Sunday, September 8, 2019

London & Paris 2019 - Day 7 (9/7/2019) - Return to NYC

There's really not much to say about today, so it probably shouldn't be a separate entry; but whatevs.  Our return flight to JFK didn't depart until 4:50pm, and our airport transfer was set for 1pm, so we had the chance to sleep in.  Breakfast at the hotel ended at 11am since it was a Saturday, so we took our time getting there a little after 10am.  After breakfast we relaxed in the room until the noon checkout time and then waited in the lobby for our ride.  The driver arrived about 30 minutes early (12:30pm) to take us to Charles de Gaulle airport.  He drove aggressively through the traffic (so much so that I was almost a little scared once or twice) and got us to the airport in somewhere around 40 minutes.

We had a bit of an annoying experience at the airport, as I didn't get a tax refund for the purse that I had bought my mom.  We tried to ask where to validate an turn in the tax form but a woman at the entrance to the immigration line incorrectly directed us to go through.  It wasn't until we we through customs and security that I looked up online what I should have done, and realized that it should have been done before going through; this was confirmed by a security person that we asked, though the previous 3 people that we asked before her were clueless.

In any case, we made it to our gate very early and had plenty of time to wait before boarding.  The flight was my first on an A380, and was (thankfully) unremarkable; perhaps aside from the fact that this was the first time in years that I was on a plane that still used the dual pronged headphones.  The fight arrived on time a little after 7pm, and the trip came to an end with an Uber trip back to my apartment.



Saturday, September 7, 2019

London & Paris 2019 - Day 6 (9/6/2019) - French palaces (Louvre & Versailles)

Today was a day of optional excursions to two former royal palaces in/around Paris.  The start time was virtually the same as the day before (actually 5 minutes later, at 8:50am), and so was our breakfast.  The plan was to connect the excursions to the Louvre museum and the palace in Versailles, with the coach not returning to the hotel until late afternoon.  Mom and I had opted for both excursions, so that was just fine with us.  I should point out, though, that the tour did make accommodations for guests who had opted for only one of the excursions.

The coach dropped us off in the parking lot beneath the Louvre and Doug handed us off to Anna for the day.  She took us through a short highlights tour of the museum (guiding us using the same ear-pieces that she had been using with us ever since arriving in Paris), with the longest stops at the three most famous pieces - Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory (aka Nike) of Samothrace.  These are the same 3 works that my only previous tour to the Louvre had breezed through 14 years prior; I still don't particularly understand what makes these 3 so famous.  After the museum tour we had about an hour of free time, which I used to go up to the ground level courtyard to take some pictures (but then also had to wait in the security line to re-enter).

The group reconvened a little after noon to board the coach for the drive to Versailles; I don't remember much of this drive, as I had a difficult time staying awake.  We were dropped off in the parking lot of the palace grounds, and then Anna led us into the palace for a quick guided tour.  After that she handed us our tickets to the palace gardens and left us to explore those on our own for about an hour.  It was during this time that my mom commented (in confirmation of what I had advised her a couple of days ago) that Versailles puts Buckingham Palace to shame.

We met the group back at the bus at 3:20pm for the drive back to the hotel.  The trip took a little over an hour, and Doug was waiting to meet us upon our return to relay information about the evening plans.  We assembled again at 6:15 to drive out for the tour farewell dinner.  This meal was at a restaurant close to the Louvre, and we were again given a 3 course meal with 3 options for each course.  I had onion soup (for the third time on the tour) as my starter, with a main of "wok vegetables" (the weakest course of the meal), and a tasty slice of apple tart for dessert.  Mom and I sat at a table with Dan and Merle (the same Houston couple we had dined with 2 nights prior) for the meal.  The ladies from Michigan were once again a rowdy table, even without an accordion player to spur them on.

After dinner we boarded the coach for the drive back to the hotel, where we said goodbye to (and exchanged contact info with some of) our fellow tour-goers.



