Paris-Amsterdam-Brussels

Paris ~ May Day 2013

It all started so well. It had been raining all morning in the Junction, then it let up just as we prepared to walk to the station with our bags. We made it high and dry and the train to the plane came right on time. We were at the gate 1.5 hours before departure and boarded at 5p set for a 5:45 departure. It was all so unlike our recent experience with United. I leaned over kissed Maria and whispered, “We’ll be in Paris in seven hours, this airline finally has it together!” We had just settled into reading when the pilot came on: “I have some bad news, the jump seat in the cockpit is broken and cannot be fixed. You will all have to get off the plane while we search for a new one.” We marched off and overheard a flight attendant saying they had flown this exact plane back from Paris and had been delayed 3 hours for the same problem. 15 minutes later we noticed another United flight being offloaded. They were supposed to leave for Costa Rica at 6 but the pilot was a no show! OK it’s official, you heard it here first, we will never fly United again, it is even worse than all the stories you have heard. Our new flight finally left at 8:15.

We arrived over Paris around 9a and the pilot came on to tell us it was a beautiful day with clear skies. He must have been reading the United weather channel because out the window it was cloudy and dark. After landing we finally found our way out of the puzzle that Charles De Gaulle Airport has become (we were asked by one lost tourist which way was the exit and left him wandering looking for his baggage). Our taxi driver was great but the traffic turned the ride into Paris from 45 to 100 minutes. By then we were closing in on 20 hours since waking so I remarked how great it would be to shower, kick our feet up on our apartment patio with a glass of Paris red and begin relaxing.

I was pleased to see the street door unlocked so we didn’t have to look up the code. A large truck was unloading building materials. In we went and headed for the elevator. We noticed but ignored scaffold activity in the courtyard and a worker who looked at us in a surprised way. We also ignored the protective covering on the elevator floor and the hallway. When we reached our floor and came out of the elevator there would be no more ignoring, our dream anniversary vacation had become a construction site. I went to unlock our apartment door and found it ajar. I pushed it open slowly, figuring the apartment had been broken into. If only. Inside were workers on our patio welding and hammering. Our beautiful patio in the sky was totally enclosed in scaffolding, plaster dust blowing into the apartment, mounds of debris, a hole in the ceiling and the inside temperature at 45F.

My first thought: oh well, it’s just one room, we’ll clean it up. I went into the kitchen to find men looking at us from the scaffolding outside that window (the window that normally provides a sublime night view of the Eiffel Tower). I heard Maria’s voice in the distance: “We cannot stay here.” No, I thought, it’s not that bad, we can work it out, but of course she was right. After a few more hammer blasts, views of dust clouds and buckets hitting the windows as they flew by on ropes, I faced reality.

REALITY: Noon in Paris, out on the rainy streets, dragging four bags and no reservation. Have you ever been to a major European city without a reservation? To be continued…

The story of our Paris trip after the disaster at the apartment continues.

(Maria’s comments in color.)

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Standing in the rain, trying to think in the midst of jet lag haze, a brilliant idea surfaced, just go to pietroitalia.com, the answer will be there. It’s what I tell all my friends going to Europe, it’s why the site was created, and so we clicked on the Paris tab and there it was, www.hotelluxparc.com. Of course Maria had to beg the front desk for help. They asked when we wanted to come. NOW! The phone went dead for 3 minutes while they juggled the room possibilities but they came back and said OK, come at 2.

The hotel appeared as a mirage covered with wisteria in full bloom. The women at the desk took our documents, and cheerfully informed us that she had a beautiful special room for us BUT désolé the elevator was out of order. Our room was on the 4th floor or 83 steps up. We accepted the situation since we must always accept exercise, and the room was perfect. It was filled with light, had parquet floors, was beautifully decorated, had plenty of room, a marble bath, free internet, cable and a view of the park.

Palace_LuxOnce we settled in at the Luxembourg Parc Hotel we realized how lucky we were. It is one of the best locations in Paris. The Luxembourg Gardens (photo) are right across the street and the Odeon Theater is only two blocks away. All the St-Germain restaurants are an easy walk, as is Notre Dame and Right Bank highlights such as the Louvre, Place Vendome and the Marais…but with none of the attendant tourist mobs circling your hotel. The hotel manager, Fabienne, is a delight and will help with anything. The elevator was out of service during our stay so she offered us free breakfasts in the charming dining room and free drinks at the bar. It’s that kind of place.

We enjoyed our first dinner at La Ferrandaise which is where we usually go on our first night in Paris. It was pouring rain and there were no good umbrellas left at the hotel. So I walked with an umbrella that was mostly bare spokes. We consumed the following: a salad of cooked white asparagus and raw green asparagus, arugula salad, guinea hen, melange of cooked vegetables, pork ribs (guess who ordered that), sweet potato puree, rhubarb with cream, and banana coconut mousse with a brown sugar cookie. We sat next to a sweet French family who were there with their adolescent son and daughter. They were there to celebrate the father’s birthday. They gave him a CD and a tray to serve wine. They were very affectionate with each other and were obviously all interested in food. There was long debate and consideration of what each person was ordering and each shared a bit of their food with the other members of the family.

Next morning we decided to have breakfast at the hotel despite the 40 EU charge since I was worried that the pâtisserie would be closed, which it was. Pietro normally just has a cup of cocoa for breakfast, but the 40 EU inspired him to consume the following: 4 raisin pastries, 1 chocolate croissant, 1 sourdough roll, 1 sesame roll, 1 poppy seed roll, a bowl of cereal, 2 cafe au lait, one package of cream cheese, one large fresh squeezed OJ and a little of my yogurt. After that we took a one hour walk to, I swear, buy some bread…We slept for two hours and then had lunch. After lunch we walked to the Luxembourg gardens which were in full bloom. This year the flowers were in varying shades of pink with a bit of purple and blue mixed in. Tulips (mostly parrot) were the principal flowers with stock and pansies mixed in with other flowers whose names I don’t know. Little boys were having a grand time pushing their rented sailboats in the fountain. We saw a little girl furiously pushing her scooter, blond hair flying behind her. She looked magical the way she practically flew around a tract cut out near the grotto. Her father kept calling her to come back but she only flew faster. We watched as she disappeared out of sight and the father took off pushing a stroller trying to find her. She stopped at the top of a stairs but when she heard him call she turned and disappeared again. He finally caught up with her and they turned around and came in front of us. I asked her name and age and she said Lilly, 4 and a half years old. She is one of the more adorable free spirits I have met.

Maria_ParisIn honor of our 45th anniversary we had lunch at Carre des Feuillants, 14 Rue de Castiglione (tel 01 42 86 82 82) near the Place Vendome. It’s a two star Michelin establishment fully intent on bringing the modern into haute cuisine. The dinning room felt like being in a contemporary gallery (photo) with abstract paintings and drop dead flower arrangements bursting out in all directions. The wait staff and the sommelier were all both friendly and welcoming. Go here at lunch (it’s very expensive at night) for the wine tasting prix fixe meal. Our go-to bakery, Le Petite Lux, 29 Rue de Vaugirard, is only three blocks from the hotel. Maria’s favorite is apricot croissant with pastry cream. Also nearby, for you macaroon freaks, is Gerald Mulot, Ladurée and Pierre Hermé.

After eating at all our usual restaurants (see pietroitalia.com Paris restaurant list) we needed an Italian break and headed for nearby Marco Polo, 1 Rue Saint Sulpice. The hotel recommended it but we always hold our breath when trying Italian food outside Italy. We were pleasantly surprised. It was as if a trattoria had been airlifted from Piazza del Popolo. We spoke Italian the entire time and enjoyed dining with homesick Italians and the local French craving a good Mediterranean meal! We liked it so much we went twice. For lunch or a quick Italian dinner, go to Pizza Chic, 13 Rue de Mezieres (tel 01 45 48 30 38), also near our hotel.

Finally, we made it to Versailles. We took the RER from the St. Michel station near Notre Dame. Be warned, you must have coins to use the ticket machines (there are no ticket agents) and they do not return any change and do not accept the proper change so you will pay more than the posted price. As we all know Versailles is a must stop on the tourist circuit and I did love Marie Antoinette (the 2006 historical comedy-drama film, written and directed by Sofia Coppola). My favorite image were these royal silhouettes in the Versailles waiting room.

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Now that we have been to Versailles I must say I prefer Fontainebleau where there are no crazy long ticket lines and a more human scale. Here is a photo we took of the mile-long Versailles ticket line and that’s on a slow day, off season and during the week. You can book online tickets, which we did, but treat yourself instead to the other royal chateau, Fontainebleau. If Marie Antoinette had been living there instead she, and Louis XVI, probably would have escaped and changed history. See what happens when you don’t listen to Pietro!

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We returned to a Rotisserie d’en Face, 2 Rue Christine, so Maria could relive her favorite Parisian dessert experience, Vacherin glace au caramel (photo).

