<font color="blue"> The RER train runs underground parallel to the Seine. I enter the RER system at St. Michel and exit at Pont de l’Alma. But it was during this train ride I had a “cultural experience”. Some French guy with a portable karaoke machine “serenaded” the passengers with English hits like “Yesterday” and “You are the Sunshine of my Life”. I am trapped on this train with someone who can just barely carry a tune. At least in a piano bar I can always leave!
Once I reach the surface, I check my handy-dandy Rick Steves’ Planning Map of France and Paris. The map came free with the tour. After consulting my map I charge off in the direction of my hotel. One of my favorite moments of this trip was as I am walking to my hotel I see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. I have one of those “I’m really here!” moments. It was incredibly exhilarating to know that I had made it. I don’t think it had fully sunken in until that moment.
It is time for a commercial break. I fully admit this next bit will sound like I am shilling for the Rick Steves “Europe Through the Back Door” (ETBD) company (www.ricksteves.com
). That’s ok. Let’s just say I am a fan. When I decided to take this trip I was convinced I wanted to be a part of a tour. First, I wanted help in mitigating the whole language barrier issue. Second, I wanted to learn about the sights that I was going to experience. I knew there were all types of artwork, sculpture, and stained glass at Notre Dame. It would be a shame just to say, “ooo that’s pretty”. Instead, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the sights I was going to explore. I did some research and discovered Europe Through the Back Door. It was a perfect fit in terms of travel philosophy for me. Both ETBD and I believe that the idea of travel is to experience other cultures and leave your preconceptions behind, learn a new perspective and keep an open mind. Try to experience the land as a local. The price of the tour included all group sightseeing. Other companies have extra-cost “optional excursions”, which are usually the experiences you really want to do. A major reason I liked ETBD is the amount of flexibility built into the tours. Half the time is structured group touring, the other half you are free to be on your own to do your own exploring. The free time was important to me, not just for freedom sake. I was concerned about if I happened to be a part of a group of people that rubbed me the wrong way, it was nice to have some time to be free. The tours include all of my breakfasts and half my dinners or lunches in off the beaten track local eateries. No “English spoken here” tourist traps for me! The tour guides are focused on providing the best travel experience possible. Rick Steves pays his guides a decent salary. Other companies pay their guides very little and the guide makes the bulk of their income through kickbacks from shopping and eating opportunities. Who needs a tour guide to help me shop? More than 1/3 of the tour members are repeat customers. Obviously, that says something is being done right. You are able to read uncensored reviews online (If you want, you could find my review of this tour online at the Rick Steves web site. They copied my email review verbatim). ETBD have small groups. They average 24 travelers compared to 40-50 people in other tours. Traveling with a small group is much more manageable. Centrally-located, small boutique hotels are where you stay. They have character. I wanted to experience things that were European, not stay in a generic suburban Holiday Inn. The price of the tour was guaranteed at the moment I made my deposit. Other companies will adjust the final cost of the tour based on fuel and foreign currency price changes. The tour also came with cancellation/interruption coverage. I am a fan of walking tours. It really allows you to explore and delve into greater depth. You can learn so much more this way. Bus tours have a tendency to skim the surface. Europe Through The Back Door means lots of walking around and that is just fine with me. I had signed up for the Best of Paris 7 day tour.
This is day one. I was meeting my tour group and lead guide at 3 pm this afternoon. I was staying at Hôtel de Londres Eiffel, 1 rue Augerau (www.londres-eiffel.com
). The hotel was in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. It is about a five minute walk to the Eiffel Tower. When I arrived there was scaffolding in front of the façade of the hotel. The gentleman working the reception desk was having a smoke outside of the hotel and as I walked toward the entrance he quickly made his way inside ahead of me. This hotel had a number of surprises in store for me. I had a room on the fourth floor. I was fully expecting having to take the stairs. The hotels that Rick Steves’ tours use frequently don’t have elevators. My first surprise was that this hotel had an elevator!
I opened the door to my room. There was one large double bed. Oh my god! I have a room all to myself! That was my second surprise. On most of the Rick Steves’ tours single travelers get paired up with another tour member of the same gender. On the 7 day city tours they do offer the option of a single supplement to have a room all to yourself. I had decided I could use the $400 in other ways. On my particular tour I was the only single male traveler. Therefore, I got a room all to myself without having to pay the single supplement. Cool! The room was a cute, bright, cheery little room. For those of you who by now think I am inhuman, you can take a sigh of relief. It is at this point that I collapse. I had about 45 minutes before it was time to meet everyone from my tour. The adrenaline had finally run out. I felt like a drug addict going through withdrawal. The lack of sleep caught up to me. I was exhausted. I put my suitcase and backpack into the closet and just lied down on the bed. I would really have liked to take a nap, but there just wasn’t time. I just enjoyed the peace, the stillness, and being off my feet.
NEXT: Meeting my tour group and lead guide
Chambre 45 at L'Hotel Eiffel Londres
The desk in my hotel room: