PARIS -- Few big cities make my heart beat a little bit faster, in a good way, than Paris. It was pretty much love at first sight, ever since my first encounter with the City Of Lights when I was 16.
Inspired by a Rick Steves guide book that said, "Paris has a special appeal in winter. You'll find inexpensive airfares and fewer crowds," we headed off to experience Paris over Thanksgiving.
Getting there: There is a nonstop Delta flight from the Twin Cities to Paris. After arriving around 7:00 a.m. we hopped on the efficient and inexpensive Air France shuttle bus which took us to our downtown Paris hotel. The Prince De Galles is located in a tony neighborhood off of the Champs-Elysees. This was a perfect jumping off point for checking out the fabulous windows of designer stores lining this famous shopping boulevard. And as an added bonus, it's less than a half mile from the Eiffel tower. Along the way there are rows of charming cafes and bars which were full of patrons enjoying themselves. I love how the French just stop every so often to simply breathe in their surroundings.
Its winter and sparkling lights have replaced the leaves on the trees. The city is decked out for the holidays with all kinds of festive decorations and music. We strolled the entire length of the Champs-Elysees winding our way through a special Christmas market that lines both sides of the street. Think Minnesota State Fair, no animals, but with plenty of food, clothing and souvenir offerings.
At one end of this magnificent boulevard commissioned by Napoleon sits the Arc de Triomphe. The massive and imposing monument honors France's Unknown Soldier. It's definitely well worth the cardio vascular workout to climb the 284 steps to the top. The payoff is a spectacular 360-degree view of the city and the geometrically perfect boulevards that span from the Arc's center.
Getting around: Paris is one of the best walking cities in the world. And Paris Metro is one of the easy subway systems to navigate of any place I have visited. There are ways to save from passes to small books of tickets.
Not to be missed: One of the most delightful excursions inside the city was to Rue Cler. This vibrant Parisian neighborhood is filled with the sights, sounds and smells of city life. There is much to inspire the romantic from colorful fruit and flower stands to cozy café's. We had a delightful and affordable lunch at Café du Marche where we felt like one of the locals. By the way, don't be shy about attempting some high school French vocabulary words. I have found the French are pleased with the effort and immediately return a response in English so as not to embarrass.
Paris offers a gold mine of pleasures for art lovers. The immense and very well known Louvre is fantastic not just for what is inside, but also for its magnificent façade. A stroll through the vast Tuileries Garden offers a great way to take it all in.
Nearby, the Orsay Museum houses many of the major works of Europe's Impressionist Masters. Inside this wonderful old train station there are treasures from Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir and more. I especially like strolling around this museum because it is not nearly as overwhelming as the nearby Louvre.
Worth the trip: The Marmottan Museum. In an old mansion in a Paris suburb you are able to see the full scale of Claude Monet's prolific artistic life and extraordinary talent. I could have spent hours here just drinking in the vibrant colors and scenes of natural beauty captured by this Impressionist master.
Memorable meal: L'ilot Vache located on Ile St. Louis. This is a charming and somewhat kitschy corner café with enormous floral arrangements on the tables and cow decorations scattered throughout the restaurant. A meal of escargot and lamb chops topped off with the best crème Brule I have ever had. Oh yeah, we washed all that down with a generous amount of Malbec.
Unexpected delight: Bruges, Belgium: About 2.5 hours by high speed train from Paris, this is without a doubt one of the best day trip excursions I have ever taken. Bruges is a well preserved Gothic city that looks like something Walt Disney might have created if it hadn't already existed. From its amazing architecture to dreamy canals and cafes this place is a joy to behold. We hired the delightful Annie Van Hemelryck to show us around. Turns out she went to the U of M back in the late 1960s, so we had an instant connection. If your time is short, this is a great way to maximize exposure to this wonderful town. I can't say enough about Bruges other than it is not to be missed.