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Paris Trip Report, Part 6: Tips for Vacationing in Paris II


In the last segment, I covered the logistics of a family vacation in Paris, but didn’t get a chance to discuss the actual experience. That’s the topic of this final segment.

There are as many different tourist guides for Paris as there are tourists who have visited the city. Everyone will have their list of things that they enjoyed and that they think that everyone else will, too. If I were to write one, it would not too different in that regard. That said, this not really one of those. Instead, it’s a bit more of a vacation journal with some perspectives thrown in so that you can get a flavor for what the various sights were like.

We arrived in Paris on the late afternoon of Saturday, April 7 and checked into our hotel on the outskirts of town. Our plan started early the next morning, so we spent the rest of that day checking out the local area (including the Arcades Centre Commercial which has shops aplenty—including a Carrefour that functioned as our grocery). After a bite of dinner at Le Menh’ir in Arcades, we picked up a few things at Carrefour and settled in for the night.

The next morning, we headed downstairs for a pretty good breakfast buffet and set out for Easter Sunday Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral. I have to say, this was one of my favorite things about our entire trip. It was crowded, but not more than would be expected for a Sunday Mass at Notre Dame (especially Easter Sunday). I’m not Catholic, but it was a beautiful and moving service.

After a great experience at Notre Dame, we gave the nearby Pont des Arts a walkover en route to the Latin Quarter. The Pont des Arts is sort of infamous for a particular type of vandalism popular in Paris (or at least popularized by tourists if nothing else). Couples affix a “love lock” (typically a padlock, but we even saw a couple of bike locks) to the bridge with their initials carved/written on it and pitch the key into the Seine. Parisian officials undertook a midnight culling of the locks in 2010, but I assure you, there was almost no room for more when we strolled across.

We walked around for a while (Paris is truly a walker’s city) then headed to dinner and back to the hotel to drop off our kids and my mother. My wife and I headed back out for a stroll around the outside of the Louvre and picked up food-to-go in the form of some great wraps that we ate back at the hotel.

The plan for the next day was, basically, the Louvre. My wife is quite an art buff—especially the periods leading up to the mid-19th century, which is what the Louvre focuses on (the Orsay picks up after that and carries on to 1915, which is arguably where Musée National d’Art Moderne in the Centre Georges Pompidou picks up). We arrived what we thought was pretty early and the line was enormous. It encircled the entire courtyard and actually went out through one of the gates onto the street. My family got in line while I went to the “lesser known” entrance in the Carrousel du Louvre to see what that was like. It turns out that “lesser known” is not so much better as the line there was pretty long as well (though I will admit, it was shorter). Nearby that line was also a line for the Paris Museum Pass. The beauty of this pass is that it covers almost all of the major attractions and saves you from standing in a line to buy tickets for those attractions. In addition, it theoretically acts as a “fast pass” to allow you to skip the main lines of some museums (including the Louvre).

  • Incidentally, the Museum Pass is only a good value if you plan on visiting more than one site in a day. Otherwise, per-day value of the Pass is higher than most of the individual ticket fees. Don’t buy it for the fast-pass like behavior. It’s not as useful as it sounds because most places don’t support that behavior.

I opted to stand in the line for the Museum Pass and buy those, then skip the giant line outside. I waited in this line for about 40 minutes (during which time we passed a neat model of the Louvre and the Carrousel. When I got to the front (well about 5 people from the front), I learned that they only accept cash for the Museum Pass (this, BTW, was the only place that I could not use my Chase Sapphire Visa). The lady at the desk assured me that I could come back and skip the line once I got cash, so I headed to the nearby ATM. That ATM, as it so happened, was broken. And so began a search for a functional ATM. When I finally found one, street side, the lady in front of me was struggling with its use. She was a Spanish-speaker (unlike me) that had no English or French, so I couldn’t help her very much. Eventually, while she was trying to figure something out, the machine just ate her card and she had to move along—with a much-degraded mood. I got the required cash and headed back to purchase my Museum Pass. By the time I went through all of those hoops and made it back upstairs, my family was at the front of the line just letting people go by. So it was basically all for naught. Contrary to all of the “the Louvre is a waste of time” reviews that you’ll see, I actually had a great time there and would totally recommend it.

