May 7, 2010
Bonjour Mes Amis!
I am writing to you from the city of lights and as cliché as it sounds, Paris trés romantique! I arrived Monday (May 3), after two relatively good flights. I was greeted with booties, eyeshades, & a toothbrush kit as soon as I boarded the British Airways flight in San Francisco. Although it was a nine hour and 20 minute flight to London, the wine was complimentary and the seat beside me was empty, so it was an easy trip across a North America and the Atlantic Ocean. The only negative was the woman behind me seemed to think it was necessary to press vigorously on the onscreen buttons of her video screen attached to the back of my chair.
I spent three hours Tuesday morning in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, which is huge considering it is just for British Airways flights. While waiting for my Paris flight a bloke in a purple coat chatted me up. At first I thought he was going to try selling me a three liter bottle of duty free cognac or a 100 pack case of Marlboro cigarettes from one of the many shops, but he was just a friendly airport employee.
After asking the usual questions (Where are you from?, etc), he warned me to expect a completely different concept of “friendliness” in France, particularly compared to the states where, “You Americans are always very helpful.” I don’t often hear compliments about Americans while traveling abroad.
Gare du Nord, Paris
In Germany, they publish the platform of every train departing in the next six months. In London, they don’t reveal which gate flights are boarding at until one hour before departure. But one look at the departure board and it was easy to tell I was in an European travel hub – Rome, Tokyo, Stockholm, Bangalore, Warsaw, and Geneva. My flight to Paris was just 45 minutes long.
Getting into the city was simple, although it was quite a long walk across the Charles de Gualle terminal to the local RER train station that connects the airport to Paris. I’d read that the ticket machines don’t accept American versions of Visa and Mastercard credit cards (European cards have microchips), but I purchased the 8.50 Euro ticket with my card. The train ride to Gare du Nord, one of several major Paris train stations, took 30 minutes.
Vintage Hostel, Paris
Europeans have a slightly different address numbering system. Their numbers run sequentially regardless of the block. Vintage Hostel, where I’d reserved a bed is at 74 Rue de Dunkerque. In the states, I would expect that to be in the first block, but in Paris it was several blocks away. Nevertheless, I found it quite easily. There were a lot of people staying at the hostel, the staff was quite friendly.
I shared a two bunkbed dorm with Josh, an American university student studying abroad, and two others I didn’t have the opportunity to meet. Josh said I was the first person he’d met that spoke English as a first language. Apparently he was very hungry for conversation; he talked non-stop until I excused myself to find dinner at one of the many cafes and restaurants nearby.
I didn’t return to the hostel until nearly 9:00 PM and I was quite tired. I climbed into the top bunk of a very shaky bed (Ikea) and quickly fell asleep. Unfortunately, I was wide awake again just before midnight and spent several hours in the hostel lobby reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Even at that hour, there were many young people chatting and drinking wine. A group of Canadians and French were trying to out-do each other with rude American stories.
View of Eiffel Tower from atop Tour Montparnasse, Paris
I packed up Wednesday morning (May 5) and returned to Gare du Nord. Manuela and her family arrived from Graz, Austria, and Manchester, England and met me at the train station. After the introductions, we purchased five day Paris Visité Metro (subway) passes and found our way across town to our hotel. After getting settled in at Royal Villa Monsouris, we all went to Tour Montparnasse, one of the few skyscrapers in the city for a panoramic view of Paris 59 floors up.
Manuela and I bought fresh pastries from a patisserie around the corner from our hotel Thursday morning (May 6). The woman was very friendly. She spoke a combination of French and English and asked where we were from. After breakfast with the family at another café, also served by a pleasant waitress, we went rode the Metro to Isle de la Cité where Paris was first settled 2000 years ago.
Many years ago I travelled to Hong Kong in part to visit the places I’d read so much about in novels – James Clavell’s Tai Pan series and several international spy novels. I was looking forward to seeing the sights of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and countless other novels in Paris. Standing in Place du Parvis Notre Dame, in front of the historic cathedral was amazing. This is where Esmerelda would have danced if she weren’t fiction. And those were the bells Quasimodo would have rung hundreds of years ago. Begun in 1163, it took 200 years to build Notre Dame de Paris and is at the center of Paris. Everything in the city is measured from that square.
Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris, Paris
There are many sights on Isle de la Cité. We visited Palais de Justice, the historical justice center of Paris which contains Saint Chapelle, a chapel with 15 towering stained glass windows depicting 1113 scenes from history beginning with creation. This church took a mere three years to construct.
The Concergerie is also part of the Palais de Justice. This two hundred year old prison was home to Marie Antoinette for 56 days before her execution as part of the French revolution overthrowing the monarchy. Marie Antoinette was daughter of the much loved Austrian Empress Maria Theresa.
After strolling around area of St. Michel on the left bank, we rode the Metro to Place de la Concorde where Marie Antoinette was guillotined along with Louis XVI in 1793. A 3,300 year old pink granite obelisk that once stood in the Temple of Ramses in Thebes was erected in Place de la Concorde in 1831. From there we strolled through Jardin de Tuilleries, another place often mentioned in literature; however, this public garden was very crowded and very dusty and did not live up to my romantic expectations.
Jardin de Tuilleris, Paris
The eastern end of the Tuilleries is separated from the Musée de Louvre by the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, another monument built by somebody a long time ago to commemorate something. We did not go into the Louvre on Thursday; I was the only one of the group interested in waiting in line to view the Mona Lisa.
In the evening we visited the Montmatre district which was popular with bohemian artists like Picasso in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The center piece of the still popular neighborhood is Basilica du Sacre Coeur, a 19th century cathedral. The lower streets are lined with souvenir shops, while the immediate area surrounding the hill top cathedral, reached with a modern funicular, are filled with restaurants, art studios, sidewalk artists and protraitists, and a few more souvenir shops.
Manuela and I picked out two small oil paintings of sidewalk cafés to hang on our kitchen wall. The friendly artist signed them “Laskin” but introduced himself as Dragan, a Serbian enjoying retirement in Paris. We snacked at a creperie before visiting the inside of Sacre Coeur where Manuela lit a candle for my father.
Except for Manuela and me, the family went to Chateau de Versailles, the royal residence of Louis XVI in the 17th century, on Friday (May 7). There are often large crowds at Versailles and Manuela and I plan to visit several chateaux in the Loire Valley, so we skipped this one. I went off to brave the crowds at Musée de Louvre. Manuela has seen the Mona Lisa, so she visited Musée D’Orsay.
Musée de Louvre, Paris
I have yet to see the pyramids of Egypt or any of the other seven wonders of the world, but I have seen the Mona Lisa! I was told I would have to wait in line for hours to get into the Louvre so I searched for the little known side entrance; but I was unable to find it, so I queued up at 10:30 AM with the all the other people outside the glass pyramid entrance and expected a long wait. That was my first misconception about the world’s largest museum.
The line outside the glass pyramid was the security screening and it moved quickly. It took only 20 minutes to pass through security, purchase my ticket, and cross the museum to the wing housing Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Unfortunately there was a mass of people milling about the painting.
My second misconception was the size of the Mona Lisa. While not large by any standards, it wasn’t as tiny as I had expected. No one was allowed any closer to it than about 20 feet. It’s a beautiful painting, as are the thousands and thousands of other paintings (there are 35,000 works of art in the Louvre), but I don’t understand why this one is so special.
Code of Hammurabi, Musee de Louvre, Paris
Venus de Milo is conveniently displayed near the Mona Lisa, but it didn’t draw nearly the crowd. I wasn’t particularly impressed with that antiquity – both arms are missing. The third piece I was particularly interested in viewing was the Code of Hammurabi, the earliest known codified law. Several laws are etched in the black oblisk, including something about what will happen to a woman who is caught by surprise with another man by her husband. There is nothing in the ancient Babylonian law about philandering husbands.
The Louvre Medieval is very interesting. It is a display of the museum as it was built in the 13th century as a fortress. You can view the original stone casements and walls. The Louvre has subsequently been enlarged many times by various royalty. Two other misconceptions I had of the Louvre were of the overall size. While certainly immense, I was able to stroll through all three wings, stopping to view things that caught my interest. And its possible to see everything in one day – I saw a French man walking rapidly through the museum snapping a picture of each work of art as he passed.
The last misconception I had was of the symbol of a red circle with a line through it. Apparently this international sign for “No” does not translate to Japanese when placed over a camera flash. The flash of thousands of cameras was constant throughout the museum.
Place de la Concorde, Paris
After two hours at our separate museums, Manuela and I met up at Place de la Concorde. As corny as it sounds, spending a few hours in Louvre and then meeting up with my girlfriend for lunch on the Champs Élysée was trés romantique!. This is where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived. Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner frequented these same sidewalk cafés.
We rode the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe which is in the center of Europe’s largest motor roundabout. The arc was built by Napoleon in 1806 to commemorate his many military victories. I was surprised that there are no lanes marked and cars entering have the right of way over those already in it. Just a block away is a former home of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. After a few pictures, we strolled down the Champs Élysée until we found a sidewalk café for lunch.
Arc de Triomphe, Paris
Manuela took me to the district she frequented while working in Paris as an au pair in 1991. Gare de St. Lazare was the last stop on the train from her suburban home, so she would shop at nearby Gallerie Lafayette, an old shopping center with a beautiful domed ceiling, and around Centre Pompidou, a unique museum with many street performers.
While walking to Place des Vosges, where we met up with the rest of the family for dinner, we passed Hotel de Ville, the 1872 home of the city government, and Square de la Tour St. Jacques, a lone tower remaining of a 16th century church. Unfortunately we arrived at Place des Vosges just a few minutes after the former home and current museum for Victor Hugo, which faces the small garden square, was closed.
Champs Élysée, Paris
After dinner with a waiter who served 15 people with a great deal of humor, we made a brief visit to Place de la Bastille. This is where the infamous prison once stood until torn down by a Revolutionary mob in 1789. Today, there is a tall column erected in 1833 as a memorial to those killed in the July Revolution of 1830.
We have seen so many sights in just two days. Although we relied a lot on the very convenient Metro system, we walked a great deal and returned to our hotel each night very tired. Tomorrow Manuela will take us to marche aux puces, (flea market). We also plan to visit the Eiffel Tower.