A Travellerspoint blog

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A Trip Sitting on the Bucket List for Too Long

Our family trip for the summer before Anna starts her Senior year of High School.

Many of you know that Katherine keeps a list of places we wish to travel, and trips we'd like to take. She's kept and updated this list for as long as I can remember. Though she has rewritten the list many times, always near the top has been a very particular trip in France. After many false starts, we finally worked it out this year to make that long-awaited trip. Several tour companies offered similar tours, but as luck would have it, Gate1 Travel -- the company we used for our trip to Ecuador and Slovenia/Croatia -- had the most thorough itinerary and good dates, so we booked with them.

We ended up traveling in mid-August, as the timing was best. Anna had already been away much of the summer, with trips to Yellowstone with grandma and grandpa, and then her school trip to Germany and Italy. It also allowed for a few days between our return the start of school -- her Senior Year, and last year in public school. So, things lined up well. We booked about 10 months in advance, so we had a long time to anticipate and look forward to the tour.

Posted by NellieVA 11:12 Archived in USA Tagged brambleton ashburn dulles_airport Comments (0)

Bon Voyage!

Day of departure finally arrives

We went to Nellysford over the weekend of 5 August to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday and, as they agreed to watch Chip while we were away, we left him there for the week before we left. Anna worked a heavy schedule before we left too, so all three of us were more than ready when our day of departure finally arrived.

We were flying nonstop from Dulles to Paris, and had no problems at the airport. The forecast was for severe thunderstorms to roll through in the late afternoon, and we watched the skies anxiously as we waiting in the lounge for our flight. The skies darkened, and though we boarded on time, our captain said he was hoping to hurry and "beat the weather." Our time of departure arrived and passed, and though the plane seemed fully boarded, we still sat there. A pair of teenage girls had been the last to board, and they were seated across the aisle from me. Turns out one of them lost her purse, which contained her passport, but she didn't yet know it. Someone had found it and they were trying to get it delivered to the plane before we left. I felt so bad for the girl when the gate agent approached her and asked to see her passport (they were trying to confirm that her passport was indeed missing). When the girl realized her purse was missing, she went ashen. She literally jumped for joy and hugged the agent when we returned about 10 minutes later with her purse. Still, I kept looking to the skies hoping the delay wouldn't get worse. As it turns out, though we took off late, we arrived in Paris nearly 45 minutes early the next morning, as the tail winds were so strong.

Our Itinerary

Our Itinerary

Waiting for Our Flight in Dulles

Waiting for Our Flight in Dulles

Our Plane to Paris

Our Plane to Paris

Posted by NellieVA 11:12 Archived in USA Tagged brambleton ashburn dulles_airport Comments (0)

Bones and Bernini

Our first day in France

I have never been a fan of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, as it is such a mishmash of shapes and inter-terminal connections are simply horrendous. That said, arriving was not a problem, and immigration was surprisingly easy. Having been in London a few weeks earlier, where I was subjected to intense scrutiny, I had girded for some questioning. Aside from a "Bon Jour" from the agent, none of us had any delay in being granted entry. In fact, from that first person we encountered, we did not come across a single rude person, and as you know, the French somehow have gotten the reputation of being unfriendly to visitors. Our experiences during the course of this trip could not have been more opposite. To a "t," everyone local with whom we interacted was incredibly nice, kind, and accommodating. A pleasant surprise.

Our pre-arranged transfer was waiting for us in the Arrivals Hall. We stepped outside the terminal and I was surprised by the brisk air. It felt much more like fall than the height of summer. The skies threatened rain, but held off for most of the day.

Our tour was not to officially commence until the following evening (Sunday), but we came early, as we wanted time for formally see Paris. The tour we had booked was primarily focused on the Loire Valley and beaches of Normandy. Aside from a half-day overview tour of the city, all of the time was to be spent outside Paris, presumably on the assumption that people will have seen Paris at other times or on other trips. We elected to see as much as we could on our own. Anna had, needless to say, never been. Katherine visited for a long weekend on her own, back when we lived in Vienna. I had been to Paris (other than the airport) only once, and that was way back in 1980, as part of a Middle School trip.

We arrived at our hotel -- the Marriott Rive Gauche -- before 8:00am on Saturday morning. We had no expectations that our room would be ready, but they were incredibly kind and said they'd have our suite ready in an hour or so. In the meantime, they called upstairs and told the restaurant we'd be coming up for a complimentary breakfast. Nice, and unexpected.

Breakfast at Hotel Upon Arrival

Breakfast at Hotel Upon Arrival

We had booked pretty much back-to-back tours through several private companies to fill our time on Saturday and Sunday. We had read -- and it was later proven out -- that you need to plan ahead for the "big sights," particularly in summer. That meant organized tours with "skip-the-line" access, and that proved invaluable. Our first tour was of the Paris catacombs, which were located only a couple of blocks from our hotel. That was set for 10:00am, so we ate a very large breakfast, had lots of coffee (as none of us slept much, given that the flight was so relatively short), and got situated with our things. As we walked past the catacombs entrance (which had not even opened yet), the line was already wrapped around the block. They only send 10 people down at a time, and groups with skip-the-line timed tours, push those other people even further back. We explored the huge but very beautiful Montparnasse cemetery not far from the entrance, which seemed appropriate given where we were headed.

We rendezvoused with our small group (about 10 people) at 10:30, and headed immediately down 130 stairs to a level of 65 feet (more than six stories) below ground. Having the guide was great, as he gave us all of the history of the tunnels under the city -- why they were there to begin with, how they were constructed, etc. He also detailed how Paris had run out of places to bury their dead as early as the 17th Century, and that beginning in the late 1700's, Paris' cemeteries were systematically emptied and the bones of the deceased moved into the catacombs. It took 12 years to complete, but in the end, between 6 and 7 million remains were moved. As we reached the areas where the bones are stacked yards deep and high, we had to move all of our bags to the front of our bodies, not only to make sure we didn't steal any bones (which evidently, and unfortunately, happens "a lot"), but also so that we would not inadvertently knock any bones over with our bags. It was, I have to admit, very creepy, and I was none too disappointed to be spit out on the far side of the tunnels, a few blocks from where we began. As we learned at the catacombs, as well as at every single other sight we visited in the following week, every place seemed to exit through the gift shop. The catacomb gift shop was even too macabre for me.

Entrance

Entrance

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By the time we walked back to our hotel, our room was ready, and we had some time to rest and clean up before our next tour. Anna and K dozed, while I fought the very strong urge. We were next headed to a semi-private tour of the Louvre Museum. After reading, I had downloaded what turned out to be a simply outstanding phone app from the Paris transit authority. One had only to enter the address or name of where you wanted to go, and it would locate you on a map and give you a list of options on how to get there. It would list the time to walk, the time and cost of a taxi or Uber, and then list various public transit options, including prices and times. It was insanely accurate and so easy to use. It would even alert you what time the train or bus for which you were waiting would arrive, and also vibrate and/or ring a warning when it was close to your time to exit. We used the app to find a bus which took us directly north, across the river, and right to the doors of the Louvre. I failed to notice, however, that one had to press a button to alert the bus to stop, so we ended up shooting past our stop. Still, with some quick walking and managed to find our tour group in the square across from the Louvre courtyard (with the famous glass pyramid) with a few minutes to spare.

