A Travellerspoint blog

Some Final Thoughts

Long live the Grand Tour!

-2 °C

“Beginning in the late sixteenth century, it became fashionable for young aristocrats to visit Paris, Venice, Florence, and above all Rome, as the culmination of their classical education. Thus was born the idea of the Grand Tour, a practice which introduced Englishmen, Germans, Scandinavians, and also Americans to the art and culture of France and Italy for the next 300 years.” (see “The Grand Tour,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, at www.metmuseum.org).

Our Grand Tour was not nearly so grand as the travels of those young aristocrats, but it was grand enough for us. For our family of four to travel to nine countries in ten weeks, was an incredible undertaking. And it was indeed a grand and wonderful time for all of us.

Like those young aristocrats, we began in London, but our tour was really anchored in Italy, the country in which we spent the most time of all of the countries that we visited. We spent well over two weeks in Italy, visiting Venice, Florence, Lucca, Rome, Pompeii, and the Cinque Terre.

Also, like those young Americans who took on such a Tour years ago, we began our adventure by traveling to Europe the slow way, aboard an ocean liner. We were on the Queen Mary 2 (we flew home from Paris at the end). Those six days at sea were glorious and a very grand way of starting out, although it was difficult for Margaret to make the transition from her pampered life of sophistication on the ship to our decidedly not-so-glamorous travels once we reached the U.K. During our adventure, we stayed at a few hotels (the Elbflorenz in Dresden and the Hotel Palma in Pompeii) and Bed & Breakfasts, but mostly we stayed in apartments (when we didn't have friends we could hit up for free accommodations). A few apartments were attached to b&bs. The nicest apartment was in Rome. In Paris, we rented an amazingly tiny apartment, but it was well-equipped and very efficiently laid out. But, the Queen Mary it was not.

On our Grand Tour, we explored art, religion, history, food, and other local attractions. Our adventures took us from the sublime (the Orangerie in Paris, the Bellini show in Rome, David in Florence, and high mass in Vienna, for instance) to the opulent (Schunbrunn and Versailles) to the ridiculous (the Blue Wonder in Dresden, the obsession with correct change in southern Italy, etc.) and the silly (like, Spamalot). John discovered his devotional side, lighting candles and praying in almost every church or cathedral we visited (he especially liked the places that had kneelers). One of the key aspects of our Tour was learning how to navigate cities and train networks, as we never once rented a car. Just the simple act of travel was sometimes a challenge; always part of the adventure!

In the places we visited, we learned about power and wealth, and the consequences of abuse of power and the extravagance of wealth. We marveled at the legends of Prague and the grand vistas over the Rhine in Germany and over Paris at night from the Arc de Triomphe. We enjoyed learning more about favorite cultural icons (like the Beatles walking tour in London). We spent a fair amount of time high above ground (the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Untersberg in Salzburg, the Eiffel Tower, etc.) and far underground (the salt mine in Salzburg and the catacombs in Rome and Paris, for example). And, we tried our best, though mostly unsuccessfully, to stand up for ourselves when confronted with the tyranny of tour groups.

We discovered unpleasant truths about what can happen when groups of people believe that they are the only ones to whom God speaks. And, we wondered how the brilliant and amazing culture of Rome could morph into . . . . well, what is now southern Italy.

We explored and climbed over ruins in Germany, Rome and Pompeii. John created a rating scale for ruins and castles. His favorite ruins were Rheinfels Castle and Pompeii. He hated anything that required a guided tour (like Burg Eltz), although he liked audioguides, at least for the first ten minutes or so.

We walked over many bridges in Venice, and trails in the Cinque Terre and along the Rhine. We experimented with local customs and language, although we must admit that we found Czech almost indecipherable. Our efforts to teach the children “please,” “thank you,” and “hot chocolate with whipped cream,” in the languages that we encountered came to a screeching halt in Prague. We owe a million thanks to our B&B host in Prague, Jiri, and his wife. We would have been lost without them. Almost everywhere we went, we met other travelers from all over the globe; we enjoyed swapping stories and ideas.

And, then, there was the food: schnitzel in Germany and Austria; Nutella all over Europe; crepes in Paris; currywurst in Dresden; chocolate, frites and waffles in Belgium; the pizza and pasta, and the fresh anchovies, in Italy; and those mouth-watering chocolate dipped digestives in London. And, the beverages: hot chocolate; coffee in Italy; Riesling from the Rhine; beer in Belgium; and the lovely tradition that brought the food and beverage together—the dipping of cookies in sweet wine in Italy.

