Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Paris Trip Recap -- Hotel de Crillon Bar Review

I had a few locations on my Paris list that weren't major tourist attractions, but had some literary or historical significance.  As you may know, I am a huge Ernest Hemingway fan.  My favorite book is The Sun Also Rises. I've visited Hemingway's birth home in Oak Park, Illinois; his home in Key West, FL and plan on visiting his home in Cuba, once that becomes available.

At the Place de la Concorde we found the Hotel de Crillon.  This beautiful hotel was commissioned and built in the late 18th century.  This hotel is where Lady Brett Ashley broke her word to meet protagonist Jake Barnes.  Rumor has it, Hemingway along with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald all drank (excessively) here.  Of course this location was extremely high on my list.

No, that is not Brett & Jake behind us.
We decided to go have a drink before dinner our last night in Paris.  MS and I arrived around 19h00 and JB/RK arrived around 19h30.  MS and I ordered a bottle of rose and sat in the beautifully maintained bar in the lobby -- a piano bar, no less.  Even more exciting for me, I know.  The bar was pretty small, but was amazingly maintained.  The mirrored wall behind the bar, which seated about 8 people, was surrounded by dark wood.  Several crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling casting soft light throughout the relatively dark room.  The room is done in red and gold with a dozen or so tables sprinkled throughout.  It was tight quarters, but I just loved the place.

The waiter recommended a lovely rose that was reasonably priced. The bar was pretty empty but he managed to provide excellent service -- I hate when the bar is empty and you get one of two waiters: the over attentive guy who just wants to hang out and chat or his evil twin, the guy who delivers your drink (if you're lucky) and you never see him again.  This guy was perfect.

Our dinner reservations were at 20h00, which was a 15 minute Metro ride away and a 10 minute walk in addition.  We were running late so I asked the concierge at Hotel de Crillon to call and reschedule our reservation for 20h30 -- he did it without missing a beat and was happy to do it. Unlike the folks we had to deal with at the Hilton le Defense.  Granted, guests of de Crillon pay upwards of $US1,000 per night, so you'd expect this type of service.

I would love to stay at this hotel on my next trip to Paris.  I could stay at Hotel Jeanne d'Arc for 10 nights for the price of one at de Crillon, but it would be a great experience.  If you are a Hemingway fan, you must visit this location.  You are stepping back in time at this hotel.

When you travel do you find obscure literary locations to visit -- or is it just me?  Would you rather stay in the ultimate lap of luxury in a City like Paris or would you prefer a reasonable hotel and blow your money on something else-food, booze, spa, clothes?  Have you stayed at de Crillon before?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Paris Trip Recap -- Hilton Le Defense Review

The Hotel Jeanne d'Arc wasn't available our entire visit in Paris, so we opted to cash in some points and stay at the Hilton Le Defense -- in the business district of Paris.  Paris is so expertly planned and when they needed to build the business district, they didn't tear down old classical buildings (like so many Cities did) they pushed the new high rises out into the near suburb area.

We didn't do a whole lot of research on the hotel or the area.  We erroneously figured this area would have many things to do and would be like the other neighborhoods we visited.  Nope.  It's actually a lot like the Loop in Chicago -- quiet/dead after business hours and not a hell of a lot to do after hours.  The price was right though.

 We transferred to the hotel around 4pm and after standing at street level for a few minutes we finally found the hotel sign. Yet again we were lost/confused by the obvious.  At least we are consistent. We proceeded to check in and were greeted by a cold front desk employee.  Since we were using points (from MS' account) I pulled out my Gold Elite card and asked if we could get access to the Gold Benefits.  The gentleman informed me that we couldn't change accounts at this point and when I reminded him that we didn't want to earn or redeem points on my card, just get access to Elite benefits (which I've been able to do two times in the past 6 weeks).  He kindly (hmmm, make that rudely) reminded me that Hilton Elite Benefits are a privilege and not a right -- which I do understand.  He told us they were one of the smallest Hilton's on the planet and they choose not to offer any Elite Benefits.  I then asked if they could help us make reservations if I gave them some options we were interested in.  They agreed.


This Hilton is in a shopping mail/train station.  We were offered an upgraded room (for 25€), this room would have a window that looked outside of the building, as opposed to the interior of the mall.  We opted to save our $US37.50 and take an internal room.

Linens? We don't need no stinking linens...
We head on up to our second floor room.  The room was large but laid out extremely poorly.  The bed also had no pillows, blanket or duvet.  This obviously wasn't going to work. I pick up the phone on the nightstand -- it doesn't work.  I walk over to the desk and realize there is no way I can walk between the desk and the bed.  Luckily this phone worked.

