European Vacation to France, Italy, and Spain
In 2008, my wife Mary, three daughters, and I went on a Mediterranean cruise, our first trip to Europe. At the time, the cruise made sense for us. Meals, lodging, and many language issues were taken care of for us. We’d sign up for a tour, arrive in port, and follow around a guide holding up a flag. What could be easier? It was a wonderful, but a bit touristy trip, and we vowed to visit Europe again.
We finally got around to it in May, 2019. Thank goodness we did it before start of the pandemic in 2020. For our second time to Europe, Mary and I didn’t want to do it like the first. We decided to so it in a more challenging way, no cruises, packages, or tours, just us having to find our next meal and how to get to our next destination. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the experience and have to communicate along the way, even though we knew almost no French, Italian, or Spanish.
On our 18 day trip, we covered a lot, visiting Paris, Venice, Matera, Cinque Terre, Tossa de Mar, and Barcelona. Our transportation included: 8 flights, three boat rides, 14 trains, 16 buses, 21 metro/subway rides, and one car ride. We also walked many, many miles. As avid hikers, we liked that part. This blog only covers Paris, but I’ll get to our other stops soon.
Our walking started with 10.5 miles our first night in Paris. Actually, that story started a little earlier, in the Iceland airport. During our five-hour layover at Reykjavik airport, we came upon two close friends of ours who now live 1800 miles away from us. What a coincidence to run into them in Iceland! Not only that, but they turned out to be on our flight to Paris, sitting directly behind us. They had a hotel booked in the center of things, near Notre Dame. Our hotel sat a 1.5 mile Metro/subway ride away, in a lower rent district, so we agreed to meet at 7 pm in front of Notre Dame. Unfortunately, the major fire a few weeks earlier meant we could not see the inside.
We met our friends and started a long walk along the Seine River, past one incredible building after another, such as Sainte Chappelle, the Louvre, d’Orsay, Grand Palais, and many more. The river itself provides much to watch, with a variety of boat traffic going up and down the river. A lot of activity takes place on the walkways along the river too, including countless vendors, cafes, and walkers like us.
We crossed the historic Pont Alexandre III bridge, with a popular café below, and made our way to Paris’s most famous street, des Champ-Elysees, where we ate at a busy restaurant with exorbitant prices, like $40 for duck liver pate, an appetizer. Maybe I’m just cheap. Anyway, our walk continued all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, a 164’ high arch where you can find fantastic views from the top.
By the time we made our way back to Notre Dame, our friends’ app said we’d walked nine miles. Mary and I headed for the Metro, for our 1.5 mile ride to our hotel. The doors were locked! It turns out the Metro doesn’t run late at night, so we walked through dark streets and alleys arriving at our hotel in the early hours of the morning.
The Solar Hotel turned out to be a nice place to stay, as long as the Metro was running. For breakfast each morning, the hotel served coffee, croissants, rolls, and jams. Instead of a supermarket, our neighborhood had a whole variety of individual shops for meat, cheese, wine, fresh produce, and a bakery with delicious pastries and pastries. It was wonderful to see friendly people with small businesses succeeding. In the US, so much of what we buy is from large corporations. Visiting a variety of small shops also gave us a lot of opportunity to practice what little French we know, and most Parisians we met were quite friendly and patient.
We found the most useful French words to be bonjour, oui, and merci.
Our sleep schedules were seriously out of whack, but we didn’t want to sleep the day away. I woke up groggy and fumbled with our pill bottle. Instead of taking Levothyroxine a small white pill that’s supposed to increase my energy level, I accidentally took my wife’s melatonin, a small white pill that helps people sleep. That morning, I stumbled around like a total zombie!
Montmarte and Sacre Couer
Navigating the subway system challenged us, as we struggled to get on the right trains and get off at the right stops, especially that morning of Melatonin. When stops were announced over the speakers, we were amazed how many of them sounded nothing like the way they’re spelled. Guess how you pronounce Aubervilliers – Pantin – Quatre Chemins.
We did manage to find our way to the Montmartre neighborhood, a charming place with shops, artists, street-side cafés, and Sacre Couer, one of many Catholic churches we visited on our trip. Most of the churches we visited are much older, so the architecture of Sacre Couer (opened 1914) is quite different but quite beautiful with large domes.
Sainte Chappelle and the Louvre
Sainte Chappelle (opened 1248), another of Paris’s famous churches, has 1113 scenes depicted in its incredible stained glass windows.
The Louvre, the largest art museum in the world, is quite incredible. To see everything might take days, so we devoted one day and decided to wander until we’d had enough. The paintings and sculptures are amazing, but the building itself was almost more impressive to me. In fact, in many places we visited, I was amazed by the stonework and the fact that these buildings had lasted for centuries. I wonder how many modern buildings will last that long. Every 20 years, our houses seem to need new siding, roofing, and most components.
We enjoyed Paris a great deal, but it is a big city with a lot of people. We live in a quiet place in the foothills of the North Cascades. After our three days, we felt ready to move on to Venice, another beautiful, but smaller, city with a long and fascinating history.