Tourists Mob Paris, Here’s How To Manage

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I think we saw more tourists in Paris than actual Parisians.  Here are some hints for navigating a tourists Paris.

  • Since we were an odd number, rather than renting a couple of hotel rooms, we rented a tiny apartment.  It was easy to book online and saved us a ton of dough.
  • Get the museum pass at the tourist office.  We bought ours at the train station’s tourist office upon arrival.  I only had one person in front of me in line and barely had to wait.  It allowed us to skip the long lines at every attraction… and saved us a bunch of money

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  • Get to the Louvre early.  Very, Very early.  Bus tours will start arriving.  If you encounter them, you will be swept away in a sea of people madly clicking their cameras.  Get there early to see the big sights before they finish breakfast and on the bus.
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  • While you are at the Louvre (and other museums), take advantage of the great views from museum cafes.  We had an unforgettable coffee with this view.  Priceless.DSC_0742_2
  • French food is pretty good.  Nevertheless like all cultures, a bit of it seems suspect to the outside. While I will eat frog’s legs and snails.  I can’t stand the terrines, the molded meat and gelatin. Even knowing that it may result in eating something suspect, I like to eat at restaurants where the menu isn’t in English (or like some super touristy places in Italian, German, Russian and Chinese as well).  Do yourself a favor and avoid the loud Americans that will be at the next table over, get off the beaten path and try to find a place without an English menu.  Not only will it be more affordable, but you’ll have a more authentic experience.  If you don’t you could end up like a friend who paid $52 for a hamburger in Italy.  We paid about that for an entire meal that was one of the best of our lives.

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  • If you happen to bein Paris during sale time (known as Les Soldes), you’re lucky.   Markdowns occur at designated times twice a year.  Shop away!
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Oh Champs Elysées

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Paris’ grand boulevard the Champs Elysées runs from the Oblisque at the end of the Jardin des Tulleries to the Arc de Triomphe.  It’s France’s most famous street and part of the national identity.  Every French person knows it.  Many of France’s national events unfold there.  Most high school French students in the US learn the song about it, “Aux Champs Elysées.”   Unbelievably, I can still sing it.

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Bastille Day (France’s national day that commemorates the July 14 storming of the Bastille) parades take place there.  The Tour de France concludes with circuits up and down it.   Cyclists sprint up and down  the storied boulevard lined with bleachers chasing a stage win.  When Greg LeMond won the Tour de France in 1989, he did it by outsprinting the sprinters and the great time trialist Laurent Fignon to win the last stage on the Champs Elysées and the time bonus.  He won by 8 seconds.  Epic.  Although I’m a bit fixated on the Tour de France, New Year’s and many other festivities take place there.

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The boulevard is ancient, created in 1667 by Louis XIV as an extension of the Tuileries Gardens. It became a fashionable spot to see and be seen.   The Champs Elysees connects the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre, which used to be a palace (and not a famous museum).   The Rond-Point (traffic circle) at the end is usually decorated for the season.  Beyond that, the Place de La Concorde contains an Obelisk of Luxor a gift from Egypt in the 1830’s.  It was formerly called the Place de la Revolution because a guillotine used to stand where the Obelisk does now.   Over a thousand people were guillotined there including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

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This famous statue of Charles de Gaulle stands near the Champs Elysées in front of the Grand Palais. After the liberation of Paris, on August 26, 1944, de Gaulle paraded up and down the Champs Elysées.  Later, he established the post-war government.

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Today, the boulevard is home to hotels, shops, movie theaters, cafes and even fast food restaurants.   On a side note, McDonald’s is killing it in France and the rest of Europe.  But I digress… Yes, Vincent did not lie in Pulp Fiction.  “You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in France?” They don’t call it the quarter pounder because of the metric system.  Last century, there were fewer fast food restaurants and more cafes.  Elvis probably wasn’t there either…

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Don’t worry.  There’s still some high end shopping left.  There’s even one of the world’s largest Sephora stores.  However, if you are really in Paris to shop you’ll probably want to hit up Paris’ neighborhood boutiques and historic shopping arcades for the best stuff.  If you want to get some high end luggage for your purchases, I think the guys below (Louis Vitton) might be able to help you out.  Balenciaga, Berluti, Céline, Chanel, Christian Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Guiseppi Zanotti, Guerlain, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Jimmy Choo, Maison de Baccarat, Marni, Nina Ricci, Petit Bateau and Prada all have shops there.

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If all this weren’t enough, the boulevard is lined with my favorite trees from Geneva, Plane Trees.

 

Sprungli, A Zurich Must

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When traveling, it is great to find a wonderful local place to eat.  Sprungli is just such a place.  A Zurich institution, it opened in its current form in 1939, but before the restaurant/café opened a chocolatier was there.  The Sprungli family started that in 1859.  It’s still family owned although the chocolate making is a separate business (Lindt & Sprüngli).

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Traditionally a favorite of Zurich’s upper crust ladies who lunch (not usually a recommendation that gets me to my kind of place) these ladies know what they are talking about and it’s now a favorite of this girl.  Him too.  The café serves the best hot chocolate and deserts in town, but they have more substantial fare as well.  Plus, when the dining room has cute details like the copper baking tins on the walls, how can you not?

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Sprungli is famous for their specialty products Luxemburgerli macaroons and Grand Crus (chocolate truffles from wild cocoa beans).  They are made by hand with fresh ingredients.  Drooling yet?

