Biarritz: The Pearl of France’s Basque Country

There are places that are semi-legendary in your mind.  And when you visit them, they live up to that vision.  And sometimes they don’t.  Biarritz, France is not a place I knew a lot about but I did have an impression that it was for the rich and famous.  Its location, in the southwestern corner of France abutting Spain (just 22 miles from the border!) facing the Bay of Biscay, seems ideal with warmer climate and perhaps not the throngs of partying tourists that the Mediterranean coasts can attract.  It sits in the Basque region of France and is home to 20-30-odd thousand residents.

So, as we went from San Sebastian, Spain to Lourdes, France this past September, we decided to stop along the way.  It was not a long drive but we wanted an easygoing day.  As I looked at the map, I realized there were several neat towns along the coast and inland (like Bayonne).  As I talked to my Mom, she shared how she, when she was a girl, would read a novel with her best friend that took place partly in Biarritz and how they always daydreamed about Biarritz.  That settled it for me:  Biarritz would be our stop!

Our visit was short.  A walk around the shopping district after a meandering drive into town. Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

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Saint-Eugenie Church


Biarritz’ place on the coast certainly offers beautiful vistas and spots to take in the views – or get on a boat and see the city from the water (which I wish we could have done!).Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

And then, we just picked a place on the beach (the ‘Grande Plage’ – or great beach) to have lunch -not because it had the look of a great establishment, but simply because of the view out and the fact that we would sit in open air enjoying the great weather that day.

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We ate at a cafe off to the right

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The Grande Plage (big beach) of Biarritz

Biarritz most distinctive or massively impressive structure is the Hotel du Palais (of which, unfortunately, I took the picture split by a lighting pole…) built in the mid-1800s by the wife of Napoleon III.

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Hotel du Palais – and the pole in the middle of the photo

So, I can’t share much about Biarritz, its history or all the ins-and-outs of what to do and see.  But, if like my Mom, you have wondered what Biarritz looks like, I hope this post checks that off your list!

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With my beautiful mom and sister!!

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My sister!!!

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The teenager in the Biarritz of her dreams! It was about my mom that day!!

Making a Pilgrimage to Lourdes, France

Lourdes, France – a major Catholic pilgrimage destination – is a one-of-a-kind kind of place.  For me, that is for two good reasons:

  1. It is the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to young Bernadette, a country girl with no education but a lot of faith.
  2. My mother and sister are both named after that site, where the “Virgin of Lourdes” appeared to Bernadette.

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    The lower and upper basilicas from the Information Center

I suspect both my mom and sister have always wondered if they would ever go to that town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.  Wouldn’t you want to go to the town where your name came from or is related to?  In their case, maybe more than just for the curiosity of being namesakes with the town but also on account of what happened there in the mid 19th century.

The apparition happened multiple times and the local clergy had initially been skeptical but, over time, became convinced of the validity of what Bernadette shared.  I will leave to other sources to explain the whole story but the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette on a grotto near the river.  Out of these events, water sprung from the site and waters of Lourdes are, to believers, holy waters.  People from all over the world come seeking healing or just a spiritual encounter.  Many drink the waters from the spring, bottle some to take home, or even immerse themselves in special pools set up near the grotto (we did all three).

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The grotto

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Fountains where bottles can be filled

When we first arrived in Lourdes from San Sebastian via Biarritz and Bayonne, I was expecting the narrow streets, crowded and me driving this larger vehicle through it all.  I knew I was near the hotel, the Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres, which I had picked due to its proximity to the Sanctuary of Lourdes to make all the walking to and fro easier for everyone, when all of a sudden I saw a parking sign for it, not where the GPS was indicating I needed to go.  Miraculously (pardon the pun), I caught a passing glimpse of the sign before I would have hit the heart of the crowded part of town!

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The back of our hotel

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Right outside of the Sanctuary – tourist shop chaos

The hotel was in the old style of a grand hotel.  It was nice enough but, unfortunately, the A/C was not working on our floor.  Hard to tell with French hotels whether they are just being stingy or whether it was true.  Certainly, at night the air cooled enough to be comfortable in the room but the noise from the street did not subside until the very wee hours of the morning – not the faithful partying, I am sure.  So that made the hotel not perfect.  But other than that, it did the job nicely enough.

We had dinner before heading in the early evening to the Sanctuary, the site with the grotto and several churches/basilicas, almost across the street from the hotel.  We knew there would be a torchlight procession at 9PM where the Holy Rosary is recited but we did not quite know the ‘mechanics’ of it.  So we sat on a bench to wait and what we missed was that we were supposed to walk towards the grotto and join the procession line.  But we witnessed the procession which brought a statue of the Virgin to the front steps of the Rosary Basilica (the lower one; the upper one that one sees more evidently is the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, or the Upper Basilica).  In the meantime, we did walk to the grotto for our first visit to the spot where the apparition took place.  The line was very short and it was always moving so it did not take long before we got to visit and say our prayers and intentions…

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The front of the lower basilica during the torchlight procession

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Grotto at night

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Statue of the Virgin carried during the torchlight procession

The next day, we had found out at the information center (located by one of the entrances to the complex) that there would be a Spanish Mass at 11 AM down the Esplanade at St. Joseph’s Chapel.  After attending that Mass we went into the underground Basilica of St. Pius X, a massive modern space completed in 1958 (it can hold 25,000 folk!).  I am not sure it is the type of church I feel most spiritual in but I suppose there is a need for it in this site?

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Information Center

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The Basilica of St. Pius X

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The lower and upper basilicas from across the Esplanade

We finished our exploring by visiting the Rosary Basilica and the Upper Basilica.  After that we went to the baths (or piscines) where one can immerse him- or herself in the holy spring waters.  One waits in an outdoor area (with plenty of seats!) and then eventually one gets called in to a vestibule awaiting the assignment of to one of the pools, where one will undress and be wrapped as preparation to walking into the pool.  The water was absolutely frigid so the miracle may be that I was able to walk out of the pool and that my legs regained normal body temperature!  All joking aside, it was a very moving experience and we are grateful to the kind and helpful volunteers who give of themselves to help pilgrims…

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Detail of the facade of the lower basilica

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The inside of the lower basilica

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Looking towards the Esplanade from the Upper Basilica

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Entrance to the baths or piscines

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Amazing to see all the people helping the sick, or malade, move around

Witnessing so many people wearing their faith ‘on their sleeve’ was powerful.  Our trip was actually not just due to curiosity, or even strictly to see a place where an important event in our faith took place.  Our trip was a real pilgrimage of thanksgiving and prayer for continued health in my family after a year-and-a-half of dealing with cancer…  The grotto and the holy waters of Lourdes carry a very special meaning for us, even more now that we have been so fortunate to visit this place…


Pin to your travel board!!

