Saturday, September 19, 2009

France on $70 a Day - Paris - Tips

David is packing his suitcase and then it will be my turn. We leave for the Dordogne area tomorrow. Before we get on the train, though, I thought I'd share a few observations and precautions about Paris.

Just when you've succefully crossed a busy intersection, you can be mowed down by a bicyclist. Sidewalks, in many arrondisements, are divided with bike paths. Look both ways, just as you would on the street, before crossing them.

Should you yourself wish to use two wheels to whiz through the city, bike rentals are available all over town. Look for a line of bikes locked into posts, swipe your credit card in the nearby machine (one euro per thirty minutes), and take off. You can return the bike at any bike station in town.

Parisiens can run you down on the roads as well as the sidewalks. Drivers are aggressive. There's an accident every thirty minutes at the Arc de Triomphe roundabout. Even though you may see others cross before they see the green walk sign, it is dangerous to do so.

The good news about the highly efficient public toilets--round structures found on many street corners that ingeniously clean the toilet after each use--is that they are now free. The bad news is that, in the past ten days, I've only encountered one that was in working order. If you must use the facilities and cannot find a public toilet, try a cafe bathroom. You may have to pay a small fee or buy something, but that's preferable to being miserable.

While there are a few homeless people in Paris, there are not as many as there are in major US cities, and they're well-tolerated here. The homeless man in our neighborhood has a single mattress in a bus shelter where he sleeps during the day.

When I walk for seven hours a day, developing a rash on the calves of my legs is as inevitable as aching feet. Usually, when it happens, I use hydrocortisone cream (brought from home) to clear up the rash in a week to ten days. This time, remembering the help we got from the pharmacist when Mary broke her leg two years ago in Provence, I stopped at the pharmacy next door to our apartment to see if they could help me. Three women examined my legs, asked about medications and allergies, and then prescribed a cream called Dermeol. The rash was gone in two days! (Unfortunately, they told me there was no cream to make me look twenty years younger!)

And, last of all, to look like a Parisien, ladies, wear black and throw a scarf around your neck. You'll blend right in.

Friday, September 18, 2009

France on $70 a Day - Paris - Museums

Approaching Versailles

After seeing Versailles, David and I clearly understand why the French revolted against the monarchy. This sprawling complex with room after room of marble floors, opulent finishes and furniture, and a park area that stretches for 247 acres was supported by taxes levied against the poor.

The kings and queens who lived here were spoiled rotten. Rather than fight the traffic in the summer, they simply moved a few acres away to their vacation palace, the Grand Trianon. And, as if two palaces were not enough, the Petit Trianon, yet another showplace, was given to Marie-Antoinette by Louis XVI. He said, "Since you love flowers I am offering you a bouquet, it is the Petit Trianon." Seems to me he could have given her a few dozen roses, instead, and saved the tax-paying peasants a bit of money.

The Hall of Mirrors (and chandeliers)

The King's Bedroom

One of the Queen's Bedrooms

Anyway, if you go, and you won't be disappointed if you do, be sure to pay the 6.50 euros to ride the mini-train (They call it a train but it is actually a series of connected carts.) that will take you to three viewpoints where you can get off to tour the two Trianon palaces and the Grand Canal and then hop back on to finish the tour. It is worth the euros to see the park and avoid walking what amounts to about three miles.

A Small Portion of the Gardens

The peasants finally got their revenge against the monarchy's extravagance when the Revolution guillotined Marie-Antoinette and her husband, along with hundreds of others. To see where Marie-Antoinette spent her last days in a small cell, go to the Conciergerie, the toughest of all French prisons.

The Musee Carnavalet, in the Marais district, was one of our favorites. Admission to the museum, housed in two former mansions connected by a corridor, is free. There you will see models of Paris throughout the ages and rooms decorated in the furniture style of the times from the Louis XIV period to the Belle-Epoque. There are benches in the area between the two mansions where you can sit in the sun and enjoy the lovely gardens.

