With 6 years of accumulated airline reward miles, we took a 10 day vacation to Paris and Amsterdam over the summer.
Day 0: IAD-CDG
Leisurely afternoon departure from Dulles aboard United 767-300, 9 hour overnight Atlantic hop arriving at Paris in the morning.
CDG: huge cylindrical concrete terminal with atrium crisscrossed by escalators, reminiscent of a confusing hamster habitat.
Day 1: Petit Palais
RER-B train from airport to city has a slightly dilapidated feel to it, passes through a few depressed neighborhoods between CDG and the city proper. Fast and problem-free ride, though.
Alight at St Michel station for check-in to Hotel Diana in Latin Quarter, right beside Cluny Museum and a stone’s throw from Notre Dame. Air conditioned 2nd floor room has view of noisy Rue Saint Jacques, but windows provide impressive soundproofing.
Breakfast of ham and cheese crepes at Crêperie de Cluny, then a stroll to Notre Dame and along River Seine. Catch first sight of Eiffel Tower, walk past Louvre Pyramid and through Jardins des Tuileries, also linger for a bit in the underground Carrousel shopping mall. Purchase advance tickets for the Louvre and Versailles at mall tabac shop ticket counter — tourist secret we learned from various travel sites.
End up at Grand Palais and Petit Palais, opt to enter latter for free admission. Decent collection spanning every era of art, including a Rembrandt self-portrait, and a horse-shaped ceramic drinking vase.
Day 2: Louvre
One whole day reserved for the Louvre. We avoid the line at the pyramid and show our pre-purchased tickets at the lesser-known alternate entrance near the bronze lions.
Time enough to see the standard crowd-drawers: Mona Lisa, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, Liberty Leading the People, the Coronation of Napoleon; but nicer still to happen across other lesser known works with historic importance: Vermeer’s Lacemaker, Arcimboldo’s food portraits, Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves, the Louvre’s older medieval foundations, and ancient Mesopotamian winged geniuses and lamassu.
At the cafe in the Richelieu wing we enjoy cake and ice cream and coffee with a perfect view of the Louvre Pyramid.
Back in the Latin Quarter we try some couscous at Chez Hamadi: apparently the Tunisian usage of the word “couscous” includes the stew as well as the grain.
After dinner, a quick Metro ride to see the Eiffel Tower. Lines too long to go up, even late at night, but it’s enough just to stand beneath it and crane our necks up at the structure.
Pause for a bit at the carousels nearby en route to the Trocadero to catch Metro back to hotel.
Day 3: Notre Dame, Saint-Chapelle, Montparnasse
Hagiographic leitmotif: cephalophore St Denis.
Afternoon church visit: La Saint-Chapelle, Flamboyant Gothic medieval church famed for its stained glass windows. Worth visiting just to spend hours looking up at the biblical scenes so resplendently rendered in stained glass around the upper chapel.
Before dinner, a stroll around nearby Jardin de Luxembourg. Gardens are lush with flowers and shrubbery, dotted with sculptures, including Felix Bartholdi’s first model for the Statue of Liberty.
Luxembourg Palace is headquarters for the French Senate.
From there it’s not far to Montparnasse Tower, to take in a sunset view of Paris from above. After dinner in an Italian place down the road, a brief getting-yelled-at by a front desk security guard for a wrong turn, and an elevator ride to the top, we see one of Paris’s grandest views.
Apparently Montparnasse Tower’s view is the best one since it’s the one view where you cannot see Montparnasse Tower.
Day 4: Versailles, Arc de Triomphe
Normally the RER-C train would go directly from St Michel to Versailles but track work necessitates a Metro ride to a transfer at Javel Andre Citroen Station. Even early in the day there are crowds of other tourists making the trek, so it’s not hard to figure out which way to go. Good view of the Eiffel Tower from the RER-C platform.
Short walk to Versailles Palace from the train station; we skip the lines at the Palace for the morning and opt to wander the expansive Gardens and grounds, down to the Grand and Petit Trianons, the Temple of Love, and the Queen’s Hamlet, Marie Antoinette’s little fake village.
En route, a break for lunch in a garden cafe, where a friendly cat wends between our legs looking for scraps.
Palace of Versailles still crowded even later in the afternoon, but at least not suffocatingly so. Amazing rococo interiors, exquisite ceiling paintings, and of course the famous Hall of Mirrors.
The smaller and less ornate Mesdame’s Apartments are much less crowded, and less of a visual overload.
Although Madame Victoire’s bedchamber carpet is the absolute best floor covering ever.
Train home, dinner of moules frites, then back onto Metro for one more night of sightseeing at the Arc de Triomphe. (Remember to take the pedestrian tunnel, and not try to jaywalk the bustling traffic circle.)
Arrive too late to ascend the Arc but still an impressive sight from ground level.
Evening ends with stroll down Champs Élysées to Metro back to hotel.
Day 5: Cluny, Paris to Amsterdam by Train
One more morning in Paris, spent at the Cluny, medieval art museum, formerly a medieval monastery, built atop the ruins of an old Roman bathhouse. The vaulted ceiling over the frigidarium is still intact.
Mainly here for two things: the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, and St Adalhard’s foot; but the rest of the medieval art and Roman ruins are a joy to see, full of a kind of culturally ingenuous narrative whimsy you just don’t get as much from post-Renaissance art.
Also the drinking horn with griffon’s feet.
