Tuesday, October 07, 2008

First trip to Paris

After 14 years of saying "I'm going back to France one day", I've finally done it. Here I am in Paris, enjoying French red wine, with baguettes and cheese, just like I remember doing so many years ago on the bank of a small pond somewhere in Normandy.

A month or so ago, my mom ran into her Aunt Lynne at a wedding, and in chatting, they talked about how I'm living in London, and how Lynne visits Paris every year. Lynne invited me to come stay with her in Paris for a few days, since she's renting an apartment, and is there for a couple months. I was thrilled at the opportunity, so I was happy to take her up on the invitation. Her daughter Britt, who happens to be my age, was planning a visit as well, so I arranged to be there at the same time so that we would both have someone our own age to hang out with as well.

On Friday, I left work and caught the tube to St. Pancras station, where the Eurostar leaves London. Unfortunately, due to the fire that happened in the tunnel a few weeks ago, they still weren't running a full schedule, so I ended up on a train leaving an hour later than what I had planned for, arriving in Paris at 11pm instead of 10pm. The journey over wasn't nearly as comfortable as I had expected either, for the price, which is quite a bit more than the discount airline fares. The seats are nothing fancy, and actually seem quite old and worn. They don't even recline at all. Strangely, for much of the journey I had to keep poping my ears, because there was something very weird going on with the air pressure. It wasn't not just when we were going through the channel tunnel either, it started as soon as we left the station. It was quite uncomfortable, and made me wish I had some chewing gum.

When I did eventually arrive in Paris, it was dark, and I was tired, so I just did my best to get to Lynne's apartment as quickly as possible. There was a long line for metro tickets, because the card reader in one of the two ticket machines was broken. I stood in line for that one first, not realizing the problem. When I put my card in a couple times, a woman approached me and said something to me in French, at which point I got to use my first phrase of French: Je ne comprends pas. She then told me in English that that machine wasn't working, so try the next one. Well, that meant braving the line again, but I did what had to be done and was eventually rewarded with ten little tiny metro tickets. The machine spits out ten separate little tickets, not a book of tickets like for transit in Vancouver. In London, everyone uses the Oyster cards, because it's so much cheaper, and much easier.

I called to let Lynn know I had arrived, and found my way through the station to the right train just fine. I was thankful for having had experience with the London tube though, because the style of the maps and overall skills of navigating the tube carried over nicely to finding my way around the Paris metro. After arriving at Lynne's apartment, she made me a wonderful chicken sandwhich on a baguette, and we chatted briefly, and quietly, because Britt was asleep in the other room, before we both called it a night.

Saturday morning, we started the day late with a very light breakfast of yogurt and baguettes with jam, before heading out to get lunch. The Galeries Lafayette, a large department store, has a food court that they said was very good. Food court is hardly the word for it though. The closest thing I've seen in Canada is the food fair at Ikea, though this was certainly a cut above that. I had some very nice Lasagna Bolognais, a green salad with boiled egg, and a dark French beer. Out the window I caught my first sight of the Eiffel tower. After having been to, and up, the Eiffel tower now since (more on that later,) I think that it is probable the most impressive modern structure I've ever seen, and quite possibly the most beautiful. I've always liked things along the lines of "form follows function", and the Eiffel tower fits the bill nicely.

After lunch, we walked down the street a few kilometres to the Arc de Triomphe Etoile. It was very busy, with quite a lineup to to up to the top, so we just walked around the base, where it's free. It's much bigger than I expected, a very imposing structure. We didn't stay long, as it was quite crowded. We then walked down Champs Elysees toward the Louvre, battling the crowds the whole way. Along the way to the Louvre are many things to see, like the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais, the Obelisque in the Place De La Concorde, and the Jardin des Tuileries. At the very end of Champs Elysees, outside the Louvre, is the Arc de Triomphe de Carrousel, from which you can see all the way down the Chanmps Elysees, past the Arc de Triomphe Etoile to La Grande Arche at La Défense.

Near the Louvre, we took a break to rest our feet, and the sun cooperated by coming out from behind the clouds for a good 15 minutes while we reclined in some chairs by the garden. When we'd rested enough, we continued the walk back to the apartment, near Bastille. The apartment is just off Place des Vosges, which is a nice square with a park in the middle. All the buildings facing the park have an identical facade, so standing in the park and looking around is rather odd, but the park is very nice, with four fountains and a large monument in the center. Aparently it's one of the few, if not only, park in Paris where you're allowed to sit on the grass. We finished the day with a nice relaxing sit around in the apartment, eating baguettes with sausage and cheese, and drinking some French red wine.

On Sunday I went off on my own for the entire day, braving the capital of France with a pocket map, and a French phrase book, both kindly lent to me by Lynne. She and Britt speak French quite well, but I can barely remember a handfull of phrases in school. Thankfull, phrases like "I don't understand", "I don't speak French very well", and "Do you speak English?" go along way, when paired with a "Bonjour", and simply being polite, so they know you're not an American tourist.

The first place I headed for on Sunday was the Arc de Triomphe. It was drizzling out, and I guessed, and rightly so, that it would be less busy as a result. When I got there, there was virtually no lineup, and the rain wasn't even very bad, to a hardy Vancouverite like myself, or so I thought. After climbing the long, vertigo inducing spiral staircase to the top, I was treated to an incredible view of the city, and my first unobstructed view of the Eiffel tower. I had a great time up there enjoying the view, and taking photos, but eventually the wind and rain drove me to seek shelter, and dry off my poor camera.

My next stop, being the first Sunday of the month, was the Louvre. The museums in Paris are open for free on the first Sunday of the month, which conveniently coincided with my trip, so I got to see the Louvre for free. As a result, I didn't feel the requirement to try to see it all, to get my money's worth, so I had a very nice relaxing time there, saw only the things that were specifically on my list, or that I happened to wander past on my way. I saw the Mona Lisa, though briefly. It was very busy in that room, not at all surprisingly, so I didn't bother getting in line to get close. I just snapped some photos from a distance, over the heads of the crowd. I haven't looked at them yet, but I hope one turns out.

Speaking of photography, I'm very impressed that nowhere I've gone in Paris has had any problem with photography, though some places do have signs saying that flash photography is prohibited, not that that seems to stop most people. I was fully expecting the Louvre to make me check my camera and bag when I went in, but they didn't even bat an eyelash at the camera at any point, and didn't seem to have a problem with the size of the bag I was carrying.

Back to the Louvre though. I also saw the Venus de Milo, which was the only other thing listed on the guide map that I actually recognized. I believe there's a Picaso gallery, but it was closed. I think the most interesting thing I saw at the Louvre, which will not surprise my parents at all, was the excvavation of the royal castle that used to be on the same site. I'll have to google around and do some research, but it seems that at some point, someone found some stones or something, and discovered that there was a burried palace/castle under the Louvre, from many many centuries ago. They've excavated what they can, though much of it is underneath existing buildings, and you can walk through it, which was absolutely fascinating.

When I finished at the Louvre, I decided to take a break for lunch, seeing as it was about 3pm at this point. I found a nice little cafe away from the Louvre, back towards the department store from the previous day, and had a very nice lunch. I ordered something called Croque Madame, which is a Croque Monsieur with a fried egg on top. A Croque Monsieur is a couple slices of break, with ham and cheese in it, and I think cheese on top as well that's toasted. It also came with a small salad with very nice dressing. While I was eating lunch, I saw a fellow come in, and standing at the counter nearest the door, order just an expresso, which he then drank there in a matter of a minute or two, left some change on the counter, said merci, and left. It was straight out of the movies, I had no idea people here actually did that sort of thing.

After lunch, it was still drizzling, so I decided to go see how the line was at Notre Dame. I took the metro most of the way, because all the walking from the day before had tired me out, and I didn't want to exhaust myself too quickly. I got off the metro on the right bank, and walked over one of the many bridges onto the island in the Seine that Notre Dame is on. Along the way I passed some other incredible old buildings, including Saint Chapelle and the Conciergerie, but nothing quite so impressive as Notre Dame, which is impressive indeed. The lineup was pretty bad, despite the rain, so I contented myself with walking all the way around the cathedral, and seeing it from the outside. That was really all I had wanted to do anyway, so I went away quite satisfied. The flying butresses along it's back are quite a sight.

On my way to Notre Dame from the metro I had also seen the Tour de St. Jacques and the Centre Pompidou, also known as the inside-out building, which many Pariesiens consider to be an eyesore. When I was done at Notre Dame, I headed in the direction of those two. Unfortunately, the grounds around the Tour were closed off, so I was only able to take some photos from the street. The Center Pompidou was very interesting though. I had a great time walking around outside, taking photos, but again, didn't go in. By that time, it was getting rather late so I walked back to the apartment, which is actually quite close to there.

More on the rest of the trip later.


Unknown said...

You now officially know much more about Paris than myself!

As for the ear discomfort in the Chunnel, think about being a piston traveling in a bike pump ;-) There are some serious pressure challenges in this tube.

Can't wait to read the rest of your adventures in Frogland.

Anonymous said...