Street Market on Way Back to Hotel

Street Market on Way Back to Hotel

Our Room

Our Room

Knowing that we would only have a few hours to see the immense museum, we opted for a semi-private personal tour to maximize time and impact. A couple from Alabama were the only others in the group, which was led by an outstanding guide. She was originally from Russia, but had lived in Paris for more than 20 years. For more than three hours she hoofed us through the museum and showed up the highlights. Being a smaller group, we could maneuver into small spaces, and she excelled and getting us around the complex and took full advantage of all the time we had. She was simply great.

The Louvre

The Louvre

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Soldiers in the Courtyard

Soldiers in the Courtyard


Venus di Milo

Venus di Milo


Bernini

Bernini


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Restored Leonard da Vinci

Restored Leonard da Vinci

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Napoleon's Coronation

Napoleon's Coronation


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You Know Who With Mona Lisa

You Know Who With Mona Lisa

Winged Victory of Samothrace

Winged Victory of Samothrace

As could be expected, we exited through the gift shop, and had very limited time as the museum closed at 6:00pm. We were among the last people to leave, and our feet were already aching. We had booked dinner reservations months in advance, as again, we wanted to get the most out of our time. There was a small restaurant (Sourire Le Restaurant) located a few blocks from our hotel which -- at the time we booked it -- was rated the #1 restaurant in TripAdvisor, out of 15,237 in Paris. Yes, that is right -- more than 15,000 restaurants in Paris. We made the booking back in January or so, and had to reconfirm, but by the time of our trip, the place was "only" rated #31. It had the added bonus of not being rated as super expensive nor super fancy. Knowing that we would be tired from our flight and day of sightseeing, I had booked a table for 7:00pm, which was right when they opened for the night. It was after 6:00pm when we left the Louvre, so we elected to go straight to dinner, even though we certainly weren't dressed up or anything. My already favorite app in the world plotted an easy bus ride, which got us to within a block or two of the restaurant, which was tucked into a nondescript side street.

The place was tiny, with only a smattering of tables, and we were -- of course -- the only people there. We were welcomed like long lost friends and the service and attention we received were simply warming. In addition to the meals we ordered, a parade of petite amuse-bouche (tiny appetizers dreamed up by the chef) kept coming to the table. When it came to choosing wine, the waiter brought multiple bottles to the table and let us taste before picking. In addition, as the drinking age for wine and beer in France is 16, we allowed Anna to partake when she wanted, which she did on this night. She soon realized that she has an affinity for white wine.

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The meal was truly memorable and, understandably, took a long time. We watched as the skies finally fulfilled their promise and opened up, with a very extended downpour, complete with gusty winds. We lingered a little longer over dessert than we normally would have, waiting for the heaviest rain to pass. It was a shortish 10-minute walk back to the hotel. We got a little wet, but nothing too bad, and none of us certainly cared as we all collapsed into bed.

Posted by NellieVA 11:13 Archived in France Tagged paris louvre catacombs Comments (0)

Dying Cell Phones and the Multitudes

First full day in Paris, seeing Montmarte, museums, churches, towers, and more...

When we first booked this trip, we all sat down and talked about what we wanted to see during our limited time in Paris. Anna was intent on the Catacombs and Louvre, which if you're read this far, you know we visited the previous day. I was pretty flexible, whereas K was very specific in that she definitely wanted to visit the Montmarte area of Paris (artist central), as well as the Musée de l'Orangerie and Musée d'Orsay. We elected to split up for part of the day, so we could different things, so separate tours were booked.

We all slept reasonably well, but it still seemed like a short night. While eating breakfast we realized that K's phone had not charged overnight, which was potentially a problem, as we had planned to meet up after our separate tours in the morning. We squeezed enough juice into her phone to allow her to order an Uber to take her to the Montmarte area, where she met with a small group for a walking tour. She took the first Uber of this trip, but we ended up using it several times over the coming week, and it was so easy and cheap. Anyway, after K's walking tour of Montmarte, she was given skip-the-line tickets to both of the museums in which she was interested -- Musée de l'Orangerie (where Monet's famous, and enormous Water Lily paintings are housed) and the Musée d'Orsay (which has one of the best impressionist collections in the world).

As K was leaving for her tour, Anna and I raced to catch a bus to take us to Notre Dame. I'd booked a tour of the cathedral, followed by a visit to the Conciergerie (former palace, and where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned) and the Sainte Chapelle church. We rushed to make our appointed meeting time of 10:00am. The square in front of Notre Dame was filled with a smattering of people, most of them already lined up to file inside. I had expected to find a group of people waiting, but when I did find our guide, I realized that we were booked on a private tour -- it was only myself, Anna, and our guide. That was an unexpected treat. Our guide was a younger man who grew up in Brittany (western France), and who now teaches history at university. He gave us a very impressive history of the cathedral as we moved forward in the line, and then accompanied us around, inside the cathedral. Shortly before we arrived, a service had begun. The bells were ringing and the organ was playing, as a mass was underway. Our guide was almost giddy, as he said he'd never been fortunate enough to be there when the bells or organ were being used, let alone both.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame


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The Supposed True Crown of Thorns

The Supposed True Crown of Thorns

From the cathedral he walked us the short distance to the Conciergerie, where they had a nice recreation of the jail area, and we heard a lot about the revolution and terror that followed. The highlight, by far, of this tour, however, was the Saint Chapelle church. I knew nothing about it until he explained the history. It is now located on the grounds of what has become the headquarters for Paris' police department, so security getting in was very tight. You probably know that most of the recent terror attacks in France have been directed against police, so security was understandably tight. In fact, at most of the major sights we visited, there were groups of three to four heavily armed soldiers patrolling. Anyway, Saint Chapelle is built on two levels -- one for "common man" and one for the king. The lower (common) level was beautiful enough, but after you walked up a tight, winding staircase you emerge into one of the most stunning chapels I have ever visited. It comprises literal walls of almost floor to ceiling stained glass, going around on nearly all sides. It was completely unexpected and nearly took my breath away.

The Conciergerie

The Conciergerie


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Small Chapel Dedicated to Marie Antoinette

Small Chapel Dedicated to Marie Antoinette


Saint Chapelle

Saint Chapelle


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Our tour ended here, but our guide was kind enough to walk us back to Notre Dame and show us where we could board a boat for an hour-long round-trip tour on the Seine. Without a long to wait, we hopped on and off we went. Even though it was the middle August, Anna was quite cold on the boat. We sat upstairs, in the first row, and she was bundled up as if on a sleigh ride. We did a full circuit running a little east, beyond Notre Dame, and then back west through the heart of the city, all the way to the Eiffel Tower and back.

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Conciergerie From the Water

Conciergerie From the Water


Musee d'Orsay

Musee d'Orsay


Yes, Cold in August

Yes, Cold in August

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The Water Lilies

The Water Lilies

After this we sat down for a quick lunch in a quintessential Parisian cafe, followed by an unexpected treat of gelato and macaroons. We stumbled across a shop which took complimentary flavors of gelato and/or sorbet, and scooped them to look like petals, which they them built up on a cone to look like a flower, and in the middle they placed a fresh macaroon cookie. Pure heaven. I posted a picture on Facebook, and sure enough, Mary recognized it and said she had frequented the shop when she was in Paris a couple of years ago.

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We were pretty pooped by now, and using our trusted app, found a bus and headed back toward the hotel. We had tickets to go up to the summit of the Eiffel Tower at 5:00pm, and had planned to meet K back at the hotel before heading over there. While on the bus, K called. She was wrapping up at the museums and could not have been in a better mood. She thoroughly enjoyed both. Her phone, however, was nearly dead, so she could not speak. She was calling to say she was reasonably close to the Eiffel Tower and that we should just meet her there, rather than have her come all the way back to the hotel, only to head back out again. I said "sure," and hung up. Only later did I realize what a challenge it would actually be to simple "meet up" with someone at the Eiffel Tower amid thousands of people.