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Exploring France and Spain around the Pyrenees

My recent trip to Europe was centered on exploring a bit of Spain and France around the Pyrenees which serve as a natural border between these two countries.  I wanted to write this introductory post to the trip’s writings as the trip combined a few different objectives that neatly came together into a one-week trip.

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There is only one way to travel, especially with loved ones!

My mother and sister are both named after the Virgin of Lourdes who appeared to a peasant girl named Bernadette in a grotto near the town of Lourdes in the 1850s.  It has always been a dream to go visit this place that was so prominent in their lives given the tie to their name.  But, we also wanted to go to Lourdes as a religious pilgrimage to such a special place for us Catholics.  We wanted to go in thanksgiving for good health after illnesses suffered, and as prayer for continued health.

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Two Lourdes!

Another personal goal for me and everyone in the larger family is to visit ancestral lands in the Basque country of Spain.  These are not terribly far from Lourdes (about 3 hrs drive) so I saw the opportunity to connect these two destinations in one trip.  The specific towns were our ancestors came from (they left Spain for Cuba at the turn of the century near the year 1800) lay along the coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao, and inland from there with some ancestors coming from just west of modern Bilbao.  Ii had also always wanted to visit San Sebastian as I heard it had some of the most phenomenal cuisine in Europe.  Bilbao is an hour from San Sebastian, give or take, so flying into the larger airport at Bilbao made the most sense.  There we would rent a car that would take us around the Basque country and later to Lourdes.

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At the Bilbao airport headed to get our car

While getting to Lourdes from San Sebastian would take so little time, we decided to be sure to stop along the way or drive through small French towns that are easily accessible on the route.  We drove through charming Saint-Jean-de-Luz, stopped for a walk and lunch at Biarritz, and drove through impressive Bayonne (wish we had had more time to stay there and explore!).  Biarritz was a place my mom and her best friend growing up had always dreamed of so that was a bonus!

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At the edge of the pedestrian streets of Bayonne’s city center

After Lourdes, the most logical end points if we were not going to backtrack, were Toulouse, France or Barcelona, Spain.  Well, that was an easy decision.  I had been to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics for three days but, really, was too focused on the Games to get to know the city (plus, I was sure it had changed!).  My mom has been to Barcelona decades ago but my sister had never been.  So Barcelona became the end point for the trip which, very conveniently, allowed me to drive through Andorra, the last of the tiny European countries for me to visit…  We split the drive from Lourdes to Barcelona by staying overnight in Andorra (which may have been a mistake, but who knew – stay tuned for that post!).  This allowed us, on the way to Barcelona, to stop at Montserrat to visit the monastery nested atop a mountain and accessible by cable car or train.

crossword puzzle

I always look forward to crossword puzzles on long flights

This plan sounded so good that my mom’s only brother opted to join us in this adventure.  Next came resolving the plane tickets to get there.  My uncle was headed there from Philly so he worked his itinerary separately.  My mom and sister, coming from Tampa, would naturally fly through Atlanta.  I had saved many miles with the local monster airline hoping to someday to do a fun trip with family and decided to go all in.  I lucked out in finding three seats in first class from Atlanta to Bilbao via Paris, and from Barcelona back to Atlanta on dates that would work for everyone.  My mom and sister got to do first class all the way from Tampa and back so no one was unhappy with the travel comforts!

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The four travelers awaiting the train in Montserrat

Once in Bilbao, we picked up a car.  I had under-estimated the trunk capacity and, though the four of us did very well in bringing a small roller bag each, I needed to upgrade the vehicle.  Unfortunately, the next level up was not available which meant I had to upgrade two levels with no goodwill from the rental company (I will name it for its lack of spirit:  Sixt).  This cost me dearly but, considering the plane tickets were free, and that this was a special trip, well, no regrets and all the way onward-and-forward!  The plan was to return the vehicle when we arrived in Barcelona as we figured we did not need there and I figured I would be tired of driving a large vehicle in Europe (it was a BMW X1).  I was glad to get rid of it, much as it was a great vehicle to drive!

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Our wheels in Europe


In terms of accommodations, we hoteled it everywhere except in Barcelona where we rented an apartment a block from Las Ramblas – prime location!  The owner, Carlos, was phenomenal and the apartment was spacious, comfortable and as-advertised (if anyone needs to find this apartment, just reach out and I can share).

So in the end this was the itinerary:

  • Day 1:  Arrival in Bilbao and head to San Sebastian
  • Day 2:  Drive the Basque countryside and visit ancestral lands anchored on the town of Andraka
  • Day 3:  Depart San Sebastian and head to Lourdes with a stop in Biarritz
  • Day 4:  Spend the day in Lourdes
  • Day 5:  Drive through the beautiful Pyrenees and explore Andorra la Vella in the afternoon/evening
  • Day 6:  Head to Barcelona with a stop in Montserrat, Spain
  • Day 7:  Explore Barcelona
  • Day 8:  Explore Barcelona some more
  • Day 9:  Head home!

I have to say that we packed a lot into 8 days but it was well worth it.  We had a mixture of lots of walking, lots of enjoying the food and resting, and just happy to be together going to all these special places.  Hope we get to do it again – salud!

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Ideas for Paris Travel with Pre-Teen Kids

A friend asked me what to do in Paris as she was going with her kids for a week or so.  I do not have kids but I was one once and that, coupled with the fact that I have stayed at a Holiday Inn, fully makes me an expert at recommending stuff for kids.

My brain immediately thought “Paris Disney” but I really thought this would be a criminal offense when they have the opportunity to have a much more unique experience – and ilivetotravel is all about experiences.  Like chocolate and macarons.

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All sorts of good stuff can be found in Paris. And I am sure kids & adults alike will enjoy!

So here is what I tell my friend to do:

  • Jardin de Luxembourg – This, the second largest public park in Paris, was part of the Palace that sits right by it.  The Palace was built in the early 17th century and is now the French Senate.  The park has many statues and fountains.  Maybe your daughter can imagine how it must have felt in the 17th century being a princess walking around the gardens!  And your son may enjoy renting a sailboat to operate in the large fountain while you sit and watch people go by as you enjoy this garden!
  • The Pantheon – This is likely a quick visit.  Some of the most notable French figures are buried here but I don’t think that will impress the kids.  However, it was free (at least when I went years ago) and seeing a building with such a unique interior may be interesting for the kids for, at least, 10 minutes.  And you, the parent, get to see it!
  • Go up the Eiffel Tower.  I don’t know if the kids will be up to hiking up as far as they let you before you have to take the elevator to reach the top but I know you are fit and can climb it with no issue!  While the climb may be more work than the kids want to do, seeing the structure up close as you go up is neat.  But, in the end, it’s the view from the top that matters most so, whether you all climb it or not, go up!
  • Walk up the Arc de Triomphe. OK, if the kids didn’t want to climb the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe is another option available to help you burn the calories of all the delicious pastries you are likely going to be eating (I will be mad if you don’t!).  It is deceiving but it is like 14-16 stories high so it is not trivial.  The view is not as cool as the one from the Eiffel Tower but you can look down the Champs-Elysées from it and, on the other side, towards the modern arc-shaped building in the distance.  Oh, and please use the tunnels that go under the road – don’t attempt to cross the street to get to it!
  • Visit MontmartreIt is a great place to and walk the narrow and hilly streets (still making you exercise with this plan!).  To get up, you can climb the stairs but I will cut your kids some slack and suggest you all ride the little funicular.  Once you reach the top, you are rewarded with the massive Sacre Coeur church.  And guess what?  You can climb it to the top!  This one, I think your kids will definitely enjoy and great views of the city to boot!

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    The narrow and hilly streets of Montmartre – explore!

  • I feel obliged to suggest a museum that may be good for kids.  But I had to do some research on this.  I found the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, or the Museum of Hunting and Nature (60, rue des Archives, in the third arrondissement).  It is supposed to be interesting for kids mixing animals (dead) and art.  Let me know how it is!
  • Pompidou Center (19, rue Beaubourg, in the fourth arrondissement) has a hands-on children’s area, not sure for what age exactly but it is free for kids so you can get to check out some art under the guise of taking them to a museum that has stuff for them (even if it turns out they are too old for what it has!).
  • Notre Dame is quite impressive even for kids but it may be a quicker visit with them.  On neighboring Ile St. Louis (the island in the river near Notre Dame), there is an ice cream place that is really good.  It’s called Berthillon (31 Rue St.-Louis-en-l’Ile).  Use that to reward the kids for letting you visit Notre Dame 🙂  And you can have one too.
  • Take a boat ride in the Seine.  Some of the boats offer fancy dinner cruises but there is a batobus (boat bus) that you can take to travel up and down the river –more fun than the metro (for the kids AND you!) and you can use this to see the city from a different perspective.
  • The Tuileries Garden (right by the Louvre Museum, at the base of the Champs-Elysées almost) is one of the most kid-friendly spots in Paris, and also one of the most beautiful.  There are trampolines, a merry go round, etc.    A large Egyptian obelisk is located outside on the west side of the park on the Place de la Concorde – could be a unique thing to see from ancient Egypt in Paris.

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    A view towards the Place de la Concorde and the obelisk. Note Sacre Coeur in the background!

  • Go into the many places that have phenomenal pastries and other decadent things, like these.  For the kids, you know…
    • Ladurée – several across town (one near La Madeleine, another on the Champs Elysees, etc.)
    • Dalloyau – there is one at 2, pl Edmond Rostand, right across the Jardin de Luxembourg; there are other locations like 101, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
    • Angelina (226 rue de Rivoli, right across the Tuileries/Louvre; incredible hot chocolate).  As you can see, I have conveniently picked places close to the others I have recommended so you have NO excuse for missing these!
  • Visit where Raúl lived (24 rue de Tilsitt).  OK, it’s a boring building one short block from the Arc de Triomphe.  Thinking it over, it may not impress the kids – or you – so only go if you run out of things to do 🙂

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    Yea, the building I lived in was boring but this is the view from the rooftop terrace!

Enjoy Paris and be sure to let me know what the kids enjoyed – from this list or otherwise!

Photo of the Week: Dreamy Delights in Paris

Well, a photo of the week post is typically a one-photo deal but how could I choose between these two beauties???  Yes, I am swayed towards anything chocolate but this one tore me apart.  So, without further ado, two scenes from Dalloyau in Paris.

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I just want to bury my face in these!

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For a chocoholic to say these look AWESOME is a big thing…


Photo of the Week – The Metropolitain in Paris (aka: the “metro”)

I enjoyed my time in Paris when I lived there for 6 months and I enjoy it every time I go back whether for a day layover or a few days.  These photos, taken during one of my brief layovers there, are of two entrances to the Paris metro at the Pigalle station.  I find them evocative.  And, of course, they make me want to return!

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A Short Stop in a Fine Town: Limoges, France

The town of Limoges, in France’s center (west-ish), is well known for the fine porcelain that bears the same name.  An old town (it was founded around 50 B.C. by -guess who- the Romans), it sits in the region of Limousin, sort of east and north from the Bordeaux region.  In fact, we stopped in Limoges on our way to Bordeaux from Paris!

We went out for a walk and a quick lunch as we had limited time – which was a bummer because it would have been worth exploring more.  But in crossing the river we ran into the the Way to Santiago – one of the many routes followed since medieval times by people making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain, where St. James is buried.  Pretty neat and lucky discovery as one of my travel companions had done the Camino a few years before (check out his very informative website – and great video – here)!  This bridge is Saint Martial‘s bridge which dates from the 13th century but built on the ruins of a Roman bridge.Pont Saint Martial, La Vienne River,Limoges, France, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebel

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Since the Middle Ages people have been following the way to St. James! (Santiago)

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The building top left over the city walls is an arts museum. The city’s cathedral is to its right

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These bricks have been the way for pilgrims for centuries!

Pont Saint Martial, La Vienne River, Limoges, France, photo, travel, Canon EOS RebelThough we did not explore as we would have liked to, the architecture of the town was clearly charming (e.g., the city hall), owing to centuries of habitation.

Limoges, France, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebelarchitecture,Limoges, France, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebelarchitecture,Limoges, France, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebelarchitecture,Limoges, France, photo, travel, Canon EOS RebelNext time, Limoges, I will pay you your due!

Photo of the Week – Château of Azay-le-Rideau, Loire Valley

A few years ago, right before spending two weeks in Tours, France for language immersion, I spent a few days exploring the wines and chateaux of the Loire ValleyChenonceau, Chambord, etc. are all phenomenal castles to explore with their idyllic settings, great architecture, and sense of history.  One of my favorite settings and chateaux was the château in Azay-le-Rideau.  It was built in the early 16th century on an island in the Indre River and it just seems to come straight out of the water!

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The Loire Valley is a place to spend weeks exploring!


Photo of the Week – ilivetotravel on the French Riviera

This photo of the shoreline of Nice, France is from a LONG time ago – when I was very fortunate to be on 2-week business trips to the French Riviera.  It has been on my mind lately that I need to write about my trips there from those times.  It all starts with a picture!

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Enjoying beautiful weather in Nice, France!!

Photo of the Week – Grapes of Bordeaux

Visiting Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou in St. Julien was a neat experience since we got a private tour.  But, of course, my eyes go to the grapes and the vines.  Thinking how these little round things will produce a wonderful liquid for us humans to enjoy…  This picture is to not me about perfection in photographic technique but about the grapes, full of color, full of pulp, and ready to be taken…

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Five Days in Paris: Adventures On and Off the Beaten Path

Guest blogger Chris Sanders describes discovering more of Paris off-the-beaten path, and re-visiting some of the jewels Paris is known for. Merci, Chris!

To celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, my wife Wendy and I recently spent five days in Paris – a duration much too short if you ask us, but we made the most of our “mini vacation” and had a wonderful experience! As we looked at the itinerary we sketched out in advance, a logical theme emerged for the trip “On and Off the beaten path.” In the on the beaten path category were a few of the classics that represented some of the more mainstream “must do’s” in Paris. In the off the beaten path category were a few new adventures and twists on the old classics.

Below is a brief write up of each day followed by links to relevant places we visited. We welcome your comments and hope you enjoy reading about our experience. Oh, one more thing- we apologize in advance for any mis-spellings of French words…it’s not always easy to toggle between the French and US keyboards.

Bon Voyage!


Chris and Wendy in front of Louvre


Day 1- Paris chocolate tour and a couple of cool wine bars
Day 2- Musée d’Orsay, Sacre Coeur, and a traditional zinc wine bar
Day 3- Musée du Louvre, Canal St. Martin, and a classic Parisian steak dinner
Day 4- Bicycle tour of Versailles, period!
Day 5- Café Angelina (twice!), Les Puces, and shopping in St. Germain des Prés


Day 1- Paris chocolate tour and a couple of cool wine bars

Day one of our trip began with a touch down at CDG, a ride to l’Etoile in Les Cars (the Air France Bus) and a short taxi ride to the Westin Vendôme. The Westin is a wonderfully situated property adjacent to the Tuileries park and within walking distance of Musée d’Orsay, Le Louvre and many other points of interest. After checking in and freshening up a bit, we were off to our first adventure – a chocolate sampling walking tour which took place in the St. Germain des Prés area. We pre-booked the tour through Viator.

Our adventure started at La Mason du Chocolate where we met up with the guide (a quintessentially French man named Yves) and (much to our surprise) another American couple from Atlanta! For the next three hours the four of us eagerly followed Yves to five chocolate boutiques where he enlightened us on the history of chocolate and described each boutique’s specialty.

Chocolate is no stranger to Paris, but the last decade has observed an explosion of chocolate artisans and product variety as well as a renewed focus on origin of ingredients and quality. The trend reminded us of what we saw with coffee in the US – I used to order “a cup of coffee”, now I order “dark roasted Guatemala Antigua with room for skim milk please.” Anyway, the tour was both educational and delicious – highly recommended. Each tour will be different as there are dozens of chocolate boutiques in Paris – here are the places we visited:

  • La Maison du Chocolat– an institution in Paris; memorable samples were the Garrigue (flavored with fennel seeds), Cannelle (flavored with cinnamon) and of course, their famous chocolate éclair- the chocolate was rich and creamy- oh la la!
  • Pierre Hermes– one of our two favorites on the tour- known for macaroons, Pierre Hermes began work at the age of fourteen for Ladurée (the venerated Champs Elysee Macaroon joint) before striking off on his own. People line up outside of his place to buy macaroons and chocolate – our favorite flavors were chocolate, rose, and the house specialty- passion fruit!
  • Pierre Marcolini– a famous Belgian chocolatier- our favorite was a piece called the quatre épices (four spices)- it is difficult to balance the spices with the chocolate flavors yet Marcolini pulls this off beautifully…no one flavor dominates and all work in harmony.
  • Un Dimanche à Paris(a Sunday in Paris) another favorite of ours on the tour – Paris’s first “chocolate concept store” opened a few months ago to rave reviews. The store is combined with a restaurant wherein chocolate is incorporated into the dishes. We sampled the chocolate truffles (divine) and several chocolate covered cooking ingredients including coriander and rosemary. We also sat down to a cup of chocolat chaud that rivaled the famed Café Angelina (no joke!).
  • Patrick Roger an interesting artesian who appears to specialize in moreunique flavor combinations and who pays very close attention to origin; we sampled chocolates made from Cuban beans, a Guinness infused chocolate, and a piece that had a giant raisin on top…all good and interesting combinations.

The chocolate tour lasted three hours and afterwards we were in need of a café for a drink (or two). We found the perfect café called La Palette, situated on the corner of a quiet street-  we snagged an outdoor table in the last of the afternoon sun. La Palette is not a wine bar per se but a café with an excellent (albeit small) wine selection of five reds and five whites. Wendy and I settled for a couple of glasses of Saint Veran – a dry chardonnay from southern Burgundy…excellent!

La Palette in Paris, France

La Palette

After La Palette, we made our way a short distance to a hidden gem of a wine bar called La Crémerie, so named because the space used to be a creamery. Today it is a wine bar/wine shop/restaurant that serves organic wines, cheeses, and charcuterie from France and Spain. One can purchase a bottle of wine to leave with, pay a cork fee and drink it on the premises, or enjoy wines by the glass. What makes this place so special is it feels more like a labor of love than a place of business. The space is tiny with room for a few tables and – literally – about twelve people. It is rustic with a small wood bar with cured meats hanging overhead…each of the side walls of the place are lined with shelves of wine bottles…and a few small wooden tables are stuffed in between. We sensed the place had changed little in the past hundred years or so.

La Cremerie wine bar in Paris, France

La Cremerie Wine Bar

We started with a fun glass of Coteaux Champenois- a light and fruity, slightly sweet red wine from the Champaign region. The waiter described the wine as the “joke of Champaign” in reference to its relative obscurity compared to the more famous sparkling wine from the region. We thought it was a delicious joke!

At La Crémerie, patrons are obliged to purchase something to eat (this has to do with the type of license they have)- but fear not, the food is excellent. We settled for plates of saucisson (cured salami-like sausage) and chèvre served with an apricot preserve and bread- yummy! The plates were so big we counted the meal as our dinner. We washed it all down with a couple of glasses of Bourgeil from the Loire Valley before heading out so as to make room for the people who had reserved our table for dinner. We will definitely go back to La Crémerie!

Day 2- Musée d’Orsay, Sacre Coeur, and a traditional zinc wine bar

Day two was a day on the beaten path for sure with two Paris classics- Musée d’Orsay and Sacre Coeur. We started in the morning at Musée d’Orsay, which was a short walk through Tuileries park and over the river Seine. The sun was shining and people were already congregating in the park with a bright blue sky overhead. The tulips were in full bloom- rows of yellows, reds, and oranges covered the park- amazing!

View of Musee d'Orsay from Tuileries Park

View of Musee d’Orsay from Tuileries Park

For those who may not be familiar with Musée d’Orsay, it’s the fantastic museum situated on the left bank of the Seine and housed an old converted railway station. The building itself is stunning – a big open space with two gargantuan clocks on either side. This museum- much more so than the Louvre – is easy to navigate and the works are relatively easier to digest in my view – perhaps since they include so many of the textbook icons we all grew up with…people like Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Whistler, Gauguin, Cezanne, Degas…need I continue?

