Père Lachaise Cemetery

When we first headed to Père Lachaise Cemetery on New Year’s Eve day, it was closed for reasons of security. There was no mention of this on the website, naturally. And, naturally, the site that has the most logical name has no actual affiliation with the cemetery, so you have to hunt around and find it within the Jardins de Paris uber-site. Because, naturally, you’d look for information about a cemetery on a garden website.

Sigh.

We got our hotel guy to find phone numbers for us, and I called many times but no one answered, so we headed blind back out to the cemetery on January 3. It was open, and we swooned at the decaying beauty that enveloped us.

Père Lachaise Cemetery
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South of France to Rome, Italy: Why So Hard?

When I leave today for Rome from sunny Montpellier, I will walk to the end of my street and board an express train to Nice. I have an hour and a half layover in Nice – just enough time to stroll down to the sea while munching on a delicious sandwich from Paul – and then I take the overnight train to Rome.

The train is lovely. I am usually alone in my sleeper compartment; there are fresh cotton sheets and a snug wool blanket; the porter brings me bottled water at night and tea, pastry and the newspaper in the morning. It’s a hotel that hurtles me toward my destination as I sleep, with constantly changing panoramic views and St. Peter’s Basilica in the morning sunrise. I step off the train at Termini refreshed and relaxed, and within 10 minutes I am at the door of my friends’ house.

The entire trip takes 19 hours, due to the layover and several lengthy stops in Italy throughout the night, which go unexplained but I think allow other trains to pass and also let passengers arrive in Rome at an hour when things are actually open (9.45AM as opposed to the previous arrival of 6ishAM).

Nineteen hours! People exclaim. Surely there must be a better way to get there?

The answer? No, not really. There are some that might take less time by the clock, but are infinitely more hassle, due to the fact that they all involve flights.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love flying. But trains were made to be easy, and they are. Heck, on the return tip’s Nice layover I rent a chair on the beach for the morning!

Sure, Ryanair, EasyJet and the rest of them fly from roughly my area (Carcassonne, Lyon, Marseilles, Paris; I mean, it’s all the same country, at least) to Rome’s two airports. But the airports are a hassle to get to from the trains I have to take to get to those towns (Paris Beauvais, anyone?); the planes often leave at bizarre hours, prompting either overnight hotel stays (goodbye, savings) or bizarre contortions of time and space (I can’t get to the airport 14 minutes before my flight; my only other choice is seven hours before my flight).

No, give me my train every time. Clean, comfortable, less chance of death, and you leave from and arrive in the center of each town. Also, one time an old Italian porter pinched my cheek and told me I was a star! When’s the last time someone did that on a plane? NEVER.

[EDIT: Ms. Adventures reminded me of another great thing about trains – bring as much heavy, awkwardly-shaped, or fragile luggage as you want!]

(P.S. You think I’m a foodie? Ms. Adventures has me beat! Check her out.)

A reader I suggested I look for cruises!  HA!  Love it.  I think cruise vacations are pretty cool, and that’s my little secret. You never have to worry about finding holiday apartments, and you can get good travel deals that tie in with the cruise part of your trip, too.

Paris Flea Markets: Best Description Ever

Stuff White People Like is a funny, scathing look at the things people of a certain kind hold dear. Their newest feature, White Spots, talks about places around the world that White People Like. The newest features the best description of the flea market in Paris – LE MARCHÉ AUX PUCES for you Frenchies – I’ve ever read:

Proper Things to Say about It:

“I think one of the greatest regrets of my life is that I was at the Paris flea market and there was this beautiful table/chair/painting/cup/sword, and I thought that I would find another one like it back home. Well, ten years later and I still haven’t found it. Quel Dommage.”

That is so full of win. Make sure you check it out, and then take a look at The Full List of Stuff White People Like to see your favorite food, event, object or person pointedly skewered.

Where to Eat in Paris, Part 2 of 2: Not-So-French Food

French food is amazing. As you dip into yet another runny wheel of baked camembert goodness, reaching for the honey to drizzle over it and then spreading it all on a fresh baguette, you marvel at how these people can still be alive, let alone smoke like chimneys, drink like sailors and eat massive amounts of cream-covered cheese on top of ham, grilled and served on a plate with sausage garnish.

Oh yes, I said sausage garnish – down here in Montpel, tartiflette is all the rage in winter. It is comprised of wine-soaked potatoes sprinkled with lardons, covered with cheese and then baked – and comes with a charming side dish of SAUSAGE. Oh! The Humanity.

Sure, salads are a popular side dish, and frequently a main course – but have you ever actually ordered one? The lettuce, although fresh and crisp, serves merely as a bed on which rest the most outlandishly decadent treats – sliced duck, lightly fried eggs, lardons, cheese, 150 crevettes, a side of smoked salmon, or any number of items that pass for an acceptable salad topping. I’ve actually eaten a salad containing ALL those things. Burp.

Sometimes, even the foodiest of foodies needs a break. So, without further ado, let us see what else the City of Lights has to offer the wayward tourist who’s tired of popping Tums all day long.

SUSHI. It’s the perfect antidote to heavy creams and cheeses, and as I said in an earlier post, sushi in Paris is constantly a joy – fresh and not ridiculously expensive.

ITALIAN. The French have a bizarre idea of what Italian food should taste like (no, carbonara is not alfredo with a raw egg on top, but thanks anyway), so I’m not gong to recommend any old place. There’s a chain of Italian restaurants called Fuxia – yes, Fuxia; no, I don’t know why – that has the best I’ve found. A map detailing all their locations can be found here.

AMERICAN. Step away from the McDonald’s! Breakfast in America should be your only stop for when you’re craving a burger or a breakfast that doesn’t consist of pastry. BIA is also great for when you want to just order something without getting exhausted by the hand gestures and mispronunciations – it’s like stepping back into America for an hour, in the best possible sense.

KEBAB. I’m not sure how to explain the popularity of kebab here in France. It’s a kind of fast food; it’s cheap and quick, and you can eat it while walking; it’s a drinker’s salvation in the middle of the night. It’s equivalent of a slice in New York. And kebab places are everywhere. You’ll find them most in student areas and neighborhoods that offer a lot of ethnic foods, like the 5th arr. Kebabs are absolutely delicious and a welcome change for your palette.

INDIAN. I have yet to find a good Indian place, but I’ll admit I haven’t searched that hard. If anyone knows of one, please let me know!

Where to Eat in Paris, Part 1 of 2: French Food

Finally! Right?? Let’s get down to bidness.

First, the basics of dining in Paris – according to me:

1. Menus vary wildly – and not just the food offered on them. You’re as likely to get a laminated, expertly translated menu as you are a piece of slate with the day’s dishes written in incomprehensible chicken scratch. My advice would be to take some time and learn basic food words, especially of the food you love/want to try the most.

2. Unless you’re a huge wine snob, if the place offers it order a carafe of wine. It’s cheaper and it tastes delicious.

3. You’re in a major city, but you’re still in France – try to eat lunch between 12 and 2, and dinner from 8 (no earlier!) and 10.

4. It’s all about the arrondissement. Get a hold of a map that shows the borders of each quarter, so you know where you are at all times. It’s more important than you’d think. Also, when you’re doing your research online or when you pick up a business card from someplace, check the postal code – it will start with 750, and the remaining two digits are the arrondissement.

5. Crepes. They’re everywhere, and they’re addictive. You can either order them from a stand outside many cafes, and they wrap it up for you for handy eating as you walk; or you can sit in a cafe and they’ll bring them to you on a plate sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. Nutella is the default favorite closely followed by butter and sugar or lemon and sugar. Crepes can also be savory, with ham and cheese – but you really haven’t lived until you have tried a Nutella crepe, piping hot and runny and oh-so-good.

6. Entree – this means appetizer or first course in French, not main dish.

Le Marché (luh-mar-shay), at the Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine, 75004. This place offers nonstop service, so it’s a good place to keep in mind for arriving in Paris at a weird time or if you’re suffering from jet lag hunger. We split a lovely salad loaded with shaved Parmesan, and a charcuterie plate featuring delectable duck sausage from their dishes of the day. This entire square has restaurants, each one as adorable as the next.

Berthillon (bair-teal-yon), on the Ile Saint Louis in the middle of the Seine (also 75004, but if you can’t find an island in the middle of the Seine, go home). This is the island that Notre Dame is NOT on. Berthillon is an ice cream shop. You will see many places on Ile Saint Louis that offer Berthillon ice cream, but the link above is the actual place where they make it. The flavors of the day are posted to the left behind the counter; the price list is on your right behind the door as you walk in. I had two scoops – white chocolate and pistachio – divine. MK declined, as she had just finished a Nutella crepe. Love her.

Au Sauvignon (ahw-sov-eeng-yon), 80 rue des Sts-Pères, 75007. Lots of locals, bad lighting, and a wall full of private jokes, drawings and photographs. We had a wheel of cheese soaked in calvados and two sandwiches – one with prosciutto, one with something else amazing, both on delicious dark bread – which they cut into tiny, bite-sized sammies. This is primarily a wine bar, so no ordering carafes here – get a bottle of whatever tickles your fancy from their amazing list. This is more of a nibbly place than a full meal place, but we were definitely satisfied and a homemade apricot tart at the end sealed the deal.

When we got up to leave, MK noticed her scarf was missing. The bar staff sawwe were searching for something and when I told them what it was, they were apoplectic with grief. They promised that everyone we had sat with that evening was local – I was treated to a description of each one’s profession, marital status, and a bit of gossip – and we were assured that someone would come in over the next day or so realizing they had picked it up by mistake. I assured them we were not upset (“c’est pas grave!”) and that we would definitely be back, if only for more of that calvados-soaked cheese.

As we left the bar, picking our way past two rowdy tables of locals smoking outside, the owner came running out, scarf in hand. It was behind the last table!, he exclaimed, and when he gave me the scarf, I swung it above my head to the applause and cat calls of everyone.

This delightful story is brought to you in order to let you know a little known fact – Au Sauvignon is open on Sundays, which the owner insisted on telling me for fear he would be stuck with MK’s scarf forever.

The cafe at the Musée d’Orsay. MK and I headed straight for the Impressionist section, which, no pun intended, was impressive as hell. Room after room, everywhere you look is one masterpiece after another. Fully sated by the art, we headed for food. There is the swank restaurant – stylish, but overpriced. Go up to the top level for the good stuff at great prices in a stunning setting.

Within this cafe are two levels – one in a big, open room with waiter service, and a balcony overlooking this room that is cafeteria style. I highly recommend the lower of these two levels. MK had a spinach and chèvre quiche, and I had a ham and cheese tartine. The wait staff is very kind and very efficient, and speak about 16 languages between them.

The restaurants around the Place du Marché Saint-Honoré, 75001. We ate at one that I forget the name, Rouge something. This square is filled with great places, very cool crowds, and every menu we saw we loved.

La Tartine, 75004. Like a diner, but French style. The review I linked to is dead-on. We sat next to a fabulous couple – older, French, clothes to die for – and we ate baked camembert with honey and a tartine of duck and chèvre. Their entire menu was amazing, inexpensive, and available all day. Excellent lunch place.

Stay tuned!  Tomorrow, I recommend some non-French places in Paris – for when you simply cannot have anymore cheese.

Weekend in Paris: Executive Summary

The legendary Girls’ Weekend in Paris went swimmingly!

Some stats:

Combined miles traveled: 8,330

Meals eaten: 8
YUM

Dishes cooked, served, taken away and cleaned by someone else: 19

Scarves lost: 1

Scarves found, swung above head as entire bar cheered: 1

Nutella crepes consumed with great gusto by MK: 4
YUM ALSO

Topics discussed: 5,621

Miles walked: approx. 147
BOURNE!

Bottles of wine drunk, paid for: 3

Bottles of wine drunk, stolen from next table: .5
DRINK

Carafes of wine drunk: 3

Glasses of champagne drunk: 2
CHAMPAGNE

American diner breakfasts savored by me: 1
DINER

Times my French was corrected: 0

Celebrities in Us, People magazines that were unknown to either MK or myself: 23

Times hotel clerk swiped MK’s card, to no avail, because he wouldn’t listen to me: 442

Amount of money currently in my bank account: 0
PAREE

Regrets: 0

Fun With Blog Stats

I love looking at my blog stats. Not for the number of hits I get; whatever, they come and go, I’ll keep writing anyway – but for the hilarious peek into the minds of people who use search engines.

I’ve posted about this before, I know – but today’s are plain wacky and just too good to pass up. People who searched for the following things came upon my blog:

GIRL PRICE FOR ONE NIGHT IN Istanbul

This no doubt brought a desperate man to Jason’s story – and he was no doubt disappointed in the distinct lack of both girls and their relative value.

i hate frances mayes
Honey! That’s such strong language. Oh wait, I hate her too.

how do you say poo head in italian
You know, with all the other stupid stuff I translated, I forgot poo head! I’ve actually never said that in Italian. Let’s see, it’d probably be “testa di merda” although that’s a bit stronger. I’ll have to check with the Gay Mafia and get back to you.

both shrug chilly and chilly shrug
I have no idea what this means. It sounds like a tiny rap star. I just Googled this myself, and I’m not even in the first 15 pages of results. Which means that someone not only had to work diligently to get to my page from this search, but did it twice.

Dagney Taggart where are you?
OMG so sad and wistful! She doesn’t really exist, though.

What to do in Paris on Mondays?
Lots of things – Ill let you know on Tuesday when I come back from my weekend with the famous MK!

Weekend in Paris – What to Do, If You’re Me

I was musing further on the fact that I’m having a girls’ weekend in Paris next month, and it got me to thinking about my favorite haunts. I’d thought I’d share some with you – and I want to hear what you like, as well!

