Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Our European Vacation: Historic Paris

We arrived in Paris at 6 a.m. and quickly moved through customs.  My concerns over answering questions in an unfamiliar language were unfounded as we were welcomed warmly into France.  Even at 6 a.m. Charles de Gaulle Airport was a busy place.  From the hustle, the languages being spoken and the dress of the travelers, it would have been difficult to identify the country from inside the airport.  The signs giving directions were easily understandable because of illustrations and minimal English.  We called our shuttle bus service and were directed to the appropriate door where our bus and driver were waiting.  Three other couples joined us for the drive into Paris.

While our driver wasn't a tour guide, he did an excellent job of hitting the highlights as we zipped into Paris.  Several time during the drive I felt extremely thankful that I wasn't responsible for driving or navigating this journey.  We were the last hotel to be dropped and that gave us the opportunity to see most of Paris by shuttle bus.  We drove down the Champs Elysees and around the Arc de Triomphe.  We passed so many beautiful and famous sights that we were planning to see later in our visit. The trip to our hotel was a highlight tour given by a local and one that we hadn't expected to receive.  It was thrilling because it was first and unexpected.

I'd picked our hotel, Hotel Royal Phare, based on it's recommendation by Rick Steves, it's proximity to the Eiffel Tower and the rue Cler and it's price.   We arrived at 8 a.m. and found the door open.  The desk attendant assured us that our room would be ready by 10 a.m., far earlier than we had anticipated, showed us where to put our luggage so we didn't have to cart it with us and gave us easy to follow directions to our first destination, the Eiffel Tower

We walked down the Ave de la Motte Picquet and through Champ de Mars expecting to see the tower much earlier than we did.  The tree cover hides a sweeping view of the tower from that side until you are almost at the base.  Catching glimpses of the structure was a real treat and only increased the anticipation.  I was surprised by how close buildings and city scape clings to the bottom of the tower on both sides.  This is no monument set apart from a city.  The Eiffel Tower is a monument in and of the city. 

We enjoyed a leisurely walk to the tower and arrived shortly before 9 a.m.  Since I hadn't know how quickly things would move upon our arrival to Paris I'd scheduled our Eiffel Tower tickets for 10:30 a.m.  We had plenty of time to walk under the tower, cross the Seine River and explore the buildings that make up the Trocadero.  The street sellers and beggars were out as early as we were.  We were offered Eiffel Tower key chains and the opportunity to support deaf Parisians by numerous advocates as we made our way to, under and past the tower.  From the vantage point of the Trocadero we had a gorgeous view of the tower and Paris beyond and we learned a little about Paris' Universal Exposition in 1889.  We also scoped out where we'd be catching our dinner cruise later in the week.  It's always good to know where you are going and how to get there in advance.

Upon our arrival back at the tower, things had changed.  The slow paced stroll we'd taken almost alone at 9:00 a.m. had turned into a muddle of people and lines.  It was easy to see that if you weren't going to show up and get in line at 8:45 a.m., it really was smart to make reservations.  Even the stair entrance had a line by 10:00 a.m.  The lines for the elevators were akin to amusement park ride lines with twist and turns aplenty.

We enjoyed a piece of Parisian pizza and waited for our reservation time while watching the growing crowds.  At 10:20 a.m. we walked to the reservation line and were ushered onto a lift and taken to the second level of the tower.  From there we found the line and lift that would take us as close to the top as possible.  With Rick Steves as our guide we took the Eiffel Tower Tour with all the enthusiasm and awe of true tourists.  The thrill of being in Paris and being at the Eiffel Tower was every bit of what I'd imagined.  We read and gawked and strolled hand in hand soaking in the sights of the City of Lights.  The best part was knowing that this was only the beginning.

After enjoying the views from the third floor we took the lift back down to level two and spent time exploring the view from a closer perspective.  Our trip from level two to level one and level one to ground was done via the stairs.  At that point we didn't realize how much ground we'd cover in the next 10 days and the idea of walking the Eiffel Tower was romantic and fun. By the time we reached the bottom, I was very thankful that we'd chosen to ride up and walk down rather than the reverse.

By the time we finished our tour of the Eiffel Tower it was close to noon so we walked back to the Royal Phare to check in and make plans for what came next.  According to Rick Steves, between the Eiffel Tower and our hotel we'd find the rue Cler Walk.  We enjoyed catching  a glimpse of how life might be lived in Paris.  The cafes, open air shops and easy pace made me long to spend months rather than days there.  We knew that the rue Cler is a place we'd walk more than this one time during our stay.  At the end of the rue Cler we turned right and made our way half a block to the Royal Phare.  Our room was ready when we returned and we checked into a street side room on the second (third for us) floor.  The elevator was small enough that there was no way a person and a piece of luggage were fitting inside at the same time so we took the stairs.  The room, while small was clean and more than adequate to our needs.  The accommodations included a private bath, closet, refrigerator, bed and oscillating fan.  Our window, floor to ceiling with french doors that opened in but no balcony, gave us a view of the shops and restaurants that lined the street in front of the hotel.  The window also gave us a slight breeze that was aided by the fan and hampered by the glorious sunshine.  We know that the weather was unseasonably warm for May but it made me sympathetic for a tourist that might spend a hot, hot July or August night in this room.  Paris in May was definitely an excellent idea.  After coming from an unusually rainy and cool Ohio spring we were more than ready for as much sunshine as Paris had to offer.

A short nap left us refreshed and Rick directed us to historic Paris.  We found the Metro station less than a block from our hotel and put it to good use during the remainder of our trip.  Our only incident of Paris as a less than warm and welcoming place occurred during our initial attempts at purchasing metro tickets.  We wanted a carnet (10 tickets for a discounted rate) but weren't able to come up with the word quickly and were dismissed from the line until we got it figured out.  Needless to say, it wasn't a word we'd forget again. 

The metro took us to  Ile de la Cite.  We purchased our Paris Museum Pass at the tabac near Sainte-Chapelle then made our way toward Notre-Dame.  A cafe on the way to the cathedral became a lunch stop as we enjoyed a croque monsieur and adjusted to the price of food and drinks in Paris.  After lunch we traveled on to the center of France and toured the catherdral of Notre-Dame

The children and I had been reading Victor Hugo prior to our departure.  I'd read a good bit of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame aloud and I'd listened to more than half of Les Miserables on MP3.  Seeing what I'd been reading about was a thrill beyond what I'd anticipated.  I'd been expecting dark and dank but the cathedral sparkled in the sunshine and the statues practically waved to welcome us inside.  Again, we counted on Rick to be our guide and followed his Historic Paris walk and tour of Notre-Dame.  I found it surprising that the exterior of the cathedral held as much, if not more, interest that the inside.  While the interior was beautiful and awe inspiring, the artistic detail and architectural innovations demonstrated by the exterior were every bit as impressive.  We toured the cathedral before we made our way to the Archaeological Crypt but found that stop to be extremely interesting and worthwhile.  Experiencing Paris from Roman times to present put the city and it's history into perspective for us. 

We chose to skip the Deportation Memorial.  Our upcoming trip to Germany made us especially sensitive to the issues and challenges of immersing ourselves too heavily in World War 2 history.  We wanted this trip to be a vacation and a joy, not a moral dilemma.  Shallow perhaps but it was the path we chose to take.  As a result we viewed the Ile de St. Louis as we crossed over the bridge to the Rive Gauche.  The booksellers were opened for business and we enjoyed walking down the street looking at the items they had to offer.  We also were charmed by the view of Medieval Paris we received at the church of St. Julien-le-Paivre, St. Severin and the skinniest house in Paris.  While we fell in love with Baron Haussmann's vision of Paris we also appreciated what Paris must have been like before he created the vision that is modern Paris.

By the time we'd enjoyed our river front stroll along the Seine and our quiet exploration of medieval Paris we missed our opportunity to tour Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie.  We arrived a few minutes after closing time and opted to continue our tour through the Place Dauphin, past the Statue of Henry IV and take a seat at the Pont Neuf for some quiet reflection of the day and planning for the hours left before bedtime.

Feeling pretty confident in our ability to negotiate the metro, we set out for Montmartre and Sacre-Coeur.  The original intention when we decided to go to Montmartre had been to see Paris at sunset from Sacre-Coeur but by the time we reached the basilica we realized the primary objective was to see Moulin Rouge so we could report back to our teenage daughters and get back to the hotel.   We were exhausted. The walk to Sacre-Coeur was filled with life.  Jugglers, dancers, street vendors, people of all shape, size and color.  In Montmartre there was no pseudo-intellectual, historical pretension.  The people were here to have fun. In my memory Sacre-Coeur is actually more beautiful than Notre-Dame but on a much smaller scale.  Large beauty compared to miniature beauty.  Both breathtaking if allowed to stand separately.   My favorite part of Sacre-Coeur, beyond the name, were the stairs in front.  Paris spreads out in all directions.  We rested there watching the people and the sky line, holding hands and breathing together, soaking in Paris and the fact that we were really there.

If you could see my Rick Steves Paris guide book you'd be able to see the chocolate ice cream smear on the map of Montmartre.  As we wound our way through Montmartre from the basilica to Moulin Rouge and the metro station at the bottom of the hill we passed various tourist shops, cafes and, best of all, the ice cream shops.  Ice cream in Paris was a delight that I wasn't anticipating.  The ice cream was displayed like jewelry.  Mounded high in glass cases that beg the passerby to stop and enjoy, the ice cream called out to me and a double chocolate cone in Montmartre was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  

After the double chocolate cone, we sugar buzzed our way to the Moulin Rouge and back on the metro to our hotel.  Again, we were thankful for the stop at Ecole de Militaire and the short walk to our hotel where we collapsed dreaming of Paris and of all that we had seen and done that day.

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