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Flight: Paris to Victoria

September 22, 2014 – Monday – Flight: Paris, France to Victoria, BC, Canada

I‘m up at 6AM to get ready for a 6:30AM pickup by the SuperShuttle I previously arranged and paid for. The 9-passenger van shows up early, and I’m ready to go. There are five others in the van already, and we make one more stop to pick up two more before we head for Charles de Gaul airport (CDG). It takes almost an hour to reach the airport, and we drop a few people off at Terminal 1 before the rest of us are delivered to Terminal 2. This terminal is ultra modern, and as I expected, very busy.

I manage to check into the Delta flight without a problem despite the crowds. I have to take a train to transfer to terminal 2E, which is even newer than the main Terminal 2. There are high-class shops everywhere, and the gate area is super modern and clean. There are power plugs at each seat in the waiting area. I have a cappuccino and a pastry at the cafe beside the gate, since I have over an hour before the flight starts boarding at 9:40AM. The boarding process goes fast, we leave the gate on time, and we are number one for takeoff. The captain announces that the flight time to Seattle is 9 hours and 55 minutes, but he later announces that we will arrive about 35 minutes early.

I usually don’t watch movies on airline flights, but this time I found “a personal portrait of a Broadway legend”, which I really liked: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. She is so funny, and yet at the same time portrays a vulnerable side. She is 87 years old and still performing. The video was a nicehour and a half diversion from the boredom of the long polar flight.

I’m not looking forward to the jet lag after this trip. I always take a couple of days to recover when I fly from east to west over lots of time zones. Flying west to east doesn’t seem to bother me as much for some reason, although I was very tired on the second day in the Netherlands at the start of the trip. My final connecting flight from Seattle to Victoria goes without a hitch, and I’m home!

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Rue Cler neighborhood in Paris

September 21, 2014 – Sunday – Paris, France

People scramble to get out of the rain on Rue Cler

People scramble to get out of the rain on Rue Cler

It is raining quite hard this morning as I have breakfast in the hotel atrium. I try to check my flights online, but neither the Air France nor the Delta websites work for me, so I will just show up at the airport tomorrow morning and check in at the self-serve kiosks or counter.

Some of my group are still staying in the hotel, and they have plans to see various sights. However since it is raining today, I plan to stay in the hotel until it clears, and have my meals in nearby restaurants. It is almost noon before the Sun appears, so I grab my camera and walk over to the nearby Rue Cler area. Locals are out shopping this Sunday morning, having brunch in the restaurants, and simply enjoying themselves.

I have lunch at a creperie, but have moussaka and a Retsina wine since Greeks run the place. As I sit there sipping a cappuccino after lunch, it starts pouring rain again. I don’t have anything planned for the afternoon, so I just stay there and enjoy watching people dash between the canopies. Most of the shops close at 1:30PM, but some restaurants and gift shops remain open. I walk back to the hotel in the sunshine after the clouds break, and have an afternoon nap in my room.

When I go down to the lobby with my notebook to work on my travel blog this afternoon, several of the group are around. We decide to walk to Rue Cler later and have a nice dinner in a local restaurant. The waiter speaks English and they even have English menus! The waiter splits the bill for us, which rarely happens in Europe. Several of the group want crepes for dessert, so I say my goodbyes and walk back to the hotel and pack my bags for the last time. I’m glad to be going home, and anxious to see my family.

Paris is such a livable city. When traveling, I always ask myself the question “Could I live here?” I really surprised myself by answering an enthusiastic “Yes” to the question. Paris offers its citizens so much of the good life, and yet is a very big city. I would be fun to rent a furnished apartment for a month, to stay and experience the city as a local.

 

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Eiffel Tower

September 20, 2014 –  Saturday – the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

Base of the Eiffel Tower & the Champ de Mars

Base of the Eiffel Tower & the Champ de Mars

After breakfast, the Rick Steves tour is officially over. I say goodbye to the tour members in the lobby who are leaving today. I meet Jennifer’s boyfriend, who lives in the south of France. I end up spending most of the morning catching up with my journaling, sitting in the lobby just chilling out a bit. I chat with a few tour members who are staying in Paris for a few more days. Some are staying in other hotels, so they are moving this morning.

