Archive for the 'France' Category

Feb 20 2008

The Top 5 Reasons Why Versailles isn’t Lame After All!

Published by under France,Paris

IMG_4370There’s enough to keep you busy in Paris from now until the U.S. adopts the euro, but like most visitors to Paris, we reserved one day in our week for a daytrip to Versailles. I’ll admit I was bearish on the idea at first – I mean, what is there to DO in Versailles? Look at some gardens? Fortunately for me, I was outnumbered on this aspect of the itinerary, and we hopped the short train ride despite my misgivings.

I didn’t even realize what a minority I composed until we stepped off the train in Versailles. Before the palace complex even came into view, we saw this sign posted on the sidewalk:


Since we showed up in February, the point was moot – we walked right up to the palace and through the entrance gate with no line whatsoever. But this does highlight two points. First, and contrary to all prior evidence, visiting an establishment that sees billions and billions served need not end in heartache. Or any other ache! Or… actually, let’s stop there. Second, traveling in the low season is still severely underrated. Wait 3 hours in the sweltering summer heat, or wait 0 minutes in the cool sunshine of a February afternoon? The choice is yours.

So back to my initial question: what is there to DO in Versailles? Curiously enough, you look at some gardens. Or some furniture if you prefer, but I think you have to pay for a ticket to see that. I’d tell you to just put your face up against the glass windows like I did, but it turns out that squinting through windows at rocking chairs is slightly less thrilling than it sounds. The gardens, on the other hand, are much cooler than you’d think. Unless you’re one of the niche enthusiasts with the inexplicable purchasing power to make “Gardening TV” a viable channel in my cable lineup. Then it’s probably about as cool as you’d think. For the rest of us though, I come bearing good news. Here, for the first time ever, I present to you…

The Top 5 Reasons Why Versailles isn’t Lame After All

1. Versailles is gorgeous, even in the winter. From the trees by the lakes to the flowers by the fountains, the grounds are meticulously groomed to preserve this perennial picnic paradise. That’s 4 P’s if you count “preserve.”

2. The scale of the property is epic. I don’t remember how many hectares it covers, but it’s of little consequence, since I still don’t know what a hectare is, and no one will ever tell me. Not even the ones who I’m pretty sure know good and well what it is no matter what they may say, which has been a frustrating theme of this trip.

3. You can rent bikes! The hourly rate is sort of expensive, but then again, the bike rental place is in a perfect position to extort you, since they know you need the bikes in order to compete with your companions to see who can receive the most reciprocal “bonjours” from pedestrians when bicycling by and greeting them in your best silly French voice.

4. Versailles is an aerobic athlete’s Eden. It’s free to get into the gardens, so runners (and bikers) take advantage of the many hectares ACRES’ worth of scenic paths. Jamie was preparing for an upcoming track meet during our week in Paris, and he jumped on the chance to take our leave for an hour of running around Versailles.

IMG_43995. Marie Antoinette’s Fairytale Village. I don’t know at exactly what age Marie Antoinette married into royalty because I haven’t yet seen Kirsten Dunst’s theatric portrayal, but I do know that Versailles is home to a mock village constructed entirely to be her personal play area. Lonely Planet advises that she came here to “play milkmaid,” which sounds like some sort of veiled entendre on the part of the author that I just don’t get. Anyway, I think we can all agree that the whole thing reeks of creepy. Or should I say, reekED of creepy. Today the little hamlet beckons you like something straight out of a fairytale, and we wandered through a little vineyard to watch a swan floating on the pond by Hansel and Gretel’s cottage.

But enough about Versailles. I think everyone would have lived there happily ever after if possible, but the hoboes have a lot more experience in turf wars than we do. Plus, the next day (Friday) was Brittany’s family’s last full day in Paris, so I should probably mention it.

Let’s see… the ladies spent the morning shopping for clothes, while Jamie and I spent it sleeping, and then going to Nike Paris. Everyone was pretty tuckered out from the day before, which didn’t bode well for our evening. We’d learned that something called the “Louvre” is free for anyone under 26 on Friday nights, so we waited until our last night together to finally go. I would describe our visit as a “Let’s just see the highlights because my feet are already killing me and we’re not even inside yet” type of tour. We managed to see the biggies, but I was really struck by the size of this “Louvre” – I think you could make several day-long visits without looking at the same things twice.

