Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Brat Girls

I'm taking a brief break from my posts on Paris because we are on vacation in Croatia and I haven't any pictures of our Paris vacation to upload into a post :) Plus, my wifi is spotty to say the least, although my awesome new Croatian friend Teuta is letting me hack into hers. Such is the life of a military family living's just one constant European vacation after another...poor us (teehee). We'll return soon and I'll finish telling you about our fab Parisian vacation, but until then...
For those of you who don't know our family personally (all 12 of you) "The Brats" as I like to refer to them are made up of our four kids--Tory 15, Trey 13, Jackson 6, and Delilah 3.  I often worried that with such a large gap between our kids, the age difference would prevent any of them from having a close sibling bond with each other. As an only child, I REALLY wanted my brats to have that experience.  I figured that it would probably be the two oldest who would have it, but I was surprised when it actually turned out to be Tory and Delilah who are the closest. Apparently even 12 years can't stop the bond between sisters and a million times a day, I am reminded exactly what Tory looked and acted like when she was Delilah's age. They could be twins--with just 12 years between them--and their relationship really makes me wish I had had a sister who looked just like me, too. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Arc de Triomphe at Night

If anyone would have asked me which sight in Paris I was most excited to see, I would have never said the Arc de Triomphe.  Sure, I had seen pictures of it, but mostly I associated it with Lance Armstrong riding around it on his bike during the Tour de France.  In my mind, it was not anything super special, especially after everything we've seen in Europe.  I expected the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre would top my list, but never, ever expected the Arc to be anywhere even near the top...

Here's the thing...the magic of the Arc de Triomphe is in seeing it at NIGHT.  We actually stumbled onto it by accident because we were headed out to get our Paris Museum Passes and we had to walk right by it.  It was Steve's idea to go up in it to the top.  I couldn't have cared the climb was difficult.  It reminded me of scaling to the top of Cape Hatteras light house--narrow metal and concrete stairs placed close together in a spiral, with a view straight down to the bottom.  I was less than thrilled. 

We arrived up at the top around 9:00 at night and the view was simply amazing.  I was overwhelmed by just how beautiful it was and was so thankful that Steve had talked me into climbing to the top.  I realized after climbing the Eiffel Tower the next morning, it's not the ET itself that is so beautiful, it's a view that includes it.  And the Arc de Triomphe provides a perfect view of the entire city of Paris, with the Champs Elysees and the Eiffel Tower as a beautiful backdrop.  As I've said before, the experience we had that night from atop the Arc ranks right at the top of my European Top Ten.  But be sure to go AT NIGHT! The ET is lit up like a Christmas tree and for five minutes at the top of each hour, it sparkles.  Watch that HERE. I am so thankful we got to share this experience with our children.

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Off the Beaten Path--What to do in Paris

Yesterday, I gave some advice on traveling to Paris based on our experience there and I promised that next I would give you a must-see list of what to do.  I'm keeping my promise, but here's the thing, everyone will tell you the same basic list when asked what you should see in Paris.  The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, The Louvre...all amazing and without a doubt, MUST SEE places...

But what I wanted to know when we were making our own must-see list, was what we needed to see/do in order to experience the city of Paris as travelers instead of just tourists.  I was lucky because my best friend Jen spent a summer years ago in France with a family friend.  I knew I could count on her to tell me what to do.  Here's what she suggested: (my comments are in orange)

1. Sacre Coer/Montmarte/Place de Tertre - this is my FAVORITE place in the city. When I was there for my bday in 2007, we went straight here from the train. It's such a beautiful area. I have never been IN Sacre Coer, so I don't know what the inside is like... Great little cafes around here, great little shops. It's a very artsy area. Place de Terte is really my NUMBER ONE. It's the square where all the artist paint and draw. Remember the guy at Newshwanstein we bought the little water colors from? He reminded me of this area.

*We took Jen's advice and headed to Sacre Coer--meaning Sacred Heart--and it was a beautiful place.  I took one of the most amazing photos of Paris while there and it was one of the only days that we were in Paris where it didn't look like it was going to pour! The area was very small and the street vendors were a bit too pushy for my taste.  We made it into the church and it was beautiful.  This area was easy to hit in an afternoon and is on the Moulin Rough end of Paris...

For some reason, the French military was out in force!

2. Jardin du Luxembourg - this is the park we've talked about. If you have the chance/time/inclination to see the puppet show, I would do it. Your kids would love it. It was free in 1993, but not in 2007. It's the original "Punch and Judy" puppet characters.

*We didn't make it to the puppet show but the garden, itself, was by far one of my favorite places in Paris.  It's essential Paris' version of Central Park, except under it lies the French version of the CIA--pretty cool in itself, I thought!  My kids loved the old carousel and the crepes.  This place made me want to move to Paris and spend my afternoons relaxing in the Jardin du Lxembourg with the brats.  

3. The Shakespeare and Company bookstore across from Notre Dame. I'm sure you'll go to see ND, and this is on the Left Bank right there. I've never been INSIDE ND either, but I like to go in this bookstore. It's just one of the best ones in the world, in my opinion.
*Adorable little bookstore that is a maze of classics.  I was enchanted, especially by the lounging area upstairs where people left notes.  Sadly, they had a "no photos" policy.  It's owned by an American expat.  This is also the store when I bought the copies of Leaves of Grass and Beautiful Ruins that I talked about HERE. 

4. St. Sulpice - this is one of the best churches in the city, in my opinion. I would go INSIDE this one if you get the chance. It has some famous art, as I recall, and you will recognize it IMMEDIATELY from The DaVinci Code.

*Jen was right...awesome, awesome, awesome....Steve and I were on a total Da Vinci Code high in this church!  This is the one with the rose line on the floor and where the albino monk breaks open the floor and removes the tablet basically telling him "bite me"....Plus, it was beautiful, although the workers there kept sshhhhhing us. The sshhhhhing *might* have had something to do with the fact that Delilah thought we were in Notre Dame and kept screaming, "Where's the Hunchback!!!" over and over... 

5. I love the Arc de Triomphe. This I'm sure is on every list of monuments and things to do. It has France's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and GREAT views up the Champs Elysee. (Plus, it's free!) (Ok, not anymore--but it is covered on the museum pass)  I don't think anyone would go to Paris and NOT go here, but I thought I would mention that I really like it.
*I digress a bit here....I'm sure that practically every American living over here in Europe has a running "top ten" list of places and experiences that they've had or seen while living over here.  Mine constantly changes with each new place that I see, but usually the top 3 or 4 stay the same.  The Arc de Triomphe is up there in that top 3!  Yes, it was THAT amazing...keep in mind that it's not the Arc itself that is so amazing; it IS, don't get me wrong, but it's the VIEW from the Arch that makes the hard-ass climb to the top so worth it.  But here's some advice (and if you only listen to one that I'm telling you about Paris, let it be this one) GO AT NIGHT.  The view was breathtaking--simply one of the most amazing experiences I've had. Ever. And on the hour, the Eiffel Tower sparkles....Read about that HERE. (no, seriously, go read that one, It's one of my favs....I'll wait for you right here. 

6. I know you'll go to the Louvre, but I actually really like the Musee D'Orsay (sp?) because it has all of Matisse's art, and I really like him. There isn't any at the Louvre.

*The Orsay is the museum that is seen in the children's movie "Hugo".  It's actually an old train station, but the tracks didn't fit the station, and so they turned it into a museum.  It's also the one with the big clock.  It really enjoyed this one and so did Jackson, since he's a big fan of Vincent van Gogh.  Sadly, they also had a "no photos' policy...(that I totally discounted and snapped away) Everyone really enjoyed this one :)
7. Here's what else I think: for sure, stop at little shops, one each that specializes in cheese, bread, and chocolate. Amazing! The little shops on the Left Bank are probably the best options, but anything near Sacre Coer/Monmarte would be great too. This is like getting gelato in Italy. :)
*Yep, right again.  We became addicted to Laduree macaroons and I simply couldn't get enough.  I love the bright color boxes of deliciousness all wrapped up with a brightly colored ribbon.  Another reason I'm moving to day.

8. Go to a creperie, if only for lunch once. Your kids will love the food and it's not something you can really do quite THIS way anywhere else in the world. Also, if you see it on the menu anywhere, order Coq Au Vin. This is the French version of a "classic" meal. It's kind of like Pot Roast is to Americans, but it's chicken in red wine sauce. Very good. And you have to get your kids a Croque Monsieur somewhere. These are little ham-n-cheese sandwiches that are VERY good, one of my favorites. They're VERY French, but the French think of them like we think of PBJ, so if you order one for yourself, you might get a funny look. :) I always ordered them anyway! A Croque Madame is just as good, with an egg.

*We totally ordered them all.  We ate crepes in the Luxembourg Jardins and the kids thought they were gross.  Steve and I were delighted....because that meant we could eat ours and then finish off theres.  I got one with Nutelle....yep, good... We at Coq Au Vin and Croque Monsieur and Madame at a tiny little restaurant close to the cemetery.  It was delicious, although we did notice that the French serve French Fries with an omelet (the omelets were delicious, by the way)

Listen to what Rick Steves says about the rest! Ha!!!

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Going to Paris With Kids--Some Advice

Bonjour!  Are you ready to hear about our trip to Paris??

Paris was definitely on our European must do list, even after our terrible experience at the airport when we moved here--and it was HORRIBLE!

I had high hopes but didn't have a good feeling about the place.  Thankfully I was wrong...

You know how you always hear the stereotype that Parisians are rude and hate Americans?  In OUR experience, this couldn't have been farther from the truth.  Almost everyone who we encountered was super nice and helpful to us. All in all, it was a wonderful experience, one of my favorite trips, and I'm excited to tell you about it!

Essentially, we have two approaches to traveling here in Europe:

*We plan out as much of the details as possible
*We don't plan at all and fly by the seat of our pants

Traveling to Paris definitely requires the first approach, especially when traveling with children (and we've got 4).