Art appreciation is a matter of personal preference of course- some of the works we most enjoyed were: Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series (a collection of paintings of the cathedral façade at different times of the day), Toulouse-Lautrec’s works depicting colorful theatre and caberet life, and Van Gogh’s The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise (something about the dark blue sky really caught our attention). We spent a solid two hours at Musée d’Orsay, which we felt was sufficient for the paintings…we did not explore much of the second floor which is devoted to sculptural works.

Coming out of Musée d’Orsay we were tired and hungry. We hopped on the metro and headed north to the Montemarnte area, exiting at metro stop Abessess- which film lovers might remember as the site of a scene from Amelie.

Outside of Abbesses metro station in Paris, France

Outside of Abbesses metro station

The Montmartre area is “famous” for several reasons: 1) it is the area where St Denis (patron saint of France) was believed to have been martyred, 2) it was an artist’s / bohemian haven attracting notables such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Matisse, 3) it is the location for the city’s red light district as well as its two famous caberet’s (Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir), 4) it’s the setting for several famous French films including Amelie, and 5) it’s the location of Sacre Coeur Basilica – a large Catholic Church which occupies the summit of Montmartre…Sacre Coeur was our focus on this day.

Though we were searching for Sacre Coeur, our immediate need was for food! We stopped for a short lunch at a café called Le Relais Gascon – one of the many cafés on Rue des Abessess. We were compelled to dine there after noticing people outside eating gigantic salads topped with what appeared to be thinly sliced fried potatoes- everyone had a salad, so we speculated it would be good. Wendy and I both ordered a Salad du Bérnais, which included butter leaf lettuce, bacon, warm goat cheese, tomatoes and garlic fried potatoes….my idea of a salad! We complimented the meal with a carafe of rosé wine- perfect for the warm sunny day.

We continued our leisurely stroll towards Sacre Coeur, stopping a few times to browse boutiques. After a short while, we reached the starting point of the climb- looking up at the massive church perched on the summit of the steep hill we thought to ourselves “that’s a lot of steps!” – suddenly we wished we hadn’t eaten so much for lunch!

For those not familiar, Sacre Coeur (or more properly Basilique du Sacré-Cœur Paris- or Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris)is an amazing site. First, the church occupies the highest point in Paris- which is impressive enough. Second, the architecture is a marvel unto itself…I don’t know the proper technical words to describe the style- the best I can do is say it’s as if the Kremlin met the Taj Mahal – their child would be Sacre Cœur !

Sacre Coeur in Montmartre in Paris, France

Base of Sacre Coeur

The sky was blue, the temperature warm and the hill was alive with people sunbathing and picnicking – it was the perfect day for a pilgrimage of sorts and the climb reminded us of the Croagh Patrick we did in Ireland a few years back– the famous pilgrimage of St. Patrick.

After much huffing and puffing and navigating the sunbathers, pick-nickers, school groups and even a musical band, we finally reached the entrance to the church. Resting for a few minutes, we took in the wonderful panoramic view of Paris below- incroyable!

Inside we circumnavigated the sanctuary, stopping to pray for a while in the adoration chapel and again in pews opposite the alter. In the main part of the church, we were treated to a typical French scene… an older man was sitting in a pew a few rows in front of us and explaining the architecture to his grand-daughter…he wasn’t speaking loud but it was a little distracting. A woman sitting a few pews up from the man– clearly annoyed – got up, walked over to the man and asked him to lower his voice… a small arguement ensued after which the man continued describing the features of the church to his grand-daughter in a defiantly and somewhat louder voice than before. Wendy and I began to laugh quietly and decided the contemplative time was over- it was time to hike back down to sea level and try another wine bar.

Le Rubis wine bar was described in the blogasphere as « a traditional zinc wine bar »- we had no idea what this meant until we stumbled into the place and discovered a veritable throw back to the 1930s.  Le Rubis had a real local diner feel – a long narrow space with a row of tables along one wall and a long zinc colored metal bar occupying most of the other side. At the time we arrived (probably 6:30 or so) we were practically the only patrons, which meant we could grab a table. We ordered first a glass of Beaujolais Village followed by a glass of Cotes de Brouilly (this place specializedin beaujolais but the glasses were tiny) – in between sips we nibbled away at a gigantic plate of bread and cheese. By the time we asked for l’addition an hour later, Le Rubis was standing room only with people spilling out of the entrance. Loyal patrons not able to secure a table inside huddled around a few wine barrells-turned-cocktail-tables on the sidewalk in front. It appeared to be a very typical early evening scene and people of all types were socializing.

Le Rubis Wine Bar in Paris, France

Le Rubis Wine Bar

Exhausted after a day of impressionists and climbing montmarntre, we decided to have dinner at Chez Flottes, a trendy restaurant near our hotel. I had the poulet roti (which made Gourmet Magazine’s and Le Figaro’s list of the best places to have roasted chicken in Paris) while Wendy indulged in sauteed shrimp. The star of the show however was the bottle of Burgundy we enjoyed – a 2007 Maranges 1 Cru La Fussiere- delightful! A good Burgundy  for ~$100  is non existent in US restaurants – we thought it was the perfect end to a perfect day.

Day 3- Musée du Louvre, Canal St. Martin, and a classic Parisian steak dinner

We decided to get an early start on day three since our first adventure was Musée du Louvre

– arguably the most famous (and perhaps daunting) museum on planet Earth! We completed the short walk from the hotel to I.M. Pei’s giant glass pyramid in less than 15 minutes (I just love the fact that the iconic entrance to the world most famous museum was designed by an American!). We arrived before 9:30 and were surprised to find no line at all. We entered and bought our tickets so fast we decided to have a quick café creme and pain au chocolat in the museum’s café before exploring.

The Louvre is huge and easily takes a few solid days to effectively navigate. It is laid out in three expansive wings: Denon, Richelieu, and Sully. The Denon wing houses the Mona Lisa and so we started there. Our strategy was simple- make a bee line for the Mona Lisa first in order to beat the crowds…then make our way back through the rest of the wing at a leisurely pace- the strategy worked rather well.

After several minutes of twists and turns, ups and downs, we arrived in the hall where DaVinci’s masterpiece hung. The Mona Lisa is much smaller than you would expect – it hangs by itself on a large wall. There was already a small but manageable crowd of people admiring the work. While we found the Mona Lisa interesting, we found even more interesting the humungous work hanging on the opposite wall of the room- The Wedding at Cana by Veronese. The shear size is amazing– but our first thought was “this is not the Cana I imagined.” The audio guide explained the painting was commissioned in Venice and so the feast was constructed to look like it took part in Venice.

Wedding at Cana in Louvre in Paris, France

Wedding at Cana in Louvre

We continued our odyssey through the museum appreciating several works. Among the more interesting were those commissioned by Napoleon to depict scenes that either never took place or were grossly exaggerated. Case in point the Coronation of Napoleon in which the emperor’s mother occupies a central place in the scene yet she was not actually present at the event. Another exaggeration can be found in Bonaparte Visiting the Victims of Jaffa in which he is portrayed almost Christ-like, visiting soldiers who had contracted the bubonic plague during the Egyptian campaign…at one point reaching out and actually touching a sick man…probably did not happen this way…we found out the painting was commissioned in part to combat accusations Napoleon had sought to kill the ill soldiers.

