My mom loves castles. Seriously, no one loves castles as much as my mom does. We’re talking castle wall calendar, castle-lover status. Two castles top her list: Mont Saint Michel in France, and Neuschwanstein in Germany. Now that she’s retired, she’s got time to travel, and I’m so excited we got to take her to France to see Mont Saint Michel in all its glory! (Plus, spending the rest of the week in Paris with her and handsome S was bliss!)
Mont Saint Michel
We only had a few days for our whole trip, so hopped a train to Rennes for a night. We ended up in a fancy first-class train with recliner seats and the works (same price as regular class tickets, score!). Very swish. But we left Rennes first thing the next morning on a tour bus to Mont Saint Michel. The bus only cost ~10euro each and we arrived around noon.
As soon as we got off the bus, we could see Mont Saint Michel in the distance. Mont Saint Michel is a tidal island in Normandy. The castle sits atop a huge rock formation and when the tide is low, apparently the world’s only salt-water-plant-eating sheep graze along the shore! There’s a causeway to get out to the castle, that used to flood over when the tide was in, but they’ve fixed it now so the island is always accessible. UNLESS THERE’S A SUPERMOON OMG!
We stayed at Le Relais du Roy, and they gave us a cool room with a teeny balcony with amazing views! It was so close we could just pop down to get a closer look at the castle whenever we wanted, and made for some stunning snaps of the castle covered in sea fog in the morning. Didn’t even have to change out of my pajamas!
We ate at the hotel restaurant; I tried the Mont Saint Michel omelette, which had seaweed in it… and was poofed up like a soufflé! Chased it with a huge creme brulee but everyone scoffed most of it off my plate! Vultures!
The next day we went into the castle, toured the beautiful rooms (huge vaulted ceilings with great pillars, how did they do it all without cranes?). We saw the grand views of the causeway and the tour groups fording the sometimes-quicksandy beach while the tide was out. It felt like a totally different world, far away from everything else. Utterly relaxing.
I forgot to mention, it was about 38 degrees C (100F) everyday, sweltering relentless heat. Nothing had air conditioning or even a fan… so it was really quite uncomfortable most of the time. But anywhere with a breeze, gelato, ice cold beers, came as SUCH a relief.
They have built a new fancy dam on the river that heads out around the castle, and it’s worth watching the water levels change at the tides. We finished seeing everything there was to see in Mont Saint Michel and Pontorson in a day, so hustled onto a train (not first class this time unforch…) and headed to Paris for the next few days adventures!
Paris: DAY 1
1. Eiffel Tower
Since it was my first time in Paris, I wanted to see and do (and eat!) all the touristy things. Handsome S however has been a number of times, so was over the Eiffel tower and such. So we split teams and went on our own adventures throughout the day! Everyone’s happy (despite the sweltering heat).
On our first day in Paris, my mom and I got up early and headed to queue for the Eiffel Tower. We’d heard that the best thing to do was queue at the South pillar for the stairs entrance (instead of the super long queue for the lifts). It was cheaper to take the stairs (~5euro), and so much faster. I have a habit of pushing my mom too hard on holiday (She always reminds me of our Washington DC trip of the early ’00s where each night we soaked our feet in the hotel tub, so exhausted from all the walking I made us do). But she managed it up the few flights of stairs without much fuss. Refreshing breezes between all the steel beams on the ascent. We got an ice cream at the cute Eiffel cafe on the first floor before carrying on up for epic views. Definitely worth a visit – but perhaps just the once for me!
We left in the direction of Trocadero station for what are meant to be the best views of the tower (as seen in adjacent photo of my mom with Eiffel). They were pretty great, to be fair, but it was really so hot it was hard to stay still even in the shade. Even for tourist photos…
2. Notre Dame
S had gone to the Catacombs while we went to Eiffel, and we all reconvened back at our cute little AirBnB for lunch (baguette sandwiches, massive macarons, pastries galore from the local bakery!, local beers, so much ice water).
Refuelled, we soldiered on to see Notre Dame. Although it’s free entry into the cathedral, the queues to get in were winding all around the promenade area in front of Notre Dame, and so we just hurriedly snapped a few photos and wandered on. Sorry Notre Dame!
3. Shakespeare & Co.
Notre Dame is pretty close to Shakespeare & Co, the rite-of-passage bookshop for all literary-loving tourists in Paris. Just cross a bridge and cut through a park. We had to queue to get into the bookshop as well – but, result!, this was literally the only place in France it seemed with air conditioning. The place is a warren of books of all genres, tiny but packed. People were crouching over fans at every corner. Most not even looking at the books, so exhausted from the heat… I found a couple holiday reads, got them stamped (<3) and we were on our way!
