In May of 2016 Ben and I got to go on a month-long trip to Europe. It was a first time off the continent of North America for both of us, and it was totally a dream come true.
I know a lot of people who make traveling a priority, and seem to constantly jet set from place to place. I love this and I envy them, but that lifestyle seems a little out of reach for us. We have a dog, we have jobs, we have expenses… we like to save for retirement and investments… and traveling isn’t cheap!
We did really want to visit some far-away places at least once before we had kids though (and I definitely want to do more traveling in the future! But I will never be a jet setter.)
For our first big trip we picked some of the classics: Paris, a few locations in Greece, and Venice. And it was everything I thought it would be and more ❤️
Since I want to write about everywhere we went in as much detail as I can, so I don’t forget what it was like, I decided to break things up into posts by country. So! We are starting where we started: Paris, France.
In the week leading up to our trip, I slowly packed everything I would need in my travel pack. I hate packing everything on one day, because I always find I forget a thing or two. If I pack over a longer period of time, I’m more likely to not forget anything.
Ben, on the other hand, likes to do stuff at the last minute. He has a logical reason for this - everything he packs he uses in day-to-day life and he doesn’t want to dig around in a bag for things he has already packed whenever he needs something.
So, by the day before it was time to leave, my bag was perfectly packed and organized, and Ben still hadn’t even done his laundry for the clothing he was planning on packing.
At about 7pm the evening before it was time to leave, I was doing what I had done a thousand times before: re-checking Airbnb reservations and flight times and making sure everything was perfectly organized. I was terrified of a mishap, but I had done my due diligence and had everything planned to the tiniest detail.
But this time, I noticed something I had somehow completely missed: Our flight was the next morning, not the morning after.
If you live in a big city, this statement might seem silly and not a big deal at all. But for us, it WAS a big deal. It was an emergency!
While Victoria does have an airport, a lot of major flights do not leave from Victoria, they leave from Vancouver, the largest city in BC. So whenever we want to fly somewhere, we first have to drive for forty-five minutes to the ferry, take an hour and a half long ferry ride to the mainland, followed by an hour long bus ride to the skytrain, followed by a 10 minute sky train to the airport.
And since many flights (including ours!) leave early in the morning, before the ferries are running, what we usually end up doing is booking a hotel in Vancouver and taking the boat over the day before.
So when I said tomorrow was, “time to leave,” what I meant was that it was time to take the ferry to Vancouver, because our flight was the morning after.
Or so I had thought.
In reality, we should have caught the ferry TODAY. I was a day behind. And the last ferry left at 9pm.
By the time my brain had made all these connections, it was about 7:20pm. In order to catch the ferry, we’d have to leave within the next 20 minutes.
And, as I had mentioned, Ben had not packed yet. Our scheduled ride from Ben’s mom had been organized for tomorrow. Our dog sitter plans were all organized for tomorrow. It was time to panic.
“Oh shit.” I said.
“Our flight is tomorrow morning, not the day after. We have to catch the ferry NOW.”
Ben was still in the middle of eating dinner.
What followed was a mad scramble: Ben shoving random articles of (unwashed, dirty) clothing in his bag with wild abandon, while I called up his mom to ask if she can PLEASE, PLEASE, drive us today, like NOW. And then I called up my brother and my mother, who would be taking care of our dog, to alert them of the change of plans.
Luckily, both of our families came through 🙌
Ben’s mom came running down to the end of her street in her nightgown to meet us as we swung by to pick her up, and together we booked it to the ferry. When we got there we said our goodbyes and rushed inside to purchase tickets, while Ben’s mom drove our car back to her place for safekeeping.
The ferry was delayed by 30 minutes.
We sat, disheveled and tired (9pm is normally our bedtime 😬), in a crowded waiting room - a rather annoying letdown after our mad rush.
By the time we made it to our hotel it was well past midnight, and we had to be up at 4am the next day to catch our flight.
The arrival ✈️
The remainder of our trip was fairly uneventful. We flew from Vancouver to Montreal, where we switched planes. Our flight from Montreal to Paris was hardly ideal - neither one of us had aisle seats, nor did we really catch up on any of the sleep we had missed - but at least we made all of our flights, and nothing was delayed!
We arrived in Paris at about 9:45am local time, and we could hardly believe it. After months and months of waiting for this trip to happen, and YEARS of dreaming of traveling here, we were finally standing on European soil. Ok I know that’s a bit silly and romantic and if you’re from Europe or travel there all the time it might seem totally absurd, but that’s how I felt!
I had thought airport security might be super intense, since we were arriving not long after the terrorist attacks, but everything went very smoothly. I tried to practice my French but of course the man checking our passports switched to English immediately, gave us a quick, “welcome!” stamped our passports, and away we went.
From there we took the metro to our hotel without much incident. We did get a bit confused when it was time to switch lines (we didn’t realize we had to walk to a new location in order to catch a different train, so small-town…) but we eventually figured it out.
Walking down Passage Geffroy-Didelot, in search of a store that sells umbrellas
We were kind of reeling from our trip. Everything had happened so fast up until now. A mad rush since that first moment when I realized I had gotten our flight times mixed up.
We were exhausted, but it was also only 11am, we were hungry, and we felt like we should walk around and see something before collapsing in bed.
So I got out google maps and we decided to walk down to The Pont Alexandre III, which was almost an hour of walking in a straight(ish) line from our hotel.
The first thing I noticed? Lots of narrow sidewalks and awkward times passing people. I had read a whole bunch about how to be polite when passing people on sidewalks in Europe (apparently this is a skill that is important to have as a tourist!), but somehow nobody followed the rules I had read online so I ended up feeling all awkward about it and worrying we were annoying people with our poor passing-on-narrow-sidewalk skills.
By the end of our trip I had stopped bothering to think about it, but those first few days in Paris I was constantly worrying about whether I was “doing it right”.
Here’s the first photo I took in Paris, a view of the Eiffel tower from The Pont Alexandre:
We arrived, took a picture, looked around, and then decided that we might as well go back now. We had completed our chosen activity.
We hadn’t eaten anything substantial since the day before, so we decided to head back in the direction of our hotel and try to find a restaurant on our way. When we were about halfway home, it began to lightly rain, so we gave up trying to find the “perfect place to eat” and just settled for the closest spot.
As soon as we got inside and sat down, a few things happened:
- It began to pour in sheets
- I was suddenly so tired I couldn‘t keep my eyes open. I finished my food before Ben and began nodding off at the table while I waited for him to finish. I simply couldn’t keep my eyes open; it was embarrassing.
- We discovered for the first time (but not the last!) that in Paris, it is strangely difficult to ask for “L’addition” (The cheque/bill). Where in Canada people will hand you your cheque before you’ve finished eating, in Paris you could be stuck somewhere for hours, trying to figure out how to be polite when you’re in a rush to leave. During our time there we never did master the technique, although I’m sure there is one!
We finally did manage to get our bill, pay for it, and head back to the hotel.
As soon as we got back to our room (soaked from the rain, since we hadn’t the foresight to pack an umbrella) we crashed, big time. Jet lag had set in.
The Second Day
I already regret not writing this all down sooner, since the days are beginning to blur together in my memory!
It was predicted to rain again on our second day in Paris, so we decided to check out the Louvre. We took the metro (Victoria isn’t big enough for a train system so I was charmed and delighted by the convenience of the Paris metro!), grabbed a tea, wandered around the area a bit, and then went to purchase our tickets.
Ben in front of the Institut de France, where we first encountered people trying to get money out of us, a recurring theme in both Paris and Athens.
The Louvre was not as busy as I thought it would be. It was busy, for sure - I waited about 10 minutes for the bathroom - but 10 minutes is not really THAT bad, and I foolishly went to the main bathrooms, not one of the bathrooms deeper into the museum. So I’m sure they would have been much emptier.
Yep, judging how busy a venue is by its bathroom lineup situation. Super classy, especially when that venue is The Louvre.
But honestly, it was not so busy! We had plenty of room to walk around and were often alone in exhibits. Sure, some exhibits were more crowded, but not insanely so.
Neither of us are art buffs, so we enjoyed checking out everything and saw a few pieces that really caught our attention and interest, but I’m sure a lot of it went over our heads. The only famous piece we saw that I recognized was the Venus, and it had a decent sized crowd of people around it taking selfies, which is how I was alerted that it must be a famous art piece.
We did not see the Mona Lisa, and don’t really regret missing it.
We were there for about four hours, and had only made it through a wing and a half, when suddenly an alarm began to go off.
A few minutes later, an automated voice repeatedly told us to find our way to the nearest exit.
Confused people milled around, and the staff at the museum seemed disinterested in helping us find an exit. Eventually a herd of us did find an emergency exit and wandered into the outdoors.
Everybody was pretty calm of course, but there was a niggling at the back of my mind: “Terrorist attack again??” - we had seen men in uniform marching around with very large, very scary looking guns, so it was hard to forget that there had been a terrorist attack in Paris not so long ago.
We never did figure out what happened, and about 5 minutes after the evacuation we saw that they were still admitting people into the museum, so it was a pretty blasé emergency I guess.
From there, we walked through the Tuileries Garden and zigzagged our way home, which was about an hour long walk. Despite the forecast, it hadn’t rained up until now, but a few feet from our hotel room it started to rain again.
On our third day in Paris, we walked. A lot. I wanted to go to the Eiffel tower, which we had seen from a distance on our first day, and I figured I could find it by walking the same route as before.
However, I guess I took a wrong turn, and we ended up on the outskirts of the city before realizing our mistake. The map on my phone wasn’t working very well, but it did show some landmarks, so we wandered in various directions until the little dot would move a few centimetres. If it was in the general direction of the Eiffel tower, we kept going that way. If not, we tried a different direction. Sounds tedious, and it was, but it was also an adventure, and we were on vacation.
When we finally reached the Eiffel tower, after wandering for what felt like an eternity, we were overjoyed, but also way too tired to bother going to the top of it. So we just checked it out from the ground.
A few things about Paris that really stood out to me that day:
- The air is not what I was used to. It’s heavy and thick and smells like… people. Victoria’s air is very light and ocean-y in comparison. Hard to explain but it was a very marked difference. Ben loved it, he thought it was very distinguished. I found it oppressive. To each their own!
- Possibly related to the city air, or possibly seasonal allergies, but both Ben and I got a really bad scratch in our throat by the end of the day.
- Everybody carries umbrellas. I don’t know if this is a seasonal thing or if it’s always like this, but during our time there, the weather changed often, and quickly. It could be super hot and sunny one second and super cold and rainy the next.
- Everybody smokes! Nobody smokes in Victoria. Everybody seems to smoke in Paris. As a rule, I hate second hand smoke, but I became quite accustomed to it in Paris and stopped thinking about it fairly quickly. If I lived there full time I’m sure I’d remain more conscientious of my health, but since it was only 5 days worth of second hand smoke I figured I’d survive 😛
- There are SO MANY TOURISTS. The lawn at the Eiffel tower is quite patchy. Too many people walking around, it must be impossible to maintain!
- However, the tourists really seem to stick to touristy spots? When we wandered to places like the Louvre or the Eiffel tower, then yes, we saw lots of tourists and heard a lot of people speaking English, but when we were near our hotel or not at a tourist hot spot, everybody seemed to be French.
We also found a really great coffee shop - DOSE, Dealer de Café:
My favourite part about this place? (Well, other than the coffee!) They let me practice my French instead of switching to English. If I stumbled over a question they’d quickly translate, then switch back to French. I embarrassed myself terribly but I loved the experience.
Mm, the mint-flavoured water was very nice as well.
Oh! And the orange juice! We had a lot of top notch orange juice in Paris. I don’t know what they’re doing that we’re not doing in North America, but dang is it ever good.
I really wanted to see the Palace of Versailles, so we took the train there. I had read online that the guided tours were a huge rip off, and that just taking the train was the way to go. I’m really glad I read that advice because we found the train to be totally fine and we saved a TON of money by just doing the trip ourselves.
Thoughts on Versailles?
- The interior of the main palace was the most crowded thing I had ever experienced in my life. It was claustrophobic and not enjoyable at all.You were just shoved through, from room to room, like sardines. We left the palace as soon as we found an exit.
- The grounds were gorgeous and unbelievably huge, and I had an awesome time wandering around. I felt like I was inside a fairy tale.
- We did not go to see the Hameau de la reine and I still regret it!
The chateau was cool and I loved the gardens... And I hear Marie Antoinette's hamlet is beautiful as well, although we didn't make it that far. But! Inside the chateau! Good god. Not even in peak season, and yet we were still jam packed, shuffling and pushing shoulder to shoulder through the castle. It was insane, and so not worth it. Stick to the gardens!
Unfortunately, our time at Versailles was the coldest day of our stay in Paris, which is why we didn’t make it to the Hameau de la reine. Just too cold to wander anymore.
Our last full day in Paris was spent checking out the Marais, which was also super crowded! After we had our fill (which didn’t take long) we followed the Seine for an hour long walk until we made it to The Pont Alexandre III. From there we went back to our hotel room to recharge for a bit before heading out AGAIN to more shopping, this time along Champs-Élysée. We didn’t buy anything though 😬
I loved Paris. We both did! I loved how everywhere you looked there was something new to explore. I feel like I barely scratched the surface with this post! We found so many great parks, like Parc Monceau and Square des Batignolles. We experienced tons of delicious restaurants, some wonderful coffee, and amazing sights everywhere we looked. I feel like I could go back to Paris a thousand times and still find something new and exciting to see and do.
And the people were very friendly! I came prepared for the “snobby French” that everyone was always warning me about, but we didn’t find that to be the case at all. Everyone was lovely and so helpful. Once, when a man at an ice cream stand kept asking me a question I didn’t understand, a woman passing by took pity on me and translated! How nice is that?! And all the servers we encountered were great, and spoke a nice mix of French and English that made it easy for us to communicate but still gave us the illusion of kind-of communicating in French 😛
I’d love to go back to France and experience Paris again, and maybe a few other cities as well.
Paris exceeded our expectations for sure 💖