Here’s a little poem that Margaret wrote about one of her favorite food items:

An Ode to the Baguette in Paris

O you are so delicious
And wonderful to devour
O Baguette

O Baguette I wish I could
Stuff my suitcase
With you, O Baguette!

And, the friends. “Old” friends: the Basdens in London; the Yeowell/O’Connell family in Belgium; and the Andonova family in Geneva. And new friends: the Mills family, whom we met on a bus in Salzburg. We can’t wait to see you all again!

We cannot end our blog without some mention of the family opera, which has been referred to occasionally. This opera, such as it was, became an important part of our journey, lifting our spirits when things got tough—in terms of our surroundings or in our almost constant togetherness. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to write lyrics really, but we did manage some titles and assignments:

Opening: “O Come On, Just One More City/Just One More Week” Mom

“Why Am I Not Traveling with Grandma?” A lament from Margaret

“Mind the Crap Please” John (based on the oft heard refrain on the London tube, “Mind the Gap Please,” only this time in recognition of the tremendous amount of dog poo we encountered on the streets of most European cities; John came up with his refrain all by himself)

“Why Won’t the Cash Machine Work?” a lament/duet by Mom and Dad

“The Castle Song” John

"The Lorelei Song" Duet: Margaret and John

“What Are They Not Teaching You in that School I’m Not Sending You To?” Dad

“I am a Klingon Warrior/Worrier” Margaret (Margaret had a habit of attaching herself to one of us for extended periods of time, insisting on holding hands even in the safest environments; she also worried a great deal)

“It’s All Part of the Adventure” the big number to finish the first act, led by Dad

ACT 2
“The Blue Wonder” Dad

“The Bread and Cheese Song” Margaret

“The Map/Public Transport Song” Duet: Margaret and John

“The Schnitzel Song” John

“I Will Not Sleep, I Will Not Nap. I Am Morally Opposed to Rest, although I Am Always Tired When I’m Walking!” Margaret

“The Blue Book Song” (including a chorus of “Where can we go and see no blue books? Dresden! Dresden!”) All of us (the “Blue Book” refers to the much spotted Rick Steves guidebooks that we saw everywhere we went, except Dresden; by the end of our trip, we were really, really sick of seeing blue books)

“I Am a Walking Pharmacy” Mom (Each of us was assigned a suitcase. In addition to our own clothing, etc. in our own suitcase, each of us had something else. Margaret got the schoolwork. John got the dirty clothing and the guidebook information. Joseph got the rain jackets. And, Mom got the drugs—the Advil, the cold medicine, Tums, etc., etc.).

Finish: a reprise of “It’s All Part of the Adventure,” perhaps with a little “Just One More City” (especially now that we are home and dealing with real life again)

Our Grand Tour really defies summary. But, for those who may be reading this and contemplating such an adventure (or a smaller version) for themselves and their families, we cannot recommend the Grand Tour more enthusiastically. It wasn’t always easy and being together so much had its pitfalls, not to mention the challenges of language, culture and getting around in unfamiliar places, but we learned a great deal about Europe and about ourselves.

We learned that a smile goes a long way when you don’t know the language and an effort at a simple “please” and “thank you” in the local language goes even further. We also learned how important it is to understand the various layers of how to make someone feel welcome (good signs are key!). We discovered that art and culture are vital elements to our society; they not only reveal our unique qualities, but they help to bring people together. We also realized that, though the destination was important, the journey often holds wonderful and meaningful surprises. We will never forget that crazy quest out to the Blue Wonder bridge in Dresden, which was a big disappointment, only to find that that journey led us to a delightful street fair on German Unity Day, where we not only feasted on local “delicacies” (who knew there were so many ways of serving sausage??), but were looked after by an old man who couldn’t speak a word of English. And, Dresden itself, started off to be just a convenient place to spend a couple of days between the Rhine in Germany and Prague. We ended up loving that city.

Our Grand Tour is finished. Although it's hard to imagine that we will ever do such a thing again, we are so grateful for the opportunity for at least one adventure like this. Everyone should be so fortunate. Like those early aristocrats, we set out to learn about art and culture. But, we discovered early and often that art and culture are not simply to be found in museums or in tourist hotspots. They are lived out all over the place.

The world is certainly getting smaller. On the morning after the presidential election, for instance, we were in the Cinque Terre, a remote place in Italy. In our room at Egi's Rooms (at the top of a very, very long flight of marble stairs), we had no television or radio or internet access. At the train station (we were traveling to Geneva that day), we couldn't even find a newspaper. But, it didn't take long to figure out the results of the election. It started with talk on the station platform and then, when we got to the next train station, those rumors were confirmed by cable tv. The world is getting smaller, but you can't really experience it by watching television. Get out there! And, don't just get out there, allow some time to get off the beaten path. There's a lot to see and experience.

