C’est Le Bon… Journey to Europe – part 4

I slept a little better on Sunday night, thanks to planning what I needed to do before I went to sleep. I spent a great deal of time on my mobile phone, working out how early I needed to get to the train station and making sure I had a basic idea of where to go and what to do.

I had wondered how early I needed to be to check in for the Eurostar, as I wasn’t sure if I had to go through customs. I read online that one should be there an hour before, but I decided to play it safe and and reserved a cab for 8am in case I hit traffic going through London. The next morning I checked out of the hotel, and the cab was waiting for me. In the end I got to St. Pancras station in record time with ninety minutes to spare before my train.  I saw a sign that stated that check-in would start at least 30 minutes prior to departure, so I went to find breakfast and wait.

I grabbed breakfast and found a place to sit for an hour. Afterwards, I walked over to check-in, scanned my pre-printed boarding pass and entered the security area, where I had to put my suitcase and other bags through the x-ray machine. Someone checked my passport and I was done. It was relatively quick.

Still, I had to wait at least twenty minutes for the platform information to be posted. So I stood and waited with my fellow passengers before the notice came on the screen, then once it did we all migrated to the escalators and ascended to the platform. Finding my seat was easy, although I had to walk quite a distance to get to the rail car. I was a bit concerned because my seat faced opposite of the train direction. While I don’t need Dramamine on trains, I’m often concerned about riding backwards. I soon realized that while I prefer facing forward, the other way wasn’t too bad.

On paper the trip seemed long, but it went very quickly, plus Paris is one hour ahead of London. It also helped that I napped a bit as well.  I arrived at Paris Nord station at around 2pm. Once off the train I ventured down to the Metro station and spent ten minutes trying to figure out which line to take to my hotel. Unfortunately, the map confused me. So I gave up and got a taxi.

My taxi driver and I got along well. He didn’t know much English and my 6 years of French was so long ago I wasn’t confident in using it too much. He asked me, “Parlez vous Francais?”

I used my fall-back line that I had planned to say whenever asked. “Un petit peut,” I replied, which means, “Very little.” Then I asked him, “Parlez vous Anglais?”

“Very little,” he said.

We both laughed.  Fortunately, while I did attempt to say the hotel name and address in French, I had it on a piece of paper that I just showed him and he was happy with that.

The Best Western Horset L’Opera hotel was another pleasant surprise. Breakfast wasn’t included in my stay, but they gave it to me as complimentary meal. That helped considerably, and saved me time in the mornings. The room was nice, large and quiet, the way I like it. The hotel is very close to the Opera house and within walking distance to the Louvre.

Once I checked into my room, I ventured out for food. To my amazement I found a Starbucks. I shouldn’t be surprised, considering they’re all over the place, but I did find it amusing.  I don’t drink coffee, so I’m one of the few who doesn’t hunt them down. Still, I know they sometimes have some good snacks and sandwiches, so I decided in the interest of time, and because I wasn’t in the mood to attempt speaking butchered French, I would go in and either grab something or point and hopefully that would be enough. It was, although I did say, “Bonjour,” “Excusez moi” and “Merci” when I could. In time I was amazed at how much French I did remember, but I decided to play it safe during my stay and not try too hard. It helped that many people in Paris spoke English, so I didn’t have to rely on French too often.

After a delicious lunch of a vegetable and goat cheese wrap, I walked down toward the Louvre and came upon the Hop-on-Hop-Off bus tour office where I reserved my tickets for the following two days. I recommend hop-on-hop-off tours because they can give you a nice feel for the city and allow you to get your bearings, while giving you a tour.  Not only that, but it also provides door-to-door service to the main sites.  There’s usually a bus every ten minutes (with a few exceptions).  It is very convenient.  I normally like to take the full route, if I can, especially on short stays like this one.  Then, I’ll use the bus to get me from one location to another.