Berthillon is always on my agenda. Ice cream shops in the middle of a river should always be on everyone’s agenda. So creamy, so rich, and you can walk around the tiny Île Saint-Louis and feel like a wistful princess as you eat your heavenly treat.

Sushi in Paris is constantly a joy. I don’t know the name of the place I love to go to, but I can get there well enough. It’s on rue Berger, right behind Les Halles. Add sushi to your list of foods to eat in Paris.

Because I am a Eurotrash expat, I always must stop by Breakfast in America and load up on yummy diner goodness. I’m thinking of going here after MK flies out on Monday morning, and read the paper and have a good old American calorie bomb of a breakfast.

Last summer, I tagged along to Paris with my friend Vik, who had a much-envied ticket to see Madonna. We stayed at her friend’s house on rue Montorgueil and it was like the Paris that you always want to find but you always wind up not finding. It’s absolutely lovely – well, lovely enough for Monet to paint a picture of it. It’s a must on any walking agenda.

I also love walking from the back courtyards of the Louvre, through to the Pei pyramid, across the street and through the length of the Tuileries, up the Champs Elysees, and then make a left and GASP! – the Eiffel Tower steals my breath every time. I like to go up and touch it, but I don’t think you can do that anymore.

I still haven’t found the perfect thing to do/walk to/eat/drink after this walk, but I think with the girls at my side we’ll find something. Hee hee.

The view from Sacré-Cœur is one of my favorite of anywhere I’ve been. The first time I visited the church I took the funicular up, and when the doors opened an enormous brass band struck up the Marseillaise and a parade started. It was the day the French celebrate the grape harvest, but I chose to believe it was just for me, and Montmartre has been magical for me ever since.

And the church is pretty, too.

Girls’ Weekend in Paris

I am just a princess.

The Queen Mum of travel addiction is my dear friend and gentlest reader MK. I got a fevered email from her just the other evening:

Just home from Costa Rica, let’s talk Paris baby.

She had just returned from a week-long vacation with three other adults and four children under the age of four. The airline lost her luggage, they almost missed their flight home due to a parade featuring horses, tequila and gunfire, and she was still finding sand in her kids’ ears, fingernails and butt cracks.

And now, she was planning a girls’ weekend in Paris with me and a few close girlfriends.

A woman after my own heart, my MK. I immediately rang.

“Nobody better get pregnant before then, because it’s going to be all about the wine. I haven’t been able to have a drink with you in five years!”

My liver groaned.  I giggled.  We started talking hotels.

How to Choose a Hotel Online

As promised, here are my secrets for finding a great hotel room online. These time-tested tips have been closely guarded until now – so get ready to travel like Miss Expatria!

We’ll use Paris, France as an example.

First, I go to Wiki Travel. This is just like Wikipedia, but with a focus on each city from a traveler’s perspective. It gets my head into the game and gives me an idea of where I should be staying in the city.

Then I go to Expedia. This gives me a rough indication of what to expect in terms of hotel prices and styles for the city of my choice. I check out the hotels using the map feature, so I can get an even better idea of the areas of town I should be looking in. I don’t love Expedia for booking, but that’s just me; I tend to find better deals elsewhere. However, I do keep the Expedia page up for double checking, so don’t click away from it!

My next stop is Venere. You can use your favorite hotels website, but if you don’t know about Venere, bookmark it now! I click on “Paris” on the main page, and 757 hotels come up. Yikes.

At this point, I choose the “Find hotels on a map” option – it makes my choice easier, because an important rule is: LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION. Don’t choose a hotel based on price alone – you’ll be miserable and since the cheapest hotels are usually located in the sticks, it will wind up costing you more to get to where all the action is.

Now, for Paris, I love the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 7th arrondissements. (This is how people refer to these neighborhoods, for the most part – if you wanted to know which arrondissement a certain place is, check out the postal code of that place – it’ll end in the arrondissement number.) I’m going to start in the 1st. Click!

OK, that gives me 37 hotels – MUCH better. Again, this is why I love Venere – I’m a map fiend, and you get a map close-up at the top, with the map overview on the right, so you always know where you are. Right below the maps is where you can choose how to sort the hotels. At this point, I go by price – there is no point in looking at an awesome hotel only to find it’s a kabillion dollars a night. This depresses Miss Expatria and sends her into her Bratty Princess mode, which should always be avoided. I also have gone by star rating at this point, which can produce roughly the same results.