So, there you have it. Goodbye! Auf Wiedersehen! Arrivederci! Ciao! Au Revoir! Doei! Na shledanou! Cheers!

This is the blog entry that ends like this. So long!

The Reisert Family
Susan, Joseph, Margaret and John

Posted by jrreisert 19:06 Comments (0)

I Spent Ten Weeks in Europe, but Came Home a Canadian

The Grand Tour is . . . . over.

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Dear Friends,
Let's start with the title. Ever since we spent ONE DAY with our new friends from Canada, who are living in Lucca, Italy this fall, Joseph has been increasingly sounding like a Canadian. His speech is especially littered recklessly with the Canadian, "eh." As in, "we should go to that museum, eh?" and "it sure looks gray out, eh?" We spent that one day with the Mills family weeks ago! So, instead of his language being laced with lovely European words and phrases, like the various ways of saying hello and good-bye, please and thank you, etc., we just hear that "eh" all the time. We spent ten glorious weeks in Europe, but somehow I'm now married to a Canadian. How did that happen??

We are indeed home. The Grand Tour is over. In the next few days, we hope to have a few "deeper" thoughts about our big adventure. But, for now, a report on our big day of travel over the ocean, this time by plane. Yuck (at least for me).

We flew from Paris on Monday. Since we flew Aer Lingus, our flight included a layover, and a switch onto a different plane, in Dublin. Both flights were, thankfully, uneventful (although there was some unpleasant turbulence just after we took off from Dublin), especially since I really hate to fly. The only really interesting thing of the day (aside from my moaning and muttering about a) hating to fly, and b) not wanting to go home-- and, I will readily admit that these were not the least bit interesting to the rest of the family) was what happened at the Dublin airport.

After landing in Dublin, we had to make our way to another terminal. When we made our way through various hallways, we found ourselves suddenly (and, with no warning) dumped into a new security line, and right at the front of one of the lines. We hadn't finished up the waters we had purchased for the first flight, so we quickly chugged those down. And, then it was time to take off belts, watches, take cameras out of bags, etc., etc.

Going through security in Paris had been a piece of cake, so we were quite unprepared for what we faced in Dublin. First, there was poor Margaret who has been setting off metal detectors all over Europe. We usually point to all of the metal in her mouth and they are usually satisfied (except for Eurostar, where they insisted on patting her down). The Dublin officials insisted that the braces could not possibly set off the detector. After some investigation, we discovered that Margaret's sneakers were the culprit. Who knew?

And, then there was the nasty business of the kid-sized craft scissors in Margaret and John's pencil cases. I had forgotten all about these. The security in Paris spotted them in the x-ray machine, but deemed them unable to cause harm (at this point, they probably don't even cut paper all that well) and let them pass. Not so in Dublin. They were confiscated. Along with the duct tape, which we've been hauling around Europe and had used that very morning to repair two of the suitcases (our $99 LL Bean suitcases held up remarkably well, considering what we've put them through, but Margaret's got a small rip and John's was showing some "weak" spots near the bottom, so we duct-taped them up before checking them). Our friend, Tom (aka Cruiser), might have put up a fight for that duct tape, but we just let it go.

The really special treatment was saved for . . . can you guess? Me. I set off the detector. So, I got patted down and had that wand apparatus waved all over me. I thought that it seemed clear that the wand did not like the clasp on my pants, but the security guard was not satisfied. I had to take off my sweater, go through the detector a couple more times, get patted down once or twice more, and, then, the real treat was to have the wand set over my body yet again, only this time a little more thoroughly than I was comfortable with. I don't know how close I was to be escorted off to a secret room to undress, or perhaps she was thinking about making me drop my pants right there, but the whole experience was extremely unpleasant. I'm all for good security, but I'm a (almost!) middle-aged woman traveling with my family. What did she think I was trying to smuggle onto the plane? Or, had she read my thoughts of taping some fancy French cheese under my clothing-- fancy, smelly cheese that I would use to overcome the pilot and demand that s/he take me back to Paris???

Finally, we got through and before dealing with all of the customs and immigration business (two more lines), we stopped off at the terminal Irish pub. We handed over our remaining euros, twenty-four of them, and asked what we could get. Joe and I each had a large Guinness. The kids had juice and we shared three sandwiches. Guinness makes everything better . . .

