Paris, Just Say Oui

This year I have talked to numerous folks telling me they want Paris to be their next vacation destination.  TALLBlondes' article below was originally published December 2011 and due to popular demand for travel advice it deserves a reprint.

My birthday was November 5th, and my amazing husband Sean secretly spent 4 months planning a surprise trip for the two of us to Paris, France. It was a tough secret to keep and in 4 months he talked to so many of our friends doing research that nearly everyone we know knew about it but me. Even a few of my office-mates were in on it; good job Rob and Carol. I need to also thank Greg and Arnaud for their great suggestions and info. I thought I would share some of our highlights and tips.
Wednesday, November 9
Departed SFO Air France flight #83 bound for Charles deGaulle airport in Paris. Long, l-o-n-g flight non-stop about 9 1/2 hours. Dinner and breakfast served on the plane, watched the film "The Help", my pick for movie of the year because it is both funny and intense. However 9 hours feels like an entire day and night. Landed Thursday morning 11:10am. Weather bright and about 60 degrees.  TIP: Do not reserve a hotel, instead rent an apartment (click for video) at nearly half the cost. It is often someone's personal vacation home and well appointed with all amenities:. (click). Our 200-year old apartment in the village of St. Germain des Pres (6th District) took up 3 floors: 2 bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, full kitchen, two creaking spiral staircases between all floors, WI-FI, laundry, and a roof terrace that seats 7 for dinner and cute as heck!

Thursday, November 10
Walked around our new neighborhood to get our bearings two blocks from the Seine River (Rive Gauche) and across from Musee du Louvre and picked up our tickets purchased in advance online for all the sights Sean cleverly planned well in advance. Metro (subway train) passes, open-top bus tour of city landmarks, Chateau de Versailles, train to Versailles, boat ride on River Seine by day or night. This is really the best way to buy tickets gaining priority entry at the gate, no long lines. They are usually "good any day" passes relieving you of a strict itinerary: (click). For our first dinner we purchased and brought home a whole Poulet Roti and Pommes de Terre, (roasted chicken and herb roasted baby potatoes) sold on a rolling cart. We also took the advice of our friend Alexandre to have a glass of warm spiced red wine with cinnamon at bistro "La Palette", a 101-year old city landmark
. We ultimately went there every night for our warm nightcap and it helps they are located on our block. Our young waiter was named Sou (nickname for small French penny). He is Chinese/Moroccan decent and spoke a minimum of 5 languages; he would be our waiter during our entire stay. Thank you Alexandre, I think your advice made the greatest impact suggesting the right village.
Friday, November 11
YIKES, morning disaster!! Direct Current (DC) is much more powerful than Alternating Current (AC). Therefore use care when using your electrical appliances in Europe that you brought from home. I now have burned off a small section of my hair. Convert your hairdryer to 125v from 250v, may be found on the handle before use. After breakfast of 2 cafes, croissants and jus d'oranges we took a long slow walk towards the Gallerie Lafayette shopping area near the Opera House. Our apartment agent told us Friday (11/11/11) was a holiday and most shops would be closed.  Instead it was their "Black Friday", kick off to the Christmas shopping season. All the stores were decorated inside and out and thousands of people ran through the streets like armys of ants. I thought it was trippy to shop at a UNIQLO (Japanese)  store in Paris and found some great deals. Stopped for a glass of wine at "Les Deux Magots" on the walk home.

Saturday, November 12
My next tip- Please, please, please invest in the open-top bus tour of the city landmarks. We took "L'Open Tour", they have 4 circuits depending on neighborhood and sights to see. Ticket is good for 24 or 48 hours from when you begin your ride, hop-on-hop-off privileges. We chose the Grand Paris Tour (2 hours) Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Le Louvre museum, Avenue des Champs-Elysees, Notre Dame, Pont Neuf-oldest bridge in the city, Place de la Concorde-the beheading site of King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette are just to name a few of the sights we visited. Instead of boarding a second bus circuit tour we took our first Metro ride to the village of Montmartre, the highest point in the city of Paris to see Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) Basilica built entirely of white travertine stone. The tour inside the Basilica is awe inspiring and the view of Paris from the top of the hill, breathtaking. No need to wait in line and spend time climbing the Eiffel Tower. Grab a baguette sandwich of ham and cheese and stroll up the hill from the Metro station. The walk is steep and we did get hungry. By the way, American cellphones don't work. I don't care what your cellular service provider tells you before you leave unless you are comfortable racking up $5,000.00 in roaming charges. We had with us iPhone 4, iPhone 4S and Android Global. Wi-Fi service is spotty and even if you download TANGO it still requires Wi-Fi to access cell phone calls. McDonald's had the best signal. We purchased 2 inexpensive "loadable" cellphones and this worked great. Then comes the BIG surprise-our boy Blaze shows up at the apartment in the evening with 2 friends, Ito and Donny straight off the bullet train from Amsterdam. Now this is truly an amazing vacation! We have a full house of 5 and it finally makes sense why Sean rented such a spacious apartment. Dinner tonight was at Brasserie LIPP and a jovial group of 5.

