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Surfing to the City of Light

By Margaret Moser

AUGUST 28, 2000:  The Louvre was crowded, as usual, and the crowd before the Mona Lisa was more obnoxious than Sixth Street revelers after a Longhorns win. Amid the constant din of international tongues, three Japanese boys barged to the front of the glassed-in exhibition of Leonardo DaVinci's classic work, hooting and shouting. A hand shot through the crowd with a rolled-up museum program and sharply swatted one of the boys on his upper arm. They all looked shocked and stood silent.

"Zees iss a museum! People are enjoying art! Have some respect!" The voice of outrage came from my tour guide, a compact Parisian named Marie. Marie pulled her under-five-foot frame up and stared daggers at the teenage tourists, rolled-up program firmly in her grasp. One boy finally mumbled with embarrassment and muttered in Japanese as they resumed their fun at a distinctly lower volume.

A tour guide from another group leaned over gratefully. "Oh sank you!" she said with a heavy German accent. Marie nodded sagely; she looked a bit like English actress Helen Mirren. She squared her shoulders and stood erect in a tailored carnation-pink suit and raised her little umbrella, which is international Louvre-speak for "gather round and follow me, o ye of the Reeboks and T-shirts and shorts, for I am your tour guide."

Off we went, through the Delacroix, past the Mona Lisa, around the Venus de Milo, and beneath Winged Victory. When we were done, I tipped Marie an extra franc for rapping the boy on the shoulder and standing up for respect for art.


Confessions of a Travel Weenie

The notion of day-tripping in Paris began late one night while surfing the Web. A trip to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland was already booked and extra nights in London reserved, thinking to tour yet more castles, palaces, and pubs. What else to do with an extra day in London? Spend it in Paris, of course, came the answer through the ether. I steered my favorite current favorite search engine, www.google.com, in that direction by simply typing in "Day trips London Paris."

Now, this sounds all worldly and glamorous but in truth, I am a Travel Weenie. I like comfort. I like hot showers, soft pillows, and clean toilets. I stay on the American side during trips to the Mexican border. I like to know what I am eating before I eat it. Moreover, I had never been to Britain or Ireland, so I booked a safe, guided tour through an agent at Travelfest. Paris, however, was my own doing. Sort of.

Those magic words "Day trips London Paris" produced many options through Google but the one that caught my eye mentioned a hosted day tour via the Eurostar train. The Eurostar link www.eurostar.com offered no information on the hosted tour but has an excellent, easy to navigate site. A curious name was mentioned as the actual tour company, so I did a search using "Britain Shrinkers" and turned up its Web site, naturally enough, at www.britainshrinkers.com. Two hours later I had reservations for the City of Light.

The next thing I heard was all the horror stories. "Don't book from the Net!" "You'll get stuck in Paris and miss your tour!" "The company will go out of business!" Pish and tosh, says the Travel Weenie; this turned out to be one of the best parts of my trip.

Britain Shrinkers requires you to meet them at the International Desk at London's Waterloo Station at 6am. They provide an itinerary that includes your roundtrip ticket, a map of Paris plus general info, and a guide who meets you on the train. A basic tour by bus through Paris' main sights follows arrival and optional tours of the Seine and the Louvre are available or you can follow your own instincts. I did a little of both. After the bus tour I opted out of the Seine tour but on to the Louvre one, and used the free time to shop, eat at a sidewalk café, and take a taxi to see the Place de l'Alma, where Princess Diana died.

Britain Shrinkers also gets big points for their easy-to-find meeting spot at Waterloo Station and pleasant, well-organized staff. After the Travel Weenie stood woefully alone for a moment in the teeming hordes at Paris' Gard du Nord train station, that silly red polyester uniform the Britain Shrinkers guide wears became very reassuring. I began to recognize with Pavlovian instinct the sign of the umbrella held aloft. As I waited to begin the tour, the thought struck me: I was standing in Paris because of surfing the Web.

The sun set that evening in shades of rose, lavender, and bright red-gold as the Eurostar sped away from Paris through the dark green fields of the French countryside and toward the Chunnel to London. My carry-on bag weighed heavily with gifts and art prints from the Louvre museum store, French perfume, red wine, and tarts. Sitting next to me was a charming retired gentleman named Mervyn Checketts, who grew peaches in New Zealand and had written a recipe book -- about peaches, of course. The couple across the table from us was from Italy. It was the eve of my 46th birthday.

Let us stop the reverie for a moment and discuss the EuroStar train. This was a clean, well-serviced operation from start to finish. The lounge area was spotless and well-lit at 6am. The interior of the train was a sunny yellow and unobtrusive. The seating was spacious and comfortable. The food, even their standard microwave pasta, was delicious. Beer and wine were available for purchase in the bar car at prices that didn't gouge. Embarking and disembarking was expeditious. It was amazingly well run, and the Travel Weenie was in heaven.


Paris by the Book

There are as many guidebooks and travel books for Paris as there are ways to get lost in the City of Light. While preparing for my few hours in Paris I consulted Michelin, Frommer, Fodor, and a half-dozen other guides with typical Travel Weenie anxiety. I pored over maps, practiced my rotten French aloud with a stentorian cadence, and tried to figure out how to make the best of my few hours there.

While doing that pre-trip research, a visit to Half Price Books turned up Rick Steves' London 2000, which tells you how to do a similar day trip to Paris on your own. Steves, who has a travel show on PBS, specializes in low-frills, high-culture travel. Steves' guides are among the best of the travel books, packed with information, but he scared me away from his guided tours with stressing strident physical health requirements. The Travel Weenie freely admits to laziness and sloth but London 2000 nonetheless proved an invaluable guide for my extra days there as well as pointers for my downtime in Paris.

Steves' Web site www.ricksteves.com is a good example of that densely informative, low-frills approach. It is unpretentious but opinionated with the usual FAQs plus travel tips, a country-by-country archive of articles, order forms for his guidebooks, a message board called the Graffiti Wall, and more. (www.journeywoman.com is another site that excels in content. Geared toward the female traveler who is often going it alone, it boasts feedback and commentary from its participants it the "gal-friendly city sites.")

Steves does offer a Paris 2000 guide, but if you are spending only a day in the city, it is overkill and the day-trip version in Steves' London guide is more than adequate. Steves' guidebooks in general are excellent: forthright and geared toward the experience of the locale and not merely making Travel Weenies happy but challenging the spirit of travel.


Paris in Your Underwear

After celebrating Bastille Day 2000 with a dinner date at Chez Nous, the memory of that one day in Paris took on a misty nostalgia, enhanced by the gray glow of the computer screen. Google.com, take me away!

Paris is at your fingertips 24-7 at www.paris.org. This fine site has links to just about everything you want in Paris and what it does not have, the U.S French Government Tourist Office, www. francetourism.com or Paris' official tourist office, www.paris-touristoffice.com/index_va.html will. Likewise the @Paris homepage, www.smartweb.fr/paris/index.html is a solid, all-in-one reference site that includes maps, city and Metro info. Neither Catherine Deneuve nor Pere la Chaise cemetery have official sites but the Crazy Horse, www.crazy-horse.fr strip club does. (Deneuve does have a passionately complete fan site catherine.pinknet.cz/en-index.html, as befits France's most beautiful actress ever.)

Popular Places of Paris, www.paris-tourism.com/places/index.html , has links to photos and accompanying historical text on 25 of Paris' most popular destinations, including the Champs Elysées, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower. You can also point your browser directly to the official Eiffel Tower Web site, www.tour-eiffel.fr/indexuk.html and explore it from there. Museums are a major attraction in Paris and they do not get more prestigious than the Louvre www.louvre.fr/louvrea.htm, though I was disappointed in their mail-order selection and horrified at the shipping costs. Musee d'Orsay, www.musee-orsay.fr, and the Picasso Museum, www.oda.fr/aa/musee-picasso have equally impressive sites with links to exhibits, programs, and a shop.

How is your French? A little rusty? Paris' official site, www.paris-france.org, will either bring you up to speed or intimidate you in looking for an English translation. The office of tourism site, www.paris-touristoffice.com, is also in French, and packed with helpful, up-to-date information. The internationally known magazine Paris Match, www.parismatch.com, features a vividly designed Web site, en français. If you are familiar with Yahoo sites, Yahoo France, fr.yahoo.com, might be a little easier to navigate. Even in French, the Travel Weenie got around it with confidence.

Bon chance!


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