Winding down our three hour tour of the Denon wing, we decided it was time to wrap up our visit to the Louvre – but not before a quick mission to the Richelieu wing to take a peak at two paintings by Vermeer- one of my all time favorite painters. I was introduced to Vermeer while living in The Netherlands as an undergraduate student. Since Vermeer painted so few works, it’s a treat to see one anywhere. We easily navigated Richelieu to the site of two gems: “The Lacemaker” and “The Astronomer.” With our mission accomplished it was time to exit.

Leaving the Louvre, we set out on our next adventure for the day- an off the beaten path exploration of Canal St. Martin – an up and coming area north of the Marais and east of Montmartre – named for the working canal that forms the centerpiece. After a metro ride to Republique and a short walk we arrived to the canal…our first impression was “wow, how did we get to Amsterdam?” Canal St. Martin is a picturesque area – the canal is long and wide and traversed by several arched iron bridges. Under a clear blue sky, the canal was lined on both sides by sunbathers and picnickers.

Canal St. Martin in Paris, France

Canal St. Martin

Our first order of business was to find lunch. Our target was a pizza joint called Pink Flamingo that – according to the blogosphere – had developed a cult following. We searched high and low along the canal but could not find the place. I hadn’t noted the address since I read the place handed out pink balloons to patrons who wanted to eat by the canal (an aid to guide the delivery person)- we figured we would be able to simply follow the balloons. On this day we saw no pink balloons and assumed Pink Flamingo pizza might have gone out of business. Winding down a small street off the canal, we settled at a sidewalk brasserie. As we waited to order, Wendy asked “look across the street – is that a pink awning?” I turned around and sure enough I saw a pink awning – I could barely make out the name emblazoned on it “Pink Flamingo.” Before our waiter returned to take our order, we got up and made a bee line for the pizza joint!

Pink Flamingo Pizza is a small and very casual place where the patrons are eclectic, the music funky, the owners tattooed, and the pizza exceptional! We spoke with one of the owners – a French woman – and were surprised to find out her husband was from Boston. The two had opened Pink Flamingo seven years ago and during this time, it had become an institution in Canal St. Martin. I asked her about the lack of pink balloons today and she explained the balloons were in used by the bicycle delivery personnel..but deliveries didn’t start until the early evening…”later today, the entire canal will be filled with so many people and pink balloons – it’s really cool” she told us.

We ordered “La Marcello” which was a thin crusted pizza topped with arugula, balsamico, and parmesan cheese- very good and reminiscent of our life in Bologna, Italy several years ago. We sat at one of the few small tables outside and eavesdropped on a conversation between a Frenchman and a Belgian who were discussing a new internet business venture. We sat in the afternoon sun, eating Italian style pizza made by an American…on a tiny street in northern Paris…adjacent to a picturesque, straight-out-of- Amsterdam scene…yep, this was Canal St. Martin – we’ll definitely be back!

Canal St. Martin in Paris, France

Another view of Canal St. Martin

After eating, we walked around the canal for a while- ducking into the occasional boutique. Before heading back to hotel, we stopped for a glass of wine at a hip café called Chez Prune. The place was packed but we were able to get a table inside near one of the big open windows, so we felt like we were outside. We were joined by the dog of one of the patrons- a lady who had a table outside in the sun and who explained her dog was friendly and simply wanted to lay on the cool tile floor…he sat under our table the whole time and he wasn’t a bother at all…yep, this is Paris!

Back at Hotel Westin, we showered and relaxed a bit before heading to our last adventure of the day- a steak dinner at Le Relais de Venice l’Entrecote. It’s difficult to categorized l’Entrecote (as the natives call it) as either off or on the beaten path- after all, it’s been around for fifty years…however, its location in Porte Maillot means you wouldn’t typically stumble into this place on an average day of site seeing. Anyway, many things make this place special and unique: they don’t take reservations (a rarity in Paris), they don’t have a menu- everyone gets the entrecote (steak and fries), they ask you how you want your steak cooked (you almost never get this choice in Paris!), and the service is fast (but you can stay as long as you like). Apparently, the location used to be an Italian restaurant (hence the name) but was purchased by a French man about fifty years ago. His motivation was to use the restaurant to develop a market for his family’s wine from the south of France…and given he had no restaurant experience, he wanted to keep the menu very simple…hence the one dish! Apparently, this concept has been successful as the family now has locations in NYC and London…but it all started in Paris.

We arrived by 7:30 to avoid the crowds and were seated at one of the coveted tables outside. We were immediately greeted by our waitress who was wearing the traditional black and white uniform. We ordered two medium steaks and a bottle of the house wine. A few minutes later our salads showed up…and about fifteen minutes after that the first installment of our steaks and fries arrived (yes they brought  the dinner in two installments). The steak itself was on the thin side and but of good quality. The sauce that accompanied it was exceptional – I won’t even try to describe it- you must try it yourself. The fries are also really good- shoestring sized, crispy, and right out of the pan! We ate at a leisurely pace and enjoyed the house wine as we watched the last of the sun disappear and a line of eager patrons begin to form. After a short break, the second installment of the meal arrived – just as hot as the first! For dessert we had the profiteroles and were not disappointed. All in all, this was a great way to end day three.

Day 4- Bicycle tour of Versailles, period!

Day four was an all day adventure and a twist on the classic visit to Versailles. Wendy and I booked a tour with Fat Tire Bike Tours in Paris and arrived at their office near the Eiffel Tower at8:30am. Fat Tire is part of a small chain of bicycle tour companies with locations in several European cities. The office in Paris is run by a team of young Americans – many of whom studied European history in college.

We hung out in the small lobby while the rest of our group arrived. All in all we totaled about twelve people – a mix of couples and two families with children. The oldest in our group was a couple from Canada who appeared to be in their seventies. The youngest was the son of one of the couples – he was eight.

Our guide for the day was called “Peaches”, an awkward name considering the person was a tall man from Texas who recently graduated from UT Austin. As it turned out, his real name was the same as another Fat Tire guide and so both had adopted stage names to mix things up a bit. We all played along.

Peaches was awesome! Before we set out, he informed us of our itinerary and gave us critical cycling advice which – according to Peaches- could be boiled down to one word and one concept – DOMINATE! We were to stay together as a group and we were to DOMINATE at every chance, particularly where an automobile was concerned. Peaches told us Parisians were aggressive drivers but they were compelled to yield to cyclist…but we had to display total dominance of the road, defiance – and this would act as a signal for the automobile driver to back off. We tested this theory during the ten minute trek to the train station – as we approached an intersection, Peaches would yell “DOMINATE!”—those of us right behind Peaches would echo the yell “DOMINATE!” It all worked just as planned- the automobiles relented. The one caveat to the rule was scooters- they didn’t seem to yield to anyone or anything, including pedestrians!