London & Paris 2019 - Day 5 (9/5/2019) - Paris sightseeing

A good chunk of the itinerary today was planned sightseeing included with the tour.  The breakfast at the hotel was another buffet, with a spread that rivaled (or perhaps exceeded) that of the Park Plaza in London; my mom preferred this breakfast to that one.  The tour group meeting time was 8:45am, and we left a little later than that (there was a little confusion when Doug counted the guests after boarding the coach and found 2 missing).

The morning began with a driving around Paris, covering some of the same ground as the night before, but with with sunlight out.  A couple more differences were that Anna was doing the narration this time, and there was significantly more road traffic.  These factors all combined to make me struggle to stay awake during some of the drive, and I indeed partially drifted off at times.  The drive ended at the river side, where we boarded a boat for a 1 hour cruise on the Seine.  As in London, this was a good way to see the city, though perhaps slightly less so.  The tour started adjacent to the Eiffel Tower, headed east and around the City Island, and then returned to the dock of origin.

After the cruise we dropped Anna off on our way to Montmartre.  There we boarded the "Little Train" and took that up the hill to the parking lot of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica.  While this cheesy mode of transport is not something that I would normally consider, it was not a bad way to get the "experienced" demographic on the tour up the hill along narrow roads where the coach couldn't go.  Up at the top Doug told us a bit about the church and then led us on a short walk to the restaurant where we would have a light lunch (La Bonne Franquette).  I was stuck with onion soup as he veg-friendly choice, but my mom switched to the soup from the quiche lorraine after seeing the soup come out.  This soup didn't disappoint her, as it had a healthy serving of cheese on top, along with good broth and robust bread dipped in.  The chocolate crepe that followed, however, was not nearly as tasty.

After lunch we had about an hour of free time, as we passed on the optional walking tour with Doug.  We took this time to do a little souvenir shopping and check out the inside of he basilica.  We were early to meet up with the rest of the group before the designated 3:10pm time for a return ride down the hill on the "train".  From there we took the bus back to the hotel.

We didn't spend too much time at the hotel before deciding to head out to the flagship Louis Vuitton store on the Champs-Élysées.  On the short walk to the Saint-Sébastien - Froissart Metro station we encountered Keith and Tammy, a couple from Atlanta (and the only other two black people on the tour), and invited them along with us.  The four of us descended into the station and (with some help from a clerk on duty) bought a 10-pack of tickets (which was actually a little cheaper than buying 8 individual single-ride tickets.  We took the 8 train to Bastile and then transferred to the 1 to George V, coming up right across the street from the store.  After a brief wait in line (yes, the store normally has a line to enter), we entered the store, and then Mom and Tammy led us around.  In the end I bought my mom a purse.  Oh, and while you wait for them to prepare your purchased items they offer you a drink - Mom took Champagne and I took an orange juice.

After the LV store we all decided to get dinner, and found an Italian restaurant nearby named Caffe' Italiano.  I had a 3-course combo with a surprisingly basic "bruschetta" and a cheese pizza that they marketed as "margherita"; though that's not to say that the food was bad.  The chocolate cake dessert was the least basic of the 3 items, but it wasn't really any better; again, it wasn't bad food.  After dinner we reversed our subway route on the way back to the hotel.  I should give props to my mom for handling the stairs in the subway stations like a champ despite her knee giving her pain when she walked down them.



London & Paris 2019 - Day 4 (9/4/2019) - To Paris

We needed to have our luggage packed and ready for pick-up by 6:45am, at which time ours was promptly collected.  We then headed down to have breakfast before meeting for the 8:10am departure.  We were taken by coach to St. Pancras station where we caught the 10:24am Eurostar train to Paris Gare du Nord (North Station).  We had assigned seats for the 2.25 hour train ride, with the entire tour group in the same car.  The train ride was comfortable enough, though I couldn't quite get into a great sleeping position.  One neat treat (pun intended) was that Doug (the tour director) came around with a small package of chocolates for each guest.