Anna and I had a short while to rest up and recuperate at the hotel before we decided to venture a ride on the Paris Metro, to head over to the Eiffel Tower. As we were boarding the elevator on the 18th floor of our hotel, Anna's phone rang. It was K. I heard her say, "Anna. I am fine, but my phone is about to die. I need you to listen very carefully...." We lost signal as the elevator traveled down. Once outside we both tried to call back, but it rolled directly to e-mail, so we knew her phone was dead. A few moments of panic before I received a text from K telling us that she was waiting at the south entrance, next to a handicap booth. At least that would get us in her vicinity. The Metro was fine and very quick. They don't hang around on the platforms, that is for sure. We got off at a stop near the tower, and the crowds were all of sudden very evident. As we walked closer to the tower, the groups grew thicker and deeper. The area around the base of the tower has been closed off, almost like a military site, with policy and military outposts in all directions. The numbers of people were really throwing me, as we hadn't seen them this heavy at any other place we'd yet visited. We managed to find a sign for the south entrance, and sure enough, as we pushed through crowds of people queuing up to go through security, we found Katherine sitting on a concrete security pillar. She was a sight for sore eyes.

Catching to Metro To Meet Katherine

Catching to Metro To Meet Katherine


Crowds and Guards Where We Met K

Crowds and Guards Where We Met K


Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower


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The lines to get through the first of two security checks were immense. We walked a block or two away from the tower to meet out tour, which included skip-the-line access -- thank goodness. Our group of about 20 had to walk back and get into a special -- and mercifully shorter -- security line just to access the outer perimeter. From there, we went through a second screening, as the base of one of the legs, where we again queued up, this time for the elevator. Our tickets included access to the summit, but that meant we had to take one elevator to the second level, and then get in line for a separate elevator that would have taken us to the summit. At this point it was already after 5:30pm, and we were to meet up with our tour group at 6:00pm for a welcome orientation and drink back at our hotel. The line for the summit was at least a hundred people deep, so we had to satisfy ourselves with the very impressive views from this level, and then make our way back down and out, past all of the security barriers. I tried using Uber for a car, but they weren't allowed to approach the immediate area, so we just grabbed a sitting cab. I gave the driver our hotel address and his GPS said we'd arrive at 5:55pm. We did arrive at that time, but at the wrong place. Our hotel was on the Boulevard St. Jacques, and he had brought us to Rue St. Jacques. By the time he realized the mistake, it was another 10-15 minutes before we reached our hotel.

We were late for the meeting, but I had called the tour director and told him. We certainly did not want to start the trip by already being "those people" who are late. We only missed a few of the introductions, so it was not too bad. We were all thankful for the welcome drink as we met for the remainder of the hour, going over the itinerary, rules of the road, etc. The group was 20 people, including the three of us. That was smaller than Slovenia/Croatia but larger than Ecuador. I had fully expected a very large group and was pleasantly surprised. There were no other children on the tour, so Anna was by far the youngest. The closest in age to her was probably a mother-daughter traveling together, with the daughter being in her late 30's. After her came K and I, and then the majority were all retired couples, all of whom had traveled extensively. It ended up being a very nice group, so we lucked out.

After our meeting, we wanted a relatively quick dinner, so we walked to a bistro a couple of blocks away. Throughout the day, we all had been told that Paris "was empty," and that all the Parisians had all left on holiday, leaving the city to the tourists. While we saw tourists most places, it was eerily quiet in other areas, and the sheer number of restaurants and shops that were closed for "summer holiday" was kind of startling. This limited the places where we could eat this night, but did luck out where we ended up. The meal was good and we were thankful to not have to walk far to get back to our long-awaited beds.

My Charcuterie Dinner

My Charcuterie Dinner

Posted by NellieVA 11:13 Archived in France Tagged eiffel_tower notre_dame montmarte saint_chapelle Comments (0)

Steeples to Vineyards

Leaving Paris for the Loire Valley

Our two very-full days of sightseeing had us starting the trip already tired, and our feet were already a little sore, so we forced ourselves awake on Monday morning, especially as our suitcases had to be outside our door by 6:45am. We had breakfast with a couple from our tour from southern Ohio. They were in their early 70's and had traveled extensively. In fact, at the conclusion of our tour, they were immediately flying to Warsaw to begin a second Gate1 Tour of Poland.

Our smallish group had a full-size tour bus, which meant that there was a lot of room for people to spread out. Our tour director -- Craig -- had already explained that he would be rotating our seats every day, so people were be able to experience different views, as well as get to spend time with "new neighbors." Craig was in his late 30's, early 40's, was born and raised predominantly in the UK to a British father and French mother. He moved to France as a young teenager, where he also attended university. In addition to French and English, he spoke fluent Italian, and we later learned his home is now in northern Italy. He had more than 15 years experience as a tour director and he was, in our opinion, an excellent lead guide.

Our first stop was the town of Chartres, which is home to what is considered the greatest Gothic cathedral in France. It was originally built in 1020 and contains the supposed sacred veil of Mary. The stained glass windows were also incredible, and survived World War II. We learned the story that during the Allied invasion of France, the Americans had been ordered to bomb the cathedral as they sought to retake the town, convinced that German snipers were concealed in its towers. An American solider (and art student) begged for permission to sneak into town and check out the church, so as to prevent it from being bombed. He was given an hour to do so. Upon entering the church he saw that it was indeed empty, so he climbed the 300-some steps to the main tower and rang the bells to signal the Americans. That solider, unfortunately, was killed a few days later, and there was a mix-up with his dog tags. For decades the town had been revering the wrong American for saving the cathedral. Only about 10 years ago did they correctly identify the solider, and they informed his family and brought them over for a big celebration.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

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Memorial to Leader of French Resistance, Killed in Chartres

Macaroons and More

Macaroons and More

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While in Chartres we had time to walk around and do some shopping. It was here that Anna got her taste for French fashion, and it became a ritual for her to try and find "cute and interesting boutiques" in each town we visited. She called it "back-to-school shopping," but we all knew better.

From Chartres we continued into the actual Loire River Valley, which is commonly known as France's "Chateau Country." The valley is studded with large palaces and manor houses which were built when French nobility moved to the areas to follow the king. The main reason nobility moved there was because Francois I built the immense Chateau de Chambord in the 16th Century, and the court needed to be nearby. The place was HUGE, as were the crowds. Craig had already warned us that the following day -- Tuesday -- was a French bank holiday (the ascension of Mary to heaven), and he expected very large groups of French to be there, having taken advantage of the long weekend. He was right, and he commented that he had never seen the car parking lot as full as it was as we approached. The queue to secure tickets was immense, but he was able to navigate us around all of the locals and directly onto the grounds, and eventually around to the palace itself. He was able to expedite those of us wishing to go inside, which also helped. Inside the formal castle grounds, we had a nice lunch before exploring the building. Nothing truly original remains inside the palace, but the views were great.