The next day was Versailles. We again arrived what we thought was pretty early, but Versailles was slam packed. The line was (literally) about 600 meters long winding back and forth across the full length of the courtyard (and, BTW, the Museum Pass does not function as a fast-pass here—or pretty much anywhere else that we went with a line). This palace was actually very impressive in its opulence and you could see some of the reasons that the populace rouse up for the revolution. However, it was so incredibly crowded that it was completely not worth it. I’m pretty used to crowds, but this place was insane. It was filled with people to the point that it reminded me of a rock concert. There were, quite literally, people putting their hands on you and pushing you aside in every room. The only bearable room was the Hall of Mirrors because it was so large. I’ve posted a picture of that one for you to get an idea. Keep in mind, this was the least crowded room!

We got separated at one point and lost my mom. We decided that, since it was a one-way tour, we’d just meet her at the exit. However, she thought we were ahead of her, so when she hit the exit, she started back through. When we hit the exit, we figured that may have happened, so I started back through, too. After several minutes of fighting the crowds, I asked an official and got a short-cut out of there and she was waiting with the rest of my family at the end. I was never really worried about her, but it serves to illustrate the sheer insanity of the crowds. This place was like Disneyland without any understanding of crowd control. I would skip it and head to a different palace/castle. There are plenty in this part of the world, and they’re all pretty opulent compared to my house!

After the experience at Versailles, we took the train to the Eiffel Tower with the idea of catching watching it twinkle (which it does on the hour after dusk). We didn’t realize that it was “on the hour” and thought it was only at 9pm, so we actually missed it on this day. I did get a chance for a couple of nice pictures, though.

The following day, we headed to Saint Chapelle and the Orsay. Saint Chapelle is just as beautiful as everyone will tell you. There was, again, a line outside that took us about 40 minutes to get through, but once we were inside, it was okay from a crowd standpoint. The upstairs chapel is quite probably the most beautiful room that I’ve ever been in. Do not miss Saint Chapelle and go on a clear, sunny day for maximum effect since it’s all about the stained-glass windows.

As for the Orsay, it was at least as fun as the Louvre for me. A completely neat structure with the stairs on the outside so as not to mess with the interior. The courtyard outside is a hodgepodge of street performers, artists and tourists having lunch. I didn’t get any good photos of this museum, but trust me, it’s worth your time. Oh, and the line was well-handled and the crowds were no more than in any local museum. Well done, Orsay!

The next day’s agenda was to spend the morning at the Rodin museum, head over to the Arc de Triomphe, grab some food along the Champs-Élysées and close out the day with a return trip to the Eiffel Tower to watch it twinkle.

We started at the Rodin museum (basically no line!), which is currently a sculpture garden while some renovations are being completed on the museum proper. This actually works out far better in my opinion. Most of the works on display were bronze, so outside is just fine. Plus, it’s beautiful in outdoor light.

My kids caught a break in some well-placed chairs and we headed to what is, to me, the most impressive sculpture on display, The Gates of Hell. In what would turn out to be one of the neatest things, if ironic, Kneeling down around The Gates of Hell was a group of first-grade children. I got a little chuckle out of that, but it turns out that they were on a school field trip and doing sketches of the sculptures. That got me wondering what it must be like to go to a school where you can come on a field trip like that one. Talk about a (likely underappreciated) privilege!

After the Rodin museum, we picked up my mom (who had elected to sleep in a bit and skip the Rodin) and caught the train to the Arc de Triomphe. The line here was bearable and view from the top was awesome!

We had lunch at L’Atelier Renault which is a cool restaurant overlooking the Renault showroom floor on the Champs-Elysées. The food was great, the décor hip and the kids got to check out the cool concept cars.

We did a little shopping (the French take their dogs everywhere!) and headed over to the Eiffel Tower to watch the twinkling lights. All told, this was probably my favorite day in Paris.

The next day was spent waiting in a very long line for heading to the top of the Eiffel Tower, then another lap around the Latin Quarter and dinner.

One of the elevators was out of service at the Eiffel Tower which affected us even though we were doing the stairs… more people were choosing the stairs due to longer elevator lines. My biggest tip here is don’t be afraid of the stairs. They’re not that bad and there’s a break between climbs. The view from the second platform is actually better than the view from the top because you can make out more detail, but the experience of being on the top is completely worth it.

