Wednesday, July 31, 2013

July 18 - Vini, Vidi, Vici

I think when people say live each day as if it were your last this is the kind of day they have in mind!   Surely we didn’t do all this in ONE day?!?!

Whenever we are in a city that offers a hop on/hop off bus tour we take it.  You get around to every worthwhile attraction and even if you don’t get off the bus you can at least say you saw them.  Usually headphones are provided with English commentary.  Paris has at least two companies.  We purchase a two day pass & will use this as our daytime transportation & switch to the Metro for night or anytime we want to move in the opposite direction from the bus route.  It is becoming apparent that Paris is vulgar in its over-the-top opulence.  Even the humblest buildings have some measure of ornamentation.   We climb up & take a seat to enjoy the sights.  The soundtrack is cheesy but entertaining. There's lots of Edith Piaff & a song called Champs Élysées that is stuck in my head to this day.   And then there are the knock-outs that we pass by;  the Paris Opera, the Louvre, Tuilleries Garden, Place de la Concorde, up the Champs Élysées, the Eiffel Tower, where we decide to disembark.   

 Sometimes when you’ve seen reproductions of something the real thing doesn’t live up to the hype.  Not the case with the Eiffel Tower.  It’s big, bad ass & right now painted a beautiful shade of bronze.  I mean...just...WOW is all I can say.  And I’ve seen it before.  I was in Paris about 22 years ago pushing 1 year old Miles around in a stroller.  Still it is just breathtaking.  We spend some time walking around underneath  and taking photos but choose not to go up in it, it's pricey & the lines are crazy long.   Instead we tuck into a cafe at the base for some lunch & to write some more post cards.  The little tourist shop next to the cafe has official Tour de France ball caps for the outrageous sum of 26 Euros - we cave & purchase two.  
After lunch we stroll through the Parc Champ de Mars and aimlessly stumble onto the Musée Rodin.  Mylene had recommended this and in the Rick Steves guide it was suggested to buy a museum pass at one of the smaller museums.  They sell them here.  This will not only get us in to many museums but also send us to the front of the line.  Skipping the wait at the Louvre alone (where we plan to go at some point) makes it worth the price of the pass.  We enter & move through the soulful permanent collection pieces displayed inside the 18th century former hotel Biron where Rodin used rooms as studio space.  Eventually he donated his entire collection of sculptures (along with paintings by Van Gogh & Renoir) to the French State under the condition that they turn the buildings into a museum dedicated to his work.  Many works are displayed in the beautiful gardens surrounding the museum.

From here we thought we would try to see the catacombs but there was a detour on the bus & instead we got off & ambled through the gorgeous Luxembourg Gardens.  Lots of people are out enjoying the nice weather and little children are racing toy sailboats in a massive pond.  

We still have a shred of energy left, however the bus is no longer running.  We look at our options on our museum pass & hop on the Metro for the Center Pompidou, the contemporary art museum.  Our pass only allows us on two floors of the permanent collection.  I’m kind of bummed because there’s a Lichtenstein show in the special exhibition gallery.  I needn’t have worried though, we don’t even have time to make it through one floor of the compelling collection before they are closing.  Crazy how two hours has flown by!  Also, I am nearly crawling as we have been on the go for 11 hours by now & we still want to stop & have dinner before we get home.  

We hop on the Metro to our neighborhood & have dinner at the St Augustin.  We sit in an open window, enjoying the sunset & congratulating ourselves on a wildly successful day conquering the city.  We realize we can’t keep this pace up for long & try to pick one thing to focus on tomorrow.  As much as we would like to go to the Louvre, maybe it’s too overwhelming?  Maybe we will go back to the Pompidou & spend more time with the kind of art we really prefer?  Maybe we are just too tired & cranky & need to get a good night’s sleep before making a decision we might regret...

Oh my aching dogs!!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

July 17 - Paris!