I called downstairs to explain the issues and the woman at the front desk suggested we leave our room for a while and they will send someone up to make up our room.  No, this isn't acceptable.  The other alternative was to schlep our suitcases back down and talk to another person and find another room.  That option is not ideal either.  I suggested someone meet us at our current room with keys to our new room and walk us to our new room.  They quickly agreed to this -- shocking, I know, considering the front desk interaction earlier.

Tight Fit Between Bed/Desk
The gentleman who assisted us at initial check in was in our room in less than 3 minutes - surprising again.  He escorted us to a new room with a same layout (and another room with a view of the interior of the mall), but this room had bed linens, working phones and enough space between the bed and the desk to make it useful.

I decided to take a shower while MS went out to get some water and check out the music selection at the mall our room looked out upon.  I grabbed a wash cloth and found a dingy black dirt stain.  Lovely.  I used an alternate wash cloth, shaved and showered.

No Room Between Desk/Bed
MS returned and we had a list of three restaurants we wanted to try for our final night in Paris.  I called the front desk and asked for reservation assistance .  Two of the three restaurants were closed but we were able to get into the third option.  It was nice to have someone help us with reservations.

We were shocked when we received our bill and we were charged 9€ for the three phone calls we asked them to make.  Perhaps it is my naivete, but asking for a simple concierge service we shouldn't be charged $US14.  I asked about this when I left, but they wouldn't speak to me about it since my name wasn't on the reservation.  Lovely.  When MS left he had a long discussion with the front desk folks and they did agree to remove this charge.

Filthly Wash Cloth
I emailed the hotel twice to find a resolution to the poor service, the initial bad room and the inappropriate phone charges and I have heard nothing from the hotel.

I am a new Hilton Gold member -- a partnership with United granted Premier Exec members Gold Status until 2013.  I had never stayed in a Hilton before, but had a really great experience in Toronto and every interaction with customer service has been top notch.  For example, two weeks after my stay in Toronto my points hadn't been credited to my account, I tweeted my concern at the delay and within 20 minutes everything was taken care of.  Although my experience with Hilton customer service has been limited they have been fantastic (except for this whole Paris experience).
Dirty/Dingy Hallway Walls

I must admit, I will never stay at the Hilton Le Defense again.  I will definitely stay at a Hilton in the US again though -- and am not opposed to staying at another international Hilton again.

When traveling abroad do you choose to stay with American chains or local hotels?  How do you deal with customer service issues at hotels: email, letter, phone call or online reviews?  Have you had the great service, I've traditionally had at Hilton?  Are you enjoying the Premier Executive Gold Status with Hilton (I know I appreciate it and am enjoying my stays).

UPDATE:  I wrote this post on Tuesday (9/27) and forwarded a link to the US Hilton twitter folks -- who have always been beyond helpful with any question I have.  They responded almost immediately asking for some stay details and forwarded the issues on to the hotel manager who would reach out to us.  Well, the hotel still hasn't gotten back to me.  I did receive a nice email from Mr. Hall who is a Guest Assistance Specialist apologizing for the lack of response from the hotel.  Again, I have to say, I've been extremely happy with the customer service I receive in North America and have only had one non-North America experience (this one) which was very subpar.  Will I continue to visit Hiltons in the future, yes.  Will I stay at a Hilton in Paris, yes...Le Defense, probably not.  Kudos to the US costomer service folks -- thank you for all help.

Paris Trip Recap -- Shopping

When I travel, I don't usually focus on shopping.  Living in Chicago I can get almost anything I want without an issue.  Travel is time to explore a new area, meet new people, learn about yourself and of course to sample new food and wine.  This, of course, was my thought before I visited Paris.  Before I left, I knew I would be looking for one specific item - shoes.  I wanted new dress shoes that didn't look like the crap you find most places in the US.

The shoes I wanted had leather uppers and soles, with a wooden heel.  I wanted it to have a more pointed toe.  I didn't want the square or rounded toe shoe with rubber soles and heels.  I had a pair of Hugo Boss shoes that fit this bill perfectly, but some crazy stew on a UAL flight ran over my shoe with the drink cart, cutting the leather.  After this issue, I began searching for modern replacement shoes -- with no luck. I search in every store I could find.  Looking at options from Aldo to Bruno Magli and found nothing.

I settled on a couple pairs at Nordstrom that I didn't love, but I could tolerate -- this transaction happened 3 days before my trip to Paris.  Once we landed in Paris, I found several shops that had amazing shoes in the window.  So many great shades, perfect shapes and a wide range of prices.  While shopping doesn't make it high on my list of vacation activities, it did become an important part of my Paris trip -- unfortunately I waited until Sunday afternoon (following out walk through Saint-Germain-des-Pres) to begin my search in earnest.  Most places were closed -- of course they were.

As we walked back to our hotel we found a place called Rudy's Chaussures, and it was devine.  They were having a pretty big sale. I popped in and using my imperfect French I managed to request a few pairs of shoes in certain sizes and then ineloquently describe what didn't work with each option.  I finally settled on two pairs of shoes.  I bought a pair of black capped toed shoe and a pair of brown shoes. The brown shoes fit like a glove, while the black pair needs to be broken in a bit --they're a little tight across the toes.

I debated on buying a pair of chocolate brown suede shoes, but decided against it because I was afraid I wouldn't have enough opportunity to wear them.  What a silly thought.

Here's the best part -- the two pair of shoes I bought cost a whopping 128€, which was less than a third of the price of the shoes I bought at Nordstrom just a week prior.  Thankfully, Nordstrom has a very liberal return policy.  I wish I had purchased a couple more pairs, these are such great shoes.  If you happen to stumble across shoes by John Mac Gray, buy them.  They are just fantastic.  If you happened to be heading to Paris and will be in the Marais and would like to pick up a couple pairs for me, let me know and I'll let you know the style/size -- I will reimburse you, don't worry.

Is shopping a key part of your travel plans?  Have you been looking for a certain article of clothing forever and just stumbled across it while on vacation?  Do you put this much thought, effort into something as simple as shoes?  Have you had good luck buying shoes in a foreign language?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Paris Trip Recap -- St. Germain/Latin Quarter

We stayed just across the river from the Latin Quarter, in the Marais and managed to make a couple trips to this area on our short trip to Paris.  Once we left the Louvre, we decided to head over to Saint-Germain-des-Pres for lunch and then work our way to the neighboring Latin Quarter to see Place St. Michel, the Sorbonne, Musee de Cluny and the Pantheon. Unfortunately we didn't get to see any of these things, but we did have a great time exploring this area.

We crossed the river near the Louvre and wandered around the tiny winding streets peering in the windows of so many (closed) art galleries.  These galleries showcased modern paintings and photography and not classical pieces -- which was quite refreshing.  I love the classics, but we all know there is more to art than pre-19th Century pieces.  Some of the photography was quite amazing - many "slice of life" pieces that focused on the contemporary architecture and how modern life related to this architecture -- right up my alley.

We wandered down one of the streets that we visited on the bike ride the prior day.  We knew there were tons of restaurants, some high end, some low end, but most looked tasty and reasonably priced.  We spent a decent amount of time reviewing menus and trying to find the "right" restaurant for us.  After about 30 minutes of trying to track down the perfect restaurant we settled on a little crepe place off the main road we were exploring.  The waitress didn't speak much English, so I was able to use my limited French (again without any real problems).

While we ate our crepe and drank our wine I saw a business acquaintance of mine walking down the street. I popped out of the restaurant and tried to catch up with him, but we never connected.  I was 99% sure it was him, but didn't actually confirm this until we returned to Chicago and I chatted with him.  What a small world, eh?

After lunch we popped over to a gelato shop -- we tried to eat there on the bike ride, but the line was too long.  Today the line was non-existent so of course we had a few scoops of heaven.  We continued through St. Germain and walked over to the Latin Quarter.  I wanted to swing by some little tourist shops near Notre Dame because I wanted a few scarves for fall, which I managed to pick up (white, black and purple).  This is where we ran into so many loud, obnoxious Americans demanding everyone around them speak English.  I was quite embarrassed for my countrymen.  Perhaps Americans shouldn't have passports if this is how we are going to act while abroad.

I would have liked to have spent more time exploring the art galleries in this area.  There were a few restaurants that had quite extensive wine cellars, which I would love to explore as well.  I will definitely be spending more time in St. Germain next time I am in London.

When you travel do you just pick a neighborhood and explore without any thought/care or research -- just see where the day takes you?  Do you find yourself drinking more wine when you are on vacation than you do in the US?  What about wine at lunch--do you find it a requirement while abroad?  What about back home, do you miss wine at every meal here?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Paris Trip Recap -- Louvre

Ah, the Louvre, the quintessential attraction in Paris. Since my time in Paris was limited, I didn't have the luxury of sleeping in like a bum (like I try to do on vacations), I had to get up and hit the museum early.  JB was the smart one and found that the Louvre is free on the first Sunday of each month (which is when we would be there).  Obviously the museum would be absolutely crazy on a free day, so dillydallying until noon would not be ideal.

We got up at 08h00 and planned on being at the Louvre shortly before it opened (like my plan for Versailles, that didn't quite work out as planned).  We were out of the hotel by 08h45 heading to the Metro (which was closed, interestingly enough).  We grabbed a pain au chocolat and an jus d'orange and waited for the bus, which would take us directly to the Louvre.  Like the Metro, the bus arrived very quickly (not at all like I'm use to in the US) and we had to toss our breakfast in the trash and hop on the bus.  The bus ride took 15 minutes and we were there.

