Our family, Team Kezmoh, had been planning a trip to Spain since before Sky and Savannah were born. We have been talking about the adventure for many years. Although spending a year in Spain had been a dream for Mike and me, it was not really Savannah and Sky’s first choice for 4th and 6th grade. With that in mind, we thought that if there was anything that they really wanted to do in Europe we were going to do our best to make it happen. I am not sure what first inspired Savannah, but she has been talking about spending Christmas in Paris for as long as I can recall. Therefore, we had to make a trip to the City of Light!
In this post I plan to tell the story about our visit to Paris for family and friends. However, to make it a little more interesting I will include fun facts about the places we visit and hopefully some will learn from our experiences and/or mistakes for their own voyage to this lovely city!
Getting There: We flew from Malaga, Spain and found a flight which was surprisingly inexpensive. One thing I’ve learned is that if something is unusually cheap there is often a reason. We flew on Ryan Air which has an excellent safety record and a reputation for their low prices. We were informed that there was a strict baggage allowance so we were careful to only pack small carry-on bags. We also, luckily, learned that one must arrive early to cue up to get on the plane in order to get seats together. We paid a fee to have seats pre-assigned which was really worth it as the plane was completely full and the seats were smaller than usual. There are 3 airports that serve Paris. Charles de Gaulle (CGD), Orly (ORY) and Beauvais Tille (BVA). We flew into BVA which, after I made the reservation, Mike pointed out was actually closer to Brussels than Paris! I then later read on tripadvisor.com that one should never fly to BVA unless there is no other choice. No wonder it was cheap!
Security in Malaga was interesting. Savannah wrote about it in her journal so this memory is thanks to her. Sky and Savannah are expert travelers. They know not to bring liquids or sharp objects and are quick to remove their iPads from their backpacks and their boots from their feet. Savannah watched as the security woman pulled her backpack off of the conveyor belt. She thoroughly checked it and found Savvy’s school pencil pouch. She opened it and found scissors that had been forgotten. We watched as she carefully, very seriously, inspected them and then zipped them back into the pouch and returned the backpack to us. Savannah also watched her pull a large bottle of lotion out of a woman’s bag, open it, rub some on her hands and return it to the owner. Sensible security, I say. No one is going to die from lotion or safety scissors (We did, however, lose the scissors at airport security on the way home from London).
We arrived at BVA after ten in the evening so we knew that public transportation was not an option. We booked a private shuttle online before we left Spain. In retrospect it would have been better to fly to CGD so that we could take the metro. C’est la vie.. Late at night it was better to be driven right to our door. Well sort of…
As I mentioned, we arrived to BVA late. Our shuttle driver met us outside of customs with a sign with our name on it. We introduced ourselves, he grabbed one of the bags and we had to scurry to keep up with him to the car. He informed us that he was from Sri Lanka but had lived in Paris for 20 years. He seemed to speak English but could not respond to questions like “what is your name?”. Unfortunately for the family of motion sick travelers he had a nauseating style of driving. He constantly pumped the gas pedal giving the feeling that the car was constantly slowing or lurching forward. We asked him to stop doing it but he didn’t seem to understand. We also got the definite impression that he could not see well. Although the speed limit was 120km/hr, he drove along slowly in the right lane between 80-100km/hr. Cars sped past us as we rocked slowly along to Paris. When we got to Paris he turned on his portable GPS and placed it over the speedometer which did not inspire confidence. We finally reached the address according to the GPS. He pulled up to a corner and told us that we were at our destination and that we should get out. Near the corner there were young men milling about and the police were questioning them. I told him that we were not getting out of the car until I could see the entrance to the apartment complex. (Meanwhile Mike was preparing to vomit in the front seat if he had to endure any more of his terrible driving.) I called Monique, our apartment hostess, who told us that she would come outside to help us find our way. Our driver reversed his car down the one-way street. Just as I spotted Monique, the police became very interested in our taxi. We got out to unload the luggage, the police came over to us and started asking our driver for his registration and taxi license. I tried to pay the taxi driver but the police officer told me (in English) that the driver might not be legal and that we should not pay him. Our driver looked very upset. Although it was a terrible trip from the airport he did pick us up in the middle of the night and did drive us over an hour to Paris so I felt like I needed to pay him regardless.
