Sunday, April 27, 2008

Trip Report: Paris and Vienna -- April 2008

For those of you who like detail...

Background: This was my 5th trip to Paris and 2nd to Vienna, my Dear Sister’s first time in both. We are still on our quest to see all the Vermeers in the world (see last year’s trip to Amsterdam trip report), so we were off to see 2 in Paris and 1 in Vienna.

Flights: We flew IcelandAir again Bos to CDG and return. Got a fare of $578 (total) Christmas week. Flew AirBerlin (which was actually a codeshare with Air Niki) between Paris and Vienna for 9 euro plus taxes of 60 euro. I remain a big fan of IcelandAir. We flew their new 757 with seatback screens (and USB port for the iPod recharge!) going over. Not coming home though. Air NIKI was fine (Airbus 320 or 319) except for the crappy and remote terminals at both Vienna and CDG.

Shuttles: I’ve decided on this trip shuttles just aren’t worth it unless you are arriving during rush hour and might get stuck with a meter running. I’m a typical girl and don’t like to schlep my own luggage, so trains are out for me. We arrived at 1 p.m. on Thursday and the shuttle driver for Paris Shuttle (who I used successfully before) took us directly through a large demonstration near Place de la Republique, which resulted 2 ½ hours stuck in traffic. I heard on the radio in the van that there were large backups, but the driver wouldn’t divert because he had to drop a party off there first. On our return to Paris from Vienna, Airport Shuttle told me when I called at 9:15 p.m. to call back at 9:45 and see where the driver was, leaving us in nearly empty Terminal 3 at CDG for over an hour total. I canceled that transfer and the return shuttle on the spot and had a full refund on my card when I got home. Taxis both from and to the airport were cheaper than the shuttle anyway due to the time of day we were in transport.

Hotels: We spent our first 5 nights at the Hotel College de France in the 5th. This is about an 8 min walk to Notre Dame and there are TONS of restaurants around. Our twin room was large, clean and nice. The bathroom was really big for Paris. We slept with the window open as the room was a bit stuffy and there was no street noise whatsoever that woke us. Breakfast was 9 euro and pretty extensive. The staff was extremely friendly and helpful. I’ve stayed only on the Right Bank on my previous visits, and I loved this arrondissement for its location and accessibility and because it had a lot to do/eat nearby.

In Vienna we stayed at the Hotel Savoy in the Museum Quarter just off Mariahilferstrasse. I’d read on Trip Advisor that there was major construction across the street, but figured that we’d be out of the room most of the day so it wouldn’t matter. Except they start work at 6 a.m., which means they’re out there chatting and yelling and setting up at 5:30. Yikes. The room was very large and there was a split shower/sink and toilet situation (two separate rooms). This would have been a great place to stay in terms of location and comfort. The staff weren’t exactly warm but I expect that in Vienna after my last stay here. I’d stay here again if I knew the construction was complete. Thankfully we were only here one night. Breakfast was included and was standard buffet fare.

On our return to Paris from Vienna, we stayed two nights at the Hotel Muguet in the 7th for a change in scenery. It was about 2 min on foot to rue Cler, which we only went to the morning we left to buy cheese (I’d been before) and about 10 min on foot to the Eiffel Tower. I hesitate to recommend this location to first time visitors because I think it is out of the way for “everything else” (other than the tower) and I think you can do better in terms of accessibility on the metro and to restaurants that are easy to walk to. I also didn’t think highly of the staff as the bathroom looked as if a landmine hit it after it was cleaned – our belongings on the counters and in the shower were all over the place. And the next day there was hair (not mine or DS’s, as we are both blond) in my razor. Ugh. We had a triple room which was two twins and a sectional sofa. Bathroom was good sized and clean. Breakfast was 13 euro and had the fewest offerings on the trip. I would not return here due to location/accessibility to everything I’d be interested in and the problem with our bathroom cleaning.

Weather: It ran high 50s to low 60s most of the week. Every day had some rain. It is deceiving because it may not look like it in the morning, but within a matter of minutes, literally, it could be raining. Not heavily, but enough to be a pest, and usually only for 15-20 minutes or so. We learned to always take an umbrella, or be stuck buying one at any point.

Restaurants: I became a huge fan of Pudlo’s guide on this trip. Four of them below are from Pudlo. I will never travel to Paris without it if they all end up this good.

Gosselins – not in Pudlo, but it’s a deli/café walking between Orsay and Rodin. Toasted four cheese panini, easily weighed 3 pounds. It was a massive sandwich but fabulous.

Le Christine – 1 rue Christine in the 6th, Metro Odeon. Dark paneled floors, white stucco walls, beamed ceilings. White table cloths and white shirted/black pants waitstaff who were extremely attentive. BEST meal of the trip, nothing stood a chance after it. Started with kir royal, then a tomato mousse amuse bouche. Appetizer was Serrano ham over ricotta/pesto tart – delectable. Chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce. Molten chocolate cake. Bottle of red wine, forget what kind. All this for 150E.