Chateau de Chambord

Chateau de Chambord

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Our destination for the next two nights was the city of Tours, but before there we drove along the Loire and passed numerous chateaus. We also stopped at a local vineyard, where we received a short trolley ride through the orchards, and then continued to the winemaking cellar, where the owner explained the process. He then set up a large area with food and bottles of all his wine, which we were then invited to taste. The wine was surprisingly disappointing, especially considering that we tried at least 10 varieties. Still, being in the wine cellar -- carved into a hill of solid limestone -- was very neat.

Town of Amboise, Which We'd Visit the Next Day

Town of Amboise, Which We'd Visit the Next Day

large_DSC03839.jpgAnna Snoozing

Anna Snoozing

Vineyard We Visited

Vineyard We Visited

large_DSC03846.jpgWine Making Room

Wine Making Room

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Wine Tasting

Tours was a larger city than I'd expected, but the downtown area was surprisingly charming and quaint. The main fountain square, where our hotel was located, but filled in palm trees, which formed the axis of a very large pedestrian zone. It reminded me greatly of Barcelona and the Los Ramblas promenade. This was, however, a few days before the van attack there.

I loved our hotel in Tours, and it had the best hotel shower I have ever had. I have to make a mental note to review them on TripAdvisor. Dinner this evening was a group affair. Gate1 had arranged it that we would have an included dinner basically every other day, which was nice. Our restaurant was the Leonardo Da Vinci, which was inside a 13th century timber home. Until this trip, I had no idea that Leonard da Vinci ever worked in France, let alone that he died and is buried there. We would see his home and burial site the next day.

Dinner was a long, drawn-out French affair, but as soon as the Baked Alaska was served, we and a few other people, cut out and made the pleasant walk back to our hotel.

Center of Tours

Center of Tours

large_90_DSC03872.jpgView From Our Table at Dinner

View From Our Table at Dinner

Walking Back to Hotel

Walking Back to Hotel

Our Hotel in Tours

Our Hotel in Tours

Posted by NellieVA 11:13 Archived in France Tagged tours chambord chartres loire_valley Comments (0)

Castles and Italian Renaissance Men

Full day in the Loire Valley, visiting Chateau de Chenonceau and Amboise

For the first time during our trip, we awoke to dark and gloomy skies. The forecasts were changing very quickly, but we were prepared with rain gear, which we loaded up with us on the bus.

Our first visit was the Chateau de Chenonceau, which dates back to the early 1400's. It is commonly referred to as the most well-known castle in the Loire Valley. The chateau was seized by King Francis I in the early 1500's for unpaid taxes (some things never change), and it was later gifted by King Henry II to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, whose name is now synonymous with the place. While she was living there, she built a gallery onto the chateau which spans the River Cher, and which gives the place such a unique feature. Original plans were to build even further, on the far side of the river, but that never came to be, as when Henry II died, his queen (Catherine de' Medici) forced Diane to "exchange" the chateau for a lesser one, even though it technically belonged to Diane. The places boasts two large and beautiful gardens, one built by Diane and one built (larger) by Catherine, in a sign of their never-ended competition. I found it interesting, too, that the Cher River marked the "border" between occupied and "free" (Vichy) France during World War II, and the Germans occupied the castle to stem the flow of people trying to flee from one zone to the next.

The building was spectacular, with the rooms all furnished with period pieces and some original art work. Most impressive to me, however, were the vegetable gardens, which were huge and seemed to have samples of almost every variety of fruit and vegetable. While we were walking here, however, the skies opened up for a short while, so we scrambled for some cover. The rain subsided long enough for us to walk into the tiny neighboring town of Chenonceaux (about 400 residents), where we visited a true local bakery and I got to test out my extremely rusty French.

Entrance to Chateau de Chenonceau

Entrance to Chateau de Chenonceau

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Local Potter's Shop in the Village of Chenonceaux

Chenonceaux

Chenonceaux

From here we made the short drive to the town of Amboise, where we were to visit the Chateau d'Amboise. It was a very nice town with a well preserved medieval district sitting below the castle, which sits on a promontory above the city. While we had a great lunch in a bistro on the main square the sun came out, which held while we started the trek up the steep hill to meet our local guide inside the castle grounds. I had not been aware the Leonard da Vinci had lived in France, let alone that he died and is buried there. Francis I (the same one who seized Chateau de Chenonceau) captured Milan in 1515 and, upon seeing how advanced Italy was in the area of engineering and architecture, persuaded Leonardo da Vinci to follow him back to Amboise, where he was set up in a manor house (still standing) at the base of the Chateau d'Amboise. Leonard died three years after arriving in France and was buried on the castle grounds, within a now-gone cathedral. His remains (or what they believe are his remains -- there is still controversy over this) were moved to a small chapel opposite the castle, which was our first stop on the tour.

Town of Amboise

Town of Amboise

Lunch in Amboise

Lunch in Amboise

large_DSC03986.jpglarge_DSC03987.jpglarge_90_DSC03988.jpgEntrance to Castle

Entrance to Castle

View from Castle Grounds to Town Below

View from Castle Grounds to Town Below

Chateau d'Amboise

Chateau d'Amboise

large_DSC04001.jpgChapel Where Leonard da Vinci is Buried

Chapel Where Leonard da Vinci is Buried

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This chateau also passed to the French monarchy in the 1400's, but is only a shadow now of what it used to be. Large sections are missing, but what remains was certainly impressive to me. We commented almost immediately upon entering how low the doorways were, and our guide advised us that King Charles VIII died in 1498 after hitting his head on one of the lintels. Charles VIII had married Anne of Brittany, and thus brought Brittany into the greater French monarchy. They had six children, but all of them predeceased Charles (even with his early and untimely head-knocking death). This was also the castle where Henry II and his wife Catherine d'Medici raised their children, while his mistress Diane was living down the road in Chenonceau. Mary Stuart of Scottish fame was also raised here, as she had been betrothed to one of Henry's children as a child, who himself became king at age 15 when Henry died, only to die himself 18 months later and send Mary back to Scotland. Interestingly enough, the castle has never formally passed to French Government, and to this day flies the banner of Charles and Anne, featuring the Fleur de Lis and Ermine tail of Normandy, rather than the French flag.

large_DSC04012.jpgOur Local Guide in the Castle

Our Local Guide in the Castle

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Loire River

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Near the end of our tour, as we learned that the French had imprisoned the former Algerian emir in the castle during their conquest of that country, the skies opened up and rain poured down. It was interesting to look outside and see the huge gargoyle-headed gutters spewing out rivers of water. By the time we slowly descended to ground level, down a winding walkway inside one of the towers, rain had stopped and sun was peaking out. We then visited a festival of local wineries being held in the large limestone tunnel beneath the castle, which had been built to allow Leonard da Vinci direct access from his home to the king. We purchased a wine glass at the entrance, and then had unlimited testing of wines from about 15 local vineyards. We purchased a couple of bottles, and probably would have bought more, but we had not traveled with our trusty wine suitcase from South Africa.

Wine Festival Below the Castle

Wine Festival Below the Castle

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We had some time for obligatory shopping in Amboise before we headed back to Tours. Anna and K elected to rest while I wanted to do a little exploring. In particular, we had had an outstanding French wine at a restaurant in Purcellville last year, and we learned that the vineyard was located just outside of Tours. We would have hopped into a cab or Uber to visit, but they were closed for the bank holiday. Their website, however, had a relatively small list of shops which sell their wine in France, one of which was in Tours, not far from our hotel. I started my exploration with the goal of visiting the shop but, alas, it too was closed for the holiday. In fact, almost everything was closed. I did, however, see one department store -- a large chain called Galleries Lafayette -- which was open, so I made a mental note for us to return with Anna before supper.

