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Spring break with bad weather good food and lots of laughs
What can I say? I love Paris! Now my kids love Paris! What's to love? The beautiful architecture, the food, the little neighborhoods, surprising courtyard glimpses and....the people! They are so proud of their city, and they are so nice to tourists - really - despite what you've heard. The place is overrun by tourists, yet people still civilly answer you and try to help out. I speak French, so you might think I'm at an advantage, but my family does not, and they got along quite well. Children are treated very well there - even in restaurants. Maybe times have changed. Maybe the Parisians still get a bum rap. Maybe I'm just wearing rose colored glasses....
What has changed in the 20 years since I was in Paris as a student? MUCH less smoking and much less dog poop on the streets. Fewer beggers and crazy people wandering around, though there's still a fair share. MUCH more graffitti...
I repeat: I LOVE Paris. I brought my 13 year old boy, and 11 and 10 year old girls, hoping they'd love it too, but fearing they'd be bored and overwhelmed. I was wrong. They loved everything, except, maybe the crush at rush hour on the metro. (my daughter asks me to emphasize the importance of finding time/room to get the best street food - crepes from a crepe stand - make sure they are making them fresh, not pulling them from a stack - we recommend lemon and cream of chestnut).
3 BR apartment in the Marais
I want to put a plug in here for Michael and Patsy's apartment. We have now had 3 good experiences renting a variety of accomodations through VRBO.com, and this was no exception. The location was fantastic. By Paris standards the apartment is palatial, but it is also warm and welcoming, and if you're staying for a few days you are way better off in an apartment than in a hotel. Michael's orientation will set you on the right path and then the neighborhood and the city are yours to discover. The Marais is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Paris and this area, the "upper" Marais, is not one I knew before. It's lovely. In a few days you'll think of it as home.
OK, so if you have kids you have to go to the Eiffel tower. We went at night and at 10 past the hour they turn on the "sparkly" lights. It is a magnificent sight. Approach from Trocadero or Ecole militaire. Don't bother waiting on line if it takes to long too go up - there are plenty of other places you can get an equally good vista of the city (Montmartre, Montparnasse, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, etc....). Don't waste your time standing on line.
We did the 1/2 day class with Chef Eric. First of all I'd like to vouch for 1) his English - it's excellent, so no worries 2) he really is a chef - if you go to the market with him and prepare a meal with him he really wants you to learn about quality and technique, and to prepare things you will be able to make at home. We made: salmon quiche, duck breast with orange sauce, braised fennel, celeriac mash and creme brulee, all based on our own requests. And the kids loved all of it. This was a marvelous way to kick off our stay
After our cooking class we NEEDED a good long walk. We walked up to the top of Montmartre (through the portrait artists and other hawkers) took a look around the church and followed the sign on the right to "Dome and Crypt." It was cold, windy and rainy, but there were no signs saying "climb at your own risk" or even "caution, slippery when wet." So up we went. It was one of the most beautiful views of Paris (it was rainy, but not foggy and the weather kept clearing). You could see all the way out to the Arc de Triomphe and La Defense, and there were no crowds. You climb along the roofline of the church and there are some tight spiral stairs to navigate, but it's worth it. Definitely do this instead of Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower.
Seedy as always, but steeped in history. A lovely old neighborhood to wander through, but watch your pockets and don't get railroaded into having your portrait drawn or your hair braided. The street vendors are very aggressive here, but not worth avoiding this lovely old neighborhood.
After our Montmartre cllimb we took the metro accross town to the Champs Elysees - again, not my choice of location - I prefer the small neighborhoods, but we "sacrificed" for the kids. Again, I had forgotten just how impressive the Arch is, and the views and the beauty of the Champs Elysees. All I remembered was the crowds and the Burger King (which is no longer there). I had never climbed the Arc - again with the spiral stairs). At the top there is a wonderful display of the Arc's history (commissioned by Napolean, but finished much later) and renovation. At the base, there is the eternal flame of the unkown soldier, and the day we were there, there was a changing of the guard featuring elderly men who I assume were WWII vets. At the top it was amazing - from each direction there was an unforgettable vista - of Sacre Coeur in one direction, of the Grande Arche de la Defense, a modern mirror of the Arc in another and the diagonal streets and slate roofs of this beautiful city.
After hours of walking and climbing....we were still not hungry! However we did go ahead and drop $50 on hot chocolate and beer (one each) at a cafe on the Champs Elysees (you need to do it at least once)
This is the last stop on the RER A - EURO Disney!!! Fortunately my kids knew that was not going to be our destination. An old friend lives in a nearby town and we stayed with her for two days, ate incredibly well and visited a medieval town and the chateau that inspired the building of Versailles - all with many many fewer people than at Versailles or other "picturesque" villages that make it into the American guidebooks. I can't tell if these treasures are truly off the beaten path or if we were just lucky on timing, but even if they do become the next tourist attraction, they stand on their own with the best of Ile de France....