We are up bright & early today for our transfer to Paris.  I’m amazed I slept as well as I did .  I have come down with a summer cold & had to sleep propped up, mouth breathing.  I had one of those panicky moments in the middle of the night when I forgot where our check-in instructions were for Paris.  I spent some time searching through old emails & finally found them.  I found both of our rentals on VRBO.  Nathalie & Gerard, the owners of the Nice apartment have been very relaxed to deal with. We simply put down our deposit & paid the balance in cash on arrival.  On the other hand, Joel & Valerie, the owners of the Paris apartment, have had us wade through a mountain of documents & contracts.  And our balance was paid in full 6 weeks ago with no option for a refund, barring some catastrophe, for which we purchased travel insurance at their recommendation.  I hope its worth it!
 We clear out, head to the train station & board the TGV (high-speed train) for our 6 hour trip to Paris.  I use this time to catch up in the journal I reference for writing this blog.  Ernesto & I have packed a picnic lunch & the time flies by.  The car isn’t crowded & we have lots of room to spread out.

We pull into Gare De Lyon in the heart of Paris.  Everyone seems to explode off the train and shoot off in different directions with purpose.  Everyone but us that is.  We have a rough idea of where we’d like to end up but no point of reference yet.  My French friend Mylene recommended we purchase a 10 pack of tickets for the Metro.  Can I say we think taxis are for pussies?  No, not really, but we do think it’s the easy (& expensive) way out.  Especially when you are somewhere that has excellent public transportation.  We spend a few flustered moments trying to purchase the 10 pack (a carnet) but instead wind up with 3 day passes,the attendant clearly saw us as an easy mark..  Now all we need to do is pick our line.  

Some cities are laid out in a straightforward grid.  Not Paris.  Here it is more of a hub & spoke system & often the street changes its name when it moves through a round-about.  Adding to this confusion is the fact that Ernesto won’t allow us to pull out a map lest we look like lost tourists.  The fact that that is exactly what we are doesn’t enter in to his reasoning.  So we pick a stop that seems to be in the general vicinity of our neighborhood.   Ernesto finally compromises by pulling out his phone to use the GPS & after lots of circling back on ourselves we find our apartment. 

I’ve been wanting to come here & stay in this jewel box for three years.  An earlier trip didn’t pan out but I saved the link to this place & we are finally here.  It is even nicer in person than the photos on the web & feels way roomier than its advertised 750 square feet.  I can now understand why the owners are so protective.  We take about an hour to unpack & catch our breath before striking out to explore our neighborhood.  The apartment is so well situated!  It is down a small street but close to a busy one filled with cafes and shops.  The president of France has a residence nearby & one of the nice features of the apartment is the round the clock security detail patrolling the neighborhood.

We are just a few blocks from the Champs Élysées so our first foray into the streets is to locate where we will be sitting for the end of the Tour De France in a few days.    Just knowing the riders are making their way closer to us  creates a current of excitement that is increasing day-by-day.  It only takes a few minutes to find and preparations are clearly underway; grandstands have been set up, awnings are being installed, and if I am not mistaken out seats are RIGHT ON THE FINISH LINE!!!  I have had the feeling each day that this vacation can’t get any better.  And each day it does.  That trend seems to be holding true here as well!

We take a right turn & make our way towards the Arc de Triumphe.  Constructed at Napoleon’s order,  beginning in 1806 it was completed well after his death in 1821. Built  to honor the French Army which had conquered most of Europe at the time, the Arc de Triumphe is one of Paris’ most famous landmarks.  This year the Tour will circle the Arc 10 times in the climactic criterium finish.  We walk all the way around and under taking lots of photos.  

Afterwards we stop in at the Mono Prix to pick up provisions and then tuck in to a homey brasserie for a lovely late dinner & impromptu French lesson from our waitress.  It is growing dark as we make our way home ready to tackle a full day of sightseeing tomorrow.

Monday, July 29, 2013

July 16 - Èze, Monaco, Monte Carlo

This morning Walter, our guide,  is Johnny-on-the-spot to pick us up for our tour of Èze, Monaco & Monte Carlo.  Already on board is a pair of Australian ladies & we make a stop to pick up another couple, also Aussis.  Our first stop is the medieval village if Èze.  It is perched high on a crag just a few clicks northeast from Nice.  It has a Disneyesque feel & according to Wikipedia old Walt spent a lot of time here. The streets are impossibly narrow & windy, more like mountain trails.  Walter points out the hotel where the Edge was married & says Bono has a home nearby.  It seems like a romantic fun place to stay if you are sure-footed.  We catch glimpses inside the luxury hotel; Chateau de la Chevre d’Or as we clamber around.  Something is off though.  Maybe it’s that they’ve wedged a touristy vender into every possible nook & cranny detracting from what would otherwise be totally charming & one-of-a-kind.  We only have a few minutes then it's back in the van for Monaco.

 The closer we get the more congested the traffic gets and Walter tries an alternate route.  Still it’s crowded.  At .78 square miles, & 36,371 residents Monaco is the second smallest (only the Vatican is smaller) and most densely populated country in the world.  It enjoys French protection & we do not need the passports we brought.  Dang, because I’d love a Monaco stamp!  We make our way to the subterranean parking under Monaco-Ville, the mostly pedestrian area where we will view the changing of the guards in front of the palace.  Walter drops us at the Maritime museum in front of Saint Nicholas Cathedral.  We have just enough time before the changing of the guards to enter the cathedral where the remains of Princess Grace & her husband Prince Rainier III are interred.  It is cool & quiet inside, lovely.  Photos are allowed & we indulge.  Over at the palace the guards are queueing up for their routine.  I’m going to sound like an “ugly American’ here when I say the ceremony is better at Arlington National Cemetery in DC.  Maybe because of what’s being guarded.  No one lives in the palace, it is mostly used for welcoming dignitaries & houses royal offices.  Also, as the guards move into position they are super casual and only snap to as the ceremony begins.  Plus it is sweltering!  Immediately after we hustle into a an air-conditioned shop for some post cards & souvenirs then settle into a cafe to have a cold drink & write our cards.  We are hurrying to meet our deadline to rendezvous with the group but as we have discovered, in this part of the world, getting a waiter to bring the check is an art form we have not mastered.  When we get back to the designated meeting point we are informed that Walter & the group have LEFT!!!  Another guide from his company is there to look for us & helps us reunite in front of the Monte Carlo Casino.

So, Monte Carlo is a neighborhood within Monaco.  I wasn't clear on that before.  Talk about high rolling!!  Monaco is a tax haven for anyone wealthy enough to afford some of the priciest real-estate on the planet.  Ferraris & Lamborghinis are sardined in streets lined with every luxury brand imaginable.  Painted in the traffic lanes are the starting blocks for the world famous Grand Prix that runs in the streets here.  We hurriedly take a few photos be fore hopping back in the van for a turn around the course.  Each May 200,000 people pack in to this tiny country to see the race.  It sounds like a glamorous nightmare!  There are tight turns, elevation changes, a tunnel and a swing by the yacht filled harbor.

Once back in the van Walter and the couple are giving us a hard time about being late.  We notice a definite chill from the formerly friendly ladies.  Actually I think they are absolutely pissed.  We have apologized so I’m sot sure what else we can do to make it right.  Our final stop is to the Fragonard perfume factory before returning to Nice.  I’m sure this is the whole point of the tour.  Fragonard ads are everywhere & I think they printed the brochures for this tour in exchange for a steady stream of captive clients.  Every tour includes a stop here.  That being said it is a fascinating process & I thoroughly enjoy it.  We even purchase some fragrances & body oil before our return to Nice.  

In summary, I’m glad we went but if I had it to do over I would either go on my own or try to arrange a private tour at our own pace.  We no sooner would arrive somewhere then it was time to hop back in the van.

This is our last night in Nice and for dinner we opt for a steak house we’ve seen on the pedestrian boulevard.  Ernesto has the surf & turf & I have spaghetti with salmon.  We are going to grow gills at this rate!!  Nathalie had recommended lots of restaurants but I don’t know if we’ve hit any of them preferring instead to walk in the first place that looks appealing and we haven’t been disappointed.  We ate every meal outside which has been heavenly, marred only by the incredible amount of smoking that is still being done by a huge amount of the population here.

 We make our way home in time to do a little laundry & pack our bags for the next leg of this adventure; Paris!