OUR group met in the dining area of our hotel, which was set up like a conference room. There, we met our guides, Jennifer and Åsa (pronounced, “OH-sah”). We went around the room with introductions, what to expect, and the “No Grumps Allowed!” rule. They also gave out our Paris Museum passes. (Do not lose these! Ours were good for two days, and they give you access to over 50 museums.) We also picked our travel buddies.
Now, I’ve often read that most people on RS tours tend to be older or retired. Our group was comprised of people with a surprisingly wide range of ages and backgrounds – it was awesome! The youngest was 16, and the oldest, 80. Most of us were from the US, one couple came all the way from New Zealand, and one of our tour guides is Swedish. And everyone had wonderful stories behind why they took this trip. While Omar and I were on our honeymoon, two ladies took the trip to celebrate their 80th birthdays, one young lady went with her family to celebrate her graduation from college, and one gentleman made a last minute decision to fulfill his bucket list by going on a tour of Europe. Another couple made a world tour of their trip - this RS tour was just one stop. And another couple, who were RS tour veterans, brought family along for their first RS Tour.
The Bells of Notre-Dame
Our Best of Europe Tour began shortly after the meeting. We each received wireless audio receivers (the blue boxes you might see hanging around our necks with matching earbuds). We used these throughout the trip. They made it easy to hear our guides without having to stand directly in front of them, and I’m sure it was equally as nice for our guides not to strain their voices.
HIGHLIGHTS, DAY 1
Saint-Chappelle. Okay, I admit it – we did not read a single thing about Sainte-Chappelle. The downside to that is not having the historical background. The upside is entering the lower level and thinking, “Wow! That’s a really beautiful ceiling – dark blue dotted with gold fleurs-de-lis.” And then going up the narrow, spiral staircase to the upper level and being completely bowled over by the wall-to-wall-to-ceiling stained-glass windows; richly colored and drenched in sunlight. It’s pretty amazing, and it’s been around for over 700 years.
Right: Waiting in line to get into Notre-Dame. It didn't take nearly as long as you'd expect.
Background image: View of the Louvre from inside the Orsay Museum.
Below: Little garden we spotted on our way to Notre-Dame.
Notre-Dame. Older and much larger than Sainte-Chappelle, Notre-Dame doesn’t blow you away with its stained-glass windows, but it certainly wows you with its size and impressive, beautiful Gothic architecture.
A quick walk through the Latin Quarter. If we had more time, I would’ve loved to go through there again. It looked like a really fun place to get lost in, full of little shops and restaurants.
Our first group dinner was at le Petit Colbert. The second floor was reserved just for us. For my entrée, I had goat cheese wrapped in a pastry with a honey-Balsamic vinegar sauce and salad greens on the side. It was delicious! I wish I knew how to duplicate it. Omar and I both chose salmon with sorrel for our main course. That, too, was quite yummy. And for dessert, I tried something different – a rum-soaked cake with whipped cream. It wasn’t bad, but for me, there wasn’t enough cake and whipped cream to soak up the generous amount of rum. Omar, on the other hand, picked chocolate mousse, which he enjoyed very much.
Listen to the Choir Inside Notre-Dame
Ladies, forgo cuteness when it comes to shoes. I brought what I thought were really comfortable shoes – they really aren’t that cute, either. But I’d never worn either pair for hours on end, walking and climbing and walking all day. Both pairs began to rub my feet, which they’d never done before. So by the time we got back to our hotel, my poor feet were hurting! So next time, sneakers, only sneakers!
Getting Our Bearings
Before our first venture out as a group, we all pulled out our maps of Paris. If we didn't have one, Jennifer (in the denim jacket) and Åsa (just over her shoulder) passed out extra copies.
Wireless Audio Guides
If you happen to notice blue lanyards, boxes, and earbuds, they were part of a wireless audio guide system. We each had one to use throughout the tour. Jennifer could speak to all of us without having to strain her voice. The "boxes" are probably a little bigger than a point and shoot camera, but small enough to keep in a purse or tuck into your jacket. Jennifer said that not all tours use this, but I'm glad our group had them!
Many entrances to the Paris Metro are constructed in the Art Nouveau style of Hector Guimard.
Maps at each Metro entrance make the city easy to navigate.
Streets of Paris
Making our way to Île de la Cité.
We passed a few flower booths along the way.
Sainte-Chappelle (Holy Chapel) appears rather unassuming from the outside...
...but when you get inside - WOW!
A closer look at the Gothic ceilings of the lower chapel. The French fleurs-de-lis on a blue background are painted to resemble a star-filled sky. The lower chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The view from the upper chapel and a few of the 1,133 stained glass windows. The altar can be seen in the background.
