We Had To Come to France . . .

. . . to finally shop at an Aldi market.

For readers living in the eastern or midwestern United States, or in Europe, Aldi stores are nothing out of the ordinary. But for those of us who live or have lived on the west coast, or in Hawai’i, Aldi products and prices are unknowns, and have taken on almost mythical properties.

A few of our Aldi finds.

I’ve been reading about other bloggers’ Aldi shopping for several years (enviously at times), so while we are here in Europe, Brett and I were determined to check one out and see what all the fuss was about.

We found the nearest Aldi to us was just a 20-minute tram ride away, at the outer western rim of Strasbourg. The ride was pleasant, and we noticed that the closer we got to our destination the more modern the buildings became, along with a definite feeling of being out in the suburbs. We also passed the city’s largest hospital on the way, bigger than any hospital I’ve ever seen anywhere. The mix of passengers on the tram changed as well – the further out the more young families boarded the tram.

The aisles were at least twice as long as a usual supermarket aisle.

Aldi was right across the street from the tram stop. We had no idea what to expect when we walked in, but the store was absolutely massive, at least in comparison to stores we’ve been in recently and even back on Kaua’i. We grabbed a shopping basket and set out to see what was in stock and what things cost, and possibly pick up a bargain or two. I was expecting pallets, or a more warehouse feel to the store, but was pleasantly surprised by the organized shelves with everything in boxes.

Trader Joe’s products could be found throughout the store. They are obviously packaged for the French market even though there are no Trader Joe’s in Europe.

I was also surprised by the number of name-brand products that I saw. I’m guessing most of the products were Aldi brands, but it was hard to sort out which were which. We bought some Ritter-Sport mini chocolate bars (perfect for when we’re on the road) but also saw brands like Nutella and several Trader Joe’s products around the store. The cheese section was positively magnificent, and the varieties available were also individually branded. Some were the same brands we’ve seen in standard markets (but were lower priced at Aldi).

Our four packages of cheese cost just 7.82€ ($9.09). Incroyable!

Actually, the selection available throughout the store was quite impressive. The produce section was pretty nice as well, although I have to say the pineapples were pathetic. I didn’t notice anything organic, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Of all the things we saw we could only come up with two things we would not buy there: wine and bread. Their low prices didn’t wow us after what we’ve been able to find at local boulangeries or supermarkets.

The baguettes were very inexpensive, but we had no idea how old they might be.

Besides the Ritter-Sport bars we also bought four different cheeses, some chocolate mousse (delicious!), a small bag of pasta, a bottle of shampoo, and a package of bacon, potato and cheese crepes to have for breakfast one morning. The total cost for everything? Just 16.03€ ($18.61).

We’re definitely going back before we leave Strasbourg. For those of you who regularly shop at Aldi, how does this compare with your experience? Are the prices similar? Does the store layout look similar?

On Track With Our Travel Budget

Every evening Brett writes down in a small journal what we did that day and what we spent that day as well. He brought along a roll of tape, and fastens each receipt received into the journal (he took this idea from the Senior Nomads). Finally, he enters the amount for the day into his travel spreadsheet and averages our daily spending to make sure we’re staying at or under budget.

As the first full month of travel for the two of us comes to an end it’s gratifying to see that we have been able to stay under the budget we gave ourselves of $50/day. We were able to keep our daily average to under $40/day in South America, but Paris (and Normandy somewhat) turned out to be more expensive than we imagined. In both of those places, whether it was admission fees, tips for tour guides, a meal out at a restaurant, filling the gas tank (very expensive here compared to American prices, over $6/gallon), everything cost more. Our Paris expenses also included the (totally worth it) taxi ride from the airport to our apartment in Montmartre, and our trip out to Mont Saint-Michel also turned out to be more expensive than usual (but again, worth it). However, with everything averaged we are still ending up the month under $50/day. Strasbourg is proving to be far more affordable – we’re back to around $40/day. We’ll end this month with a daily spending average of $47.92/day.

Our main savings come from eating “at home” versus going out to eat, although we haven’t denied ourselves that experience.  We don’t consider ourselves to be “on vacation” and just as we did in the past, eating out is an exception and planned in advance. The first thing we do when we arrive at a new location is find a nearby grocery store (and a bakery) and buy provisions for several days. Although I imagined it might be otherwise, I’m just not interested in cooking even though all the kitchens in the homes where we’ve stayed have for the most part had decent cooking equipment. We keep our meals simple but healthy, although sometimes I think we could be eating more vegetables. Breakfast is typically yogurt with granola (or muesli) and fruit, or a pastry with coffee and orange juice. We often skip lunch but then maybe have coffee or another small treat in the afternoon. We enjoy drinking a glass of wine every evening, and usually have cheese, salami, sausage or paté, fruit or vegetables, and maybe nuts along with crackers or sliced baguette. If we feel hungry later in the evening we have a bowl of vegetable soup. We’re currently trying out some ready-made main dishes from the Whole Foods-like store that’s close by. The meals are large enough provide servings for at least two nights, and so far they’ve been delicious (and also full of vegetables!).

Fifty dollars a day might seem like a lot for two people who are eating at home, but that amount goes far beyond providing food – it covers everything we might spend during the day beyond food. Those things have included but are not limited to transportation costs, admission fees, laundry, paid toilets now and again, a sandwich or pastry at a train station, an ice cream cone or a bottle of water on a hot day, or a small treat like a few macarons from a bakery. It all adds up, and quite quickly sometimes. Our daily spending while we were in Paris topped $70/day, so we’re thankful for the lower prices here in Strasbourg.

I can’t imagine trying at this point trying include in our budget the costs of getting from city to city or upcoming lodgings – my hat’s off to the Senior Nomads for managing that for almost five years. I’m grateful that we were able to save and take care of most of those expenses before we set out on this adventure so the rest of our monthly income is available for upcoming or unexpected expenses, such as the balance on our India tour which is coming due next month. Starting out with only two monthly bills (my student loan and our phone bill) and arranging for both to be paid automatically each month has also made life on the road much simpler, and our budget much easier to manage.

