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Day 1 Cruising

April 25, 2015 18:59

We woke up about 6 am, showered, got dressed, and packed up one of the suitcases with all of our dirty clothes, and went down to the lobby and had them call us a taxi. The taxi then took us (and our suitcase) to a nearby laundrymat which opened at 7am, shortly after we arrived there. Since our trip lasted 20 days, we didn't bring enough clothing to last us that long without having to wash them while abroad, and this was about as close to the halfway mark as we could get, without interfering with any other activities. Lets face it, there wasn't a whole lot else to do this morning in Southhampton and we couldn't start boarding the ship until 11:30am, so we had several hours to kill anyway. Might as well do laundry.

This presented somewhat of a snag, however, as we didn't have an abundance of British currency in coins, which is the only way to pay for the machines. They had vending machines that gave coins as change, and we DID buy a few things out of there, but we still needed quite a bit more. Between the cost of the machines, the cost of things we had to buy to get ahold of coins as change, ATM fees, and the taxi ride from and to the hotel, we spent about $60 doing laundry that day. Still, that's about 1/3 of what it would cost to have it done onboard the cruise ship, so still worth it. Besides the vending machine, we also bought trinkets at a local market across the street and I also hiked down to a McDonalds and bought us breakfast, requesting change in all coins. I will definitely plan ahead for this next time. A large quantity of coins could have easily been obtained while we were in London, just by walking into any bank.

A couple hours later, we were done and called the taxi service to come retrieve us. We had a different driver, but otherwise had an uneventful trip back to the hotel. We booked it back up to the room and did some reorganizing and headed back downstairs to get some "more" breakfast as we were oddly hungry still, and not sure how long it was going to take to get onboard the ship. By the time we were done eating, it was getting about time to head over to the port, and we noticed a crowd start building in the lobby, so figured we had better get on it.

This is the point at which the tiny elevator became a serious bottleneck. After waiting several minutes, we just climbed the 6 flights of stairs to our room, grabbed our stuff and waited by the elevator, only to find it full each time (and slowed even more by people riding it up to go down, along with people requesting it at every level). So after witnessing this happen a couple times, and noticing there were already several people ahead of us in line waiting to use it, I started the process of hauling bags down the stairs one at a time... with a bad foot. This was not a great deal of fun. I got the first bag down without too much fanfare, although I was a bit winded at this point. I found a safe-ish place to stash the bag for the moment, and hobbled back up the stairs to get the next bag.

When I got back up there, EVERYONE was gone, and only the single large bag remained, so I grabbed it and carried it down the stairs as well. Gertie had gotten lucky and got an empty car while I was hauling the first bag and most of the others waiting had apparently given up and followed me or had caught another empty car. Not sure, but she was able to get herself and most of the remaining luggage into the elevator before it filled up. Lucky. Anyway, I got downstairs with the last bag, found Gertie, and gathered all of our luggage into a pile, amongst all the other piles of luggage. I went ahead and checked out and settled the bill. We then attached our cruise luggage tags to all of the bags we weren't going to carry onboard ourselves, and then gathered our stuff and walked out of the hotel.

The walk over wasn't too bad. All of the large pieces of luggage were on wheels, but it's still a bit awkward carrying everything that way. Thankfully, there were decent sidewalks the whole trip over there, and it wasn't very far, but it was still a haul. It might have seemed rediculous to take a taxi on a 1/4 mile trip, but it seemed somewhat less insane by the time we got there.

Now things started to get interesting. The cruise ship we were on, the Quantum of the Seas, was brand new. Not only was the ship itself new, but all of the technology, programs, and processes were new as well. Very little worked correctly, and this became apparent starting with the boarding procedure. Baggage handlers were recruited from other departments and had never done that before, so they were a big green on the process. We got our bags checked in and got some tracking tags for them and wandered into the terminal. Instead of having us form lines to check in, they had us forming small mobs around an employee with a tablet to do the same thing. Not sure how this was more efficient or easier in any way, but whatever. We eventually got ahold of someone to check us in, and they were having numerous problems either with the WIFI, the system, or more likely both. We had to get new pictures taken for our IDs and enter all of our information again, but it got taken care of. Eventually.