Above the altar is a reliquary. It was commissioned by King Louis IX of France to house his collection of Passion relics, including Christ's Crown of Thorns—one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom.
The stained glass windows tell the biblical story of humanity, from the Creation to redemption through Christ. They are read from left to right and from top to bottom.
The Rose Window opposite the altar was added to the chapel in 1490.
A close up of the Rose Window which depicts St. John's Book of Revelation.
Jennifer, Jenny, and Mike leading the way via the Rue Saint-Julien le Pauvre.
Southern side of Notre-Dame
This was taken from the Pont du Double Bridge. The flying buttresses and famous east spire can be seen. On the opposite side of the bridge, you'll find the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
West facade with its three portals containing scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, the Last Judgment, and scenes from the life of St. Anne above which is the Gallery of Kings.
Notre Dame was one of the first cathedrals to use flying buttresses which meant extremely high ceilings could be achieved without internal columns.
On average, 30,000 visitors a day enter the cathedral.
Stained glass southern Rose Window. The center pane depicts Christ of the Apocalypse. Beneath the Rose Window are vertical windows depicting The Prophets.
The exterior of the western Rose Window. The Rose Window forms a halo above the statues of the Virgin and Child who are flanked by angels.
HIGHLIGHTS, DAY 2
We started the day together as a group, but the rest of the day was free to spend as we pleased. We took the Metro into the city and headed to the Louvre. Once inside, Jennifer gave us a few tips to getting around the museum. After that, we were pretty much on our own.
Favorite Things at the Louvre
Seeing certain works of art with our own eyes, like Nike, Venus de Milo, and Mona Lisa. My personal favorites, Cupid and Psyche, the Winged Assyrian Bulls, and several statues of Aphrodite.
Not-so-Favorite Things at the Louvre
The crowds, which are unavoidable, but we particularly didn’t like the overly large and sometimes aggressive tour groups.
We enjoyed Musee d’Orsay – a beautiful train station-turned museum. Compared to the Louvre, the Orsay is much more manageable size-wise and very easy to navigate. Some of its featured artists include Cezanne, Rodin, Lalique, Monet, van Gogh…. There’s even a miniature of Lady Liberty there.
Unfortunately, Omar developed a bad cold with a sore throat just days into our trip. It hit its peak while we were in France and Switzerland. So I suppose a little highlight of our trip would be going to a French pharmacie. Luckily, many pharmacies in Paris are staffed with an English-speaking associate. French pharmacies are much smaller than ones back home, and anything we consider over-the-counter is sold behind the counter in France. Their pharmacists are also trained to diagnose and treat minor illnesses. So once it was our turn, Omar described his symptoms to the pharmacist, who recommended two flu medications.
Statue "Diane" outside the Louvre.
For dinner, we used Yelp to narrow down our choices. We first tried a restaurant popular for serving only one particular dish, but the line was out the door, and we knew the wait would be a long while. Unlike the US, restaurants in France don’t rush you out to get the next customer in, and they don’t bring you your check until you ask for it. So we found another place that turned out to be a great choice. The servings were surprisingly larger than expected; I couldn’t finish my main dish. When they came to clear our table, they asked me if everything was okay and if I liked the dish. I felt rude not being able to finish it. I told them it was delicious, but my stomach was just too small!
Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel
Before entering the Louvre, the group gathered beneath the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which was built to commemorate Napoleon's military victories.
Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel
Looking up while standing beneath one of the smaller arches you can see the bas-reliefs in rose marble.
The famous Louvre Pyramid serves as the main entrance to the museum. However, it's much easier and faster to enter in from one of the underground entrances in one of the wings.
Like posing to “hold up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa you just have to have a photo taken while you “touch” the top of the Louvre Pyramid!
Looking north from inside the Louvre Pyramid towards the Richelieu Wing.
The Lady with the Mystic Smile
The Mona Lisa can be seen at the far end of the room. You’ll probably have to wade through a throng of people before finally getting there.
Many of the paintings you read about in text books are not the size you imagine. I thought the Mona Lisa would be bigger. Other paintings I saw – I was surprised by their immense size!
The Wedding Feast at Cana
Some consider this the most overlooked painting in the Louvre. It depicts the story of when Jesus turns water into wine at the end of a wedding banquet. Veronese depicts 130 people, painting in himself as a guest as well.
There were so many incredibly beautiful statues in the Louvre. None more famous than the Woman Taking a Selfie statue that Omar mimics!
Venus de Milo
So beautiful, peaceful, and serene...