I skip lunch and walk over to Easy Pass Tours to pick up my prepaid, priority entrance ticket to the Eiffel Tower. It is great to walk past the lines of people waiting to buy tickets, breeze through a priority security line, and zoom up to the second floor in the main elevators. Following the Easy Pass instructions, I wait in line for the smaller elevators that take people to the top of the tower. This takes about 20 minutes, but finally I’m at the top, and have absolutely beautiful clear and sunny weather for my time up there. I take lots of photos, including a few selfies, and then descend back down to the second floor for a look around before returning to the ground.

The priority ticket from Easy Pass Tours is well worthwhile in my estimation, since it saves so much time and aggravation. I walk back through the Champ de Mars – a beautiful park with the leaves falling from the trees. There is a Family Day celebration going on, so there are lots of people, kids and dogs around this afternoon.

I previously arranged to join some of the tour members for dinner this evening. We have reservations at Le Bosquet restaurant, which is recommended by the Rick Steves guide. Seven of us end up going out for dinner, and by all accounts everyone is pleased with the food and service.

Today was most enjoyable, and I really appreciate the much slower pace from my days on the tour!

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The Louvre & farewell dinner in Paris

September 19, 2014 – Friday – The Louvre, Paris, France

After breakfast in the hotel, we take the Metro to see The Louvre this morning. After connecting with our guide Vincent shortly after 9AM, we walk through the expansive foyer and through security. The place is huge, so Vincent has selected some highlights for us, and has also included some of his personal favourites, since we only have a couple of hours.

The Mona Lisa is not too impressive, and we can’t get close to it since there is such a crush of people in the gallery. We have better luck seeing the Venus de Milo (Aphrodite) statue, although both galleries are known to be frequented by pickpockets. I’m thankful that Vincent is guiding us through the endless galleries, since I’m really not into museums, per se. The crowds are hard to cope with, even at this early hour – many are loud, rude, and pushy. As with the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, I find the display of wealth stolen by Napoleon and the Louis dynasty to be completely over the top. Despite my negative feelings, The Louvre is a place that needs a return visit. I have a feeling that spending a day in the less popular galleries would be more rewarding than our quick visit. After taking a coffee break in the foyer mall, we return to our hotel using the Paris Metro on our own.

Jennifer toasts at our farewell dinner

Jennifer toasts at our farewell dinner

Our group’s farewell dinner is held at La Terrasse du 7ème restaurant, which is only a couple of blocks away from our hotel. The meal is wonderful, and the wine is very nice. We start with Kir, which is a cocktail made with crème de cassis (black current liquor) and white wine, and then we have a three course dinner. We finish our farewell on the rooftop patio with some bubbly…a lovely way to end things and say our goodbyes.

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Walking tour & Paris at Night

September 18, 2014 – Thursday – Beaune to Paris, France

We leave the hotel in Beaune this morning and make the short drive to Paris, catching our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Sylvain drops us off a block away from our hotel and drives away for the last time. He was a great driver and was very good-humoured as well. Hotel Muguet is probably the nicest hotel we have stayed at on the entire trip, and I get to stay two extra nights here, leaving for home on Monday. I have a room facing the courtyard, so it is nice and quiet, and it’s air conditioned, which is needed to cope with Paris’ muggy weather right now.

We arrive a bit after noon, drop our bags off at the hotel, and quickly regroup to go on a walking tour of Paris and get an orientation of how to use the Paris Metro. First stop is Sainte Chapelle, a royal medieval Gothic chapel, located near the Palais de la Cité (City Hall), on the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris. It is currently being restored, but is very impressive both inside and out. It was built to house Louis IX’s collection of relics of Christ, and functioned as his personal chapel.  It is very ornate inside; decorated in gold and huge stained glass windows.

Map of photos taken in Paris

Map of photos taken in Paris

Next stop is Notre Dame Cathedral, an historic Catholic cathedral on the eastern half of the Île de la Cité. It is huge, and is an example of French Gothic Architecture, but not as impressively decorated inside as Sainte Chapelle. In fact, the interior is rather shabby in spots, showing the wear of so many people trouping through it. It was among the first buildings in the world to use flying buttresses (arched exterior supports), which are particularly spectacular when the building it lit at night. There is a huge plaza in front of the cathedral. We regroup here and take the bridge across the Seine to the Latin Quarter.

We have dinner on our own in the Latin Quarter before regrouping at Pont Neuf for an evening river cruise on the Seine. We see many of the bridges on the Seine lit up at night, as well as Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and a multitude of bridges as we cruise along the river. There are huge numbers of people partying along the river. Many are just hanging out with bottles of wine, while others are in semi-organized dances.

The cruise along the Seine at night makes for an impressive end to a very long and tiring day. After returning on the Metro, we are all glad to arrive back at our hotel.

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Burgundy

September 17, 2014 – Wednesday – Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland to Beaune, France

We depart the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland early this morning after having breakfast at the hotel. The light is gorgeous as we drive through the valley of many waterfalls, and onto the Autobahn. Our first rest stop is still in Switzerland in the Bern area. I buy nothing since the prices are so high and I have spent all my CF coins. I don’t want to break another bill, since I can sell those back to my bank when I return home. As we pass through the French border, there are no formalities. We stop at a mall for lunch, and find the prices much more reasonable since we are now in France.

As we drive along the expressway, we see French chateaux in the midst of verdant fields or on hilltops, herds of Charlebois cattle, and of course vineyards everywhere. The Burgundy area of France is famous for its grapes and the fine wines that are produced from them. We happen to be here at harvest time, so workers are in the fields picking the grapes. Jennifer and Sylvain take us on an impromptu drive through some of the wine producing areas around Beaune before we arrive at our destination in the early afternoon.

Wine tasting in Beaune, Burgundy

Wine tasting in Burgundy

After getting settled in Hotel Athanor, we have plenty of time to explore the lovely small city of Beaune: Roman walls and aqueducts, old stone buildings, coloured tile rooftops, and cobblestone streets. Later in the afternoon, we walk a few blocks to a wine tasting (modest extra cost) at Bouchard Aîné & Fils. These wine cellars fulfill my mind’s eye of what a wine cellar should look like: stone steps, cool and dark, and wine barrels and dusty wine bottles everywhere. The owner’s private collection is stored down here behind bars – some of those wines go back as far as 1911. Apparently the corks need to be replaced every 20 years, so they must sacrifice a bottle in order to top up the other bottles as they replace the corks and taste the wine to ensure it is still drinkable.

We stand on the old rampart wall of the city as we walk back to the hotel. The group dinner this evening is at a restaurant around the corner from the hotel. They serve a delicious three-course dinner, however I don’t have any wine with the meal, since it is too expensive. As we return to our hotel, there is a laser light show being projected on the outside walls of the nearby Basilica Notre Dame.

September 18, 2014 – Thursday – Beaune to Paris, France

We leave the hotel at 8AM and are on the road to Paris shortly after.

Our bus driver Sylvain has supplied us with soft drinks, bottled water, beer and wine in refrigerators on the bus during the entire trip on the honour system. Today it is time to settle up, and I am on top of the list at 10 (for an individual). At only 1.20 Euros each, I consider this to be quite a bargain, and so convenient.

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Shilthorn & Swiss Alps

September 16, 2014 – Tuesday – Lauterbrunnen Valley and the Alps, Switzerland

Technically, today is a free day in Switzerland, however Jennifer has organized a wonderful activity for anyone who wants to go: a gondola ride up to the Shilthorn peak, a walk along a ridgeline pathway from Mürren to Grutshalp, and a gondola ride down to the town of Lauterbrunnen. Then everyone is on their own to take the poste bus back to Stechelberg and our hotel (the bus terminus).

JoeTourist: Shilthorn &emdash; Lauterbrunnen valleyThe mountains surrounding the Lauterbrunnen Valley are so steep, the mountain peaks are not visible from the valley floor. Since so many of us are signed up for this activity today, Sylvain drives us the short distance to the gondola station near Stechelberg, and Jennifer gets a group rate of 57 CF (CD$70) for the gondola rides. The first of four gondolas takes us from the valley floor, over the ridgeline to Gimmelwald, a small mountain community. The second gondola takes us to Mürren, a bigger mountain community. The third gondola takes us a long way up the mountain to Birg, which has a few houses, but is essentially a transfer station to the last gondola, which takes us almost straight up to the Shilthorn peak.