The line was quite long at 09h10, but the guidebook and several friends told us not to enter through the main door, go through the side door - the Porte des Lions.  I thought this was too good to be true.  We skipped the long line of people standing in the rain and headed 200 meters into the grounds and found the entrance -- with no one in line.  Was this all a scam?  We entered the outer doors, went through the metal detectors, bought tickets and were in.  IT WORKED!  This entrance isn't open on Fridays, but it is every other day -- even the free day.

I hate being a standard American tourist, but I had a handful of things I wanted to see and I wanted to hit them early and guarantee I didn't miss the major things.  I immediately went to visit Mona Lisa -- we got there so early, there were less than 2 dozen people in the room with us and her.  It was great to see her and to get up close and personal, but I must admit it was a bit anti-climactic. I've been waiting a long time to see this piece of art and it was amazing, but not the knee quaking jaw dropping spectacle I thought it would be.  Perhaps I am too jaded and cynical.

From Mona we moved on to Winged Victory.  So many people were around taking pictures and demanding no one was in or near them when then were snapping pics. That's just outrageous. I'm not going to stand off to one side for 20 minutes waiting to cross the room because you want a picture of you 10 month old in a stroller at the foot of Winged Victory.

The other areas I wanted to see was the Middle Ages area and both MS and I wanted to see Spanish Paintings.  I also wanted to see the history of the Louvre, in the basement.  We saw some of the items we saw at Versailles, which looked more impressive here than at the palace.  We had a small break for pastries and juice after we saw the Middle Ages and the Spanish items then we headed back down to the basement for the history -- at this point the museum was absolutely full of patrons. It was uncomfortably full.  We realized that this wasn't working for us and we'd just have to see the historical pieces another time and we got the hell out of there.

It was about 12h30 now by the time we got out of the museum and headed to take some more pictures outside.  I must say, visiting the Louvre was great -- something that everyone must do while in Paris.  My advice, you must make a plan before you go.  You won't have time to look at everything, but you must do more than the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory (which are very close to each other).  Pick a section and spend time admiring the art.  You must also enter through the Porte des Lions -- it's worth it to get up early and enter in the door without a line.  It's a great it!

When at the Louvre, what is your go to piece of art? Do you visit the Louvre on every visit to Paris or are you a one and done visitor?  What other Louvre secrets do you have that I am not aware of?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dining Room Design

For those of you who read my ramblings know the history of my dining table.  I'll give the rest of you a quick recap.  My dining table started it's life in rural Kansas in the late  1800s.  It made it's way to Oregon on a covered wagon in the early 1900s.  Photos have proved that my great-grandma (the second person to own this table) used this for her every day table and even extended it by using sheets of plywood sitting on one edge and saw horse holding the other edge so she could host the entire family for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  My family has never had any money, so when someone would die they would break up proper sets of things (a dining set for example) and give the component pieces to various family members.  The table stayed close to my branch of the family tree, the chairs were turned in to lawn chairs by another member of the extended family -- solid oak chairs to make the best option for lanai seating, don't they?  I never said my family was the classiest of families around.  After a few generations, the table made it to my house. I had it refinished before we closed up the Oregon house and it's been living the urban life with me for 2.5 years now.

As noted before, it didn't come with matching chairs.  The chances of me finding a set of 6-8 chairs that match the table perfectly is next to zero, so I'm not even going to try.  2.45 years ago I was hosting a dinner at my home but didn't have any chairs. I opted to purchase cheap folding chairs from World Market with an espresso finish.  I figured it would pull the dark grain colors from the refinished table.  Plus they were only $40 for 4, so it's not like I was out anything if I hated them and to quote my friend JM "Shit, who doesn't need more folding chairs around their house -- you can always use them".  Good point.

So for the past 2.45 years I've been using these CHEAP folding chairs to see how I liked the darker chairs against the dark brown table -- and I really liked it.  The problem is, I can't find any reasonably priced espresso chairs that fit the bill.

Last week, I received a catalog from Home Decorators that had a few chair styles that I liked.  Plus they were on sale.  I know, I know. The first thing I thought was it would be press board (mdf) and would fall apart within a few weeks but the website said it was "wood" and not "particle board" or whatever else they call it.  What the hell, I'll buy a chair and see how it goes.

The chair arrived at Home Depot within 2 days of ordering and it sat there 3 more days while I was out of town.  I swung by HD to pick it up and was SHOCKED at the size of the box it came in.  The box is only slightly smaller than if the chair was fully assembled.  I schlepped this chair home in a taxi and spent 15 minutes putting it together. It is wood and not press board. It has a WIDE seat for all of my wide seated friends.  It is slightly distressed with bumps and gouges and some of the coloring has rubbed off to reveal a little red undertone.

