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Trip to Paris

February 28 - March 7, 2013


For Charlie's 70th birthday (how did he get THAT old?) Jenny wanted to take him out to dinner someplace special. Okay, how about Paris? Not Paris Texas or the dozen other Paris towns in the United States. The French Paris. So she did.

Paris (or the French citizens) have changed dramatically. We were there almost 40 years ago, and felt outright hostility to anyone who didn't speak perfect French. This time the French people we met were universally friendly and helpful. Not everyone spoke English, but enough did that we never had a language problem. One bus driver, trying to understand Jenny, said "Just blurt it out in English!" She did and he was very helpful. Our daughter-in-law, who works in the hospitality industry, tells us that there was a major campaign a decade ago, among the French, to become more friendly since they were losing so many tourist dollars. It worked.

Travel hint

Unlike many places in Europe, the service (tip) is included in the restaurant prices - not a service charge added to the bill, nor are you expected to tip. The second time we raised the issue, the waiter said "If anyone says that you should add a tip, they are taking advantage of you as a tourist." If you have a drink or coffee at a bar, the price is lower than at a table (which includes the service charge for the waiter). Don't buy something at the bar, then sit down at a table. Ask the waiter for a "Carafe" if you would like a (free) glass of water with your meal.

Guides say that credit cards are not widely accepted. They were accepted at every restaurant, museum, train/subway that we used. The "Master Card / Visa" signs are not as universal as they are in the United States. If you see a numeric pad to enter your PIN number near the cashier, they take credit cards. We have a chip and pin (European style) credit card, so cannot comment on acceptance of cards that require reading a magnetic stripe. Just to be safe, we had picked up enough Euros to pay any single bill, but finally used the cash on the last meal and train ticket, so we wouldn't bring as many Euros home.

As usual, the Cambio or Money Exchanges have a terrible exchange rate. But we have never had a problem withdrawing Euros (or whatever local currency) from practically any ATM, and have never had an American style ATM fee. Our only warning, if you want cash at the airport when you arrive, be sure the ATM is associated with a bank, not a Cambio, so you get the better bank exchange rate. Occasionally a vendor will ask if you want to be billed in Euros or Dollars. The answer is Euros - your bank will give a better exchange rate than the store.

Getting There - Thursday February 28 - Friday March 1

We went to the Austin airport early Thursday (to meet the neighbor's schedule who was giving us a ride), then flew to Dallas, and direct from DFW to Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. From there we took a train to the city arriving mid-day Friday. There is very efficient train service from the airport to the city; in-town the airport train is just another subway, with a stop near our hotel. If the "RER Line B" train from the airport doesn't go near your hotel, the train ticket also lets you transfer to any other subway line.

Hotel recommendation

We stayed at the new Hôtel Atmosphères in the Latin Quarter, also called the Left Bank (it would be the left bank of the Seine river if you floated downstream through town). It was a few blocks from Notre Dame Cathedral as the crow flies, a few blocks from the Pantheon, a few blocks from the Sorbonne (University), near the medieval Museum de Cluny, and walking distance to many many other things like the Louvre, so walk we did. We highly recommend this small hotel. It was very quiet, spotlessly clean, with friendly staff and reliable free WiFi. We chose an economy room which was small (e.g. no desk) but ample.

Paris Friday March 1

First day abroad is usually slow, so we had lunch, took a short nap, then went walking - arriving at the Louvre museum near dusk. The glass pyramid, in the courtyard of the surrounding museum buildings, is actually the main entrance. It seems fairly large on the surface, but leads to the much larger underground "city" that connects the various museum wings and buildings.

Just west of the Louvre, along the Seine River, is a large park. At the end of the Louvre complex, towards the park, are some formal gardens with an arch. You might call it a large arch until you have seen the Arc de Triomphe. Looking back through the arch, you can see the pyramid.

Travel Hint

The Louvre only sells their €11 admission tickets on the day they are used. If you have a ticket, the line to get into the museum is much shorter. Two solutions... (1) Use one of the side entrances - try the Carousel entrance (no carousel there, but it is near the arch above). Once inside there are vending machines for admission tickets. Or (2) buy a ticket good for any day for €12,60 at one of many department stores. The first time you use the ticket the date is stamped on it. Advance sales on the web require you to pick up the tickets in person at one of the outlets, so no advantage of using the web.

There are many free coat rooms at the Louvre. The signs even say, in many languages, free, no tipping allowed. But be sure you remember where the cloak room is - which room you used!

Restaurant tables in Paris are VERY close together - perhaps a foot apart or less. At dinner Friday night we recognized a British accent at the next table, and chatted with the couple. She (Pandora) had brought her husband Tom Harrison to Paris (from London) as a surprise for his March 4th birthday. He was merely 40, but it was a fun coincidence, with the same trip, same birthday, same restaurant, at the same time, both a long way from home.