Thankfully, Monique appeared to rescue us. She was lovely and very fancy as we were soon to learn is a theme in Paris. Everything is fancy: the way they speak, the way they dress, the buildings, the parks, and even the entrances to the metro are fancy! Monique, in her fashionable clothes spoke to us in English with a lovely, fancy, French accent and offered to take the girls upstairs away from the group of young men leering at us and the police interrogation. The girls were exhausted and happy to follow her into the warm building. As soon as they disappeared I began to panic. Who turns their children over to a complete stranger as soon as they arrive in a new city? The police, finally satisfied with what’s his name’s papers, allowed me to pay him and they both left. Mike and I stood outside for a long 2 minutes while we waited for Monique to reappear. She welcomed us with kisses and led us up to her apartment on the 27th floor. The girls were already relaxing on the sofa having a drink in the beautifully decorated apartment. Monique gave us a tour and showed us how everything worked. Monique could give lessons on the perfect holiday rental! She had truly thought of everything. The apartment was well equipped with all of the normal appliances but she also had a milk steamer, an electric teapot, an automatic coffee maker, washing machine and dryer and an excellently stocked kitchen. She showed us the refrigerator that already had fresh milk, eggs, orange juice, butter, jam, macaroons (little cookies) and what else in France? Champagne! She showed us the bedrooms. Both had views of the Eiffel Tower which was about 4 miles away. It was lit up for Christmas and sparkled in the distance. Savannah has been drawing pictures of the Eiffel tower for years and chose the side of the bed with the best view so she could go to sleep and wake up looking at the Tower. We were getting ready for bed and the girls called us into their room. It was midnight and the Tower was not only lit up, but the lights danced up and down the length of the magical structure. It was a perfect end to a very long day of traveling.
Where to stay: The first thing I learned making reservations for accommodations was that Paris is divided into 20 districts or arrondissements. Paris is situated on the River Seine (pronounced “sane”, rhymes with chain). The arrondissements are arranged in a clockwise spiral starting at the middle of the city. The first is on the North bank of the Seine and this is where the Louvre is found. The Eiffel Tower is in the 7th arrondissement. Generally the lower the number, the more expensive the hotel will be. We stayed in an apartment in the 13th arrondissement and although we weren’t within walking distance to the major attractions there was a metro stop a very short walk away so we never felt far from anything, well, except the airport.
Getting around in Paris: If you stay near the Seine it is probably possible to walk to the majority of the sights but, for most people, especially those with children, the metro is the best option. There are two train lines, the metropolitan (metro) and the RER. The metro runs from 5am-12:30am. There are stops everywhere. We found that wherever we were, we could walk in almost any direction, and within a couple of blocks we would bump into a stop. Tickets can be purchased singly, in books of 10, or as day passes that are unlimited 1,2,3 and 5 days. There is also Le Paris viste passes which offer unlimited travel in certain zones and discounts to some attractions. We didn’t want to be limited to zones and figured that we would probably only ride twice daily so we bought our tickets in 10 packs which for our purposes turned out to be cheaper. The RER line is faster and has fewer stops than the metro. It costs more if you leave zones 1 or 2. My best advice to navigate the subway system in Paris is the “Paris metro app” which can be downloaded to your phone.
Our first morning we were excited to explore the city. Monique had a good supply of Paris guides on her bookshelf so I grabbed Rick Steves’ Paris and we were off. The book recommended that we start where the city began, on the River Seine. Mike is a University of Notre Dame alumnus so we could not miss the Notre-Dame Cathedral and we planned to make it our first stop. Our apartment building had an indoor shopping mall beneath it. We walked through the mall and found the Place ‘d Italie metro stop just outside.
Our first impressions of Paris, although cold and rainy, were of the grandness of the place.
Walking along the Seine we were surrounded by other tourists armed with maps, tour books and cameras. We met a nice family from Indiana on the street and walked with them to Notre-Dame Cathedral where we took turns snapping photos of each other’s families as we exchanged travel stories.
Notre-Dame was built between 1163-1345. It is on the Île de la Citè, an island in the Seine, in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. Entrance is free, they just asked that we remove our hats. It is amazingly impressive to enter the cathedral. Above the entrance on the western side are 28 biblical kings (see photo below). In 1793 during the French Revolution they were mistakenly thought to be the kings of France. Story has it that the people stormed the cathedral shouting “off with their heads” and beheaded the 28 kings. Many of the heads were rediscovered in 1977 during an excavation and are now on display at the Musee de Cluny. At some point all of the heads were replaced with replicas. We were sure to check this out.
