Finding Fun in France
Updated: May 10, 2019
I’ll admit, I was just a bit apprehensive as we headed into France. I don’t check the news but enough things popped up about unrest in Paris that I had to wonder what it would be like. By myself, I would charge into the lion’s den, but I didn’t want to take my family somewhere unsafe. First off, as we headed to the train station to head to France, we had to queue for an immigration check. Now, both France and Switzerland are part of an agreement called Schengen which states that there shall be open borders between all these countries. No passport check, no luggage check. Once you’re in the Schengen region, you don’t need to even show your passport until you leave. So why the queue and a check here? Well, I never did figure out what the deal was because once they eventually opened the doors to get to the train, everyone just walked through without a check. Maybe they were looking for certain types of people, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. Needless to say, we made it to Lyon, France with no issue. Arriving at the apartment building, it had a bit of a unique smell to it that we couldn’t quite place, but the apartment itself was really incredible. Thus, we began our French adventure.
Looking out over Lyon
Lyon is a modern city split into three sections by the Rhône and Saône rivers. We stayed on the Manhattan-like island between the two, and most of which is a UNESCO site because of the beauty and preservation of the old buildings. The buildings are old, but most the area is filled with newer, name brand stores just ripe for shopping. Shopping is never really on our list due to packing constraints, but it is still nice to walk around and see the buildings.
The Saône River
The streets of Lyon
The UNESCO zone continues west across the Saône River and also encompasses the cobblestone streets of old that line the area known as the old city. It is here you’ll find the beautiful churches and small bakeries, pastry shops, restaurants, and the like. The old city extends all the way up the hill to Lyon’s own Notre Dame church, which is amazing inside and has amazing views of the city. Within the old city are also Roman ruins dating back some 2000 years. Now that’s an old city!
Old city streets
Lyon's Notre Dame Cathedral
Ethan performing at the Roman ruins
We really enjoyed our time in Lyon. The sites were great, from the aforementioned churches to the art museum and lovely plazas to stroll through. We ended up being there on France’s labor day, which we mistook to simply be a day of rest. Sure, a lot of stores and things were closed, but apparently this is a day for the French to have country-wide protests about whatever isn’t tickling their fancy at the moment. We never saw any protestors but we saw police en force, and at one point got caught way downwind of some tear gas. Believe you me, it was really strong even from several blocks away.
With just a little bit of a sour taste in our mouths (and noses?), we headed down to the smaller, quieter city of Avignon. Also located on the Rhône River, Avignon’s small city center is enclosed by an old city wall and certainly adds to the old world ambiance. The highlight here, besides just wandering the beautiful streets, is the massive Palace of the Popes. Labeled as the largest palace in Europe, it truly is a site to take in. From the inside, we were each (Ethan excluded) given a tablet device that we could use to get commentary on each room. By holding it in front of us, we could also look back in time through it, as the tablet recreated the original rooms for us on the screen. It was a really neat device.
Palace of the Popes
The palace looks big on the inside too
Me with audioguide
Avignon city center
We wanted more time in Avignon, but issues with train reservations forced us to leave earlier than planned. It seems that France greatly limits the number of seat reservations on their trains, making it nearly impossible to get where we needed to go. These rail passes are great, but it is unfortunate that France limits how effective they can be there. So, leaving in the morning rather than the evening, we boarded our fast train to Paris. I guess the nice thing is that we were able to get a little more time in Paris as a result, and when we arrived we quickly made our way to our apartment in a great location just off the Champs-Elysees. In case you aren’t aware, this is the famous road that runs two miles through the heart of the city and is host to many very high end brands that I felt out of place even standing near. It also has lots of green space, tons of restaurants, and connects the Arch of Triumph to the Place de la Concorde and almost all the way to the Louvre (more on these places later).
Standing on the Champs-Elysees
I’m sure most of you have heard about the protests happening in Paris, and while the media loves to make things look worse than they are, the protests have definitely had an effect on the city. There are weekly Saturday protests that happen in an isolated part of the city (nowhere near us), but it was unfortunate to see the damage caused by protests from labor day. It looked like the protests made it as far as the Champs-Elysees, as there were many damaged store windows from rock impacts. Even if you’re protesting something truly legitimate, when does it make it right to smash store windows? There was a large police presence all over the city, and even though there were no protests near our home on Saturday, many metro lines were shut down and even some of the main road was closed. We had to go a ways out of the way to get home.
What does doing this all over the city accomplish?
Unrest aside, I really love Paris and I think there’s nothing better than walking the streets and discovering neat coffee shops, bakeries, eateries, churches, monuments, parks, Eiffel Towers, and the like. The wide tree lined streets always bring a smile to my face as I stroll down them. I’m sure I’d be happy just doing that, but we had some sites to see as well!
Those nice Paris streets
We saw the Arch of Triumph on our first day as we wandered down the Champs-Elysees. This monument is dedicated to those who died during French wars, and engraved on it are names of French victories and famous generals. Some two miles down the Champs-Elysees, on the other end of the road, sits Place de la Concorde with its ancient Egyptian obelisk donated to France as a sign of goodwill some years ago. Before our final stop off the day, we ducked into a small cafe for a coffee and chocolate stuffed bread. We finished our walk by visiting Notre-Dame cathedral. Since the fire, it is not possible to get close, but it still looks magnificent. I hope they are able to restore it to former glory.
The Arch of Triumph
Place de la Concorde
Café et pain au chocolat
Notre Dame Cathedral
Our entire second day was dedicated to the Louvre, one of the largest art museums in the world. The most notable works there are the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, but it contains thousands of priceless works of art from ancient Greek to each of the ninja turtles – I mean renaissance masters – all the way to more modern works, although it tends to specialize in the older works. We spent about 7 hours inside which included a lunch break before finally calling it a day. I imagine we saw about half of what was there, but some of that was a bit on the rushed side. We made sure to reward ourselves afterward with a well-deserved crêpe.
Full of priceless treasures
The Mona Lisa (behind glass)
Venus de Milo
On day three we were on top of the world! Or, at least on top of Paris at the Eiffel Tower. We got up early and were one of the first in line to get to the top. Most people take the elevator to the half way point, but in an attempt to be economical we chose to take the several hundred stairs to get there. I must say, we rocked it. Since you have to take an elevator to get to the very top, we zoomed up before almost everyone else and spent some time admiring Paris from one of its highest points. Seeing the city sprawled out in every direction with famous landmarks dotting the landscape is a sight like none other.
The Eiffel Tower
Paris as far as the eye can see
Ethan at over 280 meters tall!
We spent the rest of day strolling the streets of Paris, visiting sites like Les Invalides (houses the tomb of Napoléon and has many army tributes), the Rodin museum (to see his famous sculptures like the Thinker), the Luxembourg gardens (on the grounds of a former royal palace), and the Latin Quarter, a popular area full of trendy shops and restaurants. We also got to spend some time walking along the Seine River as we admired the views. Like I’ve said before, at least for me this is what Paris is all about.
Napoléon's final resting place
Le Penseur (The Thinker)
On day four we headed to the north part of the city to visit some sites there. Our first stop was to the Sacré Cœur Basílica, sitting majestically on a hill watching over the city. Close by is the artsy district of Montmartre, full of sketch artists looking for tourists to draw. Some of the more permanent artists have some really impressive works on display. After a lunch in the park, we headed to one of Paris’s famous department stores called Galeries Lafayette. Once again, with the average shirt being 350 euros, we were just window shopping, but the store is housed in a neat building and even fun things for Ethan like a trampoline hovering 4 stories above the ground.
Sacré Cœur Basilica
Inside Sacré Cœur
Sky high trampolining
All in all, Paris was really good to us. It was fairly cold but we had some sun in a city that is overcast most of the time. We got to stay in a nice apartment in a really good location that gave us easy access to everywhere. We had a great French meal at a small bistro and we even got some macarons to munch on. I even got to speak quite a bit of French while there. We weren’t excited to leave, but there’s still a lot more of Europe to see, so let’s keep this adventure going!