Saturday, July 28, 2012

Paris Day 1

Yours truly in front of the
Eiffel Tower!
Let me say this right up front.  I love, love, loved Paris!  You must also know that I love New York City.  I love big teeming cities with lots of crowds and museums and good, efficient public transportation.  I love to walk and gawk and I don't mind the smell of exhaust and I love to see places where people live lives that are very different from my Midwestern suburban life.  I like both the big, touristy sites, but I equally love the more mundane things about new places.  In this and the next few post, I'd like to discuss some of the must-see tourist destinations we felt compelled to see in Paris. 

Since neither my husband or I are world travellers, we did some research prior to going.  Our very helpful travel agent Douglas Schroeder at had a number of tours available, as did our hotel, but we decided that with only five days, we could probably see what we wanted to see at our own pace.  I picked up a copy of 24 Great Walks in Paris by Frommer's and found it very useful.  This book lays out walking tours of different areas of the city and includes little tidbits of historical information about the neighborhoods as well as suggestions for seeing any of the big, popular locations in that area.  Each walk starts and ends at a Metro stop and lasts 2 or 3 hours.  We didn't always follow them exactly, but they were a good framework to start our planning. 

Day 1: The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Champs-Elysees
After getting off the train from Leman at the Montparnasse station, we navigated our way to our hotel via the Metro.  The jury is still out on whether or not that was a good decision.  We did make it there without any mishaps, but we had to switch lines two or three times and there were many, many steps at each station.  Since we were dragging our luggage, that required more effort than I'd planned to expend.  If I had one piece of advice it would be to travel as lightly as possible.  We brought a small suitcase each, an over night bag, and packed one small empty suitcase inside our other suitcase.  These were all bulging by the time we came back, but they were still manageable even at their heaviest. 
A view of the Sacre-Coeur
from the Eiffel Tower
Once we'd dropped off our luggage at our hotel, we decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower (a 15 minute walk) and since one of the two elevators to the top were out of commission and the line to get to the other was several hours long, we opted to pay about 5 euros and take the stairs.  I should tell you right now that I am not a fan of heights, so I knew that getting to the second level of the tower would be plenty high enough for me.  What I hadn't realized that there were more than 300 steps, up one of this massive open legs just to reach the bottom level.  To get to the second level seemed pretty comparable.  Needless to say, we only made it up to the first level, and is was spectacular.  I'm glad we did this first so that we could get an idea of the city's scale.  From all four sides you could not see an end to the buildings, most of them ornate and historic.  Off in the distance there were some more modern looking sky scrapers, but they were the exception, not the rule.

We saw the Arc de Triomphe in the distance and decided to head there next.  After another 15 minute walk we came upon this huge monument in all its glory.  We stumbled upon some kind of military ceremony with a full band, dignitaries, and giant flags.  What we didn't realize was that this structure is in the middle of a six lane round-about and we had happened upon it during rush hour.  Apparently the way to go through a round-about in Paris is to find the shortest path across regardless of what the lane lines might suggest and take the most direct path through.  This went for everything from massive tour buses, passenger cars, motorcycles, tiny scooters, and people on bicycles.  This was easily the most insane site I saw in Paris.  Jim and I sat on a bench in slack-jawed wonder.  When I talk about passenger cars, I am not just talking about the Smart Cars that are abundant, I am also talking about everything from ancient Soviet era oddities being held together with baling wire and duct tape, to gorgeous new Ferraris and Porsches.  When we could stand it no longer, we headed down the Champs-Elysees.
The entrance to the
Abercrombie & Fitch store on the

The Champs-Elysees seemed a lot like the Time Square of Paris.  It appeared to be designed with upscale tourist shopping in mind.  There were a few chain stores I recognized, and many I did not.  There were many restaurants and everything was fancy.  We didn't spend a lot of time here because it was getting later and we were ready to head back to the hotel.  Besides, if I just wanted to see big stores and go shopping, these were the kind of stores I could find back home.  We had four more days ahead of us and we needed to save up some energy for Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, and Sacre-Coeur.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Trip of a Lifetime

It Begins!

Long ago, if you had told me that my first, perhaps only trip to Europe would start with a 24 hour automotive endurance race, I'd have told you "Of course silly, I'm married to Jim Miller.  How else am I going to entice him to Europe?"  What I wouldn't have known was what a blast it would be!  Some criteria for this assessment included:  
On the front straight after the race.

Could I have had this experience in the United States? 
No, I could not.  First of all there were hundreds of thousands of attendees and most of them camped for most of the week and by my casual observation drank heavily the whole time.  There were no bag checks whatsoever and people brought in amazing quantities of alcohol.  There were also a wide range of motor bikes, scooters, and bicycles that were let in and driven through crowds with abandon.  Apparently people don't worry as much about getting sued.

