Paris and Switzerland Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits Paris, France, and Southern Switzerland, September 2002.
Trip Preparation:

Once our travel dates were set, we purchased passes and tickets for everything we knew we would want to do:

We sent copies of passports, drivers Licenses and credit cards to relatives for safe keeping in case we suffer from any theft. And we packed No-Jetlag pills along with a couple of recent Lonely Planet and Rough Guide books in our carry-on luggage.

Day 1 (Fri):

Having left Seattle Thursday around 11:00 am, we safely arrived at Charles DeGaulle airport mid-morning Friday. We used the RER train and Metro to get to our small hotel in the 10th District arriving by noon and carrying no local money. The Visite card makes it sooooo easy since we do not have to buy tickets at any station while dragging luggage around. The 10th Arrondissement is a working class and artist neibourghood, very lively with not much tourism. The Garden Opera Hotel, barely 60 steps away from the Metro station, is a family-run three-star hotel. Breakfast is included. We got a room on the top floor, a converted attic it seems. The room is tiny but spotless, with a refrigerator, phone and TV in the room. The bathroom is unexpectedly big with full tub and shower, hairdryer and a big window. Everything was newly renovated.

It turns out the world-famous saxophone maker Henri Selmer headquarters is only 10 minutes walk from the hotel. We stopped by hoping to catch a factory tour or at least see masters at work, but were politely denied entry. So we made our first tourist activity to the Champs Elysees (photo, Champs Elysees), joining hundreds of tourists from all over the world along this most romantic three-mile walk towards the Arc de Triomphe (photo, Arc de Triomphe). We had a glimpse of a Paris Rush hour with rivers of cars. For an afternoon snack, we got a fresh baguette from the bakery. By French law an establishment may only be called a bakery if they make and bake their dough on premise. Using mass-produced or frozen dough? You cannot be a bakery. This will certainly raise our expectations of baguettes at home. We had heard the Seine River tour is best taken at the sunset hour. So we got to right bank, where you get a good view of the Eiffel Tower (photo, Eiffel Tower in the evening), and boarded the Bateaux-Mouches Boat along the river. The first half hour we enjoyed the swiftly-changing light of sunset reflecting on the river and the buildings along the bank, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, St. Chappell Cathedral and the Louvre, waving at the young couples who were hugging and kissing on the riverbank. The only scene that matches this is at Shanghai's Bund. We sailed the rest of the river after sunset as the city began to light up for the evening. The famous tower shines like crystal. A dozen or so bridges (photo, Bridge over the Seine) we sail under are fully lighted. With the fall wind blowing on us gently under the clear sky, we are in heaven and feeling helplessly romantic.

Day 2 (Sat):

We rose early, had breakfast in the hotel where they served the best coffee we had so far with steamed milk. The FRESH croissants just melt in your mouth. We rode the RER train out to Versailles (photo, Versailles Palace) early enough to walk around the palace grounds and still be the first admitted into the state apartments. Thanks to our museum pass we don't have to stand in the line to buy tickets. The king's and queen's apartments are luxurious beyond belief, but the 250-foot-long Hall of Mirrors (photo, Hall of Mirrors), which links the apartments, is even more impressive: Two dozen giant gilded candelabras hang from the ceiling. Though mirrors were a rare extravagance when the palace was built, seventeen monstrous mirrors line the south wall, reflecting seventeen matching floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto the breath-taking garden (photo, Versailles gardens). Elaborately planned and pruned, the garden is decorated by a dozen fountains, which are operated for one hour at a time on weekends during the warm weather. At 11:00am the fountains started spouting, accompanied by dramatic opera and classical music blasting out of speakers hidden all over the grounds behind the bushes. Among the fountains, our favorites are the Apollo Lagoon (photo, Apollo Lagoon) and the Latona Fountain (photo, Latona Fountain), both elaborately depicting mythological figures supporting the theme of King Louis XIV, who styled himself the Sun King.

