Day 7: Versailles and Paris

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I had read in my guidebook that despite the crowds and more expensive admission, weekends are the time to visit Versailles because all the ornate garden fountains are on, making it all the more worth the trip. With this in mind, we woke up early on a Saturday morning to take the RER train to the Versailles train station.

On our short walk to the palace, my family and I stopped at A La Coiffe Bretonne to have crepes for lunch. I had the cockles and mushroom crepe with Moray sauce:

Cockles and mushroom crepe with Moray sauce

It was more buttery than crepes I’ve had in the U.S. and fortified me for the rest of the morning and afternoon. Once we got to the palace gates, we stood in line for about an hour (!) before we finally purchased our tickets and began exploring Chateau de Versailles.

It was unfortunate that part of the palace is under renovation, and another part of it was closed during our visit. Still, we took our time strolling through the grands appartements, the grand appartement de la reine and the sparkling Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors).

Hall of Mirrors

Hall of Mirrors

It turned out that a ticket purchased later in the day (we didn’t reach the ticket booth until almost two in the afternoon) does not grant you full access to the gardens. That wasn’t hugely disappointing, since the greatly-coveted fountains had not been turned on all for the weekend:

Gardens at Versailles

I don’t know why, but I sort of expected more from Versailles. Maybe it was the long lines, the overwhelming crowds, the partial renovation and closing off of quarters, or just a general overload from so many museums over the past few days, but I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I’d be. It was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but in France everything is so stunning that perhaps it just takes more after awhile to really be stopped in your tracks.

Though we didn’t have a chance to visit it, we had fun looking for signs pointing to Saint-Cloud, the little city between Paris and Versailles where my cousins grew up. Since we were running late, we caught the RER back to Paris and headed to our neighborhood for dinner.

We ate at L’Auvergne a Paris, a small restaurant a couple of blocks from our apartment. I had been wanting to try escargots so I was delighted to find and order them from the menu:

Escargots

They tasted a little like clams, although less flavorful and overpowered by butter, garlic and parsley instead. Still, I was satisfied enough to be able to say I’ve now tried escargots.

By the time we finished dinner, it was evening and we hopped on the metro to visit every tourist’s requisite stop: the Eiffel Tower:

Eiffel Tower

And you know what? Despite the cliches, it was magical. For fifteen minutes at every hour, the entire tower would light up with sparkling lights, and it felt like all of Paris was giving you a great big stinky, wine-soaked, cheese-laden hug. And I wanted to turn around and give it one right back.

Paris, je t’aime.

Day 6: Paris

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When I was planning our itinerary a few months ago, I knew I was going to have to squeeze the Louvre in there somewhere. Now don’t get me wrong, I know it’s a must-see and I was looking forward to the visit. It’s just that ever since the Da Vinci Code hype a couple of years ago, my interest in the museum waned. I tend to dismiss anything associated with a fad or phenomenon, sort of like trucker hats and Dr. Phil.

Thankfully the Louvre can survive a trend better than any of the aforementioned items, and so my family and I found ourselves at the museum early in the morning to try and beat the crowd.

It turns out you can’t beat the crowd because there are hordes of tourists looking for (a) the Mona Lisa, (b) Tom Hanks, or (c) Tom Hanks deciphering the Mona Lisa, in all her bulletproof-cased glory. This was actually okay, because it diverted the throngs from the Near Eastern antiquities section, which is where we went first. And found oh, about half of Persepolis on display. (I always wondered where so much of the ruins in Iran went.)

Persepolis relief

Pillar from the Apadana palace of Persepolis

We spent a few more hours exploring the museum and finding the must-sees (Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, of course), and then walked outside towards Jardin de Tuilieres.

Louvre Museum courtyard

Walking along a straight path, we strolled down Place de la Concorde, passing the Obelisk, the Rue Royale and the Church of the Madeline along the way.

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

Finally, we reached the Arc de Triomphe, which was beautifully imposing, albeit a bit anticlimactic after all that walking.

Arc de Triomphe

We looped around and began walking along Avenue des Champs Elysees, mostly window shopping and people watching. The avenue is so much longer and broader than I had ever expected, so we didn’t walk along the whole thing. We did, however, come across Iran Air’s offices on the Champs-Elysees, right by the Louis Vuitton boutique and Laduree shop – who knew?

Iran Air at the Champs-Élysées

We were pretty exhausted after all that walking, so we hopped on to the closest metro back to our apartment where we enjoyed, in typical French fashion, an assortment of fresh cheeses and deli meats with baguettes for dinner.

Days 4 and 5: London and Paris

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My family and I spent our last morning in London trekking to St. Pancras train station, where we got our passports stamped and boarded a high-speed Eurostar train bound for Paris’ Gare du Nord station. The three-hour train ride went by quickly and was impeccably comfortable, although hectic and seemingly without order (carriages were unnumbered, luggage was arbitrarily shoved away).

In Paris, we quickly became familiarized with the metro station. A note on Paris: Unsurprisingly, nothing is in English. This is fine if you studied French in school, but unfortunately I studied Spanish. Still, after a little reorientation we were fine and on our way to our apartment in the 15th arrondissement, at quartier Saint-Lambert near Vaugirard. Our apartment couldn’t be easier to find and the neighborhood was perfect, conveniently located near lots of markets, bakeries and delis. It was so stereotypically French; during the five-minute walk from the metro to our apartment, I lost count of how many impeccably-dressed Parisians I saw carrying baguettes under one arm and a small dog under the other.

