My niece Meghann is mid-twenties and deep into The Da Vinci Code when I suggest we visit Paris together. Her father, my brother, agrees to spring for her share of the trip. This would be Meghann’s second trip to Europe, she spent a semester in Germany in high school.
A few months before our trip I urge my brother to teach Meghann to drive a stick shift. Closer to the trip I mention it again and realize he’s unwilling to endanger his classic corvette in this way when he says, “I figured she’d learn in the rental car when you get there.”
On our departure day, Meghann flies from Norfolk to JFK where we rendezvous.
We had booked aisle and window seats in the hope that nobody would take the middle. Didn’t work, we have a restless man between us keeping both of us from sleeping on the flight.
In Paris, Meghann’s bag does not arrive. We file a claim and they say it missed the flight out of Norfolk, but had been routed to Atlanta. It was probably at the airport in the luggage room, so they will deliver it when they locate it. I’m somewhat nonplussed to learn from Meghann that her bag didn’t have a luggage tag. I blame my brother, he travels enough to know better.
Somewhat dispirited, we splurge on a taxi to the hotel. I’d received a recommendation from my boss, a frequent visitor to France. Rue Chevert is a long, narrow, one-way street with cars parked on both sides. And it’s delightfully quiet as Janet promised. Our room isn’t ready, so we leave my bag and our carry-ons and go out walking. We find a lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, then take photos at the Eiffel Tower. The lines to go up are absurd. We walk on to the river and along it, then back through the sixth arrondissement to the hotel.
Meghann calls the airline and they said it’s on its way. We napped until six.
She calls again and they say, “oops! It never left the US. We’ll have it here in the morning.”
Meghann is justifiably upset.
I loan Meghann my light raincoat since it’s getting cool outside. We had planned to go watch an Ireland/UK Rugby match at an Irish pub we’d passed, but it turned out when we get back there that it had been at 4:30. We wander on, tired and bummed out, and find a brasserie where we order grilled steaks and a carafe of wine. While we’re dining, a couple at another table leave abruptly. The unpleasant waiter turns up a moment later, sees the vacant table, and takes off out the door after them. He comes back a few minutes later looking even more surly. We make a point of being pleasant to him and leave a tip. I explain to Meghann that the cost of the couple’s meal might be deducted from his pay.
We wander back via the river and the tower for night shots and to brush elbows with the night life. We turn in near midnight utterly exhausted.
Still no bag.
We sleep in, making up for jet lag, and get up at 9:00. We throw ourselves together and go down to breakfast. There at the front desk is Meghann’s bag. What a relief! On top of that, breakfast includes sliced ham and cheese, cereal is available, and hard-boiled eggs. Meghann is in heaven. Im feeling much better too. We set out to take on Paris.
First stop is Napoleon’s tomb by way of the Sunday service for the invalids at the Church of Saint Louis in Les Invalids. It’s a mix of interesting formal Catholic and surreal, particularly when they wheel the invalids—including both wheelchairs and gurneys–out at the end.
We find our way around to Napoleon’s tomb. It’s impressive in its opulence, of course. We skip the museum of the army, although it’s the same ticket.
We walk across the river on Pont Alexandre III then turn right. Through Place de la Concorde we enter the Tuileries to find the Who Is She geocache.
Onward to the Louvre, where we enter through the pyramid since the line is short.
We work our way to the Mona Lisa, then back down to the Café Denon for a late lunch of ravioli in cream sauce, wine, and dessert. Meghann chooses to go next to the Medieval Louvre, which turns out to be the foundations of the original building on the site, and very interesting. Walking back to the main entry I spot the inverted pyramid identified in the Da Vinci Code as the location of the Holy Grail. So of course, we make for it, and discover that it is actually outside the Louvre gates in the new shopping mall. I’d forgotten about that mall.
An hour of shopping later (CDs! Jewelry!) we make our way to the street. Walking along the Quay we look at some of the paper dealers and Meghann buys some prints. We cross over to the plant and animal market, and finally a block in from the river we find a café for a beer.
Fortified, we walk across the river to Isle de la Cite and wander into Notre Dame, which was supposed to be closed but has an open door. It’s because there’s a service in progress. So we’d come full circle, service to service.
We buy souvenir votive candles because I bought one when I visited in 1976, then walk on across to the Latin quarter, which I have never visited. What a plate-smashing scene! We do not allow ourselves to have Greek food in Paris, so we wander on and find a fondu place. We split the cheap prix fixe meal and end up totally stuffed. Thanks to the American couple next to us who advise us that it is enough for two.
A couple pounds of cheese later we waddle out and along to a Metro station. Another hurdle crossed for me–we successfully buy tickets and navigate to the right line. Silly of me to be wary of doing so on my own.
Less walking, more Metro.
After breakfast we ride directly to the left bank and find Dehelerin, the kitchen supply store that Julia Child loved, and that I visit every time I come to Paris, where I buy a couple knives and a tart pan–token purchases compared to past excesses, but the dollar is so weak…
We walk to Les Halles for photos with the head and hand sculpture, and look for Papeterie Moderne, a charming stationary story, but I hadn’t thought to bring the address so no luck. Sadly, Arche is not having a sale. Meghann wants to see the Pompidou center, so we actually go inside the glass monstrosity. We get engrossed in a tape of “performance art” in the bookstore for a while–a series of objects triggering other objects to move, with lots of fuses igniting things and stuff falling to make other stuff roll. It’s strangely captivating. In the design shop I don’t see anything I hadn’t seen at the Tate, or MOMA, or in catalogs. Leaving there we hunt for Argentiere de Tuerrene, an antique shop in the Marais I’d visited in the past. But Mapquest placed it in totally the wrong place and my memory doesn’t help. Instead we decide to take the Metro back a couple stops to Samaritaine for the view and lunch. We shouldn’t pay for lunch on the terrace, but it’s so cool to find it open and to get a seat at the edge!
Next we Metro to the Bastille and walk through the Place de Vosges and out into the streets to the west where we find the antique store, but it’s closed (in retrospect I remember that it’s closed on Sundays and Mondays). We do find the miniature shop I recall from past visits so I buy a token–a tiny lemon juicer.
Our next destination is Diptyque. We decide to walk across Isle Saint Lous, stopping for ice cream at Bertillon since it’s supposed to be the best. It allows us to sit and share a chocolate and vanilla and cake treat, coffee, and a bottle of hard cidre. Yum.
We walk on, realizing in time that Mapquest had also plotted Diptyque way off. We find the shop easily, buy expensive candles and soap, and walk on to the Pantheon. We’re asked for help on the street near it by a woman with a carriage–she needs the carriage held while she opens the doors to her building. Nothing strange there, except that Meghann finds it surprising that she addresses us in English. How did she know?
The Pantheon is a surprise–I had no idea of all the famous tombs, and more interestingly I did not realize it was the location of the original Foucault’s pendulum.
Strolling in the direction of our hotel (albeit nowhere nearby), Meghann spots an internet café so we check email and she check her bank balance to see what exchange rate they’re charging for ATM withdrawals. It’s the going rate, not inflated as the Bureau de Change charged. She’s happy, so she buys some post cards at the next shop along the way.
Out of the park heading for the metro we pass St. Sulpice and I remembered that there’s a cache there, too, But I didn’t bring the info. So we take pictures and move on. Completely exhausted, we drag ourselves through two metro changes and back to the hotel.
Then I realize we’re at the gates to the Luxumbourg gardens where there is a geocache, so I drag Meghann inside. We find the location easily, but there is a part of the path blocked off by temporary fencing. Based on the clues, the cache could be in the off-limits section. Or not. We’re baffled despite having a printout of all of the logs, the hints, and photos. We never do find it, but we rest by the Medici fountain for a while.
I’m feeling too beat to do more than crawl up the street for dinner, but we had discussed taking the metro to Monmartre to see the Moulin Rouge, and I could see that Meghann really wants to do it. Damn pop culture. Damn Tom Cruise. We check out an Auberge up the street for dinner, but it sounds heavy and mysterious, so Meghann votes for the Bistro on the corner that Janet recommended as okay. It is–just okay. And the service is bizarre. The waiter seems to speak English, but when I order the chicken which come avec frite, he says it is not fries, but potatoes. Okay, I said. Whatever.
Then when it finally comes, it has fries on the plate. We decided that they are calorie free fries since they do not exist.
Meanwhile, the guests in the hotel across the street stand in their bathroom windows, which have frosted glass, brushing teeth, putting on makeup, and, ultimately, sitting on the john. When we realize what we were seeing we erupt in giggles, partially due to exhaustion. So the meal is okay, the service bizarre, and the entertainment priceless.
The metro ride isn’t bad. Monmartre is unexpectedly tacky–I don’t know why I didn’t expect a basically Times Square in the 70s environment. Sex shops, peep shoes, and in the center of it all the Moulin Rouge with its hefty bouncers. Wow, not my scene at all. And the boutique is concealed inside so we can’t even just buy souvenirs. Meghann says she isn’t disappointed–it’s what she expected.
Descending steps in the subway Meghann feels someone walking very close behind her. It spooks her and she looks over both shoulders several times. Catching up with me she takes her backpack off her back and finds that a zipper is open. Nothing is missing, and it isn’t the compartment with her wallet. She isn’t completely sure that she had zipped it. But the man who’d been behind her has vanished.
It’s a tense conclusion to a long, tiring day.
We’re up early to pack, check out, and get to Gare Montparnasse for our rental car. We find Alamo easily enough and get the car arranged. But we both want to use to the toilet, which is coin operated with a wash cycle between each use, so you can’t hold the door for the next person. We only realize this after I’ve use my .30 and come out. Now we needed another .30 for Meghann. She tries buying something in a vending machine, but it gives her .50 back and she needs a .20 and a .10. I urge her to try using the .50–screw the .20 cents extra. But the toilet just takes the .50 and doesn’t unlock for her. Next we walk over to the news stand where Meghann seems overwhelmed so I buy a bottle of water to get .90 change. Then I have to ask the cashier to break a .20 cent piece. At last Meghann is able to go back and use the magic toilet.
We find the car in the underground garage (I’m glad I’d predicted this arrangement so Meghann knows what to expect). We assume our roles as driver and navigator. Meghann does a good job getting us to the Peripherique and then onto the A10. And then we just drive.
Meghann fiddles with the radio, pausing on various stations playing music. One particular song keeps popping up and becomes the theme of our trip. We’re a little disappointed to find out later that J-Five, the artist, is American.
A couple hours later we stop for lunch at a rest stop. Sure beats MacDonalds on the Jersey Turnpike.
A couple hours after that I have to stop for a breather. We fill the gas tank and get more soda.
A couple hours later we get off the highway and drive on secondary and tertiary roads the rest of the way to Bourg. Then comes the hard part–finding the Chateau where we’re staying. We crisscross little Bourg, the traffic remarkably heavy for such a small town. Finally, we spot a big sign for the chateau with mileage and vague directions. I set the odometer and off we go. To a dirt road across the vineyards. We turn there because the signs seemed to say to. We get a strange look from a man standing by the road–it’s probably his private land. The rutted dirt road connects to a paved road. No more signs. We feel like it’s another geocache, with the prize being our beds for the night. We drive around some more, into town, through town, out across vineyards. And then I spot a small sign at an intersection we’d already crossed several times. We follow the direction it gives to another corner in the vineyards and have to guess. I go right. A while later we find another sign, and then, finally, coming around a bend, we see the chateau, which we recognize from the picture on the web.
Once parked, we have to wander down and up some steps to find the vineyard office. The proprietress takes us to our room. No locks. Kids toys and stuff all around. It’s basically their home with three rooms to let. Totally cool. We do not have the heart to complain about the signs once we see our room. It’s enormous, with three single beds, an en suite bathroom, and a view of the vineyards. Just outside at the end of the hall, a little balcony with the same view is the perfect place to sip a glass of wine. Which is what we do.
We decide to drive to Bordeaux for dinner. On the way out we meet our neighbors in the next room–a couple from Chicago. He starts the conversation by observing that I have the same bag as his companion. They have taken two days to drive from Paris and are also staying at the Chateau for three days. Their room is in the tall, round tower and has the feel of a princess’s bedroom.
We get into Bordeaux by some roundabout route based on highway signs, and realize that although we have a Michelin Green Guide with good recommendations for cheap meals, we have no map good enough to find the addresses. So we drive around until we find a likely neighborhood and, more importantly, a parking space suddenly opens up. We wander into the quiet, old streets and find a restaurant with amazingly cheap prix fixe menus. We are definitely out of Paris–two three course meals with two carafes of wine is 46E. I order the fois gras to start and Meghann orders the oysters. As the waiter walks away I say, “You realize they’re raw oysters, right?” She did not. She’s picked more than her share of crabs and eaten plenty of fried oysters. To her credit, when they came she tries one. The rest are just about the best oysters I’ve ever eaten.
We do a little better getting out of town and back onto the tertiary road to Bourg, but it’s midnight by the time we find the chateau and our room and wind down.
