Thursday, August 30, 2018

Our Trip to Europe: We Go to Paris

Monday began early, as we were eating breakfast at 6am.  Despite being summer in a latitude significantly further north than Wisconsin’s – something we actually checked one evening (the latitude part, as we were all pretty confident about the summer part) because we were wondering why the sun was still up so late in the day – it was dark at that hour, so we ate inside rather than out on the picnic table.  Fran and Roeland picked us up around 6:30 or so, and we headed out.

One of the things about Europe that often takes the American mind by surprise is how condensed it is.  In the US it is entirely possible to drive at highway speed in a straight line for three days without crossing anything more significant than a river.  In Europe you can’t drive in a straight line for fifteen minutes without crossing some historically important border, whether currently recognized or not.  Those borders are old and were created at a time when nothing moved faster than three miles an hour, so they’re a lot closer together than American borders are.

From our breakfast table to the French border is less than a kilometer in a straight line, and from there to Paris is about a 3-hour drive – 3.5 in traffic, 2.5 without it.  When we were planning this trip Roeland offered to drive us there and we were happy to take him up on it!  Both Lauren and Tabitha study French (though I don’t think they actually got to use it while we were there), and none of us had ever been there before.  And seriously – who wouldn’t go to Paris given the chance?

We do have a friend who lives in Paris, but she was out of town when we got there so we missed each other.  There were other friends we have in Europe – in London and Amsterdam, for example, who we knew we wouldn’t have time to see so we didn’t even try to contact them.  It is a high-class problem to have more friends than you can see on a given trip.  We’ll try again someday, yes we will.

We crossed the border at a town called Halluin, which is pronounced “Halloween.”  Lauren in particular thought this was marvelous.  The actual border crossing was fairly anticlimactic, in this day of the EU – you’re driving along and suddenly the signs are all in French instead of Dutch.  We’d brought our passports just in case – we’re not EU citizens, so we weren’t sure if there would be more stringent requirements for crossing borders for us – but it turned out that they weren’t needed.  There wasn’t anyone to ask for them, even in theory.  Once you’re in the EU you’re in the EU and that’s pretty much it until you leave or go to the UK, which even though they’re part of the EU for the moment they still require passports.

So we never got a French stamp on our passports, sadly enough.

We drove across the French countryside, marveling at the fact that here we were in our second new country in four days.  French highways are full of speed traps and cameras, apparently, so we kept to the speed limit and worked our way around the construction detours that are universal on all the world’s major roads until we got to Paris.  The traffic was actually pretty light until we got just inside the borders of the city, whereupon it stopped dead and only moved intermittently for a while.  We got a chance to make a thorough examination of the new French national soccer stadium, though.  It’s right by the highway.  It seems very nice, at least from the outside.

Roeland had reserved a parking space in a garage just off the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, which is something I had no idea you could do.  Imagine, parking garages that will let you do that online!  We have seriously antiquated parking garages here in the US, let me tell you.

On the other hand, we spent a good half hour driving around the Avenue des Champs-Elysees looking for that garage.  Neither the GPS nor several willing locals – including employees of the neighboring parking garage that we drove into – were able to tell us where our garage was, so after a while we just found a place that had available parking and landed there.  It worked, but I hope Roeland got his money back for the first place.

Our plan, such as it was, was to do a Sampler Platter of the glory that is Paris, and we did our best.  Including the Avenue des Champs-Elysees itself, we managed to cover half a dozen tourist sites in the course of the day.  On the one hand, this meant that each site came and went fairly quickly, but on the other hand it meant that in our one day in Paris we could see a fair amount.  We know we didn’t do any particular site justice, but we had a wonderfully good time and someday we’ll go back.

It was hot that day – after a slight break while we were in Bruges and Ieper the temperatures climbed back up into the upper 30sC (upper 90sF), with a clear blue sky that meant a lot of strong direct sunlight.  We basically worked our way across Paris one shady spot and cold beverage at a time.  There were a lot of guys walking around with buckets containing a large chunk of ice and a supply of bottled water, which they would sell to you at one euro per bottle.  That actually wasn’t a bad price, and we took advantage of the opportunities as they arose.

