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.

 

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

 

Fribourg’s Wrought Iron Signs With Icons

I visited Fribourg.  It is a charming, medieval town.  Wonderful old details have been preserved and in the historic quarters many new additions are consistent with the traditional surroundings.  Before streets were numbered, buildings and businesses were identified by symbols carved into the buildings or signs hanging from them.  Walking through the streets, I noticed many hanging wrought iron signs with icons over shops, cafes, hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

Such signs were hugely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Their purpose was to attract the public; they were a sort of advertising.  As a result, they were often artistic and elaborate. Even the metal posts from which they hung were elaborately worked.  They functioned not only to identify the business and as advertisement, but also as landmarks for directional information before street names and building numbers.

Over time, certain symbols became common on signs as a sort of code to help the illiterate public identify the nature of the business inside.  They include:

  • Bible = Bookseller
  • Civet Cat = Perfumer
  • Key = Locksmith
  • Mortar & Pestle = Apothecary
  • Red & White Striped Pole = Barber (the red stripe signifies the bloodletting they preformed)
  • Shoe = Shoemaker
  • Sugar Loaf = Grocer
  • Three Golden Balls = Pawn Broker (this became the symbol of the Medici family)
  • Eagle on a bolt of cloth = Merchants, finishers and dyers of foreign cloth
  • Lambs = Wool manufacturers and merchants
  • Alehouse = traditional garland of leaves or hops

Eventually, increased travel led to competition.  To differentiate themselves from their competition, signs began bearing the name of the business and a representative symbol for illiterate customers.  Over time, the sizes and heights became more or less standardized to keep those on horseback from banging their noggin.  While these types of signs were common in Europe, different areas enacted different rules governing their size and height.

I chuckled at some of the more modern twists on the signs.  WC means water closet.  This sign marks the entrance to public toilets.

Even Starbucks got themselves one.

I have to admit, they are a bit more charming (if less hypnotizing) than the giant neon signs that are so prevalent in the US.  Looking for pictures of them made me a bit homesick, but not hungry.

From Getty Images via The Telegraph