My walk brought me to the surprisingly large and beautiful Tours Cathedral, which kind of snuck up on me. There has evidently been a church on the site since the 4th Century, with the current building dating to the 1100's. It was very beautiful, and it was interesting to see the tombs of two of the six children of Charles and Anne.

Tours Cathedral

Tours Cathedral

large_90_20170815_172411.jpglarge_90_20170815_172507.jpgTomb for Two Children of Charles and Anne

Tomb for Two Children of Charles and Anne

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When I returned to the hotel, Anna was asleep and K pointed to an ice bucket containing a bottle of champagne, along with some snacks and a note from our tour director, Craig, congratulating us on our 20th anniversary. We're still not quite sure how they knew K and I had celebrated our 20th earlier this year, but we did not mind. In fact, we'd always said to each other that this trip was to mark that occasion, so it was indeed a very nice gesture and unexpected surprise.

large_DSC04065.jpgOur Hotel Lobby

Our Hotel Lobby

We enjoyed some champagne before waking Anna up. The prospect of shopping at Gallerie Lafayette is what finally motivated her to get up. We got to the store at 6:45, but the door (which clearly stated they were open until 7:00pm on the holiday) was already barred. In fact, all of the doors were locked, except for one set on the far side. We attempted to enter, only to be turned away by a guard. I pointed out, in French no less, that there were still 15 minutes until closing time, but he politely smiled and pointed us back out the door. I guess they all wanted to be sure to get home by 7:00pm.

We explored a different area of the old town before we ended up on the main square of the old city, close to where we'd eaten the night earlier. We had a very pleasant meal at an outdoor restaurant in the square, before we topped it off with a well-earned gelato, which we ate on the walk back to the hotel.

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Posted by NellieVA 11:13 Archived in France Tagged château_de_chenonceau chateau_d'_amboise tour_cathedral Comments (0)

Amazed It Didn't Sink Into the Sea

Day of travel, broken up by an extended visit to Mont St. Michel -- along with the rest of France.

We all agreed that the previous night had been our best night's sleep since arriving in France. I loved the hotel in which we'd stayed -- the bed was exceedingly comfortable, and Anna had her own private bedroom off of ours -- and the shower was one of the best hotel showers I have ever had, anywhere. I think the good sleep contributed to everyone's good mood as we checked out and hit the bus for what would be our longest "bus day." We were leaving the Loire Valley and heading northwest toward Normandy. Our only formal stop for the day was at Mont Saint Michel, the "island outpost" on the French coast, which is built-up like a wedding cake with an abbey complex on top. The island sits just over half a mile from the coastline, and is reachable via a restricted-access causeway over the coastal flats. Before the causeway was built, the island was only reachable during low tide. K and I have always wanted to visit here, so we were glad for the addition to our itinerary.

The relatively long bus ride was actually well timed, as people were tired and I believe everyone -- myself included -- napped at some time during the day. The bus had Wi-Fi, too, which meant most people could catch up on things with their phones and tablets, if they didn't have cellular coverage. It also gave our guide, Craig, a lot of time to give us lectures on modern-day France, as well as lay the groundwork for our upcoming visit to the beaches of Normandy. He spent a lot of time on French history from the revolution through modern day. We found discussion of the modern-day socialist state and social system very interesting.

Our Bus, at a Pit Stop

Our Bus, at a Pit Stop

As we got closer to the coast and Mont Saint Michel, Craig started to talk to us about the logistics of our visit. It is an incredibly popular tourist location, and he expected the crowds to be out in force. He explained that most visitors and buses have to park a ways beyond the entrance to the 1/2 mile long causeway, and then queue up to ride shuttle buses to take them to the island. Between the gate to the causeway and the beginning of the formal bridge, however, there are two or three hotels. He had made arrangements for our bus to be able to drive past the barrier and bring us to one of the hotels, where we'd have lunch. After that, he would have to split us up and put us onto the passing shuttle buses in two or threes, based on how much room there was.

We caught our first glimpse of Mont Saint Michel from quite a distance, with it appearing like a cupcake way out on the horizon. We were about 20 minutes out when he told us he was calling to confirm our arrival and that we'd be able to get past the gate. Right at that moment, traffic stopped. There is one road into the area (one lane in each direction), and we'd come to a crawling halt. It took us more than an hour to travel that last couple of miles. The problem was that the crowds were so large, the parking lots were overflowing, and the backup was caused by them trying to redirect vehicles into overflow grass lots. Craig said he had never seen the parking lots in such a state. Not a good sign. Though we did not have to deal with the parking lot, we had to drive past it, which meant we had to wait along with everyone else. We had had a pre-booked time for lunch, as well as for a tour of the abbey atop Mont Saint Michel, but we'd long since blown that schedule. Craig was able to call and make the changes, and in the end, everything worked out.

Mont Saint Michel, from a Distance

Mont Saint Michel, from a Distance

Lunch was a rushed affair, as we all wanted to get across the causeway and see what all the fuss was about. Anna and I were the first two of our group put onto a passing shuttle. I felt like we were in Japan, as they literally pushed us all the way in, against a wall of people, before they forced the doors closed behind us. Surprisingly, it seemed as though everyone on the bus was French. Aside from a couple of groups of Japanese tourists, the vast, vast majority of visitors were French.

Lunch Before our Visit

Lunch Before our Visit

We all slowly reassembled on the far side, as our group was split among four or five buses. The crowds were absolutely staggering. We made all kinds of comparisons to Disney World, as it had that feel. In fact, once inside the city, it felt like what I imagine The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios to be like. It looked very "movie set-ish." The abbey atop the whole city was an optional excursion, and only five of us elected to go. It was a great deal of walking, and with the crowds, I can't blame the majority of our group who elected not to go. Just getting into the city was a feat, as there were two very narrow gates, through which the throngs of people arriving and departing all had to press themselves. Craig deftly led us past the gates, and then walked us up on to the city walls, which allowed us to avoid much of the crowd, and then still slowly climb all the way to the top. He made mention of 300 or so steps, but I certainly did not try to count.

large_90_20170816_141427.jpglarge_DSC04075.jpgYou Can See the Crazy Crowds Streaming In

You Can See the Crazy Crowds Streaming In

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View Over Crowds from Ramparts

View Over Crowds from Ramparts

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The abbey visit was interesting, though it was primarily for the views. In addition, the crowds were far more manageable up there. We slowly winded our way back down, through the myriad of very narrow alleyways, all of which eventually spill back to the two main entrance gates. We did not even attempt to visit any shops, especially as we'd been forewarned that they were notorious tourist traps. We marveled, though, at the numbers of people attempting to navigate the streets and steps with huge baby strollers. I lost count of how many people we passed literally carrying strollers upstairs, usually in which they resident child was screaming. Nothing seemed less appealing to me at the time than bringing a baby to Mont Saint Michel.

The Abbey Atop Mont Saint Michel

The Abbey Atop Mont Saint Michel

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The Crowds as We Pushed Out

The Crowds as We Pushed Out

We had a departure time, and the lines of people waiting for shuttle buses to take them back across the causeway stretched almost to the horizon. Time was tight, but we patiently waited, even while many, many people chose to cut into the line. We made it across with just enough time to visit one nice gift store, before hopping back onto the bus for our last hour-or-so ride to the town of Bayeaux, where we were to spend the next two nights.

Bayeaux was another quaint, smallish town, and our hotel was a relatively short walk from the medieval center and cathedral. Bayeux is, of course, also the home to the world-famous tapestry of the same name, which we were to see in the morning.