We emerged out of the parking garage and began to walk up the Avenue des Champs-Elysees.  It’s a wide cobblestone road with no lane markers or traffic laws that I could see, but it’s really lovely.  Our first stop, though, was at a small restaurant called the King George V Cafe, where we got drinks.

All iced tea in Paris is peach iced tea.  Just know that going in.  It’s good – relax and enjoy it.

A couple of blocks from the King George V is the Arc de Triomphe. 

The Arc de Triomphe sits in the middle of the world’s most insane roundabout.  There it is, square in the center of traffic, and only a fool or a tank would attempt to get to it directly.  No, in order to get to the Arc you have to go underground – there’s a tunnel that you enter at the end of the Avenue des Champs Elysees that brings you up right in the middle of it – because otherwise you’d die trying to get there.

It’s gorgeous in a bombastic sort of way, with sternly elegant carvings and the names of French military victories carved pretty much everywhere.  You can go up inside it if you want, but that takes time and a ticket and – in a precedent-setting move for the rest of our time in Paris – we decided that we could enjoy the Arc just fine without that.

We returned back through the tunnel and started walking down toward the Seine, with our eventual goal being the Eiffel Tower.  It was a pretty walk, and it took us through some nice areas and along the river for a while.

The Eiffel Tower is just one of those things that you have to see when you’re in Paris, and having stood there at the base of it I understand why.  It’s immense, for one thing, and yet it has a delicacy to its structure that is curiously at odds with its size.  It’s also brown, which is something I really hadn’t been expecting for some reason.  I’m not sure what color I expected it to be, but that wasn’t it.

In order to get to the Eiffel Tower we had to cross the river on a nearby footbridge whose railing was covered in locks, most of which had the names or initials of couples written on them.

This is a thing in Paris, and I thought it was rather sweet.  Although that is a lot of metal.  There was apparently another bridge where they had to cut all the locks off because they got so heavy they were threatening the structural integrity of the bridge.  This one seemed just fine, though, and we took the opportunity to get some nice photos with the Eiffel Tower in the background.

From there it was a short walk to the Tower, which is surrounded entirely by tourists, souvenir salesmen, and chain link fences.  Again we declined the long lines and tickets to go up inside and instead simply walked around the base and admired it from the outside.  It really is impressive.

By this point it was getting on lunch time and climbing well into the 30sC, so we headed off to find food.  Our only real criteria was that it be an outdoor terrace, because really that’s how you’re supposed to eat in Europe, isn’t it?  Even if the place does serve an odd mix of Middle-Eastern and American food, right?  That sounded good to us, at any rate, and when we found a place that fit that bill we settled in and had ourselves a good meal.

We also stopped at a nearby souvenir stand, where I got a keychain for my Christmas tree and we fulfilled Lauren’s quest to get some article of clothing from every country we visited.  Hey – everyone needs goals.

After lunch we headed off to find a Metro stop.  This turned out to be a long walk indeed, which was fine since it was through a leafy, mostly residential area that was interesting to see.  Eventually we found a stop and went in to buy tickets.

Buying tickets from a machine in a foreign language turned out to be more complicated than you’d think, particularly as the ticket machine was not impressed by either of the credit cards that I had with me.  This turned out to be specific to the machines – the cards worked fine everywhere else – and eventually I figured out how to use the cash I had with me to buy tickets.  So voila!  Le Metro!

We have now been on public transportation in five national capitals on two continents.  Six if you include New York City, which the natives think of as the center of the universe and that has to count for something, I think.  I like public transportation – you see an interesting cross-section of humanity that way. 

