Friday, April 9, 2010

À bientôt

Mom is all packed and ready for her fancy business class flight back to Anchorage early tomorrow morning. I don't leave until Sunday afternoon on a regular person flight back to New York. While Mom was figuring out how to fit all her stuff into her bags, I've been catching up with the last few entries of what we've been doing since Tuesday and uploading photos to the France set on Flickr. I'll probably upload more photos from this weekend to Flickr, but I'm done posting stuff here, so thanks for traveling with us.

"My children need wine!"

Today is Friday and Mom's last full day in Paris. We wandered back over to Centre Pompidou because there's a Starbucks there that I went to the day when I checked on Mom's birthday dinner reservation. After a little breakfast and more terrible French coffee, we walked over to the Louvre to look at some art. We eventually made our way from the empty galleries to the ones with the paintings people go there to see, like the Mona Lisa. Those galleries were packed, especially with school tour groups, so we just saw the Mona Lisa and a few other Leonardo works in the adjoining gallery and wandered out into the Tuileries.

So once we were outside, we walked through the Tuileries, across Place de la Concorde, and down the Champs-Élysées. When we got to the Adidas store Mom said she needed to go in there, which is something I never thought I would hear her say. Unfortunately, she wasn't picking up a Run DMC-style outfit for herself but fulfilling a friend's request instead.

We stopped for lunch at a place called Unisex with glittering pink walls and an unfriendly waitress that only smiled when it came time to remind us that the service is not included in the bill.

We walked the rest of the way down the avenue until we reached the Arc de Triomphe. Then we took the subway to the Eiffel Tower. Mom decided she was happy enough looking up at it, so we didn't go up. Then we took the subway to Notre Dame because Mom wanted to go back to her favorite street, Rue St. Louis en Île, on Île St. Louis, one of the little islands in the Seine, because there's a store there she likes. Then we walked back to the hotel, so I pretty much made Mom walk across Paris again.

Bon anniversaire

Mom and I both slept in on Thursday, since we had gotten up so crazy early the day before. There was a bead store mentioned in Mom's guide book that she wanted to check out on Île Saint-Louis, which is one of the little islands in the Seine in the middle of Paris, so we walked down that way and stopped at the Starbucks we went to the other day so I could get an American sized coffee. We got to the street the store is on and it's full of other little stores so Mom did some shopping. The store in the guide ended up being at the end of the street and full of hats, not beads, but Mom really liked the street so she wasn't that disappointed.

We had lunch around the corner. I ordered snails and getting them out of their little houses was a lot of work. The only other time I had them was when they were served in mushroom caps, which doesn't require special tools to eat.

After lunch we walked over to BHV, a department store that's more like Sears in that it sells all kinds of things besides clothes. I bought an iron so I could press my shirt for dinner. This is the only hotel we've stayed in that doesn't have an iron in the room. They would rather charge you 8 Euros to do it for you and you're at their mercy. The the iron was 20 Euros but we'll also be able to iron our other clothes for last few days here, so it wasn't a total waste.

I had given Mom the glamorous Kate Spade evening clutch I brought from New York that morning since she had already guessed I was getting her a bag back in Scotland, so we got ready for dinner and took a cab to Centre Pompidou, the modern art museum, for dinner at Georges on the top floor. I was glad I had gone there the other day so I knew where to go to get into the restaurant. The sky was overcast, but as the elevator ascended we could see that off in the horizon the clouds had broken up and we could see the sunset through the Eiffel Tower. The view was pretty spectacular.

Mom had a glass of champagne and I had a martini to start. I could only understand some of the menu and a lot of times the word I didn't know was the key ingredient of the dish, but the waiter explained what everything was for us. Mom got the smoked salmon, which is more like lox, to start. We laughed when it arrived because it was a giant plate complete covered in a layer of salmon and a stack of pancakes (which I guess are really crêpes) on the side. Mom made salmon pancake tacos while I had Thai spring rolls. For the main course Mom had the cod cooked in champagne and honey with little decorations that we think were paper thin fried tomatoes. I had something that translates to The Tiger Who Cries, which was a really delicious steak. Then Mom had a super rich chocolate cake and I had the most lemony raspberry thing ever. The Eiffel Tower sparkles on the hour at night, so we saw it at 9:00 and again at 10:00, which was pretty awesome because it lasts for five minutes.

Chateaux and stuff

We met up with Susan and Simon at the Tour train station on Wednesday morning for our Loire Valley tour. Susan recognized Mom right away because she was wearing one of the many coats I chronicled here and she had been following our blog. We hopped in their black 1953 Citroën Traction Avant and they took us to a little roadside café for some breakfast, which was great since I was hungry.

Our first stop was Chateau Chenonceau, which I had been to before when I came to France in 1991 on a school trip. We were there early so it wasn't that crowded, at least in the gardens. Susan guided us through the chateau's rooms and through the gardens and model farm. Then we got back into the car and they drove us around to the other side of the Cher River so we could get pictures of the chateau from the back, which is the more interesting side — especially since the front had scaffolding and a covering over it while they worked on it.

Then we went to the little town of Bleré for lunch. The food was delicious and we had a table reserved right by the front window. The name of the restaurant is the first line of a French poem that I may or may not have learned in French class that's about the happiness being in the meadow or something like that. I don't have the energy right now to look it up but if you're in Bleré, the restaurant is right next to the church. Anyway, lunch was great.

Our next stop was Clos Lucé, which is a small house where it is believed that Lenoardo da Vinci spent his last three years. This stop was totally my fault, and I think I remember Susan trying to gently hint that it may not be worthwhile when I was planning the itinerary, but I had already decided I wanted to go there. The house, or manor, is a mish mash of all these time periods and nothing feels authentic. You see the room and study in the house where Leonardo supposedly lived and worked, and then there's a bunch of other rooms that don't have anything to do with anything. In the end, I guess I was glad to have walked through the rooms where he may or may not have been, but our time could have been better spent elsewhere. Again, all my fault and fortunately we were on a private tour so we were free to move right along past my unfortunate choice.

From Amboise, where Clos Lucé is, we went to a cave for some wine tasting. Mom and I aren't wine connoisseurs, but the people were very friendly and nice. It ended up being really fun and we got to tour the limestone caves where they store and prepare the wine. The wine dude spoke French slowly and clearly and I was understanding most of what he said, which might have also been aided by all the wine I tasted and kept (instead of spitting it out into the bucket). Susan and Simon surprised Mom with a bottle of wine of her choice and I also bought a bottle.

From Vouvray, the winery, we drove to Chateau Villandry. We didn't go inside the chateau because the real attraction is their crazy giant gardens. And it's not just one garden, it's all these different gardens and the grounds are massive. It was amazing to consider all the work and money that goes into maintaining something like that. It was an incredible thing to see and I'm really glad Susan had recommended it.

Villandry was the last stop on our tour and Susan and Simon took us back to the Tours train station to catch our trains back to Paris. We both agree that the tour was well worth the money and we feel fortunate to have found it.

Movement social nationale

We got up at 3:45 am on Wednesday, so we could leave the hotel by 5:00 am, to get to Montparnasse to try and catch a 6:05 am train to St. Pierre des Corps, where we would then catch another train that would take us four minutes to reach the station in Tours, where we would meet our guides for our Loire Valley tour. Because of the one-day strike on the trains, our original train at 7:45 had been canceled and the only way for us to get to Tour in time was to try and ride the earlier train without a guaranteed seat.

We quickly got ready and had the hotel's front desk call a taxi to take us to the train station in Paris. I expected it to be a madhouse but there weren't that many people there. We boarded the train and had to surrender our seats twice because we were sitting in someone's reserved spot. The train left late for some reason and the entire time I was worried that people we going to keep appearing asking us to move because we were in their seats. I felt a little better after we left the stop between Paris and St. Pierre des Corps, because no one else asked us to move, but I didn't enjoy being sleepy and stressed at the same time.

We arrived at St. Pierre des Corps and our connecting train, that takes all of four minutes, was super late. We would have just walked if we knew where we were going, especially since we didn't have any luggage. The train finally arrived and we met up with our tour guides.

On our return trip to Paris the train was packed with way more people than seats, but our seats were reserved on this train since this one hadn't been canceled, so at least we got to sit down on the way home.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the union and the SNCF for creating a stressful train trip and causing me to get up at a time when I usually go to bed. What a wonderful first impression of train travel in your country that I'll remember forever.

