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Flight: Paris to Victoria

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

Returning home after the Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour

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.

Space Museum - Terminal 2E, Charles de Gaulle airport
Space Museum – Terminal 2E, Charles de Gaulle airport

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, including a Space Museum! The gate area is super modern and clean, and 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 nice hour 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

On my own after the Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour

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.

People scramble to get out of the rain - Rue Cler neighborhood, Paris
People scramble to get out of the rain – Rue Cler neighborhood, Paris

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

On my own after the Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour

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, so I take lots of photos, including a few selfies. I then descend back down to the second floor for a look around before returning to the ground level.

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 dine together, and by all accounts everyone is pleased with the food and service.

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

Eiffel Tower
34 photos, 1 video
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The Louvre & farewell dinner in Paris

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

Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour

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.

Louvre
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Walking tour & Paris at Night

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

Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour

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, on our last day on the bus, it is time to settle up. I am on top of the list at 10 (for an individual), but at only 1.20 Euros each, I consider this to be quite a bargain, and so convenient.

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 a bit after noon, 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.

Golden arches inside the lower level of Sainte Chapelle
Golden arches inside the lower level of Sainte Chapelle

After we drop our bags off at the hotel, we quickly regroup to go on a walking tour of Paris and get an orientation from Jennifer on 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.

Worshipers in the Notre Dame sanctuary
Worshipers in the Notre Dame sanctuary

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.

Map of my photos taken in Paris
Map of my photos taken in Paris

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 Seine. 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

Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour

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.

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Shilthorn & Swiss Alps

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

Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour

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 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).

View of the Lauterbrunnen valley from the Stechelberg-Gimmelwald gondola
View of the Lauterbrunnen valley from the Stechelberg-Gimmelwald gondola

The 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!

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.

Contented Swiss cows at Winteregg on the trail between Mürren and Grutschalp
Contented Swiss cows at Winteregg on the trail between Mürren and Grutschalp

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. There is also a small train running between Mürren and Grutshalp. Unlike the packed gondolas to Shilthorn, the 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!

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 by the low prices for food and beverages in Italy. Even a coffee or cappuccino in our hotel is 5 CF (CD$6)!

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Cinque Terre to Lauterbrunnen Valley

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

Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour

Sustenpass turnoff
Sustenpass turnoff

After departing Monterosso, Cinque Terre, we drive past Genoa and Milan and cross the border into Switzerland at Lugano. There are lots of winding roads, tunnels, and mountain passes along the way. 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 make a short stop 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.

The above map doesn’t reflect our turnoff at Wassen to drive over the Sustenpass to Interlaken, so please refer below for a corrected version of that portion of our route.

Our route over the Sustenpass from Wassen to Interlaken
Our route over the Sustenpass from Wassen to Interlaken
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Cinque Terra

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

Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour

Seafood stew cooked in an amphora
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 quiet, and yet close to the beach and main street.

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 coastal ferry on a round trip from Monterosso al Mare, where out hotel is located, 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 the easy way.

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 cross the border into Switzerland at Lugano.

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Massa Marittima

2014.09.13 – Saturday – Rome to Cinque Terre, Italy

Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour

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.

Il Bacchini, Massa Marittima
Il Bacchini, Massa Marittima

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 (see banner image above). 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.