When the waiters heard about the birthdays, our desserts arrived with fireworks!

Saturday March 2 - the Louvre and Notre Dame

The Louvre is huge. Common wisdom is you cannot see it all in a day, but we tried. In our experience the only comparable (or larger) museum is the Vatican Museum. Plan on a very long day. The Louvre allows photography (usual no flash, no tripods rules). I promise you will only see a few of our pictures.

There are lots of historical artifacts in the Louvre, including some very large examples - next to Jenny

And more examples with Charlie

Every visitor has to see the Mona Lisa. Yes, that is it behind the bullet proof glass in the center of this picture at the far end of the room.

It is not as bad as it seems... I grabbed the picture above when the room was unusually full. More common crowd is like this and you can get close in a couple minutes.

The Venus de Milo was carved about 130 BC and found buried in a field on the Greek island of Melos in 1820. The original Greek goddess was Aphrodite, but the corresponding Roman goddess was Venus. The detail really is beautiful. Incidentally the arms were found November 2002 in southern Croatia (confirmed by exact fit and carbon dating), but were considered so ugly that they were not reattached (from an archeology article, "how can a sculptor that good, make hideous man-hands ... that look like a plumber"). Her right arm crosses in front to hold the slipping drape, and the left hand holds an apple that she is admiring at eye level.

The code of Hammurabi is a well preserved Babylonian law code from about 1772 BC, with 282 laws with punishments such as an eye for an eye, and issues as diverse as payments for services, and family issues such as inheritance, divorce, paternity and sexual behavior. The code is inscribed on this 7.4 foot tall "stele" in fine print - see the close-up of the print at the right - taken from the top, just below the skirt. There were earlier written laws, but none as extensive or well preserved

We can't go to a museum without looking at lots of furniture examples. This baby cradle was rather extreme!

I have made vanity dressers but nothing like this crystal dresser. Someone may have liked it, but I hope nobody wants me to make even a wooden copy.

As we were leaving we took a picture of the pyramid and plaza during the day, with the fountains going. As incongruous as a crystal pyramid is in the middle of century old buildings, it is still quite pretty.

There is a tradition of putting a padlock on a bridge or something permanent, to leave something of yourself there with the hope of coming back and finding it there. (Other traditions are to throw the key in the river, but I don't understand that, or to dedicate the padlock to lovers.) Anyway, on the sides of this bridge over the River Seine outside the Louvre, there are a few padlocks. Incidentally all the padlocks were removed on May 11, 2010 by art students who used them in a sculpture, so this is less than 3 years of locks! (That tradition has become illegal in Florence Italy - 5,500 were removed from one bridge because of aesthetics, as well as scratch and dents from the padlocks. There are substantial fines for putting locks on a bridge in Florence, but not here.)

Saturday Night, we went to Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, since we were in the area at the right time, it would leave us more time on Sunday, and most of all, they had chairs that we needed badly right then.

Sunday March 3 - Musée D'Orsay

The Orsay museum is remarkably huge for a single building. Many critics consider this a far superior museum to the Louvre. It has lots of sculpture, like the Louvre, but rather than being 2000 year old antiquities, much of the sculpture is 100 years old by French artists. It has an extraordinary collection of impressionist paintings. Admission is free on the first Sunday of the month. This happened to be the first Sunday, saving us €9 each.

The museum is, in fact, an abandoned train station, with the main hall having lots of sculpture. However, countless side rooms and five floors make it a far larger museum than you would expect. Photography is prohibited (ugh), but I did sneak a few pictures, such as this overview, and the original giant railroad clock at the far end.

This historical room was so impressive that I had to risk a prison term (or more likely a tongue lashing by a guard) to take the picture. Notice the carved panels on the wall, become really three dimensional where they reach the ceiling.

As we were heading back to our hotel, we encountered this restaurant. The translation for "Les Deux" is, of course, "The Two" but as soon as you ask for the translation of "Les Deux Magots" it is the same in English and French. Some research back home says this is one of the most famous, prestigious restaurants in Paris, in this location for over 100 years. Okay, so that gives it a special case in the Google translator. I finally learned that Magots does not translate into Maggots. But the name (without knowing the history) didn't inspire us to want to eat there.

As noted on Friday night, restaurant tables in Paris are VERY close together. Sunday night the couple at the table next to us were speaking French with the waiters, but occasionally dropped into perfect English. We had to ask, "Where (in the states) are you from?" Answer, Moscow. "Where did you learn English so perfectly?" In school, no special training. They were out to dinner celebrating their wedding anniversary. He had worked for the Soviet Union, but lost his job when the USSR dissolved, so he started a business, and now is the Representative of the Office of Vnesheconombank in the French Republic. VEB appears to be somewhat like the U.S. Federal Reserve. Sergey and Maria Kovalev were delightful people to meet, who shared lots of hints about visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg (two cities on our short list).

Monday March 4 - Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysées

Everybody has to have a picture of themselves standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Of course to get all the tower in the picture, the person is pretty small - Jenny on the left, and Charlie on the right.

Apparently the French considered this a "slow" day at the Eiffel Tower, since only one of the four sets of elevators was in use (in one of the four legs). You might want to scroll to the right with your browser to see the length of the line to go up the tower. We chose to stay on the ground. Be sure to scroll back to the left to continue the story.

After dinner (waiting for the bus back to the hotel) we enjoyed the night lighting of the tower.

There are different effects at various times... this was countless strobe lights, to which a still picture does not do justice.

We found the restaurant recommended by friends for the "birthday dinner." Since it was early afternoon, we took a walking tour through Esplanade des Invalides to the Champs Elysées and Arc de Triomphe.

Petit Palais was built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, and is now a museum of fine arts.

What is this exclusive facility, with guards at the golden gates and a waiting line to get in? Simple. Abecrombie & Fitch - Paris.

The "Obelisque" or Place de Concorde is not a place of peace. It is the primary site of the Guillotine during the French revolution. In the other direction, the Champs Elysées heads towards the Arc de Triomphe through a very upscale business district.

The Arc de Triomphe is large, and in the center of a large street, so underground pedestrian "subways" allow you to get to it (we did), and with tickets, get to the top of it (we did not).

Inside and outside of the Arc de Triomphe are war memorials. The tomb of their unknown soldier is next to it.

Tuesday March 5 - Sainte Chapelle, Notre Dame (as a tourist)

Sainte Chapelle is a very old church - the lower level was for the servants, and the upper level (up a narrow winding stone staircase) was the main chapel for the rich and royal. The lower level with modest stain glass windows and elegant ceiling wasn't at all shabby - actually pretty nice.

The altar of the lower chapel was gone, with just a statue in it's place.

The stained glass windows on the upper level are the primary attraction. Intricately detailed huge windows, with almost no visible wall between the soaring glass panels, was truly impressive.

The high altar was at the top of this platform, with a circular staircase on each side that only the priests and king were allowed to use.

The rose window and entrance were at the back. The entrance was closed - presumably an entrance suitable for the royalty who worshipped here, rather than entering, as we did, through a narrow stone staircase from the servant's chapel.

How did they get the seemingly solid stained glass walls? Look outside at how thick the supports were between the windows. Clever architecture to achieve a grand effect.

Of course, at the top there is a steeple, which seems skinny compared to the massive walls.

Travel Tip

Sainte Chapelle is listed as a "must see" in many guides to Paris. If you are a Stained Glass connoisseur, maybe, but not to us. A great deal of the site was undergoing a many-year-long restoration. There were countless students sitting on the floor making sketches - perhaps taking 30% of the floor space. The whole place was so dirty I kept wishing I could wheel in a vacuum and give it a good dusting. You are likely to spend much longer in line waiting to get in, than you will spend visiting the chapels. With so many great sites in Paris, this may be one to enjoy from pictures in the guide books. Use the €8,50 admission to buy some good postcards, and save the hours of waiting for minutes of visiting.

We returned to Notre Dame, this time as tourists. It is a large beautiful church - the door on the left opens to admit worshipers, the open door on the right is for tourists.

The exterior carving is quite detailed. Note the evil folks in chains at the top left of the picture, facing judgment (the other side of the sculpture had the good folks). They proceed to a chute in the middle vertical section, where they plunge head first into a boiling cauldron tended by Satan. Scary lessons for those who cannot read.

Okay, please tolerate at least two church pictures. I have many more. This is the high altar, draped for lent.

And the rose window. Yes this is more than my limit of one church tour per day.

How do they keep the tall walls from being pushed out by the roof? Externally there are flying buttresses that push in the same amount that the roof pushes out. It works, and they didn't even have computers to simulate the design.

We visited the "treasury" - the storage area for valuable utensils and furnishings. For example this paschal candle holder - next to Jenny for scale, must sure use a large candle. The ordinary altar candles for a church this large are as big as the paschal candles in most churches I attend. And how do you light a candle when just the holder is almost 10 feet tall?

What is a reliquary? In years past, people were excited to see a relic from a saint - maybe a hair, piece of clothing, or sometimes a piece of their body, displayed and stored in a reliquary. Sometimes they got carried away, and the "piece of the body" was fairly large, like this leg bone. They didn't ask me if they should do it! There were many saintly relics in the treasury - probably over a hundred.

Behind Notre Dame, on the point of the island, is a memorial to the countless Jews and others exterminated during the Nazi occupation of France. The symbolism is descent into an area where the city disappears and you can only see the sky and a small portion of the river, before being taken away. Stark and moving.

In front of Notre Dame is the entrance to the "Crypt" which is an underground archeological exhibit of the history of Paris, from the Roman times and before. Admission is only €3,50. You may wish to visit, if only briefly (even if you aren't an archeologist). We spent more time here than at Sainte Chapelle.

We were wandering near the Pantheon (blocks from our hotel) checking out restaurants when we came across this lovely church almost behind the Pantheon - Saint Étienne du Mont. It has an amazing history - see Wikipedia for more than I want to summarize here, but it dates from the 6th century with countless changes over the years.

My picture of the inside, in low evening light, didn't come out well, so I borrowed one from the web. This is a very warm, active catholic parish, with a regular traffic of students from the surrounding colleges and schools. St. Genevieve is entombed here, the patron saint of Paris (and of Jenny). I hate to suggest tourist visits, since it may spoil their lovely environment, but it was one of our favorite church stops in Paris.

Wednesday March 6 - Museum Cluny and the Pantheon

The national museum of the middle ages, commonly called the Cluny Museum, was only a couple blocks from our hotel. Part of the building looks like a crumbling castle, while other parts are quite restored and stable. There were countless tapestries, statues, and artifacts.

Some of the signs point to Hôtel de Cluny. That is not a current hotel, but is this building - a historical building that at one time was used as a residence.

Near the entrance was a sarcophagus with a set of perhaps 25 statues, each about 18 inches tall, under the vault. Each figure had a unique personality and rank, from bishops or monks and nuns, from sad to ... see the attitude in the figure at the right below.

This bishop's crozier is one of their featured pieces. It has a carved wooden handle (scenes from the life of Christ, from the 11th century) and carved ivory crook (depicting the adoration of the magi, from the 13th century).

I promise not to inflict you with pictures of their hundreds of tapestries.

I can't pass up some interesting woodworking. This large chest from about 1300 AD has a captive floating top - the flat top floats in a frame around the lid, so the top can expand and contract without splitting. It seems to have worked for 800 years so far.

... the Pantheon

The Pantheon was first built as a church in the mid-late 1700s to house the remains of St. Genevieve. Then it became a secular facility, with the remains of distinguished French citizens in the crypt. The main floor has been re-consecrated as a church, with a separate outside entrance to the crypt. There are no regular church services here, so the primary sign of it's church status is the cross at the top of the dome. St. Genevieve's remains have been moved back to Saint Étienne du Mont, the church (small only by comparison) that you can see behind the Pantheon at the left edge of this picture. That tiny figure center front of this picture is "my" St. Genevieve... er... Jenny.

The inside of the Pantheon was quite dramatic.

The classical (1851) physics experiment by Foucault with a 223 foot (67 meter) pendulum that swings in a fixed arc while the earth turns under it was originally conducted in this dome. That demonstration continues today, with the time marked under/around the swinging path, that functions as a clock. Similar demonstrations continue in countless science museums around the world.

My biological scientist wife had to visit the tombs of Pierre Curie (at the bottom) and Madame Marie Curie (the upper level), both moved to the crypt of the Pantheon in 1995.

From the Pantheon, we took the long way back to our hotel, past the Palais de Luxembourg (surrounded by huge gardens as a public park). It was originally built as a Royal Residence of Marie de Médicis (the same family as in Florence Italy). It is now the seat of the French Senate

And of course had to continue past the Sorbonne on the way back to the hotel. The tent in front appeared to be a temporary medical clinic.


This was a great trip, not only for the sights, but for the fabulous meals we had each night. It was truly exhausting as well. We walked everywhere except the trips to/from the Eiffel tower. The weather varied from freezing early in our visit to as high as 60 near the end (which for a Texan is near freezing).

When we were in Paris 40 years ago, our host assured us that you could routinely buy horse meat at a horse butcher shop. I was looking forward to trying horse meat (again?). With the recent scandal of horse being substituted for beef in some food chains, several grocery stores were very clear that they did not sell horse meat. Some even had pictures of the animal on each price label - cows, pigs, chicken, etc. Darn - I missed that food adventure.

As noted, this was a 70th birthday "present." But the year in which you turn 70 1/2, you must start withdrawing from your IRAs and other retirement plans. The Required Minimum Distribution amount is based on your estimated lifespan. When I got the notice, it said my lifespan this year is estimated to be 27.4 years. If I survive this year, next year it may be 26.5 or so years (it was 26.5). But the big surprise was from Jenny. She said "I have already put in over 42 years. Do I have to do 27 more? No parole or early release for good behavior?"


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