The day of our departure from England, we headed out for St. Pancras station to take the Eurostar train to Paris. The station was close enough to walk to, even with our suitcases dragging along. St. Pancras is the station where Harry Potter was filmed, even though it says in the movie that they’re at Kings Cross (which is right next door, actually). It’s a lovely train station with nice exposed brick walls and an arched glass ceiling.
Taking the Eurostar is pretty straightforward. You need to buy your tickets online as far in advance as possible if you want a good deal. I think ours were around £65 for a one-way ticket. There are assigned seats and the seats with a table in between are in high demand. We printed our tickets out at the station and headed through security. It’s much the same as airport security except you’re allowed to bring drinks along and they aren’t concerned with looking at your liquid toiletries. They are, however, interested in all your electronics. They took everything out of Mister’s backpack, asking what everything was. India and I were both patted down. It took forever to get through security and there is absolutely nobody there to help you figure out where you’re going. Just follow all the people up the giant elevators and then head for the train car listed on your ticket.
There is no baggage claim so all your suitcases get brought on board with you. There is plenty of room overhead or at the luggage racks at the front and back of every car. I didn’t see an employee the entire trip, once we were through security. Heaven help you if you need some assistance!
The entire trip takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes. The last time we went from England to Paris, they had built the chunnel but hadn’t started running it. Instead we had to take those nauseating ferrys from Dover to Boulogne. It seems like it took forever. Do those even exist anymore? I can’t imagine that anyone would take them.
Most of the trip is overland; the underground part is less than half of it. Here’s my first selfie in France! The last time we were here almost nobody had cell phones and we had no children. Things have changed.
Speaking of children, this boy would put his head down and fall asleep every time we were sitting for more than five minutes.
We arrived in Paris at the Gare du Nord station. It was like walking into a train station in Detroit. We left the beautiful St. Pancras station only to arrive in a place that is totally ghetto. The Gare du Nord is not terribly user-friendly either. We wanted to get onto the Métro but the ticket kiosks only took Chip + Pin credit cards (which no American has. If an American credit card has a chip, it’s a chip + signature card. There is a difference. I’d heard that this might be the case but I though we’d be able to find a cash window since it was a weekday morning. Wrong!!!) There were a few machines that accepted Euro coins, which we also didn’t have. We had to walk all the way around the outside of the station and enter it from the upper floor to access the rest of the train station. We couldn’t find an ATM so we had to settle for cash exchange (rip-off!). We eventually found a real person working at a ticket office and and had enough money to buy a couple of books of subway tickets (called carnets). It was a real pain and left Mister cursing under his breath about how much he hates French people and why do they make everything so complicated?
We dragged our suitcases down into the Métro and managed to find our way to the flat we had rented on the Ile St. Louis, which is one of two small islands in the middle of the Seine river (it’s the one on the right in the photo below). The other is the Ile de la Cité, which is where Notre Dame sits. When I was a teenager I had a poster of Notre Dame and the Ile St. Louis on my bedroom wall. I used to imagine that I lived there and how cool my life would be if I did. I’ve wanted to stay there ever since.
Nearly all of the buildings on the Ile St. Louis were built in the 1600′s. It’s quite a peaceful and charming place with only a few streets. From our living room window you could kind of see the river. It’s just past the pale green tree in the center of the photo.
Our flat was in a skinny building with slightly terrifying wooden stairs. I love to think about all the people who have climbed those steps over the years. Who were they? When did they live? What was the best thing that ever happened to them? And the worst?
About fifteen steps away from our front door was a very good gelato shop called Amorino. It’s definitely the most cozy gelato shop I’ve been to. Every place on this island has the original exposed beams. It’s such a lovely rustic touch.
People rave about this stuff and it was good. But I’ve had better. Never have I had it so artfully scooped, though. This is my first gelato flower.
We liked to get our gelato or ice cream then walk a block down to the Seine and sit on the riverbank watching the boats go by. It was fun just hanging out with the kids and talking without any electronics or interruptions getting in the way, aside from peddlers trying to sell beers out of a cooler (weird).
Down the street a block or so was the best ice cream shop in Paris, Bertillon. It closes early-ish (8 pm) so we only got to have ice cream there once. I liked it a lot more than the gelato. Let me tell you the very best thing about Paris: they take caramel very seriously. Here in the States caramel is kind of a secondary flavor. It’s just now beginning to get the starring role it deserves. But the French know the importance of caramel, especially salted caramel, and you can find caramel au beurre salé in all sorts of yummy products.
If you are planning on going to Bertillon, be aware of the hours and also the fact that it’s closed most of July and August. Why an ice cream shop would be closed in the summer is a mystery only the French could explain (I know that’s when they take vacations but come on! It’s summertime. And you make ice cream. How about taking a vacation in November instead?) Anyway, if you find yourself wanting ice cream when Bertillon is closed, don’t fret. Finding Bertillon in Paris is like finding Blue Bell in Texas. In other words, it’s everywhere. If you’re on the Ile St. Louis after closing time, just head over to Pom Canelle which is about twenty steps away. They have a take out Bertillon ice cream window that is usually open til 11 pm (just look for the line outside). It’s also a restaurant (seating inside) that serves delicious food. We ate there one evening and enjoyed it immensely. Their onion soup is superb. Mister kept calling it French Onion Soup which, technically, all onion soup is when you’re in France. The food is simple and delicious.
Let me just mention French restaurants while I’m at it. The oddest thing to an American is that they all look the same. There is really no theme to them. Especially if you’re eating outdoors at a café. They all have the same exact chairs, the same tables, the same colored awnings. The menus tend to be somewhat similar too. It’s very hard to decide what might be good restaurant and what might not. I suppose once you start getting into a higher price point, the restaurants get a bit fancier but I wouldn’t know. Meals aren’t our big splurge, even in Paris.
That’s where your cell phone comes in. You can download apps like Travelocity and find out which restaurants nearby are good. You can search by price point, by location or by rating. It was so helpful! I believe it’s a free app, so make sure you download it before you go. (And try it out before you leave since quite often the initial download requires a lot of data and you don’t want to waste the precious data on your overseas plan.)
We are huge fans of crêpes (say it the French way so it rhymes with “peps” not “gapes”) They’re cheap and easy to eat. There are tons of sit down creperies but to-go crepes can be hard to find if you’re not staying in a touristy area (“to go” in French is “à emporter” FYI). Tourists are fond of crêpes because they’re cheap, I guess. I’m partial to crêpes with ham and cheese and fresh spinach. The best crêpe places will have a sweet batter which is white and a savory batter which is made of buckwheat and is brown.
The nice thing about Parisian restaurants (well, all restaurants in France really) is that people don’t tip.Well, they do but it’s always included. You might want to leave an extra €2-3 if the waiter was particularly helpful. Being a waiter or waitress is considered a real career; one that they are paid decently to do. They get the same wage whether they have one table all night or ten. Since French people tend to be more relaxed about working, they’d really rather have you stay all night. Less work for them in the long run. You will also most always have to ask for your check. It’s just how it works over there and is not necessarily the mark of poor service. Remember, they like their meals to last a long time.
It seems odd that take out food isn’t more poplar in France but the French really do like to sit around and take their time at meals. This is just insane to Americans who are always go go go. Sitting down for two hours at lunch or dinner seems like nothing but a waste of time. We were frustrated a lot because the only restaurants we could find were sit-down restaurants and we didn’t want to waste our precious sight-seeing time talking about philosophy (or whatever it is that Parisians discuss over long, dawdling meals). We ate a lot of baked goods and sandwiches because all bakeries have sandwiches to go.
If you do find some good restaurants ahead of time, you’ll most likely need reservations. That’s how it works over there. I speak some French but the idea of calling a restaurant in France and making a reservation was so far out of my comfort zone that I simply couldn’t (I really have to psych myself up to talk to strangers on the phone in America. It’s strange.) Also, most restaurants don’t open til 7 pm. This is how French people spend their evenings, eating and talking. I emailed the guy were were renting our flat from (who used to live in Austin, coincidentally) and asked if he’d make reservations for us. He was completely happy to. If you stay at a hotel, have your concierge do it; that’s their job.
And then there is the issue of drinks. We don’t drink alcohol, being Mormon, which I have to say was kind of a bummer. Wine always seems so appealing. Instead we had water or if we were dragging, a Coca. Always in a can. The only place I ever saw fountain drinks was at McDonald’s (yes, we went to McDonald’s a couple of times. Sometimes a girl just needs a big pop, a toilet and free wifi). If you ask for water at a restaurant you’ll usually get bottled water. If you want tap water just ask for une carafe d’eau (most French/English translator apps will have a pronunciation button so you can hear how to say words and phrases. I like the VidaLingua app a lot. I think it was $2.99. Worth it!). All drinks will be room temperature, so just get used to that fact. As I’m sure you’ve heard, Europeans are not terribly fond of ice. Or cold drinks in general. Just embrace it. Even at McDonald’s you won’t get ice in your drink. It seems subhuman but you don’t want to sound like a bratty American by complaining. When the stewardess on the flight home put ice in my cup I almost started to cry for joy.