The Shilthorn is famous for being the location where some scenes of James Bond movies were shot, where James skis down a steep snowy slope being chased by the bad guys, and takes a luge down the mountain. The weather is totally clear when we arrive, and we have a good hour before some clouds come in and partially obscure the view. At this point, I go inside and have a hot chocolate in the revolving restaurant and post some selfie photos to my facebook page. There is free Wi-fi and good cellular coverage on the peak as well as at each gondola station thanks to Swiss efficiency!

Contented Swiss cows heading for the alpine meadow near Grutschalp

Contented Swiss cows heading for the alpine meadow near Grutschalp

We regroup in Mürren, and then hike along a ridge line pathway to Grutshalp. The grade on the pathway is easy, but it is a two hour hike to the gondola station. The views along the way are spectacular: there seem to be new views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks at every turn in the path.

The famous contented Swiss cows with the bells around their necks are roaming the steep alpine meadows, and we stop for yogurt and other dairy snacks along the way. The gondola ride down to the town of Lauterbrunnen isn’t crowded. Some of the group stay in town to have lunch or shop, but I am tired, so I take the poste bus back to the hotel. Even the bus offers free Wi-fi while aboard!

 

Today is without a doubt one of the highlights of the tour for me!

 

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Lauterbrunnen Valley

September 15, 2014 – Monday – Cinque Terre, Italy to Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland

Sustenpass turnoff

Sustenpass turnoff

Once we go past Genoa and Milan, we cross the border into Switzerland at Lugano, and encounter winding roads, lots of tunnels, and mountain passes. We take the Gotthard Tunnel, the third longest tunnel in the world, and cross over the Sustenpass, where we have a quick rest stop. After descending a steep, winding road, we are finally in the valley at Interlaken where we stop for a bit less than an hour, mainly so everyone can withdraw some Swiss Francs (CF) from the ATMs and banks. One Canadian Dollar equals 0.85 CF, or about CD$1.20 to buy a Swiss Franc.

We drive along the Lauterbrunnen Valley to the town of Stechelberg, and then further to the end of the road to our hotel, Hotel Stechelberg. I draw a single room with a sink in it. The toilet and shower are in the hall (one for men and one for women) and shared by 6 others. So this is the most basic accommodation on the tour. I would judge it to be equivalent to a hostel. There is a group dinner provided at the hotel for both nights, since the nearest restaurant is some distance away. Otto, the owner (and chef) of the hotel starts us off this evening with a demonstration of how to make authentic Swiss cheese fondue, and then we follow that up with dinner.

September 16, 2014 – Tuesday – Lauterbrunnen Valley and the Alps, Switzerland

Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau peaks, alpine meadow and the railway

Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau peaks, alpine meadow and the railway

Technically, today is a free day in Switzerland, however Jennifer has organized a wonderful activity which most of us go on: a gondola ride up to the Shilthorn peak, a walk along a ridge line pathway from Mürren to Grutshalp, and a gondola ride down to the town of Lauterbrunnen.

Shilthorn & Swiss Alps

After we return from our adventures in the Alps, we have dinner at the hotel. I have Weisswurst sausage and the Swiss version of fried potatoes, but don’t have any wine or beer since it is so expensive. I guess we were spoiled in Italy by the low prices for food and beverages. Even a coffee or cappuccino in the hotel is 5 CF (CD$6)!

September 17, 2014 – Wednesday – Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland to Beaune, France

We depart early this morning after having breakfast at the hotel. The light is gorgeous as we drive out of the valley and onto the Autobahn. Our first rest stop is still in Switzerland in the Bern area. I buy nothing at the rest stop since the prices are very high. I have spent all my CF coins, and I don’t want to break another bill, since I can sell those back to my Canadian bank when I return home. As we pass through the French border, there are no formalities. We stop at a mall for lunch, and find the prices much more reasonable since we are now in France.