A Room at the Carnavalet

If you crave still more history, visit the Musee de Cluny, housed in a Gothic mansion, in the Latin Quarter. Here you can see the remains of Paris's ancient Gallo-Roman baths and trace the history, via many displays, of the Middle Ages. Aftwerwards, wander the serpentine streets of the Latin Quarter and enjoy the quaint shops and diverse restaurants.

Musee de Cluny

For something completely different, try the Centre Georges Pompidou in the Marais district. This controversial complex is incongruously modern in the heart of old Paris with its innards--the escalator, elevator, electrical and air conditioning systems--housed on the exterior of the building. Tourists must prefer representational art to modern, because there was no queue here or, indeed, many people at all. Even if you don't study the art --abstract expressionism, arte povera, cubism, fauvism, pop art, surrealism and video art are all represented--it is worth the trip for the view from the top floor. Take the escalator as far as you can and be rewarded with views over Paris's rooftops to the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur.

Surprising First Look at Pompidou

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

France on $70 a Day - Paris - Day Five

Yesterday was one of those days to be expected on any trip.

It rained Monday night (a treat for us Southern Californians who haven't seen rain in months), so Tuesday the city was freshly showered and sparkling. We started at the Luxembourg Gardens, a 25-acre or so expanse of grass, flowers, statuary, and fountains in the St. Germain des Pres neighborhood on the Left Bank.

Luxembourg Gardens

There are puppet shows and a carousel for children in the garden, but it's also a calm oasis for adults who walk its gravel paths and admire the flowers which are changed three times a year. The Medici Fountain, originally built in 1630 by the widow of King Henry IV, has been re-located here to a lovely little grotto surrounded by topiary. It's a peaceful way to begin a day of sightseeing.

The Medici Fountain

The next stop was supposed to be the Musee de la Monnaie de Paris, the money museum, but we had two serendipitous surprises first. Wandering the streets of the sixth arrondisement, we came upon one of the largest churches in France, Saint Sulpice, built in 1745. The 6,588 pipe organ is impressive, as are the Delacroix frescoes and the Pigalle statues, but the church is probably best known to fans of The Da Vinci Code for its pivotal scene in the book. It is here that the albino monk, Silas, searched for the secret to unlock the Holy Grail.

We did not discover any secrets there, but in our wandering, we came across my own personal holy grail, the Cafe des Deux Magots. This cafe was the hangout for Picasso, Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and I'd longed to see this cultural center all my life. We sat at a sidewalk table and were served a 7 euro Chocolat des Deux Magots a la Ancienne by a black-tied waiter. Forget ambrosia. This hot chocolate, so thick it coated the spoon, surely is the food of the gods. We lingered as long as possible, thinking about the ways in which this cafe had served as an intellectual melting pot for so many years, before finally, and, in my case, reluctantly, moving on to the money museum.

Les Deux Magots Cafe

David has been a coin collector since he was twelve, so, in a way, I suppose this was a holy grail for him, too. We admired the strike plates used to fashion early coins (The metal was placed on a mold and then struck with a hammer to imprint the design.), and David studied the later coins and medals while I enjoyed the view from a bench. It was a small museum, one of few small edifices in Paris, so we finished in less than an hour.

Our next stop, after a stroll along the Seine, was the Musee D'Orsay, a former railroad station converted to a museum. If you spent thirty seconds looking at every work in the Louvre, our guide had told us, you would finish--assuming you did not eat, sleep or use the toilette--two months later, so we knew the d'Orsay was probably also time-consuming. Not having a spare month or so, we concentrated on the fifth floor where the Impressionists' works are housed. I'm still not certain of the difference between Monet and Manet, but we enjoyed the paintings nevertheless.

And so ended our day. One of those to be expected on any trip. A day when everything goes well and there are even a few welcome surprises!

Practicalities -

We bought a museum pass for four days (They are available in two, four, or six-day increments.) and were impressed at the way it works like a magic charm. We waited seven minutes at the d'Orsay instead of sixty, and at smaller museums we've been ushered inside without waiting at all.