Hammurabi's Code could be easily tippedThe highlight for this history nerd was seeing Hammurabi’s Code on the lower floor. What’s crazy is that this tablet is something like 4000 years old, and they’ve just got it standing in the middle of the floor, separated from the viewer only by a flimsy knee-high barrier. I expected something of its magnitude to be on serious lockdown, and here you could just reach across and tip it over? I instantly had visions of getting my own name (and picture, hopefully) right next to Hammurabi’s Code in the textbooks, but then I reflected that I wouldn’t want someone to tip ME over, so I restrained myself.

Well, I’m fresh out of corny history jokes, so I’ll wrap this up. Brittany’s family flew back home the next day, and BOY, WERE THEIR ARMS TIRED! Right? I swear, I’ll never understand why no one reads our blog.

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Feb 20 2008

Paris: Celebrating a birthday

Published by under France,Paris

So the next day, Feb. 5, was officially my mom’s birthday. Not that it mattered much because she had declared it to be her birthday week and we were all to greet her with a “happy birthday!” every morning we were in Paris. For all I know, she’s now made it her birthday month. Just in case: Happy Birthday, Mom!

A daily ritual evolved in which we would walk to our desired destination – to soak up as much Parisian atmosphere as possible and see what fun surprises and yummy treats we would discover on the way – and then metro it back. So that afternoon we set off on foot to visit the Notre Dame cathedral.

My mother’s checklist of things to do and see in Paris was determined by her favorite movies – in fact, she made me Google certain movie scenes to find out exactly where in Paris they were filmed, so we could visit that site. One such movie culminates in a dramatic scene on a Parisian bridge where the romantic leads finally unite. So it was imperative that our route to Notre Dame take us across that bridge, the Pont Neuf, where Mom could pretend that she was Diane Keaton.

(Fun historical tidbit: even though its name means “new bridge,” the Pont Neuf is actually the oldest bridge in Paris!)

Notre DameAfter an hours-long trek with many such sidetracks, we did manage to see Notre Dame. The cathedral is, of course, beautiful, with its famous flying buttresses and rose windows. We spent a while admiring the church (and resting our feet!), before trying to visit Quasimodo by ascending the towers. Unfortunately we arrived just in time to miss the last group climbing to the top.

We comforted ourselves by deciding to instead visit a shop touted in our guidebook as having “the best chocolate in the world” (which, let’s face it, is what we all really wanted to do anyway). The fact that it was also the most expensive chocolate in the world did not stop us from buying a sampler of delights. Although I can’t say I’ve tried all the chocolate in the world (it’s on my to-do list), I have to imagine this chocolate is a contender for the title of Best Ever. Upon leaving the chocolate shop, we stopped in a bakery for cinnamon-sugar fried apple slices. Oh, and we picked up some Nutella and banana crepes on our walk from the metro station. I love France!

We began the next day with a self-guided walking tour of the Montmartre district, starting with the notorious Moulin Rouge. Of course, to get there, you have to walk through Paris’ red-light district. Historically, I guess that’s what this area has always been (the Moulin Rouge was essentially a fancy brothel, after all), but the modern translation means giant stores called SEXODROME and lots of posters of naked women. Needless to say, walking down this street with a family of five was, well… uncomfortable, and it wasn’t long before Jamie was screaming to get out.

the moulin rougeSo the Moulin Rouge is basically a building that says “Moulin Rouge” and has a giant red windmill on top. Thanks to the movie, my sister had expected more – can-can dancers, flashing lights, and, at the very least, Nicole Kidman and Ewan Macgregor singing a duet out front. She was understandably (and vociferously) disappointed.

Montmartre as a whole is picturesque and charming and we wandered the winding streets until everyone was clamoring for food. To celebrate Mom’s birthday, we decided to splurge on a meal out. I’d searched in vain for a restaurant that was good and reasonably priced – an impossible task in Paris. During my research, I’d run across favorable reviews of a restaurant in the Montparnasse neighborhood called Aux Artistes. Reviewers claimed that the food was good, not great, and the atmosphere was nothing special, but there was just something about this place that made it a perfect Parisian dining experience. And at less than $30 a person, it was a steal (ridiculous, but true).

The reviews were spot on: the food and atmosphere of Aux Artistes are fine, but there IS something about restaurant that makes it great. And I can tell you exactly what that something is. His name is Marvin.