This is just one month out of fifteen though, but it’s been good to see how we handled expenses, and learn which things we can get better at, which things we don’t need, and where we can loosen up a bit.

Getting To Know Central Strasbourg: A Photo Essay

We’ve had a wonderful couple of days getting out and exploring the city. We’ve only scratched the surface, but are feeling happier each day that we decided to spend some time here. I’ll let this beautiful city speak for itself (warning: lots of photos!):

An outdoor antique market in one of city squares.
There are bike lanes throughout the city and bike riders everywhere!
The south side of the spectacular Strasbourg Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame), which was completed in 1439.
The cathedral’s west front is decorated with thousands of figures. The single spire is the cathedral’s most defining feature. You can orient yourself to the spire from just about anywhere in the central city.
The intricately carved pulpit dates from 1486.
The elaborate pipe organ hangs high above the sanctuary. It was added in 1878.
The River Ill runs through the central city, and has wide paths on each side for strolling. Several of the bridges are bedecked with flowers.
Strasbourg’s distinctive architecture fills the central city and lines the river. Fifteenth century buildings are still being used today.
Interesting rooflines are not difficult to find.
Outdoor restaurants can be found throughout the central city. Tarte flambée, a speciality of the Alsace region, are very popular. An extremely thin crust is topped with creme fraiche, thinly sliced onions and bacon, with other toppings added according to taste, then baked in a wood-fire oven.
On the north side of the city is Parc de l’Orangerie, the “lungs of Strasbourg.” The park contains huge, old trees of many varieties, paths for strolling, formal gardens, sculptures, a lake, and even a small zoo.
A formal garden space in the park.
The park area was originally intended to be an orange grove. The residence was dedicated to Empress Josephine in 1804.
There are storks’ nests on each of the residence’s chimneys!
This sculpture sits across from the residence. It is constructed of concrete over natural rock – the name is unknown.
Across the street from the park is the European Parliament, the legislative seat of the European Union. The flags of each member nation fly in front. We were unable to see much of the campus because lots of construction is currently going on – trucks and other equipment blocked almost ever road.

We have so far found the city very easy to navigate, either by walking, tram, or bus, and we’re looking forward to discovering more in the coming weeks!


Unpacked in Strasbourg

Our apartment is located in the historic central area of Strasbourg.

After all of the weekend’s rain and wind, we woke up yesterday morning in Normandy to blue skies and fluffy clouds. It was still cold though – coats were a must. We were out the door though and over to Caen on time to turn in our car, and then were on our way to Strasbourg via LeMans. We were truly sad to say good-bye to Normandy and wished we had given ourselves more time there.

The kitchen and dining area in our tiny apartment. There’s a full-size dishwasher though so I’m happy

The train ride was extremely comfortable – we were in first class on one of the high-speed trains, and I fell asleep for most of the ride. After our usual small spell of confusion upon arriving in Strasbourg, we eventually found and bought tram tickets and got going in the right direction to our location. Our host’s son met us and got us settled in the apartment as our host is currently traveling in Croatia. It’s the smallest place we’ve stayed in yet – less than 300 square feet – but efficient, extremely well-equipped, and comfortable. I was a bit concerned because I had not noticed when I reserved the apartment that it was a studio and that we would be sleeping on a sofa bed, but the bed turned out to be the most comfortable yet (and they’ve all been comfortable so far). Before we went to bed we headed down to the mini-mart on the corner and bought some soup and camembert cheese for dinner, and orange juice for this morning’s breakfast. We had carried along crackers and a couple of pain au chocolate from Normandy, and the host had provided coffee, so we were set for dinner and breakfast this morning.

The sofa contains an immensely comfortable mattress. Even though the room is tiny, we found room to tuck away our big suitcases, shoes, etc. so it doesn’t feel cluttered.

Both Brett and I slept soundly, until almost 11:00 this morning though, meaning both of us were w-a-y more tired than we imagined (especially Brett, who is normally an early riser). We have been pushing ourselves the last couple of weeks, with the short stays in Montevideo, Paris and Normandy, the long flight over to Paris, sightseeing almost every day and moving from place to place. We’ve especially been looking forward to our stay in Strasbourg because we’re here for nearly three weeks, enough time to unpack our suitcases and hang up our clothes for a while (the apartment has a large closet with plenty of hangers and shelves for us to put our clothes away). We’ll be able to catch our breath here. Although we’ll of course be out and about, for a these next few weeks there’ll be little to no pressure to go somewhere or see something every day. If we want to take a day off and stay “home” we can do it and not feel guilty.

One of the first things we do after checking into our apartment is put together the gift bag for our host.

Our suitcases have been slowly growing lighter as we move along. We’ve ditched a couple of heavy guidebooks along the way (Buenos Aires and Paris), Brett left behind a pair of jeans and t-shirt in Montevideo that he hated wearing, and we’ve slowly but surely been divesting ourselves of the gifts we brought along from Hawai’i. We haven’t bought anything other than the two travel umbrellas on Mont Saint-Michel, but those get carried in our backpacks. We’ve lost only one thing along the way, the package of beeswax wraps in various sizes. Where those got left, or if they even got packed back on Kaua’i is anyone’s guess, but they’re nowhere to be found. We’ve been nursing a couple of Ziploc bags along the way and holding on to any plastic bags we get at a market, and so far that’s been working for us.

We went out first thing today to find the nearest ATM and buy provisions for the next few days. There are two nice markets nearby: an expensive Whole Foods sort of place, and a regular supermarket with a boulangerie right between the two. We bought a little at each place including some prepared foods from the Whole Foods place that I can heat in the oven: ratatouille, vegetable lasagna and a quiche. I haven’t felt like cooking since we set out on this adventure, so this will make dinner easy for the next few days. There’s a big farmers’ market every Saturday next to the Whole Foods store, so we’ll check that out too.

History is right outside our building’s front door.