If you buy a pass, do not enter the date until you go to your first museum because, once activated, the pass must be used on consecutive days. Incidentally, no one has checked the pass closely at any of the museums we've visited. The clerks have been satisfied with a quick glance. We even forgot to write the date on the back the first day and no official asked us to do so.

We've zipped around Paris using the Metro and the RER thanks largely to David's skill with maps. When we've run into a snag, however, we've found the site to be invaluable. Click on the flag in the upper right corner for the English version, input your starting point and destination, and the site will generate the route for you.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

France on $70 a Day - Paris - Day Four and the Gold Ring

Yesterday we took the Batobus, a boat/bus that makes eight stops at various tourist spots around Paris, so we could see the city from the vantage point of the Seine.

Our first stop was the Eiffel Tower, but the lines were hours-long so we decided to enjoy the view from another spot some other time. We headed across the Parc de Champs de-Mars, a three block long swath of green grassy park area, and encountered a man who'd found a gold ring. David saw him bend down to pick it up, and the man showed it to David and asked if it were real gold. Since David is pretty much an expert when it comes to identifying gold and silver, he looked it over, said he wasn't completely certain it was gold (It had the right marks but was very light in weight.) and passed it back to the man. At this point, the guy said it didn't fit him and he thought David should have it for good luck. I joined the conversation, and, imagining how sad someone would be to lose his ring, said we would turn it over to the police. The man looked a bit surprised but went on his way.

As David and I continued walking, we were approached by two tourists who said they'd seen what had happened and wanted us to know the man who'd found the ring was perpetrating a scam. Paris seems to be covered in gold rings. When a tourist is asked to authenticate one and told to keep the ring for good luck, the scam artist then asks for a little compensation. After all, you're getting a ring worth several hundred dollars, so surely that's worth ten euros or so. Unfortunately for the man who tried to scam us, David refused to authenticate an item he wasn't absolutely sure about. The mention of the police probably scared the scammer, too. So, we are left with a fake gold ring to remember the Parc de Champs de-Mars.

We tried to put that experience behind us as we headed to the Musee de l'Armee. This is a huge complex (The French seem to believe everything but apartments should be gigantic.) dedicated to--You guessed it.--everything having to do with war. Obviously this was David's choice, but I didn't mind it too much because there were benches in every room. I sat and David looked. Judging from all the men who were ogling the guns and battle gear and the women who sat with me on the benches whispering, "Je suis tres fatigue," this is a museum that appeals to one gender more than the other. That's okay, though, because I made David go some place with me I was dying to see.

If you were a fan of the television show, Sex and the City, you'll remember the bridge where Big finally tells Carrie she's The One. David and I stood on the Pont des Arts and, after reminding him of my stoicism at the army museum, I made him listen to every moment of that climactic ending to the series. David looked a little bored, but I loved every second we spent on that bridge.

Practicalities -
The Batobus provides an interesting perspective from which to see Paris. With a $12 pass, you can get off the boat at any of the eight tourist stops and hop back on whenever you like. Judging from the 524 pictures (I'm exaggerating only slightly.)David took, it's also a photographer's ideal location.

Monday, September 14, 2009

France on $70 a Day - Paris - Day Three

Saint Michel Fountain - Latin Quarter - Meeting Place for Free Tour

If you wear your sturdiest walking shoes and prepare yourself for a pace more suitable for twenty-year-olds than fifty-somethings, you'll love the New Paris free walking tour.

We began at the fountain in the square called Place St. Michel and ended four hours later (with a half hour for lunch) near the Arc de Triomphe. Along the way, we learned that the Latin Quarter is named for the language spoken long ago by the scholars who studied in the area. Since the Sorbonne is now located there, the area is still a gathering spot for intellectuals and artists, but everyone has pretty much given up on speaking Latin. We discovered that the flying buttresses of Notre Dame are what help support its astonishing stained glass windows; the tuileries means tile in French, so the Tuilerie Gardens pay homage to the tile works that once stood on those grounds; and that Napoleon so loved oranges that he had a huge greenhouse built to shelter orange trees, and that greenhouse has been converted into the Musee de l'Orangerie.

There were many other facts and stories Sam told during our delightful tour, but the only detail she omitted was the one I now need most. How do I cope with my aching feet?