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They have several other satellite shops in other towns and at airports (including Geneva’s).  While nothing beats that original location, they are a great place to get a quick Sprungli fix or pickup a stellar present.

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Buon Appetito! Eating Our Way Through Milan

Although we saw some cool stuff in Milan, one of the main reasons to go to Italy is for the food and drink.  They are an attraction in and of themselves and did not disappoint.

We had at least two cappuccino for breakfast every day.  Italians only order cappuchinos until 10:00.  Although italians only drink cappuccino until 10:00 a.m., they pop in for expressos all day long.  If you run into a friend in the street, it is customary to pop into a café for a quick espresso at the bar while you catch up.  Ten minutes later, you’re back on your way.  Perfect for caffeine addicts like us who don’t always like to linger at a table.

Before dinner, Italian tradition is to have an aperitivo.  It is a pre-meal drink meant to stimulate appetite, but seems to be an excuse to go out for a drink, relax and chat with friends.   When in Rome, or Milan…

I loved the Antipasti, the appetizer course, because I usually hadn’t gorged myself yet so I could eat while I was actually hungry.  The food was so good that I did a good amount of eating when I wasn’t actually hungry.  It was so tasty that I just had to eat it.   Who knows when I’d have another chance to taste something like that?

One of his favorites was a cheese plate that included burrata, a fresh artisanal cheese made from mozzarella and cream.  Although people eat cheeses that are older than some of our nieces and nephews, you are supposed to eat burrata within 24 hours after it is made.  Ours came on a plate with fresh buffalo mozzarella and ricotta.  De-lish-us!

In Italy, pasta is usually the next course, known as Primo Patti.  Although they sometimes serve soup, rice,  polenta, etc., it’s usually a rich pasta dish.  Carbalicious.

Secondo, the main course, usually consists of chicken, meat, or fish.  With so many courses, thankfully the portions aren’t too large.  Most Italians don’t eat an antipastoprimosecondo and dolce at every meal, but the selections are always on the menu.  Just because we pigged out doesn’t mean you are required to.

The dolce (Italian for sweet), dessert, ends the meal.  People often order an espresso to help digestion and to finish off a meal.  Plus it gives them more time to sit and talk over food and drink.

Sorry, we couldn’t wait to take a picture before taking a bite out of our daily gelato.  We weren’t the only ones who liked gelato, just check out this cute little guy.  He was going to town on his gelato.  Notice how he is inside the restaurant.

Remember, friends don’t let friends serve each other packaged food.  Viva l’Italia.

Hey Hey Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town

Stockholm is one of the prettiest cities we have ever seen.  Lots of European cities have old towns (Fribourg, MalmöGeneva, Prague, Annecy).  Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, charming.  It is an island connected to the rest of the city by bridges.  The buildings date from the 13th century.  We loved strolling Västerlånggatan in Gamla Stan.  There are lots of boutiques, cafés and restaurants.

It is enchanting with cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, old architecture, lanterns, boutiques, antique shops and cafés.   Parts of it are filled
 with souvenir shops and restaurants, and the like.  Yeah, they are a bit of a tourist trap (especially Västerlånggatan), but they don’t make the old town worth writing off.

Wander the side narrow streets.  Look for the signs above doors that indicate the building has paid its fire insurance (thanks Rick Steves).  Notice tons of other period details.  Find places with some Swedes.  Trust me when I tell you, it’s great fun.

For those who get bored after their 20th (or 2nd) palace, Stockholm has some swingin’ history.  Loads of writers and artists pickled themselves here.  It also has some gory history.  In 1520, the bloodbath of Stockholm took place here.  80-90 people were executed in this square (near the Nobel Museum).

Plus, you never know who you might run into at the palace…

Prince Charles leaving Sweden’s Royal Palace

 

As Addicts, We Loved Fika, The Swedish Tradition Of Coffee Time

I am an addict.  Recognizing your addiction is the first step, but I don’t want to quit.  I love my coffee and am not about to give it up.  Sweden might feel the same way.

Coffee shops are everywhere in Stockholm and the quality is quite good.  It frought with danger for the calorie conscious.  The Swedish tradition of fika  (coffee time) is untranslatable, it seems to mean to meet up for seems to involve a coffee, conversation and a tasty treat.   We saw dessert tables piled with tasty treats everywhere.  From pastries to sweetbreads to cinnamon rolls to cakes and pies, they have it all.  Apparently, it is bad form to offer less than three different types of pastries to your guests.

Rather than just getting my caffeine fix, I took advantage of our time in Stockholm to treat myself to some fancy coffees.  Regular coffee is available, but I had cappuchinos, lattes, expressos and other fancy coffees.   We also partook of the baked goods.  I know, I live on the edge.

Beer In Belgium

Belgium has a long and rich brewing tradition. It is a country the size of Maryland, but brews 700-800 different labels! It is a part of their culture and there are many things that make Belgian beers unique:
Almost all beers are served in their own, specially designed glasses to optimize their taste.
 
They are incredibly diverse and have a lot of different ways of producing beers (spontaneously fermented, second fermentation, etc.).
Towns throughout the country have their famous beer pubs, with storied histories and a huge variety of offerings.
There are lots of specialty beer shops and festivals. Belgian beers are commonly found in wired and corked like champagne bottles (making them good presents).
By the way, Belgium is the home of the largest brewery in the world, InBev. You may have heard of them a couple of years ago when they bought a little company called Anheuser-Busch that makes Budweiser.