After dinner, Anna chose to shower while K and I took a very pleasant walk downtown. The town's gorgeous 11th Century Gothic cathedral was open, even tough it was well past 8:00pm, and it was lit up beautifully, both inside and out. It was in this church that William, Duke of Normandy and King of England, forced Harold Godwinson to take the oath, the breaking of which led to the Norman conquest of England. We had hoped to see a sound-and-light show which is presented by displaying lights and lasers onto a beyond-gigantic tree in the cathedral's courtyard. Once down there, though, we realized it was given every other night, and were on an off night. Of well, no harm no foul. We met up with some folks from our tour, and made the leisurely walk back to the hotel.

Bayeux

Bayeux

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Bayeux Cathedral

Bayeux Cathedral

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Posted by NellieVA 11:14 Archived in France Tagged bayeux mont_saint_michel bayeux_cathedral Comments (0)

Bookends to History

Started the day with the Bayeux Tapestry, and ended with humbling visits to the beaches and cemeteries of Normandy.

As I wrote earlier, K had been eyeing the itinerary for this trip for a long time. Three places that had to be part of any itinerary were Mont St. Michel, Giverny (the home and studio of Claude Monet), and the Bayeax Tapestry. Of all those sights, the Bayeux Tapestry was the one she was most excited for, and about which we heard the most. When we had been down at the Bayeux Cathedral the night before, and I pointed out that the museum housing the tapestry (which had originally hung in the cathedral) was only a block away, she was visibly excited.

So, our first stop this morning -- to see THE tapestry -- was certainly a high point. I, of course, had heard of the tapestry, but I wrongly thought it was a wall-sized hanging depicting the Battle of Hastings. What it in fact is, is an embroidered mural, some 230-foot long and 20-inches high, tracing the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex (later King of England) and culminating in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It was made some time during the 1070's, ironically in England, and it is in essence a series of fifty some scenes telling the story of the Normans ultimately conquering England. It was created as a propaganda tool, too. We had a booked group entrance, but seeing as there was no line of which to speak, it didn't really matter. The museum was purpose-built around the mural, and they've done an excellent job. They provide visitors with an audio headset programmed to whatever language they want, and it is linked to sensors in the u-shaped, darkened corridor in which the tapestry is displayed. As you walk into the hallway, your headset it triggered to start, and the narration explains each scene as you walk the length of the tapestry. The narration tell you what you're seeing, and when to advance. You cannot stop, rewind, or fast-forward, so it means that people are constantly moving forward, which means everyone gets a clear view and there are no backlogs. I thought the set-up was outstanding, and I have to admit, seeing the tapestry was quite something. Especially when I realized how old it is, the scenes are even more dramatic.

Bayeux

Bayeux

Museum Housing the Tapestry

Museum Housing the Tapestry

Mock-up of the Tapestry (no pictures of the real thing)

Mock-up of the Tapestry (no pictures of the real thing)

Detail of the Tapestry

Detail of the Tapestry

Bayeux

Bayeux

It was a gloomy morning, and the looming rain finally began falling during our ride from Bayeux toward the beaches of Normandy. Our next stop was the small town of Sainte Mere Eglise, which played a significant role in the Allied invasion of France on D Day. It lies on the main road leading from Omaha and Utah beaches, where the bulk of U.S. soldiers landed, meaning that it was on the path the Germans would take to send any reinforcements once the invasion was underway. Our visits this day were timed to coincide with the sequence of events on D Day, and as the paratroopers dropping in during the overnight hours of 6 June 1944 were the first elements of the invasion, this is where we started. The 82nd Airborne dropped thousands of paratroopers in the area, and Sainte Mere Eglise was one of the first French towns liberated by the Allies. If you've seen the movie "The Longest Day," you may remember Red Buttons' character, who was a paratrooper whose parachute caught on the church steeple while landing. He hung there for two hours, pretending to be dead, before being captured, but he ultimately escaped. They have hung a life-life mannequin and parachute from the church steeple in his memory. That soldier's name was John Steele, which was my grandfather's name. It is also my middle name. I have seen nothing in my ancestry to indicate that we are blood relatives, but seeing many plaques and statues in the city bearing his name was humbling nonetheless.

Church in Sainte Mere Eglise

Church in Sainte Mere Eglise

Mannequin Representing John Steele

Mannequin Representing John Steele

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Village Market (yes, we had a sausage)

Village Market (yes, we had a sausage)

It was raining intermittently as we walked around the central square, in which the weekly market was underway, which was a nice coincidence. The highlight of this visit, however, was the outstanding U.S. Airborne Museum, which we had ample time to visit. They have done an outstanding job with the museum, which comprises three separate buildings, built over time, talking about how the troops were parachuted in, what they faced on the ground, etc. We watched a couple of very inspiring movies, including a wonderful one on President Reagan's visit and speech at Normandy, marking the 40th anniversary. We all thoroughly enjoyed the museum, which was unexpected -- at least for me.

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Moving forward in our chronological timeline, we were now heading to Pointe du Hoc, which is a promontory cliff sitting pretty much right between Omaha and Utah beaches. The Germans had significant armory on the point, from where they could have rained down fire on both beaches during the landings. A Ranger Assault Group was therefore sent to scale the 100-foot sheer cliffs and take out the German guns before the landing boats arrived. The Germans were initially taken by surprise, as they had assumed the cliffs were unscalable, and I can understand their believing that after seeing the cliffs for myself. The promontory is scattered with remaining German casements and gun pits, as well as countless huge shell craters left by American overhead bombing. The sun had come out by the time we arrived, and the visit was both humbling and exciting. The site is run by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which also manages all of the overseas U.S. military cemeteries. There was a small but smart museum on site, which I visited. It required, however, going through airport-level security to enter. Bags were checked and x-rayed, and everyone was sent through a metal detector and individually wanded.

Anna in one of the German Bunkers

Anna in one of the German Bunkers

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A (?Falcon) Coasting off the Cliffs

A (?Falcon) Coasting off the Cliffs

Bomb Crater

Bomb Crater


Inside the Pointe du Hoc Museum

Inside the Pointe du Hoc Museum

Most if not all of the clouds were gone by the time we continued on, with a quick stop on Omaha Beach. There were flags of all the allied nations, as well as a memorial, but the beach was also full of holiday makers, so it had a surreal vibe to it.

Omaha Beach Memorial

Omaha Beach Memorial


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We drove further, back up the cliffs, to reach the American Military Cemetery at Normandy, which sits on more than 170 acres overlooking the sea, given to the U.S. to bury U.S. soldiers killed in the liberation of France. There are more than 9,000 servicemen and women buried there. We learned that the families of the service members were given a choice at the time, as to whether they wished to be repatriated and buried stateside, or laid to rest in France. They said about 1/3 elected to have their family member stay in Normandy. The commission which runs the cemetery is doing an incredible job. The grounds and memorials were absolutely immaculate. There were many visitors, and I was very surprised -- pleasantly so -- that the majority seemed to be French. Craig gave each of us flowers to lay as we saw fit, and the walk about the grounds was very somber, even though the scenery was inappropriately beautiful. The museum here, too, was outstanding, though we had to endure the same very intensive security to get inside. In hindsight, I can understand the security here and at Pointe du Hoc, both of which qualify as U.S soil, so it makes them "soft" targets for European-based terrorists.