We’re looking forward to exploring more of our neighborhood tomorrow and in the coming days – we’re just a couple of minutes’ walk from the cathedral and the main historic center. We have laundry to do though before we can really feel settled in. And, I want to spend this evening finding out more about the charcuterie in the area – both stores we visited had many delicious-looking sausages and other meats, but we have no idea where to start.

I think we’re going to enjoy being unpacked here in Strasbourg!

Rain and More Rain

Looking down on Omaha Beach from the path out to the American Cemetery. This is the view the Germans would have had of the Americans as they landed on the beach.

There was one thing on our pre-travel checklist that we never got around to purchasing: travel umbrellas! For some reason we kept putting them off, telling ourselves we’d get them in Portland . . . or Dallas . . . or Philadelphia. But as the days went on, and the weather stayed lovely, we forgot about the fact that we might need them one of these days. And up to now we’ve been blessed with beautiful weather.

That all changed yesterday and today. Rain had been in the forecast, but before we went to sleep on Friday night the last report we looked at showed that chances for rain had diminished, and we thought we just might be able leave Normandy without seeing rain.

Nope. We woke up to steady rain Saturday morning, and it stayed rainy all day. Today turned out to be even worse, or at least it started out that way.

The Memorial at the American Military Cemetery – the names of the missing are inscribed on the inside walls.

Our first goal yesterday was to visit the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, which overlooks Omaha Beach. The drive over there from Balleroy was lovely, even in the rain, but as we approached the cemetery I noticed that the GPS had once again pretty much drained my phone battery. I went to get my portable charger out of my purse and realized I had left the charging cord back at the apartment. NO!!!!!! Thankfully Brett’s phone was almost fully charged but we knew we had to be careful with how we used it to get around. A trip out to Mont Saint-Michel was not going to be possible with only one phone charged.

The initial view of all the graves in the American cemetery made it difficult to breathe for a moment. They seemed to go on forever.
There are over 9,300 WWII service members buried in Normandy, including three women and one WWI deceased, Quentin Roosevelt. He was allowed to be interred next to his older brother, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. The most recent burial was in June, 2018.

Our visit to American Cemetery was sobering, and in retrospect it seemed fitting to be there in the rain and gloom. Brett and I both almost stopped breathing when we first saw all the graves, more than 9,300 of them, all laid out in perfect rows. So many dreams unfulfilled, so many memories never made – how can we ever thank all these dead for the sacrifice they made? We walked slowly through the cemetery, stepping in at times to read the names on the marble stones, and to see where the deceased were from and when they died. There were many markers for the dead whose names were not known.

An old mill in the historic area of Bayeux. Fall is just beginning to arrive.

Because of the rain and phone/GPS situation we decided to head over to the nearby Bayeux historic district to view the Bayeux Tapestry and the Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry was fascinating to view as was the cathedral (plus we were inside and out of the rain). The rain did have the benefit of tamping down the number of visitors that might otherwise have been there that day. It was easy to get in and out of places, find parking, etc.

The Bayeux Cathedral was consecrated in 1077 (but of course construction went on for a whole lot longer).
The pulpit, built in 1786, is covered by a large sounding board depicting a cloud filled with cherubs, and with rays of light streaming down.

Less rain was predicted for today, but if anything it was raining even harder than it had been on Friday. Still, today was our last chance to get out to Mont Saint-Michel (or “Mont Saint-Mitchel” as the GPS voice kept pronouncing it) so off we went after breakfast. The further along we traveled the more the rain seemed to increase, to the point at times where we could barely see in front of the car. At one point all I could think was, “What ever made us think this would be a good day to do some sightseeing?” I told Brett that if it was raining at all when we got to Mont Saint-Michel I was not getting out of the car because I was tired of being wet!

Mont Saint-Michel under cloudy skies (I took this picture as we left as it was too windy to take anything before we entered the island).

However, almost unbelievably, the rain stopped as we arrived and parked the car. We walked over and caught one of the free shuttles out to the island, but as soon as it started off the heavens opened and the wind came roaring in. Oh great. When we stepped off the shuttle to make the final walk to the island we (and everyone else) were practically blown over by the wind and umbrellas were useless (no one could get their umbrella opened, let alone hold it over their head, because the wind was blowing so strongly).

Brett’s had a large bowl of moules marinière et frites for lunch – he’s been wanting some since we arrived in Normandy.

Once we stepped under the outer ramparts guarding Mont Saint-Michel, the wind thankfully died down, although the rain continued. Brett and I stopped at the first gift shop we saw to see if we could maybe get a couple of ponchos, but we instead found some very nice travel umbrellas at an affordable price, so we each got one – our first souvenirs of the trip! We were also very hungry at that point, and after reading a few menus stopped for lunch at a restaurant attached to a hotel. Brett finally got to enjoy the big bowl of moules marinière (mussels) he’s been craving since we arrived while I had a small Margherita pizza and a bowl of ratatouille – yum!

Looking out over the tidal flats surrounding Mont Saint-Michel. There are actually people walking out there (why????).

Then it was up to view the abbey only to discover we couldn’t go in because they were offering a series of concerts today. Although it was still cold and windy, the rain had finally stopped so we took our time walking around outside the abbey and on the ramparts, looking out over the tidal flats to the shore in the distance (where strange as it seemed, several groups of people were walking!). The rain had done a fairly good job of keeping the number of visitors to a manageable level, and we tried to imagine what it would have been like on the little island during peak tourist season (not very pleasant, we assumed). We eventually climbed back down and to our car and headed home to Balleroy, a much easier trip this time without all the heavy rain that had accompanied us on our way out.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There was one last stop we wanted to make in Balleroy before returning to our apartment: the Balleroy Chateau, located just up the road from where we’re staying. Constructed between 1626 and 1636, it was last purchased by Malcolm Forbes (of Forbes Magazine fame) in 1970 and is still owned by the Forbes family. The chateau has a real moat (although there’s no water in it currently), its own chapel, and beautiful, traditional French gardens. Although it wasn’t raining when we arrived we didn’t stay long as the temperature had dropped to where we were more than ready to get back to our warm apartment.