We were still in a Versailles mood when we got back to Paris so we decided to continue to the Louvre through the Pyramid (photo, Louvre). Facing the prospect of visiting the largest museum in the world in just one afternoon, we knew we had to be highly selective. Of course we had to see Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. In person, Mona is somewhat smaller and darker than we expected. She looks most mysterious when you face her close up. Her smile and gesture seem vague but offers limitless imagination. Venus, on the other hand, seems more real, larger than life. She looks like she is about to start walking or maybe already in motion. The way she balances her body makes the statue seem perfect, especially when we are able to see her back. It is a gracious S showing a beautiful woman's curve. There are so many masterpieces in the museum we first felt like two greedy kids in the enormous candy store, running around trying to see everything, but the intensity of the collection almost drove us crazy. We had to flee after 5 hours fearing we will turn ourselves into two raging bulls.

Day 3 (Sun):

Our Sunday sightseeing itinerary is perhaps more aggressive than the previous day. We started off early to visit Notre Dame (photo, Notre Dame Cathedral) in time for the first Sunday Mass. The young cantor's singing was beautiful and affecting. The cathedral is grand and ornate, and the Bell Tower seemed even more tempting. We climbed up 400 steps in a narrow steep spiral stairway to reach the top. The view is for sure worth the climb, offering a bird's-eye view of the city, the river, the tower...

The Musee d'Orsay (photo, Musee D'Orsay) covers artwork from 1848 to the early 20th century. French painters truly flourished during this period. Impressionism was at its peak and there is also a lot of realism. Barbara's favorite painters are all represented here: Rooms full of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Seurat, Van Gogh. An incredible number of paintings by each. Sitting in one of these rooms surrounded by them is such a pampered enjoyment that we could hardly move.

We dragged our feet out to take in a tour of the Picasso Museum before they close. This museum is quite a bit bigger than the Picasso House in Barcelona, and contains a lot more of the artist's later works as well as some of his collection of other artists. While Barbara still favors the Barcelona museum where major collection is of his earlier period, Richard thinks the modern cubist and later work is so cool. We both agreed that it is a wonderful experience to see both.

One of our tour books said the Pompidou Center is open til 10pm, so we thought we could have some typical Parisian dinner before going there. We wandered around a little in the delightful Marais neighborhood and picked one of several small restaurants. No English menu was available, but the waiter tried hard to help us understand what was on offer, including drawing the animal on a napkin to show us what we were about to order. The veggie salad Nicoise and the roasted quail were both wonderful, and Barbara particularly liked the house wine. We hope that giving our waiter an extra 15% tip was an appropriate way to express our appreciation of his artistic efforts on our behalf.

We arrived at Pompidou Center (photo, Pompidou Center) by 8:30pm, and learned that though the center and its big library are indeed open til 10, the Modern Museum closes at 8:45pm. We just cannot simply see the museum within fifteen minutes. So we made an impulsive decision, rather than taking our planned noon flight on Monday, we will buy tickets for the evening train out to Switzerland so we can have another day in Paris.

Day 4 (Mon):

We went to the Gare de L'Est train station early to purchase tickets to Geneva. Then we rode the RER train down to the Eiffel Tower (photo, Eiffel Tower), arriving by 9:00am, just as the cashier window opened to sell us tickets to climb the tower (photo, stairs). It's not only cheaper to take the stairway versus the elevator, the line is also much shorter. It is 400 feet up to the second level and again we had the beautiful Paris under our feet. By the time we left the tower, it was mobbed with tourists and we could hardly move.

We took the Metro back over to Ile de Cite to visit Ste Chappelle (photo, Ste. Chappelle), a dull and heavy looking church from outside, with amazing stained glass windows best viewed from within. The flying buttresses distribute the weight of the roof so fifteen giant windows can be built to house stained glass (photo, Ste Chappelle interior) depictions of 1100 individual bible scenes. We sat inside the church looking out. The sun hits different windows and glasses at different times of the day, so you see the ever-changing pictures. We wished we could sit here all day to be able to enjoy all the windows.