Alright, now we’ve got a working list. The first thing I look at is the price – again, no use in getting one’s hopes up. The 1st arrondissement is pricey – the Chanel store is here, darlings – so I’m not freaking out that the first one is already 89 Euros a night. In a major city in northern Europe, that is probably the minimum you’re going to find, so get over it now. Sure, you can bare-bones it at a hostel or other place, but you’re an adult, and you’re going to be in Paris – bite the bullet and pay the bucks.

If the price is right, I glance quickly at the star rating, but I don’t let it rule my life. In choosing a hotel, once I’ve settled on location and price range, the single most important factor for me are PHOTOS. Let’s take a look at that first hotel to illustrate my point – Hotel Saint-Honoré.

Once I click on the hotel’s page, I go straight for the photos. This hotel has two photos – one of the reception and one of what I can only believe is their finest room.

The reception photo has several red flags in it – the desk on the right is smashed into the seating area, and is of poor quality. There’s no warmth in the room – no rugs, no color. The lighting above the reception desk is actually OK – you want to avoid any strip fluorescent lighting. It’s also a plus that it opens out onto the street – many one-star hotels are on a single floor in a larger building, which just sucks. But, the overall effect of this photo is sadness.

Now, onto the room photo. The framed picture on the wall is just sad, and shows they’re cheap because there should be a print above each bed. The phone on the wall is tacky. The room is painted stark white – no character. The single running headboard with connected night-stand tells me they are using the cheapest materials available. Also, there is no bedside lamp, just the two on the wall above the beds. The bedspreads look worn and thin – I don’t want to crawl into those beds at the end of a perfect day. And the use of the flash makes it look like a crime scene, and tells me there is probably no view and little natural light.

But, this is a one-star hotel – so I was not expecting anything grand. Go back to the browser window that lists all the hotels in this neighborhood. Let’s skip down past the one-stars to the Hôtel Du Cygne. I chose this one because the tiny thumbnail photo shows potted plants at the front door – a nice touch. And 115 Euro ain’t bad for Paris! Let’s go to the photos!

Outside shot – cute. It looks like a happy place. Rooms – ADORBS! Coordinated colors, fresh look, unusual room shapes – all pluses. I can see from the furniture placement that space is going to be tight – but I might be able to overlook that due to the cuteness. The TV mounted to the wall and the wall-sconces-as-only-lighting remind me it’s still only a two-star – but it’s obvious they take pride in making each room have its own character. BONUS POINTS – beamed ceiling in one photo, and the one thing that gets me every time: SUNLIGHT STREAMING ONTO THE BED. I have chosen between two hotels based on this single factor, more than once. It just makes me happy – and it also tells me that they took some time to plan the photos, as opposed to sending up the maid with a digital camera. They’re savvy and they want to make a good impression – two good things in a hotel.

At this point I check out customer reviews to see if the photos are a lie, or if there were any hellatious experiences – but I weight them as a whole. I like these reviews! I implore you to ignore any bad reviews about hotel breakfast prices – this should never come as a shock to an experienced traveler. Also, what are you doing having breakfast in the hotel, if it’s not free? YOU’RE IN PARIS – GET OUT OF THE HOTEL AND HAVE A CROISSANT.

This hotel has definite possibilities, so I scroll back up to the top, copy the name of the hotel, and paste it into Google. Naturally, there are a bunch of hits – but I am looking for the hotel’s personal website. Bingo!

Looking for, and at, a hotel’s personal website is important. First off, if they don’t have one – don’t stay there. It shows a distinct lack of pride in their business, and in 2007, there’s no excuse not to have one. Number two, check out the quality of the website. Does it look like it was put up in 1996 and left alone? It’s not a deal breaker, but it shows they aren’t savvy. Third, you want to check to see if their prices are better than the travel website, and if they have any special deals you can take advantage of.

I wouldn’t book this hotel immediately, because I want to see what my other options are – but I’ll definitely write down this name and keep the website open. The rates and confirmations for the hotel of your choice, you can figure out on your own – but I usually check for the hotel at other travel websites, and do a quick comparison of prices before booking at my final choice.

Two more pieces of advice. One, if there is no difference in the price, book directly with the hotel through their own website. You’ll have an advantage if you need to change or cancel, and you’ll probably get a name of an employee when they write back to confirm, which can help. And my final piece of advice is this – don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. If you see from an exterior photo that there is a room with a spectacular balcony, ask for it! If you want to make sure you have one large bed and not two single beds, confirm it! If you read somewhere that a particular room is the best, make sure you get it!

OK, enough of my secrets – for now. This is how I search for a hotel room for a major vacation – next up, I want to show you the ins and outs of splurge weekends! And coming up soon, a special post about hotels I have loved, and how and why I chose them. That’ll be fun!