My First River Cruise Experience – Getting There and Paris

Châteaux, Rivers & Wine.  This is the theme of my first ever river cruise.  This came about because my mother really wanted to do this cruise and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along.

First the details:  This was on Viking River cruises, starting in Bordeaux cruising to Cadillac, Libourne, Bourg & Blaye, Pauillac, then back to Bordeaux.  In addition, we took the Pre-Cruise extension that included Paris, Orléans, the Loire Valley, and Tours before heading to Bordeaux to meet the Viking Longship Forseti.  We paid Viking to handle our flight arrangements, and all I can say about that is “lesson learned.”

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Having never sailed a river cruise before, I was unused to the lack of planning required.  As you know, if you have read any of my previous reviews, I am a crazy planner so not having to do any of that for this cruise left me feeling a bit disconcerted and not in control.

So, without handling any of the travel planning, we began our journey in April.  Our flight was Charlotte to JFK, JFK to Paris.  I had never been through JFK before but since we had been checked through, I assumed we would be fine.  I was wrong.  We had a bit of a delay leaving Charlotte, we sat on the runway for almost an hour waiting for clearance, but after that the flight was uneventful.  I knew it would be tight to make our next flight but we should have been able to make it.  What I did not know about JFK is that we would be required to check in again at the Air France counter even though we already had boarding passes.  Then, we had to make it through security again.  Unfortunately, these couple of issued added up to us missing our flight to Paris.  We then had to wait to see if we would make it on to the next (and last) flight to Paris.

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We did in fact make the last flight out, so I called Viking to let them know not to meet us at our original arrival time, but that we would be there a couple of hours late.  A long, but uneventful flight later, we landed in Paris, collected our bags and headed out to meet our Viking rep.  We were loaded into a comfortable minivan and off we went to our hotel, Le Méridien Etoile.

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Check in was easy and quick and our rooms were ready immediately.  We headed upstairs to unload our luggage and rest a bit.  Which ended up being a good idea as the heavens opened.  It rained for a bit, but then right as we were ready to head to dinner, it stopped.  We had no real plan for dinner, but I did have a place in mind, I just wasn’t sure how far away it was.  And as luck would have it, it was right down the block!

If you read my post on Nice, you may know how much I love mussels.  Well Léon de Bruxelles is famous for their mussels so I knew when I saw them, I would have to try it.  I mean, can you really be better than sitting by the Med drinking Rosé?  Well, actually no.  But the mussels were still REALLY REALLY good!

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And there were so many I could not finish all of them.  We all enjoyed our dinner tremendously and left fully satisfied.  I know it is technically a chain, but I would certainly go back anytime I am in Paris.  Service was great (and friendly!), prices were reasonable and the food (and wine) was outstanding!

Because of our delayed arrival in Paris, we did not have our day of sightseeing as planned, but we had one thing we didn’t want to miss, Bateaux-Mouches.

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A river cruise down the Seine.  The cruise departs every 30 minutes so there really isn’t a need to pre-book tickets, unless its a holiday or event, or you want a dinner cruise.  We just wanted a lovely sunset-ish ride through Paris.  In all of my trips to this city, this was one thing I had never done and even though I’ve been there multiple times, this was certainly a new way to see the city I love!

The cruise was lovely and afterwards we caught a taxi back to our hotel.  We had a early morning pickup to begin our tour through the Loire Valley so after a quick Lillet Rouge & Tonic in the hotel lounge we all hit the sack (well, except I had to work still, but it’s a small price to pay to be able to work from anywhere!).

Up bright and early, we showered (yay!!) and headed down for breakfast.  I will tell you, I have had plenty of crappy hotel breakfasts and Le Méridien Etoile is not that.  Not that at all.  Breakfast was awesome and if anyone knows where to get that little jar of kiwi yogurt please let me know!

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After breakfast and hotel check out, we handed over our luggage and were loaded onto a motorcoach to begin our tour.

 

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Wow Airlines, A Week in London and a Day Trip to Paris! Part 3

Its Paris Day!!!!