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photo-6Our next stop was Brussels, one hour and fifteen minutes away on the Thalys high speed train from Gare du Nord. We stayed at the Royal Palace Hotel, only two blocks from the Grand-Place, the famous medieval square in the old city. We were a bit disconcerted with the neighborhoods surrounding the beautiful Grand-Place. They reminded me of rundown commercial districts one might find near the boardwalk in Atlantic City or the old Times Square. Lots of closed storefronts and fast-food joints with the ubiquitous french fry storefronts in all directions. Miraculously mixed in with this are a few gems such as the Maison Dandoy Bakery, Rue au Beurre 31, turning out the great Belgian cookie the speculoos, and the suburb chocolatier Pierre Marcolini (photo), 1 Rue des Minimes, Place du Grand Sablon, and a great brasserie, Roue D’or, 26 Rue des Chapeliers, tel 02.514.25.54. It was Maria’s favorite meal. She was wild for their chicken dish, waterzooi de volaille.

We came to Brussels to see our friends Bernard and Dominique who we first met in Montepulciano last September. They live outside Brussels and had a real surprise up their sleeves. After showing us around the upper town they asked if we would like to go see the Folon gallery. Folon? Who’s Folon, we replied, a bit leery about spending time looking at an artist we had never heard of. When Bernard said we would have to take his car for a drive out of the city we were convinced. Our legs were tired and we had had enough of city sightseeing. So off we drove, down embassy row toward Waterloo. How wonderful it was. The Foundation Folon is located on a former chateau property with acres of woods, meadows and ponds (Ferme du Chateau de La Hulpe, Dreve de la Ramee 6A-1310 La Hulpe-Terhulpen). This is reason enough to come to Brussels. Folon was a famous local illustrator (you have probably seen his New Yorker covers). The museum takes you through a musical journey of his work in a labyrinth of rooms and studios. Just go, I have never experienced anything like it.

The next day we came across these high steppers in Brussels (photo).

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Then it was off to the orange city, Amsterdam. I cannot say enough about the delightful nature of this place. We arrived on the Thalys train at the Central Station and checked in at the Doubletree Hotel next door. I chose this location for easy access to the airport train which also uses the Central Station. In many European cities the neighborhood around train stations can be seedy (e.g. Rome) but not in Amsterdam. The hotel is brand new with a winning staff. The guest rooms come with an iMac and beautiful tile and stone bathrooms. Right across the street from the hotel is old Amsterdam with the harbor and canals nearby. We loved the location and hotel.

The first afternoon we walked 15 minutes through the historic center to the Rembrandt House. Here is where the great artist lived and painted most of his major works. It’s a wonderful place with etching and pigment mixing demonstrations in Rembrandt’s studio. They have a complete collection on view of his etchings AND there were no ticket lines or crowds.

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We also had an opportunity to see the master’s kitchen, bedroom and, most interesting to me, his collection of objects. I have always felt a little guilty about the clutter I’ve accumulated in my studio but now I feel better!

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It was a holiday weekend so all the major museums had 2.5 hour ticket lines including the Anne Frank House. We decided to return on Monday and only waited 5 minutes to visit the Anne Frank House, but we would have waited as long as necessary to get in. When you enter the museum you are confronted with several large black and white photos of the smiling Anne. The visit was heartbreaking, but a must see, and a testament to the triumph of Anne. She has moved the world.

We had been warned not to eat Dutch food and the little we had confirmed that advice. Dutch food is OK, but OK food is not our idea of vacation eating. After all, when is the last time you went to a Dutch restaurant in America? Of course, Dutch bread, beer and chocolate are excellent and not to be missed. On the way to the Rembrandt House we noticed a restaurant named Eatme right across the canal from the Red Light district. It looked good so we walked in and found to our great surprise that it was an Italian restaurant with a wonderful menu. We dined there twice and I highly recommend the entrecote (for two) which comes with great fries and salad. The arrabbiata and Rotisserie Breton Chicken are also excellent. Maria rated the chicken, which was cooked in a wood burning oven, as one of her favorite meals of the trip.

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When we walked out after our first meal at Eatme we noticed an unusual cocktail menu posted on the bar across the street (see photo). It reminded us that it was time to cross the canal and partake of an evening stroll through the Red Light District. It is a major tourist attraction so all you have to do is follow the crowds to find the action. Maria enjoyed the sights so much we repeated our stroll every night after dinner. Behind glass you will see women of every size and age with a few transvestites thrown in here and there. They were mostly young and beautiful, and Maria wondered how they got there and why.The tourists greatly outnumbered the customers. For those interested in marijuana there is not good news. A new Dutch law forbids foreigners from partaking.

On our last day Maria asked where are the windmills. She had imagined that Amsterdam would be full of them and would not go home until she had seen one! I asked the concierge at the Doubletree where we could find a windmill and amazingly he showed me on the map, where, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, one still existed. So we took an hour walk and found the last windmill in Amsterdam. With that it was time to return to the Junction.

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