Coming into this trip, I scheduled two guided tours, and deliberately put them at the end of the trip. I wanted to leave things a little open-ended and less time-pressured at the start of the week, just to allow for jet lag and child recalcitrance and the general unpredictability of kid life. However, I did have two organized excursions I wanted for us to do, the first of which was a bike tour of the grounds at the Palace of Versailles.
Generally speaking, there's enough in the city of Paris to do with kids, particularly if you're only planning to be here for less than a week, as we are. However, Mack just finished an architecture unit at school, and for his final project he and his partner chose to do a presentation about the palace of Versailles. So we had to go, if for no other reason than to let him see that Versailles did in fact exist outside of a book. (Oh who am I kidding, they probably did the bulk of their research on Wikipedia, because kids these days.)
I booked the tour with the Bluefox Travel Company, formerly called Blue Bike Tours. The instructions for the day were relatively straightforward.
We were to meet at the Gare Saint-Lazare train station in front of Platform #1 for the 9:00am train to Versailles. Gare Saint-Lazare is a huge commuter hub by the look of things (think Grand Central, but bigger), and about 15 minutes from our apartment via Uber at that time of day. Being neurotic people, we woke the kids up at 7:00am (this went over just as well as you might imagine), had breakfast at home, and showed up at the train station 45 minutes early just to make sure we could find the platform and that rush hour traffic wouldn’t screw us. We did, and it didn’t. So we killed some time at a Starbucks there, which was different from an American Starbucks located in a busy commuter train station during rush hour in that it was relatively empty. (Cal insisted the Parisian Starbucks hot chocolate tasted better than in the States, but I think it tasted pretty much the same.)
The train ride to Versailles took about 40 minutes, and even without the tour guide, it would have been pretty easy—on that train line, Paris Gare Saint-Lazare is one terminus, while Versailles is the other. So we just had to stay on the train until everyone got off.
The plan for the day had been pretty well spelled out beforehand by our tour guide (an Midwestern expat and therefore was not only able to speak flawless English, she was able to make a lot of idiom-laden English jokes, which made things much more lively for the kids). From the train station, we were to walk to a nearby freshmarket to pick up provisions for our picnic on the grounds of Versailles later in the day. After that, we would go pick up our bikes, and ride them a short distance to the grounds of the palace. We would spend most of the morning riding our bikes around to various stops along the grounds, learn some history, and then end the day with a 3:30 “fast pass” entrance into the palace of Versailles itself. So, yes, quite a full day. People with kids who still nap, or who cannot nap in a bike seat, be advised.
The fresh market was awesome. It’s obviously a touristy area, because of its proximity to the Palace of Versailles, but this was clearly a market frequented by locals, and many of the shopkeepers spoke limited English, which is just fine—again, I should have made more effort to brush up on my French. But given that it was a market, we made out pretty well by smiling and pointing, and in the end we made out with a nice picnic lunch—salami, some slices of Comte cheese (a good recommendation from our tour guide, who it just so happened was from Wisconsin and whose parents ran a dairy farm), baguettes, olives, a bunch of grapes and a small box of strawberries.
After that it was another short walk to the bike storage shed, which was actually an old converted horse stable. OK, so second parent concern—I was worried that they wouldn’t have bikes the right size for my kids. Cal could proooooobably ride an adult bike, but Mack rides a 20 inch bike at home, and Nina only rides with training wheels, and even with those, not very fast and not very far. However, when I booked the tour, they said specifically they had accommodations for kids from infants on up, so I took a leap of faith and booked the damn thing, hoping that the “accommodation” wouldn’t be something unworkable, like trying to cram her into a kiddie seat on the back of Joe’s bike. (I suspect she’s a bit too big for a kiddie seat, though a two or three year old would probably be fine in one.) Anyway, I didn’t have to worry. Cal and Mack each got kid bikes that were the perfect size for them, and Nina’s bike situation—well, this was our favorite of all. (I include this level of detail only because it was not clear on the site, but it was also vital to our enjoyment of the day.)
They had this little tandem bike attachment that we could hook onto the back of Joe’s bike. With the seat all the way down, it was the perfect size for her, and she was so proud that she actually got to bike with everyone else and pedal. It’s not a sham bike, the gears really engaged, and Joe said having her in the back actually made his biking a lot easier, particularly going up hills. So! This bicycle built for two was a great solution. Also important to know: yes, they really did have helmets, and the helmets came in all sizes. After adjusting the bikes and practicing in a small cul de sac for a little bit, the guide led us through the streets (through a few busy intersections, but the motorists were all very polite) onto the grounds of Versailles. Know that I would never let my kids bike in any trafficked area at home—it just makes me nervous—but the guide actually requested that all kids stay right up behind her bike at the front of the line so she could help steer them through traffic better, and we followed along behind. It worked out fine.
The ride through the grounds was amazingly picturesque. I’m convinced it’s really the best way to cover the area we did—we saw some people renting golf carts on site, and many others walked, of course, but there’s simply much too much ground to cover in a short amount of time unless you have a bike. (Sorry I don't have more pictures of the actual paths, but I'm not a good enough cyclist to ride one-handed and take pictures with the other.) We stopped at a few scenic turnouts where we got a few history lessons about the construction of Versailles, the history of the Palace, the last four King Louis (“Should we honor our treaty, King Louis’ head?”), and, of course, Marie Antoinette. Our stop for lunch was right at one end of the Grand Canal where we got an unobstructed sweeping view right to the palace, and with the sunshine and the good food, it was absolutely gorgeous.
After lunch, we made a few stops to check out some of the “smaller” buildings, like the Grand Trianon and the Petite Trianon. We also parked our bikes and walked a bit of a way towards the back through Marie-Antoinette’s private hamlet, where there were actually some farm animals wandering around. (I think I saw pigs, donkeys, rabbits, and some fish in the pond. You weren’t allowed to feed or pet them, but the kids still liked it.) Following that, we rode our bikes back out of the grounds to the bike shed, and then walked a short distance (really just back across the street) to the main Palace building, where we had “skip-the-line” tour tickets.
Now, at this point in the day (almost 4:00pm, after an early wake-up and a full day of biking and walking), the kids were kind of hitting the wall, so we really didn’t spend that much time walking through the rooms in the Palace or through the gardens in the back. But we saw most of the main attractions, including the Hall of Mirrors, and the package included an audio tour handset that was pretty helpful. (You’ve probably seen these at museums before—each point of interest is labeled with a number, you punch the number into the handset, and a cultivated voice gives you a brief explanation of what you’re looking at and the history. And if all else fails, pushing buttons is always kind of fun.)
The tour group split up once we got to the palace, to give people a chance to peel off and do their own thing if they wanted to. I think some (adults) elected to spend more time in the palace and have dinner nearby, but we just took a brief run through the highlights before taking a 20 minute walk back to the train station and heading back to Paris. (Just as a point of logistics, I should mention that the tour also provided both train tickets there and back, and gave them to us at the beginning of the day. The return tickets could be used at any time, and per our guide trains leave for Paris roughly every 15-20 minutes. We got lucky and caught a train right before it pulled out of the station.) Again, it was about a 40 minute train ride, which was just fine, because we were all beat and happy for the chance to sit down.
Dinner was at Café Constant on Rue Saint-Dominique, the restaurant we ate at our first night here, and where Nina had fallen asleep at the table. This meal was even better than the first one we had, probably because we were all awake enough to eat it. Mack, who is turning into quite an adventurous eater, actually ordered the scallop, salmon and sea bass tartare appetizer, which was served carpaccio-style (marinated with ginger and lemon) on the half shell. Other very good dishes included my veal cutlet with white Tarbais beans, which was homey and rustic, but there will be no picture of it unless you have an upper endoscopy scope and are prepared to go fishing. What? It’s true.
After dinner, we walked home and collapsed. Well, I collapsed. The kids were weirdly energetic, because kids are paradoxical that way. Dear children, your limitless energy intrigues me, and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.
See you tomorrow, for the recap of our last day in Paris.