Tonight we finished up the last of a baguette, some cheeses, a piece of paté au champignon and the last of our wine and have gotten everything packed up for tomorrow’s journey to Strasbourg. Once again we realize we have spent too few days in a location we have come to love. Our crazy GPS has taken us through all sorts of backroads in Normandy, and provided us with views and villages we would have never come across and enjoyed otherwise. We haven’t even left and we’re already ready to come back, rain or shine!


Off To a Great Start in Normandy

The street where we’re staying in Balleroy. It’s pretty much the only street in town, actually.

Although we felt like we had barely gotten started in Paris, yesterday morning it was time for us to head west to Normandy. We were up early, and somehow got our big suitcases over to St. Lazare station to catch our train(s) out to Caen. We had stairways to deal with in a couple of places, but we worked out a system where Brett would carry one suitcase to the bottom of the stairs, then he would run back up for the second while I got down to the first suitcase as quickly as possible. Thankfully we didn’t have to do that more than a few times!

The train ride to Caen was fast and comfortable. We rode in second class, but it seemed closer to first in our opinion. We enjoyed watching the scenery change from city to countryside as we went along, and had a bit of excitement when a couple of security police climbed on our car at one station. They were very businesslike and quickly moved to the next car so we didn’t think too much about it until they got off a couple of stations later and we realized these guys had not come to play! There were actually four of them, and they were all fully weaponized and wearing bullet-proof gear. We have no idea what or who they were looking for but it was slightly scary to think what might have brought them on our train.

We’re staying in a lovely little apartment up above the double doors on the right (where the farm wagon would have been parked in the past).

Picking up our car after we arrived in Caen was easy but getting out of town and on our way to Balleroy was less easy. Our VW Golf came equipped with GPS but it took us a few tries to get that figured out (everything is in French!) and a few wrong turns before we were finally on our way. Our apartment in Balleroy is very comfortable, and just the right size for a few days’ stay. Our hosts are warm and friendly, and they stocked the refrigerator for us with orange juice, milk and a bottle of homemade sparkling cider (delicious!). Balleroy has one market, one charcuterie and one boulangerie, so we headed out before the sun went down for provisions and coffee and croissants for our next morning’s breakfast.

Brett woke up around 6:30 to the sound of tractors rumbling down the street, but all my lack of sleep from jet lag must have finally caught up with me because I slept soundly until 10:00 a.m. – and I wasn’t wearing earplugs! We were on the road by noon though and although the temperature was nearly 20 degrees cooler than it was in Paris, the sun was shining so we headed out to visit the Normandy D-Day beaches.

The old church in Vierville, just north of Caretan, on the way to Utah Beach.

We drove up through Carentan, where the Band of Brothers (Easy Company, 82nd Airborne Division) had fought so fiercely soon after landing in Normandy and headed to our first stop, Utah Beach. As I know more about the landings at Omaha Beach compared to Utah Beach, we decided to go through the museum there before walking down to the beach. We spent quite a bit of time in the museum as the displays were quite detailed and informative.

Utah Beach

It was short walk over to the beach from the museum, and humbling for both of us to stand there and think of the men coming up on that long, wide beach on D-Day, being fired upon and yet not giving up. It is an aspect of war that I have never been able to grasp, how soldiers, sailors and airmen went forward into intense, life-threatening danger or dangerous situations and kept going, even when they were afraid or terrified. But they did, and seeing the immensity of the beach today and the distance the American troops had to go literally took my breath away. Theodore Roosevelt’s son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who was a general, came ashore on Utah Beach under heavy fire and led the assault (he was the highest ranking person to come ashore during the initial landings). Even though he was suffering from heart problems and crippling arthritis that caused him to walk with a cane, his presence on the beach motivated the soldiers to keep going. He died on July 12 in France, of a heart attack, and is buried in the American Cemetery in Normandy.

La Pointe du Hoc. American Rangers scaled the vertical cliffs in order to disarm the German guns at the top.

Leaving Utah Beach, we headed west to visit La Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. While the sun continued to shine, the wind had picked up and it was about all we could do to stay on our feet when we got to La Pointe du Hoc. The ground at the point is still heavily marked with craters created by shells primarily from the battleship USS Texas (those battleships had some HUGE guns) that were fired before the D-Day invasion. La Pointe du Hoc had been heavily fortified by the German army, and the remains of some of the bunkers and gun placements could be seen in and around the craters, but a couple of the bunkers survived intact. The shelling only took out one of the guns, but caused the German army to move and hide the guns about one kilometer back in from the beach. The U.S. Rangers that climbed the cliffs at Point du Hoc on D-Day suffered massive losses (255 set out; only 90 were able to complete the mission), but they found and destroyed the German guns and ammunition before heading on to Omaha Beach. The guns had been aimed at Utah Beach.

A German observation bunker at La Pointe du Hoc
Looking out from the observation bunker. There were several rooms below ground there  for munitions, communication and possibly living quarters.

Leaving La Pointe du Hoc, we had a short but pleasant drive down to Omaha Beach (we hadn’t know before today that Pointe du Hoc is actually an official part of the Omaha Beach landing area). As we drove, it was not difficult to pick out buildings along the way that had been there before and during the war, and we wondered about the people who had lived there, or whether Americans or Germans had fought around those buildings or occupied them, or had marched or walked down the roads we were traveling on.

Omaha Beach looking east. The light lines are actually sand being blown across the beach (the sand at both beaches was extremely fine).
Omaha Beach, looking west toward La Pointe du Hoc.
A view of Omaha Beach at the end of the day, June 6, 1944.

Omaha beach was much, much larger than we imagined, and looking up at the hills just off of the beach was again a very humbling experience for both Brett and I. Today the hills are covered with beautiful houses, hotels and restaurants, but the thought of the American soldiers coming off their landing boats, advancing up that beach in the open with the Germans firing down on them in order to climb and overtake those hills was almost too much for Brett and I to contemplate. Again I wondered, how did they do it? How could they do it, especially being out in the open with so many around them dead or dying in the attempt?

