In September we took a 3 Week Europe Tour, and spent the first part of our trip in France. This was a country I’d always wanted to visit- I studied French for 5 years, always dreamed of visiting the Eiffel Tower, and my grandfather’s family is originally from France. We had only one week, so we focused on what we most wanted to see: Paris, Normandy, and the Loire Valley.
We spent the majority of our time in France in the city of light- Paris. A capital of culture and all the finer things in life, Paris is a city that is not to be missed.
This is a great way to orient yourself when first arriving in Paris, as well as a low-stress way to see the major sights while recovering from jet-lag. Paris City Vision offers several different passes- a 2 day pass is enough-and you can relax and enjoy the sights from an open double-decker bus, getting on and off and any stop along the way. There are several different bus lines that cover all the major sites throughout the city.
Rick Steves Historic Paris Walk
If you haven’t heard of Rick Steves or read one of his guidebooks, you’re missing out! He has spent the past 20 years researching and compiling information to put together the best guidebooks on Europe, and has a television show on PBS. He also has a free app , Rick Steves Audio Europe, available for Android and Apple devices, with free audio tours of all the major sights and cities across Europe. We used Rick Steves guidebooks and Rick Steves Audio App exclusively, and had all the information we needed. We also came across dozens of travelers carrying Rick Steves guidebooks everywhere we went! He really has the best information, head over to www.ricksteveseurope.com and check out all he has to offer!
The Rick Steves Historic Paris Walk covers the heart of Paris, the Ile de la Cite, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Latin Quarter, and Saint Chapelle
We left JFK International Airport in NYC on Sunday night, and arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris Monday early afternoon. We took the RER and Metro lines to the nearest stop and checked into Virginia Hotel to begin our adventure abroad. After getting freshened up, we walked to the metro station and purchased a metro pass for 5 days. This pass lets you use the metro, RER, and bus lines as many times as you like for however many days you purchase. It expires at the time you purchased the pass exactly 5 days later, so don’t think you can ride for free!
We had purchased the Paris City Vision 48 Hour Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour (which I highly recommend) and after strolling around and getting our first look at the Eiffel Tower we got on the bus and rode around Paris, marveling at the Louis 16th architecture and how the bus driver was able to whip our double decker bus through Paris traffic without a problem-or accident! After getting off the bus, we wandered around and grabbed a bite to eat at a café before heading back to our hotel on the metro.
Our first full day in Paris! We woke up early, and took the metro to a stop near a café known for its chocolat chaud (hot chocolate)- the St. Regis Café near Notre Dame Cathedral. We ordered un petit dejuner pour deux: orange juice, two croissants, un café American for my husband, and chocolat chaud for me! Hot chocolate in France has a whole different meaning- it’s not cocoa powder in water, it’s melted chocolate in a cute little pitcher that you pour into your cup and drink. It was so good I almost dipped my croissants into it. The French don’t get up too early, so if you’re any earlier than 6:30 am, the cafés might not be open yet, but it’s worth the wait!
After breakfast and people watching, we walked across the Seine River to the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame Cathedral. We hadn’t planned to climb the bell tower, but the line was shorter than the line to get inside, so we grabbed a ticket at the kiosk and jumped in line. It ended up taking longer than I expected, and it isn’t free- about 6 € per person, but the 300-some stairs to the top were worth it for the incredible views of the gargoyles and Paris skylines. After snapping hundreds of photos and climbing inside the tower to see the enormous bells that Quasimodo would’ve rung, we descended down the staircase and joined the line to see the inside of Notre Dame. Entrance to the cathedral is free, and the interior is just as impressive as the exterior, with enormous stained glass windows, arches sailing high overhead, beautiful black and white floors, and impressive carvings and statues throughout the cathedral. Masses are held regularly, and like most European churches, there are no pews, but lots of chairs.
After touring Notre Dame, we opted to walk along the Seine River to the Eiffel Tower, for a Fat Tires Skip the Line Eiffel Tower Tour. The walk took a little over an hour and a half, but it was nice to see the sights you miss when taking the metro underground.
We joined the rest of our tour group at the Fat Tire Tours Office, and walked to the Eiffel Tower. We had a wonderful guide, Josephine, who knew lots of interesting tidbits about France’s most iconic landmark. The Eiffel Tower has been painted many colors throughout the years, but the color in recent times is brown- specifically the trademarked color Eiffel Tower Brown. Unfortunately as visitors today will notice, the Eiffel Tower has a remarkable amount of rust, due to the fact that the organization responsible for painting the tower every 7 years has conveniently gone on strike for the past 21 years. Ah the French. After going through two different airport-style security lines, we came to the elevator which would take us to the 2nd floor. This elevator is the original elevator to the Eiffel Tower, although there is no need to be alarmed- it was made by an American company- Otis! It has also been updated throughout the years and is perfectly safe to ride in. Our guide gave us the history of the tower and elevators as we made our way up to the 2nd floor, skipping the first floor. We got off the elevator at the 2nd floor and jumped in line for the elevator which would take us to the top, while our guide pointed out various landmarks and told us about their history. The elevator to the top is a completely modern elevator and rather boring. Finally, we reached the top of the Eiffel Tower! Although we didn’t celebrate with 13 £ tiny glasses of champagne, they do sell them. The top of the Eiffel Tower was fantastic, and offered wonderful views of the Paris skyline-however-while standing at the top of the Tower; you can’t see the Tower itself, which is what makes a Paris skyline photo so iconic. So, if you are looking for a place to take wonderful photos of the Eiffel Tower and Paris skyline, climb the tower of Notre Dame. Climb the Eiffel Tower to enjoy the views from the most iconic landmark in France, but not of the landmark itself.
On our 3rd day in France, we took the RER train on a 45 minute ride outside of Paris to the Palace of Versailles. Versailles Palace and Gardens was home to several of the French Royal family, but the most recognizable of its residents were King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. They were also the last French King and Queen to reside in Versailles, as the French Revolution and Madame Guillotine had other plans for them. Versailles is incredibly massive, and the gardens span hundreds of acres as well. Only a handful of the thousands of rooms in the palace are open to visit, and even then, most of them are nearly empty. During the French Revolution, looters took everything from the Palace, right down to the marble trim. The Hall of Mirrors or Galerie des Glaces is open to the public in all of its royal splendor. The 230 foot long gallery has mirrors lining the left side and windows on the right, and with the numerous chandeliers it is easy to imagine how magical it must have been at the time. Of all the chateaux we visited, Versailles was the most disappointing for me as so little of it has been restored. We ate lunch at an on-site café and toured the gardens and surrounding town before heading back to Paris. Rick Steves has a great free audio tour of Versailles available through his app.
It’s well worth your time to buy tickets to Versailles online in advance through their website. You’ll have to print off your vouchers and carry them with you, but they allow you to avoid standing in multiple lines. If you can catch the early train and get to the Palace before 0900 to stand in line it is well worth it. You’ll be among the first to enter, and will have far fewer tourists in your photos, as well as fewer crowds to jostle through. There are several restaurants and cafes onsite for a bite to eat, as well as a few small gift shops and a Lauderee macaroon shop. If you’re only interested in visiting the extensive gardens, you don’t need to purchase a ticket, and the gardens are usually open when the Palace is closed. Some portions of the gardens do require a ticket, such as Marie Antoinette’s Village, but the majority are free or included in your ticket price.
The only way to visit the numerous chateaux in the Loire Valley is by either renting a car or taking a bus tour. Neither of us had any interest in driving in France, so we opted for a tour. There are numerous tours of the Loire Valley offered by various tour companies, but I wanted to see as many chateaux as possible in the one day we had available, so the Loire Valley Castle Tour by Paris City Vision was the perfect fit. On our tour we visited 3 chateaux: Chateau Chambord, Chateau Chenonceau, and Chateau Cheverny. Our tour departed from Paris at 7 a.m. and we were on the road for the 2 hour trip to the Loire Valley region. We only had about an hour at each chateau; about 30 minutes for the guided portion of the tour and then 30 minutes of free time to look around. We had extra time at Chenonceau where we could eat lunch at the cafeteria on the grounds. The chateaux were about an hour apart, so the tour was about 13 hours. We had a tour bus of about 50 people broken into smaller groups by language. We had about 20 people in our English group. Our tour guide, Vincent, was excellent, and as a Loire Valley native he had lots of information about French history and the history of each chateau we visited.