Practicalities -

New Paris Free Tours are exactly that. You are asked, but not pressured, to give a tip to your guide at the end of the tour and most everyone in our group gave 5-10 euros. New Paris also leads fee-based tours of Montmartre and Versailles, as well as Paris pub crawls.

We had lunch in the first arrondisement, the heart of Paris, where our guide somewhat sheepishly led us to two restaurants--Starbucks and McDonald's. While admitting these were the least French eateries around, Sam said that here, in the most expensive part of the city, they were the cheapest. Since David and I had already noticed standard items were 2-3 euros more here than in our bo-bo neighborhood in the 10th 'eme, we were grateful for her suggestion.

If you enjoy nightlife, plan to spend lots of money. While there are undoubtedly inexpensive bars in distant neighborhoods, our guide said the trendier bars charge 12-15 euros for a beer. The cover charge in nightclubs is around 20 euros.

Our guide said Paris is a relatively safe city but watch out for two problems. If you feel a hand in your pocket and you're not enjoying it, you're probably being robbed. And, the French love their dogs; they do not love poop scooping. There are hundreds of emergency room visits each year by people who slip on the sidewalk excrement. When walking in Paris, look down!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

France on $70 a Day - Paris - Day Two

David searching for bargains in Clingancourt.

It's 6:30 and David is still sleeping as is most of Paris on this Sunday morning. But I don't mind. I've got my iced tea, complete with ice cubes thanks to three ice cube trays I brought from home, and a quiet half hour to write.

David and I are convinced an apartment, particularly this apartment, is the best base to have in Paris. The longer we stay here, the more impressed we are with its comforts. Phillipe seems to have thought of every amenity. Paris has provided comfortable temperatures and blue skies so far, but, should the weather change, two umbrellas wait by the front door. There's a sewing kit for clothing emergencies, and, should no emergencies of any kind arise, there are champagne flutes for celebrating. We even have magnets on the refrigerator door! But, more importantly, we are already feeling like this place is our haven in this beautiful but bustling city. We loved returning from a long day yesterday after touring Clingancourt, the largest flea market in the city with close to a thousand vendors, and Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre, to "our home."
Sacre Coeur

Later we prepared an easy dinner. I'm perfectly content with entrees from the boulangerie that are, to me, fresh and unlike anything I find in San Diego. With a cheese and mushroom fogosse or a croque monsieur or even a thick slab of Sicilian-style pizza and a salad from greens we bought at the market, I'm a happy woman.

David, on the other hand, enjoys buying the frozen entrees that are better than anything we've ever found in Stateside freezers. Either way, while I suppose it's obvious we are not foodies, we feel we're eating well and experiencing a bit of French cuisine, while certainly staying within our budget. And after spending 3.5 euros yesterday for a Coke at a Clingancourt cafe, we are more convinced than ever that self-catering is the best way to deal with this expensive city.

It's time now to wake David. After our breakfast of pain au chocolate, we're going on a 3.5 hour free tour of Paris's central area. Since we finally feel recovered from jet lag, we are ready for Paris to reveal her charms to us.

Friday, September 11, 2009

France on $70 a Day - Paris - Day One

It took eight months to plan the trip but only thirteen hours of travel to get here. It seems as though there should have been mountains to climb or oceans to swim so there would be a more gradual and perceptible transition between these two countries, but all we had to do was navigate airport corridors and endure two flights, and, voila, here we are!

We arrived at the apartment building, punched in some numbers for the door codes, and were met by our host. Philippe did not remain a stranger for long thanks to the 2 X 3 foot elevator. David and I took turns riding up with Philippe and one suitcase at a time, and, in such crowded quarters, we got to know each other almost intimately. Had I moved two inches to the right in the elevator, David would have had good reason to accuse me of infidelity! Fortunately, Philippe did not seem to mind close contact with two such tall Americans--David is six and a half feet tall and I'm almost six feet--and even had welcoming gifts for us. David received a lovely bottle of fabulous French wine, and I was given a coffee-table book entitled, Atlas des Catastrophes Naturelles. Philippe explained that the book was in French but had great photos. David and I have yet to figure out what message he was sending with a book about tsunamis, tornadoes, and earthquakes, but we both appreciate Philippe's gesture.