25 men to every woman meant
the men's room line was WAY longer
than the women's.
Were there amazing things to see? 
There certainly were!  The best thing of all would have to be the mobs of race fans at the local mega-supermarket buying supplies.  Ladies, this is the kind of thing that would happen everywhere if we were not around.  On average there were groups of six to eight men pushing three to four carts loaded with the following items:  One cart filled so full of cases of beer they needed a spotter, one filled halfway with more beer and the other half Red Bull, and the remaining cart space filled with sausages and meat, cheese, bread, liquor and/or wine, and perhaps a little water.  Forget partying with these folks, I couldn't even grocery shop with them!

The view from our seats.

Did I enjoy the race itself? 
Not as much as my husband, but it had some exciting moments, and he was gracious in explaining some of the nuances which made it more entertaining.  We also bought grandstand seats under an awning, across from a huge monitor (there were many around the approximately eight mile track) so we did have some creature comforts.  I mainly enjoyed the race because he enjoyed the race and he was among his own kind.  Did I mention that Sunday June 17 was both his 60th birthday AND Father's Day?  Talk about getting a lot of bang for you buck!

What we did see of Le Mans
was lovely, old, and quaint.
Was I disappointed that we only did things related to the race? 
Nope, because I decided right away that I was going to enjoy it for what it was.  We showed up on Wednesday June 13 (the race ran from 3 pm Saturday to 3 pm Sunday), hung out at the track with mobs of people on Thursday (that day and evening there were cars on the track practicing and qualifying), went to the big parade through the town on Friday (in the driving rain, no less), and then the race the next day.  The parade went through the old part of town (the track is on the outskirts, just a tram ride away), and so we were near a lot of picturesque sites, but we didn't spend time there.
Not bad for an "after a 24 hour race" picture.

Do I feel bad that we didn't spend the full 24 hours at the track? 
We tried, but we ended up going to our hotel around 4 am for a nap, shower, and breakfast.  I recommend this highly, if for no other reasons than you will have better end of race photos of yourself.  

 Do I have any advice to other people who might get dragged along?  Why yes I do!
  • Get a travel agent that knows the area and have him set you up with a hotel (our criteria was clean and safe, not fancy) and train tickets from the airport to Le Mans. We briefly toyed with renting a car and driving from Paris to Le Mans and to the race, but the regional trains are excellent and Le Mans has a good, reliable tram that will drop you right at the gate, and traffic is busy and parking is hard to find. He also steered us right on hotels that serve breakfast (we were doubtful at first) and on trip insurance. We went to Freedom Tours and worked with Douglas Schroeder. We spoke on the phone first and then he arranged the trip with our priorities in mind. His experiences and recommendations really helped us get the most out of our trip and I cannot recommend him more highly!
  • Prepare for this event as though it were a camping trip and just plan on lugging around some extra stuff the whole time. The weather we encountered was cooler and more changeable than we expected. Temperatures in the sixty to seventy degree range, overcast and breezy made it pretty cool for an outdoor event. We did not have warm enough clothes to spend the night, especially once the dew started settling on everything. We should have brought more substantial rain gear too. We brought some $4 emergency ponchos before we left which were fine for the rain at the parade, but would not have been enough had they been needed for any longer. Luckily it did not rain at all at the race, but Saturday morning started with driving rain and we were concerned. If you end up needing any of it, you might just save your once in a lifetime event.
  • Buy good shoes months in advance and break them in very well. You will be walking a lot! From the entrance to our grandstand, it was a 30 minute walk or more, and that was only if you walked fast. We never left the top 25% of the track and we probably walked two to four hours a day or more and stood for hours on end. I saw people wearing flip flops, cute sandals, and high heels, but I don't know how they did it.
  • Bring a compass. This was a suggestion that I almost didn't follow, but if you are going to an unfamiliar city and you don't speak the language, a map and a compass can keep you sane. We got off the regional train in Le Mans and realized we hadn't taken a detailed enough map to get us to our hotel. We wandered aimlessly for a while looking for a cab. It soon became obvious that we weren't going to find a cab, so with the help of a tourist billboard and our compass, we were able to figure out where we needed to go. It would have been so embarrassing had we caught a cab, because our hotel was less than two very tiny blocks from where we were waiting for a cab. The compass also settled a number of arguments once we got to Paris.
  • Buy your race tickets early. The race was in mid June, and many of the tickets were sold out when we bought them from the official website in January. There are travel agents who specialize in this event and in package deals, but we were not willing to spend the kind of money that would have cost. We spent a few days researching the ticket options, and purchased them with a credit card so as to have some protection if there were any problems. The ACO has an English site, but it having never dealt with anything like this, we wanted to be cautious. Check out the official website in english.
As much as I liked Le Mans, I LOVED Paris, but more about that later!