Saturday, August 31, 2013

France 2013 Final Entry

This will be the last update. Tomorrow we have an early start to go to the airport and begin the journey home. Today we took the train to Chartres to see the cathedral there. We arrived at the train station with only about 15 minutes to buy our tickets and board the train or wait an hour for the next train. We tried using the self serve ticket machines thinking it would be faster but the machine wouldn't read the credit card. After a couple of retries I went to the ticket counter instead. I was able to buy the tickets but we only had a few minutes to board at track 21. We ran to the platform and got on with about a minute to spare. The train was crowded and we couldn't find seats together but Zoe and Janet got a pair of dropdown seats near the door and I found an empty seat just a few feet away. After a few stops a group of 4 seats opened up and we were able to sit together the rest of the trip. We had a light breakfast this morning, just a couple of croissants and coffee, and Zoe was hungry when we arrived at Chartres. But knowing how long it takes to get served and pay at the French cafes, we worried that we would miss the opportunity to climb the bell tower so we did that first. Zoe counted 285 stairs on the way up the tower. My legs are getting stronger than they've ever been. After returning to ground level we went to the cafe across the street for a late lunch. Janet discovered on this trip that she likes the Croque Monsieur sandwich that can be found on almost every cafe menu so she had one here as well. We all had profiteroles for dessert. They were delicious. After lunch we explored the interior of the cathedral where there happened to be a wedding going on. Next we looked through some souvenir shops and the headed back to the station for the train back to Paris.

Friday, August 30, 2013

France 2013 Next Three Days

We started our day at Sacre Coeur Basilica. The Metro let us off in Montmartre and we wandered in search of the artists' square and then the church. We toured inside the church and then Zoe and I climbed the 300 stairs to the dome where we were treated to an amazing panaorama of Paris. Afterward we had lunch at a nearby cafe. Zoe had a sandwich of gruyere cheese on French bread. After lunch we traveled to the Arc d' Triomphe where Zoe and I again climbed a long spiral staircase to the top for views of the Champs Elysees and the nearby Eiffel tower. Next we hopped the Metro for the Eiffel Tower but shortly after getting in the ticket line they closed access to the top only allowing access to the 2nd floor. We left the line and instead got on a Seine river sightseeing cruise. The cruise described the points of interest along the route and returned us to our Eiffel Tower starting point. By that time access to the top had reopened and we were able to ascend just in time to watch the sun set from the top. Janet and I shared a champagne toast and we returned to the ground with lots of pictures.  We walked to the other side of the Seine for a good vantage point to photograph the illuminated  Tower. There were some street performers there that kept us entertained until the Eiffel started its sparkle show. Afterwards we went to a cafe in Trocadéro plaza with good food and even better macarons. We got back to the hotel after midnight.

We slept in today and made it to breakfast just before it ended. The day began with a Metro ride to Chateau Vincennes. We toured the grounds, chapel, and the Keep. Next we headed by Metro to Ile de La Cité. We arrived and had a late lunch at an outdoor cafe. We were going to tour St. Chapelle but it appeared to be closing when we arrived. So we went to Notre Dame and toured inside and walked around the perimeter outside. We looked into doing the tower climb but it was closed for the day. We walked from Notre Dame to the Louvre and went inside to photograph the inverted pyramid. Then we walked through the Tuileries gardens all the way to the Concorde plaza. From there we rode the Metro back to the hotel. After a brief rest at the hotel we got ready for our dinner reservation at Ciel de Paris. We took the Metro to dinner and when we arrived we were a little disappointed to be assigned a table in a corner without much of a view. Janet told our waiter that we were celebrating with Zoe and asked if we could move to a table by the window. There appeared to be some discussion between the waiter and manager as to whether that could be allowed but ultimately we were moved to a window table with a very nice view. Dinner was very good. Zoe had a vegetable dish called Vegetable Napoleon. We also had some delicious desserts. It was after midnight again by the time we got back to the hotel.

There was no sleeping in this morning.  We planned to go to Versailles but first wanted to be at Notre Dame when they opened the Bell Tower climb. When we arrived the line was already very long. We waited in line for an hour before we could begin the tour. It was worth the wait. At the middle level you can get close up views of the chimera and then climb the rest of the way to the very top of the bell tower where the views of Paris are breathtaking. After returning to ground level we took the train to Versailles. We stopped for lunch at McDonalds where we ordered on self serve kiosks and were surprised to find we could get macarons at the McCafe counter. After lunch we toured the Chateau using self paced audio guides. Then we took a long stroll in the gardens before returning to Paris. On the way back we detoured on the Metro so we could return to the Carette cafe to get more macarons. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant again. It was nice to return a little earlier for a change.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

First couple of days of France Tour

August 25th
We got to O'Hare airport early and relaxed in the United Club. The plane boarded and departed a little late. I watched "The Croods" during the early part of the flight and then tried to get some sleep after dinner was served. Janet & Zoe had difficulty sleeping on the flight but I slept ok. Janet had to wake me up when they were serving breakfast just before landing.