Finally, it was time to board the plane. We took off on time and landed at Logan a little early-- unbelievable, eh? So much for my really full experience with airline travel!

We spent Monday night night near my parents. Good thing, too. Although we landed before 4:00 pm local time, we really started to feel that we were still on Paris time, which would have been 10:00 pm. We had a quick dinner at Grammy and Grampy's, told a few stories, and then it was off to the hotel. I think we were all asleep by 7:30.

That's about it for now. We are looking forward to seeing our friends and family and getting the kids back to school. We are not, however, looking forward to the mountain of mail that must be dealt with. Or, the fact that work looms. Or, all of the things we need to do to get ourselves and the houses ready for winter, which seems to be approaching very quickly.

We'll finish our blog soon, with some thoughts from each of us.

Cheers, eh?

Susan

Posted by jrreisert 19.11.2008 01:13 Archived in USA Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

Last Days in the City of Lights

Or is it the City of accordion players?

overcast 14 °C
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At the end of our trip, during our last weekend in Paris, we had a little trouble deciding what to do. On the one hand, we wanted to do some memorable highlights, but on the other, we also wanted to try some new things. On Saturday, at least, we managed to be very efficient in our sightseeing. As we traveled, it struck us that four out of every five street musicians was an accordionist. We must have seen ten (including one playing aggressively in a subway car on Sunday) over the course of the weekend.

We didn't quite reach our goal of opening the Louvre at 9, but we were there well before 10, and long before there were any crowds. Having spent some time on the ancient civilizations of the Near East and of Egypt and having extensively studied the Roman Republic and Empire, we decided to fill the gaping hole in the middle — ancient Greece. So we followed the ancient Greece tour in our kids' guide to the Louvre. We admired a few of the Pantheon marbles that somehow the French got before Lord Elgin brought the rest to London, and we learned about Greek painting through a study of vases. Well, Margaret did. John was not all that excited by the Greek artifacts, though he did perk up a bit as I tried to explain the fate of Agamemnon at the end of the Trojan War! We also deviated from our program to look at some of the French Crown jewels and some Roman mosaics. It may not last, but John and Margaret now both insist that they want to make some mosaic art of their own after we return to the States.

On our way out, we paused to take a photo to say our farewell to the greatest museum in the Western world. Now that we've been to the Uffizi, the Vatican Museum, the National Gallery in London, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, we feel pretty confident in saying that the Louvre is best. (Though we haven't been to the Getty yet, so maybe we need to take another trip before we can be sure....)

At_the_Louvre.jpg

So efficient were we determined to be that we ate lunch (peanut butter sandwiches) on the walk from the Louvre to the Orsay, where, once again, we were reminded how great the Paris Museum Card is, since we got to skip the ticket buying queue and went straight into the museum. The kids began by sketching — Margaret drew a sculpture of four women (representing the four continents of Africa, Europe, America, and Asia) supporting a globe; John sketched the big clock hanging above the museum.

After the sketching, we toured through the parts of the collection we had not gotten to on our first visit and looked again at Margaret's favorite part — the art nouveau furniture collection.

We had a schedule to keep, so we made sure to get out of there by about 2 and walked determinedly in the direction of the Place de la Concorde and the English-language bookseller, WH Smith to buy some books for the kids to read on the flight back on Monday (yikes, are we leaving that soon?).

On the theory that our kids like best sights that involve stairs — either up to elevated viewpoints or down into tunnels — we made our way to see the little museum of the sewers of Paris, the entry to which is in our very own neighborhood, the 7th. The internet can't do justice to the smell, or so says Margaret. But the displays, which explained the historical development of the Paris water and sewer network and had a lot to say about how the workers keep the sewer channels clear of sand and other debris. Our favorite device was a giant ball, which is pushed through by the pressure of the water behind it, clearing away the debris in front of it. Here's one of the few pix we have:

Sewer.jpg

After the sewer, we wandered through the Rue Cler for a little shopping . . . and snacking . . . and more shopping. Then it was home for dinner. But did the evening end? No, we took the bus (our first bus trip in Paris) up to the Etoile to climb the Arc de Triomphe (and our last use of the Museum Pass).

On our way up there was a curious ritual we encountered a few times before. Susan and I had free admission to the site, with the Museum Pass, and the kids' admissions were also free. But at the ticket window, we all had to be issued tickets. But since our admission was free, why did we need tickets? Didn't they trust the ticket takers later on to be able to read the dates on our Museum Passes?

At any rate, as we arrived, there were still soldiers in full dress uniform at the end of the daily ceremony at the French Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We were treated to hearing the military band playing the Marseillaise, whilst the assembled French audience sang with the soldiers. The view from the top was spectacular, and shortly after we arrived the Eiffel Tower put on its hourly display of strobe lights. Our pictures of that spectacle didn't come out so well, but here's a shot of the Champs-Elysees, looking towards the Place de la Concorde, where a Ferris Wheel had just been erected.

Champs-Ely..t_night.jpg

Sunday

Our last day was devoted to visits to places we had not seen on our trip of four years ago. We began with the catacombs of Paris (continuing with the theme of sights featuring stairs). Unlike the ancient catacombs of Rome, these were constructed during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the Parisian health authorities decided that several of the city cemeteries were endangering the public health. But if the dead were to be exhumed, what could be done with them? Put them in the abandoned mines that crisscrossed the deep underside of Paris, naturally. The tour takes one through some of the mines and then through chambers and chambers filled with the bones of the re-interred dead of Paris, as these had been "artfully" arranged by the Parisian authorities at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

Catacombs.jpg

The catacombs tour takes one through more than a mile of underground passages, depositing one at some distance from the entry. We passed a bakery, picked up the best baguette we ate during our whole week here (and for only 90 Euro cents!), and got back on the tube, heading from the southern end of central Paris to the northern end and Monmartre. Rick Steeves does note that the neighborhood one walks through to get to the Sacre Coeur is a bit seedier than the rest of central Paris, but we were not prepared for just how nasty it was.

Even so, we had a nice picnic part-way up the hill (and as far as we could get from the people selling hot Marlborough cigarettes and fake Louis Vuitton luggage);.

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We admired the church (some of us more than others). John lit a candle and finally bought the small wooden cross he has been for some time trying to get. He's been wearing it proudly ever since.

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We had thought about touring Monmartre but decided that we wanted to remember Paris as more beautiful than seamy, so we headed to the Ile de la Cité and walked from there to the Ile St. Louis, which was simply delightful. Had we not felt quite so poor, we might have bought some art, but we contented ourselves with admiring it. Instead, we bought the kids a couple of Nutella crepes and some take-away coffee.

5Crepes.jpg

Once home, we packed for a bit, then ate our farewell dinner at a local cafe-bistro, La Terrasse du 7eme. Susan is finding it hard to to say au revoir, but a fancy meal helped! We took one final look at the Eiffel Tower all lit up for the evening, and headed home for our last night in Paris.

Tomorrow night, we expect to be sleeping in America!

au revoir,
Joe

Posted by jrreisert 16.11.2008 09:07 Archived in France Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Three more days, three more baguettes

overcast 10 °C
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Isn't the Louvre open late on Wednesday night?

We had big plans to get the most out of our last Wednesday in Paris. I finished my column on Tuesday evening, and Susan rose early and went first thing to the local supermarché so that we could have a quick dinner in and still get back out to the Louvre's evening hours.

Deceived by some early rays of sunshine on her early morning errand, Susan decided it was going to be warm enough that each of us could forego an extra layer of warm clothing. Paris, however, betrayed us. It was quite cool, breezy, damp, and raw — ah, the feeling of Maine in November, here in Paris.

We took the metro over to Châtelet (Paris's metro is absolutely the best subway anywhere — lots of lines, lots of trains, generally clean, and quite cheap. It must be ridiculously subsidized, but it's very convenient.)

By the time we walked the couple of blocks over to the Seine (and yes, I took a wrong turn and led us, briefly, away from the river not towards it — and was briefly fooled into thinking St. Eustache was Notre Dame), we were all freezing.

I wanted to see the Conciergerie anyway, but Susan probably would have objected, except that entry was free with our museum pass, and she was freezing. The place is not that much to see — a gothic basement, basically, with some prison cells where those waiting to be judged by the kangaroo courts of the French Revolutionaries were stored. There was a memorial wall listing all of the 2780 people executed by the guillotine during the Terror, and I was surprised both that the number was so small, by comparison to the atrocities of the Twentieth Century, and that so few of them were nobles.

From there we walked the two blocks up to the Sainte-Chapelle, which has the most amazing high gothic interior anywhere we've been, with a magnificent set of stained-glass windows. To appreciate the place properly, one would really like to go on a sunny day and have a pair of binoculars, so that the windows could be studied. We contented ourselves with identifying the few scenes that were low enough to see clearly (Moses being put into the reed basket, David and Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, etc.) and headed off to our next adventure.

After making it past the organized gang of beggars at Notre Dame, we quickly ate our lunch in the square and peeked into the cathedral. Having been recently cleaned and repaired, the facade is spectacular.

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We really liked the statue of St. Denis holding his own head . . .

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and the gruesome demons in the last judgment.

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But when we went in, we found that noon mass was in progress. So we sat quietly for a bit, then went out to see about going up the tower. But for reasons not explained, it was closed. What to do? Shop.

We walked from the Ile de la cite (quickly, because it was still cold) towards the Bon Marché department store. (It seemed to be the closest thing Paris has to a Harrods, but, for the record, that's not very close). Along the way, we passed St. Sulpice church and enjoyed reading the church's official refutation of Dan Brown's interpretation of its astronomical gnomon and of the letters P and S in its stained glass windows. We snacked in a cafe across from Bon Marché to prepare ourselves for the store and headed in. I wanted to spend all our remaining money on foie gras and truffles (the mushrooms, not the chocolates), but Susan wouldn't hear of it.

The shopping done, we went home for an early dinner, followed by our second trip to the Louvre. We tried to follow the "Age of Revolutions" itinerary in our guidebook, but this tour involved traversing virtually the whole of the palace, since it started with the monumental 19th century tableaux, then moved through the smaller-scale late 18th and 19th century French paintings, and headed at last to the state apartments of Louis Napoleon (though, alas, we didn't make it that far). We did as best we could, admired the heroic Davids and got as far as the striking portrait of an African woman (one of the few paintings by a woman in the Louvre and one of the even fewer to feature an African as the subject). But, exhausted, we headed home. . . after taking one more photo:

Night_at_Louvre.jpg

Exiting the metro stop at almost 9, I proposed that we walk the two blocks to the Champs de Mars to see the Eiffel Tower put on its top of the hour light show, which we did. And then to bed.

If it's Thursday, this must be Versailles

The forecast for Thursday was sunny, but cold, and it seemed the hands-down best choice for our day trip to Versailles. Thanks to our late evening of touring on Wednesday, we didn't quite get the early start we had first envisioned, but we were still out of the flat by 9, which got us into the vicinity of the Palace (after a ride on the Metro and RER) by about 10. We had to check the backpack with our lunch, but our Museum Passes got us into the King's Apartments for no further charge (sans audioguide). The place was not too crowded, though we spent most of our time sandwiched between two Asian tour groups, the first of which was dressed and made up like a convention of Tokyo streetwalkers, but might just have been a group of high school or college students from Japan. They giggled too much, and posed at every moment in groups of four or six making "V for victory" signs for one another's telephones. Their guide — the only male in the group — basically ignored it all and plowed relentlessly through his spiel.

In each room was a ridiculous work of modern "art," each more grating and annoying than the one before. Par example. . .

Balloon_dog.jpg

I would like to think that these were intended as a high-minded commentary on the nature of monarchy. Once upon a time, people claimed to be ordained by God to rule over the rest. . . and this claim was believed! The king "needed" a palace for his mistress! And the public treasury paid for the thing. (It is beautiful, by the way, but I digress). These works of "art" are exactly the same — pieces of ridiculous crap that some impressario called "art" and demanded a lot of money for — and people believed him! And so the state, and prestigious foundations opened their wallets to pay vast sums to buy a "work" of "art" consisting of two inflatable children's pool toys attached to a galvanized chain-link fence! Unfortunately, I think that the people who organized the show actually liked the stuff!

For the record, John said he would have given Versailles three stars out of five (we'll have to post his full set of castle ratings at some point), but the modern art was so ugly, he knocked it down to two.

In fact, even apart from the "art," Versailles was something of a disappointment. We enjoyed the Rick Steeves self-guided tour, and the rooms are very nice, but we've seen a lot of palaces in the last ten weeks, and Versailles is not displayed as effectively as, for example, was Schönbrunn. The hall of mirrors is, of course, spectacular, but it's sad to realize that the mirrors that were a marvel when they were installed are decidedly inferior to what can be bought for almost nothing today at any Home Depot. After touring the King's and Queen's rooms, we retrieved our bag and headed out to the garden. Margaret, our good, rule-following, eldest child insisted that we had to take our picnic in the officially designated picnic grounds. But there was a group of French school children there, making a lot of noise, and Susan refused to subject herself to the presence of fifty middle-school kids, French or not. So we wandered a bit through the garden, till we found a discreet place near a fountain, and ate our cheese and baguettes.

We continued on our walk away from the palace and reached the Grand Canal, where the bike-rental stand was still open. I felt bad that John had pretty much hated the palace, and so we rented the bikes. We biked around the Grand Canal, where, back in the day, the king had imported real gondoliers from Venice so as to amuse and debase the French nobility.