So if you have read any of my previous posts, you may have grasped that Paris is my favorite city in the world (of the ones I have see so far.  I do have a couple of bucket list trips coming up, so we will see after that!).  That being said, since we were so close anyway I had to plan a trip to show Jarod the sights.  The earliest Eurostar train I could get from London was 7:01am and we were told to be there 45 minutes early to check in through customs.  Since we still were not acclimated to London time, getting up at 5am to take the subway to St. Pancras train station was not as hard as it might have been otherwise.  Still, we got to the train station right at 6:15am, officially “left” the United Kingdom, walked 10 feet and officially “entered” France.  The lines were long but moved quickly and as soon as we were through security and customs we walked right on our train and sat down.  This was, however, January.  Not a typically busy tourist time, so if you are making this trip at other times, your mileage may vary.

We had standard carriage seats, no first class on this trip, but they were adequate for what we needed.  Plus, it was only a 2 hour train ride, in the dark, very early in the morning.  It was fine.  The darkness meant that we did not see the presumed picturesque country side passing by on the English side of the Channel Tunnel (Chunnel), nor did we even notice when we entered the famed crossing.  On exiting the tunnel in Calais, morning had broken but the fog was so thick we saw barely anything of the French countryside except the very unwelcome sight of snow covered land.  The fog did eventually clear as we got closer to Paris, as did the snow on the ground.  I knew that it would be chilly, it is January after all, but I was hoping for clear, which I got…eventually.

So we arrive at Gare du Nord at 10:15am (2 hour train ride plus 1 hour time change) and we now have until 8:30pm until we need to be back at the train station to allow 45 minutes before our 9:15pm train back to London.  So, can you see all the highlights of Paris on foot in 10 hours?  Yes, you can…mostly.  And you can’t really go inside any of them for too long, but you can see them all and get some great exercise along the way!  Here is a Google Maps snapshot of my planned path, with the major places I wanted to hit.  I did make some adjustments to this, but followed it pretty closely.  The big gaps from the top to the bottom and back up again, we hopped on the Metro, everything else, we walked.

Paris Walk

So from Gare du Nord, we headed to Boulevard de Clichy to see Moulin Rouge.

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We then headed up to Place Saint-Pierre to catch the Funiculaire to ride up to Sacre Coeur.

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It was still a bit foggy so the beautiful view of Paris at your feet that I so wanted Jarod to see was not happening, but as you can see behind Sacre Coeur the sky was beginning to turn a beautiful blue as the morning fog cleared.  We were just too early to catch that site…and we had to keep moving, moving, moving!

So we hopped on the Metro and rode down to Hotel de Ville.  We came up out of the metro and immediately Jarod was caught up in the magic of Paris architecture.  I could tell that he was going to love this city as much as I do!

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We walked across Pont d’Arcole to Notre Dame.

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And stood in Awe.

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We then wound our way around Ile de la Cite and crossed back to the Right Bank on Pont Neuf.  If you have read any of my previous Paris trips, you will know that there had been some issues with the “Locks of Love” attached to Pont des Arts and the French government was going to remove all of the locks in order to maintain the structural integrity of the bridge (a positive thing!). However, the people so love the locks that instead of just getting rid of them, they were moved to Pont Neuf, a much more robust bridge, where there is less worry about the bridge collapsing under the weight of all the locks.  This has also created the opportunity for enterprising folks to set up lock selling stands all over the bridge (not a positive thing.).

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We then stopped and got some coffee and Pain au Chocolat at a cafe along Quai du Louvre.  We entered the Louvre at Perrault’s Colonnade, which is my favorite way to enter as the architecture is stunning and you are able to almost picture, in the Cour Carree, how this area was used originally.  Then you walk through the archway and are faced with the iconic glass pyramid.

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The terrorist attacks in Paris had not happened all that long before our trip and the increase in police presence was most notable here.

We wandered the grounds here, peeked in the windows of the Hall of Statues then made our way to the marble arch that marks the entrance to Jardin des Tuileries.