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I placed my flower on a Virginian's Grave

I placed my flower on a Virginian's Grave


Above Omaha Beach

Above Omaha Beach


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Inside the Museum

Inside the Museum

The ride back to Bayeux was somber, and Craig rightfully so chose to let us all reflect on the day. In fact, it seemed like two different days, as it has started out so gloom and dark, and now it was warm, bright and beautiful. The great weather carried on into the night. The three of us walked down into town, and visited several boutiques along the way, and Anna got some clothes. We ate dinner at a small bistro our tour director had recommended, catty corner to the cathedral. Thought it was early for dinner on French standards, we almost did not get in, as we had not reserved a table. Somehow all three of us all ended up ordered fish and chips, but it was delicious (if not stereotypically French) nonetheless.

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After the walk back, K and I had some dessert in the hotel while Anna retreated to a hot shower. We talked about walking back down to view the sound-and-light show, which we'd attempted to see the previous night, but it wasn't scheduled to begin until 10:30pm, and we all agreed that none of us would still be awake by then. We missed it, but heard glowing (no pun intended) reports in the morning from several other tour members who did attend.

Posted by NellieVA 11:14 Archived in France Tagged normandy bayeaux bayeux_tapestry pointe_du_hoc normandy_american_cemetery sainte_mere_eglise Comments (0)

Lilies, Flowers, and Roosters

Departed Normandy and headed back toward Paris, with an extended visit to Monet's residence at Giverny.

As we were checking out of our hotel this morning, bags had to be out early, though this morning wasn't too bad. As I recall, bags were out by 7:15am, which seemed quite humane to me. It was a cloudy, cool, and damp morning, reminding me very much of a morning in Maine, and certainly not the 18th of August. We were on our way back to Paris for the last two nights of our visit, and our stop for the day was the home of Claude Monet at Giverny. Katherine had visited Giverny back in 2003 and absolutely loved it. She often refers to it as one of her fondest travel memories, and throughout the trip she had told Anna and I how excited she was for us to see it. The previous Sunday, K had visited the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris, which is perhaps most famous for housing a series of eight murals by Money entitled "Water Lilies." At his estate in Giverny, Monet had constructed an elaborate series of ponds, in which the aforementioned water lilies flourish. In addition, he has -- and they still maintain -- an incredible series of flower gardens.

Craig provided us with a lot of history on the Impressionist movement as we drove through the rolling Norman hills. There was quite a bit I did not know, and he did an excellent job of building anticipation for what we'd see in Giverny. To be honest, between Craig's build-up and K's memories, I fully expected to be let down, as expectations had been set so high. Rain was falling at various rates as we drove, including several incredibly heavy downpours as we snaked along the Seine river. As we literally pulled into the parking lot, the rain stopped, and aside from a few errant drops, we were done with rain for the remainder of our trip. I guess that was a sign, but I missed it at the time.

K had commented how busy it was when she visited back in the 90's, but we were all pleasantly surprised to find no real crowds of which to speak. We had an appointed tour time, which we made with no problem. We had ample time on our own to explore the water lily ponds, the gardens, and his home (which has been excellently maintained, and furnished with a mixture of period and authentic pieces). They still keep coops of chickens and colorful roosters, which were the subjects of many Monet paintings. Of course, we exited through the gift shop, which was housed in an out building which had served as Monet's studio when he painted the Water Lilies.

Side Entrance to Monet's Gardens

Side Entrance to Monet's Gardens


Water Lily Pond

Water Lily Pond


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Monet's House

Monet's House


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View of Gardens from Bedroom

View of Gardens from Bedroom


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The town of Giverny itself is tiny, but it was a neat place to spend a couple of hours. We had a nice sit-down lunch, after which K visited the Museum of Impressionism Giverny, which houses a huge variety of Impressionist pieces and which was established in 1992 by Daniel J. Terra, who was a wealthy American philanthropist, who also served as a "Cultural Ambassador" under President Reagan. He established the museum in Giverny, and a sister museum in Chicago. While K soaked all of that up, Anna and I explored, which included a walk down to the town's tiny (and very old) church, in the cemetery of which Monet and his family are buried.

Giverny

Giverny


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Monet's Family Plot

Monet's Family Plot

Once back on the bus, we made the less-than-an-hour drive south to Paris. We'd been warned that being a Friday afternoon, traffic on Paris' equivalent of the Beltway would be tremendous, but we encountered no back-ups. Our guide attributed it to the fact that "no Parisians are left in Paris." We checked back into the Marriott, where we'd been the previous weekend. I wrote earlier how I had tried to purchase some particular wine at a shop in Tours, but that the store had been closed due to the holiday. I found three places in Paris that evidently carried the wine, so we paired up a "pilgrimage" to one of those with a visit to a shopping mall, where Anna wanted to "complete" her delve into French fashion. Once again relying on our travel app, we took the Metro to a huge Montparnasse train station, over which was built a beautiful shopping mall. Anna and K did some shopping, and surprisingly were most successful at a German department store. From here we walked a few blocks to a huge "Epicurean Center." I would equate it to a Whole Foods on steroids, with all kinds of specialty food and drink. Our time was very tight, as we were to meet back at the hotel for our formal farewell dinner, which was coming one day early. We raced down to the wine cellar and I found an agent to help track down any/all wine from this particular vineyard. She recognized the name instantly, and took me to pick out the only bottle they had. We learned during our vineyard tour that France has more than 27,000 wineries, and more than 100,000 vine growers. With each vineyard averaging between 5 and 7 annual vintages, that means that -- on average -- more than 125,000 unique wines are introduced every year in France. I now understood why it was so hard to find some vintages, and I was even more impressed that the wine seller knew the vineyard as soon as I asked. Anyway, making the purchase we sprinted back outside and ordered an Uber to get back to the hotel. A car arrived in literally less than a minute, and off we went, and even ended up with sufficient time to clean-up and change for dinner.

Though our tour extended another day, we were to have our farewell dinner this night. We all loaded onto the bus and we were taken to a very nice cellar restaurant neighboring the Panthéon. The Panthéon is a former church converted into a mausoleum, in which famous French dignitaries are buried, including Marie Curie, Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, and Louis Braille. We were all surprised at the quality of the food and wine at this dinner, and the menu contained all the "stereotypical" French dishes, including escargot, frog legs, etc. Accompanying dinner was a gentleman playing guitar and singing a mixture of French ballads and well known folk tunes. It was a very pleasant dinner, and even included them coaxing Anna up to dance the Macarena for everyone.

The Sorbonne University

The Sorbonne University


Panetheon, Near the Restaurant

Panetheon, Near the Restaurant


Dinner

Dinner


Eiffel Tower at Sunset

Eiffel Tower at Sunset

Posted by NellieVA 11:14 Archived in France Tagged paris pantheon giverny Comments (0)

Juliette, My Juliette

Our last full day in France, full of sights of Paris in the day and night, and a memorable visit to Versailles

As I mentioned way back, our tour only included a partial city tour as part of its itinerary. Rightfully so, as many people had already visited Paris at some point. For our last full day in France, we were to begin with a local guide providing us with a bus tour of the "major tourist sights." A few people from our group elected to skip the morning tour, as they wanted to sleep in. One group of three, in particular, was just exhausted. This couple, and the man's recently widowed sister, had been on a previous tour to Poland, and then spent a week in Austria on their own before coming to Paris. To top it off, they were going to Brussels for a few days after our tour, so I certainly couldn't fault them for wanting to sleep in.