Couleur café

With all their cafés, I have yet to have any good coffee in France. I feel like I really gave them a chance but it's not so great. I gave up on the cafés and I found a Starbucks near Centre Pompidou when I went to go confirm Mom's birthday dinner reservation. The coffee there wasn't great but at least it was in an American size. We were wandering through Place de la Bastille the next morning and I saw a French lady with a Starbucks cup in her hand and asked her where she got it. She pointed me in the right direction. I found it and had coffee there and then went back there again the next morning. I didn't go back because the coffee was good, I went back because I like my coffee in giant American sizes, even if it's only okay.

Oh, and the coffee I had in the UK for the most part was terrific.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Le ciel est bleu

We got into Paris Sunday afternoon, checked into our hotel, and then walked around a bit and had dinner at a café.

The next morning it was the Monday after Easter, so lots of things were closed. We had a French breakfast and walked along the Seine to Notre Dame. There we found another one of those open top tour bus dealies. This time it was a recorded guide, but I still prefer a live guide like the one we had in London. The bus took us around to all the big sites like Tour Eiffel, Louvre, etc. The weather was okay when we were in the sun, but when the sun got behind the clouds and we turned down some avenue with a gust of wind, it was pretty cold. I was shivering when I got off the bus at Notre Dame so we went to a café and had a warm lunch.

The tour gave me a good lay of the land, so we walked back to by the Opéra to see if the department stores were open. Galeries Lafayette was closed but Printemps was open. Then we got on the Metro and took it back to our hotel, near the Chemin Vert stop.

When I got back to the hotel, I used the free wi-fi with the super weak signal to check my email and I got a little note from my friends at SNCF, the French railroad. It seems that they're having some labor issues and there's going to be a strike but only on Wednesday, the day we need to use their socialist train to get to Tours for our Loire Valley tour. Our guides advised me to visit one of the many SNCF boutiques in the morning and to figure out what the options are. I didn't tell Mom and let her sleep in peace.

The next morning I gave Mom the lowdown and I found a nearby SNCF boutique. The girl at the desk spoke English only slightly better than I speak French. Our options were to try and get on one of the trains that will be running, getting up super earlier from our already super early wake up time, or giving them a bunch more money to do it on Friday. I was already sort of pissed that the SNCF let things go so far as a strike, so I didn't feel like rewarding them with more money. Now the plan is to get to Montparnasse, the train station, at 5:00 to hopefully get on a 6:00 train using tickets from our 7:45 train that was cancelled. We then have to kill some time in Tours until our tour starts at 9:00. So we're going to get up at 4:00 am now.

Anyway, all this took a big chunk of the morning. After breakfast and our visit to the boutique of things you can't wear, we went back to the hotel so I could figure out how to call the tour guide at a French number from a UK cell phone on a French network. I also had to top up my pay-as-you-go phone for the first time, and not having a UK postal code was a problem. I eventually got that solved but not having a smart phone has been a real displeasure during the trip.

Then we wandered around Marais, slowly working our way toward Musée d'Orsay. We wandered through another department store, BHV, and then stopped for lunch. I had something duck and innards or something with cabbage, which was good, and salmon, and Mom had French onion soup. We then walked the rest of the way to Musée d'Orsay. I had gotten a little sunburned on the bus the day before, so I was trying to stay out of the sun, but it was a beautiful day and I got a little more burned.

By the time we got to the museum it was already 15:00 metric time, and by the time we got through the line we didn't have that much time in the museum. That ended up being okay because I had made Mom walk pretty far. We did have time to wander through the first floor, seeing a lot of pieces I was excited to finally see in person, but it was also pretty crowded.

We then had to walk over to the Invalides Metro stop to get our train, which wasn't exactly as close as it looked on the map.

I took a lot of photos on Monday but only a couple on Tuesday. A lot of the photos look the same. I'm uploading them to Flickr to a new France set now but I'll label them later.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Bon voyage

We're at St. Pancreas Pancras waiting to catch the EuroStar to Paris. I'm uploading some photos to Flickr from the past two days and hopefully it will finish before we need to board the train.