Medieval town under restoration, but with plenty to see already. Famous for its medieval festivals and its rose garden, this is a lovely day trip from Paris and there are also some pretty Inns and restaurants in town. For an American, it's a trip to go to a living town that has 1,000 year old houses and churches still in use! OK, maybe not 1,000, but I don't think 500 is an exaggeration, and there has been a town of some sort on the spot for 1,000 years. Also, the town has its own species of rose, so you will see many rose-themed items around town.
OK, my Sun King (Louis the 14th) history is a little weak, but my understanding is that Nicolas Fouquet had this palace built to please his king, had one wonderful party in which he presented it to the court, and managed to arouse Louis's jealousy so much that he hired away the architecht, gardener (Le Notre) and painter (Le Brun) along with others, and threw Count Fouquet in prison. In any case, this chateau, the most beautiful chateau most American tourists have never heard of, shares many traits with its grander and more crowded cousin, Versailles. We did learn, however, that Bill Clinton has been there, and that Eva Longoria was married there last summer, so some Americans must be familiar with the place.
In an ideal world (in which I have unlimited time in Paris), I would go to the Louvre for a specific exhibit, stay an hour or so and leave. On Spring Break with my kids, however, we had to go the traditional route. The lines were not too awful. The automatic ticket machines make it go quite quickly. However, in a busier time, it's probably worth considering some of the workarounds proposed on this site - buying tickets online, buying a museum pass or using alternate entrances.
We wandered through and caught most of the major sights - the kids not unexpectedly confused about all the commotion over the Mona Lisa. Things that are remarkable to me, after many years' gap in visits: do go see "winged victory." This is a marble statue, yet the presentation of a woman's torso clothed in a sheer dress is so dramatically clear that it's unbelievable that you're just looking at stone. As you turn right, leaving "Winged Victory," towards the Mona Lisa, don't forget to look up as some of the gallery ceilings are more spectacular than the paintings on the walls.
Try to fit in a visit to Appollo's corridor (I think that's it), near the winged victory statue. Recently restored, this gilded corridor houses tapestries representing the great French artists, crown jewels, fabulous paintings and royal objects. Finally, try to see the Michaelangelo gallery, particularly the dying slave statue. If you go to the Rodin house, even a non art historian will see the influence this statue had on Rodin's work.
If you have time for a second visit, OR your are a glutton for punishment OR you just get lost trying to get out (that was us), spend some time in the Egypt section of the museum. I wish we weren't so burned out and hungry by the time we got there.
My only complaint about the museum is how little is really in English. I guess that's how people are encouraged to use the audio guides. In any case, it's counter-intuitive, but I don't recommend the audio guides - then you end up with the same crowd around the same attractions. And there's so much more to see....
The oldest covered market in Paris - not open on Mondays - little other than the Louvre is (!). This is a lovely small market dedicated to high quality. We bought fruit here, morning pastry, great Italian takeout and jam. It's a small alley where people take great pride in what they purvey.
Lovely small museum and garden. I recommend starting with the garden and, in contrast to my advice about the Louvre, to take the audio tour.
With kids, in general I recommend that you consider the smaller museums. They seem to get into the subject in more depth, compared to the Louvre, which can be an overwhelming experience. Most kids have heard of, or seen representations of "The Thinker." They probably haven't heard of the "Gates of Hell" or the "Burghers of Calais," but they will remember these haunting statues as well. Go to the second floor of the museum. At the top of the stairs is a small exhibit explaining the process of making lost wax castings. Believe it or not, one of the early controversies of Rodin's career was the rumor that he was dipping real people in bronze (see the comment above about the influence of Michaelangelo on Rodin's depiction of the human form).
Victor Hugo lived here. Currently the ground floor is taken up by high end galleries and jewelers. I can't explain why this square has such an effect on me, but it's like entering another century, yet with great continuity to our own lives, since there are kids from the local nursery school in the park, cafes, boutiques, restaurants and other businesses along the main corridors.
VERY crowded. It's impressive. If I had the time I would have gone to Chartres, which I think is overall more impressive, and I would have loved to see the windows at Sainte Chapelle, but the line there was huge too. We basically followed the queue all the way around the cathedral. I'd been there before. The only thing I noticed was that the windows are more impressive than I remembered, which made me feel better about missing Sainte Chapelle.
This was an experience I'd go through once only. It was really amazing to eat in the pitch black and try to really "understand" my food. On the other hand, it was a bit disconcerting. Someone on the Paris forum recommended this to me, and we all thought it was pretty cool. Worth a try, especially with (biggish) kids. Also, the street this restaurant was on, Quinquimpoix, near the Centre Pompidou, has many interesting international restaurants on it.
My daughter adds that it's not worth it to get the kids' menu. The food was good (pasta and duck), but it is not as interesting as the varied flavors and textures of the regular "suprise" menu. Also be sure to note the items you WON't eat (for example, our kids don't like mushrooms, so they were not included on their plates).
rue du bac - full of antiques and worth wandering around - on the way from the Rodin Museum, Rue de Varennes to Boulevard Saint Germain.
rue des roisiers - the heart of the traditional Jewish quarter, filled with Middle Eastern/kosher bakeries and delis and high end galleries and boutiques - one of my favorite streets - on the way to Place des Vosges
rue de rambuteau - another lovely street to wander down - can't remember why I noted it...
Amsterdam in March - well, weather is definitely a factor, particularly if you like to walk. It was cold, it was raining, it was even HAILING. Two things kept us going: 1, It's an incredibly beautiful city; 2, the Dutch don't even seem to NOTICE the weather - they just go about their business - walking, riding their bikes, taking 50 kids on field trips to the windswept coast - on bikes. Not wanting to be wimps, we did our best.... and the people were really nice. The city is really beautiful. I have to say though, that walking through the red light district as a young college student vs. accidentally passing through it with your 3 kids in tow - two very different experiences....
I highly recommend this hotel - see my review -- the staff and the cleanliness and the comfort of the beds make it a keeper. It's a little out of the way - just past the Van Gogh Museum and at the far end of the Vondelpark, but very close to tram line 2. It's also a typical small European hotel. But as I said, the staff makes it very homey and the breakfast is hearty and healthy.
Doesn't look anything like this website!
We wandered into this place - my sister in law is Dutch and said to try poffertjes, Dutch puffy pancakes. They, and the savory crepes were delicious. Service, however, was horrible. We were basically forgotten. Also, unlike in France and England, we realized, smoking bans have not been put into effect in Dutch restaurants, and this was a small closed in space. That said, we had Dutch pancakes twice in 2 days, and these were by far the better ones.
This museum has really expanded, with an interactive learning center and an auditorium in which the audience is asked to consider and vote on important moral issues such as freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc., but you are asked to judge this in the context of the Orangeman parade, neo-Nazi demonstrators, Holocaust deniers and other morally ambiguous topics. The kids were fascinated and got very into the complexity of these situations - pretty good for their age.
The museum itself is always moving. My kids have always been very averse to talking about/learning about the Holocaust, and have refused to read the diary. Therefore I was very pleased to see how engaged they were with Anne's story and all the details of the time and the place. I think they will read it now.
BY ALL MEANS, buy your timed tickets online. We easily missed over an hour of cold, wet line standing by doing this.
At first glance this is a glorified gift shop. Give it time, however, and go through the exhibit downstairs. It's really quite informative - about the importance of the tulip from the Middle ages on, the Tulipmania market which will remind you of today's dot com bubble and real estate bubble and other market madness, and the actual technique of growing the bulbs, which are still a large part of the Dutch agricultural market. The gift shop is also one of the best we saw - much nicer than the usual souvenir schlock.
buy your tickets online!!! You have read it everywhere else, hear it from me as well. On the other hand, think about if you want to do this: if the kids are too small, they won't be able to see everything. Maybe try to go really early - it seemed to get even more crowded at noon. I stilll think it was worth it - it's really a lovely museum.
KItschy and touristy, but definitely charming. If you only have a day and a half in Amsterdam, it's worth a visit, since it gives you a flavor of the Dutch countryside, the ability to visit working windmills (we saw one that dates from the 1600's), a cheese factory (see above about "glorified giftshop") and a clog factory - this was an unexpected hit, mainly because the presenter was so engaging.
Biggest problem here was the cold, the wet, and the hail. Also, we got on the wrong train. It's not far from Amsterdam - one stop - IF you manage to pay attention to the ticket seller's instructions.
$$ (or rather Euro) info - workshops are free - small museums (e.g. each windmill) have small fees. There's an overall regional museum that we didn't visit, being museumed out after Van Gogh. The cafe and the museums do not take credit cards, so bring cash, and the coffee shop, as would be expected, is expensive.
Logistics: You take a tram to a train to a free ferry - it takes about 45 minutes from the city center, OR you can take an organized excursion from your hotel.
Traditional Dutch food. We had been given a recommendation from my sister in law to go to the Red Lion, near Dam Square, but they didn't have tables, so we followed our hotel's recommendation and went here. It was lovely, but make a reservation and ask for the non-smoking room.
We HIGHLY recommend the mussels, which are shelled mussels in a cream broth with dill. Delicious! The portions are very large, particularly the desserts. We splurged because it was our last night, but appetizer/main dish/dessert was really too much food.
Other good dishes included: the shrimp salad, the onion soup and the brandied raisins with cinnamon ice cream dessert.