Family Travel in Paris – Why Now?
Part 2 of a 3 Part European Tour
The economy generally sucks, and the common wisdom is to keep one’s powder dry and plan a staycation. So why did I pack up my wife and two daughters for a three week vacation in Europe? Partly because we maintain a streak of contrarianism and partly because we had been sitting on a bunch of frequent mile and frequent sleeper awards.
We used points on a credit card to get to London, but then it was time to get to Paris. Back in the day, it was me, my backpack and about nine hours to get from London to Paris. As Heraclitus said, you can’t stand in the same river twice, so this time I crossed the Channel in style with my family. The Eurostar is like a jet that never leaves the ground; we flew across the British countryside, under the English Channel and across France to Paris in only 2⅓ hours. With about 20 departures daily, and prices ranging from ~$180 to ~$400, there are all sorts of options on the Eurostar. It is faster and far more pleasant than flying in the air. The Eurostar departure lounge is nicer than the usual train station, but retains the inevitable clogging of people and lurching of luggage. Once onboard, we knew it was not a garden variety train ride. The Eurostar cars were new, quiet and comfortable. We had a remarkably pleasant meal served at our reserved seats, with linen and wine.
Eurostar – Flying on the Ground is Right
When visiting Paris, there are 3 inevitable considerations: lodging, seeing the city and visiting the countryside. On our trip, we maintained our steady contrarian approach and found three ideal solutions, all thus far off the beaten path. Invariably and deservedly, these solutions will become more popular.
There are myriad hotels in Paris, and choosing one can be a daunting crapshoot. Unlike years ago, a variety of websites now enable the visitor to scan comments of recent visitors. The analog equivalent (such as the collegiate Let’s Go series) can not readily account for changes in management and conditions discovered only upon arrival. But even the current website trawling leaves one queasy with uncertainty, as the same venue is both loved and hated by recent residents. Eventually, one relies on the advice of a trusted recent visitor or one takes a hopeful stab at the internet descriptions. If you want to choose the former, go with Aviatic Hotel. The hotel is in Montparnesse, near enough to a Metro stop. It is impeccably clean, quiet and reasonably priced. The helpful staff steered us into our crisp rooms, tastefully appointed despite their size. In that every hotel room in Paris is quaint in size, and given that one desires to spend a majority of time outside the hotel room, we had no trouble with our accommodations at the Aviatic. The subtle lighting, the steady air conditioning, the generous shower and bath facilities and the solidly comfortable beds made for a haven from the unseasonably warm Parisian weather. Each morning we started our day with the included petite dejeuner, a breakfast with the traditional baguettes, cheeses, light meats, yogurt, cereals, coffees, fruits and the obligatory divine chocolate croissants. The Aviatic Hotel is an ideal Parisian hotel.
Aviatic Hotel – The Lobby
Aviatic Hotel – crisp, comfortable rooms
Getting around Paris is a bit of a Hobson’s choice. The Metro is fairly easy to navigate, but becomes understandably hot and crowded during rush hours. Taxis are not cheap, and become more expensive during rush hours as they crawl through the streets. Multi day TravelCards are available for the Metro and enable one to move about without lining up for new tickets each ride.
But how to see Paris for the first time? What is the way to have a unique overview? Must one pile onto the hop-on-hop-off tour buses that basically whizz past the landmarks? I suppose if you want to check the box on a list of famous places in record time (think Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold at the Grand Canyon in National Lampoon’s Family Vacation: ‘Yup, yup, OK let’s go’) then the tour bus is for you.
If, however, you want to go in style and in a manner you will be talking about for years, here are two seemingly disparate options, one new and one old.
The first Segway city tour was introduced in Paris several years ago, and it has been gaining momentum ever since. We took the morning tour, and caused heads to turn jealously as we moved at a pace faster than walking but slower than a bus. Being at ground level on these incredibly nimble two wheelers was a delight, and our informative guide led us safely across avenues and stopped plenty long enough for us to get an introduction to the history of each landmark. Not intended to include visits to museums (how to accommodate inevitable variations of individual preferences?), the Segway mode allows for a breezy and nearly ecstatic means by which to see Paris. Our daughters were thoroughly jealous; the minimum age is 12 for the Segways (our daughters looked sharp on bicycles on our tour).