Bike path at Versailles, France

Bike path at Versailles

At the station, Peaches instructed us to break into groups and spread out on the platform so when we got onto the train, we would not overload any one car. When the train arrived, we walked our bikes onto a car and secured them to a pole using one of the bungee cords supplied- pretty simple! The twenty minute ride to Versailles was through rather uninteresting scenery but we kept busy speaking to one of the young ladies from Fat Tire who had accompanied Peaches. Turns out she was from Oregon and had just graduated college where she studied French and European history…the job with Fat Tire was perfect as she could live in Paris, use her degree, and contemplate her next career move!

Versailles was the last stop on the route so we had plenty of time to exit the train. After a short walk to the front of the station we were again cycling through the streets- DOMINATING! Our first stop was a large open air market where we purchased provisions for our picnic later in the day. Wendy and I bought all the requisites: a baguette, three types of cheeses, dried salami, tangerines, a bottle of water and a bottle of wine. For the wine we selected a good Chinon from the Loire Valley. It was refreshing to see some many Chinons to choose from – in the US, we are pretty much confined to Charles Jouget. Interestingly enough, in the wine shop, we found out one of the other people on the tour grew up in Atlanta…more surprisingly, as a child she swam in the Garden Hills pool, which is literally a short walk to our house- small world indeed!

History lesson on the grounds of Versailles

With provisions strapped securely on to the back of my bike (in a wood crate we found at the market), we were off to start the tour. We cycled past the front of the palace and continued to a side garden entrance where we proceeded down a long sandy road lined on both sides by tall shade trees, traversing sheep pastures. Peaches told us in Marie Antoinette’s time, the sheep would have been dyed pink and wearing ribbons – no joke!

The tour continued at a leisure pace down several dirt paths- the weather was perfect – sunny and cool…and there were few people on the paths. We stopped outside of a moated area across which were several old stone buildings known as the Hameau de la Reine (or the Queen’s hamlet). The buildings were part of a small working farm Marie Antoinette had built for herself as a kind of escape from the court at Versailles. Peaches indicated the brick walled moat was a reminder to all who visited Versailles that the access to the Hameau was by invitation of the Queen only.

Our next stop was the Petit Trianon, a smaller palace originally built for the mistress of Louis XV…it was later given to Marie Antoinette by Louis VI for her use. As with the Hameau, the Petit Trianon was a place to which Marie Antoinette could escape the royal pressures of the court at Versailles. According to Peaches, she would use the Trianon as a place to perform the many outlandish plays she wrote.

We continued through the countryside gardens of the estate for some time stopping briefly to hear snippets of history. Finally, we reached the far end of the grand canal –a large stretch of water over a mile long. On one end was a small grassy area perfect for our picnic…at the opposite end was the grand palace at Versailles- a breath taking view! We parked our bikes and headed for the edge of the canal where we set up our picnic spread. Under a sunny blue sky and with Versailles in the distant, enjoyed our version of a traditional French picnic- it was all fantastic! We lounged around for a good hour, soaking up the sun and catching up with others in the group.

Picnic near the Grand Canal at Versailles

With stomachs full and energy replenished, we were eager to continue the last leg of the tour. We got on our bikes and began the ride back towards the palace, once again meandering through forested paths and dirt farming roads. At the palace, we locked up our bikes in a nearby park and walked to the entrance. Peaches gave us two hours to explore the palace, which he indicated would be more than sufficient…it was indeed.

The Palace at Versailles is laid out in a kind of giant U shape- you start at one end and move through a series of adjoining rooms until you come out come out the other end. Unfortunately, this means everyone visiting the palace is navigating the same path – traffic jams are common and annoying. We passed through many rooms and many hoards of people – the rooms started to look the same…two rooms that memorable for us were Marie Antoinette’s bedroom (which had a secret door through which she attempted to escape the angry protestors) and the Hall of Mirrors – a long room with windows on one side and mirrored arches on the other. The hall was used for court and other official occasions. More recently, the Hall of Mirrors served as the place where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, which ended WWI.

Palace at Versailles

After a good hour and a half of navigating the hoards, we were officially done with Versailles. We took in a few minutes of the famed gardens before heading back to the small park where we left our bikes. Our group reassembled and we peddled back through the small town to the train station. Back in Paris, we again DOMINATED the traffic on the quick ride back to Fat Tire where we returned our bikes and offered Peaches a small monetary donation they called a “love offering.”

Wendy and I were absolutely exhausted. We had completed a day long adventure at Versailles and we felt the day was complete. Back at Hotel Westin, we freshened up and then enjoyed a quick meal at a Chinese restaurant nearby…we were back and in bed asleep by9:00pm!

Day 5 – Café Angelina (twice!), Les Puces, and shopping in St. Germain des Prés

Having slept a good ten hours, we were ready to attack day five –our last in Paris! The morning started out with breakfast at Café Angelina, which was located adjacent to our hotel. The café is famous for hot chocolate but this morning we opted for café crème to accompany our mix of muffins and pastries. Now, before you admonish us for not getting the hot chocolate, read on…

Our first adventure of the day was a long metro ride to off the beaten path Porte de Clignancourt, which is about a far as one can go on the metro and the site of the largest flea market in the world- known as “Les Puces de Saint-Ouen.” Everything I read said “after exiting the metro, follow the crowds to Les Puces” and so that is what we did. We made our way down a busy street and through another open air market selling socks and purses…until we reached Les Puces.

The history of Les Puces goes back a few centuries to a time when “pickers” as they were called would rummage through garbage in Paris and pick out sellable junk and trinkets. These people set up stalls in the area around Clignancourt and overtime, the area grew in popularity, diversity and quality. Today, one can find just about anything from vintage postcards and magazine to antique paintings and furniture costing tens of thousands of dollars.

A small street at Les Puces

Les Puces is sprawling and laid out across a large area in a mix of warehouse type structures that house several booths and tiny winding streets that house tiny shops. We started on a street called Rue des Rosiers because it seemed to bisect the area- we could explore one half, then the other. We first made our way through one of the tiny winding streets – it felt like we were in an ancient little village – the streets were narrow and crowded. We stopped at several tiny shops including one that specialized in Limoges. For a few years now Wendy and I have been searching for a set of dessert plates that are inscribed with various chateaux from the Medoc region- they typically come in either dark brown or dark green. In this shop we were pleasantly surprised to find a large stack of such plates – but unfortunately they were all emblazoned with Ch. Montrose. I spoke to the proprietor in French and explained we were looking for a collection of several different chateaux – his response was to offer a lower price for the Montrose plates! We continued our hunt for these elusive plates and came up empty handed…we did get to see a ton of other stuff though…and we enjoyed lunch in a quaint sidewalk café. We vowed to return to Les Puces “for real” after we renovated our house in Atlanta!