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We walked the length of Tuileries and arrived at Place de la Concorde.  I love this area.  It is easily one of my favorite places to sit and get an espresso or glass of wine and just watch.  There is always something happening here, I’ve seen fashion shows, photo shoots, weddings, celebrity sightings, any number of interesting things.  This is also where, more than anywhere else in Paris, I invariably encounter gypsies.  It has happened so many times to me at this point I can pretty much pick them out of the crowd and simply avoid them.  In January, however, it did not seem so many were around.

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The Luxor Obelisk…and a weird thing they are building in the background.

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The Fontain des Fleuves…frozen solid.  One of the coolest things I have ever seen!  We hung here a while, just watching all the activity, but then had to move, move, move!!!

We crossed the Seine to the Left Bank on the Pont de la Concorde and headed towards the Hotel National des Invalides and Napoleon’s Tomb.  As per the norm, there was a protest going on right outside the Museum of Military History so we wandered around the back way.  There was a checkpoint with a metal detector at the entrance that was not there before, but we went through easily and were waved on past by the armed…yet super friendly…guards.

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We walked the grounds there for a while, then crossed back over the Seine on Pont Alexandre III, a truly impressive bridge that brings you to the roadway right in between the Grand Palais and Petit Palais.  From there we walked up Avenue des Champs-Elysees, stopping every now and then to peek at some high end stores along the way!

We eventually made it to the Arc de Triomphe.  We were actually ahead of schedule so we decided to go up to the top and see the city from there.  Until we got in line to get tickets and were informed that the elevator was broken and we would need to walk up to the top if we wanted to go there.  Needless to say, we decided we were already walking enough for the day, so we decided against it.

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After that, we walked down Avenue Marceau, across the Pont de l’Alma and over to the Eiffel Tower.  I wanted to be over near the Eiffel Tower towards the end of the day hoping that we would be able to see it after dark and all lit up which we did…eventually!

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Can you tell I’m tired!!!

By now it was close to 5pm and all we had had to eat was that Pain au Chocolat waaaayyyyy back at Notre Dame so Jarod was getting hungry.  I was hoping we could hold out a little while longer, but he can get crabby when he’s hungry…must get that from his father!  I had already picked out which restaurant I wanted for him to have his first dinner in Paris so we headed towards the Trocadero to eat at Cafe Le Malakoff.  If you have read about any of my previous trips to Paris, this may sound familiar, this will be the third time I have eaten here on three separate trips to Paris.  What can I say, I like it.

And so did Jarod!!  Every thing he ate was declared “the Best Ever.” He had escargot, Steak Frites with Bearnaise sauce for both the steak and the frites, cause that’s how we roll!  Then Profiteroles for dessert.  A sip or two of my wine, and a cup of true French coffee to end the meal.  I had one of the prix fixe menus which included Gratinee a l’oignon (French onion soup…but since we were in France…just onion soup!!), a filet with Bearnaise and Coupe Dame blanche (vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and almonds) for dessert.  It was a fantastic meal and I am so glad we were able to have dinner there.

After dinner, the sun had set, so back to the Eiffel Tower to see it all lit up!

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Since we had some extra time, we hopped on the Metro up to the Opera National de Paris.  This stop was not on the map, but we love Phantom of the Opera so since we had the time, it was nice to see the opera house it was loosely set in.

 

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Then back on the metro to head back to Gare du Nord.  We were still early for our train, but after more than 10 miles of walking (and a bit of shopping in the train station for chocolates and skin products), it was nice to just sit.  As it was on our trip to Paris, the train ride home was mostly in the dark and we arrived back in London at 10:40pm to do nothing more than make our way back to the hotel and crash!  It was an amazing whirlwind day in Paris and I am so glad we pulled it off.  We did miss some things, but that is all the more reason to return!

Tomorrow…We join back up with Nick at Free London Walking Tours for the Royal London Tour with the Changing of the Guard.