Segways for the parents, bikes for kids (photo Brad Auerbach)
During a leisurely stop in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, our daughters commandeered our Segways and in moments were flitting about like experts. Both daughters lobbied the informative American staff about potential internships in years to come. The Segway program has expanded to other cities (Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, Atlanta, DC), and in the future I will look forward to nimbly seeing the sights elsewhere via Segway.
The other unique way to get a lovely perspective of Paris away from the crowds is at sea level, via a yacht cruise along the Seine. Although there are a bevy of operators offering to shuttle you barge-like up and down the river, we found a smaller and far more elegant option with Yacht de Paris. Unlike the more famous Bateax Mouche, the Yachts de Paris offer a more intimate and nearly unbelievable experience. Boarding the Don Juan II, we were greeted by the Captain who led us topside. The luxurious ship was built in 1931 and refurbished twice in the last decade. The wooden teak decks were crisp and vibrant. The deck chairs were luxurious, and soon we were underway. The late afternoon breeze kicked up, and soon we were cruising lazily along the Seine, champagne in our crystal flutes and our daughters wide-eyed in amazement.
Under bridges we went, watching as the larger dinner boats lumbered by. Picturesque views at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower watered our eyes. After some delightful hors d’ oeuvres, the maitre d’ asked us to move downstairs to our table, which was a mixed blessing. The menu was delectable, served with crisp linen in a dining room cabin with a fireplace at one end. The windows were almost large enough to afford all four of us views of the sensational sights slipping by, so between courses we moved back to the deck with our wine. As the light continued to slowly fall across Paris, the city changed colors and everything became dreamy and even sweeter. The perfect balance was attained as we glided along, and time stood still. The city’s residents seemed to be drawn to the banks of the river that summer evening. Countless promises, poems and plans were undoubtedly created.
Yachts de Paris – The Don Juan II
Once we successfully solved the first two Parisian challenges of accommodations and city tours, we navigated the third challenge of how best to see the countryside. The classic tours include Versailles, Fountainbleau and Giverny. As my grandmother always said, time was invented so that everything does not happen all at once. I interpreted that to mean you can’t do everything, so we put our focus on Versailles and Giverny. As to Versailles, there is an endless supply of tours that will whisk you to the glorious palace and give you several hours to march through the impossibly large and numerous rooms. The tours will let you peer out windows at the gardens beyond, providing a glimpse of the manicured beauty and cool havens seemingly out of reach. Seemingly, except for those who signed on to the Fat Tire Bike Tour of Versailles.
We assembled at the Fat Tire office in Paris by 9am, picked our bikes and followed our guide Adam to the closest train station. With a precision that was not quite the same as that seen in Normandy decades ago, we clambered aboard the train for the relatively short ride to Versailles. Adam led us to the marketplace, which was just coming to life for the day. He pointed us to his favorite purveyors of baguettes, cheese, meats, wine, fruits and vegetables. Once our picnic was complete, we bicycled to the edge of the massive Versailles garden and plunged into the cool shaded pathways. Long, straight and canopied, the paths were smooth from years of foot traffic and a breeze for our bicycles. Our daughters were soon in command, chatting with Adam and displaying their bicycling prowess. We glimpsed Marie Antoinette’s cottage where she played like the common folk, except for when she pulled pranks like having the cows painted pink to match her outfit. We circumnavigated the huge canal, an X shaped pond that took eleven years to create. Along the banks we stopped for a shady picnic. The simplicity of the meal contrasted with the extravagance of the setting, and we were lost in our awe. As long as our daughters keep even a portion of the Versailles bike tour in their memory banks, the trip will be a success.
