Fabulous 4th of July in #Paris

04-July-2013

Today is the official beginning of our tour, French Waterways by #Tauck. I am here to say, Tauck is the best travel company you may have never heard of.

Our happy plan began more than a year ago when a group of neighbors and friends decided to go on a European river cruise. I will always be grateful that one of them invited my husband and me. One very bright gentleman actually did a spreadsheet laying out many options offered by several reputable travel companies. Tauck won hands down because what you see is what you get. There are no additional upgrades/shore excursions/meal plans to purchase on the boat so everyone is on an equal keel.

The rooms on the boat were slightly larger because they configure their boats for fewer guests. I will tell you more about the boat on Saturday.

Today we checked out of our posh Marriott on the Champs-Elysees and checked into the tour hotel, the Hotel du Collectionneur. We sat in the lobby and watched as the many members of our tour arrived from the airport. I was very glad we flew in the day before. It really takes a day to get your legs under you.

We gathered some of our group and walked a few short blocks to a corner cafe to get some breakfast/lunch depending on what time our body clock was telling. When we thought about ordering  French Onion Soup we had a giggle. That order would be much like ordering Buffalo Wings in Buffalo at a restaurant restaurant. The food was fresh and well prepared except for the slow service we would come to expect throughout France.

The other thing that took some “getting used to” was having to ask for the check. In Europe no one ever hurries you. Your table is yours forever if you do not ask. We see that as a lack of service while they intend it as the ultimate courtesy. Once again, very civilized!

Upon return to the hotel  our room was not ready so we headed out again for a walk to the Arch de Triumphe and with our own orientation yesterday we easily navigated to it. I have always loved the sounds of any city and European emergency vehicles have a sound unlike here in the USA. At every turn I felt like I was on a Hollywood set.

We returned a while later and our room was ready. It was a large room by city standards and had all of the conveniences we are used to back home…actually, probably more! I think a room with a robe and slippers is so much fun.

As we waited…and waited for our luggage to arrive my husband took a few minutes to relax. I became impatient and set off downstairs for a walk. I have never been uncomfortable walking in a city alone and Paris was screaming my name…in French, but of course.

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I wanted to have something sweet along with a cup of coffee. My wandering lead me to La Pain du Faubourg. The building was quaint with the promise of a Boulanger (baker), Patissier (pastry chef) and Traiteur (the keeper of a French or Italian eating house). What’s not to love?

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The pastry case was beautiful.

I could not wait to try out my newly reacquired French.

I would like a cup of coffee with milk and that beautiful pastry.

I ordered the coffee well but stumbled with the pastry. I resorted to the usual foreigner tactic of pointing. I felt foolish but the server was polite and did not actually laugh in my face. I will be forever grateful for that.

The pastry was called a millefeuille or what we call a Napoleon here. The cream was not overly sweet and was a good balance with the squint your eye sweet of the icing.  The pastry was crisp so either a bite or a fork would squish the cream all around. This was not neat to eat but I was not aiming for style points. My only regret was there were no tables out on the sidewalk to enjoy my confection.

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Even the packaging was pretty!

Back to the hotel for me to find my bags waiting for me. Time to prepare for our first dinner with the group at Fouquet’s, the famous restaurant on the Champs-Elysees to see and be seen.

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We filed up the elegant stairs to an upper room exclusive to our group where we were formally introduced to our tour directors. Each welcomed us to the iconic city or Paris with information about what to expect throughout the trip. We sat with a few couples who would then become our new traveling companions. It’s amazing how quickly you bond with people over French wine and delicious food.

After dinner we boarded buses again for a nigh time tour of the City of Lights. We were introduced to a song familiar to some but not yet familiar to me called “Aux Champs-Elysees.” Click here for a cute YouTube version with very pretty photographs.

The bus brought us to the Trocadero where there is a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower. It was a long and wonderful day.

Tomorrow: #Paris in One Day

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First day in #Paris

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20130717-124838.jpgWhen we landed we were supposed to be picked up by the tour company. Several of the folks in our group had cars waiting but we had to ask for the assistance of a very kind gentleman in a dark suit. Seems that all of the drivers wear dark suits, thin ties and sharp shoes, looking like Michael Bublé. A bit of a wait later we were in the car and going through Paris traffic, gridlock not unlike any other big city in the morning. The drivers are a bit demented but the bikers absolutely nuts, winding between cars and trucks like they are on a slalom course with a death wish.