So much history had passed through the doors that we walked through. Despite the hundreds of visitors, it was very quiet. The light coming through the stained glass windows casted an ethereal glow. It was interesting to learn that the original windows had been destroyed by stray bullets during WW II. They were replaced with the modern geometrical patterns that we saw. Before WW II the windows were depictions of scenes from the Bible.
Notre-Dame is famous for housing the “Crown of Thorns”. Unfortunately it is only on display the first Friday of each month and on certain holidays so we didn’t get to see it.
In 1804 Napoleon invited Pope Pius VII to come to Paris to crown him emperor in the Notre-Dame Cathedral. At the last minute, however, Napoleon seized the crown from the pope’s hands and crowned himself.
Throughout the walk through the cathedral there are candles that can be lit in honor of a loved one. We lit a candle for our friend Mark who has been sick.
Notre-Dame has a really cool tower to climb that was recommended by my tour book and by the nice family from Indiana. Unfortunately after 2 hours in the cathedral…
There was a very long line in the rain for the privilege to pay to climb the tower so we decided that it was time for a break. We had also planned to make it to Sainte-Chapelle, but alas, when traveling with little ones we had to remember that it is important not to torture the children for the sake of seeing all of the sights.
***Cool tip***There is a really nice park that has free wifi behind Notre-Dame, (on the east side of the cathedral ). This was a great find for bored kids and parents in need of trip advisor’s advice for a good restaurant. Sky and Savannah played with the French children while we sipped Vin Chaud (hot wine, very bad) and Chocolat Chaud (hot chocolate, very good).
With the help of tripadvisor.com we found Sorza, a lovely little restaurant on Rue Saint-Louis on the Île de la Citè.
We all enjoyed a delicious meal. I had soufflé and French wine, what else for our first dinner in France?
After dinner we walked down the lovely, and very fancy Rue Saint-Louis. We browsed the shops and admired the simplest things that were unusually lovely and a sometimes a little scary in Paris.
Mike and the girls enjoyed French ice cream despite the cold.
The next day was Christmas Eve. We wanted to visit the Musee d’Orsay and were thrilled to find that it was open. There is an RER stop right outside the museum but we were interested in exploring a bit on the way so we chose a metro stop on the other side of the river. It was raining and we were happy to see that lovely Monique had supplied us with umbrellas. We climbed out of the metro at the edge of the Jardin des Tuileries. The Jardin des Tuileries was originally the vision of Queen Catherine de Medicis. She modeled the gardens after those of her native Florence. The area where the gardens were constructed was once occupied by workshops called tuileries where tiles for roofs and buildings were made, thus the name. There is much history in this beautiful place and although it was raining I could imagine that on a warm sunny day it must be packed with people, vendors and artists. Monet, Renoir, Manet and so many artists have painted images of this famous garden.
We had to cross the river Seine to get to the Musee d’Orsay and I had no idea what we were about to stumble upon on the bridge. We crossed under the street to the pedestrian bridge through a tunnel. We could see a couple sitting on the stairs in the shelter of the tunnel near the bridge. They were sitting apart from each other writing on locks. We were about to cross the famous love-lock bridge. Paris, the most romantic city in the world, has 2 bridges where couples write their names on a lock, lock it to the bridge, then throw the key in the River Siene. This locks their relationship and unless one can find the key at the bottom of the river they will be in love forever. One must be very careful which bridge you put your lock on because Pont des Arts is for your committed love, while Pont de l’Archevêché is for your lover. We were crossing Pont des Arts.
I glanced over the man’s shoulder as we walked by. He was writing “Will you marry me?” on his lock! How romantic! We glanced back a couple of times but didn’t want to intrude. As it turned out we ran into the same couple in a gift shop later. I recognized them and couldn’t resist getting the story. It turns out that they are from Las Vegas. He proposed and, of course, she accepted. They were happy to tell their story, pose for pictures and accept hugs from Team Kezmoh.
We never did get to the Musee D’Orsay that day, the line in the rain was too long. We found that even in the rain exploring the side streets of Paris can be fun. It was Christmas Eve so we ate Chinese food for dinner.
Christmas morning we awoke to sunshine and knew that this was the day get to the Eiffel Tower!