Bikes.jpg

Then it was off to the two Trianons. The Grand Trianon first, because everyone who has a really big palace needs a little and more intimate palace to spend some private time in when the splendor of court life proves to be too much. And then to the Petit Trianon, which Louis XV had built for Mme de Pompadour, but is now marketed for its connection to Marie Antoinette, whom the French dream of marketing as effectively as the Austrians market their Sissy. The highlight here are the English gardens and the fake village Marie Antoinette had built so that she could play at being a dairy maid (inspired, alas, by Rousseau).

MA_village.jpg

As you can see from the photo, it really was the first "Disney" village, but, luckily for us in America, the French were not so good at marketing.

From the Petit Trianon, it was most of an hour's walk back to the train station and about another hour's worth of travel back to the flat. A quick meal of leftovers and it was off to bed for everyone.

Notre Dame, more Modern "Art", and a date with Jean-Jacques Rousseau

We got off to a slow start this morning. Though I was in bed by 10:30 last night, I didn't rise until nearly 8, which was about when the kids awoke as well. We weren't on our way till nearly 10 and, though the weather had turned cloudy and gray after yesterday's sunshine, we headed off to do one of our "must see" sights — the view from the Notre Dame tower. When we arrived, the queue was deceptively short. Though there were only about 30 people ahead of us, it was almost a half hour till we entered the tower, with another ten minute layover in the bookstore. When we got to the level of the facade between the towers, we discovered that the top of the South Tower, which is normally open, was closed. There was no explanation. No sign. Only a locked door. C'est la France! Despite (or perhaps thanks to) the gloom, Susan got some good photos of gargoyles.

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From Notre Dame, it is only a short walk to the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, which is an excellent, highly literary bookstore, with a varied and interesting collection of classic novels and recent literary fiction, with a smattering of thoughtful works of history. Unfortunately, we were really looking for a good children's section, which S&C didn't have. Worse, the one store employee wandered off somewhere, saying she'd be back "in a few minutes." She left as we arrived. After twenty minutes, John had decided that he might just read a Hardy Boys mystery. Margaret had found nothing. I would have bought the mystery had the proprietress been there to take my cash, but she wasn't. We waited a minute, until John realized that he'd rather go to another bookstore than wait till this mysterious Frenchwoman decided to return to her day job.

We crossed back over the Ile de la Cité and stopped by a charcuterie and bought lunch, which we ate in the square in front of the Hotel de Ville.

Thence to the Pompidou Center, which we skipped on our last visit to France.

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The building is good for a few laughs, and the modern "art" is good for a few more — except for the really disturbing stuff, which may give me nightmares tonight. We've succeeded in imparting all our prejudices against post-representational art to our children, so they begged us to leave at the first available opportunity. After about an hour, we decided that they had suffered enough, and we let them free. Unfortunately, there is not much going on outside the Pompidou on a Friday in November, so we had to go elsewhere for our fun.

At this point, we separated. I have been eager to see the Musée Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Montmorency (a north suburb of Paris), and the rest of the family has been equally determined not to go. So Susan took the kids on a forced march from the Pompidou, back to the Bon Marche, from there to the Louvre Carousel, and only then, after hours of walking and shopping, allowed them to take the metro home. By contrast, I tubed it up to the Gare du Nord, got on the suburban line to Einghein les Bains, and walked from there to 5 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Montmorency (our map doesn't reach that far, so I had sketched one on a piece of notebook paper, based on the museum's website). The museum is located in the house Rousseau lived in after leaving the Hermitage on Mme d'Epinay's property, and in which he wrote Julie, Emile, and the Social Contract. (Actually, he did his writing in his "dungeon" — a sort of stone shed in the garden out back). The guided tour, in French, was excellent, and I understood almost all of it. The highlights were the manuscripts on display (of the Confessions, and of a letter) and the pastel portrait of Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, which is the only portrait of his that Rousseau ever liked.

As luck would have it, I and the rest of the family arrived back at the Ecole Militaire metro stop on the same train, though in different cars. We toyed with going to the evening hours of the Louvre tonight, but we had all done too much walking during the day for that.

Posted by jrreisert 14.11.2008 09:53 Archived in France Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Beautiful Paris

And the countdown begins

semi-overcast 12 °C
View The Reisert Family Grand Tour on jrreisert's travel map.

We are in our last week of the Grand Tour. Days now include, “today is the last Tuesday in Europe,” etc. We can hardly believe that it’s almost over! But, what a great place to end our journey—Paris!