Peace For Paris

In the midst of outrage over Starbuck’s cups, we are brutally reminded of what is really important.  My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Paris tonight.  Paris is my favorite city in the world and I am devastated tonight.  I have no wise words to explain away this senseless tragedy, or any other act of terrorism.  Instead tonight, I leave you with a little bit of the beauty of Paris and a  quote from Mark Twain:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Louvre at dusk

Orangerie

Statue - Birds

Place de Concord

Fountain

Invalides

Puking in Paris…A Dead Guy Changed My Mind

Ok, I admit it. I don’t like war movies.  I’ve never seen Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, or any of those sort of movies.  I am sure that they are absolutely unbelievable gems of the cinema, they are just not my style.  So when mom suggested we move from rue Cler to L’Hôtel national des Invalides, I admit, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to get there.  I had seen the extraordinary gilded dome of the Chapel of Saint-Louis-des-Invalides from the outside and as far as I was concerned, that was plenty.  There was no reason to visit museums and monuments dedicated solely to the military history of France.

But mom assured me that it was worth the visit,  so skeptically I agreed and off we went.  Since we were already in the 7th, it was just a quick stroll to get there and since we had just eaten, a little walk was not a bad thing at all!  Approaching the complex, you cannot help but be amazed at the opulence of the gilded dome.  I briefly wondered if my neighbors would mind if I gilded my roof, but decided that my HOA would likely not approve the change.

Golden Dome

As you can see, it was a fairly overcast day, it was November after all, but the gilding on the  dome still shines bright.  Louis XIV was certainly fond of gold stuff!  I hear Versailles is chock full of the stuff, but since I have never been there I can only go by the pics the rest of my family took when they went without me! Still it seems that the famed Sun King used it in all of his decorating and here we are 300 some odd years later still marveling at the glorious glittering monuments that he left behind.

L’Hôtel national des Invalides is a vast complex of buildings originally meant to house injured and impoverished war veterans as well as host military parades in the largest of the 15 courtyards, cour d’honneur.  Louis XIV included a chapel for the veterans but then decided he needed something different for the royal family and hence the golden dome was born.  It is fitting that Louis wanted something for the vets, as the project was funded by a 5 year levy on soldiers currently serving in his military, but I guess it’s the thought that counts!

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Throughout the courtyard are statues of various military leaders, engineers, designers, etc.  In addition, the courtyard houses an impressive array of cannons and large arms which incidentally (and ironically) were commandeered by the Parisian rioters for use against the Bastille on a notable day in mid-July, 1789.

The price of admission covers both the tomb and the museums.  You should certainly allow several hours if you plan to see both.  We were only planning on the tomb part, however, I wish I had taken the time to go through the museums as well.  I will certainly be putting this on my list of places I have to see again, especially if I have the kids with me.  They like mayhem and implements of destruction.

Walking into the Church of the Dome is like walking into most churches…its quiet.  It seems like people world-wide lower their voices and hush their children when entering a church.  This is why I tend to avoid churches…silence makes me nervous.  Call it a side effect of raising two boys, silence usually means they are doing something that will possibly cause a hospital visit or make the nightly news!  But the silence here is reverent and peaceful.

The interior is its own study in art and architecture.  The murals are exquisite and the stone work is impressive.  It almost makes you forget you are walking around near large caskets and vaults full or various body parts.  The list of the interred reads like a who’s who of French military history for the most part, with some notable exceptions made for certain members of Napoleon’s family.

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Napoleon II, for instance (I don’t think that qualifies as nepotism, does it?).   Each tomb and alcove is different and they are all impressive.  The centerpiece, of course, being the actual tomb of Napoleon.  The tomb is crafted in red porphyry, and placed on a green granite base, it is circled by a crown of laurels with inscriptions, which act as reminders of the empires great victories. In the round gallery is a series of low relief, sculptures by Simart. A statue of the emperor, bearing the imperial emblems, is located at the back of the crypt.  The remains were locked inside six coffins in this tomb. Surrounding it are a dozen Amazon-like figures representing Napoleon’s victories. In stark contrast to the smallness of the man, everything is done on a gargantuan scale. In his coronation robes, the statue of Napoleon stands 8 1/4 ft high and while historians vacillate on his actual height, the statue might have been a bit on the generous side!  Whether he was actually 5’2″ or 5’6″, he’s taller than me so I hope that makes him feel a little better!  The grave of the “King of Rome,” his son by second wife, Marie-Louise, lies at his feet. Surrounding Napoleon’s Tomb are those of his brother, Joseph Bonaparte; the great Vauban, who built many of France’s fortifications; World War I Allied commander Foch; and the vicomte de Turenne, the republic’s first grenadier (actually, only his heart is entombed here).