Venus de Milo
...not so much. Be as nice as you can, but chances are you may have to get out the "sharp elbows" if you want to get close to any famous work of art.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace
This statue is also called the Nike of Samothrace and was created about the 2nd century BC! Luckily it is displayed on a high pedestal so everyone can get a good look at her without having to elbow through a crowd!
Bridge over the River Seine
The bridge from the Louvre to the Orsay was “decorated” with Love Locks. I was surprised to see so many locks because I thought I had read that the city had banned the practice. The extra weight from the locks was found to be detrimental to the bridge.
Located at the summit of the butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city, is the Basilique of the Sacré Cœur.
The Orsay Museum was formerly The Orsay railway station. The station was originally built for the World Fair in 1900 and the original clock can be seen on the far wall. The skylights provide perfect lighting to view the artwork below.
The museum houses the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world by painters including Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Sisley, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.
Dance by Carpeaux (left) conveys a feeling of movement with tambourine held high above the woman's head. Model of Rodin's monumental doors Gates of Hell (right) from which he eventually detached individual works like The Thinker and The Kiss.
ALL aboard the Heidebloem bus! Today was our first day on the tour bus as well as meeting our bus driver, Sylvaim. We did a quick buddy check before boarding – don’t want to leave anyone behind! Once on board, everyone stuck to their travel companions, but there was more than enough space to spare.
Domaine d’Ardhuy. Just outside of Beaune, we visited the beautiful winery where some of the wine cellars date back to the 17th century. Our host, Stephan gave us a tour of the winery, gave us a lesson on the importance of terroir, and taught us a French drinking song! This was all accompanied by a few of their wines and a wonderful meal.
Wandering about Beaune - a picturesque, historical, walled-in town known as the Wine Capital of Burgundy. The beautiful little town, which hosts the annual Hospices de Beaune Wine Festival, features cobbled streets, flower-adorned doors and windows, and ramparts that date as far back as the 12th century.
The Hospices de Beaune, or Hôtel-Dieu Museum. We spent about an hour there, admiring the multi-color tiled and multi-spired roof and pondering on the “modern medical equipment” of the time period.
We went to a local boulangerie where I bought a freshly baked chocolate croissant. Mmmm….so delicious! I wanted to do that while we were in Paris, but didn’t have the chance.
Image above: Hospices de Beaune, or Hôtel Dieu
Drinking Sing Along at Domaine d'Ardhuy
Dinner on our own at Brasserie le Carnot. Food-wise, Burgundy is known for boeuf bourguignon, escargot, and coq au vin. We should’ve tried one of those dishes. You should try one of those dishes, should you visit that area. But still stuffed from the hearty dinner the night before and the amazing spread we had for lunch, I chose ravioli instead. We shared a smoked salmon salad entrée, or appetizer, and Omar ordered the magret de canard au cassis, or duck breast with black currants for his plat, or main dish.
Jennifer and Åsa speak with Stephan in front of the winery while the rest of the group stretches their legs after a long bus trip.
Is this where the line for the wine tasting starts?
By the light of a wine bottle light fixture (upper right), Stephan tells the history of the winery (left). He used the map on the table to explain the different regions and how the differing soils and climates around Burgundy influence the types of grapes that are selected to be planted. To get to the winery, you pass through the main gate and traverse down a long driveway with vineyards on either side (lower right).
Omar explores the grounds (left) before joining the group. After giving a short tour of the vineyard (lower right), Stephan brought everyone down to the cellar to show the barrels where the wine is stored.
The group settles down for a great lunch. Plates of various meats, terrines, cheeses, fruits, and bread are ready to be eaten - and of course wine glasses ready to be filled.
Home Sweet Home
Our hotel is the first doorway on the left – the Hotel Des Remparts. That’s a perfect name for a hotel in a walled-city!
Jennifer gives the group the lay of the land. It goes without saying that Beaune’s economy relies heavily on wine and many shops cater to wine lovers.
Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune
The Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune's most striking architectural feature is its polychrome roofs. The roofs are made of glazed flat tiles whose color and pattern are influenced by the traditional architecture of Burgundy.
Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune
A close up of the polychrome roof and two dormers.
Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune
A view of the Room of the Poor, the largest hospice room in the complex. Note the many beds along the walls and the chapel on the far wall.
Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune
16th century tapestry
Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune
The Beaune Altarpiece, by Rogier van der Weyden, is often called the Last Judgement. It was moved to a darker room to protect it from sunlight and to protect is from the almost 300,000 visitors that see it every year.
The town is adorned with flowers. Apparently there's local competition each year to claim the title of prettiest town.
Stop in at the Boulangerie Patisserie early in the morning to pick up freshly baked pastries. Be sure to buy enough to share though!