We arrived in Paris early Saturday evening. We are staying in a very small apartment in a great neighborhood, the “Rue Cler” neighborhood, near the Eiffel Tower (the 7th Arrondissement, for Paris-junkies). After arrival, we had enough time to gather some groceries at the local “Supermarché.” Then, it was time to settle in and get things organized. The apartment is quite small, so organization will be key.

Sunday morning, we went to worship at the American Church in Paris, also not far from the apartment. People at the church were very warm and friendly. We enjoyed looking around the church, which featured some beautiful stained glass windows (including one of the wise and foolish maidens, the Gospel lesson of the day, and another of the Genevan Reformers, whom we got to know better last weekend).

After church, we wandered down the Rue Cler on our way back to the apartment. We marveled at all of the things we could buy-- from antiques, to children's clothes, to luggage and shoes, to chocolates, to fruits and veggies, to cheese. Oh, the cheese! We stood in the window for awhile watching the locals order cheese from the people in white lab coats (we were thinking of YOU, Laurie Osborne!).

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Our little stroll over, we returned to the apartment to start some laundry and to have some lunch. Though gray and gloomy, we set out in the afternoon to take a look around. We ended up taking a monster walk, from the flat, past the Hôtel des Invalides. . .

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over the Pont Alexandre III. . .

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and by the Grand Palais up to the Champs-Elysees. We walked all the way down the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe and then to Trocodero to see the Eiffel Tower. We thought about going up the Tower, but the crowds scared us away. With the holiday on Tuesday, the weekend was a four-day weekend for many, so we found crowds at many tourist sights.

Finally, we made our way back to the apartment for a quiet dinner in.

On Monday, we went to the Louvre first. On our way in, Susan took a moment to express her thoughts about the Da Vinci Code (this is not the Holy Grail, despite what Dan Brown has suggested):

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We found a nice kids guidebook that included nine self-guided tours. We took the first tour, of the major masterpieces.

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To visit the major masterpieces required that we march around a lot of the Louvre, which is some undertaking. The Louvre is enormous. Tired, we headed out to the Napoleon Hall under the Pyramid and grabbed some lunch. Then, it was back into the museum. For our second tour, we focused on early writing of Mesopotamia. Thankfully, this kept us in a much smaller area. We saw lots of interesting items, including the Code of Hammurabi.

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Margaret has been studying ancient civilizations that this was an especially good learning opportunity. But by the end, we were pretty much wiped out:

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Mid-afternoon, we took in some window shopping and then a break at a café, where we feasted on Nutella crepes, along with café au lait and hot chocolate.

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Finally, because the day wasn’t over yet(!), we visited the Orangerie, to see some really huge paintings by Monet. Impressive impressionism.

Finally beat by art, (and that the museum was closing) we headed to the apartment.

Tuesday morning, we found the weather clear and glorious (not exactly expected as a couple of weather forecasts called for rain), so we went to the Eiffel Tower first. This was a “must” for John and we hoped to beat the crowds. Indeed, we did beat the crowds. Deciding to climb the stairs to the second level (stairs are not available to the third level), Joseph, John and I were joined by an alien child who looked and talked an awful lot like Margaret. The only problem was that she willingly, even happily, welcomed the idea of climbing the stairs. And she didn’t even ask for one thing in return, not even a morsel of food. Here is the alien, at the top (the number indicates the number of stairs we climbed):

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Here's a shot of three of us at the 2nd level of the tower:

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We enjoyed our time with the alien child, although she did insist that we take the elevator to the third level, a plan with which I was most unhappy. Still, we got some nice photos, such as this one of the Louvre:

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But, finally, when we arrived back at the bottom of the Tower, Margaret came back to claim her space in our family. She was hungry and tired and started making demands. The Margaret that we know and love so well was back.

We had a nice picnic lunch, with some delicious French goat cheese, and then we hiked it on over to the Rodin Museum, one of the museums that we especially enjoyed on our last trip to Paris.

After the Museum, it was again time for a brief reprieve from sight-seeing. We stopped at a café for a little snack.

Then, off to the Orsay. Yes, I say, the Orsay! We didn’t spend much time at the Orsay, but enough for the kids to settle in with a Monet (not exactly my choice, but they were happy) and do some sketching.

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We closed the place and headed home by RER and Metro. On our way home, we stopped at the local bakery for a one-Euro bagette (the best 1 Euro we spent all day, according to Joseph). Just as we were walking the last block towards the flat, it started to rain — first a few drops and then a downpour.

But we made it home with ourselves, and our bread, mostly dry.

Au revoir,

Susan

Posted by jrreisert 12.11.2008 08:41 Archived in France Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

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