The chair is heavy and stable and for $140 it's a pretty good deal in my mind. I'm just not 100% sold on it for my table.  The wide seat is so wide it just barely fits under the table (between the legs).  It's a bit taller than I'm use to, since I've been using these small folding chairs.  It goes without saying, if I keep this chair, I'm going to reupholster the wide seat -- perhaps with a bold color or pattern.  The chair could use a bit more padding on the seat too, but that can easily be handled when I upholster.

 What do you think?  Should these chairs move into my home permanently?  What do you like about them? What do you hate?  Be honest, I want to hear.  If you don't want to comment, please email me.

Oh yeah, and you can see Miss Lilly wanted to get in the photos. She woke up just in time to supervise my photo shoot and now she's sitting here watching everything I type.  She's a great little supervisor.


Paris Trip Recap -- Montmartre

We planned on doing our Bike About Tour on Saturday morning, but because I struggle with reading confirmations and websites and cannot accurately tell time, that plan was thrown out the window.  Since the Bike About people were quite flexible, we opted to flip flop our morning and afternoon plans, so we decided to meet at the Pigalle Metro station at 11h30.  We were going to follow the Frommer's walking tour of Montmartre as our guide -- again. Frommer's overestimated the amount of time this walk would take.  They said it would take 5 hours, more if you break for lunch and if we follow the route we'd cover 4 kilometers. We had to be back at the Charlemagne statue at 14h45 so we wouldn't miss our bike tour (again) -- plus we needed to get lunch.  We better get cracking!

When I think of Montmartre I think of the Moulin Rouge and Toulouse-Latrec wandering around in an absinthe induced haze.  Not so much any more - especially at noon on a Saturday.  Unlike the rest of Paris we visited, Montmartre is quite hilly, which really helps you burn off all the butter and cream you've been consuming while in Paris.

The first stop was the cradle of cubism, Bateau-Lavoir or the Boat Wash house.  Picasso lived here for 8 years and created such pieces at Demoiselle d'Avignon as well as The Third Rose.  The building was quite nondescript and if the guidebook hadn't pointed it out, we would have just walked on by.

We continued up the hill to find the Espace Dali Montmatre, a Salvador Dali museum with over 300 original works and a tacky gift shop, it will fully satisfy a Dali lover.  Seriously though, what are you going to do with one of those melting wall clocks?

We then came across Place de Tertre which is swarming with artists (caricaturists, some psychics and some talented landscape artists). MS opted to purchase a medium/small landscape of Paris.  I don't have a picture of it, but it is nicely done.  In this square there is a restaurant called La Cremaillere 1900 -- a Belle Epoque dining room with original paintings and a beautiful ceiling.  We didn't stop to eat as we barely made any progress on the tour and we had a lot to see.

The next stop was St. Pierre, one of the oldest churches in Paris.  Around the corner we found the main reason for our visit to Montmartre -- Sacre-Coeur, a basilica whose construction began in 1876 but was designed to look like a 12th Century Byzantine structure.  The bright white exterior shined against the crystal clear blue sky -- reminded me so much of my visit to the leaning tower of Pisa (c. 1996).  The view from the front of Sacre-Coeur is quite stunning.  We did not travel to the top of the basilica to view Paris from on high, but I hear the views are spectacular.

We started walking down the hill and found a small vineyard that is still in operation -- what a surprise.  At this point we were getting quite hungry, so we figured we'd walk down to find a quick little lunch stop then make our way over to the bike tour.  As we were walking down, RK reminded us that the place where he buys his clarinet reeds is in Montmarte and it is on the street that we are on.  We continue to walk to find the address -- of course, we walk right on past it.  Luckily JB was paying more attention than the rest of us.  Unfortunately this place was closed.

We did find a nice place for a gallette and a crepe as we made our way back to Pigalle Station.  Creperie Lepic Assiette offered some great options for both sweet and savory crepes.  If you are in the area, I would stop by.  Plus there was a big painting of this dog on site too.  The dog was lounging under one of the benches -- quite the life.
We continue our trek toward Pigalle and walk past a couple of Moulin's (windmills) including the most famous, Moulin Rouge.  It looked a little Time Square to me -- we didn't see a show, but did continue back to Pigalle and then to our hotel as MS had to drop off the canvas he purchased before our bike ride.  I do wish I was able to have another meal in this area and perhaps been able to enjoy the nightlife, but I wouldn't put this high on my to do list next time -- and I sure wouldn't consider this a miss on this trip because I didn't do this.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Paris Trip Recap -- Bike Tour

The last time I remember riding a bike (before November 2009) was sometime around 1992.  In 2009 I was visiting family in Orlando and while the elderly (my mother who was 58 and her aunt who was 81) stayed home, while the kids (me, 30 and my second cousin who was 59) went out on a bike ride.  I think made EAD/JFB rent bikes while in PSP -- I had such a great time on both of these rides.  So now, renting bikes has become a pretty standard part of a Tim Vacation.  You can read about our South African Wine & Bike Tour here.

