Friday, December 20, 2013

Speed Run Through France to Barcelona: Revel and Carcassonne

On December 11th, our weather station told us it was 24 degrees Fahrenheit outside. It was time to leave Paris and head south (before our tanks froze). Our interim destination was Camping Les Boueix in the village of Fleurat about 70km north east of Limoges.

At about 16:00 we pulled into Camping Les Boueix (€30/nt) which was seriously overpriced for what it was. (No dumping point, no water at the pitch (during winter), no laundry facilities; one shower in the office building (but it turned out to be a great shower; lots of hot water and you didn't have to keep pressing a button to keep the water going.))

After settling in, we drove to the nearest town, La Souterraine about 16 km away, to get a 2GB top up for our mifi (pricey cost of €20, compared to £25 for a top up of 7GB in the UK). For an apples to apples comparison, that is $5.87/GB in the UK vs $13.80/GB in France. That's a serious differential. What happened to the benefits of the EU collective market?

We also had to do laundry; we were in serious need of clean clothes. Our host at Camping Les Boueix told us about a laverie in the town and we found it. We decided on doing one large load of darks (at €9/load to wash and €3 for 30 min to dry) and hopefully we could do the balance on the weekend. There was one pizzeria restaurant open, and fortunately it was located a half block way from the laundromat and so we managed to get fed as well. We played Scrabble while we waited for the machines to finish.
Five people generate a lot of dirty laundry quickly. But when you have five people folding, the job is completed in no time.
On December 12th we woke up to 37 degrees F so at least we were above freezing temperatures. It was a lovely clear morning.
Our site at Camping Les Boueix. We had the place to ourselves.
The unfortunate part was that we were essentially in the middle of nowhere. We were too far south to see any of the highlights of the Loire Valley; we were too far north to see any sights in the Dordogne area. We didn't have a full day to indulge ourselves and go to Futuroscope. So Vincent, Sarah and I decided to drive to Limoges and try to do some Christmas shopping. (Paul and James opted to stay behind and work on math and science.) It was the 12th of December and so far, to my knowledge, we had nothing. We aimed to find Les Halles (covered markets) but never came across them. Instead we ended up at a mini-shopping plaza in Limoges that wasn't really anything noteworthy but we did manage to find a few presents so it wasn't entirely a wasted outing.

What we saw of Limoges was pretty unremarkable. I had imagined a more charming city scape. Apparently the old town has some handsome buildings but we just couldn't find that section of town. France doesn't seem to be big on using signage to promote places of interest. Most signage is devoted to places of commerce, like hotels. If one is interested in ceramics, the museum is worth visiting. But I was traveling with 4 others who definitely weren't interested in ceramics and porcelain so the museum was a miss.

Anyway, we returned back to La Souterraine and hit the Carrefour supermarche. Then Vincent dropped me off to do more laundry so we wouldn't have to impose on our friends with kilos of laundry this coming weekend; while Sarah and I were taking care of the next 14 kilos of whites, Vincent drove back to the campground to pick up the boys. We had dinner at the same pizzeria a half block away from the laverie. It was a good choice because the kind proprietor, had kept one of our Scrabble letters, "M", that we had left behind the previous evening.

On December 13th, it was time to head towards Revel, which is a small town in the Haute Garonne department of the Midi Pyrenees region. We were going to visit friends of mine, Pamela Rose and Iain and their sons. Pamela Rose and I became great friends way back in senior year at Miss Porters School. Pamela Rose and Iain had kindly identified a great place for us to camp, Aire Moulin du Roi (at a bargain price of €10/night), which was just a few blocks from their home.

The scenery on the drive to Revel was lovely. It was a clear day and the low sun in the sky highlighted the orange tones of the autumn foliage and the rustic farmland. Unfortunately there weren't any good safe vantage points to pull over; I would have really liked to get some photos.

The windy roads made it a pretty stressful drive for Vincent and part way through he opted to go on the toll roads. I followed him much of the way but after the last toll, we got separated. The French tolls don't seem to take our Andrews chip and pin credit card. (One of the few chip and pin cards one can get in the US and in our opinion is a total failure.) So we had to use cash. The toll machine at which Vince arrived however wouldn't take cash either so he was stuck for about 6 minutes until an attendant rescued him. So I ended up ahead and decided to just continue on to the Aire. Fortunately Pamela Rose and Iain provided a map of how to get to the Aire, otherwise we would never have found it (that problem of scarce signage again). Their son, James, spotted Vince going the "wrong way" and he alerted Iain that we were in town. (LandShark is anything but subtle.) So Iain came down to meet us, which was a good thing on a practical level because our fine Andrews chip and pin card wouldn't work in the campground registration machine. Within seconds of meeting Iain, we had to borrow his credit card...
This was our first time staying at an Aire. The Aire Moulin du Roi was just built about a year or so ago and offered electricity at the pitch. It only allowed stays of up to 3 nights. There were no other amenities, as is typical with Aires, with the exception of a dumping point and a single source access to water.
Once we parked, Vincent started to open the driver's side main room slide. Craacckk! Another mishap. That pesky right hand lower cupboard door was ajar and the slide forced the right side of the cupboard to separate from the unit. Let's just say, Vincent was really, really, really unhappy. Lesson learned: Make sure all slide paths are clear when opening slides as well as when closing slides.