Sunday, November 13
We cross the river Seine to the Louvre museum for 3 hours of ancient eye candy. You will always hear me say, "I could spend a week in this place." Originally built as a fortress in the late 12th century and becoming a museum in 1793 where only 12 paintings originally hung. We were headed to say hello to old King Louis XIV and lady Mona Lisa. Mona-girl is not as large as you might believe with such a grand fabled history, only a 30" x 21" canvas. We then took the Metro to Marais, Paris' oldest part of the city that was not torn down during the early/middle 19th century slum renewal. The village has several Synagogues and many historic buildings. You see Jews walking the narrow streets in their traditional dress; I thought I was in New York City. Lunch was at the famed 'Ma Bourgogne', world renown for their Steak Tartar served with Pommes Frites (french fries) I love that-But wait, I'm not done. Dinner tonight was at Cafe de Flore where our friend Greg once luxuriated in the fact that Lauren Bacall and Paloma Picasso were also sharing a meal that same night, at the same time.

Monday, November 14
Today is an easy day. This means we are out of the apartment early without a clear destination and enjoy the sunny day. We ate chocolate-filled croissants as we walked Blvd. St. Germain. Blaze joined us mid-day on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees after walking a local cemetery to visit grave sites of famed writers, actors, poets, philosophers and celebrities long gone. I had to visit the Louis Vuitton flagship store and yeah.......Sean bought me a killer Monogram bag, 'Artsy' model. We walked through the Place de Vendome where Princess Diana spent the last few happy hours of her life at the Ritz Carlton Hotel restaurant. We toured many other shops that are the personal favorites of all 3 of us but this next story is a classic. Between 4pm and 6pm restaurants stop serving food and we were grateful to find a beautifully decorated cafe still serving, too fancy for what we really needed but who is to argue when that is your only option. At the close of our meal a cinnamon colored mouse ran across the main restaurant floor, could this have been the original 'RATatouille'? This is also where we learned from our waiter while reviewing the bill that tip is included and American and Russian patrons are always welcome because we always tip extra.

Tuesday, November 15
Today we rook the RER train to Chateau de Versailles, the hunting playground of the King and part-time residence of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I. The gardens in their day actually stretched for m-i-l-e-s. The train ride allowed us to see the outskirts of the city and everyday homes.  Large community vegetable gardens along hillsides were frequent during our 35 minute train ride. This in complete contrast to the opulent rooms in Versailles and nothing more than a personal tribute to the royal family members. Stunningly decorated and full of color, spectacular painted ceilings and intricate carvings circle every room. Funny in an awkward way was a strip mall of eateries a stone's throw from the chateau. A McDonald's was a must stop for me so I could experience ordering from an electronic kiosk rather than a manned counter. The process was easy and fast. A paper receipt dispenses for you to claim your awaiting meal at the bustling counter. Beer is also served, french beer. Tonight we took a one-hour evening boat ride up and down the Seine River (VIDEO, click). Magical, romantic and freezing cold. We raced to the open top seating and within 15 minutes most of the seated visitors opted for covered seating below. We braved the cold in order to capture the best photographs. I recommend a flask of something life affirming along for the next time.

Wednesday, November 16
I showed tears more times than I wish to publicly disclose during this trip and this next story is second only in tears to when Blaze surprised me at the door. Blaze's friends Ito and Donny before flying out to Spain on Monday gave Sean and I a padlock and a set of colored permanent markers to add our own Love Lock to the thousands, maybe millions on the Pont des Arts. We put the lock on the bridge and threw the keys in the river forever sealing our fate and shared a great big kiss at the ritual site that so many before us had done.  We then strolled through the Palais Luxembourg gardens where the State Senate is located on our way to the village of Sevres known for high end avant garde fashion shops and amazing food both locally produced and imported from around the globe. On the walk home we passed the hotel where Irish play-write Oscar Wilde died in 1900. The exact disease that took his life at a young age of 46 is always up for discussion but what is distressing is his hotel is only a couple doors from the Academie de Medecine. Did he visit them,could he have lived longer? Tonight is our last night in Paris, one more visit to La Palette for a warm spiced wine before bedtime.

Thursday, November 17
Up at 6:00am, taxi arrives at 7:30am for a 10:00am flight back to San Francisco, Air France, flight #84. Blaze is also taking off for the Gare de Lyon (train station) to visit my relatives in Lyon: Luc, Nicky, Olivier and Marjorie. Au revoir Paris, or I'd rather say a bientot!

FASHION-Scarves are worn everywhere by men as well as women, not just the bulky ones for warmth. I saw no one wearing all black, that's an American phenomenon. Boots are on most feet and women still wear nylons with skirts and dresses.  Did not see one "IT" handbag. They are all very simple and the most popular was the nylon french label 'Longchamps' tote; again, for both men and women. The Parisians tend to be 'homers"; like the tote, pet dogs along the street are French Bulldogs, they only drink cafe, French wine or beer, almost no cocktails were observed on tables and yes, they love to smoke cigarettes.

FOOD-Service is slow and relaxing. As a paying patron you have the right to your table for as long as you wish to stay. The host at the front door will always ask you: "Food or drink?". No reason to feel rushed or embarrassed if all you want is a glass of wine or a demi-tasse of espresso. But if you briefly use an empty seat street side to quickly empty a rock out of your shoe, look out, you will be shewed away. Food quality is always fresh at a bistro, brasserie or cafe comptoire. Order what you like.

TRAVEL-I used my French where ever we stopped but have no fear if you have ever dreamed of travelling to Paris as a first-timer; everyone you encounter in a restaurant, shop, taxi, metro or on the street speaks some English, enough to get by. Just use your manners your momma taught you when making inquiries: Pardon me, please, thank you, Madame, Monsieur, etc. and you will be treated well.