Versailles – crowds at the palace, but nearly vacant in the distant gardens
Versailles – picnic by the Grand Canal, the Palace impossibly far away
The hour spent in the Versailles Palace was almost anticlimactic to the hours spent touring the gardens. Knowing that the masses who visit Versailles only experience 10% of the gardens made us happy and sad at the same time. Adam was the perfect biking guide, taking a leadership role in keeping us organized and on track, while providing a bounty of local color and historical context. The miles on the bikes slid by without effort, but at the end of the day we were glowing with unique memories of an aerobic tour of a magnificent Palace and Gardens.
Giverny is a landmark for even the casual lover of art; Monet’s Gardens lie an hour outside of Paris. Monet was one of many artists able to leverage two crucial developments in the latter part of the 19th century: paint became available in tubes and the development of railway lines. Those two keys unlocked the doors to studios, allowing painters to get into the countryside and drive sunshine and light into paintings as never seen before. Monet went to the countryside in 1883 and never really left.
Giverny – Monet’s Garden (photo by Carly Auerbach)
As with all such landmarks, there are various ways to get to Monet’s Garden in Giverny. Fat Tire offers a bike tour, and numerous tourist agencies will sell you a package tour. We decided we were up to the challenge of piecing it all together on our own. That meant getting the Metro from our hotel in time to catch the first train to Vernon and the short bus ride to Giverny and hope that our early arrival would beat the other methods. And it all fell into place, as we found ourselves some of the first to pass through the entrance. The gardens were still wet with rain, or the somewhat invisible sprinklers. Compared in size to the
Giverny – Monet’s Garden (photo by Carly Auerbach)
Versailles Gardens, Monet’s Gardens are tiny. But the compressed scope and our realization of the inspiring nature of what art was created in the space was truly mind expanding. One must go to Giverny, and even if you get there after everyone else has done so, the pond, the bridge, the flowers and the lily pads will stay with you always. Whether you visit those images again through the paintings of Monet, through the paintings of your favorite painter lucky enough to be given permission to paint there or through the many photos you will take, the transcendent beauty is haunting.
Perhaps perched on the other side of the artistic panorama is the vaunted Moulin Rouge. But amidst the sequins, feathers and topless girls is a common thread, that of Toulouse-Lautrec. The artist straddled both worlds, and perhaps that is how we justified our evening at the nightclub. Our daughters shifted in their seats at the first sight of naked breasts, despite being coached beforehand. Our daughters impressed us by pointing out the similarity to the latter half of Nutcracker when the storyline (such as it was) veered toward a survey of various exotic and Eastern dance stylings. As with every Moulin Rouge performance, the cancan featured prominently. The ventriloquist was incredibly funny, using in his act both punters from the audience and an eerily-trained puppy. At one point the plexiglass pool rose from below the stage, and a barely-clad gymnastic girl slithered among several huge python snakes. The dancers of both sexes were beautiful and perky. The sold out crowd of 850 was delighted, and as we made our way out into the Parisian night air, the sidewalk was crowded with folks clambering to come in for the second show. There are two shows every day of the year. Over its 115 years, the Moulin Rouge has also been stage to performers ranging from Chevalier, Sinatra, Aznavour, Minnelli, Elton and Baryshnikov.
Moulin Rouge – the Cancan
Moulin Rouge – dancing inside the red windmill is not a career option for these girls (photo by Brad Auerbach)
We left time in our Parisian itinerary to delight the kids with a trek to the top of the Eiffel Tower. The number one Parisian destination for kids is best visited early in the morning, to beat the crowds. The Tower was designed for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, which drew luminaries from around the world like Paul Gaugin and Thomas Edison. The Tower immediately drew criticism for being ostentatious, despite its initial planned lifespan of five years.
Eiffel Tower – no child’s visit to Paris is complete without a trip to the top(photo by Brad Auerbach)
Guy de Maupassant apparently dined regularly in the Tower as it was the only place in Paris he could be and not see the Tower. But like the London Eye and numerous other lesser landmarks around the world, the Eiffel Tower stood the test of time and remains an obligatory stop.
We discovered that with some planning, a trip to Paris can reveal the classic stops but in remarkably fresh ways.
Paris Segway Tours
Yachts de Paris
Fat Tire Bike Tours