Our last stop was our return to Pompidou Center, where we spent our last four hours in Paris. This museum is in the same class as London's New Tate, Berlin's Modern Art and New York's MOMA. There is so much energy and inspiration in its rich collection of Braque, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall. We always loved Miro, Calder, and Kandinsky who are well represented here. There are also some more contempoeary artists here combining multi-media creations, films, images, etc. It is such a cool place. We were pleased to see the Center appears to be a popular spot for young people to hang out.

Train to Geneva was comfortable and convenient. We had our dinner on the train, caught up on some rest and journal writing, and arrived at Geneva before midnight. We picked up a rental car and drove around the lake to Lausanne, where we checked into the Alpha Palmiers hotel, a five-star establishment situated half-way between the Lausanne train station and the town center.

Day 5 (Tues):

After a relaxed breakfast, we walked down to the shore of Lake Geneva at Ouchy, and boarded the boat to Geneva, a three-hour trip contrasted with the train or driving, which takes 40 minutes. The boat makes many stops along the north and west shores of the lake at various villages and towns (photo, little chateau and photo, lakeside town). It's a relaxed means of transportation, appealing to local seniors perhaps a little more than the average tourist or local citizens. Just before docking in downtown Geneva, the boat passed the Jet D'Eau (photo, Jet d'Eau), the most powerful fountain in the world. A 1360-horsepower engine pumps water to a 140-meter plume. At any time when the engine is on, fully seven tons of water is in the air. It is no doubt the landmark of the city, either from the lake or from the shore.

We strolled through the old town (photo, Geneva), which mainly consists of cobblestone narrow streets zigzagging up the hill. We visited St. Peter's Cathedral (photo, St. Peter's Cathedral), where John Calvin preached in the 16th century. From its bell tower, the Jet D'Eau is right at eye level and the whole city is underfoot. The rest of the afternoon was spent in the old town window shopping, people watching, nurturing a big ice cream, til early evening when we caught an express train back to Lausanne.

Switzerland has four national languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. We are in the French part, so French is prominent everywhere, tailed by German and Italian in any written form. However, in the restaurants, even though the menu is written in three languages, we still could not understand it. We finally figured out in order to not causing every waiter drawing animals in the napkins to help us order, we just went to buffet restaurant where what you see is what you get, though you still pay for the weight, not all you can eat. It worked out great and the food was very fresh and tasty, exceeding the expectation of American buffet.

Day 6 (Wed):

We started early today on a glacier viewing expedition. The train ride to Visp from Lausanne takes two hours. The ride offers views of Lake Geneva (photo, lake view) and Alps country scenes (photo, Alps). From Visp, we changed to the glass-top train for an 80-minute scenic ride through valleys, creeks and waterfalls to Zermatt. The train passes numerous small villages, where the farmhouse windows are practically within an arm's reach. Old farmers sitting on the balcony waved at us, it matched our childhood image of a Swiss Alps village perfectly. Zermatt (photo, Zermatt) is a lovely ski town with only electric vehicles, sort of like Vail, Colorado, but much more quaint. We bought a ticket for the cogwheel cable car all the way up to Gondolas Peak. All during the ride, the Matterhorn (photo, peak) was approaching. We found this famous peak somewhat reminiscent of Mt. Rainer in terms of its dominating power towards the surrounding area. But where Mt. Rainer is smooth and graceful, the hooked peak of the Matterhorn is sharp and imposing. At the top, two St. Bernard dogs (photo, Bernards) were greeting tourists. They are the natives of the Alps famous for being the working dog and rescuing travelers, with the whiskey barrels tied under their necks. Back in Lausanne we hooked up with some friends at the hotel, and all of us went out for crepes in a local shop, some enjoying dinner crepe -- pigs-in-a-blanket style in American eyes -- and some a dessert crepe -- like an ice cream sundae with soft wrapping. Both styles were very good.