We went over to Pamela Rose and Iain's home and had a great visit and delicious dinner, which was just what we needed after a rather stressful traveling day.

On the morning of December 14th, Pamela Rose appeared on our doorstep with fresh croissants and a baguette. How wonderful! The croissants were the best I'd had in years; truly a buttery melt in your mouth treat. They must have just been made within an hour or so. We later walked over to collect Iain, as he was going to take us to the Revel market which is one of the best, authentic farmers' markets in France and has been running every Saturday for over 600 years. I don't know if I'd ever seen so much fresh produce in one place in my life. I certainly had never seen so much fois gras for sale, ever. This market had everything.
A seafood smorgasbord.
There was no shortage of oysters.
Could this cheese vendor be anymore French?
Vincent purchased our eggs for the week.
Olives or dried fruit anyone?
Iain also took us by the antiques shop that sells his paintings. I love his work.
An antiques dealer, right on the market square promotes Iain's work.
Painting by Iain Vellacott: A scene depicting Saturday market activity in Revel.
Another painting by Iain Vellacott: Not sure of the location of this scene. Looks a bit like around the Covent Garden area, London.
To find out more about Iain Vellacott's work, go to

That afternoon, James got his hair cut at a local coiffeur. It was one of the best cuts he's had in a long time and he was so thrilled exclaiming, "They even washed my hair with shampoo!" After James was finished at the coiffeur, I walked around Revel a bit and took a few more photos.
A few of the buildings that line Revel's central market plaza.
A view of the medieval market hall. On Saturday mornings it and the surrounding plaza are filled with local vendors.
Revel's Notre Dame.
Meanwhile, Iain took Vincent to a hardware store to find supplies that would enable him to fix the broken cabinet.

That evening, Vincent and I cooked for the Vellacotts. We made Thai chicken which is one of our kids' favorites. It was a nice evening again catching up with friends.

On December 15th, we had intended on visiting Carcassonne but by the time Vincent finished repairing the cabinet (short of installing the door which needed new hinges), and dealt with the other chaotic things going on in the RV which just comes from five people and a dog living in close quarters, he decided he needed a day off.
Vincent has a fantastic ability to repair things. At some point, I imagine he'll want to take on a real challenge like building a house...or bridge...or car from scratch.
With Carcassonne on hold, Pamela Rose suggested that we either visit some castle ruins in the area or go ice skating. James and Sarah opted for the ice skating, which neither had done in at least a couple of years. (Paul opted to stay in LandShark and work on algebra.) The skating session started off a bit dodgy as Sarah held on to the entrance gate with an iron fist refusing to go onto the ice. It took a lot of convincing plus me prying Sarah off the gate with determined force to get her on the ice. She then clutched on to the outer boards for dear life and shuffled forward. Pamela Rose found a "penguin" support aid that Sarah could use to hold onto and push around. With a little time, she had the time to use the penguin and by the time we were about ready to finish up, she was able to give up the penguin and skate away from the boards with one hand holding onto my arm, the other arm free. This was huge for her and she left quite eager to have another skating session as soon as we could arrange it.
That penguin was a lifesaver.
"Look Mom, no penguin!"
James did pretty well too, for a California kid who never sees ice.
When we returned to Revel, Sarah and I decided to go to the market square in the center of town as a small holiday celebration was being held there: A jump house, some wooden games, le Pere Noel and free mulled wine for the adults. At 18:00, there was the added bonus of a fireworks display set off from the top of the market building. The holiday fair was a means to draw people to the center of town and, I think encourage them to do some shopping to support local businesses, but not many stores were open (being Sunday) and those that were open (like the toy store) were only open for 2-3 hours in the afternoon. Having lived in the US and being subjected to 24/7 commercialism, my thought was that if the local businesses want to take advantage of the sales potential of the holidays, they should actually be open. Anyway, Sarah and I enjoyed the entertainment.
Fireworks were set off from the roof of the medieval market building. They didn't seem to be too concerned about fire; at times the live embers were falling all over the roof!
That evening, we had another wonderful meal at with the Vellacotts. Smoked salmon, the best duck I've ever had, duck sausage. We were seriously being spoiled.

On December 16th, we headed to Carcassonne. Specifically, we went to the fortified old city, La Cite. Carcassonne has a second, larger (more) modern city called Ville Basse. (Ville Basse dates from the 13th century.)

La Cite dates back to Roman times. It's massive walls are completely intact, run nearly two miles around and have 52 towers. Apparently, La Cite's "golden age" was the 1100s when independent rulers allowed Jews and Cathars to live and prosper within the walls while troubadours were permitted to freely write "poems of love". This focus on intellectual and romantic life led to La Cite's downfall; the Crusades overtook the city and in 1226 Carcassonne was annexed to the domain of the King of France.
Standing between the outer walls and inner walls: We had just passed through the Narbonne Gate. I suggested a family photo but clearly no one was really interested.
Crossing over a moat to go through an inner wall: I suggested to the kids, "Hey how about a photo?"
Still waiting for the kids to stand still and pose.
Nope. A nice photo of the kids wasn't going to happen. Typical.
La Cite looks "better" than it might have; in the mid-19th century, a major reconstruction project took place, led by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, which was part of a program to restore France's important monuments. The inner wall still has the same four gates it had in Roman times.

We all went to the Chateau Comtal, which was La Cite's third layer of defense. It was originally built in 1125 but had been altered in later reconstructions. There isn't much in terms of signage so be sure to get the audioguides if you visit here.
The main inner courtyard.
Southern courtyard.
Sarah and I then split off from the boys to look around the rest of La Cite and see what the shops had to offer.
We stepped into the St Nazaire Church to light a candle. St Nazaire was a cathedral until the 18th century, when the Bishop moved to the Ville Basse.
Leaving La Cite, I took a couple more photos.
Sunset reflecting on the outer walls.
Last shot of the day and I finally had some willing participants. In the background is La Cite's main entrance, the Narbonne Gate. To the right of the gate is a bust of Madame Carcas. Legend has it that when Charlemagne's army was laying seige against (what is now called) Carcassonne, in a last ditched effort to convince the oppressors that the inhabitants of Carcassonne could hold them off for years and not run out of food, Madame Carcas had an idea. She took one of the last pigs in the town, fed it with what little wheat they still had on hand and threw the pig over the wall. Charlemagne's army thought that if they have the resources to waste a pig, they must be well fortified. When Charlemagne's army left, all the bells in the town were rung and Charlemagne's men exclaimed, "Carcas sonne!", and that is how the name of the city came to be. This tale may very well be fabricated, but it makes for a good story.
We returned to Revel and had a final, fantastic meal with the Vellacotts. They truly spoiled us. What a nice couple of days in Revel we had.

On December 17th, we drove from Revel to Barcelona to catch the Grimaldi Line's Barcelona. The plan was to sail from Barcelona to Civitavecchia (Rome) and avoid the €400+ tolls we'd have to pay crossing France. Of course driving along the Cotes d'Azur is no hardship but our goal was to sort out a long-term stay in the EC. If we managed to successfully gain residency in Italy, we'd be back to spend more time in France.
Sarah and I are checked in and waiting to board the Barcelona. The ship was set to depart at 22:30.
While we were waiting to "roll-on" the ship, Vincent climbed up to the top of LandShark to see if there was any damage from driving under the low bridge (back when entering Paris). Good news, everything was still in good shape!
On December 18th, we woke to a beautiful sunny day. Perfect for crossing the Mediterranean. Thankfully we all had a good night's sleep; the only one who didn't sleep well was poor Molly who had to spend the night in the kennel on the 11th deck. She was very unhappy when we left her at night.

Vincent and I were awake a little after 8am; the kids were still asleep, so we went to breakfast on our own.
Vincent pre-ordered us all a standard breakfast and lunch. The breakfast was pretty light with a croissant au chocolat and small coffee.
At 8:45, Vincent and I were the only customers in the restaurant. We learned that the main business of this ferry line is to transport trucks and goods between Barcelona and Civitavecchia. Any holiday travelers are just gravy, so in the off season people like us can have much of the ship to ourselves.
Not sure what island this is but there were some lovely views from the ship during the course of the day.
The trip from Barcelona to Civitavecchia would take about 20 hours so we had the whole day on board the ferry.
Paul giving Molly a walk on the deck. She was so happy to get out of that kennel.
At 18:45, the Barcelona pulled into Civitavecchia. When we disembarked I was asked where my front license plate was. (I removed it so it wouldn't get stolen and kept it in my glove compartment. I kept a photocopy of the license plate in my front window to be "technically" legal, having a license plate both on the front and back.) Other than when we boarded the ferry to cross the English Channel, this was the first time I had been asked about the missing license plate. I was then asked to show my driver's license. I presented my California driver's license and that seemed sufficient. So far, I've found no reason to get an "international driver's license".

It took about an hour to drive to our next campground, Roma Camping Village, just on the outskirts of Rome. We were driving in the dark, which is something Vince really wanted to avoid with LandShark. Nevertheless, we made it without major issue (yes, a few wrong turns) and were happy to arrive and finally get safely parked. We were all looking forward to our time in Italy.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bienvenue en France: Normandie et Paris

November 29th, was Sarah's 8th birthday and our first day in France. Most of us didn't sleep very well on the Bretagne (hard pillows, engine noise, etc) but we arrive in Roscoff and disembarked without a hitch.
While waiting to disembark, we had the birthday breakfast: Donuts from M&S. The upside with not having treats very often was that those donuts were appreciated. (I wish I found some balloons or something to jazz up the RV.)
Our first destination in France was Camping Le Picard (€30/nt) in Tournieres, Normandy. (Apologies, I cannot do the correct French characters with this American keyboard.) It was about a 3 hour drive and was tough going having not slept well and having succumbed to the cold that the kids had. James was my co-pilot and we found the campground without difficulty.
The campground had a pond which probably could spell a whole lot of fun for three bored kids.
Once we got settled at Le Picard, Sarah wanted to open presents and so we did.
She'll be fashionable for travel in Northern Europe's wintery wet weather.
We then sang happy birthday and had the cake Sarah picked out at M&S back in England.
That evening, Sarah wanted to go out to a "fancy" French restaurant for her birthday dinner. We drove to Bayeux and found a nice place on Rue de Cuisinieres, right by the Bayeux Cathedral.
Vincent and Sarah worked through the menu for les enfants.
Paul made the surprise order: Pizza with olives and anchovies. Who is this boy?
On November 30th, we went to the American Cemetery which covers 172 acres and is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. The cemetery includes a Visitor Center which depicts the significance and meaning of Operation Overlord. The exhibitions are based upon three universal themes: Competence, Courage and Sacrifice. Exhibits go beyond the United States' involvement and also tell the story of the Allies, the French Resistance and the civilians.
The servicemen and women lie beneath precisely aligned headstones of white Lasa marble crosses and Stars of David.
There is a total of 9,387 headstones: 9,238 are Latin crosses. 149 are Stars of David.
A view towards the memorial that features a 22-foot statue, "The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves".
James in the Garden of the Missing: Engraved tablets honor the missing in action who gave their lives in this region of France.
A panorama of Omaha Beach, below the cemetery. This is the beach where the 175th Combat Team of the 29th US Infantry Division, comprising some 7,500 men, landed on June 6, 1944. They embarked from the beach at Trebah that we visited while staying in Cornwall.
To add to the somber experience, it's worth visiting the cemetery in late afternoon because at the end of the day, about 16:30 in early December, the two American flags are lowered to Taps. The flags are then folded and taken away until the next day.
Upon leaving the cemetery and returning to our car we found the following note held under the windshield wipers. 
The people who wrote this note saw our California license plate. Their message was really touching.
While we still had a bit of daylight, we headed to Point du Hoc which is a prominent 100 ft cliff overlooking the English Channel. It was the highest point between Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east. The Germans fortified the area with concrete casements and gun pits. At one point, the Germans had six 155mm cannons here with a range of 25,000 yards.  These cannons had a commanding view of both Omaha and Utah beaches and the potential to cause much damage to any invading force. On D-Day, the United States Army Ranger Assault Group successfully assaulted Point du Hoc by scaling the cliffs.
It's incredible that many US soldiers actually succeeded in climbing these cliffs.
Still present are the huge craters from bombs fired off shore by the Allied destroyers as well as from bombing done in April 1944.
Paul inside the remains of an enclosed concrete casement built by the Germans to improve their defensive capabilities.
An overview of the German fortifications interlaced with tunnels, trenches, and machine-gun positions, all accented by shell craters.
December 1st, was the first Sunday in Advent and so the kids opened their Advent calendars which Vince and Paul carted back all the way from Trader Joe's in California.
Molly wasn't left without an Advent calendar; we found one for her in the UK. She loved her treat each morning.
About mid-day, we went to the Canadian museum of the D-Day beaches, The Juno Beach Center. It was opened in 2003 and is definitely worth a visit. The museum takes visitors through a description of what Canada was like in the 1930s and Canada's reaction to the events taking place in Europe. Focus is given to the three branches of the Canadian military and a variety of short films and interactive displays are placed throughout the museum to give life to the information. The final film that one sees in a small theatre near the end of the museum is particularly well done, telling stories from the point of view of soldiers who volunteered for the D-Day mission. The very last part of the museum provides information about Canada today and some of the current issues Canada is grappling with, such as the declining fishing industry. I really liked the museum and would recommend it to anyone interested in the D-Day subject, whether Canadian or not.
Sarah at the entrance to the Juno Beach Center.
A number of war posters were on display. This one was one of our favorites.
Canadians were reminded via a number of methods not to talk about war plans or to communicate where servicemen were located or what they were doing. There was a fair chance letters or phone calls could be intercepted by the Germans, the result of course being strategic attacks being foiled and unnecessary losses. Keep Your Mouth Shut was a film produced by the National Film Board of Canada and was very blunt that everyone had to keep their mouths shut.
The last room in the museum provided information on Canada today plus many people's perspectives on Canada.
My boys on Juno Beach.
Upon leaving Juno, we headed towards Bayeux to do some food shopping. The Carrefour was closed. It was Sunday, late afternoon. We realized that living in France would require some planning, unlike living in the US where there is always some store open 24/7. So with no food for dinner, we continued on into Bayeux to look for a restaurant. Finding an open restaurant didn't prove to be much easier. We went back to the Rue de Cuisinieres and all the restaurants were closed. We continued on to the Bayeux Cathedral and walked around it and found a take out pizza place operating and a bar/restaurant open. We chose the bar/restaurant, Le Conquerant.
Normandy is one of the few French regions that doesn't have a thriving wine industry. Cidre is the local drink, so Vincent and I tried a bottle of cidre rose. It's pretty much just like sparkling apple juice with a light 3% alcoholic content.
On the way back to our car, we stopped to take a better look at the Bayeux Cathedral.
Bayeux Cathedral: Beautiful detail.
Looking down the nave of Bayeux Cathedral.
On December 2nd, Vincent and the kids went to Mont Saint Michel. Sadly, for me my head was bothering me immensely and so I regrettably had to stay behind. Darn head. I had been to Mont St Michel about 25 years ago but I still hated to miss it. I gave Vincent my camera and so he took the following pictures.
The kids talked Vincent into taking the horse drawn wagon up to Mont Saint Michel, as long as they walked the way back.
Looking up at the Abbey.
The cloister.
View of an Abbey garden and the sea further below, which mostly surrounds the island.
Mont Saint Michel streets can be quite crowded, even in the off season.
On December 3rd, we stayed at the campground to do some research. I still wasn't feeling 100% and Vincent and I wanted to finally formalize a concrete plan for obtaining him and the kids long term visas so they could stay in the Schengen zone longer than 90 days within a 180 day period. So many countries had joined the Schengen Treaty that it is now very difficult to manage a long term stay in Europe, if you aren't fortunate, like me, to hold an EU passport. The upside was that because I am an EU citizen it was theoretically possible for my family members to get permission, but each way of doing it required a number of hurdles. By the afternoon, we found the French Consulate in London that we thought would be willing to issue Vincent and the kids the visas but would require us to return to London to do so. I spent the afternoon filling out the visa forms, figuring out our itinerary such that we could get the visas before Vincent and Paul had to return to the US the end of January, and deciding on an appointment time. Plus all the other bits such as on which ferry to return, what campgrounds were available near London and what campground could we visit in Paris before we left France so as to have a little bit of a French Christmas experience. Meanwhile, Vincent contacted the Italian consulate again, both in San Francisco and in London. His contacts seemed to comply that we could successfully seek residency in Italy once we arrived in Italy; this was the more attractive option, not having to backtrack to London, with the added bonus of continuing south. At the end of the day, the only thing we had decided on was to go to Paris the next day and at least spend a week there and immerse ourselves in a little French culture and see how the French celebrate the holidays.
It was time to leave Le Picard. The kids had discovered a boat and were off on their own adventures. Initially, it was an excellent diversion but some imaginations shifted to piracy and hostage taking and, not surprisingly, some members of the crew were very unhappy being subjected to the slave trade.
On December 4th, we left Le Picard and headed towards Paris. Our destination was Camping Paris Bois de Boulogne (€47.50), right within the city limits. Sarah was my co-pilot during this trip. My head still wasn't feeling well so my focus was just on making the drive successfully. It was about a 170 mile trip but, because we were aiming to avoid tolls, it was really slow going. Because I wasn't feeling well, I decided to just follow Vincent which made the trip even longer. The plan worked until just entering Paris and we got separated by traffic. At that point, Vince wanted to make a further detour to avoid a foreseen u-turn but I just wanted to get to the campground. The net of it was that we ended up arriving in Paris after the sun set. We saw the Eiffel Tower lit up beautifully entering the city; they must add extra lighting at Christmas because it looked just like a Christmas tree...very pretty. The downside from splitting off from Vince was that I missed the campground turn off twice before entering. That was nothing compared to poor Vince; he somehow managed to go under a bridge that was too low and scraped the top of LandShark. Oh, man, what a nightmare! The bridge height posting stated 3.4 meters while Vince's measurements of LandShark were 3.8 meters. (Lesson learned: Never turn off the trucker's GPS!)