We did a bit of research online and found Bike About Tours - whose tours seemed to fit with not only what we wanted to see, but also into our restrictive timeline. We decided to sign up for the tour at 10h00 on Saturday. I coordinated this event, so we agreed to meet at the Charlemagne Statue (outside Notre Dame) -- unfortunately I thought (and told everyone) the tour started at 10h30.  I didn't realize this until 09h30 -- nearly impossible for us all to get there.  MS and I made it without a problem, but JB/RK were staying quite a distance from us -- no way they could make it.  Luckily Bike About was flexible and allowed us to change from the 10h00 to the 15h00 tour with no issues.

We met at 14h45 and joined a group of about 12-15 other people, mostly Americans and headed out on the bike ride.  We had to walk 5 minutes to a subterranean parking garage to collect our rides, which were pretty cool multi-speed tiny wheeled, gel seated little work horses.

Our tour guide was born in the Soviet Union, moved to New York and has been in Paris for several years.  She spoke excellent English and the French I heard was top notch too.  Unlike many other tours I've been on, these folks just told us to stick close together, ride on the right unless told otherwise.  Then she was off.  She didn't stop every few feet to make sure the group was all together, we are adults and need to follow directions and keep up with the crowd. It was refreshing.  If I were traveling with my mother or someone else of that ilk, I would have been driven crazy -- it would have been like herding cats (meow).

Everyone on the trip was in pretty good shape and didn't really have any bike issues (Paris is pretty flat, we rode slowly and took frequent stops).  One lady on the tour had ridden her bike, with her husband, in from Versailles. Interestingly enough, she was a pretty big woman.  Upon closer inspection we found that she had a motor on her bike.  There was no way she peddled her big ass in from Versailles and remained that size.

Our bike ride was supposed to be 3 hours, but it turned into four (it was announced as 4 at the start of the tour). The website now says 3.5 hours -- who knows what's going on with that.  We saw some great views of Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Obelisk, the Seine and the new Opera House.  The tour guide was well informed (her comments matched what I had read before).  She did add a bit of color commentary from time to time -- you could hear a bit of her socialist ideology from time to time, which I found charming and not too revolutionary.

Please ignore the bellies on us...
If I have one recommendation regarding this tour would be that you do it early in your trip.  We saw many things that we had already viewed on self guided tours and learned things that we already knew.  For example we rode to the Place de Vosges, Victor Hugo's home, the Hotel's English Gardens, etc.  We were also told about the history of the Revolution and Napoleon's reign.  While it is interesting, I don't want to hear the same thing about these topics repeatedly.

The tour was well organized and well executed.  They treated us like adults, but gave us directions when needed.  My favorite direction from our little Soviet came early on in the tour -- we were coming to a busy intersection and we needed to cross 4 lanes of traffic without a stop light. Our guide said "Get together and pretend we are a big car", we then headed out in the road and pushed our way through traffic until we made it across. I was surprised at how well this worked.  Perhaps we should try that while in Chicago, eh?

All in all, this was a really nice tour.  I would suggest this tour for anyone -- it's a great way to see this beautiful City from a new perspective and it's a great way to get a bit of exercise before you head off to the creperie again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pretty Nice Travel Day

I use the phrase travel day liberally. I flew from ORD to LGA today for a series of Risk Meetings/Conference. I am staying at the W in midtown and am now sitting at the near empty bar at BLT Steak, waiting for the kitchen to open so I can order a popover and a side of bacon...then go meet my risk colleagues for dinner.  Yes, the popovers are that tasty and I am that much of a pig.

I flew out at 11h00 and we landed 10 minutes early. The other ORD-LGA flights this morning were all delayed at least an hour. Lucky me. I was number one on the upgrade list....once first had checked in full. I am consistently the first loser...but I had MY coach seat, second exit row aisle. Of course a bit fatty was going to sit next to me AND he wouldn't allow me to get up before he tried to slide his ample ass into the middle seat next to me.

I continued to read my book as he tried to change with me. The doors closed and a stew came running down the aisle get to my row, looks us all up and down, settles on the late middle aged man in a cheap suit and says "Mr.<MY NAME>, your upgrade has cleared, gather your things and come with me." He didn't correct her, so I had to. He was surprisingly upset that they wouldn't give him the upgrade. I loved it. They lovingly pull me from the 3rd level of hell and guide me to heaven....ok that's a was a domestic upgrade on an A320 on a 121 minute flight, but at least I didn't have to sit next to fatty AND I helped partially ruin a day for another guy.

All in all, pretty productive morning. Karma will on many of my next flights, I am sure.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Paris Trip Recap -- Arc de Triomphe

After our trek out to Versailles and our trek UP the Eiffel Tower, we decided to head back to our respective hotels to freshen up.  It was hot and we were active (and 75% of us a sweat hogs, it appears) so we all needed to hose off.  Since we did the Tower in the late afternoon, we decided to do the Arc de Triomphe in the evening so we could see the Parisian lights at night (and at elevation).  I figured I'd rather see this from the Arc than the Tower because I wanted a picture of the Tower at night.

We met at JB/RK's hotel (they stayed on points at the Renaissance near the Arc -- which was going for 499€ each night!!!) and had a quick cocktail.  Our plan was to visit the Arc, then head out for dinner in a neighborhood we haven't visited before.  We had a bit of trouble finding our way to the Arc -- there are several staircases going underground, but we seemed to find the ones that just took us to stairway going up - but not to the Arc, just across the round about.  How could we get lost within sight of one of the most famous monuments in the world? Well, we did.

 I was excited to see a photography exhibit inside the Arc that showcased all of the "triumphant marches" through/around the Arc since the mid-1880s.  Interestingly enough, we couldn't find the exhibition space either -- this was not our evening.  We did manage to make it to the top, perfectly timed to watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle on the hour.  The Tower is clad with hundreds of twinkle lights that really look beautiful.  The Arc didn't have all that many people visiting either, so we were able to take many photos while we were there.  Of course, my camera battery was starting to die as well.  This really wasn't my evening.

We then descended to street level to pour through our travel books for a dinner option.  We decided we'd take the Metro over to Montparnasse and just wander aimlessly until we found something fab for dinner.  The walked around for about 30 minutes, checking menus, trying to find a place off the beaten path. After reviewing about 6 places we headed back to the first place we found -- of course we did.

The dinner was quite tasty and the best part, we found they had white port, which is almost unheard of in the US -- of course we each had two glasses.  We all really found our love for port in Portugal last year -- each time we enjoy a glass of port we retell the stories of our week in Portugal last year.

As we were quickly hurrying back to catch the last Metro train of the evening, we stumbled across several hundred rollerbladers riding through the streets.  The best part -- the police were also on rollerblades!  I'm not a blader, as I have absolutely no balance, but it was pretty cool to watch this whole thing.

Have you ever been within a few feet of a major monument and just couldn't figure out how to get TO the monument?  Have you walked up 800 stairs in a day just to get a better view of the area?  Do you and your friends have a favorite drink that immediately brings a smile to your face when you see it on the menu?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Paris Trip Recap: Tour Eiffel

The train station we used to get the RER C to Versailles was just a hundred meters from the Eiffel Tower (Tour Eiffel).  When we walked up to the Tower in the morning, I must admit, I was shocked. It was so big -- so much bigger than I expected.  The morning was crystal clear and the Tower sprung up out of nowhere.  The park surrounding the Tower was more rustic than I thought, but the lack of other buildings in the near vicinity made the Tower look beyond imposing.

 We didn't spend any time around the Tower in the morning as we were running (late) to the train to Versailles.  Upon our return to Paris, we got off at the same station and headed directly to the Tower.  Well, maybe not directly, JB/RK had to stop at the WC en route.

 The line to the top of the Tower stretched about 300 meters from the entrance. This line was to take the elevator up to the top.  We knew from our research that we could walk up to the second floor -- it's about 300 steps to the first floor and about another 300 from the first to the second.  It was quite a warm day and the walk up the stairs made me sweat even more than normal.  The stairs really weren't that difficult and it was nice because not too many people were taking the stairs.  Once we got to the first level (then again to the second level) we were a bit winded.  The views from the first floor were quite spectacular...and the views from the second were even better.

You are unable to walk to the very top of the Tower, which is a good thing, because ascending the stairs gave me a bit of scare -- god I hate heights.  The elevator ride to the top was quick yet very packed -- and smelly.  The elevator was glass and again, caused the fear to build in me.  Why do I have an irrational fear of heights?? The top floor of the Tower (at 273 meters) was so crowded, we could hardly walk around the  observation deck.  There was ample room for us to make our way over to the bar and get a couple glasses of champagne though. :)

Once we took a ton of pictures from this beautiful vantage point, we decided to head back downstairs.  Once we got to the second floor we opted to walk down stairs.  Interestingly enough, my fear of heights doesn't seem to kick in when I'm walking down the stairs -- no matter the height.

The symmetry in Paris is stunning. I love the grand boulevards, the plazas, the monuments and the public spaces.  These beautiful views are easily seen from the Tower making it one of the best elevated viewpoints I have ever seen worldwide.  Napoleon might have been a megalomaniac but his remodel of Paris was truly amazing.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Paris Trip Recap -- Versailles

 No trip to Paris would be complete without a trip to Versailles.  I wanted to get up early and be out at Versailles when the doors opened.  My trip was so short, I didn't have time to sleep in or wait in lines behind a ton of people.  We intended on getting on the RER at 8h13 and arrive in Versailles at 8h47, 13 minutes before the palace even opens, hop in line, get tickets and tour Versailles before the crowds annoy me.

JB/RK didn't really seem to keen on this idea though. I didn't think JB really wanted to get up early our second day in Paris, so we all agreed that we'd get on the agreed upon train and head out -- even if we didn't see each other.  This was my idea, because I didn't want to wait for these guys.  We didn't get to the train station in time to make the 8h13 outbound.  JB/RK did.  We got on the 8h27 train which got into Versailles at 8h55.  We met up with the boys for a quick breakfast (pain au chocolat and jus d'orange).  We could see and were walking towards Versailles by 9h20.

We opted to take a quick peak at the grounds first, then worked our way back to the ticket counter for tickets to enter the palace.  The weather this day was amazing -- such a bright, sunny and pretty warm day.  Staring out at the grounds, I was surprised at how impressive it was.  I've seen several rehabbed palaces throughout Europe, but I've read that Versailles is the best of the best.  My research had told me that one of the best things to see at Versailles was the Hall of Mirrors and the grounds.

We collected our audio guides, which were included in the admission price -- which I really liked, I hate when you pay $25 to get in someplace then you have to pay another $8 to get the self guided tour.  We worked our way through the first third of Versailles without a problem...but then we hit grid lock. We had a large Asian tour group meet up with us. Everyone was taking pictures of each other, aggressively pushing their way though the crowd.  Obviously their pictures were more important that anything I was trying to do.  I also managed to take a good number of photos with a last minute Asian tourist popping into the shot.  This was so frequent and obnoxious that I decided I'm going to create a coffee table book called "Chinois en Vacances", which means Chinese on Vacation and I will include photos from my travels where other tourists have ruined my photos (not necessarily Chinese or Asian tourists, I just like the way "Chinois en Vacances" sounds and looks.

We finally made our way through to the Hall of Mirrors, which would have been wonderful, if it wasn't so  crowded with other tourists.  I think my favorite part of the Chateau itself was hearing about how Louis XIV-XVI and Napoleon used it -- four very different people who had very different uses for the place.  I wish I had done more reading on French History.  I hate feeling a bit unprepared for something as important as this.  Hopefully, I will learn from these continued mistakes -- probably not though.

After we finished the Chateau, we headed to the grounds.  We spent about 90 minutes wandering around the garden, looking at all the fountains, staring at the flowers, finding a nice piece of shade to hide from the sun and continually being surprised at how large the gardens.  I could have spent more time in the gardens but we were getting hungry. We didn't bring a picnic, which would have been a perfect way to spend a couple hours that afternoon.  Again, life and learn, eh?

All of the fountains were turned off when we were there.  All the fountains are turned on during the weekend fountain/music shows, that we were going to miss.  I think it would be an amazing spectacle to listen to classical music and watch the fountains at Versailles -- seeing it the way it was intended to be seen.

As we finished up we walked out of the Chateau grounds and into the village of Versailles.  We used our tour book to find a restaurant for lunch.  We opted not to visit the over priced Gordon Ramsey restaurant and instead went to Le Potager du Roy (which means the King's Garden Kitchen).  The food was amazing.  I, again, had lamb and it was really amazing.  We did have a bit of a language issue here though.  MS ordered a steak and the waiter asked how he wanted it prepared.  We did study this in class, and I remembered how to say "well-done" (bien cuit) and "blue" (bleu), but couldn't remember "rare" (saignant).  I knew he didn't want it blue (cold red center) or well done (grey hot center).  I also knew that the litter definition of saignant was "bloody", but couldn't get that across.  I had to say "Not blue, a little more".  The waiter partially understood -- and the steak came out "blue plus" or SUPER rare.  The steak was really tasty though.

I also was able to use my French at the post office, asking for 25 stamps for cards to the US.  Everything worked perfectly here.  We hopped on the train, which was not air conditioned and extremely hot and a pretty miserable 30 minute ride back to Paris.  We decided to get off at the same station we started at (Champs de Mars) with the Eiffel Tower.  We thought, let's hit it and let's hit it hard on the first full day in Paris.

If you've never been to Paris, I say go to Versailles, but go early and plan on having lunch there, but get back to Paris no later than 15h00 -- at the LATEST.  It is a quick 25 minute train ride -- you can't skip Versailles, you will be regretting it fully.