After hotel checkout, we haul our bags onto Metro up to Gare du Nord Station, with a stop for lunch at Cafe du Nord for moules frites with a muscadet.
Then it’s on to a Thalys train headed north to Amsterdam via Brussels. About 3.5 hours.
Booked a room at Ibis Hotel right beside Centraal Station to keep things simple. On arrival we just round a corner and check in, across from the giant bicycle parking garage. Then, dinner at a nearby Malaysian restaurant before sleep.
Day 6: Amsterdam Rijksmuseum
One whole day reserved just for the Rijksmuseum, to bask in galleries and galleries full of Dutch golden age art: Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” and Vermeer’s “Love Letter” and “Milkmaid.” Also interesting: dollhouses, ship models, Dutch medieval art, the library.
Brief break for lunch in museum cafe, where I try Dutch “Queen’s Soup” with a Heineken. That gets a smile from the server for some reason.
After the Rijksmuseum, a short walk past the “I amsterdam” sign and Museumsplein.
Later in the day, In ‘t Aepjen: 15th Century wooden structure (one of only two left in the city) and tavern where sailors once left their monkeys. At the bar I tell the bartender, “Give me a local beer that isn’t Heineken, and a plate of bitterballen.” I get a glass of Gulpener, and he orders in six beef bitterballen from a neighboring bar. They are wonderful.
Day 7: Rembrandthuis, Hermitage, Micropia
Rembrandthuis, the house where painter Rembrandt van Rijn lived for 20 years, is now a museum, restored to something resembling its original appearance, and refurnished from Rembrandt’s exhaustive inventory.
Inside are historic artifacts, paintings by Rembrandt’s contemporaries, demos of printing and pigment-making, and an art studio where one can draw from life in the same space where Rembrandt taught his pupils.
Following this, a walk through strong wind and rain to the Hermitage Amsterdam where, drenched, we view more Dutch Golden Age civic portraits, and an exhibit on Napoleon and Alexander III. At the end of the day, the afternoon sun illuminates the canals in golden light.
Turned out to have been a record storm; lots of trees down.
We try a trip to the Artis Zoo, but it is closed after the dangerous winds. The Micropia feature is still open, however: a thoroughly fascinating and immersive exhibit about microorganisms, with lots of microscopes.
Day 8: Zoo, Gardens, Oude and Nieuwe Kerks, De Pannenkoekenboot
A full day: first, we try Artis Zoo again, now open. We have just enough time for breakfast at the “Twee Cheetahs,” a walk amongst posing lemurs and meerkats, a look through the extensive aquariums, and the old Heimans Diorama.
Near the zoo, De Hortus Botanic Gardens: plants and biome greenhouses, a butterfly garden, and most importantly, a cat.
Light rail to Niuewe Kerk (New Church, 15th Century) near Dam Square. No longer a church, the sanctuary is now an exhibit space. Bit saddened by this, and the giant hanging Helvetica text labels don’t help. Very impressed by the ornately carved wooden canopy over the pulpit.
St Adalhard’s foot makes another appearance.
After a burger lunch in De Wallen (known as the Red Light District but fairly tame on a Sunday morning), next up is Oude Kerk (Old Church, 13th Century). Beautiful historic space, spare and simple due to 16th Century iconoclastic stripping, yet breathing still with 800 years of history. Overhead: the original wood vaulted ceiling, adorned in tempera paintings of saints. Underfoot: graves, including that of Rembrandt’s wife Saskia van Uylenburgh.
16th Century misericords line the quire, each with a wood carving, some scatological, some contemporary.
I’m especially taken by the winged foot on House Rendorp’s coat of arms.
At some point the organist starts playing the transept organ. The notes echo through the still air as they have for hundreds of years, and resonate deep in my soul.
Ferry through the rain from Centraal to NDSM-Werf to board De Pannenkoekenboot, a river cruise with an all you can eat pancake buffet. Dutch pancakes seem to be more of an afternoon course, and in savory and sweet varieties, with every ingredient imaginable for toppings. The Dutch seem much more aggressive at buffets than Americans.
Cap off day with a twilight canal boat cruise, (free with our Amsterdam city pass), through the city’s waterways, under bridges, along the Rivers Amstel and IJ. Touristy, but interesting. I didn’t know Amsterdam had a floating Chinese restaurant.
Day 9: Stedelijk and House Museums
Original plan for today was to either go on a day trip to Delft, or visit Muiderslot Castle, but heavy rain and limited transportation options cancel those and we spend the day visiting museums instead. But first, Dutch poffertjes for breakfast at De Carrousel Pannenkoeken, right near the Heineken Brewery.
At the end of the day there’s just enough time to drop by the Amsterdam Museum (which in retrospect we should probably have visited earlier) to see the Amsterdam DNA interactive historical exhibit, along with more artifacts and paintings from Amsterdam’s past.
Drop by Westerkerk to visit Rembrandt’s grave, but sadly we miss closing time. Instead, we pick up some (hopefully genuine) Delftware at a nearby porcelain shop.
Day ends with another canal boat cruise, and another round of beer and bitterballen with dinner at Cafe Van Zuylen.
Day 10: AMS-IAD
Early morning train to Schiphol Airport, flight home on Austrian Airlines, with transfer at Vienna. The less said of this the better: chaotic free-for-all boarding process, plus 10 hours in uncomfortable sunken middle coach seat.
Nice to come home to the cats, though.