A rushed cup of coffee and we were quickly whisked by cab to the Gare du Nord train station to catch the high-speed train to Amsterdam. Train travel is a comfortable, efficient, and affordable mode of transportation in Europe with trains going virtually everywhere. Our train traveled at about 150 MPH and the trip took a little over 3 hours with quick stops in Brussels and Rotterdam.
Outside the huge Amsterdam train station were thousands of bicycles in extensive bike racks. We saw people towing suitcases behind their bicycles, so apparently many people ride their bikes to the train station. We learned that bicycles outnumber people and cars in Amsterdam by a lot!
After some minor issues with our train station to hotel transfer and with our reservation, we checked our luggage and walked to nearby downtown Amsterdam. We quickly learned to stay out of the bike lanes to avoid being run over and joined the tourist throngs walking through the colorful canal-lined streets.
That evening, after checking into our room, we walked back downtown where we enjoyed a red light district tour and saw the other side of Amsterdam. Girls in the windows, cops on horses breaking up disturbances, and many many other things fill my memory but photos were not allowed in most places so use your imagination. It was a pretty lively area indeed.
Lots of fun things to see all over Amsterdam with distinctive architecture all around and many houseboat lined canals. We sampled some locally brewed Heineken beer and some very nice local wines. I know it would be a sacrilege to some of the foodies we know, but we had lunch at Maoz Vegetarian, which offers great U-build-it falafel sandwiches for less than 5 Euros. We had discovered this chain of vegan fast food restaurants in the the Latin Quarter of Paris and I was thrilled to also find one in Amsterdam within walking distance of our hotel.
The morning of our final day in Paris we popped out of bed, had breakfast, and headed for the river. Our hop on hop off combo ticket allowed us to board a river cruise in addition to buses. The cruise wasn’t as great as we had expected so after a few stops we exited the boat near the Louvre to explore a bit. Since we didn’t really have the time we never entered the Louvre, but the view outside was tremendous. After taking a few pictures we walked a few blocks and grabbed the hoho bus headed north toward the Montmartre district and the Sacré-Cœur basilica. The bus does not go all the way to our destination, so we got as close as we could and then we walked and walked and walked until we finally reached the top of the hill. Flora had worn the wrong shoes and required a bit of blister first aid.
Montmartre is an artist community and the look of it was much different than in the heart of Paris. The Sacré-Cœur basilica lies at the very top of the hill and offers a great view of the city below. We had lunch of mussels and wine at a nearby restaurant and then continued our walk back down the hill, getting lost a few times, heading slightly the wrong direction on the windy streets, but finally finding the next hoho bus stop across the street from the Moulin Rouge. The hoho bus gave us our first look the Gare du Nord train station where we would be boarding a high-speed train the next day for our trip to Amsterdam.
We exited the bus a couple of miles from our hotel and walked through the Les Halles and Le Marais districts on the way back to our hotel to try to get a feel for yet another part of Paris. We packed, went out for our final night on the town, and upon our return left a request for our early morning wakeup call.
With a full night’s sleep behind us, we were ready to see the town. We had purchased tickets for the hop on hop off (hoho) bus and used that bus to get us around town during most of our Paris stay and in some other cities during our trip. The weather was clear and beautiful and the top deck of the bus was packed with other tourists, but this proved to be a most delightful way to enjoy the sights. Hoho buses are equipped with earphones and recorded commentary in 8 languages to we learned as we watched.
We passed Notre Dame again with a slightly different view from that enjoyed the previous day, and then along the Seine as we headed for the Louvre. We then drove along the Champs Elysees, past the Arc de Triomphe, and finally exited the bus near the Trocadero, where we enjoyed a most wonderful lunch followed by the famous Parisian macarons. I had not expected these macarons to be anything special but I was wrong; they were maybe the best thing I have ever tasted, creamy and full of wonder.
After lunch we walked through the Jardins du Trocadero for the best view of the Eiffel Tower and met up with our tour group to go up in the tower. The views from above delivered a panoramic view of all Paris. From there I was able to calculate where we would go the next day. After a long day we skipped the bus and hired a taxi, the quickest way back to our hotel.
After a nice dinner we took back to the streets to view some of the famous Parisian nightlife and hunt for bread, cheese, and a bottle of wine. (Yes, the French Brie was the best I ever tasted). After we had explored for a couple more hours, and after getting lost several times, we finally arrived back home, had a nightcap and hors d’oeuvres and retired after setting the alarm for early the next morning; we didn’t want to waste any time getting back into “explorer mode”.
Paris is a city that has been near the top of our travel wish list for years; Rick Steves’ Paris 2013 book has been on our coffee table since it was first released. Through the years we had toyed with the idea of a London/Paris trip or including Paris in some other combination of cities, but earlier this year when we started looking at other cities to combine with our 2016 Mediterranean cruise, Paris jumped to the top of the list of starting points.
High-speed train travel is so easy and affordable that side trips to most cities in mainland Europe are very doable. We flew into Paris for a few days, then traveled by train to Amsterdam where we spent two more days before checking into the cruise port.
We checked into the Odeon Hotel in the St. Germain district of Paris mid-morning and had to wait for a while in a nearby restaurant while our room was prepared. This is where we learned that a “cup of coffee” in Europe is not necessarily what we are used to back in the US. But once our room was ready we checked in and kicked back for some rest.
After a short nap we were ready to walk the streets of Paris, one of the most picturesque cities we had seen. No doubt I will be using that term when describing other cities on this trip, but the buildings in Paris have a very unique style of architecture that makes them very recognizable. Since we were pretty sleep-deprived and jet-lagged at that point we limited our afternoon walk to areas within about a mile of our hotel. We crossed the Seine on a bridge covered with locks (this seems to be a popular thing for kids to do these days – probably started by the lock companies).
We made our way to the nearby Notre Dame cathedral, which proved to be probably the most impressive building I have ever entered. Outside Flora was thrilled (as you can see by the look on her face) with feeding the birds bits of bread. Wedding pictures were being taken nearby, and a saw an especially impressive statue of Charlemagne, which helped remind me of the deep history of the area we were visiting. I will post more pictures of all the things described here in a blog gallery posting that will follow.
We spent about an hour in Notre Dame (there was much to see) and while we were there a mass began with amazing organ music, singing, incense, with much latin being spoken. It was a truly moving experience and our timing had been perfect.
But all too soon fatigue set in and we wandered back toward our hotel to get some sleep. The next blog entry will contain pics to go with these descriptions.
We had last visited Europe in 2013 and were dying to go back, visit new places, and revisit some old ones. In August 2016 we got our chance and combined a 12-day cruise with an additional week before and another week after. During the trip we visited 6 countries (7 if you want to count Gibraltar, which is actually part of the UK) and got to see Paris and more of Italy (our favorite spot in the world).
As time allows, I will be adding a description entry for each day of the trip sharing a little of what we learned in each place followed by a separate entry that contains a few of the photos we took that day. Welcome aboard!
Some people love to travel while some people prefer to stay close to home and often wonder what’s the big deal. Some of us love adventure and do what we can to create it in one form or another and others feel that life supplies more than enough adventure without seeking it out. There is certainly something to be said for sitting in the comfort of our home and watching the world go by while sipping a cold adult beverage and often that is the mode in which we operate. But sometimes we have an itch that can only be scratched by hitting the road, whether for a nearby destination or for somewhere far away and exotic.
For us, there is a joy in seeing things we have never seen before or viewing things up close that we have only seen in movies or books. But more than that, the reason we travel usually goes far beyond seeing new things and really is more about experiencing new cultures, meeting new people, and gaining a more in depth understanding of the world around us and establishing our place within it.