When we got settled at the campground, Vince made a cursory look at the top of LandShark (from the ground) and the air conditioning units (the tallest items) were still there so fingers crossed that there wasn't any serious damage. Maybe the bridge height was a little generous and maybe Vincent's measurements were a little exaggerated; the difference saved the top of LandShark.

On December 5th, we woke to a sunny but crisp day. Great conditions for our first day in Paris. After some research, and remembering that we had kids to consider, we decided to purchase a 3-day L'OpenTour bus pass (akin to Hop-on-Hop-off) (pay for 2 days and get the third day free). After the good experience with busses in London, we thought this would be a better way to go than to principally rely on the Metro. (We'd just have to make sure we received tickets for 3 days, not 1 day as was our unfortunate reality with this concept in London.)

It took us a while to get mobilized with homework and Paris research (slow going with a crawling campground internet connection) and it was 12:30 before we caught the shuttle bus from the campground to Place de la Porte Maillot, where we then had to walk down the Avenue de la Grande Armee to L'Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile and the closest L'OpenTour stop on Avenue des Champs Elysees. While we were standing at the L'OpenTour stop, everyone declared they were hungry so we opted to go into a nearby ESX fast food restaurant. (Excellent. Not your typical quick lunch fare.) Just as we were finishing, we watched 2 OpenTour buses drive by. Of course. That meant we'd be waiting another 30 minutes or so for the next bus and it was already 14:30. As buses stopped at 18:30, we decided to postpone our first day on the bus and so we decided to walk.

We walked down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees towards the Louvre. Once we reached the Rond Point des Champs-Elysees, extensive rows of Christmas booths were set up together with a few rides and amusements. Sarah definitely got excited about this section of Paris.
We walked by Santa hanging out in a giant snow globe.
We walked to the Roue de Paris (giant ferris wheel) on the Place de la Concorde and I suggested we wait and ride it after the sun set to be able to see the city all lit up. So we continued on to the Jardin de Tuileries. Vincent and I remembered taking Paul and James there when they were three years old and I took some photos of them in the same places where we took photos a decade ago.
Last time the boys sat here, they were 3 years old and were wearing turtle neck shirts. Same hair cuts but Paul didn't yet have glasses.
The kids in the same carrousel that James and Paul rode 10 years ago. Here, Paul rode the "Rogue Tea Cup", as he called it; he spun continuously for two rides. I got nauseous just watching.
Who will be the last man standing on the lily pad?
We then continued on to the Louvre. The signage didn't give any indication about discounted prices.  I thought there were days when one could go late in the day and get a discounted ticket so we decided to do some online research later in the day and we continued on. (I later learned there's free entry on the first Sunday of the month and people 18 and under are free.)
En route to the Louvre, we walked by this statue. With my history of headaches (and a headache in fact that day), did it ever speak to me.
The boys in front of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (about half the size of the Arc de Triomphe de'Etoile).
We walked along the Avenue de L'Opera towards the Place de l'Opera and stunning Opera Garnier, which was built for Napoleon III and finished in 1875.
Vincent would love to attend an opera here. But how to do it with this crowd?
Then we continued on to Les Galleries Lafayettes, that is situated behind Opera Garnier. Les Gallaries Lafayettes were advertised as having the best Christmas window displays and they were certainly worth the 3+ mile walk. There were twelve windows, each with a clock overhead set to a specific hour, telling a story over time. It was very cute and the kids all enjoyed seeing them.
The windows were sponsored by Swatch, which was celebrating its 30th anniversary. The theme was Beauty and the Beast.
The girl with the red hair and the teddy bear appeared in each window. I gather the red-haired girl was "Beauty" and the bear, "The Beast".
Sarah loved the window displays with all the moving parts. The store was prepared for lots of kids because platforms were set up in front of the windows so that small children could see.
After seeing the last window display, we all felt we needed a rest and refreshment. I knew that any place in this neighborhood would be expensive so our best bet probably would be a cafe in Les Galleries Lafayettes, which turned out to be on the 6th floor. This was an excellent random decision because we then saw the gorgeous Christmas tree on display in the center of the store plus the store's exquisite glass dome.
A 4 metre Christmas tree was on display in the great atrium under the dome. The tree comes to animated life on the hour, revealing the daily goings on of a peaceful village.
From the 6th floor cafeteria, we had a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower.
After our break, the sun had set and so we headed back to the Roue de Paris for our ride.
Our family mugging for a shot in front of the many Christmas trees on display.
The city of Paris doesn't cut corners with street decorations; here one finds real trees hanging above the roads.
At a cost of €10 for adults and €5 for children, the Roue de Paris is pretty dear for just two cycles around but it provided a great view of the Christmas lights on display below.
A snapshot of the Champs-Elysees taken from the Roue de Paris.
Disembarking from the Roue de Paris, we then continued back down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees (opposite side of street) to get something else to eat and see the Christmas displays lit up. The kids ordered some churros and the man behind the counter made them from scratch. How often does that happen? (Never for us so far in the US.)
The man blended all the ingredients in an electric mixer and then kneaded the dough.
He then pushed the dough into a cylindrical vessel and placed this over the hot oil.
With a lever, he squeezed out the dough and cut off pieces which dropped into the scalding oil. It's just like working with Play Dough!
After pouring about a half cup of sugar on top, we were presented with a box of heart healthy goodness. (Not.) Best churros we've ever had.
Light displays at the Rond-Point des Champs-Elysees.
My boys walking down the Champs-Elysees.
We passed Fouquet's on our trek along the Champs-Elysees. It's apparently a popular spot among French celebrities and one can probably purchase the most expensive cup of coffee in Paris. It originally gained fame as the hangout of France's WWI biplane fighter pilots. It also served as James Joyce's dining room.
A grand view of the Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile at night.
Once we reached the Arc de Triomphe, we were all getting very tired and so we headed back to where the campground shuttle bus would pick us up. I was exhausted and it wasn't without reason; according to Vincent's fitbit, we walked over 25,000 steps that day.