Our first night was at the Marriott on the Champs-Élysées.

20130717-123959.jpgThis gorgeous hotel was the result of many nights in the Shelton Connecticut Courtyard as we saw our son swim nearly every weekend in the fall.

Desperate for coffee I ordered some in the lobby. €18 later (yup, Euro, not dollars – welcome to Paris!) I got the necessary jolt of caffeine needed to begin our first stroll toward to Arch de Triumphe. Our friends were to arrive on Thursday so we decided to do some front work and begin exploration. I could spend a month in Paris and still not scratch the surface. We decided to start at the arch and work our way to the Eiffel Tower.

The city is made up of lots of traffic circles and spoke streets that link them all. Being so used to the grid that makes up much of Manhattan it was a bit disorienting for a day until the logic of short cuts lit in my head. After that it was a breeze.

The circle around the Arch de Triumphe is insane, and the only safe way to get to the monument is through a tunnel. We walked around and looked at the sculpture and inscriptions and honored their war heroes at the tomb of the unknown soldier.

With umbrellas in hand we then walked toward the icon in the Parisian sky. Pick pockets are everywhere and gypsies approach you with ease. Hold on to your stuff and ignore the advances. Don’t worry, they will find another mark.

Prior to reaching the tower we stopped at our first cafe, Pub Kléber, sitting with our backs to the building facing the street. How lovely watching the world go by while dining. Very Parisian!

20130717-124305.jpgWe both ordered a dry Chardonnay and I got the quiche of the day. It was a large wedge of happiness, filled with chunks of salmon. I ate a fair amount of it before I realized how light it was. It did not have gobs of cheese, just the right amount to flavor without overpowering the salmon. It went well with the wine, too.

After lunch we walked over to the Eiffel Tower. I got a lump in my throat, much like the one I always get when I see Niagara Falls. I hope Parisians get that feeling at least every once in a while.

At first I was a little bummed by the weather but seeing this picture of the gray clouds I actually think it looks even more amazing. We were going to leave the tower climbing (by elevator) to when we were with our friends.

For now we just stood in awe. We’re in Paris!

After checking into the hotel we took a short nap (not recommended but sometimes you have to give into the exhaustion. I set my alarm for 30 minutes and that got me back on track.

Our dinner plans and dining companions actually came about a few days before when a dear friend saw my Facebook post about my last minute preparation before the trip. We had not seen each other in months, had not had dinner together in years but met up with each other in Paris for the perfect beginning. We dined at Le Buisson Ardent, 25 Rue Jussieu, in the Left Bank.

They brought a “shot” of carrot puree which I found just on the edge of sweet.

20130717-124338.jpgA few at the table did not like the texture so I was lucky to have extra. I came to realize during the trip the French must love juicing vegetables because we were offered this sort of palette opener quite often.

20130717-124426.jpgI ordered Turbot rôti au beurre d’oursins, jus corsé à la’encre de seiche et combawa, riz sauvage “mangues, menthe poivrée” which means Turbot (a fish) roasted with sea urchin butter, gravy with squid ink and combawa, wild mango peppermint rice.

Tip: when you speak to anyone, a smile and French greeting go a long way. Then, ask politely for a table and most places will give you French menus with English translations.

The Turbot was prepared with the bone in so I needed to take a few careful bites before I realized how easy it was to separate the fish from the frame. The squid ink gravy with combawa (a Thai fruit) was a salty contrast to the sea urchin butter. I had never had sea urchin in any way before so I was already able to add a new food to my list. The rice was flavorful but I’m not crazy about crunchy rice so it was not my favorite. The dish overall was very enjoyable.

My dining mates all seemed to enjoy their meals, as well.

We ordered dessert in spite of not being hungry for it. I am very glad we did because each taste was very good.

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A cab ride back to the hotel, a night cap then a stroll down the Champs-Élysées was the perfect ending to my first day in Paris.

Tomorrow: the official Tauck French Waterways tour begins.