“Les Braves” is a sculpture erected on Omaha Beach in 2005 to honor the courage of the men who came ashore on D-Day to help free France.

We had planned to finish the day with a visit to the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, but we arrived just as they were closing (5:00 p.m.) so we will go back tomorrow in the morning.

One of the many lovely views from the car as we drove through the Normandy countryside.

We had a lovely drive back to Balleroy – almost everything, whether a village or farmland, was beautiful beyond measure. I’m wondering though how anyone not from here ever figured out how to get around the area before GPS! Thanks to the system in the car along with my phone’s GPS talking us through the route, we were able to drive along some lovely back roads versus having to get on a less-attractive expressway. The leaves haven’t begun to change yet, but we could sure see and feel the change of seasons coming to the area.

We had Mimolette and Roquefort cheeses, pate, seeded baguette, Muscat grapes and one last Mirabelle plum to go with our wine.

We had wine, cheese, some paté and grapes when we got back to the apartment, and then got out our maps to plan tomorrow’s journey. We hope to visit the American cemetery first thing in the morning as it’s less than a half hour away (weather permitting – rain is possible tomorrow) and then will head over to visit Mont St. Michel.

Two Americans in Paris

When we were making plans for our Big Adventure, Paris initially wasn’t even on our list of places to see in France because we felt we would be sucked into a complete tourist experience, and we believed it was also too expensive to stay for an extended period of time. However, we eventually figured that since we would be flying into Paris we might as well visit for a few days before heading off to explore other areas.

We realize now we did not schedule anywhere near enough time in Paris, and we of course ended up doing the whole tourist thing, visiting various “must-see” places around the city. It didn’t help that we lost almost two days of our time here thanks to the long (miserable) flight from Uruguay and jet lag. Although we arrived last Friday, we weren’t ready to get out and see anything until Sunday, when we scheduled what we thought would be two short walking tours of Notre-Dame and the Latin Quarter and the Marais neighborhood.

We were filled with dread at the thought of having to get our suitcases down eight flights of these stairs but finally discovered the (hidden) elevator.

When we set out on Sunday we thought we had plenty of time to get to the tour meeting spot via the Metro. We have a Metro station just down the street but once there we had to go down eight long flights of stairs to get to the tracks, and I can’t do going down stairs quickly (we have since discovered the elevator). I told Brett I felt like I was descending into the 7th circle of Hell, and that the stairs would never end. Our train arrived shortly after we finally arrived at the track, but two stops later we ran into a problem: the station where we were to transfer was closed for repairs! So, we had to sit with our map for a while and recalculate a new route to get us to the Notre-Dame Cathedral (Cité Station). We eventually got to Cité, but saw no signs in the station directing us to Notre-Dame and we ended up coming out of the wrong exit, heading away from Notre-Dame versus toward it. By the time we got oriented and over to the cathedral we had missed our tour, but fortune stepped in for us: another tour was forming up and the guide warmly welcomed us to her group.

Notre-Dame Cathedral. This past Sunday was something called “Patriarchy Day” where all churches, schools, museums, etc. in Paris were open for free to everyone. The crowds and lines to visit anywhere were massive and long.

The temperature had been fairly moderate when we left our apartment, but by the time we got to Notre-Dame it had climbed to near 80° and we were overdressed, hot, and parched. The guide gave Brett time to run over and get a couple of bottles of water, and then off we went with the tour. We enjoy walking tours and learn a lot, but like the one in Buenos Aires, this tour also ended up being longer than advertised, and by the time we finished we knew there was no way we would survive the Marais tour later in the day. We had already walked over 11,000 steps and neither of us was interested in going through another 17,000+ step day in the heat. So, we said thank you and good-bye, and five transfers later on the Metro we were back in Montmartre (and of course we got to climb back up those eight flights of stairs in our station before arriving back at the apartment). After drinking a LOT of water, and of course some wine, we went out for dinner at an affordable Japanese restaurant down the road. It was still warm enough to sit out on the street and we enjoyed a very good meal!

A glimpse of the Seine River cooled things down a bit on Sunday.

Monday’s temperature was predicted to be 85º so we pulled some of our summer clothes back out of the suitcase, but decided to wait until later in the afternoon to set out, which turned out to be a very good choice. We did a little food shop in the morning, and stopped at a nearby boulangerie for a chicken sandwich to carry along with us for a late lunch/early dinner.

A recent and provocative work by acclaimed street artist Banksy, in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank

Our first stop of the day yesterday was the Arc de Triomphe. Paris, we were discovering, is one of those places that photos just cannot do justice. We were absolutely wowed by the Arc and stayed for a while to check it out. Afterwards we decided to stroll down the Champs Elysees. The street was wide and there was a nice breeze, but we sort of felt for a while like we were walking through the Ala Moana mall in Honolulu – the shops ran the gamut from Tiffany’s to Foot Locker with a McDonald’s thrown in for good measure.

The Grand Pyramid in the inner courtyard (“carrousel”) of the Louvre museum. Again, there were hoards of people visiting so we skipped going in.

We stopped at a park and ate our chicken sandwich while we rested for a bit, then climbed back on the Metro again at Franklin D. Roosevelt Station and rode over to check out the courtyard at the Louvre (there was no way we were going to deal with the hordes inside the museum). The temperature was starting to drop a bit so we spent an enjoyable time there, although we did stop at a Starbucks in the mall we had to pass through to get from the station to the courtyard – I got some iced tea and Brett ordered hot chocolate. I had promised myself that we were not going to go to a Starbucks while we were in Europe, but a hot day in Paris apparently had other ideas.

And then it was on to our last stop, the Eiffel Tower. We arrived at around 6:00, found a nice place in the park to sit and stretch our legs, and stayed until around 8:30, long enough to watch the sun set and the lights come on. What can I say other than c’était manifique! We did not stay for the full light show though – we had walked over 13,000 steps and nearly six miles at that point, and we were ready to get to our apartment and to bed.

