Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Visiting Paris and London for the first time?

For Lois, who just booked her first trip to Paris & London...

Of course you are doing your research beforehand on Google Earth, You Tube, Trip Advisor, Rick Steeves...  I also read lots of fiction and nonfiction (history, art, architecture) and watched movies (Midnight in Paris!).  This helped tailor the list of the things we wanted to do and places to see on our all-too-brief tour. Definitely part of the pleasure is planning! I also asked friends who had visited for their thoughts.

One friend who earned a living for many years as a newspaper reporter was often called on to write travel pieces. He would spend the first day or two touring by land and then by water to get an overall sense of the geographical orientation.  Of course, Ciairan had an expense account and hotels eager to impress, so there were often limo drivers involved. For Rob and I, visiting Paris and London for the first time, the 'hop on hop off' tours were a great option, and the providers we chose offered both land and waterway tours. Along the way we were able to pick up the sense of place in neighbourhoods and districts, directly experience which hold the most appeal personally, and then go back to spend more time. Although we certainly did a lot of research beforehand, taking the 'overview tour' really did confirm where we wanted to spend our moments.  Even the best primary sources can't capture the vibes, kinetic energy, sounds and smells that resonate with your unique tastes. Also great was getting a birds-eye-view: if you time it right, you can begin your visit on the London Eye or Eiffel Tower in the daylight, enjoy sunset and then gaze upon the night lights.

Once we had a real sense of where we wanted to spend our precious time and energy, we'd visit the neighbourhood and target the things & places we wanted to see within it. The research we'd done beforehand would help us know which days were best for what activities (i.e. Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, or the dates and times for the changing of the Guards).

My favourite sections in travel books were the 'Guided Walks' that mapped out foot-friendly routes. Many of the places you walk past have interesting histories, so it is worthwhile to learn something about the back-story on who lived at the address. London generally puts plaques on their buildings, but Paris is very understated that way... I would never have known I was a block away from where Baudelaire held his opium soirees if I hadn't picked up a Frommer's.  Once I knew the address I had to go just to stand on the street in front of the building, imagining the comings and goings over the centuries.

Alex recommended guided walks, and our friend Laura spoke highly of London Walks, which led us to check out Paris Walks. There is lots to choose from, just pick a day and topic of interest and show up, no need to book ahead. The guides were incredibly informed and entertaining, and we learned something new every time. Definitely time well spent!

There were some places that were obligatory to visit as 'first-timers'.  How could we not spend time at the Louvre, or go up the iconic Eiffel? The Changing of the Guards was originally on our London itinerary, and we actually made it to the gates but ended up blowing it off because we'd have to wait more than an hour to hold our position for a decent view. Some things are best seen on You Tube. We also tried to mix things up a bit and get to places a bit less trod by tourists, like the Canal St. Martin and a narrow boat tour that started in Little Venice.

Our itineraries were definitely packed but we did try to leave some room for serendipity...  easier said than done because there was so much we wanted to see, but really, some of the best memories were just sitting in cafes or galleries and watching the world go by.  

Eating and drinking? I had a list of places I wanted to eat and drink in each city but other destinations ended up taking priority once we arrived. We'd generally have one 'nice' meal a day, either lunch or dinner, having a fortifying breakfast at home before heading out on our whirlwind tours.  After several hours of running around, we'd realize we were extremely hungry, and that realization would hit us when we were right in the midst of a major tourist district. This did not lead to the best culinary experiences. A general rule of thumb would be to avoid the touristy restaurants where they overcharge for mediocre fare and try to enjoy meals where you see the Londoners and Parisians dining. And if you want to go to a really special place, like the Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower, you need to book weeks if not months in advance. Bring water bottles you can fill up from home and at stops along the way, and put some nutritious snacks in your pocket so you won't be tempted to fuel-up at tourist traps. In Paris, we had a couple memorable picnics seated by the Seine, complete with a bottle of wine and often live musicians. The batobus goes up and down the river all night, with Paris all lit up and sparkly, and we didn't have any trouble bringing light refreshments along for the ride. In London, the Markets (Borough and Camden) offered the most incredibly tasty and delicious tasting menus!

For more of my thoughts on Paris and London, click here.

No comments: