked some of our friends how much a typical 2-week trip to Europe was. Most people mentioned around $5000 a person if we are staying in hotels and $4000 if we were staying in Hostels.  Since I’m traveling with S, I want to make sure she’s safe throughout the trip, so Hostels (cue the movie) are out of the question.  I don’t want to have to worry about someone creeping up on her in the middle of the night, or having our luggage stolen from us when we’re in the bathroom (this may happen, but European backpacking is usually safe for men and women).  Therefore, we decided to stay within a $5000 budget range per person.  That’s $10,000, which I hope we do not completely spend.  Here is our proposed budget:

Flight 2 x $1000 $2000
Accomodations 14 x $150 $2100
Food 14 x $75 $1050
Transit (Trains, Buses, Taxis) 14 x $50 $700
Shopping 14 x $50 $700
Attractions 14 x $30 $420
Leftover for everything else   $3030

I highly doubt we would spend this much, but it’s always good to plan a little extra just in case.

Destination

So, knowing how much we wanted to spend, now it’s time to figure out where we want to go.  Since this is my first time going to Europe, I wanted to go to the more touristy areas.  When Western Europe comes to mind, I think of London, Amsterdam, Rome, and Paris.  S has already been to Amsterdam, and London seems too much like many American cities. So, the logical choice was Paris and Rome.  S also mentioned that she really wanted to go to Barcelona in Spain.  Looking at the map of Europe, it doesn’t look like any of these cities were really that accessible to each other.  My imagination of traveling through Europe was through trains thanks to the great game of “Ticket to Ride”.  With further research, though, we’ve found that flying is another economical and efficient manner of traveling between cities.

Here’s our list of cities we would like to go to: Barcelona, Paris, and Rome.

Date of Travel

Timing this trip can make or break our budget.  If we decide to fly out in High Season for any of the countries, we’d be paying a pretty high premium for flights and lodging.  Plus, we’d miss people-watching many of the locals (that would be no fun).  We decided to choose our dates based on weather, middle to low season, and work schedules.  The best time for us is October.  Fall weather should not be too bad, and a majority of the tourists are long gone.  Plus we should be saving almost half on airfare and lodgings.  We also decided to maximize our savings by flying out on weekdays so we’re selecting dates on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

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