We made our way back to the Latin Quarter to see the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore and end our day. This bookstore is another must-see (though you should plan to do it while in the Latin Quarter—it’s not a trip on its own since it’s not a long event). The Wikipedia entry above does the store justice and anything I wrote here would be redundant.

On our last day there, we took a tour of the towers at Notre Dame (another pretty long line, but this one was okay because the line resulted in crowd control as it throttled the traffic inside). While inside the Notre Dame, we got to take a look at Emmanuel (the great bourdon bell) that we had heard ringing on Easter. The entrance to this chamber was a cute little door that we couldn’t help but snap a picture in. Later, my wife and I headed down to Montmartre and Place Pigalle to end our vacation. The first row of pictures here are my favorites of the trip.

We woke up the next morning, got breakfast and started our journey home.

So far we have 2 “mini-vacations” planned this month: A zip-line tour in western North Carolina and a beach trip. I have a trip to Orlando next month for work, and we’re also actively trying to plan our next family vacation and a just-me-and-the-Mrs. vacation, so stay tuned!

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Paris Trip Report, Part 5: Tips for Vacationing in Paris I


I learned a few things about vacationing in Paris while I was there with my family. Some of them were things I could adapt to on the fly, others were things that it would have been much more helpful to know going in. The purpose of this segment is to impart my “lessons learned” in order to help you get the most out of your stay in Paris.

Background

As quick background, I went with my wife, our 2 oldest daughters (ages 13 and 10) and my mother. As such, this was a family vacation. My mother was able to watch the kids for us whenever we asked, so there were opportunities to get out alone for my wife and me as well. But, for the most part, this advice will be geared toward a group of people, likely first-timers to Paris, who are interested in seeing the tourist sites and having a nice vacation.

When to Go

My wife is a teacher and my kids are in year-round school. As such, it’s a little tricky to find times when everyone is free to do something together. To make it even trickier, we needed to go on American Airlines, off-peak. It became so tricky, in fact, that the only times we could find that matched up were in August and over winter break. From what I understand, August in Paris is completely dead. many of the (boutique) shops are closed, hours can be shortened, and the city is notably absent of Parisians. Winter was too far away (we were booking in October/November of 2011 and looking at 2012). As a result, we didn’t really find a time where we were all free. We settled on option 2—find a time when my wife is free and never mind the kids, so the kids had to miss a week of school (I know, they were crushed).

Long story around booking cut short, we found flights and headed to Paris in April over my wife’s spring break. As a quick tip, I’m not sure that April was the best choice. The weather was a little drizzly about half of the days, though that could have been coincidence (it was nice on a few of the days). However, the crowds were overwhelming. Lines were Disney-long everywhere (the Museum Pass doesn’t let you bypass as much as it implies), and honestly, the tour groups were quite rude. Many of them physically pushing their way through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in some locations. I’m talking about putting hands on you and pushing you out of their way, literally.

In retrospect, maybe the “dead” time of August (which may not be so dead) would have been better. August is pretty much a “head-to-beach” time for much of western Europe, so the crowds would be lessened. Again, though, if you’re after the boutique experience, be careful as many shops will be closed.

Figuring out Where to Stay

I got lots of advice on this topic. Several people recommended renting an apartment near the downtown area in lieu of staying in a hotel. This would have saved on our need for a second room, and for many would have saved some hotel breakfast costs and given a more authentic feel to the vacation. In our situation (staying mostly on points), it was much cheaper to get a hotel than rent the apartment. Apartments of a size we needed were going for about 2 250€, whereas the hotel was around 500€ after points for two rooms/8 nights. So, if I go again, I’ll probably do the hotel thing again. The apartment, though, would work better if points were not involved.

I also got lots of advice on where we should physically stay. Pretty much everyone asked me, “Which arrondissement are you staying in?” I think that this question is a bit of a moot point unless you’re going to spend a lot of time wandering around right where you’re staying. For me, it was more about “how close are you to a train, and how long is the ride to most of the places you want to see?” As such, we chose a hotel that was on the east of the city, but immediately adjacent to (no streets to cross), an RER stop, had a nearby fruit stand, and commercial center (mall) with a grocery store. The RER connects to the Paris Métro using the same tickets, and our hotel was about 15 minutes from the Gare de Châtelet–Les Halles from which you can get just about wherever you want to go in about 10 minutes. As such, we were within about 25 minutes of anywhere we wanted to be (as opposed to within 15 minutes or so if we would’ve stayed downtown).

