WE arrived in Paris at Gare du Nord a little past 10:30 pm. Just as others suggested on Rick Steves' Travel Forum, if you take a taxi from the train station, get in line. Do not fall for the cab drivers who try to pull you out of that line. They tried it on us a few times (we don’t exactly look like native French), but we just ignored them. There's a good chance you'll get scammed. And if you’re like us, and paid by credit card instead of cash, look for the Plus symbols on the cars – not all taxis accept credit cards. The person directing people to the taxis was also very helpful.
There was, of course, the option to take the Metro. But that would've involved walking to a Metro station late at night while holding onto our luggage. Probably not the wisest idea for our first time in Paris.
The taxi line moved quickly, and we arrived at our hotel soon after. For our first night, we stayed in a hotel of our choosing. It was only a block away from the hotel where we'd stay the following night with our tour group. The hotel was also just a short walk away from the Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, and Metro station!
Our only objective for the next day: Versailles.
Right: The golden gates of Versailles and homage to Apollo.
Below: The Gardens of Versailles
Background image: Latona Fountain behind the palace. The Musical Fountains Show and Musical Gardens only occur on specific dates and times. If you want to catch the show, be sure to check their website.
AHH, Versailles... Looking back on Versailles, I'll remember the hugely ornate palace, the splendid grounds, and our unexpected detour just trying to get there.
We knew in advance that we had to take the Metro to Champs des Mars-Tour Eiffel station and then catch the RER (Paris's express train lines), but we still asked our concierge for help. He told us that after getting off the Metro, to take the RER C train to Rive Gauche, not Rive Droit or Chantier! Helpful link on how to do this, The Easiest and Cheapest Way to Get from Paris to Versailles. The whole trip should've taken 45 minutes. Well, we made it off the Metro just fine. Easy peasy! The RER, on the other hand…. I jumped the gun and boarded the first RER train that we saw. Wrong move! I failed to notice that it wasn’t for Versailles-Rive Gauche. In retrospect, I like to fondly remember the next three hours of going back and forth on the RER as our “Tour of the French Countryside,” ha ha!
Oops! My guilt-ridden face after getting us lost on the RER.
The RER was a little confusing to us. Even with the RATP app on hand, we couldn’t quite figure out if the
destination names at the top of the screens at the stations were trains that were on their way, or if they were already sitting at the station awaiting departure. Unlike the Metro, the trains didn’t always have the destinations marked anywhere that we could see. But we finally, finally made it to Versailles. Yay!
We purchased our tickets to Versailles three weeks in advance. They offer several tours, but we chose the “Passport” ticket, which allows access to the Palace, gardens, Trianon palaces, and the Queen's Hamlet. We went in May, and the palace and grounds were open from 9 am to 6 pm. We were there from 12 - 6 and didn’t see everything, but that’s just us.
The RATP app we used for getting around on the Metro and RER. We downloaded a similar app for the London Tube. Except for the RER, we found the apps very easy to use.
As a point of reference, we've been to Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina before. It’s known as the largest private residence in the United States. Although Biltmore’s estate trumps that of Versailles, the main house could fit underneath one of King Louis XIV’s wigs. Okay, slight exaggeration. But if you’ve ever visited Biltmore before and thought it’s huge, consider this: Biltmore’s main house is just under 180,000 sq. ft. Versailles is a little more than 720,000 sq. ft. To describe the palace as immense isn’t sufficient. We were stunned at its size just walking up to it, and it was still hundreds of yards away. It’s outrageously gorgeous. The architecture and décor are stunning, but my favorite parts were the gardens and fountains.
We used the audio guide to go through the palace, headed to the gardens, and gradually made our way to Trianon. But we barely got through the Grand Trianon with just enough time to catch the last shuttle back to the palace.
WE checked out of our hotel the next morning, walked up a block to Tilsitt Etoile Hotel, and dropped off our bags. It looked like other Rick Steves tour members already dropped off their bags, too. We headed right back out, and made our way to the Eiffel Tower. We took the same Metro lines as the day before, which was easy, and arrived an hour early. We bought our tickets two months in advance from their website, la Tour Eiffel. Although not absolutely necessary, it didn't hurt to already have them on hand. Our tickets, which were to the Summit, were date and time specific, and they turned out to be a time-saver for us. Long lines swirled around each corner of the tower either waiting to get in or to buy tickets.
The Tower by day and sparkly night
We spent the extra time taking pictures, wandering around, and buying a few things. When it came close to our reservation time, we walked up to the gate, showed them our tickets, and went right in!
We took the advice of others, rode up to the Summit first and gradually worked our way to the second and first levels. We tried to give ourselves just enough time to get back to the hotel, check in, and grab a bite before meeting with the group at 1 pm.
Adventures in French
IT helps to learn a little of the language when travelling to a foreign country. Neither of us had ever learned French. For months, I used Duolingo to learn some basics. The app can be downloaded to your phone, and you can also access it online from a computer. We also brought along the RS "3-in-1 French, Italian, & German Phrase Book". The phrases that came in most handy for us:
Bonjour/Bonsoir - Good Day/Good Evening
Merci/Merci beaucoup - Thank you/Thank you very much
Parlez vous Anglais? - Do you speak English?
S'il vous plait - Please
l'Addition - the bill
Oui/Non - Yes/No
And don't forget numbers! Numbers are very helpful, too.
Here's one of our experiences with French. It required the knowledge of only one French word:
The night we came back from Versailles, we went to a McDonald's. Don't judge, haha! The great thing there, is that you can place your order at an electronic kiosk in any language. After we placed our order, the receipt printed out with our order number on it. So a few minutes later, as we watched other orders filled, an employee called out, "Douze? Douze?" We stood there for a moment or so before I realized that she was calling out our number, 12. "Oops! That's us!"
Most of the people we encountered were very pleasant - whether it was in a store, restaurant, museum, etc. So don't be afraid to try a new language, no matter how little of it you know.