A little cul-de-sac of attached houses in Montmartre – we would have never have thought to turn down this street on our own.

This morning we woke up bright and early to meet up with a private guide for a tour of the Montmartre area. We set up this tour through a wonderful organization called Paris Greeters. The tour was completely free although we did make a donation of 20€ to the organization. Our guide, Jean-Claude, would accept nothing from us except for a glass of juice when we stopped to rest midway through the tour.

Hotel Particulier, a (genuinely) hidden gem in Montmartre, offers luxury, privacy, and a spectacular view of the city off to the right. The hotel has just five suites, with prices starting at $477US per night. There’s also an acclaimed restaurant and bar on site.

We knew Montmartre was full of hills, but until we walked the area we had no idea how many hills there actually were! There are also miles of old cobblestone roads, fascinating architecture, breathtaking views around almost every corner, art everywhere, and loads and loads of history. Besides the more famous sights in the area, such as the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur or the only vineyard left in Paris, Jean-Claude also showed us places we never would have found on our own, including a cul-de-sac of attached houses from around the time of WWI, and a very private (and expensive) small hotel with a drop-dead view of the city (instead of being upset when we showed up at the hotel, the staff was very generous and invited us in for a drink!). Although he lives in a suburb outside of Paris, Jean-Claude also seemed to know plenty of people in Montmartre, including a famous artist we met on the street (we had no idea who he was however). Below is a slideshow of a few of the things we saw this morning:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After three days with lots of walking, Brett and I decided to take this afternoon off to rest and re-pack our suitcases in preparation for Thursday morning’s early departure for Normandy. Plus, while it’s a little cooler than yesterday it’s also more humid, and it rained for a short while this afternoon. Tomorrow we may go visit the Pompidou Center or we might go look at the churches of Saint-Sulpice and/or Sainte-Chapelle – we haven’t made up our minds yet.

The final stop on this morning’s tour was the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur. It was awe-inspiring and we would have loved to go in, but it was also swarming with tourists and touts so we instead admired it from the outside and took in the views of the city from the top of this hill.

We know we’ve barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and experience in Paris. Neither of us can say we’ve fallen in love with the city; in fact, we both agree that we barely know it and want and need more time than we gave ourselves. We’ve had an absolutely wonderful time though, and know we’ll be back.

It’s An Adventure, Right?

We’re in Paris! The view from our kitchen window.

We wondered at times though if we were ever going to make it to Paris or in what condition. Starting two days before we traveled our plans and budget seemed to be unraveling, but thankfully it all worked out and here we are. We’re sore and jet-lagged, but all in one piece with an intact budget, ready to get out and explore the City of Lights, our first stop in France.

Our first indication that things might not be going as planned was when we tried to check in online for our flight to Paris 48 hours in advance (as requested), and got a notification that Air Europa was unable to complete our check-in and would we please see someone at the airport? We also learned for the first time that we had somehow purchased “lite” fares on Air Europa, meaning the cost of checking our bags was going to cost an additional $300 at the airport. When I booked the tickets the price included one checked bag each, up to 50 pounds, but now we were being told something different.

Minor panic set in.

We spent our last day in Uruguay packing and resting because we knew we would be facing a long, long flight on Thursday, and we worried most of the day that something was wrong with our tickets. But that evening we tried checking in again and were successful, although apparently not for the second leg of the trip, from Madrid to Paris. As that flight would be on Air France versus Air Europa, Brett decided to check the Air France site and discovered we had also been checked in for that flight. Yeah! We also decided to pay 40€ at check-in to make sure we sat together rather than let Air Europa randomly pick seats for us. However, we still had that $300 luggage fee hanging over our heads. We had read if we could pre-check the bags online it would only cost $100 per bag instead of $150 for airport check-in, but the Air Europa baggage check site did not work for us.

We were feeling a little less panicked, but still  . . . .

Thursday morning we were up bright and early and outside at 8:00 a.m. waiting for our driver to pick us up for the drive to Carrasco airport (remises are the recommended way to get to the airport in Montevideo – $36US for a private driver versus around $55US for a taxi). He finally showed up a little before 9:00 – the transport company had supposedly given him the wrong time. Whatever – he was a very pleasant man, and we had a lovely drive along the Rambla out to the airport, a nice way to say good-bye to Uruguay. We went straight to check in and learned our bags would be checked through to Paris and there would be no baggage fees! It turned out our entire flight was booked with Air France, with the flight to Madrid operated by Air Europa, and not the reverse as we had thought. Air France did not charge for the first checked bag, so no fees for us! We relaxed a little and went for coffee, and I enjoyed a couple of last empanada before boarding begin.

Every (cramped) seat on the plane was taken, but boarding went well and we began our taxi on time only to stop after a couple of minutes. Eventually the pilot announced there was a mechanical problem and we would be returning to the gate. Sigh. About 30 minutes later though the problem was fixed, we taxied out to the runway and took off for Madrid around an hour later than scheduled, meaning we would miss our connecting flight to Paris. Sigh again.

The flight was, to put it nicely, brutal. We spent 12 and a half hours in very, very cramped seats. The two middle-aged women in front of us fully reclined their seats almost immediately after take-off and left them that way the entire flight giving us about six inches of space. When I would recline my seat, the woman in back of me would tap me on the shoulder to put it back up (she also kicked my seat repeatedly). Brett sat on the aisle and was hit on the head or pushed and had water spilled on him among other indignities. The movies advertised were not the movies available, which were old and uninteresting. Thankfully the food was OK. I was able to sleep for a while thanks to my TRTL neck pillow, but for most of the flight I kept reminding myself “it’s an adventure, right?” We had paid for cheap seats and we got what we paid for.

Sunrise at the Madrid airport – we arrived at 6:20 a.m., right as our original flight to Paris was taking off.

A couple of hours before we landed, gates were announced for new flight connections. However, a flight attendant came to us personally with information about our connection. And, when we landed in Madrid a representative from Air France was at the gate to personally greet us and hand us our new boarding passes! Apparently we had been the only passengers ticketed by Air France versus Air Europa, and who were flying to Charles de Gaulle versus Orly airport.