How to Get Around

This is an easy section. Public Transportation. Renting a car in Paris is a complete waste of time. Very few residents own cars, but the streets are nonetheless crowded and there is almost no parking. You are already going to be spending enough time waiting in lines, don’t add time looking for a parking spot to that! There are three main modes of public transportation (well, really 2), The RER, the Métro, and the RATP Busses. The RER and the Métro are pretty tightly coupled and can get you pretty much everywhere. We only did the bus once, and it was just to ride route 69 for a while (see the next post).

There are a few options when buying tickets:

  1. Single-route tickets
  2. Paris Visite tickets
  3. Mobilis tickets

I’m not really going to discuss single-route tickets, as they’re pretty obvious. And, at least for us, the only real value they brought was getting us to the airport at the end of the vacation for much less than a shuttle would have cost.

There is a lot of advertising and hubbub about the Paris Viste tickets. These tickets are valid for 1, 2, 3 or 5 consecutive days in zones 1-3 or 1-5. They are priced separately for adults and children and, though I saw no evidence of this, advertise discounts at some sites. For some people, this may be the best choice. We actually bought these twice (for 3 days each, all 5 zones) on the belief that it would be best for us.

The Mobilis tickets are valid for a single day of travel within selected zones (1 and 2, 1 to 3, 1 to 4, 1 to 5). We bought these tickets for our last two days after we realized that it was a bit cheaper for our travel patterns. Mobilis tickets price separately for adults, young adults, and children. These tickets don’t claim to offer any discounts, but will get you around on the trains and busses just as well as the Paris Visite.

As a case study, we had 3 adults, 1 13-year-old and 1 10-year-old. The 3-day Paris Visite tickets priced for 43,65€ x 4 + 21,80€ = 152,75€, or 50,92€ per day for our group to travel in all 5 zones. In our case, though, we really only needed travel in zones 1-4 (except for 1 trip to Versailles). The Mobilis tickets for travel in zones 1-4 price as follows: 10,55€ x 3 + <something less for the young adult> + <something even less for the child>. Our total Mobilis ticket purchase price was something that amounted to just under the Paris Viste pricing (I can’t find the ticketing information on the Internet). This was primarily due to the discounts for the kids, so YMMV.

Another option, which you would have to investigate, is picking up Navigo cards valid for the week you’re there (or for the month that you’re there if you’re there for a while). These are RFID-based and can be cheaper since they’re longer-term. Also, they will let you through some of the turnstiles that are restricted to only Navigo users (there are always 1-2 of them).

The last option, and this is very tongue-in-cheek, is to do what everyone else in Paris seems to do, and hop the turnstiles. Angry smile

What to See and How to See It

This report has gotten sufficiently long to warrant being broken into two parts on its own. As such, I will follow-up with the What to See and How to See It section in another post.

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Paris Trip Report, Part 4: Getting Home


I will wrap up the formal part of this trip report with a quick overview of our travels home.

We took the RER from the nearby Noisy-le-Grand stop to CDG airport. This was a bit of a haul (it took just over an hour for that train ride), but It was about €100 cheaper than an airport van would’ve been (the savings would have been more substantial for fewer people—we had to buy 5 train tickets).

When we arrived at CDG, there was not any real time to spend at the Admiral’s Club, so we just headed for the gate to await boarding.

We boarded AA 41 and a Boeing 767-300 bound for ORD. This was a 9.5 hour flight that went much better than you would imagine in main cabin. None of the 5 of us had any real strain, and the flight didn’t seem any longer than a couple of hours. We had reasonable neighbors and a skilled flight crew that helped that along, for sure. We touched down at ORD just before 3PM central, breezed through customs, rechecked our bags and headed to the Admiral’s Club to catch up on world happenings and get a bite to eat.

I’ve reviewed the ORD Admiral’s Club before, so I won’t get into it again here, but I do want to reiterate how great the Eames Chairs are! At about 7PM, we boarded AA 1972 and an MD-83 en route to RDU and home. That flight was… well, I’m not sure. I slept the 1.5 hours away, so I’m sure it was great. We touched down at RDU, picked the car up from Park-and-Ride 4 and headed home to see our 3-year-old and give the grandparents a much-deserved tag out!