On December 6th, I woke up still tired. (We had to start using that bus pass!) We caught our L'OpenTour bus just off the Place Charles de Gaulle on Avenue Kleber and took it to the Eiffel Tour, where we disembarked. We decided to climb up the first two levels of the tower. There was quite a bit of whining on the part of Sarah who really didn't want any part of this climbing business while I realized my fear of heights was still with me.
A view looking down at the Parc du Champ de Mars. At the end of the Parc, in the distance, is the Ecole Militaire.
Looking down at the Jardins du Trocadero. The main water feature is called the Fountain of Warsaw. The buildings behind the Jardins are the Palais de Chaillot; it was built for the World's Fair of 1937 and houses several museums (Navel Museum, Museum of Man, Museum of French Monuments and Museum of Architecture) and an aquarium.
Looking westward down the Seine.
A zoomed-in shot of the Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre.
After taking in the views on the second level, Vincent thought we should go all the way to the top (which I had never done before). Fortunately, the only way to proceed further up, was to take an elevator. It was a lovely clear day (albeit cold and windy) so the views were fantastic.
Taking the "selfie" while having a sip of champagne at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
A view of La Tour Eiffel by Paul. (Paul's favorite photo.)
On the way back down, on the second floor, Vincent suggested we get an acrylic sculpture done of the five of us as the ultimate souvenir. Photos of each of us were taken and uploaded into a machine and then a laser reproduced our images into a block of acrylic.
Kind of cheesy, but fun to have us all "frozen in time" nonetheless.
When we finally descended from the tower, we hit a hick-up in that all traffic was stopped or rerouted for some sort of dignitary procession so it was about 40 minutes before our next bus arrived.
Another view of the Eiffel Tower taken while waiting for our bus.
When we boarded, we were told the bus would only take us as far as the Opera House.
It was difficult taking photos on a moving bus. This is Les Invalides which contains museums and monuments, all relating to the military history of France (including the Musee de l'Armee), as well as a hospital and a retirement home for war veterans (the building's original purpose).
The Grand Palais was built for the World's Fair of 1900 and houses a science museum, an art exposition hall and an event hall.
Driving down La Rue Royal towards L'Eglise de la Madeleine. To the left, just outside of this photo, is Maxim's.
As the bus dropped us off at the Opera Garnier, we found ourselves in the expensive shopping district with the large department stores again. The upside was that we spotted the Printemps store window displays; like Les Gallaries Lafayettes, many had scenes with moving parts. Top designers and stylists are invited to participate in the creation of the set design and the figures, outdoing each other year after year. This year, all the Printemps' windows were sponsored by Prada.
Les Printemps department store all decked up for the holidays.
A number of Prada bears are having a grand time skiing and playing in the snow.
The Prada bears all dress to the nines, sewing and dancing with candy canes.
The Prada bears are putting together a very chic dress for this model.
Those adorable bears just make you want one of those Prada handbags.
We had dinner nearby and then walked back along the Champs-Élysées, past all the Christmas booths. We were in the right place at the right time because looking overhead it was Santa in his sleigh! A couple times during the evening, Santa flies along the Champs-Élysées and then wishes everyone below a Joyeux Noel. Outstanding!
Somehow this Pere Noel knew all of us below had been good this year.
On December 7th, we decided we'd better try to focus on using our bus pass to take advantage of it before it expired. We walked as usual down the Avenue de la Grande Armee to the Arc de Triomphe where Vince suggested that we all climb to the top. At only 284 steps to the roof, it was a piece of cake compared to the Eiffel Tower. As it was again a clear day, we had great views.
Looking down the Champs-Elysees towards the Roue de Paris.
Looking towards La Defense, Europe's largest purpose-built business district. The square structure is La Grande Arche de la Defense; it's a 20th century version of L'Arc de Triomphe but is meant to be a monument to humanitarian ideals rather than to military victories.
The French have their own version of a monument to the "Unknown soldier" and it pays tribute to the unknown soldiers who gave their lives during WWI.
Since we didn't want to repeat the same bus route that we traveled the previous day, we decided to walk back to the Opera House and pick up the bus where we left off. We started with a loop that took us around Montmartre, an area where Vincent, the boys and I stayed when we were last in Paris in 2003. It was difficult taking photos in the moving bus so I don't have any to offer here.

After completing that route, we got on another bus that took us through highlights east of Notre Dame. During this last bus route, the air got too cold to be on the upper deck and so we traveled down below. It's hard to get a good view on the lower level so I have to admit, I don't think anyone got much out of that route.

When the bus dropped us off near Notre Dame, we decided to look for a restaurant for dinner before going to the Saturday evening mass at Notre Dame. We found La Rue Huchette, just off Place St. Michel directly over the river from The Notre Dame. There were a lot of restaurants there that seemed to cater to the tourist looking for a meal at a moderate price. We found Le Chat Qui Peche and had a surprisingly good meal there (€12 menu).
Notre Dame is definitely a beautiful sight at night.
Vincent and I both thought the Notre Dame service just didn't measure up to any of the services we'd attended in the UK. There were only three priests and no music or choir much to speak of. It was a little surprising given Notre Dame is one of the churches in Paris, not to mention France. The kids were troupers, not understanding much of anything. Because the acoustics were poor, I found it difficult to follow the sermon. Not sure I would have comprehended much more if it were in English. Anyway, we did it and can check a service at Notre Dame off our lists.
While walking to the Metro on our way back to the campground, we passed the Hôtel de Ville which had this picture of Nelson Mandela (who recently died) projected on it.
On December 8th, (the last day of our L'OpenTour passes) we headed out to catch the Batobus and see the city from the Seine. We walked from Porte Maillot to the base of the Eiffel Tower where we caught the boat from the most westward point and then traveled east. It was sunny and beautiful while on the boat and the views were great since the boat was pretty much just encased in glass. We went as far as the Zoo and Museum of Natural History and then got off when the boat returned to Notre Dame.
Paul was the only one willing to give me a pose for the Batobus. It was great having lunch on board watching lovely Paris pass by.
Statue of Etienne Marcel in front of L'Hotel de Ville. Etienne Marcel (~1302-1358) was provost of the merchants of Paris under King John II, and was called John the Good (Jean le Bon). He distinguished himself in the defense of the small craftsmen and guildsmen who made up most of the city population.
Once off the boat, we went back into Notre Dame, this time to see the stained glass windows in the day time. In my opinion, the stained glass windows and the exterior details are the most interesting parts of the cathedral.
Looking down the nave of the Notre Dame.
Lovely stained glass windows.
Either the South Rose window or North Rose window. These windows are nearly 13 meters across and were made in 1260AD. They mostly still have the original glass.
A sample of the sculptures at the entrance to Notre Dame. Fantastic detail all over the exterior of the cathedral.
After leaving the cathedral, we got back on the Seine and traveled west to the Grand Palais and Petit Palais where we disembarked and then walked towards the American Cathedral on Avenue George V. Our plan was to attend the Handel's Messiah Sing-a-Long held there at 15:00. The church was very full and the solists were super. I'd never done the Messiah Sing-a-Long before but it was quite fun and a good way to get into the Christmas spirit.
Interior of the American Cathedral.
When we left the American Cathedral, Paul didn't want to do anymore walking and wanted to head back to the campground. All the kids were pretty tired, so Vincent and I put them on the shuttle bus with the keys to LandShark while we set out to find a restaurant. We headed back to La Rue Huchette just across the Seine, from the Notre Dame, as we knew there were lots of restaurants there. We settled on a place that offered fondue because we thought this would be something the kids wouldn't like. Then during the meal, I thought fondue might be a hit with the kids; not necessarily the cheese fondue, but a meat fondue with the opportunity to compete with long forks might have an appeal.