Day 7 (Thur):

Today we took the train to Fribourg (photo, Fribourg), a true medieval town with 35,000 population, half German and half French. Every street bears both a French name and German name, often the two are completely different. It is wild to walk the steep streets (photo, street scene) and try to figure out how to navigate the town. There are a few bridges (photo, Fribourg bridge, and another, and another) at the edge of the town where you can get fabulous views. One of the bridges (photo, covered bridge) is totally roofed and carries automobile traffic, similar to covered bridges in Guizhou of China, or perhaps in Madison County. Fribourg is not very touristy, but most picturesque with old charm. At the local art museum there are paintings of the city by local artists of the 15th and 16th centuries. We had to smile because they are identical to the pictures we had just taken of the city. The shape and color of the roofs of the houses on the steep terrace and the bridges are still the same. It doesn't seem to have changed in 600 years. After walking around the city, hanging out in the local market and cafe, we headed back to Lausanne. Our friends had planned to hold a banquet in the world famous Chateau of Chillon near Montreux. A lovely castle built along the shore of Lake Geneva in the 15th century, it became well know when Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley stayed there to write their books such as Prisoner of Chillon and Frankenstein. We toured the dungeons and wine cellars in the basement, the magnificent dinning room, living rooms and some bedrooms. The banquet in the great dinner hall featured a four-course meal including the famous truffle and three different kinds of cheese served between courses. They blew our taste buds away.

Day 8 (Fri):

We took a boat ride to the south shore of the lake to visit the French town of Evian, famous for its pure water. It is a lovely town, and by luck the farmers' market (photo, market) is open on Friday. We walked up to the Evian water fountain (photo, fountain) to fill our water bottle, tasted some local cheese and bread offered at the market and bought some local red wine from the wine maker. Then we headed back to the boat to go back up north to see the Chateau of Chillon again, this time during the daylight. When the boat made its stop in Lausanne, a big tour group from US boarded. We found out the name of the group and realized that two of the group members are Amcan clients. Rick and Carole have been our good clients from a different state for several years though until now we've never met in person. Barbara asked for them and introduced herself. It seemed like miracle to run into each other on this boat, thousands of miles away from our respective homes. It was a wonderful surprise with a picture Amcan Client with his happy travel agent (photo, friends). We said goodbye when the group got off Montreux while we continued on to the Chateau of Chillon. It is so pretty under the autumn sun (photo, Chateau Chillon). We walked along the lakeshore for twenty minutes to Montreux, a world famous resort town that people call the Swiss Riviera. Huge hotels, resorts and shopping centers are taking over the waterfront, while you can still see the old time resisters holding their ground between the modern structures (photo, architecture).

Friday evening we drove out of town to the little French village of Attelen to visit some friends. This lovely young couple lives what seems to us a charmed life in an apartment converted from a 300-year old farmhouse, with the balcony looking out the hilly vineyard. We shared some good cheese and wine before heading over to a village country restaurant, where we had the authentic Swiss Fondue, way better than what we have ever tried at home. Of course the best of all is to have it with our dear friends and a bottle of good house wine. We also forced them to give us chocolate to take home.

Day 9 (Sat):

We spent the morning in the Olympic Museum on the Lake Geneva waterfront of Lausanne. It is quite a compound with a nice sculpture park. Afterward we walked around the downtown area admiring the old architecture. We called in at the Musee d'Art Brut, also known as the Crazy People Museum. Most of the artists presented there had various kind of obsessive mental or social disorder that prohibited them from living a normal life. Their ways of expressing themselves in art is unique and diversified. Some of the works are startling and original, while some is quite oppressive.

We spent the late part of the afternoon and evening making the drive up to the Three Lakes Region to see the Swiss National Exhibition. Along the lakeshore of Yverdon-Les-Bains, there is an artificially manufactured walk-through cloud (photo, artificial cloud) made by over 30,000 tiny jets spraying invisibleu drops of lake water. The cloud is visible even in the mist of rain when we arrived. The cloud installation is certainly impressive, but we felt a little disappointed by the rest of the expo features. There is a heavy focus on restaurants and bars, but during the early evening hours there was not much music going on. We drove back to Geneva, arriving rather late, and checked into a three-star hotel right across the street from the train station. The price was a little high but the location is unbeatable.

Day 10 (Sun):

Sunday was an all-day travel day home.

This was a fun trip, if much much too short. We loved Switzerland and adored Paris, One piece of travel advice we would have to offer anyone who plans to visit Paris would be: Stay longer than four days.