We opened presents that Santa brought in the night, had croissants for breakfast and got on the metro before most people were awake.
The Eiffel Tower was named after engineer, Gustave Eiffel, who also designed the Statue of Liberty. It opened to the public in 1889. It was the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair. At the time it was the tallest human-made structure in the world. It held the title until 1930 when the Chrysler Building was built. The tower in person is much more impressive than I imagined. It is as high as an 81 story building.
Of course we wanted to climb to the top, no elevators for Team Kezmoh! There are 3 observation levels. One can take an elevator to each level or it is possible to climb the stairs from the ground to the second. From the second observation deck it is necessary to take an elevator. When we arrived the line for the elevator from the ground wound around like an amusement park line but the ticket office for the stairs was wide open! We bought our tickets and started climbing! We took pictures from each level and just enjoyed being together on a sunny Christmas day in Paris.
From the Eiffel Tower we found a park and ate crepes while we admired the tower.
After a full day of exploring we had a lovely dinner back home in our cool Paris apartment.
December 26, first order of business: buy a Paris Museum Pass. If you plan to visit any museums in Paris I highly recommend the Paris museum pass. It will save you literally hours of waiting in lines. It can be purchased at parismuseumpass.com before you leave home so that you don’t have to wait in a line for it when you arrive in Paris. If you didn’t do this, like us, it can also be purchased at several places in Paris. They are listed on the website. What makes the pass so cool is that it is a “fast pass”. The lines for the museums, as we learned on Christmas Eve, are daunting. Hundreds of people wait in serpentine lines in the rain for entry to see these famous landmarks. With the Paris museum pass we just walked to the front, showed our pass and were admitted without a wait. On to the Louvre!
One thing that is cool about the Louvre is that they allow cameras. It is overwhelmingly huge so I asked family and friends if there was anything that one should not miss. Everyone says the Mona Lisa. Is that because the Mona Lisa is amazing or unlike anything you have ever seen? I think not, it is because everyone wants you to experience the chaos in the room in which Mona lives. This is not a space for the claustrophobic or for anyone who likes to enjoy their art with quiet contemplation. Mona’s room is wall to wall tourists, cameras snapping and people pushing their way to the front. Guess what we did when we found her? Mike would have probably turned on his heel and left in a second, but Sky, Savannah and I were on a mission. We dove into the crowd, cameras at the ready!
We actually only visited one wing of the Louvre. One could plan a week to explore the whole place. On the way to pay homage to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa we passed a mind-blowing number of religious paintings. The girls enjoyed the Latin American and African Art.
Lunch, then next stop: Musée D’Orsay.
My advice: unless you like really big crowds and you don’t mind admitting that you skipped the Louvre when people ask you about your trip, skip the Louvre and just go to the Musee D’Orsay. It is every bit as impressive, the crowds were more manageable and the art is really more agreeable. The Musee D’Orsay is housed in a grand railway station built in 1900.
It had been completely abandoned in 1961. In 1978 it was saved from demolition by the French president, Pompidou. It is the museum of 19th and 20th century art while the Louvre houses much older pieces. We love the impressionists and it was a huge hit for the entire family. Sadly no pictures allowed inside.
Dec 27 Wow, 2 museums in one day left us really tired, but Sky and Savannah had their hearts set on some ice skating in front of the Hotel De Ville. The Hotel de Ville is not actually a hotel, it is city hall, an impressive city hall!
After skating we enjoyed some French churros and popcorn.
- December 28: Travel day to London (a future post). We thought that taking the Eurostar (super-fast train) from Paris to London would be fun. As it turns out, it is shockingly expensive if purchased on short notice. We were able buy the tickets for a discount if we left from EuroDisney. We didn’t have enough time to visit the park which was too bad, but we did have time to walk around Europe’s Downtown Disney.
- We ate in the Rainforest café and managed to get a coffee at Starbucks before we had to catch our train to London. We were happy to eat at the Rainforest café because there was no line and after a few months away from home it is really nice to visit some American spots!
Christmas in Paris was magical. Everyone agreed that the Eiffel Tower was our favorite. I also wouldn’t have wanted to miss the “Love-Lock bridge”. Mike liked our cool high rise apartment. Savvy loved ice skating and crepes. Sky loved the parks and art. We could have spent another week exploring but Team Kezmoh is off to London. We will be back to Paris for a summer visit some day soon.