After leaving the restaurant and walking towards the Metro, we came across a procession celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I learned another interesting detail about the Catholic Church dogma; in 1854, Pope Pius IX declared that Mary herself was conceived without sin and all Catholics are to accept that.

On December 9th, Vincent, Paul and Sarah wanted to visit the Musee de l'Armee at the Hôtel National des Invalides. I would have liked to go as well but James had been asking to go to the Louvre, just with me, the past few days, so he and I headed there. (Hey, when your son wants to spend the day with you, you grab the chance.)

It was probably about the 3rd or 4th time I had visited the Louvre over the course of my life. The new feature this time was the audio tour with GPS feature. It was a bit difficult to use but essentially it has the capability to track where you are in the museum and give you an overview of the art or artifacts in the room you are visiting. In most rooms, there is a detailed commentary on certain works of art; over time, I'd expect that the museum will increase the numbers of these. The result is that the average person can get much more out of the museum than they could 20 years ago. It was truly interesting and of course an afternoon just isn't enough to do the Louvre justice.
We had taken a photo of James and Paul in this exact spot when they were 3 years old. At that time, they were more interested in climbing on the stone pyramid, which James here is more or less blocking.
While making our way to the sections covering Italian painting, we walked through Greek Antiquities and saw Venus de Milo.
The Apollo Gallery: It's impossible to capture this entire spectacular room. It was designed by over 20 artists. Sadly, much of it was destroyed from a fire in 1661 so then had to be painstakingly restored. A major restoration effort was completed in 2004 and now the visitor can really take in the room as it was intended.
Of course, we couldn't leave the Louvre without seeing this young lady.
Having a break, spending quality time with James. (Sort of.) The audio devices were packed with information; there was no time for idle chit chat.
We walked through the apartments of Napoleon III. Ornate is an understatement. This is the Grand Salon, the large drawing room.
This is the ceiling of the Grand Salon.
So many tourists take this exact same picture that there are blocks in place for people to stand on in order to get a "good shot".
Meanwhile, the boys thoroughly enjoyed the Army Museum. Paul said it was his second favorite museum thus far following Culloden in Scotland. The Army Museum contains some of the world's most prestigious collections, including old weapons and armour (the 3rd biggest in the world), small artillery models (unique in the world) and items relating to Louis XIV to Napoleon III. It also contains comprehensive exhibits covering WWI and WWII.

After our respective museum visits, we met up in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral and headed out to to find a restaurant.
Walking from the Louvre to Notre Dame, James and I passed the Pont de l'Archevêché with the thousands of love locks attached.
At the restaurant, we ordered fondue and while the kids were initially dubious of this new food choice, by the end they were fighting over fondue pot real estate and fully engaged in the cooking process, like we thought they would be.

After dinner, the kids and I returned to the campground while Vincent went off on his own to see if he could get tickets to the opera. La Clemenza di Titto, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was playing. It was sung in Italian with French subtitles (naturellement). Vincent enjoyed the experience and the opportunity to see the inside of the Opera Garnier.
The Opera Garnier was commissioned by Napoleon III and was built between 1862 and 1875 by Charles Garnier. This is the beautiful ceiling painted by Marc Chagall in 1964.
The Opera House holds 1,979 seats; with the exception of the orchestra seats, most are in private boxes.
December 10th was our last day in Paris. We decided to go to the Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie. I would have much preferred to go to the Musee d'Orsay or many other places but we were doing Paris avec les enfants. We learned back in Washington and London that we'd have to do things differently in order to make the experience enjoyable for everyone. Sarah had been a trouper through much of Paris thus far and so we went here more or less for her sake. The boys got tickets to the video game expo and they absolutely loved it. In hindsight, we should have gotten tickets to the Cite des Enfants for Sarah but didn't; we went thru the main museum instead. Sarah found a number of interactive displays that were quite engaging and interesting. Many stations had English translations, which was great. Overall, it was a good museum however I'd only recommend it during off periods such as during the week when school is in session. Most of the interactive displays are for one or two people; I could imagine it being very frustrating during a packed weekend and don't think it would be a good experience at all, particularly for non-native French speakers.
Entry to the Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie.
Building a version of the Ariane 5 launcher.
Ever wonder what 1 Billion Euros looks like? This is it. It is a stack of 2,000 brickettes, each made of 1,000 €500 euro banknotes, all shredded up and compressed.
We ate dinner at a restaurant near the science museum and then headed back to LandShark to pack up. We had decided to quickly drive south to Barcelona and then take a ferry from Barcelona to Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy, where we would look into establishing residency for a while. We needed to sort out legally staying beyond 90 days, for Vincent and the kids, in order to put this issue aside and be able to plan the remainder of our European trip.