It’s drizzling as I drive us to St. Emillion. We park in an enormous, empty parking lot and walk up hill into the town. The stone-paved streets are very slippery and steep. And not at all busy. We stop for macaroons, then join a tour of the underground church and catacombs with British high school kids. Wandering further, I stop to a buy wine opener and the shop keeper offers wine to taste. We take her up on it and I buy a bottle. We learn that there is a huge wine conference going on, which is why the usual tours aren’t here and the bus parking lot is empty.
Back in that big parking lot I suggest it’s time for Meghann to learn to drive a stick. I show her. Then I get in the passenger seat and talk her through it. She pops the clutch repeatedly, getting frustrated. I try not to talk. Eventually I get out, telling her to take her time and relax. She tries. She drives in a large, fitful circle, then gets out. I can tell she’s not willing to go on. So we return to our usual positions. Meghann lays the maps and guides out on her lap, saying, “if I’m not driving, I’m going to be the best navigator.”
We follow a Michelin driving tour to see a couple tiny churches in tiny villages, and Meghann navigates us home via small roads. Once again we drive around the vineyards searching for the chateau.
Later we go into Bourg for dinner, ending up at a pizza place that serves lousy food and overcharges us. Years later Meghann still remembers that dinner.
I scheduled a tour of Mouton Rothschild, so we drive south around Bordeaux and then north on the peninsula. It’s just the two of us guided by a very formal young woman. This is nothing like those friendly Napa vineyards, or the ones in New York. We taste some amazing wines and I buy a glass keg cork.
We pick up provisions and have a picnic lunch before driving onto a ferry from the peninsula over to the town of Blaye rather than going back down through Bordeaux. Back at Chateau de la Graves our hosts offer a tasting of their wines and tell us about the chateau and vineyards.
In the morning we buy wine from the chateau, say good-bye to the other guests, and drive to Chinon. We had planned to stop along the way, but our navigation is a little off and we have afternoon plans, so we push on through. In Chinon I drive around a little looking for familiar landmarks–finally we go to the train station and follow the walking path I took with Andrew back in 1998. We find the back door of the hotel and from there manage to drive around to the garden entrance. Yeah me!
At check-in we have a choice, so we select a ground floor garden room. Then we head back out to Azay-de-Rideau, where we take a self-tour. We have just enough time to get to Usse for their last tour. It’s in French by a very cute guide. He gives us English handouts to follow along, but he’s giving way more detail than on our sheet. We use a self-guided tour in the Sleeping Beauty tower. Back in Chinon we walk out for dinner. We stop for a sweet crepe and coffee because we’re both starving, and we want a crepes.
Then we walk a little further and have dinner in a small creperie–I have veal and Meghann has steak on a kabob. It’s good and cheap.
Back at the hotel we somehow manage to drink a bottle of Chateau de la Grave.
On the way back to Paris we visit Villandry and le Chateau de Chambord. We’re kind of chateaued out, so at Villandry we visit the gardens, and specifically the labyrinth that I missed on my last visit. We’re particularly excited to see the Da Vinci double spiral staircase at Chambord, and we create a silly video as we trot down it on opposite sets of stairs.
Back in Paris, we spend a busy final afternoon and evening. At les Jardin des Plantes we look for the Jardin des Mystères geocache. The hunt takes us to a labyrinth popular with children. We spend a while hunting in the area and are about to give up, taking a rest on a stone wall, when I happen to look in just the right direction. We’re in a good position to discretely retrieve and log the cache—basically, right on top of it. Months later, back in New York, at a local “cache in trash out” event I will meet the guy who placed the cache when he lived in Paris. He’s as tickled as I am at the coincidence.
We go back to St. Sulpice and go inside to see the Rose Line that crosses in front of the altar. Then I take us to Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, which has caught my fancy. I buy a medal. And then we go down the block and buy travel provisions at La Grande Epicerie de Paris, our real reason for visiting the neighborhood.
We make our way down Boulevard Raspail to the Catacombs and join a tour. We find the stacked bones more interesting than gross, and years later memories of this visit will have us visit a similar site in Rome.
Nightfall finds us in line for tickets at Paris’s most visual tourist attraction: The Eiffel Tower. We ride up the elevators to the top, where we search for a geocache that cannot be found (most likely it had been found by authorities and removed). We also take in the magnificent view of the city of lights. I video the entire ride down the elevator.
Flying home is always a let down, but after such a busy week it’s kind of a relief to be still for eight hours.