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!
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!
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.