Lindsay, Marvin and Mom. Too bad the sun
obscures the beautiful view.

Imagine a tall, blonde Jake Gyllenhaal type that is impeccably dressed, has a sexy French accent, and brings you food. That’s Marvin. Lindsay was rendered speechless each time he passed and my mom giggled throughout the entire meal, though she did work up the nerve to ask him his name and snap a photo.

We decided to follow up our delicious meal/waiter experience with a café au lait at a small, nearby café. Here’s a tip about dining in France: always have your drink at the bar. If you sit down in the restaurant, your coffee costs nearly twice as much. When we entered this particular café, the bar was full of old French men. So we stood towards the back and I called our order to the bartender, but remained standing to clearly indicate that I was not interested in being seated in the restaurant area. Seeing Mom and I standing, a nice man scooted two bar stools to a tall, round table next to the bar. We said “merci!” and sat down.

And then the bill came, and the prices were twice as expensive as those listed out front. I protested. The bartender merely nodded at our table. Using emphatic hand gestures and my limited French, I pointed out that there had been no room at the bar, and we had not wanted to be seated. Even though it was obvious he understood what I was saying, the bartender shrugged, said something in French that translated to “tough luck, sucker!” and then LAUGHED IN MY FACE.

Few things on this trip have made me angrier. Even as I write this, I’m getting heated just recalling the incident. Have we told you how much we hate Parisians? Well, we do. Everything you hear about them is true. Okay, to be fair, it’s only mostly true. We did run into a few kind people. Marvin, for instance, who is perfect. But most of our local interactions were not friendly.

Don’t be confused, though. The people in Southern France were some of the nicest we’ve encountered. It’s some sort of Paris-specific affliction.

The Eiffel Tower was next on the agenda. Ever since we’d realized just how tall the tower is, we’d all been a little wary of the ascent. Moreover, Jamie was insisting that we climb the 1000+ stairs to the top instead of taking the sensible elevator — not because it was minimally cheaper, but because it would “totally own.” He followed this with lots of manly roars and muscle flexes. If you voiced dissent you were, of course, a “total noob.”

group shot at the Eiffel TowerTurns out you can only climb the stairs to the second level, which was fine by me. If you want to proceed, you have to purchase an additional ticket and take the elevator from there. I say “only” climb the second level, when really it was quite a feat, and even after hiking up and down the moutains of Greece for two months, my thighs were feeling the burn.

Mom and I opted to not to continue on, as she was already feeling weak-kneed and nervous at the second level (we had all been instructed not to touch her or talk to her at the top), and I’ve already climbed the tower once and it was terrifying enough the first time. I mean… who needs to see it twice? That’s just greedy. So you’ll have to ask Ben, Lindsay, or Jamie about their experience at the tip top. Mom and I stayed put and enjoyed the tower’s evening twinkle lights from the inside.

We ended our day with warm homemade paninis on crusty baguettes and several raucous rounds of spades. And since this is my blog where I can say whatever I please, my memory recollects that the girls won handily that night. Oh, and the boys cried. Now it’s recorded for posterity.

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Feb 17 2008

Getting to Know Paris

Published by under France,Paris

Monday was the first full day in Paris for Brittany’s family, and we got things started off on the right foot by sleeping until noon. You could blame this on jet/train lag for all of us, but the truth is that noon was simply the first moment that the girls remembered France has chocolate croissants. If one of the girls had dreamed of chocolate croissants at 5am, she would have instantly sprang from bed to rouse the others, and force us on a pre-dawn death march to find an open bakery. This I can assure you.

Pain au chocolate for the ladiesLuckily for them this week, there’s a bakery on every corner in France, and every bakery sells chocolate croissants. The treat is so ubiquitous that the French simply call it chocolate bread (pain au chocolate). I’m sorry to disclose that I have officially overdosed on chocolate after five months in Europe, but happy to report that that French bakeries have plenty of sweet alternatives, including my favorites, apple-filled anything. Apple pastries in France are actually filled with cold applesauce, which comes as a mouth-flooding surprise the first time you take an American-sized bite.