(Note the queue even for the free-water Wallace fountain on the left of the photo above! Elbows out!)
We crossed a number of bridges on our walk, many of them still covered in Love Locks, even though at the Pont des Arts bridge (famous for all it’s love locks), the grilles are all boarded up as the locks have been removed. Be glad to know we did not put any locks on any bridges anywhere! My love is not a lock. My love needn’t take down a bridge.
We headed on towards Laduree, as I wanted to try their famous macarons – see what all the fuss was about! The shop was beautiful and fancy. We got a pack of a few different flavors and brought them home with us. My favorite was the salted caramel, with lemon a close second! #omnomnom
5. Bateaux Mouches by night
After Mont Saint Michel, riding the Bateaux Mouches boats along the Seine was probably my top pick of our trip. We were packed in like sardines, and had to queue for ages to board, but what a lovely and relaxing way to see all the sights and rest our legs at the same time. My inspired partner bought us a few beers to enjoy on the trip. *collective sigh of contentment*
The boat took us past many of the famous sights we’d seen during the day. But the best part was that we timed our trip to coincide with the sunset and we got to see the Eiffel Tower twinkling and sparkling in the night sky.
It was also fantastic to see the riverbank along the Seine come alive with locals. There were full bands playing all sorts of music, and huge groups dancing in the alcoves along the water. Groups of friends drinking wine along the promenade all waved at us (and the hundreds of other tourist boats I presume) the whole trip. Very lively, friendly atmosphere.
Paris: DAY 2
1. Place des Vosges
On Sunday, we started our day a bit slow, having got home from the boat trip around midnight (way past my bedtime! Sorry, the French!). So we moseyed our way down to the Place des Vosges in Marais, a quaint little square with art galleries and cafes. The corridor’s acoustics amplified the sound of a random accordion player; fancy people mingle with art shop workers; families with kids played in the adjacent park. I got an amazing rose-shaped gelato from Amorino just as it started bucketing down with rain.
2. L’As du Fallafel
At a break in the rain, we headed for lunch at L’As du Fallafel, this super-busy little fallafel shop in the Jewish quarter. The queue to order stretched around the corner of the street, but it was totally worth it! Very hectic, in exchange for an AMAZING shawarma. #omnomnomagain
3. Frog Revolution
Wandering home in the heat (did I mention it was boiling hot everyday?), we found an auspicious beer bar for my frog-loving partner: Frog Revolution. It had a selection of delicious craft beers, brewed not far from the source! Needless to say we were ELATED. My mom had a nap.
Refueled, we headed for the Louvre! S had been before and didn’t want to face the queues, so he went for a walk while my mom and I headed eagle-eyed for the Mona Lisa. As she only wanted to see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, we managed to get in and out of the Louvre in about an hour. Certainly a Louvre record? The whole building was immense, room after room of beautifully high ceilings covered in paintings, every wall also appointed with countless framed masterpieces, every hall filled with sculptures. Incredible really… and kind of scary having all that art in one place!
We found the Mona Lisa, which was needless to say way smaller than expected, and the hordes of people crowding to see it were pretty intense. We squished up to the front so I could take the requisite snap of my mom with Mona in the back. Some kids ducked the barrier and almost got football tackled by the security guards for getting too near to the glass-covered painting. Intense!
We scouted out the Venus de Milo which was way less busy (although still busy, the whole place is heaving). Having seen the required, we headed above ground and out for a 7euro coffee at Cafe Marly facing the Louvre Pyramid. Why I got a hot coffee in the sweltering heat is beyond me.
5. Arc de Triomphe
Poor Stuart hadn’t gotten very far as we were only in the Louvre for an hour. He turned round and met us at the cafe and we headed down on foot via the Jardin des Tuileries towards the Arc de Triomphe. I had every intention of walking there from the Louvre, through the lovely gardens along the way. However with the boiling sun, minimal shade, and the plethora of people selling cheap trinkets, we opted to take the metro instead.
