Paris – all decked out in twinkling colored lights; what could be more entrancing, even through the raindrops? Sharing this delightful sight with my two daughters made it all the more magical. Our four-day visit to the French capital in December was the kind of experience that family legends are made of. It was the first time in 26 years that this mother and daughters had been out of Israel together, a rare opportunity to have a vacation as three adults, away from home and responsibilities.
Our adventure started when my daughter Naomi, who works for the Israeli subsidiary of a French company, had to extend her business trip to Paris over a weekend to make a presentation on Monday. She invited "Mom" to join her there and sister Rachel lit up at hearing this: "I want to go too." With their husbands' agreement to take care of the kids, we were ready to make flight and hotel arrangements for the long weekend. We had a joyful reunion on Thursday evening, when Naomi joined us at our hotel. We hadn't planned many activities in advance and were open to serendipity. This way, we could be proud of what we accomplished.
Below are some travel tips garnered from our experience. I hope they will be informative, whatever the composition of your traveling party.
Accommodations and Meals
Using TripAdvisor, our travel bible, we found a triple room at the Hotel Atlantis Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Ordering through bookings.com enabled free cancellation up to 48 hours before check-in date. It was delightful to discover the room's quaint furnishings, a mini-bar refrigerator with enough room to hold a few perishables, an attractive bathroom with good toiletries and terry robes, flat-screen TV (albeit with only two English news channels), Wi-Fi, and a desk. As other travelers had commented on TripAdvisor, the hotel's elevator may be the tiniest ever made, able to hold no more than two people, without luggage. Still, the maid brought our bags up promptly and, because our room was on the first-floor, walking up and down was no problem. Besides this, there were only two inconveniences: the black-shaded bed lamps did not facilitate reading, and rain falling onto the roof of the lobby, right outside our window, played a staccato symphony at 3 am.
We opted not to take the 13 euro per person breakfast in the hotel, so every morning we went searching for the perfect café. The famous nearby bakery did not offer tables or coffee, so although their breads and pastries were wonderful, we could only have them as snacks.
In the local cafés, a simple breakfast of croissant or half baguette, coffee, and maybe orange juice cost 8-10 euros per person. This translated into about 50 Israeli shekels each, and took some getting used to. Whenever we ate lunch or dinner together, usually only a dairy or vegetarian entrée each and a bottle of water for the table, the bill was nearly 50 euros (NIS 250). The costs may have been high, but the experiences were unforgettable, like the snack we had at Hemingway's favorite café, Les Deux Magots.
Economizing can be memorable too. One late afternoon, we headed for a famous patisserie, only to encounter a very long line of people waiting to get in. Enterprising Naomi investigated, and discovered that we could walk right into the adjacent shop and purchase pastries to take away. This saved us not only time but money, and we enjoyed our elegant treat back at the hotel.
Be prepared for a lot of walking with comfortable shoes. I bought a pair of black sneakers at Ben Gurion airport when I realized the boots I was wearing would ruin my feet even before I got to Paris. The big walking shoes weren't fashionable, but I could keep moving all day without suffering.
From the airport into Paris, we had prearranged a car service at considerable savings compared to a private taxi. But, we neglected to request a return trip to the airport in time, and had to call a cab for our departure on a rainy Sunday evening; the ride was excruciatingly slow and three times the price. If you can manage your luggage in the Metro, that might be the best means of transport.
Riding the Metro is a pleasure. Naomi was already an experienced commuter and reassured us that we could get anywhere using a map and connecting to different lines through hub stations. Buying your tickets from the automated dispenser can be tricky though. We were lucky that someone showed us how to make our choice by spinning a tube on the front, which we never could have figured out on our own. This video explains it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGRthKM7CWA
Returning to our hotel one evening, we heard beautiful music as we threaded our way through the Metro's pedestrian tunnels, and came upon an 11-piece string orchestra playing to an appreciative audience. What an unexpected delight.
Your iPod or MP3 player can be your free tour guide. I downloaded Rick Steves Audio Tours: http://www.ricksteves.com/news/audio-tours.htm. At the Louvre, Rick leads you to all the highlights, and at Versailles he adds piquant details to what you get in the audio guide included with your admission.
I advise checking the Internet for prices of attractions you might wish to see, day by day, before you decide to buy a 2- or 4-day museum pass: http://en.parismuseumpass.com. Note that the pass starts running the date you activate it, and is for consecutive days only. If, like us, you are unlikely to have the energy for more than one museum a day, don't purchase the pass. We learned the hard way - we actually overpaid on admissions because we could not take full advantage of the 2-day pass.
Also, beware of free admission days. We didn't know that the first Sunday of every month the Musée d'Orsay is free to all. When we arrived at 11:00, the line was snaking in front of the museum, around the corner, and down the next block. It was way too cold for us to justify joining the queue, so we decided to go to the Eiffel Tower. Waiting in long lines was no picnic either, but by then, we had firmly decided to ascend. Note that you can shorten the wait by purchasing your tickets, in advance, on the Internet: http://ticket.toureiffel.fr. Also note, there is a price differential between going to the top versus the second level.
Another spectacular view of the city can be had from the giant Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde, especially captivating when holiday lights glitter on damp streets below. In December, you look out onto the irresistible Christmas Market stretching along both sides of the Champs Elysées, to which we made our way upon alighting. Our only purchase among all the crafts, toys, and treats for sale was a toy cat that meowed when its back was pressed, perfect for a little girl who wants, but won't get, a real cat. When we returned on the weekend, the place was mobbed, so try to get there on a weekday.
Getting to the town of Versailles via the Metro and commuter train was easy and efficient. The palace is a considerable but pleasant walk from the train station. After your tour inside, you might wish to stroll through the gardens to see the royal retreats (e.g., the Petit Trianon), but we were too cold to do so and enjoyed being transported around on the mini-train (at an extra charge). There are also electric vehicles to rent. We left with a great desire to see the film Marie Antoinette once again. For details, go to: http://en.chateauversailles.fr/prepare-my-visit-/single/some-tips-for-your-visits.
Shopping near our hotel was enticing; the stylish children's wear was especially fascinating, but more expensive than clothes we would buy for ourselves. With more energy than their mother, and with husbands and children at home expecting gifts, Rachel and Naomi followed friends' recommendations for shopping further afield in central Paris. For my husband, at his request, I bought a key ring at the Eiffel Tower; as everywhere, souvenirs at popular attractions are expensive. All three of us found attractive, affordable mementos quite near our hotel at "Plastiques", http://www.plastiques-paris.fr/infos/boutiques. We shopped there until it was time for Rachel and Ito leave for the airport.
It ends with an oyster!
The surprising dénouement of our adventure was that over the weekend Naomi's French colleague injured his hand opening an oyster, and when she reached the office on Monday morning she was told that the meeting, for which she had stayed over, had been cancelled!