Looking out over Spain on our way to Paris.

Our big concern had become whether our luggage would make it to Paris or not because of the changes, but there it was in Paris and so off we went to catch a taxi to our Airbnb rental. The taxi was a flat-rate 50€, well worth it because in our exhausted condition we did not have to haul luggage up or down stairs or on and off a bus or train, or try to figure out the Metro, and because our driver turned out to be a lovely man originally from the Ivory Coast who had lived in Paris for 50 years. He spoke a little English and his taxi was a Mercedes(!) so we had a very comfortable ride over to Montmartre. Although neither of us is particularly suspicious, we figured out during the drive that our flight to Europe had been on the 13th of the month, and wondered if that was why everything had been off a bit.

Our Montmartre apartment was built in 1908; it sits across the street from a small park.

Our Airbnb is fantastic! The apartment building was constructed in 1908, so the rooms all have 12-14 foot ceilings with original, ornate moldings, and tall windows that overlook a small park across the street. We have every modern convenience though, including a dishwasher and induction stove, and the bed is extremely comfortable. Our hosts are a lovely older couple, around the same ages we are, and they left us some treats including a very nice bottle of Bordeaux! Before we collapsed, Brett and I walked down the street a bit and purchased a quiche Lorraine, a baguette and two croissant from a boulangerie, and found a small supermarket and bought a few supplies (cheese, butter, jam, fruit, soup, and a bottle of Chardonnay). We fell asleep around 5:00 p.m. but woke up again at 2:00 a.m. and enjoyed a slice of the extremely delicious quiche before falling asleep again. We awoke about 10:00 a.m. this morning, and both of us have our fingers crossed that the jet lag won’t be too bad this time.

Original moldings adorn the ceilings throughout the apartment.

But, we are in Paris! We’re moving slowly this morning – we enjoyed coffee and croissants for breakfast, and will go out later this afternoon to figure out the Metro. There’s a station just down the street, and we plan to buy a book of passes. We’re very happy too that we will have no more flights for another five weeks – all our travel throughout France will be by train and car.

So, the adventure continues!

A Stroll Through the Old City of Montevideo

Palacio Salvo looks over Montevideo’s Plaza Independencia

We had planned to go on a free walking tour this morning, but Brett was feeling a little under the weather yesterday evening, and still not 100% when we woke up this morning. The tour company we were planning to use offered a second tour in the afternoon, but after checking out their website we realized that a) the tour finished at a spot about as far from our apartment as possible, and b) it started and ended too late in the day for us. Brett was feeling back to normal though by noon, so blessed with a beautiful day and armed with a map and comfortable shoes we set out to do our own walking tour of Montevideo’s Old City.

The recreated Ciudadela gate to the old city, with Palacio Salvo in the back

The old quarter of Montevideo is located at the south end of the city, near a natural harbor in the Rio de la Plata. Entrance to this part of the city in the past was through the Cuidadela gate of an old fort that guarded the harbor and the city. The fort no longer exists, but a recreation of the gate was erected in 2009

The imposing statue of José Gervasio Artigas sits in the middle of Plaza Independencia, over his mausoleum.

We began our tour at Plaza Independencia, which sits in between Central Montevideo and the Old City at the end of 18 de Julio Avenue, Montevideo’s main thoroughfare through the city (our apartment is located less than a mile from the Plaza). The center of this large square is dominated by a statue of José Gervasio Artigas, the “father of Uruguayan nationhood,” and one of Uruguay’s national heroes. His mausoleum sits under the statue and is guarded by members of a cavalry guard that has existed since colonial times. Located at the edge of the square is the imposing Palacio Salvo, built in 1928 and for a while the tallest building in Latin America. Originally planned as a hotel, the Palacio instead has been occupied by offices and private residences since its creation. The front of the Palacio at the ground level is an open galleria which currently contains sculptures created from scrap metal.

Teatro Solis

Leaving the Plaza, Brett and I headed over to check out the Teatro Solis, built in 1856 and still housing the Uruguay National Theater. Banners hanging in front advertised opera, Beethoven, flamenco and modern dance offerings, all upcoming at the theater.

Sparkling street art in the old city.

It was a short walk from the theater over to Peatonales Sarandi, an old cobblestone street now closed to vehicular traffic that’s lined with beautiful old buildings containing shops and restaurants. This street runs from Plaza Independencia almost all the way down to the Rio de La Plata. A scattering of vendors were on the sides of the street selling all sorts of goods, and there were various musicians along the way too (some definitely better than others).

The trees in Plaza Matriz’s are almost ready to leaf out, which will make this pretty little plaza even lovelier.
The Metropolitan Cathedral dominates one side of Plaza Matriz.

The Peatonales Sarandi passes by two smaller plazas: the Plaza Matriz (or Plaza Constitución) and the Plaza Zabala. We turned into the lovely Plaza Matriz to check out the Metropolitan Cathedral of Montevideo and then headed to the nearby Café Brasilero for coffee and a piece of their famous German apple pie.

The original Art Nouveau bar looks out over Cafe Brasilero.
Coffee with a slice of German apple pie.

Opened in 1877, Café Brasilero is the oldest cafe in Montevideo, and is also considered one of the 13 most emblematic cafes in the world. Its original Art Nouveau bar still holds pride of place in the back of the cafe. Brett and I each enjoyed the best coffee we have had so far on our trip, shared a slice of German apple pie with ice cream (which more than lived up to its reputation), and soaked in some fascinating history and atmosphere.

Templo Ingles

Then it was down to La Rambla once again, a distance this time of just three blocks. Along the way we passed the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, known locally as Templo Inglés, an Anglican church constructed in the 1830s for English residents of Montevideo. Originally built next to the beach, it was moved to its present location when La Rambla was developed.

Looking out from an opening in an old fortification on La Rambla. To the left were steps leading down to the rocks where several people were fishing.