Our arrival train station was a bit run down, and didn't give my mom the best first impression of Paris.  Outside the station the group boarded a new coach which would be our transportation for the rest of the tour - also with the same driver, Philippe, for the duration.  We drove through the Paris traffic into the city center, where we met a local guide for a walking tour of the City Island.  My mom wasn't particularly impressed by this tour (nor the guide, young Anna), and I wouldn't disagree.  It didn't help that Notre Dame is still inaccessible while in the early stages of being restored after the fire.

After the tour we boarded the coach to be taken to our hotel for the next 3 nights, Les Jardins du Marais.  Doug distributed packets with our room keys, and we were able to reunite with our luggage waiting for us in our room.  We decided to join the optional excursion that evening (which we hadn't pre-registered for, unlike the other excursions we took), dinner and an "illuminated drive" of Paris at night.

The excursion departed at 5:45pm, with dinner at a restaurant called Les Noces des Jeannette.  Dinner consisted of 3 courses - I selected the only vegetarian options of onion soup and the seasonal vegetable plate for my starter and main, and then meringue vacherin for dessert.  The soup was yet another disappointment for my mom, who was expecting significantly more cheese on top.  The vegetable plate was actually pretty solid, with about 6 different things on it - the best were the little  balls that I presume were some type of hushpuppy.  The meal also featured performances by an accordion player, which I could have done without.  One table of 5 women traveling together (plus the son of one of them) seemed to enjoy the accordion music, though a couple of them were buzzed enough off the included wine (plus wine donated from other tables) that they could have made a good time regardless of the surrounding.

After dinner we took off on the drive around the city.  We went by/through/over several of the most notable buildings, squares, and bridges, culminating with a stop at the Eiffel Tower for the 10pm flashing light show.  The only minor disappointment was that the Arc de Triomphe was for some reason not lit up.  But despite this, my mom got over her initial impressions and began to appreciate the city.  The traffic wasn't too bad that night, and we were able to get back to the hotel somewhere around 10:30pm.



Tuesday, September 3, 2019

London & Paris 2019 - Day 3 (9/3/2019) - Buckingham Palace

We didn't have any concrete plans this morning, so we had no reason to get up early.  Our only concern was making it downstairs in time for breakfast, which we did with plenty of time around 8:30am.  The spread was the same as the day before.  The only thing to note from the meal was that I tried Marmite and discovered that it's not for me at all (🤮).  After eating we headed up to the room to relax for a while.

While discussing what we wanted to do with ourselves, my mom decided that she wanted to go see the Bloomberg building.  I ordered an Uber and we were on our way around 11am.  At the building, we first got Mom a guest badge and then retraced my path from two days prior up to the pantry.  We hung out there for a while and then started down the spiral stair ramp.  Mom's hip began to bug her a couple of floors down, so we chose to go back up to the 6th floor and take the elevator down (instead of continuing down 4 more floors).  We went around the building to the London Mithraeum, a museum run by Bloomberg that showcases a restored Roman temple dedicated to the god Mithras that was found at the site of the building.  We were able to go on the noon viewing of the temple, which includes a dramatic audio-visual presentation and a few minutes to walk around and take pictures.  After that I ordered another Uber (which was a bit of an anxiety-inducing experience because the Bloomberg wifi didn't work out by the street) and we made it back to the hotel by 12:45pm.

We were signed up for the afternoon excursion to Buckingham Palace, and that departed by coach at 1:15pm.  This was a combined excursion, and most of the passengers were Globus clients from other tours who were staying at a couple of other hotels, in addition to 6 people from our tour and a couple of people from our hotel on another tour.  At the palace we first visited the Royal Mews, the horse stable and carriage house.  Most of the horses (all but two) were away on "holiday", but all the carriages were there for viewing.