The Arc de Triomphe was pretty big and busy all around. I like my photo of the girl (American tourist) with her red beret and striped shirt and bottle of red wine. Pretty much epitomizes what so much of Paris was like. At least all the touristy bits…
We headed off quick-smart, found an open-air cafe restaurant (basically all the cafes have all their walls open, with people drinking and smoking outside at small tables, everyone facing the passing crowds). I had a croque monsieur with a fried egg on top – get in! S and my mom both had refreshing salads. =)
6. Jardin du Luxembourg
After a massive day in the sun, walking around everywhere, all I wanted was to sit down in the shade and relax. After our lunch-dinner we headed to the Luxembourg Gardens, a free-to-enter public park which was pretty quiet compared to all the mega-touristy places we’d been so far. We sat for a bit beside the fountain, evening breeze blowing through, then wandered about stopping to check out the various old guys playing chess at some chess tables, people playing tennis, couples cuddling. A lovely place. And a really nice way to bookend our second busy day.
Paris: DAY 3
Our final day! Bittersweet to say the least.
We didn’t have much time before our flight, so tried to do lots of stuff in the same area: beautiful Montmartre!
1. Sacre coeur
First stop on our trip, we caught a funicular up to the top of Sacre coeur for the most picturesque Parisian views.
We popped inside to the church (still functioning! free to enter!) and didn’t take any photos because there were pretty explicit signs saying ‘NO PHOTOS’ and ‘SILENCE’. It took all my will power to hold my tongue at the tourists taking photos of the praying nuns, right in front of the ‘no photos’ signs. Really winds me up! Who are you people? Put your iPads down! They’re definitely getting smote.
2. Place du Tertre
Wandering down from the Sacre coeur, we stopped to see the Place du Tertre. The whole square was lined with artists painting right there on the spot and selling their various masterpieces. Very cool.
3. Montmartre Cemetery
We followed the winding road down from the Place du Tertre, passed the famous Moulin de la Galette (the last remaining windmill in the area I think?), to the local cemetery. I think Paris is pretty famous for its epic cemeteries, especially Père Lachaise, but we couldn’t quite squeeze that in this time. But I think the cemetery in Montmartre gives a good idea of what they’re like – cobbled tree-lined paths, new and old family tombs and gravestones in a variety of styles on all sides. The dappled leaves shading the whole area, surprisingly cool, solemn and quiet. We found Alexandre Dumas’ tomb; he was missing a toe!
4. Cafe des 2 Moulins (from Amelie fame!)
Had our last Parisian lunch at the Cafe des 2 Moulins where Amelie works in the eponymous film. It’s a bit touristy, a massive floor-to-ceiling Amelie poster on the wall, but the food was tasty and all the servers seem tres chic. I reckon there are still lots of artists and aspirational ex-pats in Montmartre. I ate a massive lunch followed by yet another creme brulee – one almost everyday! We caught a glimpse of the original Moulin Rouge on our way to the train station (and dodged all the red light district festivities!).
Top (tech) tips!
In America, it’s so hard to get days off for vacation. I think because of this, I’ve always been one to ultra-plan and max-out every moment of my holidays. We’re talking minute-by-minute organization. My wonderful partner is more adventurous, getting his visas when his plane touches down, not knowing where he’ll be sleeping that night, or what the local ‘must see’ things are…*shudders*
We compromise – I didn’t look into anything for this trip until a week before we left, relied on colleagues and friends for recommendations and left the accommodation booking & flights to S to organise(!).
So in that week before we left, I binge-researched, downloaded the following (free) apps and they were BRILLIANT! Think I definitely tamed Paris by having these basic tools in my pocket:
- Paris ulmon – offline map & metro
This was a lifesaver when we were trying to find the nearest metro stations and figure out where our flat was in relation to the many and sundry ‘places of interest’. All well noted on the offline map, so we could even figure out where we were going while underground on the metro! Score.
- Paris Metro
The Paris Ulmon app has a metro map, but I really liked having this Paris Metro app too. It let me put in my start and end stations and returned the color-coded routes, where to transfer, how long it would take, etc. Very handy.
- French – learn french
I definitely didn’t learn French in a week. I didn’t even really learn a passable amount of basic greetings… But it was nice to have this app for a wee quick taster (cramming on the plane over!), to hear some common phrases spoken aloud, practice hellos, thank-yous and goodbyes so as not to be a totally rude tourist. I was probably still a rude tourist… but not as bad as the Americans in the Eiffel Tower! You guys should be ashamed of yourselves!
Au revoir & adieu!
Overall it was an amazing holiday. A nice mix of relaxing, touristy, top eats and exercise. Got in some good mommy&me time, and also gallivanted around town with handsome S. I was so glad to get to take my mom somewhere she’s always wanted to go and tick something off her life-list. Now we just have to get to planning our trip to Neuschwanstein!