We dedicated the afternoon to exploring the city on foot, and locating a flea market that we’d read boasts 2500 stalls! Paris turns out to be a larger city than we bargained for, and although the flea market looked tantalizingly close to our apartment on our city map, the journey spanned several hours. Which is maybe not such a bad thing, because when we finally reached the famed flea market, we were frustrated to find that Parisian shop owners are far less willing to haggle than any European merchants we’ve encountered so far. Also, while Jamie and I were admiring some outrageously fabulous running shoes at one stall, a nearby shop owner called out something to us in French. We apologized as Jamie told him, “Je ne comprends pas” (“I don’t understand”), which earned us the admonition, “You come to France, you speak French!” Uh, sorry to break it to you big guy, but was anyone even talking to you? How about… no! Which I agree is surprising, considering you seem to deal exclusively in worthless ugly trinkets, you verbally accost passers-by who wanted nothing to do with you in the first place, and you smell like the men’s locker room floor. What’s that? Now YOU don’t understand? Wish I could help, but you come to my blog, you speak English. Au revoir!

Brenda makes friends with a Paris bar ownerAs I was saying, the long walk to the flea market was maybe not such a bad thing after all. Exploring on foot gave us a chance to see some worthwhile (albeit expensive) shops, and we inaugurated a daily tradition for the week by dropping into a cafe for an afternoon cafe au lait. Despite the fact that the cafe owner spoke not a word of English, and Brenda (Brittany’s mother) spoke not a word of French, they bonded instantly through the universal language of hand gestures. On second thought, the cafe owner did speak two words of English: “assassinate Bush.” This accompanied by the internationally recognized gesture of pulling his index finger across his throat. But before I go and paint the guy as a psycho vigilante, let me add that he was laughing as he said it, and it was clearly all in good fun. And now that the keywords “assassinate Bush” have appeared in my blog, skyrocketing me to the top of the Department of Homeland Security’s suspected terrorist database, let me also add that I would never wish harm upon Beloved Leader. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party, and my favorite bedtime story is the Patriot Act. Four more years!

Sunset from the Sacre CoeurLater on in the evening, we hiked uphill from our apartment to the nearby Basilique du Sacre Coeur, or Sacred Heart Cathedral. We happened to arrive just in time for a little choir practice, so we sat in a rear pew to listen. The massive cathedral’s acoustics made the singing seem like it was coming from above and around me, which was an amazingly haunting effect. We sat there for a while enjoying the music, and then silently slipped back out the door. It had gotten dark while we sat inside the Sacre Coeur, and back outside we found a view that allowed us to see both the lit-up Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. After feeling like I was SO high up while atop the Arc the previous night, I now couldn’t believe how small it looked compared to the Eiffel Tower. We had plans to scale the Eiffel Tower in a couple of days, and although I dislike heights, I had never really considered just how high the monument actually is. I will always remember this moment, standing outside the Sacre Coeur at night, as the first time I thought the Eiffel Tower might be something to fear.

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Feb 17 2008

Paris Day 1

Published by under France,Paris

I stood in a crowded metro station, being pushed and bumped by hasty Parisians, staring at the large grid on the wall full of hundreds of dots and lines, knowing that, at one of those dots, my family was waiting for me. It was my job to somehow navigate this system to retrieve them. Even after months of negotiating foreign metros, Paris’ mass transit system is bewildering – it’s huge, contains two distinct rail systems, and is not at all well marked. After hopping a wrong train, getting off at a wrong stop, and running up and down (and back up) station elevators like a crazy person, I finally located my mother, sister and brother, who sat patiently waiting in the airport terminal.

It was a tearful and excited reunion. My brother, Jamie, was mostly excited because he’d never been on a plane before and – did you know? – you get ALL THE FREE COKE YOU WANT.

But no matter how thrilled we were to be reunited and in Paris, my family hadn’t slept on the plane and Ben and I were still recovering from our heinous journey from Lisbon, so it wasn’t long after we arrived at our rented apartment that we found Jamie snoring at the foot of a bed, and the rest of us quickly followed suit.

Because my mother had never been more excited about anything in her life and because we’d found out that on the first Sunday of every month many Paris attractions are free, we didn’t sleep for long. We lured my siblings out of bed with talk of yummy pastries, bundled up against the Parisian chill, and set off.