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Cinque Terra

September 13, 2014 – Saturday – Rome to Cinque Terre, Italy

JoeTourist: Cinque Terre &emdash; Seafood stew cooked in an amphora
After driving from Rome, we turn off the Autostrada and drive down a steep valley to Vernazza, where the bus parks. We walk over to the train station, and after riding the train for four minutes we arrive in Monterosso. This pretty little town by the sea on the Cinque Terra (the Italian Riviera) is our home for the next two nights. Since today is Saturday, there are lots of Italians here on weekend get-aways. We are staying in the Hotel Punta Mesco, a nice hotel located about a block off the main street, so it is nice and quiet.

This evening, we have a group meal at Ristorante Belvedere in old town. They cook a rich seafood stew of squid, fish, and mussels in an amphora and then pour it out into big bowls and we serve ourselves family-style.

2014.09.14 – Sunday – Cinque Terre, Italy

JoeTourist: Cinque Terre &emdash; Riomaggiore village
Today is our “vacation from our vacation”…in other words, a free day. I take the little ferry on a round trip from Monterosso al Mare, where out hotel is located, and go to Vernazza, Corniglia (hill town, no ferry stop), and Riomaggiore. On the way back, the ferry stops at Manarola and Vernazza, before terminating at Monterosso. I had planned to get off in Vernazza, see the town and walk back to Monterosso, but after seeing the crowds in the square at Vernazza, I decided to stay on the ferry and return to Monterosso.

I have lunch with a couple from our group, and then just chill out in my hotel room for a while. My ground floor room has a small patio, so I catch up on some journaling and annotate my photos while sitting outside. Our hotel hosts a Happy Hour this afternoon for our group – pizza, cheese, cold meats, bread, wine, and Limonchella. I fill up on the delicious pizza since they have lots, and skip dinner!

2014.09.15 – Monday – Cinque Terre, Italy to Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland

After leaving the Cinque Terre this morning, we bypass Genoa and Milan and we cross the border into Switzerland at Lugano.

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Massa Marittima

2014.09.13 – Saturday – Rome to Cinque Terre, Italy

After leaving Rome on the Autostrada, our first rest stop is a small AutoGrill, where many of the group rave about the fresh-squeezed orange juice. I have a cappuccino for 1.40 Euro – no tables, just a stand-up bar, Italian style. The area we drive through up the coast is much drier than the areas of Italy we have traveled through up to now. This is where the olives are grown, as well as grapes.

Our midday break is in a little town called Massa Marittima, where we go for a wine, cheese and olive tasting at Il Baccino. Everyone on the bus does the tasting (modest extra charge) and thoroughly enjoy ourselves. We spend almost two hours in this beautiful little town, so there is plenty of time to soak up the Tuscan sunshine. It is an absolutely perfect day – blue sky and warm, but not too hot. I walk uphill to the ancient Siennese wall, which runs through the town half way up the hill. It is 3 Euros to go up the clock tower and along a portion of the adjacent wall, but it is well worth it to take in the wonderful views of the town from above, and appreciate the vistas of the whole glorious valley. I stroll back down the hill along the back alleys to the town square, where there is a troubadour playing some lovely music that echoes off the buildings. I have a simple lunch of prosciutto in a fresh crusty role, and sit outside Il Baccino with others in my group, soaking up the ambience of this Tuscan town. It simply doesn’t get much better than this!

As we drive the Autostrada north along the coast, we pass some interesting sights. There are resort areas all along the coast featuring cottages and recreational vehicle parks, a massive power station, endless vineyards and farms, and sales yards featuring beautiful white massive blocks of Carrara marble. The mountains where this well-known marble is quarried is visible inland across the valley behind the sales yards. Imagine Leonardo da Vinci making the journey to these same quarries to select the marble for his famous statues.

Eventually we turn off the Autostrada, and drive down a steep valley to the Vernazza train station, where the bus parks. We walk over to the train station, and after riding the train for four minutes we arrive in Monterosso. This pretty little town by the sea on the Cinque Terra (the Italian Riviera) is our home for the next two nights.