Three Weeks in Europe - Chamonix, Les Houches and Aosta Sights and Attractions

Napoleon planted trees for his troops who traveled across the country

Because we’re crazy, we decided to drive from Paris down to the Alps. When looking at other options, like trains, stops and layovers seemed to eat up more time than we’d like to spend just sitting in stations, and renting a car was about as expensive as train tickets would be, plus we’d get to look at the French countryside as we went on our way. We also knew we wanted to have a car while in the Alps, so this plan just sort of fell into place.

We decided to take the non-toll roads, which added a couple hours onto our drive, but we think was probably more picturesque. We did get a photo radar speeding ticket, though, which was a bummer (30 euro processing from the rental company + 45 euro for the actual ticket 🙄), but we quickly learned how to spot them when they were coming up.

Saulieu

We stopped for lunch in Saulieu. This little town felt practically dead - it must have been an off season for them (imagine going to a tiny ski town in the summer). It was cute, and we were able to eat and go along our way pretty quickly.

While going through the mountains, we hit some pretty intense fog on some crazy windy roads, but I think Nathaniel had fun whipping around those corners in that tiny French car 😉

We got to our destination in Les Houches SUPER late - around midnight. We had trouble finding the front door of our Airbnb since it was dark and Google Maps brought us to the back of the house, but once we found it, we got in easily, and munched on the rest of our baguette and went to bed.

When I woke up, the first thing I needed to do was see the mountains - we ended up having a lovely view of the town below as well. After taking it slow that morning, we drove into Chamonix - it’s a bigger ski town, and the home of the tallest Alp, Mont Blanc.

The view from our Airbnb 😍

We drove into Chamonix for lunch, and to explore the town a bit. Since it’s a ski town, it kind of felt like Vail here in Colorado. We were going to go up the cable car that day, but decided to put it off for (hopefully) clearer weather the next day. I was amazed at the color of the water running in the river! It's this whitish color because it's "Glacial Milk" - basically because of the minerals in glaciers and the erosion they cause, the melt from the glaciers makes the river this crazy color! 

After exploring for a bit, we decided to hit a grocery store so we could take it easy, be a little bit budget conscious, and cook dinner at our Airbnb. We drove back to Les Houches, put away the groceries, then decided to see this town on foot. There is a super cute little church square, and there were tulips blooming. We also followed the sound of cowbells and hung out with a herd in a field for some photos (I love cows!). We stopped at a bakery for some macarons, and walked back home to cook dinner, drink wine, and watch movies on Nathaniel’s iPad. 

Stepping into the Void!

The next morning we got an earlier start so we could go up to the top of Aiguille du Midi in a cable car! This was pricy, but worth it. It was also pretty cold, so I’m happy I brought my sweater, coat, hat, scarf and gloves. I would’ve been FREEZING otherwise. Even early there was already a pretty long line, but it moved relatively steadily, and we started ascending the snow-covered mountain. You stop halfway up to switch cars, and once you get to the top, there are walkways and an elevator as well! The views were spectacular, but due to a couple well placed clouds, we could not see the top of Mont Blanc. The Alps are a beautiful mountain range, though. They’re much younger than the Rockies (which I’m used to seeing) so they’re pointy and jagged. At the top of Aiguille du Midi, there is also something they call “Stepping into the void”, which is basically a strong plexiglass box that lets you stand above NOTHING. They make you wear slippers so you don’t scuff up the glass. It’s a really weird feeling, stepping out over nothing, even though you know you’re safe. There was a long line to this, but we figured we wouldn’t have the opportunity to go out there again any time soon, so we waited and had a great time! There was even a great staff member who took pictures for us with my phone (you’re not allowed to take your phone/camera, or any of your belongings) in with you, probably because they want to make sure nothing gets dropped or scratched against the glass. She was great, though, and took SO MANY pictures! We decided to start wrapping up, but stopped quickly in a glacier tunnel. I think that there were people there preparing to snowshoe down - but I just needed a selfie 😉 On our way down, we rode with a bunch of French schoolchildren, who squealed anytime the cable car went over a little dip or drop. It was pretty cute. 

Ruins in the modern world

Our next stop was ITALY! You can drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel for a hefty toll (just under 55 euro there and back) - It’s the longest tunnel under the tallest mountain, so they have strict rules on how fast you can drive and how far you must drive behind the person in front of you. Nathaniel said there was a pretty bad accident a few years ago, and they put a lot of restrictions (and a lot of photo radar) on the tunnel traffic to avoid it ever happening again. The people in front of us had their photo taken several times because they were following too closely behind the person in front of them. Their journey through the tunnel probably cost five times as much as ours did!

Once out of the tunnel, we tried to find a something in the small ski town on the other side, but since it was the off season, nearly everything was closed. We instead continued driving all the way to Aosta, which is a fairly big town. It used to be a walled city, and it was amazing driving through the ruins which have just been incorporated into the modern streets and structures of the city.

Castles on the side of the road!

We parked and started to explore, eventually coming to a piazza, where we sat down for lunch. We explored for a bit longer (just walking around, window shopping), then decided to drive back to France. One fun thing about this drive was how many castles there were along the road! Since we’re not used to seeing anything old in Boulder, it was wonderful to see remnants of old civilizations!

The next morning we had to wake up at the crack of dawn to get to Lyon for a flight to Spain. We made it in plenty of time (we took the toll roads this time, just in case, and it ended up being close to 20 euro total). The two full days in the Alps were probably the most relaxing we had of the whole trip. We got to take it slow and cook for ourselves, and still be honeymooning tourists. Everywhere else we went on our trip was a big capital city, so this was a lovely change of pace, and having it placed in the middle was perfect. 👌🏼

Our Airbnb, and our trusty steed - a Renault Twingo

Three Weeks in Europe - Disneyland Paris

I love Disney - and that’s an understatement. My bucket list contains a lot of fun travel, but getting to every Disney Park on the planet is high up there, and lucky for me, I got to cross another one off the list!

Disneyland Paris is actually in Marne-la-Vallée, about a half hour east of Paris. We had rented a car, so we drove, but there is also a train that takes you from the city to the Park. It was nice having the flexibility to not have to rush to make it to the train, or worry about when we left the park in the evening, (plus driving in under the “Disneyland” sign is SO EXCITING) but I might decide to take the train the next time, because parking a car in Paris proper can be expensive, and we also had to pay for parking in the park. It definitely would have been more budget conscious to take the train, and wait to rent the car until we actually left Paris the next day, but the flexibility it gave us was very nice. Driving in Paris is a little scary, though. We’re not used to their driving style, or those roundabouts!

Anyway - there are two parks in Paris - Disneyland Paris, which is similar to Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom, and Walt Disney Studios, which is a bit of a hybrid between Hollywood Studios in Orlando, and California Adventure in Anaheim. The day we went, both parks opened at 10. We had pre-purchased our tickets (this is great because we went during an off time, and they have different pricing depending on the time of year, if you purchase ahead of time online), and I was able to print them at home, so we headed straight to the entrance of Walt Disney Studios. A part of me wishes we had gotten the cute tickets they sell there - great souvenirs - but that’s a small price to pay for convenience. I had looked at the attractions in each park, and made a list of everything we (let’s be real - I) wanted to do, and since Walt Disney Studios closed first that evening and had fewer rides we wanted to hit, we decided starting there would be ideal. Also, by getting there early, we hoped the lines wouldn’t be too crazy. Our first stop was Crush’s Coaster, which was about a 50 minute wait already! It was worth it, though. You’re on a shell that holds four people, two-by-two, with you back-to-back with the other couple in the shell. It even spins a bit as you go through the ride, on the East Australian Current with Nemo, Crush and all their friends!

Our next stop was the Ratatouille ride, but when we got there, it was broken! We were getting hungry, so we walked back through the building you go through after entering - it was filled with restaurants and quick service options. We ended up each getting a sweet pastry with chocolate and nuts that was shaped like a pretzel 😋 Weirdly, they were playing the Harry Potter theme as we ordered our food…

I decided I wanted to try waiting to see if the Ratatouille ride would re-open, so we went to the Tower of Terror. This line was about 45 minutes, and was nearly identical to the Tower of Terror in California Adventure, except in French, which was fun! Plus, I do love seeing out over the park as the doors open while you’re dropping. I was amazed, though, that there were several people smoking in line! This is what really showed us we were in France and not America. Even though you’re still technically not allowed to, everyone smokes everywhere. We also noticed that, in general, it’s not as clean as American parks, especially the bathrooms. If you’re a super germaphobe, you might consider bringing hand sanitizer. Next we went on the Studio Tram Tour, which is similar to the one that Hollywood Studios used to have. You are guided through sets and props by a French actress and Jeremy Irons, the voice of Scar from The Lion King. They have the same canyon fire and water stunt as Orlando did, and they have a scene from a movie with dragons set in London. It was much shorter than the one from Orlando, and made me miss the original a lot!

After this, we headed back to Ratatouille, because the Disneyland Paris app said it was open! The line was an hour long, so we opted to stand in the Single Rider line. We ended up waiting about ten minutes, and even got to sit in the same car with a family of four! (You’re in two rows of three, so the family went two and two, and Nathaniel sat behind me). I’m SO glad this opened up, and the single rider option was definitely the right choice for us. It’s a really cool trackless ride with 3D glasses, so you feel like you’re one of the rats running around the kitchen.

There is also Toy Story Playland in Walt Disney Studios, but all the rides there were much more amusement-park like (they reminded me of rides that might be in Eliches in Denver), so we decided skip them. We also weren’t able to ride the Rock-n-Roller Coaster, because it was closed, being refurbished for Disneyland Paris’ 25th anniversary. 

We then headed over to Disneyland, which is easy to get to, similar to the parks in Anaheim. The entrance to Disneyland Paris goes underneath a beautiful, elaborate hotel. Maybe someday I’ll be lucky enough to stay there. As we entered, I noticed it’s similarities to other parks. You walk down Main Street USA, which leads to Sleeping Beauty Castle. There is a beautiful gazebo, and some topiary all based on Mary Poppins. Through the gazebo you can see the Castle 😍 This castle is much smaller and pinker than the one in Disney World. In ways it’s similar to the one in Disneyland, but it’s more elegant.

They had egg shaped characters placed throughout the park - we were thinking maybe they were leftover Easter decorations, but we didn’t confirm. There are also a lot of topiaries. Just in front of the castle, they had scenes from several classics made out of colorful bushes. I guess the French are just fond of making sure their trees and bushes are perfectly trimmed.

We walked to Discoveryland, which is their version of Tomorrowland. One cool thing about Discoveryland that it doesn’t get as dated as the American Tomorrowlands do, by using a Jules Verne/Steampunk theme, and it is quite beautiful. Our first stop was Space Mountain, which we were surprised to just walk right on, there was practically no line! This is a much more intense coaster than either Space Mountain in the States, though, and even goes upside down! It made Nathaniel’s hair super crazy, and made me happy I wore braids!

They have a lot of walk-throughs in Disneyland Paris, so we walked through the Nautilus submarine after, and then grabbed fast passes for Buzz Lightyear (which was temporarily closed), and headed to Frontierland, where they have Phantom Manor, their version of the Haunted Mansion. Again, it’s very similar to it’s American counterparts, but it was fun to hear the opening monologue and all the narration in French. The ending graveyard scene was Western (like American cowboy) themed, too, since it was in Frontierland. Thunder Mountain was closed for refurbishment, and we could see it from the queue for Phantom Manor. The moat around it was drained, which was a cool sight. It’s interesting how the French don’t seem to care about hiding their construction. I feel like Disney World is extremely careful to hide as much as possible!

We then headed back to Buzz Lightyear, which was open again. It was fantastic hearing Buzz talk in French 😂 The laser guns aren’t attached to the ride vehicle, so you get to move them around a lot more. The cable on mine was not great, though, so I missed out on a lot of points.

Our next stop was Adventureland to go on their Indiana Jones coaster. This also had an upside down loop, but it lacks the story-feel that the ride in Anaheim has. Next was Pirates of the Caribbean, which is long, like the one in Anaheim, but they put the skeletons at the end (rather than the beginning), which actually makes a lot of sense!

We were getting hungry for dinner, and there’s a restaurant called the Blue Lagoon that overlooks part of the ride. We went in, but they said they didn’t have any room for walk-ins, so we went outside, and called them up (the SIM we got had 100 minutes of talk over Europe), and made a reservation about 30 minutes out, which worked out perfectly! While we waited, we walked back to Main Street to get coffee, and they have a nice little walkway behind the shops, which is a bit less off the beaten path than Main Street itself.

Dinner was yummy - I got veggie ravioli and Nathaniel got pork. We also got wine and more coffee, because we still had hours to go. It was fun watching the Pirate boats go by, too - we waved at the passengers!

After dinner we explored Fantasyland, where we rode Pinocchio, Snow White, the Storyboats, and the Casey Jr. Train, which are all nearly identical to their Anaheim counterparts. There is also Alice’s Labyrinth, which is a big walk-though maze, based on the Alice in Wonderland movie. The Queen of Hearts’ castle is in the middle, and has a great view of the park, too! Next we went on it’s a small world, which, again, is very similar, but is half in French, and has a lot of landmarks from the countries represented. It was fun to see what they chose to represent the US - they had the Statue of Liberty right next to the Hollywood Sign 😂

We then headed back to the castle - it was close to sunset, so I knew I had to get some more pictures. Under the castle is a dragon, which is actually pretty scary - it’s in a cave, and smoke comes out of it’s mouth and nose. The castle also has a walkthrough that shows stained glass of scenes from Sleeping Beauty, and a balcony with a beautiful view of the park. This is where we stayed for sunset 😍

We had gone on all the rides we wanted to at this point (a lot was closed because they’re preparing for their 25th anniversary), so I got to grab a few pins (they had Paris exclusives, and I needed a 2016 pin - I’ve got one from every year since I started pin collecting), and walk through the shops on Main Street. Before close, we decided to hit Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear and Pirates of the Caribbean (where we had a boat all to ourselves) before close at 11 PM - we basically walked onto all of them, and Discoveryland was EMPTY as we walked out of Space Mountain. This also gave me enough time to decide on my souvenirs - at 10:45 I got two scarves and a coffee mug (I have a couple dozen Disney mugs, and the scarves are practical and have hidden Mickeys!) At 11 sharp, I was done, and we walked onto Main Street right as the Nighttime Spectacular began. While the fireworks aspect was tiny compared to the American parks, they beautifully utilized the projection technology onto the castle that the other parks use. They played songs from a good selection of movies, both in English and French, and even included the Hunchback of Notre Dame, since that’s set in Paris! I LOVE that movie, and feel that it’s under-appreciated, so I was super excited when “Out There” came on!

As soon as it was over, we briskly walked to the car, and headed back to the hotel. Even though it was our first time to these parks, we felt pretty proud of how much we did - we went on every ride we wanted to (some twice), ate well, and got perfect souvenirs (just wish they took the Disney Dollars our Disney credit card racked up - those are only good in the US parks). One day was perfect for the amount of rides open, but maybe sometime Maddie and I will go, more things will be open, and we can spend a couple days. Plus she and I have to go to all the Asian parks! Maybe we could conclude in Paris, or something 😉

Ugh, just recounting this day (sorry, not sorry, it’s so long) is making me homesick for my second home, and I wish my next Disney trip weren’t so far away!

Three Weeks in Europe - Paris through food

After our ride on the Chunnel and finding our hotel, our first priority was a bite to eat! Super nearby our hotel, we found a cute little restaurant called Cafe D'Augustin where we got to sit outside, and we shared a croque-monsieur. A staple in many French restaurants, this sandwich has ham and melted cheese, and came with frites (fries) and a simple salad. Nathaniel had an apéritif and I had a glass of wine. This perfectly hit the spot before we started exploring.

The best lunch date 😍

That evening for dinner we went to Le Poincare near the Eiffel Tower. Here we split some steak tartare and a small carafe of wine. Nathaniel also had a French blonde beer, and I opted for a hot chocolate because I was still a bit chilled from the wet weather. We very much enjoyed the proximity to the Eiffel Tower - we were looking for something that was a bit more of a hole-in-the-wall, but as we got hungrier, we decided to go in, because we knew we'd be satisfied with beef and fries. I would go here again but I do wish that we'd done a little more research on where to eat near the Eiffel Tower - this felt easy and safe, which isn't a bad combo, but when you've got less than three days in Paris, it's nice to know you're getting the best (food) experience possible.

The next morning for breakfast, we found Le Ronsard Café right next to Sacré-Cœur, where we had huge crepes for breakfast. While Nathaniel went for a nice and simple honey crepe, I decided I wanted Nutella, almond and banana. 😋 And of course we got some caffeine, too - I've gotta have my coffee! My order of choice in most restaurants/cafes is café au last (coffee with milk). I think it's more of an American thing to make your coffee crazy flavored and super sugary. 

 
 

Also near Sacré-Cœur is Maison Georges Larnicol, a beautiful chocolaterie, where we grabbed a couple truffles and caramels for a snack later. Not only were the chocolates delicious, but they had beautiful chocolate statues of Parisian landmarks, like Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and The Arc de Triomphe. 😍 Go here if you go to Sacré-Cœur. It's on the way from the Metro stop to the church, so it's not out of the way at all!

Me and my baguette

On our walk along the Seine later that day, we found a shop called Paris Baguette to buy a baguette to munch on at Notre Dame, and some coffee to give me a little boost. This baguette was perfectly cooked (at least to my American palette). It was crunchy and hard on the outside and wonderfully doughy on the inside. I had forgotten what this shop was called, so I virtually wandered the streets with Google Street View to find it! We also stopped for a glass of wine along the way at Le Reynou, mostly because I had to pee, but it ended up being a lovely place - and they even gave us popcorn to eat! The view out the window was lovely - you could see the beautiful castle-like fortress of Conciergerie (where Marie Antoinette's cell was during the French Revolution), and a bit farther out you could even see the bell towers and steeple of Notre Dame! So happy we stumbled upon this place 😊

For dinner our second night, we decided to take our friend Anthony Bourdain’s advice again, and we went to Chez Denise in the Les Halles area of Paris. This area used to be the home of Paris' biggest market, which was closed down in 1971 and converted into a mall - but this restaurant stays true to the feeling of proximity to the market. It specializes in taking less desirable cuts or types of meat and turning them into delicious entrées. I very much enjoyed my skate - which is a fish that most people wouldn’t choose to eat (it had bigger bones than I've ever had in fish before). It was prepared with capers, lemon and butter, and potatoes on the side. It just goes to show that simple dishes can hit the spot no matter where you're exploring. Nathaniel had beef cheek stew with pasta. I didn’t even know that cheeks were a part of a cow you could eat! But they were very tender, and the “stew” was more like a dark, rich veggie gravy. You also get to drink table wine and only pay for what you drink. The space is crowded (we had to move our table back and forth several times to let other people around us sit down or get up to use the restroom), but the service is good, and the food is amazing. I will definitely go back the next time I find myself in Paris!

Me and another baguette 😜

The next morning, we grabbed coffee, pastries and a baguette nearby our hotel at L’Atelier des Pains on Boulevard des Batignolles to take with us in the car as road trip snacks :) Again, we figured we couldn't go wrong with more fresh baked French bread!

Since we only had limited time in Paris, we didn’t get to explore that much - I would have loved to find a market to eat at, but Chez Denise was definitely the highlight, and I’d recommend just eating as many fresh baguettes as you can 😉

Three Weeks in Europe - Paris Sights and Attractions

Our next stop after London was Paris! It was nice and easy to take the Chunnel (a train through a tunnel under the English Channel) into Paris. We headed to our hotel, which we were too early to officially check in, left our bags and started to explore. We were staying right off of the street where the Moulin Rouge was, so we decided to just walk up and down that street until our hotel was ready. As we were heading back it starting POURING on us, and we were not at all prepared. We got back to the hotel, checked in, and changed our clothes, which were completely soaked (my one pair of jeans, my boots and my sweatshirt all needed to be dried!). It was our fault for not checking the weather report more carefully, but we didn’t expect that kind of rain anywhere on our trip. We were actually there right before the floods that made the news (where they had to move all the art on the bottom floors of the Louvre to protect them).

After we dried off and changed our clothes, we took the metro to the Eiffel Tower. Nathaniel took lots of pretty pictures (much more artsy than mine), and then we decided to go up to the top. It was just wet and overcast at this point, but because the weather was less than ideal, there were far fewer people than there would have been otherwise. We didn’t have to wait long at all to get our tickets (17€ each), and the line to the elevator wasn’t long either. The view from the top was incredible. You could see the whole city, and because of how high up you are, it’s hard to see other structures, since they just flatten out over the landscape. I highly recommend going to the top here (honestly, I would have gone to the top of more things in other cities, but we had to be budget conscious). The photo ops are wonderful, and it really gives you an idea of the expanse of the city. You get to see the iconic old rooftops, which to me really help you feel the romance of the city. We had just less than two days in this gorgeous city, but these views made me want to stay and explore until there was nothing left to see. 

We went to dinner nearby, and, afterwards, came back for photos of the Tower at night. It’s crazy to think that this was only supposed to be a temporary structure in the city (since it was made for the 1889 World’s Fair), and now it’s an icon of France. If I could transport myself instantly to this exact location and see the tower right this moment, I would. It’s such a testament to what humans are capable of, from both a standpoint of engineering and art. ❤️

As we walked home from the subway, it started to pour, so we hung up another set of clothes to dry and went to bed.

The next morning, we set out again, our first stop being Sacré-Cœur. And of course it was pouring again, but we kept trucking along, because this was our only full day in Paris. Once there, we went inside, and walked around. They were having a mass, and the nuns were singing, which couldn’t have been more perfect after being out in the pouring rain. This church also has a great view of the city out front, and even though it was rainy and misty and visibility wasn’t great, I very much enjoyed this start to our day.

Our plan for the rest of the day was to go to Musée d’Orsay and walk along the Seine to Notre Dame. Unfortunately the museum was closed (it was a Monday), so instead we went to the Louvre, because it was nearby and we could continue our plans without too much of a hitch. Quick tip to get into the Louvre faster: if you’ve got internet access or data right outside the museum, you can purchase your tickets online and then get into a shorter security check line. This museum is gigantic, and includes masterpieces like Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is a bit underwhelming since you can’t get close enough to see any true detail, plus you’re fighting a crowd who all have their smartphones out. That being said, I can check it off my bucket list, and the history of the painting is interesting. My favorite work of art was “Winged Victory” - the statue has incredible feathered wings, and the woman’s body is wrapped in sheer cloth, which is blowing in the wind - I was astounded at the mastery that went into this sculpture. A lot of the art here is religious art, which reminded me a lot of the Vatican, and while it isn’t my favorite genre of art, I'm definitely glad we went. Also, it's fun to look for the works you might be familiar with from The Da Vinci Code. 😜

After the Louvre we walked along the Seine, and eventually made it to Notre Dame. While walking, we got to peek down little roads, and it was actually quite empty along this stretch - it was a perfect walk to mellow out after the Louvre’s crowds. Once we got to the cathedral, it was too late to go inside, but luckily the bells soon chimed for 8 o’clock, and the sun came out for the first time! It was low in the sky, directly hitting the front of the cathedral, and it was so magical - if only Quasimodo had been there singing with his gargoyles. 😉 When you visit, make sure to go around to the back - there were no crowds, and the rest of the church is completely gorgeous and much different looking than the iconic front.

Paris 34.jpg

We then walked to the Les Halles area, got dinner, and went to see L’Écoute, the statue by Henri de Miller of the head and the hand outside St. Eustache. They were doing construction on the Mandela Gardens, so the head had been moved so it was facing the church (usually the church is behind the statue), and had a giant neon green construction wall as a backdrop. This ruined Nathaniel’s photo op, but we still had fun exploring before we headed back to our hotel.

Our last morning in the city, before driving to the mountains, we decided to hit Orsay - I wanted to see some impressionist work, like Degas, Monet and Van Gogh (any Doctor Who fans would also love coming here!) - plus Nathaniel LOVES the clocks in the building, especially from the inside looking out over the city. Be sure to get there early in the morning, though, or you'll be competing with a crowd by the clock. The art styles in this museum were much more up my alley than the Louvre, and it was a lovely way to finish up our too-short visit.

Paris, I’ll see you again someday - thanks for the whirlwind romance!