 

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Overall, I really enjoyed my visit with le petit corporal.  I would certainly come here again, this time to visit the rest of the museum as well…even though it is dedicated to military history…one little (or not) dead guy has changed my mind.

This was our last day in Paris, and even though I was crazy sick and it was a super short trip, Paris remains my favorite city in the world and I will take any and every opportunity to visit.  We had dinner at Le Malakoff, 6, place du Trocadero et 11 Novembre.  It has a bit of a view of the Eiffel Tower if you crane your neck to see it, but we had eaten here on a previous trip to Paris and really enjoyed it, so we decided to go back.  It was ok, crowded, slow service, decent food…typical touristy Paris cafe.   I am pretty sure I had a burger and so did my mom.  I know, go to Paris to eat burgers, but these were really good burgers.   We hopped on the metro that is right in front of the restaurant and back to our apartment for the sad, sad chore of packing for our return flight.

I have no recollection of how we got to the airport the next morning, but the fact that I am currently sitting at my computer proves that we somehow did.  As willing as I am to put up with just about anything on my way TO my vacation, I am certainly a grumpy traveler on the way back.  Still, it was great to be able to spend mom’s birthday in Paris…its how all birthdays should be spent!

à la prochaine – until next time!

Notre Dame

 

 

 

Puking in Paris…rue Cler (aka rue Rick Steves)

Waking up the next morning, I did not feel awesome at all.  But I was unwilling to waste any more time in Paris.  This was already a short trip and I didn’t want to spend any more of it in our apartment.  We decided to do a self-guided walk from Rick Steve’s book, rue Cler Walk.  I know that there has been a bit of talk about this being so hyped by Rick, that it has been nicknamed “rue Rick Steve” and that is partially true.  Because of his numerous accolades, the area is heavily touristy.  But then again, so is La Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triomphe, le Louvre, etc.  Since Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world, you are going to run into tourists.  That being said, if this had been my first or even second trip to Paris, it probably would not have made the cut.  But it is a cute little street and the shops are lovely, so off we went.

Getting there was super easy from our apartment in the Bastille, the metro was a straight shot, no changes required from Bastille to Ecole Militaire.

Rue Cler is a cobblestone pedestrian only street in the 7th arrondissement.  Walking down the market lined street gives you a glimpse into how Parisians shop in their daily lives.  You will find the Boucherie (butcher), the Boulangerie (baker), well I didn’t see a candlestick maker but you certainly get the feeling that there might have been one here at some point.

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Now this short three block walk is jam packed with anything you could possibly want to enjoy a typically French breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert.  One of my favorite things about being in Paris is the pride that the local shopkeepers have for the quality of the products they make and sell.  Many of the shop owners are multi-genrerational owners and it doesn’t take much to get the butcher talking about his meat or the grocer about his produce.  My french is minimal and all of the folks I attempted to speak to in French were lovely and laughingly willing to speak in English to spare me too much embarrassment.

Shopping for food in Paris is a multi-sensory experience. Shoppers are expected to touch and smell their potential purchases, how else can you make an educated assessment? It is not uncommen for the shopkeeper to voice his opinion on your culinary selection and you would be wise to listen to the suggestions offered you. The shopkeepers in Paris are not trying to move day old bread or over ripe produce, they take pride in the food they are selling and certainly do not want you to walk away with a subpar product and then pass that negative experience on to the next potential customer.