I will conclude this series with the next post. That post will be primarily geared toward what YOU should do when you take a family vacation to Paris… and tips to get the most out of it!

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Paris Trip Report, Part 3: Staying in Paris


We started our stay at Holiday Inn Paris Marne La Vallee rooms x01 and x33. My wife and I were in room x01, whereas my mother and my two kids were in room x33. Here are some pictures of x01 and the view from there:

Room x01 was substantially smaller than room x33 and was clearly designed for a single occupant (though there were two of us sharing the room). There were no outlets near mirrors, the bed took up almost all of the room’s floor space and things were cramped. However, it was not the smallest room I’ve had in Europe, and we were really only basing from it, so I was going to be okay with it. That is, I was going to be okay with it until the first night didn’t go so well. You see, that room is the nearest to the elevator, and (strangely) a stand-up shoe polisher in the hallway. There was constant elevator noise all night long, and everyone that walked by that shoe polisher had to try it out. We didn’t get much sleep. The next afternoon (we waited until the front-desk clerk that checked us in was back since she was very nice), we asked to switch rooms and were immediately accommodated. We picked up our things and headed to room x36 which was larger, had a better view, and was and much further from the elevator and shoe polisher!

The hotel was a great value. It is (now, after a recent refit) very modern, with updated lobby and bar area. And not only are the rooms accommodating (after our move), but breakfast was included, and the staff was great all around.

 

In addition, the proximity to shopping (there is a commercial center—including a great mall selection, a grocery store, and a nearby fruit stand), and to RER A is very convenient. In fact, the train station is maybe a 2 minute walk that doesn’t even cross any streets! From that train station, it is a 10-minute ride to hub stations that can get you anywhere in Paris in 5-10 minutes. So, really, the hotel is about a 15-20 minute train ride from wherever you want to be (with typically only 1 change of train).

After a fantastic, negative event-free, comfortable 8-night stay, we headed down to check out. Upon checkout, the agent informed us that our free breakfast wasn’t supposed to be free since we were staying on points for 12 of our 16 room-nights (honestly, I was amazed when the first agent told me it was included, but I wasn’t going to complain!). When I informed her that the original agent had indicated that breakfast was free, she removed the breakfast charges without any fuss. This was fantastic customer service and I was very pleased with every aspect of this stay. If I return to Paris, I will seriously consider staying at the Holiday Inn Paris Marne La Vallee again.

A few quick tips if you plan to stay here. Get a room with an even number. This puts you onto a side of the hotel with a much improved view (see pictures below compared to above). Also, get a room with a number greater than about x14. This should put you far enough from the elevator and shoe polisher to be able to get a good night’s sleep!

Next up: Getting Home. Then, the series will conclude with probably the most important post—Tips for vacationing in Paris!

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Paris Trip Report, Part 2: Miami to Paris


We left the Crowne Plaza Miami International Airport later in the afternoon and headed to MIA for our 7:40pm flight to MAD in time to catch a quick bite at the Admiral’s Club. The MIA Admiral’s Club is pretty nice with a kids’ play area, an interesting design with several rounded corridors and lots of artwork on display.

After relaxing for a little while, we boarded an Airbus A340-300 for IB 6118, which departed around 8pm bound for MAD and got some sleep during the 8.5-hour flight. Upon arrival at MAD, we picked up our bags and headed through passport control where the kids got their first stamps. It was a pretty big moment for them and, honestly, for me, too! Our layover was only about two hours, so we made our way to our gate to see how much time we would have before boarding. When we got to the gate, it was ominously empty and we were greeted by an agent who said “Paris? Allons-y!” So, needless to say, there wasn’t much exploring time. However, I did snap a couple of shots of the airport.

We trotted down the jet way and boarded an Airbus A321 for IB 3406 and a 1.5-hour flight bound for ORY. For this segment, four of us were in main cabin and my wife was in business class. Needless to say, she had a better food experience! Main cabin had snacks for sale and a soft-drink service whereas she had 3 courses of actual food and wine. Of course, her ticket was 60,000 miles and the rest of the tickets were only 40,000 each, so for 20,000 miles it had better have been some pretty good food since that was the only business segment she got! Incidentally, booking her in business class was the only way to get availability—this flight only had 4 award seats in coach despite calling at least weekly for a few months to check (I also checked the other segments to see if we could get her into business more often, but there was also no availability there… ever).

So, after a crazy RDU-DCA-MIA (overnight)-MAD-ORY routing, we were finally in Paris! We hopped into an Iberia shuttle and headed to our home for the next 9 days—the Holiday Inn Paris Marne La Vallee. I will pick up the next installment with an overview of the hotel and some insights into getting around town. The fourth entry will cover our trip home and the series will conclude with some tips about vacationing in Paris with your family—what to see, what to avoid, and how to save some Euros!

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Paris Trip Report, Part 1: Miami


As I’ve mentioned before, in order to get 5 award seats for my family’s vacation to Paris, I had to get a little… creative with the routing. The biggest piece of that creative routing involved an overnight stay in Miami, so that seems like a good first entry to the trip report series.

My wife, my two older daughters, my mother and I set out for RDU on the early afternoon of 5 April for our 2:50pm flight on AA 4400. We had main cabin seats on an Embraer ERJ 135 for this 44-minute flight from RDU to DCA. Once at DCA, we headed to the Admiral’s Club to get a bite to eat while we waited on our 8:35pm flight to MIA. This was my kids’ first trip to an airport lounge (they have flown a lot but almost always RDU->MCO which is a nonstop flight). Given their reactions to the lounge, I was pretty excited about getting them to Paris!

The Admiral’s Club lounge at DCA is a pretty standard lounge. Free Wi-Fi, complementary snacks, sodas, beer and wine. I did notice that this club also had complementary house liquors and you could get mixed drinks with them (my mother had a margarita).

 

We boarded AA 1261 heading for Miami which left just a little behind schedule, but the flight was pleasant enough. Upon arrival in Miami, we headed for our hotel, the Crowne Plaza Miami International Airport. When we checked in, I was pleased to note that they had upgraded my room and were providing free Wi-Fi and 1 free breakfast per room as a benefit of my Priority Club Platinum status. I was staying on points, and Priority Club doesn’t normally provided elite benefits on award nights, so this was a great bonus for me. Here are some photos from the hotel. In one of them, you can definitely see why it’s an “airport hotel.” I should note that even though we were clearly in the flight path, I didn’t get any air traffic noise from inside my room. They must have some crazy insulation!

I was hoping that, since our next flight to MAD wasn’t until later the next evening, we would have a chance to head over to South Beach for a little while. Alas, by the time we got rolling, the shuttles wouldn’t have worked out and I didn’t want to rent a car for just a couple of hours. So, instead, we played in the great pool at the hotel and enjoyed some warm weather before heading to Paris.

The Crowne Plaza was a great place to stay, and I think that if I end up overnighting in MIA during another trip that I will definitely choose to stay here. The price was reasonable (and not just because I was on a PointBreak that made the rooms 5,000 points per night!). The rooms were nice, the staff was pleasant and the breakfast was tasty.

After we wiled away the day, we headed over to MIA to board our flight to MAD—which is where I’ll pick up on the next installment.

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First (Partial) Day in Paris


I will write a more thorough beginning to the trip report in the next day or two, but for the bottom-line-up-front, we had a remarkably easy time given the complexity of our route and the number of people involved. We took RDU->DCA->MIA and overnighted there, then flew MIA->MAD->ORY on a red-eye last night. We took a taxi to our hotel–which was a feat on its own with 5 people and associated luggage.

Today was mostly a recovery day (thanks to commenter Luke H. for the tip!) which consisted of heading over to a commercial centre (3-story mall) adjacent to the hotel to do some wandering and have an early dinner, then picking up some necessities at the Carrefour in the same mall. For me, Carrefour was interesting. It was the first two-story supermarket I’ve been in–complete with an angled moving sidewalk to get you and your shopping cart to the different levels.

The real trip starts tomorrow with a walking tour of downtown and Easter mass at Notre Dame. We are interested to hear/see the ringing of Le Gros Bourdon (the fat bumblebee).

The next post will include a more thorough trip report and some pictures.

 

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