Our location on La Rambla this time was a bit further west of where we visited on Monday, in the Gran Bretaña division which overlooks the area where the Rio de la Plata feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. Long, brown streams of the river’s sediment could be seen out in the distance, and there were several huge container ships in the channel. We again took a short stroll along the Rambla, and then turned north and headed back up to the Plaza Independencia and back to our apartment.

It was a beautiful day for a walk around the old city of Montevideo!

Our little tour took us around two and half hours. We covered a little over three and a half miles of the city in that time, just enough to whet our appetites for more, especially the chance to visit some of the many museums in Montevideo. We’re even more disappointed now that we’re leaving Montevideo so soon as there is much we still want to see. I guess we’re just going to have to come back!

Primer Dia en Montevideo

Spring is in the air in Montevideo

After just a day in Montevideo both Brett and I think we should have scheduled more time in Uruguay. We should have given ourselves time to get off the ferry and explore the historic city of Colonia for a few days before traveling down to Montevideo for longer than the three days we will spend here.

The trip over to Uruguay from Buenos Aires yesterday was a bit rough, to be honest. Getting to the ferry terminal on Sunday morning was a breeze – we had arranged for the same taxi driver who had brought us from the Buenos Aires airport to take us to the terminal. He was on-time and affordable. Going through immigration was easy as well – we were stamped out of Argentina on one side of an aisle in immigration, then turned around and had our passports stamped to enter Uruguay on the other side! Easy-peasy.

The ferry was HUGE, and we boarded easily and found seats quickly. They were sort of like airline seats, but a bit more comfortable (although with just as little leg room). However, instead of maybe six or seven seats across, the ferry rows had more like 30 seats across, with aisles between every set of three, and every seat was filled by the time we departed. There was an elaborate snack bar up at the front, but after over-paying for a bottle of water at the terminal we avoided it. We learned that some of the ferries that make the longer three-hour trip from Buenos Aires direct to Montevideo provide restaurants and even a tango show! Brett and I instead nibbled on some leftover crackers during the voyage which turned out to be a smart thing.

The trip across the Rio de la Plata (Silver River) started out smoothly, but got rougher the farther across we traveled. The Rio de la Plata is the widest river in the world, over 140 miles across at one point, and even the “short” trip to Colonia takes an hour and is more like crossing a lake. It was a windy day yesterday so the water was quite choppy which of course meant the ferry bobbed up and down quite a bit as well. Brett, an experienced sailor, handled it well but even after taking motion-sickness medication before embarking I was not feeling well at all by the time we got to Colonia where, after passing through what has to be the most ridiculously easy customs ever, we got right onto a stuffy, uncomfortable bus for a 2 1/2 ride down to Montevideo (we chose this option to save money). I tried to catch some of the scenery as we rolled along but mostly I tried to keep myself from getting sick (all I remember today are lots and lots of farms and lots and lots of date palms). I was glad for those crackers!

Never judge a book by its cover – the front of our apartment building (door is on the left) gave no hint of our lovely apartment inside.
Graffiti covers the side of an old apartment building n Montevideo. The graffiti is everywhere in the city, most of it tagging, but political statements can frequently be seen as well. Old and new buildings sit side by side throughout the city.
Colorful street art can be found as well.

Upon arrival at the bus station in Montevideo we retrieved our suitcases, found an ATM and got some Uruguayan pesos and then hired a cab to take us to our apartment. Our lovely host, Fernanda, met us there and explained everything about the apartment and then left us to decompress. Although the front of the building looked a bit sketchy after our posh digs in Buenos Aires, the inside of the apartment was clean, cute and cozy with everything we needed for a comfortable stay. As it was Sunday, NOTHING was open except (thankfully) a Subway sandwich shop across the street, so that’s what we had for dinner. We were able to buy coffee and orange juice for the next morning at a mini-mart, and we both fell asleep early and slept soundly for twelve hours!

Lots of food (and wine) for just under $70US – we’ll eat well for the next three days!

We woke this morning to a cold but beautiful day with clear blue skies. Our first chore in the morning was to get ourselves some more Uruguayan pesos, and then some groceries for the next three days. Brett went out to check out one nearby ATM nearby on his own but it was out of cash and the bank didn’t open until 1:00 p.m. (ATMs are all attached to banks here). So, we waited until 1:00, got our pesos and then set out to find a grocery store – easier said than done because even though we had checked out locations on Google Maps, nothing looked like a grocery store from the street. We finally entered what appeared to be a discount quick-mart from the front, but which held a full supermarket at the back. It turned out to have a better selection of groceries than stores we had visited in Buenos Aires, but prices were definitely higher here. Also, the produce section was surprisingly small (almost non-existent, really) with very little to choose from and, unlike Buenos Aires, we have so far not seen any independent produce stalls on the street nor any bakeries either. I’m hopeful they’re around though.

La Rambla (Division Republica Argentina)
Looking out on the Atlantic Ocean from La Rambla at the Parque Rodo neighborhood of Montevideo.

The place we wanted to visit first in Montevideo was La Rambla, the broad avenue which goes all along the coastline of the city, from the Rio de la Plata on the west to the Atlantic ocean on the south. Almost 14 uninterrupted miles long, it has the world’s longest continual sidewalk, and is under consideration as a World Heritage Site. La Rambla has been called the “identity of Montevideo” as well as “the lungs of the city.” The wide sidewalk is used by city dwellers for walking, skating, fishing, sunbathing and so forth. There are several beaches along its way as well, and no buildings are allowed on the water side of La Rambla so that views are not interrupted. It took us a bit longer than we imagined to walk to it from our apartment, but it was worth the time in spite of the wind we experienced. It was exciting to get our first view of the Atlantic Ocean!

Tomorrow we are heading out in the morning for a free walking tour of Montevideo’s historic Old Town and we may try to visit another division of La Rambla if we can. Wednesday’s schedule remains up in the air as rain is forecast for the entire day. We have laundry to do though and a bit of repacking to take care of before we depart for Paris on Thursday morning so we’ll be busy no matter how things turn out.

Evening approaches the city: the view from our balcony.