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Yes you can get the non-personal, typical American grocery store, if you are looking for that. The Monoprix fills that bill. But if you are shopping in a sidewalk market, be prepared for a relative stranger to be all up in your shopping business, its not just his job, its his life’s work. Its not for some, I love it. Certainly rue Cler is not the only place in Paris that you can get this kind of attention, as a matter of fact, the dinner that I cooked in this post, was decided on by a lovely butcher that kept me there for nearly thirty minutes talking about meat, his father (90 years old and living above the shop) and bemoaning that he would probably be the last of his family line to run this butcher shop as his son wanted to do something else with his life and had no interest in continuing the tradition.

I am not going to detail every shop/cafe/etc. along rue Cler and the surrounding streets, but I will hit a couple of my favs.  For history buffs, the oldest building on the street is a fairly nondescript house that now houses a deli.  It is a survivor from the early 1800s when this area was nothing more than a village on the outskirts of Paris.  It has none of the architecture that Paris is famous for, but the fact that this little building survived for some reason, is at least worthy of mention.

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Also of historical as well as cultural mention, a traiteur and creperie called Ulysse en Gaule has an unusual claim to fame.  As the gorgeous hand painted sign proclaims, a boucherie chevaline (a horse butcher) was the former occupant.  I certainly did not see horsemeat crepes on the menu, but the sign is a reminder of days gone by and dare I say…progress!

Top Halles boasts a generously sized squash…a must see if you have ever taken a road trip and stopped at any of the “World’s Largest..anything” signs.

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Some of the side streets are well worth the detour and rue du Champs de Mars is my favorite.  Two gourmet food stores are well worth the turn.  L’Epicerie Fine is a fine foods shop that will wow you with both its impressive collection of fine foods as well as the shopkeepers willingness to help you choose food whatever your occasion.  Do not be surprised to be offered tastes of everything from caramel to aged balsamic, even if you only came in for the ice cream (which is Berthillon and absolutely amazing!).

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As if your tastebuds didn’t get enough there, right next door to L’Epicerie is Christophe Roussel Boutique and Chocolate Bar.  Yep, you read that right…Chocolate Bar.  It might look a bit out of place, an ultra modern facade amid such historical looking storefronts, but the window displays are worth a second, or even third look.  Rows and rows of macaroons, in beautiful jewel tones, bring a new meaning to “Taste the Rainbow.”  They are almost too pretty to eat, but I assure you, I managed!

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I was starting to feel better, and mom was getting hungry so we decided to stop at Le Café du Marché.  This is right on the corner of rue Cler and rue du Champs de Mars.  It offers indoor as well as outdoor seating, perfect for people watching!  The day that we were there, a three piece jazz band was playing on the street, it gave the whole experience a very Parisian feel.  Because this restaurant has been recommended by so many folks, it can get busy at times and like any restaurant anywhere in the world, it has its ups and downs both service and food wise.  We were there at lunch time and sat on the patio.  I would not say that the service was fantastic, but it wasn’t rude or anything, just slow, even for Paris.  Le Café du Marché is most famous for their Duck Confit and on a normal day, I would have been all over that!  But with my tummy just starting to feel like it might not evict everything, I decided to go with a much safer bet…pasta.  It was exactly what I had expected and it worked fine for me.  Was it the best meal I have ever had in Paris?  Not by a long shot, but it was fine for what it was that day.  Mom had either the roast chicken or the warm goat cheese salad.  I can’t remember.  This meal was not one of those that you remember forever, and trust me we have had quite a few of them!  They do the best they can to cater to tourists as well as the locals that continue to frequent the cafe, if you are in the neighborhood, its not a bad place to stop.

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Here you can see the cafe behind that 3 piece jazz band.  It was November so the glass was closed on the patio, but you still got the feel of being out on the street and we could hear the music without it being overpowering.

Leaving rue Cler we decided to travel towards L’Hôtel national des Invalides.  It is just a short walk away.  I had never seen Napoleon’s tomb, I am not a military history buff and usually do not get excited about things like that.  But mom convinced me that we should look since we were already so close.  I reluctantly agreed and off we went…