The Magenta apartment is exactly as described on the Beau-Paris website, but even more charming than we expected thanks to the three tiny balconies with French doors. But, then, everything here is tiny, from the elevator to the apartment itself. Measuring only 350 square feet, somehow the owners packed every imaginable amenity into this space. There is almost as much storage as we have back at home, and the bed can be cleverly elevated to allow for this chair in which I'm sitting to write at the computer at the built-in desk.

After Philippe showed us how to operate the TV, dishwasher, washing machine and computer, he wished us a good day, and David and I were left to unpack and explore our neighborhood. Within roughly a three block radius, there are several brasseries, boulangeries, patisseries, a laundry, tourist office, three pharmacies and several bars. I've already found my favorite patisserie where the clerk now greets me like a friend, and David and I have a favorite grocery store, just around the corner, that we find convenient yet puzzling. We don't know why there are six brands of butter but no cream, but perhaps we'll solve that mystery before we leave. On today's walk, we discovered two marches, small markets selling only cheese or flowers or bread in a small covered mall, and a store that sells nothing but frozen food. We clearly will not be lacking choices for grocery supplies.

Our French lessons seem to be paying off as most Parisiens smile when we speak. Then they reply in English. Ah, well, at least they know we're making an effort, and they've responded politely in kind. I have had a few difficulties with the French keyboard, though, because it has enough accents and symbols to confuse anyone. I finally managed to convert the keyboard to an American one, but the computer constantly tries to switch me back to French. Whenever I notice the word "and" appearing as "qnd," I know the computer has done it one more time.

So, our first full day in France has been a delightful one. We've bought, with a little help from the clerk who showed us how to use the machine which only accepts coins, a carnet of ten Metro tickets, ridden the Metro, walked from the Gare du Nord to our apartment and then to the Canal St. Martin, bought groceries, and said bonjour to a lot of bemused Parisiens. The only problem we're having is exhaustion which I suppose time and sleep will cure. A good night's sleep had better do the trick because we're exploring the weekly market tomorrow.

Practicalities -

I highly recommend the properties. They were the best and cheapest we found on the Internet, and, now that I'm living in one of their offerings, I know they are truly good value. To see our apartment, go to the website, click on "All Apartments," and scroll down to Magenta. Click for more information and you will find many photos. Imagine us right now sitting on the couch in the living room!

To convert a foreign computer keyboard to an American one, look for the FR symbol on the right side of the task bar (at the bottom of the screen.) Click and select English (Etats Unis) from the offerings.

Monday, September 7, 2009

France on $70 a Day - The Day Has Come

We are wound tighter than the last shirt we rolled up to squeeze in the suitcase. To think that this trip, born of a January dream and brought to fruition—at least on paper—over the last eight months, is actually going to occur makes us quiver with anticipation.

We've got maps and notes and schedules. Some of them in duplicate. Our calendar details the sites we'll see every day. David has read the guidebooks as though they were novels, page by page, and made copious notes. The suitcases are packed and weighed to make sure they fall within the airline's weight restrictions. We have checked our lists. Twice. David's going through the pantry right now to make sure we haven't overlooked a snack we might like to have on the plane. (Or something that might grow legs while we're gone.) An hour ago we finished the final tape in the Pimsleur “Learn French” series that David picked up at a yard sale for a dollar. As long as we only want to ask for something to eat or drink or the way to rue Saint Jacques, we'll be in business. We'll have to pantomime everything else!

In a way, I wish there were another chore to do or another tape to play because that might calm my nerves, but really, all that's left is to hand over the keys tomorrow to our friends who are pet sitting.

So, there's no getting around it--it's time to actually take this trip that's been months in the planning. But I won't say goodbye because that sounds too final. Rather, I'd like to say au revoir because that means “until we meet again.” And we will. In France. Did you forget you were coming with me? See you right back here in a few days.