17 October 2011

Guess What This Is

During the Montmarte walking tour, Pauline pointed out this unique concept.

Do you know what it is?

A few clues:

During the 1800's someone noticed the people of Paris drank more wine than any other liquid and decided this really wasn't in the city's best interest.

We pay big money for something that is available naturally in the city.

Horses needed to be kept away from these for sanitation.

Comments??? Anyone???

15 October 2011

Discover Walks Montmarte

This was my third trip to Paris.  While I was familiar with many of the famous landmarks and had perused the Louvre and D'Orsay museums, this trip I made many new discoveries thanks to Discover Walks.

Missy and I spent Saturday morning at the humongous Les Puces flea market, having written down the time and location for the Discover Walk "just in case," and as luck would have it checked our watches and noted we had just enough time to catch the Metro and meet the tour... that was meeting at the top of the Metro stairs in front of the famous Moulin Rouge!  How convenient was that!?!

Discover Walks are tours led by indigenous Parisians who share not only the popularly known history of the city, but little known facts interspersed with their own personal history. It's a simple business model; meet a guide wearing a hot pink vest at a time-certain in front of an easy-to-find landmark, take the tour and tip your guide at the end based on your value of the tour.

Make no mistake about it, these guides are professionals.  Some are college students, others history or city planning graduates, and one of my favorites, a former professional ballet dancer who is writing a book and giving tours to support himself.  They are required to be certified by the city to be a tour guide but the tour is all their own.

The Moulin Rouge - world's most famous cabaret.
The first Discover Walk tour we took was with Pauline, an adorable college student, who lead us around Montmarte, sharing history and legends about the popular artists' hang-out of the early 1900's.  Pauline started the tour by doing a little demonstration of the can-can dance made famous at the Moulin Rouge then went on to show us photos of some of the caberet's most notorious patrons and featured acts.
Can-can dance instructions
She proceeded to lead us through the beautiful Montmarte, pointing out houses where painters we all knew, Dali, van Gogh, Picasso, had lived and worked.
Walking through Montmarte
She shared legends about other resident's great tragedies and triumphs, explained why a certain alley was called "fog alley, " and lead us all the way to Sacre Coure telling us why she believed it was built with magic stones as a child.
One of Paris' most famous tragedies said to live in a cursed house.  Can you guess what legend says you must rub to be sure you break the curse from staying with you?

Sacre Coure
The tour took a couple of hours, a little longer than the pre-stated time, but I think all of us would have stayed for another hour or two to listen to the lovely Pauline.   We inquired and learned that the guides share 50% of their tips with the Discover Walks organization to help pay for website maintenance, advertising and other administrative costs.  Most walking tours charge 12-15€ so we tried to tip at least that much, agreeing if we could, we would have tipped much more.  It was worth every penny.

14 October 2011

Money and Travel

Prior to leaving for Europe I called my bank about buying some Euros to line my pocket before leaving the U.S.

They shared with me that the best way to do this was to actually wait until the plane landed and then go to an ATM with my bank card and withdraw currency.  This works especially well for me because my bank has agreements with almost every ATM company and reimburses fees associated with using an ATM.  My bank offered the most favorable exchange rate for local currency using the ATM method.
Another thing to note is the use of coins as single and two euro denominations.  I know I take for granted intuitively knowing our American coin denominations, reflecting on first grade education.  It's the most startling when you count your change and it feels like you're being shorted because there is no "one" euro paper bill.  Be sure to check and know if you're handing a one or two euro coin to pay for something.

Also, the 10 and 20 cent coins are very close in size.  This will be important to know when you're trying to read the coins without glasses to give the nice lady guarding the public bathroom door her 40 cents.  Not to worry, should you get it wrong she will chase you down to let you know.  For what it's worth these bathrooms are always tidy and well stocked with toilet paper and soap, in my experience, so it's worth the 40 cents.

It also merits understanding how your credit card converts the price of purchases you charge.  My last trip I did not have a strong grasp of this (in addition to my weak mental money conversion skills) and ended up paying more fees for using my credit card and higher exchange rates than I expected.  This trip I purposely used a credit card that had no fees for currency exchange.  Occasionally you will be asked if you prefer your charges in Euros or Dollars.  Always choose the local currency; using the offer to convert to dollars has additional fees attached that may be hidden.

As for converting prices mentally when making purchases, it is a moving target.  Generally speaking it seemed that if I added about 30% to the price I was in the general vicinity of an item's cost in dollars.  After a while I just started thinking in Euros and thus fooled myself into believing things were less expensive than they were.  Fortunately I'm a deep discount shopper anyway so this didn't hurt me, but if you are a shop-a-holic at home there are a ton of apps you can download on your phone to help do the conversion and most store clerks are helpful as well.

Please comment with your conversion tips as they may be the most helpful thing to know when traveling abroad.

First Day in Paris

Four weeks ago this morning I was waking up for my first full day of my European adventure.  I was staying in the lovely Marriott Rive Gauche thanks to my buddy's contribution of Marriott points (thank you Greg!) so that his wife and I might enjoy one less expense on our trip.  I generally stay in quaint boutique hotels that charge less than 100 € per night, so I definitely felt like I was living large.
Evening view from Marriott Rive Gauche 15th Floor room.
One thing that always confounds me is the more expensive the hotel, the less that is included.  Not to worry, Greg had Gold status and we were treated to free Wi-Fi and Executive lounge privileges.  Here's the kicker, with the Executive Lounge privileges, we had a wonderful breakfast, usually scrambled eggs, bacon, pastries and all the soda (Missy) and coffee (me) you could drink, AND half of the time we ate our evening meal and drank copious amounts of wine during the lounge's "tea time" thus saving us loads of money.

For those of you in the know about the ebbs and flows of my personal finances who were questioning how I could afford to take a trip right now, there's part one of your answer!  The other part was I was able to schedule a portrait commission in the Netherlands that made it a working vacation.

Le Car Rouge bus tour
One of the first things I like to do when seeing a new city is take a guided bus tour.  Usually over the course of a couple of hours you can see a city's tourist attractions, and better plan what you would like to look at more closely.

Drive-by Shot from tour bus.

TRAVEL TIP:  I have used the touring company Viator previously and in the name of thinking ahead we purchased our tickets for the "hop-on hop-off" bus online.  This was completely unnecessary as you can purchase the tickets for this from the bus driver.  Viator only offered a two day pass and while this sounded good, we, in fact, only used the pass for one day.  After half the tour, we did our first "hop-off" and then completed the circuit later that afternoon.

With the metro system and very easy walking, you would not elect to use the bus as your transportation between destinations after you planned your touring locations.

Drive-by Shot from tour bus.

Net/Net:  Do take a guided bus tour of popular attractions and listen to the information:  Don't buy a two day pass through an online tour company, purchase from the bus driver.  Viator has some excellent offers, but this isn't one of them.
Drive-by Shot from tour bus.