Our first stop was, obviously, the patisserie. My sister, Lindsay, had been jealously coveting pain au chocolat ever since I’d described my daily consumption back in Nice, so we ordered an absurd number of those. Jamie ordered a baguette, which he managed to eat nearly single-handedly while mumbling in between bites about how it was the best food EVER. Between the croissants and the baguettes, it was clear that the patisserie would be a staple on our daily schedule.

mom overlooking the seine
Mom crossing the Seine

We wandered the streets of Paris with no particular destination. My mother stared with rapt awe at the beautiful scenery and my sister kept stopping the group so she could snap photos. It goes without saying that Paris is, truly, a gorgeous city. I appreciated having my family there because, after five months in Europe, I tend to take such beauty for granted. It sounds horrible, and almost snobby, to say, but I hardly blink anymore when confronted with a one-thousand-year-old building or one-of-a-kind architecture. But Mom, Lindsay, and Jamie’s enthusiasm helped revitalize my own.

We found our away across the Seine River to the Musee D’Orsay, only to find that it was closing. The hordes of tourists being escorted out of the building did not stop my mother from trying to coerce a guard into letting us in, convinced that her Southern charm would work across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, Parisian men must have thicker skins, because we were denied entrance, again.

So we decided to traipse down the famous Champs D’Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. Unfortunately, this simple stroll ended up taking hours as Jamie insisted on going into every store that sells shoes. I’m sure Ben appreciated the male shoe-shopping companionship after months of shopping with someone who insists that those so-called “Jordans” are just overpriced sneakers. WHICH THEY ARE.

arc de triompheThe Arc, a monument commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate French military victories, is located at one end of the Champs D’Elysees in what is the largest traffic roundabout in the world. Twelve streets radiate off the circle like spokes of a wheel. Thankfully, a clever, lawsuit-avoiding Frenchman developed an underground passage to shuffle tourists from one side of the street to the middle of the circle, so it was not necessary to put our lives in the hands of crazed motorcyclists in order to get to the Arc.

Having walked all evening, none of us were particularly thrilled about the idea of climbing nearly 300 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, but the view – our first panorama of Paris – turned out to be very worth it. With the Eiffel Tower shimmering on one side, the Champs D’Elysees glowing below and the Sacre Coeur lit up in the distance, the effect was magical and we understood why Paris is called the City of Lights.

On the way home, since none of us felt much like cooking, we abandoned our budget-traveler stinginess and picked up some pizza from a nearby pizzeria. Ben and I talked the fam into getting egg pizza which, despite their initial moaning, they loved.

So our first day in Paris officially set the tone for the rest of the week: gorging ourselves on bread, cheese, and (mostly) chocolate, while perhaps trying to fit in a few sites in between.

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Feb 14 2008

From Lisbon to Paris on the Midnight Express

Published by under France,Lisbon,Paris,Portugal

We’re always writing about the deplorable travel conditions we’re willing to subject ourselves to in the name of saving a buck (or a euro, which is an unimaginable bounty of bucks). But the odyssey we endured getting from Lisbon to Paris may have been the most regrettable of all our almost-embarrassing-enough-to-not-do-it-again stingy decisions. We COULD have taken a delightfully convenient 2-hour plane ride from Lisbon directly into Paris, but we had the misfortune to discover an alternative option, involving 27 hours of travel, that was minimally cheaper. With visions of the one extra chocolate croissant we’d now be able to afford dancing in our heads, we foolishly booked our train tickets and started packing our bags.

As if one train ride from Lisbon to Paris weren’t bad enough, our itinerary required us to take one 14-hour overnight train to the French border city of Hendaye, where we would wait seven hours in the train station, and then board a different six-hour train for Paris. When one of our fellow hostelers in Lisbon heard us planning our route, he warned us that the overnight train to Hendaye is, in his own words, “the worst train in Europe.” But since I was, at that moment, in the middle of a recurring fantasy in which I swim backstroke laps inside Scrooge McDuck’s money bin, my ears were deaf to his warning.

It was only once we boarded the train for Hendaye that I remembered our friend’s words. Our train would travel overnight, but we discovered on board that our “seats” were not so much the individual reclining chairs you expect in lieu of beds on a cheap overnight train, but were, instead, numbered spaces on a dirty bench. Each toaster-sized compartment on the train was stuffed with two of these benches, situated so that they faced one another. And while the benches were obviously designed to accommodate two persons each, we noted that each bench was mysteriously numbered to seat four. Brittany and I took the “seats” next to the window, facing each other, and settled in for the ride. For the first hour of our 14-hour trip, we had the breadbox to ourselves. This was, of course, too good to last.