We had a local guide join us for the morning driving tour. The weather was perfect and though we had seen many of the sights, it was nice to see them in a route, as well as to hear the history weaved in throughout the narrative. We made the obligatory stops, where we could, for pictures. We were advised that the new mayor of Paris is not a fan of tour buses -- she finds them "gaudy" -- so she has severely limited the places where they can stop. Still, we made just enough stops to be interesting. A few folks got off the bus at some points, to continue on their own for the rest of the day. The afternoon's tour to Versailles was optional, and many folks chose not to go. After a brief stop at our hotel, the seven of us (including we three) loaded back onto the bus for the drive out to Versailles.

Pantheon

Pantheon


Logo for 2024 Olympic Games, Just Given to Paris

Logo for 2024 Olympic Games, Just Given to Paris


Notre Dame

Notre Dame


Arc du Triomphe

Arc du Triomphe


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Opera House

Opera House


Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc


Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower


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Les Invalides -- Where Napoleon is Buried

Les Invalides -- Where Napoleon is Buried

Our guide from the morning stayed with us, as well as our tour director, so I felt fortunate in many respects. That was especially the case when we actually drove within view of the palace and could see the enormous crowds waiting to buy tickets and get inside. We were given time for a nice sit-down lunch before we reassembled for our pre-arranged tour entrance. As we were on a tour, we avoided all of the crowds out front and entered through the side, directly into the first set of chambers. As can only be expected, the tour was great and the palace beyond impressive. I had a very vague recollection of the Hall of Mirrors from 7th Grade, but K's memories were far more vivid. It was nice how our tour guide wove in much of the French history we'd been hearing during the week, and how it culminated in the revolution.

Lunch Before our Tour

Lunch Before our Tour


Crowds Lined Up for Tickets

Crowds Lined Up for Tickets


Versailles

Versailles


Chapel Within Versailles

Chapel Within Versailles


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Hall of Mirrors

Hall of Mirrors


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We had time after the formal tour to either go back through or to explore the massive gardens. We had neither the time nor the energy to attempt to navigate the acres and acres of gardens on foot, so we instead boarded a trolley bus which did a hop-on, hop-off like tour. It was designed for folks to get off and on at various places, but we were more than satisfied to stay put and just complete the round-trip. That was very fortunate, as we barely had enough time to finish the route and then walk very briskly to our bus. We arrived at our precise rendezvous time, which meant we had successfully gone the entire week without being "those late ones."

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Trolley We Rode Around the Gardens

Trolley We Rode Around the Gardens

The ride back to Paris was subdued, with all of us thoroughly tired. The skies had been bright most of the day, but as if on queue, we had a couple of strong downpours, which matched the mood on the ride back to the hotel. Once there, Anna wanted to rest, whereas K and I did a little walking, and then enjoyed a cocktail in the lobby bar. For dinner, I had located another highly rated restaurant on TripAdvisor located about 1/2 mile from the hotel. This one was rated in the low 70's, I believe. We walked down the hill, using our local app to guide and way, only to find a note on the door of the place saying that they were on holiday. On our way down we had noticed most every other restaurant and bistro also closed. At this point we elected to call uncle and order an Uber to take us up to the main shopping/eating area near the Catacombs. Once there we settled on place which, in hindsight, was far from stellar, but also not bad. We were pressed for time, so we weren't particularly choosy at that point. We had to get back the hotel to prepare for our final activity, which was a private night tour I'd booked for us. Some of you may know what the Citroen 2CV (deux chevaux) is. I would personally call it the French Volkswagen Beetle. More than 4 million of them were built from the 1940's through the 1980's. I found a company that gave private tours riding in a 2CV, which has a removable roof.

Back from dinner, we only had a few minutes to dress warmly and head down to meet our guide Romain, who had arrived with his 2CV named "Juliette." She was quite the looker, painted in black and yellow. She was the "newest girl" in the tour company's small stable, having been built in 1986. With one of us up front and two in back we commenced on a 2 1/2-hour drive around Paris, seeing all of the sights lit in their glory. Romain also gave us commentary as we went. He, like all the French we encountered during our trip, was incredibly friendly, and even funny. The owner of the small tour company, Cedric, was a firefighter. All of the guides he hires, including Romain, are current or former firefighters, and 10 percent of our bill was donated to a charity for families of firemen killed in action. Romain offered to personalize the tour as we wanted, but the only request we had was to see the Eiffel Tower when it did its "light show," which happens on the top of select hours during the evening. That is when the towers literally sparkles, as thousands of lights flash intermittently around the tower. They were put there for the tower's anniversary, but they were so popular they chose to keep them.

By the time Romain brought us back to the hotel it was nearly 12:30am, and we were all thoroughly tuckered. This tour, however, was one of the highlights of our week.

Juliette

Juliette


Notre Dame

Notre Dame


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Police Headquarters

Police Headquarters


Opera House

Opera House


Louvre

Louvre


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Les Invalides

Les Invalides


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Posted by NellieVA 11:14 Archived in France Tagged paris eiffel_tower versailles 2cv Comments (0)

Au Revoir!

Uneventful and relaxing trip home.

We had a pre-arranged transfer back to Charles de Gaulle, which wasn't to pick us up until 9:30am. This allowed us a little leeway toward sleeping in, which was nice. Though we had said our goodbyes to our tour mates the following day, we ran into some of them at breakfast, and then again later in the lobby, along with Craig, who was making sure everyone got where they needed to go.

Our driver was the same as on our arrival, and he arrived early. As we approached the airport, traffic backed up, and then came to a stop. Without a word, our driver jumped onto the shoulder and then took an unmarked exit. A few minutes later he had navigated around and was bringing us into the terminal from an opposite direction, effectively bypassing the traffic jam. Nicely done.

Check-in was uneventful and immigration control was, again, quick and easy. We did more obligatory (I'm still not sure who made it obligatory) shopping at the airport, but then headed for the Star Alliance Lounge, where we were able to wait for our flight to Washington. We availed ourselves of some snacks, and even a late-morning glass of wine, before beginning the trek to the gate. Security was very tight, and the gate area was overflowing with people. They'd split boarding between two gates to help move things along, but we still ended up standing in line for about 15 minutes. We boarded into the exact same seats we'd occupied on the flight over. After we'd settled in and the door was about to close, a gate agent approached me and asked for my name and boarding pass. I passed it to her and she scribbled a new seat assignment and handed it back to me. I was about to object but then she informed me that I'd been upgraded to BusinessFirst class, so promptly shut up. I looked sheepishly at K and Anna, but they both told me to go. I gathered my stuff and moved up a few rows to my new seat, which was an unexpected cherry on the sundae of this trip.

The flight home was much longer than coming over, as the same tailwind (now headwind) was in place. We arrived a few minutes behind schedule, but we breezed through immigration with our Global Entry, which remains a Godsend. We'd arrived in prime time, so our bags took a while, but at least they made it, and we were quickly outside and into a cab. No fuss, no muss.

Within an hour of being home, we'd at least emptied all of bags, confirmed that all our trinkets and treasures (and wine!) survived, and even started the mountain of laundry. Given that our flight was nonstop and we'd arrived home relatively early, the whole transition back was much easier. Plus, Anna was to still have three full days before the rigors of Senior Year hit in.
Charles de Gaulle Airport

Charles de Gaulle Airport


My Unexpected Upgrade

My Unexpected Upgrade

Posted by NellieVA 11:14 Archived in USA Tagged charles_de_gaulle dulles brambleton ashburn Comments (0)

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