First of all, calling this series “Savvy on France” is a laugh. Savvy I was not. More like Fish Out of Water in Paris. BUT my hope with these posts is that you’ll 1) get some laughs and 2) be more prepared to visit to visit France (and Monaco) than this chica was.
Okay, so day one of our vacation ended up being shorter than originally anticipated. Once we’d boarded our Chicago leg and gotten comfortable on the plane, the pilot came on the air to say that our AC was broken and the ground crew was working on it. An hour later, our AC was looking like it would be okay — but weather patterns then prevented us from taking off. Once the weather cleared up, we got in a line of 45 planes waiting for takeoff. About 30 minutes into that, the captain realized we weren’t going to have enough fuel to make the transatlantic trek. To try and make an already long story shorter, we hung out on the Tarmac for five hours before finally taking off. For those of you wondering about the Passenger’s Bill of Rights, yes, they did offer us to get off the plane after four hours… if we wanted to discontinue our journey to Paris. So we elected to stay on the plane and continue on to our destination… and eventually (hallelujah) we did get there safely.
Lucky for us, we bought travel pillows and slept through some of the Tarmac episode, and most of the long flight. So lesson #1: buy travel pillows. I bought this memory foam U-shaped neck pillow from Amazon.com ($15.29), which was the bomb. Dan laid claims on that one. I tried out the TravelRest Travel Pillow Reinvented ($26.95), which got good reviews on Amazon, but was a big womp-womp as far as quality goes. It kept deflating. Lesson #2: test said travel pillows prior to taking them on a transatlantic flight. I ended up buying a cheap-o version of Dan’s pillow in the airport to use, which did the job but wasn’t as a great as the memory foam version. Either way, the travel pillows were clutch for arriving as minimally jetlagged as possible in Paris.
The Travel Pillow Reinvented was a FAIL. (Update 6/15/2012: Terri from the Travel Pillow Reinvented company called me in response to my Amazon review to say she was very sorry I didn't have a good experience with the product. She asked if I still had it on hand so we could troubleshoot the issue. Unfortunately I'd already sent it back or else I would have been open to her suggestions. She said that of the products they've had returned, none have had leaks so far – it's possible though that the air flaps weren't completely secured or the cabin pressure affected it's ability to stay inflated. She said if I am ever interested in re-trying the product, they would love to send me another one. A+ for follow up!)
We landed at Charles De Gaulle Airport (metro Paris) around 3:30 local time.
Dan did a lot of research and planning about transportation in and around Paris (to be honest, he did all the research and planning — he’s a saint). So we went to find a place to buy train passes from the airport to our hotel, and a two ten-packs of metro passes we could use during our two days in the city.
Lesson #3: Know ahead of time how to buy train passes.
We saw ticket counters. We spotted electronic machines for buying passes. We noticed signage for two different trains: TGV and SNCF. We also saw signage for something called the RER. What the heck were we supposed to do? I waited in line for information while Dan tried to use the electronic machine. He eventually figured out what we were supposed to buy, but he couldn’t get our credit card to work (we found out later that most American credit cards don’t work at these machines, and you definitely have to have a credit card pin if you want any chance of the machines working). Eventually we asked information where we should go then went to the SNCF counter and bought the RER passes we needed. (Round trip train passes to the airport and two ten-packs of metro passes were about 50 euros).
Made it to the metro. Phew.
Once we got on the train, we were in business. Dan determined we should get off at the Luxembourg RER metro stop, and he was right on the money. Upon exiting the train station, I was surprised by the weather (maybe 55 degrees and rainy); I expected it to be a little warmer and dryer. BUT, when I watched Midnight in Paris (a Woody Allen movie), Owen Wilson’s character said a few times that “there’s just something about Paris in the rain,” so I was optimistic for a good (maybe even romantic) time.
We had a super easy walk (suitcases and all) from the metro to our hotel, which looked out on the Pantheon. (Did you think the Pantheon was a historic building in Rome? So did I! Well, apparently there’s one in Paris, too!)
Hotel du Pantheon was quaint and lovely. The staff was professional, helpful and super friendly. And while we certainly didn’t feel like they needed to cater to our minimal English, it certainly did make things easy that all the staff members spoke terrific English. Not to mention the hotel is situated in the Latin Quarter, which is an active and interesting part of town.
The Pantheon… through our hotel window!
After checking our bags, we evaluated our options. We’d planned to go to the Lourve for a few hours but quickly realized that plan was shot (it was 4:30 by this point, and the Lourve closed at 6). Change of plans: We decided to go explore the Pantheon. Hell, it was right next door. Also, going to the Pantheon gave us an opportunity to buy a Museum Pass. The pass that gets you into many local attractions at a discount — with the option of buying a two-day (39 euro), three-day (54 euro) or 6-day (64 euro) length pass. The pass gets you into tons of neat stuff in Paris, such as the D’Orsay (Impressionist) Museum, the Lourve, the Chateau at Versailles and more. From what we read, it was worth it.
So we got into the Pantheon and met a friendly and helpful cashier/guide. She sold us two-day museum passes, and since we didn’t want to activate them until the next day (it was late on Monday by this time), she gave us free entry to the Pantheon.
The Pantheon itself was pretty neat but also not the most spectacular international attraction I’ve seen (not that I’ve seen many though, by the way). The Mausoleum-style building was built in 1758 and finished in 1790. Voltaire and Rousseau are entombed there, among others. My favorite part was the expansive/ornate ceilings. I’m pretty sure Dan’s favorite part was the Foucault Pendulum, which shows how the Earth rotates.
After visiting the Pantheon, we took a stroll down to the Seine River, taking note of the Notre Dame Cathedral (which we planned to visit the next day), cafes and artist/knickknack sands. I really hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast or earlier (our clocks were all screwed up) so some baguettes and cheese were calling my name. We landed in Grand Bar Cluny for a snack. (The place has one good review on Trip Advisor and one bad one. Our experience was fine. After all, we just wanted a cold beverage and an easy snack.) Grand Bar Cluny’s assorted cheese plate (assiette fromage) was perfect, including a brie, a goat and a bleu-ish cheese (and it was a really good-sized portion at 10 euros). I washed down my fromage with a Leffe brune beer (a darker version of a Belgian beer I’m already a fan of in the states, but I hadn’t tried this version befor) and Dan had a 1664 pilsner (a beer we saw on almost every tap in Paris and Nice). In the café, we heard plenty of native French speakers, and we enjoyed the little French bulldog (named “Artiste”) who roamed the place. Total bill: 25 euros.
After a beer and a snack, our hotel bed called. Yes, it’s a shame to take a nap in a foreign country with so many fantastic things within walking distance, but we were having trouble keeping our eyes open. In our minds, investing an hour and a half in a nap would be well worth it in terms of relieving jet lag and being ready to enjoy the rest of the trip. Once our heads hit the pillows, we were out in seconds.
We didn’t wake up until close to 8:30pm Monday, which worked out okay considering the French don’t eat dinner until at least 7:30. (Lesson #4: No early bird specials in France. Expect to eat dinner late. If you arrive at a restaurant at 7, they will likely not be open. Many French, especially Parisians, we hear, don’t eat dinner until 8:30 or later. Eating at 9 or 9:30 isn’t unusual.)
Dan looked through our Rick Steves Paris travel book and found several good options. We poked around online (we had wifi in our hotel) and confirmed that a quaint restaurant in the book had still had a good reputation and smart wine pairings. The place also happened to be incredibly close to our hotel — score! So we were off to Le Vin Qui Danse (4 rue des fosses Saint Jacques, 75005 Paris, France).
We had a great first true meal in Paris at Le Vin Qui Danse. I opted for a reasonably priced prix fixe three-course meal with wine pairings. After all, the place claims to have a smart wine menu. My starter was a nice piece of salmon fillet marinated in olive oil, lemon and local herbs along with mashed white beans, thinly sliced carrots and julienned eggplant. (By the way, lesson #5: in the U.S., “entrée” is synonymous with main course. In France, “entrée” is synonymous with starter or appetizer.) The main course was lamb confit, fingerling potatoes and jous. Divine! For dessert it was pineapple, cream, lemon sorbet and basil. Everything was delicious! While I’m no oenophile, I enjoyed the wine pairings. First wine was nice, subtle and a little dry: Domaine de la Renaudie (the bottle also said “et son verve de Bergerac blanc”) – 2010. I was told it was from near Bordeaux. What I have written down for the second is “et son de Pecharmant domaine de la renaude” – 2008 – but now that I’m reading my notes, it seems like I missed something. This wine was from near Burgandy and reminded me of a pinot but was bigger/bolder. What I wrote down for the dessert wine pairing is “et son verre de Monbazillac Chateau La Brie – 2005.” I was tired and probably a little tipsy at this point so all my notes say is “sweet dessert wine – tasty.” (um. Duh.)
Also, after initially hearing our really (bad) American-sounding “bonjour,” our waitress asked (in French) if we spoke French. Embarrassed, we shook our heads “no.” Then she said, “no worries – I speak good English.” Turns out our waitress has French parents but was born in Maryland and lived in California for a while before her family eventually made their way back to France. She was funny and attentive.
In other words, I would agree with other TripAdvisor reviews about this place — I would definitely say we had great service and food at Le Vin Qui Danse.
We were quick to bed after dinner. I’m tired from just recapping our first day. I can’t believe how much we did from 4:30 to midnight on our first day in Paris. It felt like a whirlwind!
More to come…