We emerged from the Metro not too far from Notre Dame and walked the rest of the way there.  Notre Dame sits on an island in the middle of the Seine – the Ile de la Cite, and you’ll just have to imagine the accent mark and circumflex that should be included in that phrase – and it comes up on you fairly quickly as you round a corner and turn toward the bridge.  It’s a beautiful building, really.

As we made our way into the plaza by the entrance, however, the first thing we saw was a cat-sized rat scuttling through the crowd.  “Well here we are on the set of Ratatouille,” we thought.  But nobody seemed to mind, and Remy quickly disappeared into a grassy area, no doubt headed for cooking lessons.

The line to get into the cathedral was long, but it moved quickly and there were guys selling water.  When you go in you enter on the house right side of the nave and work your way slowly up to the front, across the back, and then back down the house left side to the exit.  You could, if you wanted, spend a day there looking at all the marble and stained glass and artworks – it really is that amazing.

Nothing creepy about this one, though.

Eventually we headed out, where we were greeted by this particular bit of artwork by the exit door.

Not really sure what the third guy did to merit holding his head at chest level like a bowling ball, but I’m sure there’s a rational explanation somewhere.  It did seem strange that they felt it was worthwhile carving it in marble on the cathedral wall for posterity, though.

After that it was a nice walk along the Seine to the Louvre.

Getting into the Louvre was perhaps the hottest part of our day, as the entrance – a giant glass pyramid with a big gold Artwork standing in the middle of it – sits in the center of a vast stone plaza that radiates sunlight and heat.

But the long serpentine line moved quickly and soon we were inside.

The Louvre on a Monday in August is a madhouse.  It is chock full to the brim with tourists such as ourselves, and it quickly became clear that we all had very different ideas as to what we ought to be doing with the time we had there, so we split up.  Tabitha went her way.  Lauren and Fran went a different way.  And Roeland and I went yet a third way.

I figured that since we were at the Louvre we should see the Mona Lisa.  Hey – I’m a tourist, and I’m going to enjoy doing tourist things!  Of course everyone else had the same idea so it was something of a challenge squeezing in past all of my fellow tourists, but eventually I got close enough to see it for real.  It’s very nice, though as with most art the full impact is probably wasted on me.  But now I’ve seen it!

Roeland also knew where the Venus de Milo was, so he and I visited that as well.

Afterward we met at the appointed time and place – which, to be honest, kind of surprised me that it actually worked – and headed off toward our next destination.  And at this point it would probably be appropriate to devote a few words to the fact that the person who designed the Metro stop at the Louvre was a gibbering loon.

Seriously – this is one of the biggest attractions in the entire city.  It is visited by literally millions of tourists every year, not to mention quite a few locals.  People need to get in and out, often in a foreign language with foreign credit cards, so trying to navigate the ticket machine can take extra time.  Put in more than one ticket machine! 

Just a suggestion.

At least there was a little shop right there where people could get snacks and drinks, so we had that going for us.  Eventually the entry gate got so overwhelmed that it broke down entirely and started letting everyone on for free, tickets or no, and nobody complained.

The Abbesses Metro stop at Montmartre lies deep in the molten core of the earth.  I know this.  For one thing it was noticeably warmer than the rest of Paris, even on that hot day.  And for another, I climbed every stair on the way back to the surface.  You start climbing when you’re at the platform level and every time you reach the top of one flight you think surely you’re done until you realize that there’s another flight of stairs, and you repeat this until you think “Clearly I have scaled some kind of cliff and will soon perish of oxygen deprivation” and then it’s just a few more flights of stairs after that until you come out at ground level.

The station sign is marvelous, though.

So you pause to admire the sign, but you’re not done.  Once you’re out, you still have more stairs to climb, and that’s when you realize that the “Mont” in Montmartre stands for “mountain,” and after that it makes a whole lot more sense.

Once you get up to the top, though, it’s a lovely place.  Montmartre was a center of French art in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries.  If you’d gone wandering around those streets back then you might have run into Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among others, and it still has something of that feel despite being hidden under layers of tourists such as ourselves.  There were many artists floating about as well as music and a generally festive sort of air, and if you made your way all the way to the top there was a grand white church.