Next we go through security, which was far less annoying than I was expecting, but it took a few extra minutes to get through that since I was now hauling a ton of coins with me, and had to fuss with that a bit. At some point in this process we were supposed to receive a boarding card which is basically a number that they call and have us board in a orderly manner. Well.... we didn't get one and only found out we needed one once we got into the big room and discovered that everyone else seemed to have one but we didn't. Gertie went off in search of some while I guarded the carryon luggage. Well, she's awesome, found a manager, who then had us escorted onto the ramp leading to the boat and told them to let us through without the card. We later discovered that it took several hours to get everyone else on, and we had managed to sneak on long before we should have been able to. Yay I guess. Long story short, we were on about 45 minutes after arriving at the port. It wasn't immediate, and that was about twice as long as others claimed it typicaly took at a normal port for an experienced ship and operation, but for us at least, we really had no complaints. Keep in mind though, while our experience with it wasn't bad, it was far worse for others. This would greatly benefit us later.

Now we're on board and take some time to wander around a bit. It's too early to go to the staterooms, and we're told they'll have our room keys ready in about an hour, so until then we tramp around hit the bathrooms, and finally just grab a chair for a few minutes. We then wandered down to a deli and got some lunch and explored a bit more and then it was time to go down to our room. We found the room without difficulty, but although all the other rooms on our deck seemed to have their cards waiting for them, ours did not. I stayed with our luggage and Gertie headed up to Guest Services to figure out what happened with the key. She came back a few minutes later with a card, but it didn't open the door. I later realized it probably DID open the door, but I wasn't pushing hard enough to open it. I realized this later after helping a neighbor get into their room and realizing it just probably required some effort. By the time Gertie returned a second time, we were able to get in.

More to come...

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Day trip to Southhampton

April 25, 2015 04:18

We woke up and went downstairs to get breakfast, only to find they hadn't opened the restaurant for breakfast yet, so went back upstairs to continue packing. Later we went back down again and ate, a very expensive but very good buffet breakfast. Afterwards, we returned upstairs to gather our bags and had them ported down to the hotel entrance to wait for our car.

Sal and his big black van/suv/stretch car showed up right on time at 9:00am to pick us up. From there, it was on to Heathrow to pick up the other two passengers in our little caravan. It took us a little while to find them, as we were dropped off at the Departure level and not the arrival level, so we had to walk to an elevator and walk around with a silly sign until someone recognized us. We then romped back upstairs to the car.

Finally we got on the road out of the city, most of it through very rural country backroads. The scenery was nice, but nothing too exciting. I tried taking a few pictures, but they were heavily influenced by motionblur, and so I didn't bother getting too many. We spent the couple of hours chatting with our new friends, and had a lot of fun.

Our first stop was the city of Bath, incidentally the location of a roman bath which was open for tourism. We explored the site for a few hours, then ate Pasties for lunch, which were really good and the first inexpensive food we'd had the entire trip. At the appointed time, Sal met up with us and walked us about half a mile away where he had parked, and then we were on our way.

The next stop was Stonehenge, but despite the fact that we arrived a little less than 2 hours prior to closing time, they no longer sold tours for that day. We decided to hit the gift shop and see the few other attractions they had around there, when we discovered talking to a couple of people that there was a backroad leading to a sheep pasture that we could walk across and see Stonehenge from almost the same distance that the tours were able to, and not have to pay for it.

And so that is what we did. A sign on the gate implored us to close the gate behind us so as to not let the sheep out, but otherwise we were unrestricted. It was going on dusk when we reached the stones, or at least the closest point to the stones that we were going to get. It was still a worthwhile experience. We took more pictures, and walked back to the car. Onward to our last stop for the day.

We arrived at the Holiday Inn in Southhampton and got unloaded. While trying to pay the Sal for the remainder of the cost of the ride, we were informed that he couldn't take credit cards, even though we were told in advance that we could pay for it that way. No matter, I was going to hitch a ride to the nearest ATM when we came up with a better solution. Our ridemates just paid the whole fee in pounds which they had plenty of and had no further use for after that night, and we reimbursed them with American dollars, which I had plenty of, and likewise, no use for at that point. Since our ridemates were from Flordia, they were more than happy to have a fee-free cash exchange. After checking in, I looked up the current exchange rate, subtracted the deposit that we'd already paid earlier, and settled up.

There was a small party for some of the people boarding the ship the next day, which most of the people staying at that hotel were there for, as it was right outside the gates to the port, and about a quarter mile walk to the cruise terminal. We hung out at the party for a little while, then went to bed as we were tired and had a big day ahead of us.

As it happens, this was the only hotel on the whole trip that I actually had to pay for, which came out to about $90 a night, for one night. Ironically, it was the smallest room and smallest bed we'd stayed in since the trip started. Even our cruise stateroom was larger. Also, the elevators were very small and had a very low weight limit. I myself exceeded half the weight limit for the elevator we rode in. I probably shouldn't accept that as a point of pride.

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Day 3 in London

April 25, 2015 03:55

This day went normally until about 2 minutes after we left the room. As it was the last full day at the hotel, I was trying to get a few pictures of the place and missed a step due to the dim lighting and carpeting colors in the hallway and tripped and twisted my ankle. Thankfully I didn't break it, but I had a pretty serious limp for the next few days.

We ate a full english breakfast at Hawksmoor Guildhall. After that, Gertie hopped into a few shops while I just waited on the street, since I didn't feel like walking around too much. We then got on a bus and went to the Tower of London which was a tad crowded due to all the kids being out of school for the week and the fact that they were doing a veterans honor with red poppies in the moat.

We did some shopping in a gift shop and took a Beefeater tour, which was very entertaining. We took some more pictures and wandered around a bit, but my foot was hurting pretty badly, so we ate at a burger place near the Tower and headed back to the hotel.

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Day 2 in London

April 25, 2015 01:47

We woke up and rode a bus over London Bridge to the Shard where we ate breakfast at the Aqua restaurant, which is on a high level of that building, which I believe is the tallest building in London, and possibly England. Breakfast was very good, although expensive. That's not surprising though, as I'm discovering EVERYTHING in Europe is expensive, but maybe it's just the places we chose to eat. No matter.

We returned to the hotel to grab something and then headed to the meeting place for the London Walk we were going on. We met at the entrance to a Tube station, walked down to a pier and boarded a ferry. All the while, our guide was giving us a history lesson on Brunel and the various architectural and nautical accomplishments in his life. The ferry docked and we observed an old ship launching structure, then walked along the Thames coastline until we got to a park, then took a train with a connection ending at Wapping station where we were able to see the entrance to Brunel's tunnel which is now used by one of the train lines. After that, we got off at the next stop, visited the small Brunel museum and ate lunch at the Mayflower Pub.

From there, we went to Churchill's Imperial war museum and explored it for a while. After that, we tracked down the Ghost Bus tour pickup location and bought ourselves tickets to the ride that was leaving soon. That was a comedy tour of the various morbid features of London and its history, ghost stories, and on-bus entertainment with a creepy "inspector". Lots of fun and killed a couple hours. After that, we returned to the hotel and ordered room service for dinner.

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Day 1 in London

April 25, 2015 00:46

We woke up VERY early, showered, got dressed, and finished packing. We had arranged the previous night to have a cab pick us up instead of trying to ride the RER with all of our luggage, not to mention hauling it down to the train station. The cab ride was uneventful and for the first time all week, there was almost no traffic. Of course, it wasn't even 6 am yet, so there's that.

We arrived at the Paris Nord train station to catch the Eurostar to London. We had a couple of hours to spare, but we needed some time to fill out the customs forms and Gertie wandered about a bit and found us a quickie breakfast. I only took a few pictures of the station because I had my hands full with luggage.

Worked our way into the immigration line. British customs was located in this station, so we wouldn't have to deal with it once we arrived in London. Although it wasn't bad, this was the only customs interaction where we got grilled to any degree. We were asked when we left the USA, when we were going to leave London. HOW were we leaving london. What port were we leaving from? What was the name of the ship? No friendly pleasentries whatsoever. Oh well, no matter. We got through. We had to run our luggage through an Xray machine and the conveyor belt leading into the scanner was at an upward incline, and our one heavy bag, which weighed upwards of 70 pounds, would keep sliding down the belt. I had to give it a firm push up the ramp to get it through. We are DEFINITELY packing lighter next trip.