Chambord was the first chateau on our tour. Chambord is famous for its spiral staircase built in a double-helix design, and famously attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Our tour guide informed us that da Vinci died before the staircase was ever built, but it is possible that the architect may have used his design, as da Vinici was a close friend of the French king. Chambord, like most chateaux, is mainly empty, with only a few rooms refurnished as they would have been at the time it was inhabited. Chambord’s estate is larger than the city of Paris, and the magnificent gardens- best viewed from the rooftop of Chambord- are meticulously landscaped. Originally built as a hunting lodge for the king, it remained empty throughout the majority of the year.
Chenonceau was by far my favorite chateau on our tour. The beautiful castle was a gift from King Francis I of France to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Built on the edge of the River Cher, Chenonceau looks like a Disney castle. Diane de Poitiers commissioned an arched bridge to be built which would connect the chateau to the opposite river bank. Unfortunately, Diane was not able to enjoy the chateau for long. King Francis I died in 1559 and his jealous wife, Catherine de Medici, forced Diane out of Chenonceau and into exile in Chateau Chaumont. Catherine then made Chenonceau her own personal residence, adding additional gardens and a gallery on top of Diane’s bridge. In the history books, however, Diane de Poitiers reigns as mistress of Chateau Chenonceau and as King Francis’s true wife.
One of the only chateaux with the family still in residence, Cheverny has been in the Marquis de Vibraye’s family for six generations. The family resides on the top floor of the Chateau, with the lower levels open to the public. Cheverny’s lavish interior retains all of the period furniture and decorations, a contrast from the other chateaux on our tour. One of the main attractions of Cheverny is the 100 Anglo-French hunting hounds found in the kennel on the estate. Cheverny is known for its hunting history, and some of the antlers on the walls of the estate are estimated to be 2,000 years old. While it may seem to be a pain to have an estimated 350,000 visitors per year tromping about your house and gardens, you can save yourself the sympathy. Chateau Cheverny generates enough revenue in ticket sales alone to more than cover the cost of maintaining the castle, grounds, hounds, employees, and family in residence. It doesn’t hurt that the French government offers incentives to opening the historic chateau to the public either. But you won’t hear the Marquis de Vibraye complain, he is more than happy to share his home and family’s history with the world.
We woke early and took the metro to the train station to catch the train to Carentan, France. We had a half day Jeep tour scheduled with our personal guide, Hubert. We arrived slightly before scheduled in Carentan, and waited at the train station for our guide. Soon he arrived, in his original WWII Jeep. Hubert is a former Danish paratrooper, and does WWII reenactments and airborne jumps all around the world with the Round Canopy Parachuting Team. He is also a D-Day historian, and has worked with filmmakers on the Band of Brothers film. If you are at all interested in D-Day history, or if you want to spend the day driving around the French countryside enjoying the views and countless stories, I cannot recommend this tour enough! Hubert has a love of military history, and goes above and beyond by honoring the heroes by retelling their stories and erecting monuments to recognize their deeds. He took us exactly where historic photos had been taken, many places which look just as they did in 1944, and shared the stories behind the photographs. Not only is Hubert dedicated to the history of WWII, but he is also dedicated in his work as a tour guide. It was freezing rain when we took the tour in September, but he neither cut our tour short, nor skipped any of his stops, and this tour was by far the best on our trip to Europe, and my husband’s (himself an 82nd Airborne paratrooper) favorite day on our entire trip. If you are interested in scheduling a tour, see the links below.
This was our last day in Paris! We spent the day wandering the streets, doing some shopping, and in the afternoon visiting the Louvre Museum. Rick Steves has a pretty good audio tour of the Louvre for free on his app. Yes, I saw the Mona Lisa, she is tiny and you have to stand way far away to see her- battling your way through tourists taking selfies with her. If you want to see Leonardo’s work all by yourself, there are several of his paintings on display that you can almost touch right out in the hallway. The Louvre was fun, we saw two Michelangelo statues, pieces of the Parthenon, and Egyptian mummies, but I prefer Impressionist works and if I had had more time would rather have visited the Musée d’Orsay or the Musée de l’Orangerie. We walked along the Seine one more time, and bid adieu to the Eiffel Tower. We needed this day to relax and prepare for the next leg of our journey- Switzerland!