We stood with our backs to the church and admired the view of the city.

And then we found a little cafe called, oddly enough, the Irish Pub, and sat outside on the terrace enjoying our drinks.  Peach iced tea.  With actual ice!  Just the thing on a hot day.

One of the odd things about Paris is how much graffiti it has, and while most of it is the usual semi-literate scribbling that one gets from people who feel obliged to spraypaint walls some of it is actually quite clever.  The graffiti in Montmartre seemed to be a cut above the rest, both figuratively and – given all those stairs – literally as well.  I liked this one the best.

By this point it was getting late and we went back to the Metro (a different, less deeply buried station this time) and headed off to our car at the Champs Elysees.  It turned out that paying for parking was not as easy as you’d think – it’s hard to give people your money sometimes – and for the first time all day I ran into a Parisian who was actually rude when I asked for help from the garage attendant.  It was oddly reassuring.  All day, nothing but friendly, helpful people, and then - BOOM! - there's your stereotype, right there.

We eventually found our way out of Paris and back on the highways, and it took us about half of the journey home to get hungry again.  So we stopped at a rest stop by the highway and had a picnic out in the parking lot, which was a quiet and peaceful way to end a good, busy day.

We got back to the B&B around 11:30pm and poured ourselves into bed like day-old coffee.


Ewan said...

J'adore Place de l'Etoile. But then I like driving in Paris, which qualifies me to be institutionalised in the eyes of most Americans. One must also admire a system which, for a long time, assigned right of way to he or she who neither hesitated nor made eye contact. This was rather at odds, I admit, with "priorité à droit" - priority to the right - which gave right of way to those *entering* a roundabout - such as Pdl'E - rather than those on it. Gridlock guaranteed. All now far more rational.

J'adore aussi Montmartre. Home to one of the world's better Dali museums - much more my kind of art than the Louvre, for sure - and the very best place by far to get your portrait painted. Usually charcoaled, rather than painted, but almost always very high quality and low price. Our dining room contains such portraits of each of us, obtained within about 3m^2 of each other but over more than 20 years. I expect this to continue.

J'adore beaucoup St. Chapelle. Which you seem to have missed entirely, and - if so - is more than reason enough to return: one of the most beautiful rooms in the world, a temple to stained glass.

Paris is Jenny's favourite city. Time to go back, I think.

David said...

We will have to go back to Paris, yes indeed - we tried to get a good flavor of the place in our time there, but even going in we knew that to see even the highlights would take longer than our entire vacation! We had a grand time nonetheless. :) Next time we will put St. Chapelle on our list.

I would agree about the art in Montmartre vs. the Louvre, but the Louvre is such a monument (and such an experience in and of itself) that it would have been sad to miss it. I was impressed by all the artists out there keeping up the tradition.

There have been two comments about the traffic around the Arc de Triomphe - one here and one on Facebook - and it is surprising how consistent you both are. :) It's a Darwinian experience apparently - survival of the fastest and the bravest - and there is some thrill in that. I was glad Roeland was driving.

There is so much to see in this world.

LucyInDisguise said...

"There is so much to see in this world."

And nowhere near enough time ... If I should ever make it to Paris, they'll have to throw me out of the Arc de Triomphe every day for three days running. Five days at Notre Dame. 15 days at the Louvre ...

This is why my wife never takes me anywhere ...



David said...

Well, there is nothing left for it but to see what you can in the time you have, I suppose. Go to Paris!

We had a lovely time - I enjoy cities, and there's a lot in this one. If you do decide to spend 15 days in the Louvre, you can take Tabitha with you. She really, really wanted to spend the whole day there, but then she wanted to do the other things too. She's the artist in the family.

The reason my wife hesitates to take me anywhere is that I am such a crashing nuisance to travel with. :)