We were tired from the journey so we spent the rest of the day getting settled in and exploring the neigbhorhood. The next morning, we got up early and took the metro to Place Maubert, an open-air market with vendors selling everything from roast chicken and tapestries to foie gras and flowers:

Place Maubert Market

Our next stop was the Pantheon, within walking distance, but we were getting hungry. We stopped on our way at La Methode, where I ordered the prix fixe because I was craving the featured coffee and dessert that came with the meal. What followed was a sign of things to come. Apparently at La Methode, if you don’t speak French, you don’t get your whole prix fixe and the waiter will insist to you that he doesn’t know what you’re talking about, even though the tables next to you who ordered the exact same thing are enjoying coffee and dessert, and the prix fixe menu clearly has “cafe” and “le gateau” scrawled on. This happened at a couple of other restaurants too.

Anyway.

My “prix fixe” included a penne eggplant salad appetizer and a country sausage and mashed potatoes entree:

Penne eggplant salad

Country sausage and mashed potatoes

The Pantheon was a stone’s throw away, and it was stunning:

Panthéon

Inside, the Foucalt pendulum is the centerpiece among impressive Corinthian columns and domes:

Foucault pendulum at the Panthéon

Downstairs lies the burial place of French heroes such as Voltaire, Rosseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Marie Curie.

After we exited, we continued to explore Paris by foot, even though it had begun to rain. We shortly arrived at the city’s largest park, Jardin du Luxembourg, which is now among my favorite parks in the world. It certainly didn’t hurt that a high school brass band was playing hits such as “The Final Countdown,” and playing them well! That pretty much made my day.

High school band at the Jardin du Luxembourg gazebo

The main feature is Luxembourg Palace, but the park also boasts a puppet theatre, merry-go-round, a pond, and statues scattered throughout the entire area. We loved it so much that if it wasn’t starting to pour, we would have stayed longer.

Luxembourg Palace

Our last stop for the day was Musee D’Orsay, an art museum housed in a former train station along the Seine River:

Musée d'Orsay

The museum is best known for its extensive collection of impressionist paintings, but my favorite part was the unique and eclectic layout of the museum:

Musée d'Orsay

Oh, and it didn’t hurt that Musee D’Orsay has an amazing rooftop view:

Paris skyline

We saw a whole lot on our first full day in Paris and just about fell in love with the city’s breathtaking architecture and depth of history. I dunno about those pseudo-prix fixes or eight dollar coffees (thanks, Euro), but Paris is gorgeous.

Day Three: London

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I’m not particularly interested in royalty, but can you really visit London and not see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace? I mostly wanted to see the funny hats enjoy the parade and surrounding architecture, so it was memorable to see it firsthand.

Main gates

The Victoria Memorial

Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard

The whole thing lasted a lot longer than I expected, about half an hour from start to finish. It was hard to get a good look over all the crowds, so towards the end of the changing we walked across the street towards St. James Park for a stroll:

St. James's Park

St. James's Park

It sort of reminded me of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, sans Japanese Tea Garden and nouveau-hippies.

For the second part of our day, we took the Underground to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, also in Westminster:

Big Ben

And there it is.

The Millenium Bridge and London Eye are all in the same neighborhood, so we strolled along the River Thames and took in the view for the rest of the afternoon before heading back to Woking. We had to get back early and prepare for the next part of our journey: Paris.

Day Two: London

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London is a rainy city. You probably already knew that, and as our luck would have it, it rained during every day of our stay in England. On our second day, it poured incessantly, which was unfortunate, because we had planned to visit the Tower of London.

We decided to brave the weather and go anyway, and arrived over an hour later than expected after some transportational rerouting and traffic jams as a result of the inclement weather. Famished, we took a break at Tower Hill Diner, where I had bangers and mash:

It was one of those dishes where the first couple of bites are good and then it all begins to taste heavy and overly-salty and yet simultaneously bland. I love sausages, but I’m guessing that sampling a British classic in the middle of a tourist zone flanked by Americans may not have been my best bet for authenticity.

We purchased our tickets and walked into the palace, poking in and out of the tower over the course of the next few hours:

My guidebook stated that the famous Kooh-i Noor diamond is housed here among the crown jewels, but much to my dissapointment the closest I got was seeing it in the Jewel House on a theater screen extolling the victories of the British Empire. (At least I got to get up close and personal with the Darya-e Noor diamond in Tehran a few years ago! And by up close and personal, I mean behind an alarm-generating, touch-sensitive, bullet-proof glass case.)

After a quick cup of coffee, my family and I walked across Tower Bridge over the River Thames, to get to the Underground:

Our next destination was Harrod’s, or as far as I’m concerned, Harrod’s Food Hall, also known as The Place Where Mariam Becomes Filled With Awe-Like Contentment And Wonder. Seriously, I was in my natural habitat. From foie gras and caviar to dim sum and South Asian sweets to cured meats and fresh seafood, this place has it all:

Part of me wishes we had something like this in California, and yet another part of me knows that if we did, I’d go broke on limequats and cecina and whatever else I could get my hands on.

Oh, London. So much rain, so little time to spend at your perfectly stocked gourmet foodstuffs.