After the Mews we got to the main attraction, an audio guided tour through the state rooms and royal apartments of the palace.  Unfortunately, though understandably, pictures were not allowed in the palace itself.  The opulent rooms are only available for public tours during July through September while the queen is away.  We finished the tour in the garden, where we paid a visit to the gift store and made a quick stop at the ice cream shop on the way out.  We were back on the bus in time for the 4:30pm departure back to the hotel (we were the second stop).

Back at the hotel we relaxed in the room for a couple of hours before heading out to dinner.  Our destination was the nearby Westminster Kitchen Grill House so that Mom could get some fish and chips, though on the way we paused briefly to watch some (anti-)Brexit protesters walking by the hotel onto Westminster Bridge.  After that encounter we continued on to the restaurant, where I had some quite bland penne in addition to the chips from my mom's order; thankfully Mom enjoyed both the fish and her creamy chicken soup starter.  From there it was back to the hotel for the night.



London & Paris 2019 - Day 2 (9/2/2019) - Tower of London

The tour package included a morning coach tour of the city this morning, with a departure time of 8:05am.  This meant an early wake-up in order to get (included) breakfast a the restaurant beforehand.  I had slept like a log the night before, but could have used a couple hours more.  We were down in restaurant (in body, at least) a bit after 7am, which is roughly the time I would normally be snoozing my weekday alarm for the first time.  The breakfast buffet had a pretty large selection (though only one Obi-approved vegetarian item - some hash brown wedges that were actually pretty good), and I was able to make do without issue.  After eating we made our way to the hotel entrance to meet the group.

The driving tour was led by a local guide named Robert, who would also be our guide for he optional excursion in the afternoon (though we had a different driver each trip out).  He narrated us through Westminster and City of London, with our first picture stop (~20 minutes) at the gates of Buckingham Palace.  We then drove around some more and made our way to St. Paul's Cathedral for a longer (30+ minutes) stop.  After that they took us to the London Eye, where the group split into two capsules (one with Robert and one with Doug - we were with Robert) for a "flight" around the ferris wheel, where we were served a glass of champagne (or water for the non-drinkers like me).  The morning tour ended there at around 11:30.

We had about 1.5 hours before we were to meet for our selected optional (i.e., additional cost) excursion to the Tower of London.  We walked along the south bank of the river to the Pret a Manger next to the Westminster Bridge, where I grabbed a small bite for lunch (Mom wasn't hungry).  We then continued the short walk back to the hotel so that we could grab a quick rest.

We were on our way out the door again at 1pm, with about 20 of the 36 on the tour choosing this excursion.  Another couple that we met was a husband and wife from Granite City, IL, just across the Mississippi River from my hometown of St. Louis, MO.  It turned out that the woman had also worked at Boeing (after a stint in the Air Force), having retired from there 3 years ago.  There was also a mother-daughter pair from Knoxville, TN, though (like me and my mom) the daughter was living in another state (South Carolina).

Anyway, Robert and the new driver took us to the Tower of London, where he showed us around for a bit before leaving us at the entrance to the Crown Jewels.  After walking through that exhibit, we had about an hour to explore by ourselves before meeting up with the group at 4pm back at the welcome center.  During this time we walk through the first floor of the armory in the White Tower, watched part of an acting performance, went down into the torture prison, and took a couple of breaks to relax.  But we also experienced what was the highlight of the day for my mom - a fortuitous meeting with one of only two women to ever have been members of the Beefeaters (the ceremonial guard of the Tower of London; officially, the Yeomen Warders).

We met back up with the rest of the group on time, and we were driven back to the hotel.  We took a couple of hours to rest (with Ma taking a nap), and then headed out for dinner.  We ate at an Italian restaurant nearby called La Cucina Di Mamma.  Although the garlic bread was weird and not very good (it was basically a pizza crust cooked with garlic), the veggie lasagna was quite tasty.  After dinner we walked back to the hotel and called it a night.