Sometime during the second hour, we were joined by two young French parents and their two-year old son. I should note here an inexplicable and recurring theme of this trip: American children are afraid of me, but European children love me. For every American toddler that has run away screaming after seeing what must look like pure evil in my eyes, there are two European children who I can’t seem to amputate from my ankles. So it was only to be expected when the little boy, upon entering our compartment, immediately decided that he preferred staring at me/scooting up next to me/lying as much of his body as possible across my lap to just about anything else his parents could suggest. Which was fine. What was NOT fine was that the kid’s parents smelled worse than I had previously thought possible for human beings. This coming from someone who just spent the last five months in the land that deodorant forgot.

Oh, and the kid’s screaming. That wasn’t fine either. Our claustrophobic compartment was not where you’d want to be trapped with a two-year old for fourteen hours, especially after two more occupants showed up in hour three, pushing us to three people over maximum occupancy. Still facing each other, but now more on the window than beside it, Brittany and I occupied ourselves by trying to remember exactly why we didn’t want to take the comfortable, spacious, and over-before-you-know-it plane ride. Luckily, my toddler attachment helped us all pass the time by throwing intermittent screaming fits that rendered sleep, conversation, and lucid thought impossible. He had several tantrums that would normally be very worthy of note, but they all paled in comparison to the one that was directly instigated by his own mother. Now, I’m the first to say that I know nada about parenting, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if your two-year old is whining for juice, it’s NOT a good idea to cruelly pitch an obviously empty juice box at his head. And then, when he discovers that you’ve played a prank on him, and whines louder because the juice box is actually empty, it’s an even worse idea to scream in his face and SHOVE HIM DOWN onto the ground. Really, this isn’t even just a terrible idea; it’s what we non-stinky rational people might call “child abuse.” Over the (clearly warranted) ear-piercing screams, I exchanged uneasy glances with the other passengers in the compartment. AWKWARD. Personally, I am unable to sleep sitting up, but Junior eventually fell asleep with his head on my lap, so the decibel level did recede during the night. Not so, I’m sorry to report, for the smell.

The next morning (or the same day… I didn’t sleep a wink, so who really knows?) our train arrived in Hendaye. I don’t feel bad saying that European border cities are the modern equivalent of old port towns, where everyone with any ambition/character/appeal fled for greener pastures long ago, and all that’s left are the few jerks who hang around in hopes of swindling the travelers who pass through. This may be a generalization based on limited experience, but I don’t feel bad saying it. Blame it on the bar owner in Hendaye who charged us SEVEN euros ($10+) for two plain donuts and a water at 7:30 in the morning. Oh, and the lady working the ticket counter at the train station. Once we realized the unscrupulous nature of Hendaye’s native vagrants, we tried to exchange our tickets for ones that might let us spend fewer than seven hours in the hellhole. The ticket lady was only too happy to explain that there were several trains heading for Paris between now and our scheduled departure, and that each one had “many, many available seats” but that she simply couldn’t exchange our tickets. Sorry! Actually, no, she didn’t even say sorry. She did try to suppress a laugh, with limited success. I guess I had hoped that she might not be a Hendaye native, and therefore had the possibility of a human soul, but I should have been thinking more clearly: no one would ever move TO Hendaye, North Korea, or Newark. The idea is to get OUT.

Like all non-criminals before us, we did manage to get out of Hendaye. It took sitting/unsuccessfully trying to nap in the train station’s waiting room for seven hours, but we did it. And after the first two torture sessions of our journey, stepping aboard one of France’s fast, comfortable, and modern TGV trains was a relief. Speaking of TGV, it was a good thing we spent time in Nice and Aix-en-Provence before booking our tickets to Paris. When we first tried to buy tickets in Lisbon, the ticket office told us that the train tickets from Hendaye to Paris would cost 75 euros each. We balked at this, and went online ourselves to the TGV website that we had used to travel through southern France. There we purchased our tickets ourselves for 25 euros each, saving about $150 in the process. Portugal’s station probably figures they can get away with this fleecing because the TGV website is difficult to find, and is entirely in French. If you’re planning to travel by train in France, everything you read will say that the TGV website is Don’t believe any of it! The locals view timetables and book their tickets through, and so should you.

So we finally made it Paris, the last stop on our European tour. First impression: the city is HUGE. I thought we’d been to some big cities, but I’d seen nothing. Where Barcelona is serviced by a few dozen metro stops, Paris boasts an incredible 384. And this was really my first and only impression of Paris on arrival day, because we got into town after dark, took the metro straight to the apartment we’d booked for the coming week, and immediately proceeded to sleep like never before. Brittany’s family would be flying into Paris the next morning, and we would spend the next week exploring the city together. But for now, sleep, and sweet dreams of the chocolate croissant.

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Jan 01 2008

Marseille: no Evian, please

Published by under France,Southern France

Because we are painfully behind on our updates, I am not going to go into too much detail about our time in Marseille. I’ll start off by saying it does not deserve its reputation as a seedy, working-class city, unworthy of a stopover. Our time spent in Marseille turned out to be some of our favorite days in France. Ben was sold on the city as soon as we broke out the guidebook (once it became apparent that we were stuck there for a couple days), and discovered that the Chateau d’If is in Marseille. The Chateau d’If is the island prison made famous by The Count of Monte Cristo — you know, the protagonist is framed by his best friend, sent to prison, where he meets an old man, yada, yada, yada.

Fish for sale at the fish market. This picture has little
relevance to the written material, but is awesome.

So our first morning in Marseille, after visiting the old port’s active fish markets, Ben and I hopped a boat to the island. The Chateau d’If was actually built as a fortress to protect the port of Marseille (which has been an active port for more than 26 centuries), but was shortly thereafter turned into a prison (because it’s hard to escape when you’re stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean). There were several other famous, and nonfictional, tenets of the Chateau, including the notorious man in the iron mask and the captain of the ship that brought the plague to Marseille. Oops!

Since the fortress was not originally intended to hold captives, the rooms on the first and second floors are actually quite spacious and nice, with fireplaces and windows looking out onto the Mediterranean (of course all the non-wealthy riff-raff prisoners were kept in the below-ground dungeons). I considered inquiring about the upper rooms as a cheap accommodation option, before realizing there probably wasn’t an outlet to plug in my laptop or a wifi connection, so I discarded the idea. (By the way, the French call it weefee.)

the chateau d'if
Chateau d’If

Upon returning to the mainland, Ben surprised me by suggesting that we splurge for our four-year anniversary by going out for a nice seafood dinner on the waterfront. Since I can’t remember ever eating anything other than street vendor sandwiches and spaghetti cooked on a hostel’s hot plate, I was elated by the idea. That night we scrounged together a couple of semi-decent outfits — a task harder than anticipated as all nice clothes I brought have been ruined by constant wear and sink-scrubbing. Oh wait, Ben will want me to clarify that he was not wearing an outfit. He was wearing pants and a shirt.

Money-saving tip for those considering European travel: many French restaurants offer fixed price “menus,” three-course meals that often turn out to be cheaper than ordering items a la carte (the best deals can be found at lunch!). I quickly ordered the menu that included the poissons du jour, when I found out that the fish couldn’t be fresher: the owner had picked it up herself at the fish market that afternoon.

As Americans who regard free water as a basic human right, we’ve been surprised by the cost of water in European restaurants. Only occasionally will it come free in a small carafe. More often, they charge exorbitant prices (up to six euros!) for a tiny bottle. Our guidebook informed us that in French restaurants, the water is generally complimentary, but Ben wasn’t taking any chances. Unbeknownst to me, one of the first French phrases he’d picked up was “de l’eau du robinet,” or “tap water.”

When our waiter brought us our bottle of house wine, he asked if we also wanted some water. “De l’eau?” he said.

“Oui,” Ben replied, and then after a moment’s hesitation, “um, l’eau du robinet, s’il vous plait.”

The waiter stopped, looked curiously at Ben, and started chuckling to himself before turning to retrieve our tap water. He was still laughing when he returned.

“L’eau de robinet!” he said, setting the carafe and two glasses down with a flourish. I buried my face in my hands, trying to remember a time when guys used to take me on proper dates and what it was like to actually splurge.

The next day was spent looking up Prague’s temperature, subsequently buying more warm layers, visiting a few more Marseille highlights and attempting to communicate with the city’s large Greek immigrant population (although they were mostly just confused when Ben greeted them with a “yiassou!”)

We’re doing our best to catch up on the blog, but here’s an enticing tidbit to keep you reading: on New Year’s Eve, a Barcelonian police officer whacked Ben with a nightstick. Happy New Year!

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