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Bearden: The City of Lights is the trip of a lifetime

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Published:   |   Updated: July 14, 2013 at 01:04 PM

"Come with me to Paris in springtime!" my Significant Other says with a mischievous smile.

What girl wouldn't be blown away by an invitation like that? Better yet, it's a birthday gift, he says, and he's paying for most of it. My imagination starts running away.

The City of Light! The city of love! Food to die for, wine galore. Museums with some of the most treasured works of art in the world. History on every corner. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the grand Champs-Elysees and Arc de Triomphe! Centuries-old churches! Of course I want to go to Paris.

But then the practical side takes over.

I don't speak a lick of French. I hear the natives are arrogant and not so helpful. It's expensive - and your dollar doesn't go far there. Amenities we take for granted in the United States, such as spacious hotel rooms with king-size beds and an adequate number of public bathrooms, are hard to come by.

I begin to talk myself out of this gift before the idea has even settled in.

Thankfully, friends perform a hasty intervention and convince me to come to my senses. It's another check-mark off the bucket list. And maybe, just maybe, my Significant Other will be swept away by the romantic atmosphere and finally give me a ring after 14 years of dating. Because that's just the kind of place Paris is.

Turns out, it was the vacation of a lifetime. For those of you planning a Parisian getaway, I have some tips to pass along.

Plan, Plan, Plan

When taking an expensive and extensive trip, all the details running up to departure day can drive you a little batty. Is your passport up to date? Who takes care of the dog and cats? Is there time to order a spare pair of prescription sunglasses? So I put together a four-page list of all the "must-dos" and, about a month in advance, posted them on the wall in my front hallway so I would be confronted with my assignments on a daily basis. And every time I accomplished something, I put a big red check mark next to it. I'm happy to say I managed everything before deadline - except to "Learn French." Give yourself about six months to a year for that one.

The Hotel Dilemma

Do your homework here. If you end up in a sub-par hotel in a far-off location, it could put a damper on your whole trip. Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements (administrative districts), each with a distinct personality. We decided we wanted to be in a central location close to a Metro stop (Essential in Paris! Use the Metro!), so we chose the Marais neighborhood, known for its cafes, avant-garde boutiques, street markets and nightlife. We got a good price, by Paris standards, by booking a package deal through Expedia for a boutique hotel and the flight. I read dozens of online reviews by travelers before settling on the Villa Mazarin, which did not disappoint. Invest some time into this on the front end.

Packing the Paris Way

Here's my biggest challenge. Simply put, I don't know how to pack. I should have been born in the turn-of-the-century era when it was perfectly acceptable to travel with several steamer trucks for a weekend visit to the countryside. I believe in having "choices" when I'm on the road, which has often resulted in paying those outsized fees for baggage over the 50-pound weight limit. Don't ask me to change, because it is impossible. But I made a promise to my SO that I would check only one bag (most airlines give you one free checked bag on overseas trips).

Here's the secret to Paris-in-springtime packing: You only need black clothing, comfortable shoes and lots of colorful scarves. Leave the workout shoes at home (they scream "Tourist!" and you will definitely stand out in this chic city). We went in late May and had gloriously cool weather in the day and downright chilly temps at night. So bring shawls and a light coat. And whatever you do, don't forget the umbrella. I also brought a pair of short boots, which is the favored footwear of Parisians these days. You'll need adapters and converters for your electronics, and the good sense to switch the button on the back from 120 volts to 220. Regrettably, I didn't, and started two near-fires in our room from my hot rollers and personal fan (for white noise) within 20 minutes of our arrival.

So Much to Do and See

We had eight full days to explore the city. I wish we'd had 80. To avoid "museum overload," which is easy to do in Paris, pick the top three you want to see and buy the Paris Museum Pass. It's good for most museums over a four-day period and gets you to the front of the line. You won't regret that, because you can expect crowds here no matter what season you go. Decide in advance the other attractions that are important to you. Shopping? Strolling through one of the many city gardens? A riverboat tour down the Seine River? A visit to the opera? Mass at Notre Dame? A train ride to Versailles? (That was our biggest mistake. We didn't leave enough time to see everything at this extraordinary palace, its sprawling manicured grounds and surrounding historic buildings. Pack a picnic lunch and plan a whole day here.)

Make your list and plan accordingly, because the days will fly by.

Abandon Any Weight-Loss Program

Parisians take their food and wine seriously. Expect delectable cuisine at even the most inconspicuous cafe. There is no bread like a French baguette, served at every meal. Yes, butter is a staple here, which is why you would sell your first-born for a flaky croissant, or a tarragon-laced bearnaise that tops off a perfectly grilled lamb chop. Just get on the food train and enjoy the ride. And make it a slow ride, because in Paris, a typical meal can last hours. It's that kind of place. One of our favorite things was to sit at a table at an outside cafe, sip our wine and espresso, order a meal, and people-watch. Service is generally excellent, because this is considered a full-time profession in France, and the wait staff is paid accordingly. The tip is included in the price of the meal as a service charge, but we always left a few extra euros if our server went above and beyond.

Do Something Extravagant

That's easy in Paris, because the city is the European version of New York (but much cleaner, less rushed and with a lot more history). For our big splurge, we had lunch on the second level of the Eiffel Tower at the famed Le Jules Verne, run by renowned chef Alain Ducasse. There are reasons you have to make a reservation about four months in advance: There is a mind-blowing view of the sprawling city, service is over the top and the food is exquisite. Better yet, your reservation gets you a private elevator up the tower, so you can avoid those ridiculously long lines for general tours. I will remember every morsel of our 21?2-hour meal and its artistic presentation, and the perfectly timed attention by our wait staff. And there's no sticker shock on the bill, because you know in advance that lunch will run you at least 90 euros each (about $115 by today's rate). Not bad, considering dinner there averages about 220 euros. Just remember: You're paying for the entire experience. And it will not disappoint. In my most stressed moments, I now shut my eyes, breathe deeply and visualize sitting on top of the world, gazing out at the rooftops of Paris and taking in the most memorable dining adventure of my life.

All good things must come to an end. Paris was everything and more than I ever could have imagined. As for the people, they were most gracious when my SO attempted to speak their native language. When communication came to a standstill, they would say nicely, "Do you speak English? Let's try it that way." I never encountered the arrogance I had feared.

As for the ring, I never got it. Well, after 14 years, what's the rush? There's always next year, since we're already planning a return trip.

But the best part? Now I understand just what Bogie meant when he looked at Ingrid Bergman and said that famous line.

No matter what the future brings, we'll always have Paris.

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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