Good Friday, Better Saturday

Mom was feeling a little bit better on Friday morning so we took a taxi from our hotel above Victoria Station to the Tower of London. We took a taxi because we still don't understand The Underground. This ended up being a good move because the Tower Hill stop was closed for the bank holiday and we wouldn't have been able to get off there anyway.

The fortress itself is a bunch of different towers. It was only slightly more interesting than Edinburgh Castle. We went to see the crown jewels and explored a little bit but it just wasn't that engaging. On our way out we saw the lines for the building with the crown jewels and the main entrance were incredibly long, while we had pretty much walked in without wait, so we felt pretty lucky we got there as early as we did.

After a little lunch at Eat. (eeeeaaaatttt.), we took another taxi to Harrod's. Harrod's was pretty crowded and not that impressive — it sort of reminded me of Macy's in Herald Square but with more high end stuff. Mom still wasn't feeling great so we walked back to the hotel, briefly visiting Harvey Nichols on the way.

I dropped Mom off at the hotel and walked all the way down to Tate Modern. The drizzly weather gave way to pretty decent skies. I walked over the Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern was very crowded. The space itself is huge, but half of it is just negative space over the entryway while most of the galleries feel very small when you get all the people and children and strollers in them. I did get a chance to see some good pieces though, including works by Warhol and Dali.

I decided to walk back to the hotel. Along the way I stopped for a fish and chips dinner near Trafalgar Square and passed Rufus Wainwright on the street. As I passed through Trafalgar Square, I noticed that the National Gallery was open late so I pretty thoroughly explored it and enjoyed it more than Tate Modern.

When I got out of the museum it was dark so I headed back to the hotel through The Mall and past Buckingham Palace.

On Saturday, Mom and I went down for breakfast and then walked all the way to the Vivienne Westwood store in Mayfair, where I picked up some souvenirs. The weather was pretty nice and the streets were deserted, so it was an enjoyable walk. Then we walked through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens to Kensington Palace. We had planned to visit the palace, but the palace was decorated with a special exhibition, not just a regularly furnished palace like Holyrood, so we decided to skip it at the last minute and had lunch at The Orangery next door. While it was pretty inside, and Mom enjoyed the soup, the meal wasn't so great. We've also decided that America makes the best lemonade.

We then walked past Royal Albert Hall to the Victoria and Albert Museum. We were pretty exhausted at this point, so we only had enough energy for the fashion room, which is nicer than the one at the Met, and a special exhibition of quilts. Although it would have only taken us half an hour or so to walk back to the hotel, we decided to spring for a cab and call it a day.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

If it's Thursday, this must be England

"Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament..."

After we finished laundry yesterday, I took Mom back to the hotel and she slept all day trying to get better. I walked down through St. James Park to Trafalgar Square, and then over to Big Ben, Parliament, Victoria Tower Park, along the Thames a little bit, and then back to the hotel to check on Mom. Then I took a cab to Oxford Street and walked down to Selfridges and picked up a little hey-hey that I was eyeing the other day. I walked all the way back to the hotel, passing the American Embassy and the Duke of Wellington's house and victory arch.

When I got back to the hotel, Mom was asleep so I went downstairs to the hotel's fancy-ish French restaurant, Chez Gerard. I ordered the prix fixe and each course took forever. I finally told them to cancel the sorbet and give me the bill, because there's no way it takes half an hour to put three scoops of frozen dessert on a dish.

We got up early this morning to meet our tour for Stonehenge and Bath. The sky was clear but there was a bitter wind that made it feel like winter. It took a couple hours to get to Stonehenge and it was so cold that I was glad we were only there an hour. Stonehenge clearly wasn't made to tell time because two stupid students on our tour couldn't get back to the bus on time and held us up for twenty minutes. The bus was taking off down the road when they came running up along the side. Stonehenge itself was awesome to see, but the terrible arctic blast made it difficult to enjoy in person.

Two hours later we arrived at Bath. We drove around the city a little bit and then they dropped us off to tour the Roman baths. It was really crowded and not that interesting. The town is kind of uptight and all of the buildings are required to use this beige stone from a local quarry, so everything kind of looks the same. We didn't have a lot of time to explore Bath, so we just ate lunch at the restaurant attached to the Roman baths and got back on the bus. The bus ride back into London took about three hours.