August 26th
We landed at CDG, cleared passport control, and collected our luggage. We were surprised that we did not need to go through any customs station, but were able to exit directly after claiming our bags. We obtained our rental car from SIXT. It is an Opel Astra. 6 speed manual transmission, diesel engine, and plenty of room for our bags.  We drove from CDG to Rouen where we stopped and toured on foot. We saw the old St Ouen abbey and cathedral, then walked to the huge Notre Dame cathedral at Rouen, famously painted more than 30 times by Monet. We had lunch in an outdoor cafe next to the cathedral, then toured the inside. After touring the cathedral we walked down Rue du Gros Horloge to see the Great Clock with one hand. From there we walked to the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.

We left Rouen and drove to Omaha beach and saw the memorial to the US forces that landed there on June 6 1944. From there we drove to La Pointe du Hoc and saw the remains of the bunkers and gun emplacements that were faced by the US Rangers who scaled the cliffs there to attack them. Then we drove to our hotel in Caen for the night. The hotel was small and the room was too, but comfortable enough.  We had a good dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant and returned to finally lay our heads down and get some sleep.

August 27th.
We got up before 7am and had breakfast at the hotel. Zoe is an organized traveller and was ready to go quickly. We drove to the American Cemetery near Omaha beach in Normandy, and toured there for a while before starting our drive to Mont Saint-Michel.  Our car has a built in navigation unit, and we allowed it to direct us to our destination. I was skeptical because instead of putting us on the major highway that Google Maps directions indicated, it kept taking us down narrow country lanes and through tiny French villages. In the end, we arrived at our destination in the same amount of time that Google had allocated, and our trip was much more entertaining.

Mont Saint Michel was very crowded. The narrow shop lined streets leading to the abbey entrance were packed with people.  There was a long line of people standing on the stairs waiting to buy tickets for the abbey tour, but it moved along fairly well, and once inside the crowd thinned out and we were able to tour at our own pace. Mont Saint Michel is very impressive viewed from the ground, and the views looking down from the upper levels are equally impressive. There are a lot of stairs to climb, and just as many to descend, so our legs were pretty tired when we finished.

We left Mont Saint Michel and drove back to CDG to return our rental car.  Most of the drive was uneventful but we started running low on gas as we neared Paris. We estimated that we had enough, and didn't want to stop twice for gas before returning the car, so we pressed on. But about 20 miles from the airport the Low Fuel warnings came on, and at the same time we encountered a traffic jam on the freeway, so we exited and started looking for a fuel station which was a small adventure in itself. I was sure we were never critically low on fuel, but I think Zoe got a little nervous. :)

We finally got our car returned, and then took the RER train from the airport into central Paris. From there we had to switch to a Metro line, and there were no elevators or escalators between the track levels which made it challenging getting all our suitcases and backpacks up and down the stairs. At one point, I had carried one suitcase down, and was headed back up the stairs to help Janet who was struggling to carry hers, when some guy started yelling at another guy who apparently had unzipped Janet's backpack and grabbed something out of it as she was struggling with her suitcase. The first guy managed to retrieve Janet's belongings from the other guy who took off running. It turned out the guy had only grabbed a pouch of nail files because Janet is a savvy packer and wouldn't have anything of value in such an accessible location. But it was unsettling to realize that she had just been nearly robbed by a pickpocket.

We made it the rest of the way to our hotel without incident, and had a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant. Tomorrow we begin touring Paris.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Écoutez et Répétez

My trip to France is coming up soon. I don't really speak French, but I made an attempt to learn 7 years ago when we attended a wedding in the southern France town of Sanary-Sur-Mer. You can get by without knowing French in Paris and other popular tourist areas, but I thought it would be helpful to understand some French in this small seaside village. I used the Pimsleur method and completed a 30 minute French lesson on CD every day while driving to work. The method worked well, and while I couldn't carry on a conversation with a French native, I felt I could manage essential communication like asking for directions, how much something cost, and of course, hello, goodbye, and thank you.

Now I find that I've forgotten most of what I knew then. So in anticipation of my upcoming trip I've been repeating the lessons. This time they are mp3s on my phone, and I listen to them while I do my regular walks. I've probably caused a few puzzled looks as I pass other walkers with my earbuds in and saying out loud "Mettre du l'essence dans ma voiture."

Friday, August 2, 2013

Hey, I'm Walking Here

I've taken to regularly going for a walk either at work during lunch or at home after work. My objectives are to improve my overall health, get in shape for a lot of walking I expect to do during my upcoming travel, and promote continued weight loss in conjunction with the Isagenix program. I think I'm succeeding on all three counts. I started the end of June with just walking a mile, and gradually added more distance as my endurance improved. I'm up to 4 miles now at about a 14½ minute pace.

I installed an app on my phone called MapMyRun. It nicely tracks my time and distance, and draws the route on a map. It handles all the record keeping for me and uploads it to a website where I can check my stats. I really like it. Just today it sent me an email telling me I walked 53 miles in July and burned over 7000 calories.

Walking isn't completely risk free. Once your distance gets beyond a mile or two, you either have to zig-zag all over the neighborhood or cross a busy street or two, risking an incident similar to the one that inspired Ratso Rizzo's famous quote.