We got through customs and still had an hour before our departure time, so staked out a spot to sit down and explored the terminal a bit, and bought a couple drinks. About 30 minutes before boarding we got in a line. Some minutes after that, we started to walk to the train. This was a bit tedious as we had to walk down a ramp carrying several heavy bags. At least it wasn't stairs, but there was still a risk of losing control of the bags on the walk down. Nevertheless, we made it to the train platform and walked to our car. I got a couple of the smaller bags stashed above our seat, but the larger one clearly wasn't going to fit. Thankfully the area between cars had some shelves for larger bags, so I was able to stash two of the bigger ones in there. We sat down and prepared ourselves for the ride.

The ride was.... well, it wasn't terrible, but it certainly wasn't comfortable. The table between our seats and the seats across from us had a single support pillar in the middle that just hit my knee, forcing me to sit somewhat at an angle the entire trip. The seats had no recline, so attempting to sleep on the trip wasn't happening. We were almost 30 minutes late departing as another train on the same tracks somewhere had an accident, or a onboard fatality or something, but it delayed us a bit. The train moved pretty quickly once we got out of Paris, but slowed down dramatically before entering the channel tunnel. That was also unexciting as it was just pitch black for about 20 minutes, and suddenly daylight again.

Finally we made it to London and we walked through a maze of barricades until we made it into the populated area of the station. We hit the bathrooms and worked our way to the taxi stand. After a short wait in line, we were able to load our stuff up into a large taxi and the driver drove us to our hotel, the Andaz. There was a bit of a stark contrast between London and Paris, and not just the side of the road they drive on. While both taxis we took in Paris were like private cars, and the drivers helped us load and unload our bags, in London, the taxi driver was separated from us with a plexiglass partition, and we had to handle our bags ourselves. We even had to hand our money through a small window. Oh well. At least, at the hotel, a porter was immediately present to load our bags onto a cart, in contrast to the hotel in Paris which didn't. However, the rooms at the Andaz cost 3 times as much as those at the Marriot, so there's that. Not that I paid actual money for either of them.

Once inside we were immediately walked over to a desk and got checked in and had a room immediately available for us, despite how early it was, so we were able to walk up to the room. Our luggage was ported up behind us, separately, but arrived right after we did. The room was NICE. REALLY REALLY NICE. King sized bed with endtables on each side. Large bathroom with a shower/tub combo, large desk with a built in compartment with a mirror and hairdryer, and power outlets with adapters for several different countries. Above the desk was a large TV mounted on the wall. Off to the side, was a large closet and a separate compartment with several shelves and a safe, and next to that was a fridge with several complimentary drinks. There were also some alcoholic drinks included but they weren't complimentary. Below the fridge was a drawer with a coffee pot and a substantial selection of coffee and tea.

We ate lunch at Simpson's Tavern which while good also wiped out half of our supply of pounds. I had intended to pay with a credit card, but the reader they had was taking so long, and we had to get going, so I just ponied up the cash instead. We then took the tube over to the Queen's Theatre and watched Les Miserables. We tried to go to a nearby museum but it closed early that day, so we hit a nearby Fish and Chips place for dinner, and then took the tube back to our hotel.

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Day 5 in Paris

April 24, 2015 23:33

This is our last full day in Paris and we didn't have any plans to attend any major attractions, but we wandered around the city a bit and did some shopping and took some pictures of the scenery. We ate lunch at a crepery. We went back to the hotel for a while and started packing since we had to leave at about 5:30 in the morning. We had a late reservation at a fois gras restaurant, where we not only indulged in fois gras but also polished off a bottle of wine between the two of us. Staggered back to our hotel, finished packing except for what we needed the next day for travel, and set an early wakeup call.

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Day 4 in Paris

April 24, 2015 23:28

We woke up, did the metro thing and hit the Cluny museum. In all respects, it's your typical museum of middle-age era artifacts. What I found really interesting about this particular complex wasn't so much the exhibits, but the fact that as you descended into the structure, you were clearly going back in time. The more subterrainian areas were clearly built several hundred years before the upper area, which were clearly several hundred years old itself.

We attempted to visit Arts and Meteors but it was closed on Monday, so we headed to Les Invalides, also known as Nepoleon's tomb. France certainly knows how to honor their dead Emperors. From there we walked through a Naval history museum, which was a large building with tons of model ships, submarines, and weapons, along with many paintings, busts, and statues.

We had a little time to kill before our Effiel tower ticket reservation time, so we took the metro to the tower, but bought and ate dinner on one of the benches across the river. Afterwards, we attempted uncessfully to ride up half an hour earlier, but were declined, so we had to wait until our appointed time came. At that point, we all walked into the base of the tower, climbed to the second level of a double-decker tram/elevator and rode it up to the second platform. Took some pictures from there, and then proceeded to a smaller elevator that took us to the top. Lack of personal space on these things is an understatement. We reached the top, took more pictures, then headed back down to the first platform. Wandered around a bit, took a few more pictures, hit the gift shop, then rode the elevator back to the ground level.

Leaving the tower, we walked down to the dock by the river, bought tickets, and then rode a river ferry tour that lasted about an hour. As we were floating back toward the dock, the tower lit up with flashing lights and music. We disembarked the ferry and walked several blocks, through a park, down a street and ate dinner at a brasserie. This was the first day that I completely drained the battery on the camera. A fully charged battery was enough to take 557 pictures and a short video. Not TOO bad I suppose.

After dinner, we took the metro back to the hotel and crashed.

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Day 3 in Paris

February 02, 2015 16:54

Sorry for the delay. Figured I should continue this before I forgot everything we did. :)

Gertie woke me that morning having already run down to the bakery and brought us back breakfast. I did not object to this act of kindness on her part. We ate, got ready, and boarded the RER and got off at the Denfert Rochereau stop, which is right across the street from the entrance to the publicly accessible catacombs. Since the line was about 3 1/2 hours long, I took the opportunity to take many pictures of the surrounding area.

Finally we gained entrance to the catacombs, which involved a climb down 80 or so steps, and a long walk in underground tunnels. After about a half mile of walking, we entered the ossuary, and most of the remainder of the walk comprised a narrow tunnel between arranged columns of human bones.

The exit required another climb of 83 steps and we emerged from a nondescript building at the middle of a side street. A novelty shop was located across the street, so we bought a few trinkets and used the bathroom.

Once we figured out where we were, which was about a mile away from where we started, we took public transportation to Victor Hugo's house and wandered around there a bit, as well as through a busy park and back. By the time we were out of there, it was getting into evening already and we were pretty tired, so we made our way back to our hotel's neighborhood, bought a pizza at a local shop, and took it back to the hotel to eat dinner.

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Day 2 in Paris

December 13, 2014 02:33

We awakened and wandered down the street to a local bakery. The girl running the place didn't speak English, and although she accepted credit cards, the reader was slow. Both of these issues meant that a long line had accumulated behind us, and our presence there was clearly not the highlight of anyone's day. Oh well, we can be stupid Americans with the best of them, I suppose.

After getting out of earshot of the place, we sat down and ate, then got on the train to head to Notre Dame. The line was.. well.. long, but not as long as the line going into the church. No, we were in line to climb the bell tower. Yes. This was a great idea. 400 steps. Now, 400 steps is typically something like 25-40 stories. I've done this before, even without a rest in between, and while I'd be a bit winded when I reached the top, it wasn't a HUGE deal. Of course, I'm used to your typical straight staircase, where you climb several steps, reach a landing, then climb up again in the opposite direction to the next landing. The staircases in the bell towers were not like that. It was a spiral staircase all the way to the top, with a single landing about halfway up. For some reason, this was a LOT more challenging than your typical staircase would be. More so, near the very top, the staircase and the steps got extremely narrow. I found myself actively grabbing the steps in front of me (while standing up straight), to aid in climbing it.

Once we reached the top, we took some pictures and admired the view, and then proceeded to descend back down. I wasn't anticipating that this would be even more complicated than going up was. Down is always easier, right? Right? Still, I advised a few of the people behind me that they should probably go first, as I wasn't planning on getting in any kind of hurry, but they insisted that I could go first and it wouldn't be a problem. Well, getting up the extremely narrow part of the staircase was manageable, going DOWN that same area was a trifle more complicated. The steps at that point were maybe 5 inches wide, and I wear a size 12 1/2 shoe. This means more than half of my foot is hanging off the front of the step. And that's the WIDEST edge of the step. As it's a spiral staircase, the closer the step gets to the center of the spiral, the narrower it is. Therefore, I am taking every single step one at a time, putting both feet on each step before taking a step down, holding onto the rail with a death grip and leveraging myself against the center pillar with my right hand. This was time consuming and far more exhausting than I was expecting. Not until I was about 1/3 of the way down, was I able to climb down in a more conventional manner.

Those who were in front of me apparently did not suffer the same coordination issues that I did and therefore made it to the bottom several minutes before I (and the few people behind me) did. This resulted in the friends of the girls behind me proclaiming their concern that they had gotten lost or something. I proudly annouced that it was all my fault, and Gertie and I wandered off to find other things to do. It was raining at the time, so we ducked into a nearby exhibit which was a roman bath / Notre Dame history museum of sorts. Mostly it was an opportunity for me to rest a bit after all the stairs.

Once the rain abated, we wandered through a few gift shops and ate lunch at a gyro place. Also found St-Severin church and we walked through it a bit, but I didn't take any pictures. When we left there, we passed a couple of extremly bold panhandlers. They just stood in our path holding out their hand. Nope, no "will work for food" signs here, just flat out "give me money" body language. Nevertheless, we ignored them and walked past.

It was getting into mid-afternoon at this point, and Gertie had arranged to meet up with a few Redditors at La Rhumerie, so we found the bar, but still had about 45 minutes to kill, so we wandered around the stores in the area until meeting time. Either nobody else had showed up, or we never recognized any of them. It's not like we knew any of them anyway, we were just trying to meet up with some locals, and Reddit seemed like as good a place to find them as any. No matter, we ate some bar food and I drank a couple of Pina Coladas and eventually we staggered out of there and metro'ed our way back to the hotel.

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Day 1 in Paris

December 10, 2014 07:43

After collecting our checked luggage, and grabbing a cart to haul all of it, we discarded our original plan, which was to ride the train to our hotel... hauling all of our luggage. Of course, originally we planned to have far less of it. We decided instead just to bite the bullet and take a taxi to the hotel. This turned out to be less expensive than if we had to take the train, and we didn't have to manhandle all of our luggage with us. The taxi also dropped us off right at the door, so we didn't have to lug our luggage a quarter mile to the from the train station either. All good stuff. Even better, despite the fact that it was pretty early in the morning, we were still abl to check in right away, go up to our room, and compose ourselves a bit.

First oddity I hadn't seen before, our hotel room required us to use our door card to power the room. I guess electricity is expensive there or something, and they don't want us using ANY when we're not in the room. Not a huge deal, but it took us a few minutes to figure it out. The elevator also required us to use our room key to go to our floor, and would ONLY allow us to go to our floor, or the lobby. This is a level of security I'm unused to in the United States, and it's somewhat disconcerting to think that there's probably a good reason for it.

We both took a shower and got unpacked, and then headed out for our first day in Paris. We purchased a 5 day "Visite Paris" metro pass which allowed us access to all of the metro lines and the RER lines in zones 1, 2, and 3, which covered all of the areas of Paris we planned to visit, along with our hotel. We then took the RER-B to the Luxumbourg station and got off. Before heading off to the gardens, we ate a Le Luco. First meal I'd paid for in over a day, and my first introduction to how expensive meals in Paris were going to be. Because of all of the saving and cost control I had done, I was able to set a budget of $300 per day while in London and Paris, and it was a good thing, since meals alone would consume the majority of that. Granted, we could have eaten less expensive meals, but we're on the trip of a lifetime here, and I didn't mind splurging. In any event, it was easier to just not think about it.

After eating, we walked over to the Luxumbourg Gardens and wandered around there a bit. That is where Marius first saw Cosette, as fans of Victor Hugo might recall. Perhaps the next time I read Les Miserables, I might recognize some aspect or landmark.

After exiting the gardens, we walked down the street a few blocks and explored the Pantheon. A couple hours of walking later, we decided we were pretty tired, took a bus back to the RER stop, and took the train back to our hotel. There we took a short nap until our dinner reservation at 9, which I got dressed up for.

After dinner, we took the train back to our hotel, and crashed hard, since it'd been a long day, despite having slept on the plane and taken a nap.

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