Le Louis Vin – 9 rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve, Metro Maubert Mutualite. Brighter and more modern. Everyone there is really young, including the owners who look like they’re 25. 27 euro fixed price menu got us an appetizer of Lyonnais sausage and lentils. We chose the entrecote of beef with camembert sauce and a terrine of chocolate crème anglais. Half bottle of bourdeaux for 25E more, so all under 100E. Really tasty but a bit rushed by young staff.

L’Epi Dupin – 11 rue Dupin (behind Bon Marche department store), Metro Sevres Babylon. My aunt had been here in the fall and highly recommended it and it’s in Pudlo and on Fodors recommendations. We weren’t disappointed. Needed reservations though. Very rustic interior and very nice/attentive waitstaff. A step down from Le Christine in curb appeal. Had kir royal (our nightly thing) and a carmelized endive and goat cheese tart (I liked, but DS though it would’ve been better with onions instead) then the scallops over orange infused risotto. We finished with their signature molten chocolate cake. Set menu was 34E but our alcohol (half bottle of sancerre) and a cheese course brought it to 120E total.

Au Pied du Cochon – 6 rue Coquilliere, Metro Chatelet-Les Halles. This place is known mostly for its pig products, but on Fodors and in Pudlo I read they have phenomenal onion soup. They do and we’ll never be able to eat it again without longing for this. HUGE bowl, perfect combination of bread and creamy cheeses on top. Over-inundated with large healthy chunks/strips of onions. So good we couldn’t eat anything else. They are used to people popping in just for the soup, so it’s not a strange thing to not have some form of pig when you’re there.

Au Lys d’Argent – not in Pudlo, on rue St. Louis behind Notre Dame. We ate here the first night for fast and simple. We both had four cheese and tomato whole wheat crepes and onion soup. I think this was the only meal under 50E the whole week but the crepes were really tasty.

La Bonbonniere De Buci -- 12 rue de Buci, not in Pudlo. We walked from Hotel College de France three, four times? The eclairs are sinful. Absolutely to die for. We’d read about this on the (thank you Beth!!!) and this was the hit of the week, I think. If you are anywhere nearby, or even if you’re not, try to stop in for an éclair. We did not find a better one all week, as much as we tried.

Angelina’s – I brought DS here specifically for the hot chocolate and was pretty disappointed at how bitter-tasting (and lukewarm) the hot chocolate has become since I was last there. We had two wonderful pastries (a Lucas and a Trois Carats) but I’d opt for coffee next time.

In Vienna, we ate our two main meals of the two days we were there at Figlmuller’s both times. The wienerschnitzel, potato salad and grape juice are not to be missed!

Sights: We covered all the usual suspects for a first-time visitor (Orsay, Louvre (twice), Rodin, Notre Dame, Ste. Chapelle, Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre, Cluny, Picasso Museum, Eiffel Tower) We bought the 4 day museum pass for 45 euro and got 61 euro worth of visits out of it. So that was a bargain for us.

I’ll only mention here things I hadn’t specifically written about in prior trip reports:

I finally got lucky and visited L’Orangerie after 4 missed attempts (last time by 6 days!). It was WELL worth the wait, as I love Monet and had only been able to read about these beautiful canvases as long as I’ve been traveling to Europe. We went on a Friday around 5:30 – 6:00 p.m. and were there with only a handful of other people. Just heavenly…I could see Giverny just sitting there. What a thrill!

We followed a walk of Montmartre in one of our guidebooks and were thrilled with the Montmarte Cemetary. It’s a smaller, manageable version of Pere Lachaise, and allows you to take a break from the city while hunting for some of the more popular inhabitants (Degas, Najinsky, Foucault). The walk also takes you through a park with an interesting and rare view of the rear of Sacre Coeur, which was kind of neat. My sister enjoyed the Dali museum which is not my thing but she said it was the largest collection she’d ever seen (she hasn’t been to Spain).

We took a day trip to Auvers-sur-Oise as DS is a huge Van Gogh fan. We caught the direct train from Gare du Nord at 9:56 a.m. on Sunday and got there in about 30 mins. The only direct return train wasn’t until 6 p.m. so we had to go further away from Paris to catch a connection back to Paris, which took about an hour and a half. Auvers is a pretty little town and they have really done well in showing tourists pertinent Van Gogh sites. We toured the auberge where he lived and died, seeing the actual room where he stayed. We also followed a trail of sorts where they post copies of his paintings at the location where he painted them, so you can see the wheatfields, the church, Gachet’s house, etc. And we went to his grave, which was very moving if you know anything about his story and his relationship with his brother (who is also buried there). We had to stop following the trail when rain set in in earnest…the second half of the path is pretty far from the first part and we didn’t want to risk being caught in a deluge. But it was an interesting excursion nonetheless.

Jacquemart Andre Museum – a wonderful house/mansion museum with an eclectic and interesting collection of art, including three Rembrandts. I enjoyed this as a nice quiet break from the crowded larger museums.

There is an interesting view of Place de la Concorde and Invalides from the steps of La Madeleine and even more so with deep dark storm clouds behind it. We stopped here one day when we were “just walking” around near the designer shops and sat on the steps and watched the clouds roll in.

I liken climbing the Eiffel Tower to childbirth: once it’s over you forget how miserable and painful an experience it is without the use of serious painkilling meds. I’d done it back in ‘99 and had no recollection of how long the wait was and how miserable it is to be mashed into elevators and the observation decks with that many people. But with a newbie to Paris, it just had to be done. I estimated a three hour investment first thing in the morning, and I was right…but we took the stairs down from the second level just to “get the hell out of Dodge” and not wait in lines to get out too. Now we can both say “never again”! But the day we did it was our last full day in Paris and it was the only bright blue sky and sunny day we had all week, so at least it was nice to be outside.

In Vienna, the Belvedere Palace and the art collection there is wonderful. We were there at opening and headed right to the Klimts (DS is a fan…I guess she’s a fan of any art!) where we had The Kiss to ourselves for about 10 minutes. I liked the layout and presentation of the museum as well as how “manageable” it felt…not like you were inundated with art you wouldn’t remember later. I still can see its beautiful Monet in my head…

But we did delve into more, taking in a Monet to Picasso exhibit at the Albertina (wonderful!), the Secession Museum for Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, the Vienna City Museum (more Klimts) and the Leopold Museum where I finally reached my fill of secession art. But DS could check off just about every Klimt in Vienna at that point.

I missed the Vermeer at the Kunsthistorisches Museum 4 years ago when I was there and it was on loan to Tokyo. So, we’d written twice this year and confirmed it would be there on the 22nd and thankfully it was. And for both of us, it was the most beautiful of the 19 we’ve seen so far (out of 35 total). It is much larger than his others and makes use of his trademark blue and yellow paints. But there is something so captivating and lifelike about it that we were both smitten almost immediately. I sought out the Caravaggios as I’d taken a liking to him in Rome last year and they were nice, except one was a copy of one in the Borghese. I also came to appreciate how altarpieces are better appreciated in a church than in a museum, as there is one there that was meant to be in a church and was similar to those I’d seen in Rome churches.

We spent a nice evening drinking coffee and eating pastries at Café Central and also enjoyed Sacher torte and coffee at the Café Sacher once.

We spent our last night in Paris actually taking night photographs of the tower, so the hotel location was good for us. I think Paris may have a new fan in my sister, but both of us are content in saying we’ve been to Vienna, seen the Vermeer and every Klimt we could get our hands on, and don’t have to return.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

About me and Vienna...

I've received some questions with respect to my lack-of-love affair with Vienna and why it is that I'm returning. And why it also is that I am sort of half denying that I'm returning. So here are the facts.

Back in 2004, I went on my first solo journey. The destinations were Prague for 4 days and nearby Vienna for 4 days. I had a delightful time in glorious Prague. The people were friendly, the food and weather were good, the music was amazing and cheap. Then I moved on to Vienna.

Vienna was cold, dark and rainy in October. I was constantly cold. Ok, that wasn't Vienna's fault. But it sets the mood for numerous encounters to follow. To wit:

-- I went for the infamous wienerschnitzel at Figlmuller. For those who aren't aware, the wienerschnitzel is as big as the Sit and Spin you had when you were ten years old. It easily overhangs the plate, if not the table the plate is on. I ate maybe 3/4 of it, it was delectable. When the waiter came to clear my plate he says "You not eat anymore" to which I replied, "No, I'm full but it was wonderful." Then he says "You take it with you?" to which I replied "No, I'm off to my hotel to sleep now." And the he proceeded to get all huffy and mean-spirited because I would neither finish nor take the remainder of my wienerschnitzel. Ugh.

-- I took the tram around city and got chased off it by a homeless drunk at one stop, at which time I also dropped/lost one of my favorite gloves. I'll be on the lookout for said glove on my return. You never know. But it's the only time I've run from a homeless person in all my travels.

-- I got hoodwinked by Mozart. Everything in Vienna is about Mozart. There are Mozart stores where they sell all sorts of kitsch with his name and face on it. I will admit to enjoying the Mozart chocolate liquers however. But on the street are the costumed Mozart dopplegangers who convince you to attend a concert of fine Mozart music. After three wonderful nights of (free) classical music in Prague in delightful churches or music halls full of locals, I was hungry to continue the streak of good luck. I ended up sitting in the middle of a Japanese tour group watching performers even more kitschy than the Mozart souvenirs themselves. I could swear I heard them saying "They all paid WHAT for this?" and secretly smiling off-stage. It was just so inauthentic. What a waste.

-- The Vermeer was on loan. I schlepped my butt all over the Kunsthistorisches Museum to see the Vermeer. This was before the Sisterly Quest for Vermeer on which we have currently embarked, but even then I knew it was something that had to be seen. And I got to the wall space where it should be, only to be greeted by the little white "on loan to Tokyo" card. Score another one for Team Vienna. I was down 4-0 now.

It wasn't all bad...Schonbrunn Palace was amazing, Stephansdom is impressive, the liquored hot chocolate and numerous pastries I drowned my sorrows in were delectable. But other than the Vermeer, I had no compelling reason to return, and hadn't planned to. As in, ever again.

So for the Vermeer and to work toward our Quest, DS and I are off to Vienna for two days during our trip to Paris. We have two email confirmations that the Vermeer will be on display next week, so if DS can't shed new light on Vienna, I will truly not have to return. Fingers crossed, either way.

We're goin' to Paris (and Vienna)

Well, the day before is finally here. I have one more sleep before I hit the City of Lights with Dear Sister.

My packing is about done, except for stuff that wrinkles. I have an 8x8x4 space left in my suitcase, which is oddly disconcerting. What have I forgotten? Or better yet, what can I buy to fit in there on the way home?

I was sick most of the last week and went through a bit of "I don't want to leave home" over the weekend, but now with the cold behind me (mostly) and the lure of high 60s and croissants just ahead of me, I'm raring to go.

There is a bit of regret though that the trip is actually here because I really do live to plan and anticipate trips. I have that feeling that in 2 weeks, I'll be sitting back here at my desk at work, with no countdown in my head, no destination in my future, no stacks of guidebooks beckoning me to come hither. But I guess that's when I just put my head down and hit the the quest to pick the next destination.

So let's raise our Starbucks cups this morning in a toast to Dear Sister, who is boldly taking on her personal demons and whisking her way across The Pond once again. It'll be worth it, DS, when you lay eyes on our Vermeers, Vincent's final resting place, and that foot long eclair!

Thursday, April 10, 2008


The Office is back on tonight. Thank god! No, really, thank you! I had just gotten completely caught up with this series when the writers went on strike, so I am desperate to get back into it. And with six brand new episodes coming...well, yay!

And House, MD starts again the week I am back from vacation with four new ones. And they left us with a semi-cliffhanger, with Wilson hooking up with Uptight B*tch (you have to watch to know) so it'll be interesting to see if House can deal with that.

I love Hugh Laurie, but I love Jim too. But YAY! all the way around.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Leaving so soon?

Today I am much more at stable about the fact that we leave in a week. I was caught a bit off-guard at the realization in my last blog. It is funny that when I am not a planning maniac (as I usually am) about a trip that I become so surprised that it is nearly upon us.

Dear Sister has recovered from her pneumonia, at least to the point where I feel comfortable leaving the respirator at home (I’m only half-kidding here). We may not be able to run as hard and as fast as we did in Amsterdam, but I think the break will do her good. And so far, knock wood, I am still healthy, although I need to be nicer to my body after the punishment it took the last few days.

So yesterday, I buckled down and cancelled the newspaper for the week. I transferred my spending money from checking to savings. I double-checked my ATM daily withdrawal limit. I have 20€ in cash left from the last trip, which will get us a drink and a croissant when we hit French soil. Maybe.

Dear Sister, are you checking these little tasks off too?

Tonight I will thoroughly clean the apartment, since Dear Mother is coming in to tend to the cat, and I will call my credit cards and alert them to my upcoming travels.

This weekend I just want to relax, pack, do laundry and get excited.

I’ve come across a few things on Fodors and in a bit of travel guide reading that I might want to remember or add to the list, but if I don’t, that is ok. We’ll see how relaxed I can stay for how long, before I realize where I am what all there is to see.

Confidential to DS -- congratulations, little sister. They are lucky to get you and your passion.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

One week???

Holy crap. As I was walking to work this morning, listening to My Daily French podcasts, I realized that next Thursday I will be needing to speak this language, since I will actually be in France!

I don’t know how it happened, but all of a sudden we are a week from departure. I think subconsciously I have been trying to get over obstacles and other events leading up to the trip and not really focusing on the trip itself. I had a few deadlines at work (indeed I still have one presentation to management the day before I leave!) and I had a spinning conference this past weekend that I was focused on. But now it’s down to the dirty details…

This weekend is my last high intensity training class, I get my hair cut, I start to pack, I need to clean the place since my dear mother is coming in daily to tend to the cat (can’t have her seeing the way it usually looks!). Holy crap, it’s my last weekend at home!