If you're already here in Europe, getting to Paris is literally just a hop skip and a jump.  I would highly recommend flying because the tolls in France are very expensive, parking in Paris can be expensive and a nightmare, and flights into CDG are frequently and inexpensive. Our family of 6 flew from Venice to CDG for under $500. Totally worth it.  We flew Easy Jet and had a positive experience.

Parking on our street at all times...can you imagine trying to fit our Suburban in there!

Lodging in Paris is also a great area where you can save money.  We also book an apartment or house whenever we travel in Europe--once again, there are six of us and two hotel rooms pretty much anywhere in Europe would be cost-prohibative for us.  I like HomeAway the best when searching for a place to stay, although we've had a lot of luck with and Airbnb also. Here's a link to where we stayed in Paris...

It was amazing, our landlord was super awesome, and did I mention...we could see the Eiffel Tower from our bedroom?

Views from inside our apartment...we had beautiful fresh flowers and a view of the ET 
 A large "parlor" with a great terrace and view

 And we could see the ET from our bedroom...

And then there was this fabulous "French" Pizza place that my kids just LOVED!  We kept reminding them that Pizza Hut is AMERICAN!!!

Our view from our bedroom of the ET at night. I loved seeing it sparkle and would have the hardest times getting to sleep because I loved it so much!

I hate to make reservations when we travel...I'm talking about reservations to see museums and sights, but in Paris it's almost a necessity.  The idea of being tied down to a certain day where I MUST see a certain place because I have a reservation can be annoying, but so would the long line at the ET, so I was glad I had made a reservation! Book things like the Eiffel Tower and a Moulin Rough show far, far ahead of time--you won't regret it.

Another MUST is this: Familiarize yourself with schedules and know on what days museums and attractions are closed in Paris.  This is a must!!  Here's a great website for knowing what's closed on which day.  We used our Rick Steves' book religiously for this part of planning and just sketched out a rough schedule of what we were going to see on which day.  As crazy as it sounds, plan to do as much as you can at the beginning of your trip and don't pass up an opportunity to see someplace--my BFF Shannon planned to see the Louvre on the same day that we did but had to postpone it when her wallet was stolen by a pickpocket.  Ironically, when she and her family finally made it back to the Louvre, it was closed because the workers were protesting the French government's lack of enforcement of, I'm not kidding...and unfortunately they didn't get to see the Louvre.

Read as many books as you can about traveling in Paris (and traveling in Paris with kids if you have kids).  As I've said a dozen times, you cannot go wrong with Rick Steves.  We used our RS Paris book constantly during the planning phase of our trip and while we were there and we were so thankful for his solid advice, recommendations, and easy to follow directions.  I also found a ton of kids' books on Paris that we read to the brats.  I really believe that the more familiar your kids are with a place, the more likely they are to enjoy it.  Our favorite kids books on Paris were:

Madeline (which I own four copies of for some reason... obviously I'm a fan)
Everyone Bonjours
This is Paris (I totally love this series)
Lonely Planet's Not For Parents--Paris
Charlotte in Paris (another favorite of mine)
Paris in the Spring With Picasso

Loved this book!!

I also love to hit up the museum shops BEFORE we visit a place, if possible, because they frequently have these awesome "Where's Waldo" type of books for kids where the author discusses a certain thing/place/person and the kids have to look for it.  I found an AWESOME one  called A Great City Game Book: Paris Hide-And-Seek For Readers With Sharp Eyes on our first day there and my kids talked about it the entire time.  I'm pretty sure I found it at the Arc de Triomphe...

And don't forget about movies, too.  We loved Ratatouille, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (there's a great Delilah story about what happened there...), and Aristocats, to just name a few. There's also an entire line of Rick Steves videos!

Buy the Museum Pass and NOT the Paris Pass, in my humble opinion.  My friend Shannon did a lot of research on this and I have to agree with her that the Paris Pass was MUCH more than the Museum Pass and was basically a rip off when you compared the two.  I also thought the Hop On, Hop Off buses there were a rip off too because they are crazy expensive and we spent a tremendous amount of time sitting in traffic instead of seeing the sights. Keep in mind that this is just MY OPINION and if you bought the Paris Pass or one of the HOHO bus tours and loved it, I'm happy for you.

Just say no!!

Although this was interesting!

Eat at small restaurants, away from tourists areas,  on the cheap...we did this a lot and always had great food and a good experience.

And take a break and sit in these comfortable green chairs.  They are everywhere in the city~

Take public transportation.  I know, I know...this scares some of you.  And the idea of it scared me too at first, but here's the thing...Paris is a big place and you will either do one of two things:

go broke paying for taxis everywhere
walk yourself to death trying to get from one side of the city to the other

Take the bus or the METRO! (I especially loved the METRO!!) Familiarize yourself with a map of Paris (or buy a Rick Steves book and follow his recommendations of what to see in what order) and the METRO lines and go at it!  It's very inexpensive and relatively simple. This nice fella gives some great info HERE.

 Steve and Tory making a plan... 

Happy brats on the METRO

And buy cheap fridge magnets to keep as a road map of your Europeans travels and favorite spots!

Although I don't claim to know everything about traveling in Paris, I hope this little bit of insight helps! I can't wait to go back....

Up next....Creating a must do list for Paris...

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