The Notre Dame is beautiful, from its iconic towers and buttresses to its intricate carvings and stained glass.
It’s not going to be a completely spiritual experience, seeing the church. For one, there are just too many people. And, of course, someone has to pay for the church’s upkeep — that someone being, mostly, you and me, the tourists. Signs of the inevitable commercialization — at least when I was there — include a shop selling religious items and vending machines spitting out Notre Dame medallions for 2 euros.
But the experience is what you make of it. When I went back last year, I made it a point to catch a service. I didn’t get to hear a Mass, but I was lucky enough to attend vespers. (Side note: it was my first vespers, and although I’ve been a Catholic since forever, I’m still not actually sure what vespers is and what, if any, is the Filipino counterpart.) During the service, there was an elderly man, a local, who took it upon himself to reprimand — in hushed tones — any tourist silly enough to make too much noise or sit in the benches designated for actual churchgoers. I actually thought it was nice, that someone still cared.
Another good thing about the Notre Dame: it’s free.
Location: Île de la Cité (one of the islands in the middle of the River Seine)
Opening hours: 8:00 am to 6:45 pm (7:15 pm on Saturdays and Sundays)
Admission: Free entrance to the church | 8,50 € to go up the towers
It was a last-minute decision to stay at the Hotel Terminus Lyon (and by “last-minute” I mean that the decision was made a few days before we filed our visa application, 2 months before our trip). We had planned to take a sleeper train from Nice to Paris, to save on time and accommodations, but it turned out there were no sleepers scheduled that night. We therefore decided we would just take a TGV that arrived in Paris right before midnight and sleep at a hotel near the station.
The Hotel Terminus Lyon is just across Gare de Lyon and was exactly what we needed. It’s a no-frills hotel that was nevertheless very clean and comfortable and had the essentials (and by “essentials” I of course mean WiFi). Staying near the train station also meant that we could easily transfer the next day to the hotel where we stayed during the rest of our time in Paris. We got a double room for USD 75 with an early bird discount — we were there on a January — but their actual room rates vary greatly within the year or even within a week.
As much as possible when I’m traveling, I like to stay in a central area that will allow me to walk to places of interest and easily access public transportation. The drawback of centrally located hotels is that they tend to be more expensive than those in the peripheries, but with a bit of research you can almost always find one that is an acceptable compromise in terms of convenience, comfort, and cost.
A good example is the Grand Hotel du Loiret in Paris. Located just a few steps from the Rue de Rivoli, it is within walking distance to the Seine, the Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Place des Vosges, to name a few. There’s a Metro station just a few short blocks away and the Hotel de Ville stop of the Batobus is nearby as well. There are also many cafes and grocery stores in the area, and BHV is just around the corner.
Our room was big enough and simply but tastefully furnished. The hotel had a lift, worth mentioning because many small hotels don’t (a big problem if you have luggage). The only significant drawback for me was the WiFi; the process for logging in (back in January 2014 anyway) was so complicated that I never quite managed to figure it out. Fortunately, many of Paris’ parks — like the Place des Vosges or the Square Jean XXIII at the back of the Notre Dame — had free WiFi, so the hotel’s internet foible didn’t matter as much as it could have. At 100 euros per night for a double, the Grand Hotel du Loiret is not exactly cheap but it is definitely less expensive than most of its neighbors of comparable quality.
Plus: the reception staff were great. There seemed to be three of them on rotating schedules. The guy who checked us in spoke excellent English and was very friendly. The next one we encountered was also friendly and helpful; one time, before giving us our key, he asked us to say our room number in French and looked absolutely delighted when I was able to comply (but not as delighted as I secretly was, heh). The third guy was elderly, not as fluent in English, and seemed grumpy at first, but he turned out to be nice enough. He even shared a bit of his hard-earned wisdom when my travel buddy anxiously asked him if he’d seen me. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Women. International! SHOPPING.”
(Actually I was attending vespers at the Notre Dame but whatever.)
Although I am not really a museum person, I enjoyed my visit to the Louvre in 2011, in large part because I learned so much during the tour. Our guide, the lady pictured above, proudly told us that the Louvre houses the best collection of French art — and somewhat rued the fact that many of the museum’s visitors are only there to see the Mona Lisa (Italian) or the Greek sculptures. She spoke with the eloquence and intimate knowledge of someone who loves what she talks about, and I thought: for a person who loves art, the Louvre isn’t a bad place to work in at all.
What do you do if you’ve got 18 days in Europe and want to see a little bit of everything?
See a little bit of everything!
7 countries, 9 cities in 18 days. (Well, it’s actually 5 countries, 1 city-state, and 1 principality, but the latter two are technically countries, and “7 countries” somehow makes it a bit easier to justify the price of the plane ticket.)
Specifically, this itinerary will take you to France (Paris and Nice), Italy (Rome and Venice), Germany (Munich), the Netherlands (Amsterdam), and Belgium (Brussels, but only for a few hours), plus the Vatican City and Monaco (also only a couple of hours). It definitely won’t let you live like a local — for that, you should spend all 18 days in only 1 or 2 places. Instead, this itinerary is more like taking the tourist bus on your first day in a new place: it lets you get a glimpse of each place of interest, and from those initial glimpses, you can decide where you would like to spend more time next time.
Here’s the 18-day itinerary I followed back in 2014: