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.
Through the Golden Gates
After getting off the RER, there's a short walk down the street, and a turn around a corner. That's when we got our first glimpse of the palace from a great distance. Even at several hundred yards away (actually, a little over 700 yds.) the sight was quite impressive. This picture was taken after we walked several blocks, across the street, and up a long walkway before reaching the gate.
The Royal Chapel
From the second floor of the Royal Chapel you can get a better view of the vaulted ceiling, which is dedicated to the Holy Trinity.
The Triumph of Hercules painted on the ceiling by François Lemoyne.
One of many sculptures and gilded window frames that line the roof of the palace.
An 18th Century harpsichord sits in an African Room in the North Wing.
Left and Right: The palace has over 700 rooms. Center: None of the rooms are more important than the king's bedroom.
Details, Details, Details...
There were so many details everywhere you look. The amount of craftsmanship that went on during construction is hard to imagine.
Left and Right: The rooms were so elaborately decorated. Center: We couldn't resist taking a "self portrait" with the aid of a mirrored door.
The Battles Gallery
This room is breathtakingly large. The walls are covered with paintings depicting French military success for nearly 15 centuries. They even have a painting of the Battle of Yorktown!
The Battles Gallery ceiling
The enormous occulus in the center of the ornate Battles Gallery ceiling.
The Hall of Mirrors
One of the highlights of the tour - truly amazing! The hall stretches out 240 ft. The combined effect of 350 plus mirrors opposite 17 arched windows makes the room look even larger!
Hall of Mirrors
A different perspective, focusing on the many-chandeliered ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors.
Views from the courtyard facing the palace and from the palace looking down at the courtyard.
One of the bronze sculptures featured along the two "Water Parterres" (rectangular pools) directly behind the palace.
Gardens and Fountains
Top: Versailles Orangerie where around a thousand fruit trees in containers were grown in the summer. Bottom Center: Apollo on a four horse chariot, rises from the water at daybreak.
Beautiful gold frog and lizard water fountains surround surround Leto and her children. The fountain was inspired by The Metamorphoses by Ovide.
The Grand Trianon was built as a retreat for King Louis XIV. It's about a 25 minute walk from the main palace, and a paid shuttle is available.
Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe honors men who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Beneath its vault is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.
More Surprise Treats
Our first hotel in Paris surprised us with a bottle of champagne and a bowl full of macarons. I regret not taking a picture of the multi-colored cookies beforehand. But we don't regret eating them!
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.
Arc de Triomphe in the morning light
Passed it many times back and forth from our hotel and Metro station.
Given the terrorist attacks the year before, the French launched Operation Sentinelle to patrol the streets and protect local sites. In the background you can see the long line of people waiting to enter the tower.
Left: Omar was on the second level; I was on the first. The third level is all the way up top. You can see the square lights attached to the structure that make the tower sparkle at night. Right: Standing next a structural column you can see just a few of the estimated 2.5 million rivets used in the tower's construction!
A little breezy!
I can hardly contain my smile at being here. The Seine River is in the background running to the western horizon.
Looking east you can still see the Seine river. The golden dome to the right is part of the Les Invalides complex. Napolean Bonaparte is buried there.
Bird's Eye View
...of the National Maritime Museum and the Museum of Architecture.
We were a little unprepared for how cold and windy it would be. Omar had to buy a knit cap from one of the many vendors surrounding the base of the tower.
Cityscape looking northeast. You can see the Seine River and the arched Debilly Footbridge crossing it.That bridge was built to accommodate visitor traffic to the 1900 World's Fair.
Looking down through the glass floor at the long lines below. The floor was installed on the first level in 2014 as part of a first floor renovation project to mark the tower's 125 year anniversary.
Another view from the glass floor on the first level. Get your tickets early!
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.