July 16, 2013

A Grand Tour

June 26    We have only two more days in Paris, a city that’s hard to leave. This morning Willie, our eleven-year-old grandson, was absolutely thrilled by the Eiffel Tower–the elevator ride up, and the endless stairs down. If we’d had foresight–long foresight–we could have dined at one of the two restaurants inside the tower, but they were long booked before we realized we should have reserved. But the Eiffel Tower itself was so exciting. Nothing new in posting a photo of it, but Willie took this and I think it is a wonderful look at an icon.

We have taken a million photos. And we have another aide-memoire. At dinner each night, we each write in a trip journal that Willie selected. This already is a treasure, with his comments, drawings, and gusto for sights, food, and oddities, with Ed’s images, off-beat take on the day, and my lists of new words, favorite people observed, and descriptions of food. We tip in museum tickets, subway stubs, brochures, and menus. For anyone travelling with a child, or children, I recommend this as a daily part of the trip. Not only does it  record memories, it is fun to relive the day over dinner, and to laugh again at the missed bus, the weird waiter, the glimpses of real local life.

This jaunt is our  chance to show a curious and adventuresome boy these two primo cities for the first time–a fantastic pleasure.

We began in London, flying out of Charlotte the day after school ended. We stayed at our friends Debbie and Hans’s charming house in Wandsworth, a bit out, but just a hop on a train to Waterloo station, a hub. We loved the feel of Wandsworth, with its high street that looks like a model train village, its neighborhood pubs now serving updated food, and the tidy row houses with miniature front gardens.

Our first activity was a ride on the London Eye, for which we did have foresight to reserve.

I never got on the ferris wheel as a child, so this was one of those the-things-you-do-for-love moments. The view is grand; the ride not as scary as I feared.

Travel with a child has a restorative quality for the grown-ups. You get to experience again some of the wonders of travel that have, over the years, become invisible. Just how exciting it is to zip all over the city underground. Up and down stairs and escalators, connecting and tunneling and emerging into a whole different part of the city. The vast Underground network, then the Metro, became great puzzles to figure out. Soon we were being led by Willie from one line to another, and told the number of stops before we got off. Every gelato and pastry shop becomes an object of interest, the menu becomes a fun discussion on local food, and little scratchings on the wall in the Tower of London tell the intimate story of a prisoner long forgotten. On our own, we never would have gone to Warner Bros. exhibits of the Harry Potter sets. We were all three enchanted. We got to buy a wand! We got to see exactly how they filmed those broom rides and to see the incredible level of detail in the movies.

About a forty-minute train ride from where we were in London, the sets were definitely worth the journey. You must reserve, and, fortunately, the crowds are let in only in batches.  Unlike the horror of visiting the British Museum, which made rush-hour subway seem peaceful.  What hoards. This was the first time I had seen the Norman Foster architectural intervention in the courtyard. Not sure why they did that. I loved the old reading room and now there’s this big THING looming and overshadowing the venerable old museum. Maybe it was fusty, but now–to me–it’s just confusing aesthetically.  We elbowed our way to within fifteen feet of the Rosetta Stone, then left, too daunted by the mobs. Mass tourism isn’t pretty. What helps: reserve whenever possible.  Get up early. The earlier the better.  Long walks before nine give you the city. After eleven, the streets near major sites are thronged, so you must seek out the hidden spots, the smaller museums–often as interesting as the majors–neighborhoods, and boat trips.  We took one Thames journey to Greenwich, where we got to stand on the meridian, to explore the grounded ship Cutty Sark, and to explore the maritime museum, blessedly uncrowded. They have a marvelous collection of ship figureheads.

In Greenwich, we took a break from leek pies, and fish and chips, and had lunch at Jamie Oliver’s new restaurant. Greenwich is an easy day trip and a gracious village. We activated the app Moves, and found that we walked about 8.5 miles a day. That’s my favorite way to explore–on foot.

We all love trains and were excited to take the Eurostar under the channel to France. Willie and I made our way to the dining car and felt exhilarated to eat our sandwiches while swaying along at a tremendous speed.

In Paris, we rented an apartment near the church of San Germain des Pres, heart of food paradise. www.rentparisnow.com We were torn each night over whether to eat at a charming bistro or to pick up delectable things from the artistic and appealing take-away places. After a long day, it was lovely to go “home,” and heat little tomato tarts, make a salad from the Sunday organic market, and then to dive into the scrumptious filled macarons, chocolate and lemon tarts, and puffy éclairs.

Willie quickly adopted the habit of munching on the baguette as we carried our purchases home.  He was quite taken with the real onion soup but ventured to order seafood a few times. Besides constant eating, in Paris we most enjoyed the boat trip up the Seine, San Chapelle’s wondrous jewel-colored stain glass, the Pompidou, and the less-visited rooms of the Louvre. The Mona Lisa may be sublime and enigmatic, but, really, does she deserve ALL the veneration?  Her room was bedlam, whereas the other wonderful renaissance treasures merited  only a glance from most of the visitors.  Willie liked the Vermeers and was interested to see an artist with his easel and paints, making a copy. It was a relief to wander among the empty rooms of ancient Roman glass, winged Etruscan angel figures (centuries before Christianity), and Greek urns.

 Paris invites wandering. So many intriguing streets to turns down. Several lifetimes of exploration there! Our days of living like Parisians came to an end. We were ready for the next chapter of summer to begin. Italy! And for laying plans for Madrid, Amsterdam, Greece, India, Turkey, all in the future. Waiting at Orly for our flight to Rome, Willie pointed to a sign:

Good question!

16 July now and I’m writing from my third floor study at Bramasole.  As always, many thanks for the comments you have left. I so enjoy them! Hope you all are having fun summers, with watermelon and Aperol spritzers and good books and friends around the table.