London & Paris 2019 - Day 1 (9/1/2019) - To London

The trip actually began the night of August 31, a Saturday.  After spending the day sightseeing in New York (and a brief visit from my friend Eric), my mom and I took an overnight flight from JFK to Heathrow.  The flight pushed back right on time at 11pm, but ended up arriving somewhere between 45 and 60 minutes early.  After a hassle-free immigration checkpoint, we grabbed our luggage and found a Globus representative that was waiting in the arrival hall.  Because our flight was so early (our plane was due to arrive just after 11am, so they weren't expecting us until closer to noon), we had to wait until noon for the driver to return to the airport.  When they were ready, the lady walked us out to the parking garage to meet the driver.

The van held up to 9 total people (driver + 8 passengers), and the group used every single seat.  There were already 3 passengers in the van when he pulled up, and we added 5 more.  It turned out that we were going to 3 different hotels for 3 different tours, though.  The driver turned out to be quite knowledgeable about London and its history in his own right, and point out many things to us along the way (though I'm not completely sure that he knew everything that he claimed to).  He was also a very friendly guy, and moved very well for a man of 75 years.

Our hotel, the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, was the last of the 3 stops.  The driver took us (and a couple from Houston) to the Globus desk, where he dropped off our luggage and the staff took us to meet our tour director, Doug.  We huddled around while Doug gave us an introductory logistical briefing, and then we went up to the lobby to check into the hotel.

After getting into the room and having our luggage delivered, we still had almost 3 hours until we were due to meet the group at 5:45pm for dinner.  We were tired from not really having slept much over the shortened night on the plane (I almost dozed off at one point on the van ride), so Ma lay down to try for a nap.  I figured that I would have a better chance of adjusting to the European sleep schedule if I held out until night, so I took the opportunity to go find the Bloomberg European headquarters building.

I walked across Westminster bridge and caught the Circle Underground line heading east at Westminster station.  I took the subway 4 stops to Mansion House, which was a short walk from the Bloomberg building.  I had a quick look around the outside before heading in to explore.  The security guard at the front could tell that I was lost, so he (and another colleague at the turnstile) pointed me in the right direction.  I took the elevator up to the 6th floor pantry, had a bit of a look about that and the 7th floor, chatted a bit with another security guard (Henry), and then slowly made down the central spiral ramp/staircase - while also having a wander about a couple of floors, of course.  I then reversed my route back to the hotel, this time taking the District line along the same subway route of 4 stops.

I made it back to the hotel room a little after 5, with plenty of time to spare before the dinner meetup time.  When the time came, Ma and I headed down to the ground floor to meet up with the rest of the group - 36 people total.  Doug gathered us all and took us onto the coach parked on the driveway, from there the driver took us over to a restaurant in the City of London called Factory House (with Doug providing narration along the route).  Dinner at the restaurant was 3 courses, with 2 or 3 choices for each course.  I had the soup of the day, an aubergine/eggplant main dish (thankfully they had a vegetarian option), and apple crumble for desert - overall it was pretty solid.  We sat at a table with the couple from Houston, Dan and Merle.

After dinner we all got back on the coach for a transfer to the river boat for a cruise along the Thames.  We were joined by three other Globus tour groups.  It had grown cold by this time (maybe 60 degrees F), though Doug had warned us to bring an extra layer during the intro briefing.  I slightly regretted not changing from the t-shirt I had worn all night/day into some long sleeves, to go along with the track jacked that I had brought on the trip as my only extra layer.  Mom was a fan of the cool weather, though, and eagerly took the seat at the front of the outside top deck.  I stayed up top with her briefly before seeking refuge inside while we waited for all of the other tour groups to arrive.  I did rejoin her once the boat got going, but didn't quite last the full tour up there.  The tour began at a pier on the north bank between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridges.  We first headed westward until just before Lambeth Bridge.  The boat then turned around and headed the other way until just past Tower Bridge, before returning to the pier.  Of course there was a guide narrating throughout.  It turned out to be a more interesting way to see the city than I expected.

After the boat ride we got on the coach and headed back to the hotel, making it there just after 10pm.  We were quite sleep deprived by then, so we both had no trouble falling asleep.