Back on the metro we made our way to the center of Paris and some higher end shopping on St. Germain des Prés. Our first destination was more of a pilgrimage for Wendy really – to the flagship store of Furla in Paris. Furla is an Italian hand bag maker based in Bologna, Italy – Wendy was introduced to the brand when we lived in Bologna during my graduate studies at Hopkins. Furla makes high quality designs that are more classic and timely – not the flashy wares that cost a fortune and are out of style within a few months. I am surprised that Wendy does not know the employees at Furla Paris personally, since we’ve made the pilgrimage several times over the past few years! Inside, Wendy found nirvana with several new styles –I learned that passion fruit color was “in” this year. The good news for Wendy was the visit added three pieces to her collection…the good news for me was the purchase qualified for a VAT tax rebate!

Wendy in front of Furla

We continued our stroll through the area, past the famous Café Les Deux Magots and Café Flore and on towards Le Bon Marche – the famous department store in Paris. Along the way we stopped at the new flagship store of Hermes – not to buy anything of course – but to admire the architecture- the store was once the swimming pool of the venerated Hotel Lutetia … if you feel compelled to spend a few thousand dollars, yes, you can also buy a scarf!

Shopped out, we made our way back towards Hotel Westin but made a pit stop at Café Angelina for a second visit- this time, we treated ourselves to their famous chocolate chaud (hot chocolate). One of our good friends describes Angelina’s concoction as “God’s hot chocolate!” If you’ve never had it, you should try it- this is not Swiss Miss! It comes to your table in a small white porcelain picture, accompanied by a tiny bowl of real whipped cream. The chocolate is thick – it’s like pouring melted dark chocolate into your mug…after adding a dollop of cream and stirring, you take your first sip- wow, this stuff is intense and delicious! Though we were not hungry, our waiter jokingly reminded us that a healthy diet included five servings of fruit daily so we ordered a lemon tart…bottom line: “Café Angelina” = “God’s hot chocolate…and lemon tart!”

“God’s hot chocolate and lemon tart”

Later in the evening, we commuted to the location of our last dinner in Paris – at l’AOC near the Latin Quarter. The restaurant takes its name from the “appellation d’origine contrôlée” certification system in France, which governs labeling of certain foods with respect to geographic origin and quality standards. For example, in order to be labeled “Roquefort” a cheese must meet certain criteria such as “made from milk of certain sheep breeds”, and “contain mold that was produced in certain caves in the commune of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.” The French like to know where their food comes from…and they like to protect their producers from counterfeiters.

Inside, l’AOC is a warm, friendly, and rustic place – it was also packed when we arrived but our reservation got us a great little table in the back near the wine cellar. We both had the poulet roti (roasted chicken), which was fantastic. We shared a nice bottle of Chinon from the Loire Valley, which was also delightful…all in all it was a wonderful last meal in Paris.

Back at Hotel Westin we packed our bags in preparation for an early morning departure. We had spent five great days in the City of Lights- five days exploring a mix of on the beaten path classics and off the beaten path adventures. And though we were exhausted and eager to return to Atlanta, we also could hardly wait to start planning our next trip to Paris!

Au revoir!

Learning French in France

In 2005, I decided that it was time to take my basic French language skills to a new level, so I decided I would spend a couple of weeks or so on a language immersion program in France.

Decisions, decisions!

Taking the time off work was not a problem as I had a backlog of vacation.  The harder question to solve was where would I go in France for this.  At that time, I had already lived in Paris a few years before and had worked on and off in the late 1990s in the area near Nice/Cannes.  I felt in the former I would have too many distractions that would keep me from focusing on the studies.  The latter was more interesting but an area of the country I already knew and I wanted to use the time to see a new part of the country.  A friend told me about his experience of a few weeks in Tours, in the Loire Valley and, since I had never been to that part of the country, that helped me settle the question of where.  Luckily, there was a language school in Tours.

My French Family

I arrived in Tours after a few days of touring the area (of which I will write more separately).  I had chosen to stay with a host family to maximize the amount of time I would spend speaking and hearing the language.  Also, I figured it would be an interesting cultural experience to see how a family lives in that part of the country.  I was surprised that I got to stay with a family with a pretty large house.  I was expecting a row house or a flat/apartment type of residence.  The house had a very large yard and nice garden and was across the river on the outskirts of town.  My room was on the third story and was very spacious and had a sofa, a bed, a desk and a half bath.  This half bath in particular consisted of the shower and a sink, not quite what I would consider the most important half for a third story bedroom…  especially, since the second floor bathroom was the master bedroom’s and the ground level’s bathroom was on the far side of the house.  I quickly learned to not drink too many fluids late in the evening and also to take care of things prior to heading to bed.  It was a tricky staircase and maneuvering it in the middle of the night incurred a risk of death by falling…

The family had 3 teenaged boys and a little girl.  It was great because the levels of language, then, varied in the household (the dad was an engineer and the mom some sort of physical therapist).   With the youngest of the boys, I learned to play video games in French.  Those games would have been hard in any language and, on top of that, I had to learn the words for the joystick, buttons, actions, etc. and half the time, as he was instructing me as we played, he was speaking at a rate faster than the speed of light.   Hardest of all was the 4 yr old girl who thought I was another kid because my language skills were not communicating “adult” to her.  She bossed me around a bit as apparently, not only did she think I was a kid, but she must have thought she was the older one of us.

The School Experience

In terms of the school, I got tested on my first day and placed in a class of moderately skilled learners.  I signed up for daily morning class and then two afternoons.  I am glad I did as it is exhausting work to be immersed in a language you are not fluent on.  Even with only 2 afternoons of study, it felt like almost too much.  The class was very small (5 or 6).  Some people showed up every day and some didn’t.  Some seemed to be living in France for a year not working, just chilling (Brits).  I was very jealous!  The quality of our teacher (Sandrine) was excellent.  We read from newspapers, discussed the articles, did grammar work, wrote papers, etc.  It was a lot of work even outside of school but I suppose that it was up to each one of us to decide how hard to hit it.  Since I was only able to do this for two weeks, I dove right in.  It paid off handsomely.  Though I would not say I was fluent, I was much more comfortable making all my mistakes and was making fewer of them.  After school I either hung around town or leisurely walked back to the house which took about 40 minutes walking along the Loire river, a very pleasant walk.  Definitely a chance of pace for me.

For me, the immersion program was a good investment and a good experience.  I got to marry the trip with sightseeing before, during and after the two weeks of immersion and that was a great bonus.  I wish I could do it again and still may.  Perhaps in another language?

I’m interesting in hearing others’ experience with immersion programs.  Perhaps it would be interesting to hear how long it could take someone who doesn’t know the language which they go to study?

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