I normally don’t buy a two-day pass, but the price was hard to beat. It was only four Euros more for the additional day, and I figured it would be nice to have that as a fall-back in case I was too tired to walk. Most cities charge a bit more than that for the second day. I also was pleasantly surprised to find out that they only had one route, whereas most cities I’ve been to have two or more. This made things easier for me.

I continued my walk and arrived at the Louvre sometime around 3pm. I walked around the exterior and snapped photographs of the building, the pyramid and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel before I headed to the ticket booth. I had been warned that the lines to the museum would be quite long, and that I should try a side entrance, but I forgot to write it down.  I ventured around the whole building and could not find it, so I went back to the pyramid.  I soon discovered that at that time of day the lines were manageable. I was inside in a matter of minutes and headed to the section where the Italian paintings were. I figured no trip to the Louvre was complete without seeing the Mona Lisa, so I headed for that part of the building first. I did walk around the sculptures area, taking a good look at the pieces before heading up to the paintings. I knew the museum closed at 6pm, but I wasn’t rushing. I made sure to take in everything I saw, especially Da Vinci with whom I shared a birthday.

Unfortunately, other tourists had a different idea.

There was a long, beautiful room filled with paintings with smaller rooms branching off from it, including the one that housed the Mona Lisa. I ventured down the large room, admiring all the paintings along the way. I went into all the side rooms as well. I took in a lot with my eyes, and only snapped a photograph of those paintings that really captured my attention. Meanwhile, there was a group of tourists who barely stopped at any of the paintings, except for a split second to take a photograph of them. It was ridiculous. I had never seen anything like it. I was taught to really examine art and see the nuances, but these people hadn’t learned that. All they knew was through a camera lens. It was pathetic and funny at the same time.

When I got to the Mona Lisa there was a whole crowd in front of her. I took her in from a distance with the naked eye, then took a selfie for fun, since people would want proof I was there. The crowd of tourists snapping repeated photos of her was quite large so I had to play around a bit to get a good view and a good shot. Once I was done, I continued on through the remainder of the room and then back out into the larger one, as well as to the other smaller rooms. Not those tourists, however. They saw what they came to see and then disappeared. No more clicking cameras. No more distractions. I was relieved, although I felt a bit sorry for those classical artists who weren’t getting the attention that the others did prior to the Mona Lisa room.

When I was done with one section of the museum, I decided to explore another, but by then it was 5:30pm and the other wings were not allowing any new visitors.

Tip: I do not recommend the self guided audio tour. It was on a Nintendo Gameboy and worked with sensors in the building. However, many times they did not work for me. I also had trouble reading the screen. So I gave up on it after a while.

I walked outside the Louvre and headed to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. It’s just outside of the Louvre and at the end of Jardin des Tuileries that goes to the Place du Concorde. You can see the more famous Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile at the opposite end on the Champs Elysees. I circled the arch, admiring the design and taking photographs. Then I walked through the Jardin des Tuileries for a few minutes before I took a detour and headed back to the hotel.

Believe it or not one of my favorite meals in Paris was the sandwich I had every night in the hotel. It was a club sandwich with smoked salmon, a type of cream cheese that seemed different from the cream cheese I’ve had in the US, tomatoes and lettuce. It came with a generous side portion of salad and potato chips. On the second night they were out of chips, so they asked if additional salad would be all right. I was perfectly happy with that. It was a very light sandwich, not overloaded with cheese or salmon. It was just the right balance of each ingredient. It was a simple sandwich and I loved it.

Among the English language channels on my TV was the BBC Red Button, so I enjoyed repeated broadcasts of the ELO concert I had seen on Sunday night. I had to stop watching it after a while, as I was worried I’d get sick of it, but it was nice to see it. I danced around the hotel room through most of it. I sent an e-mail to Pat to let her know I was watching it. She wrote back immediately to tell me she was too, and she was dancing to it as well.

On Tuesday I took the bus tour and rode it to Notre Dame. The inside is truly beautiful with its stained glass windows and architecture.  There was a large, Polish tour group there.  The people were nice, but I laughed to myself being that I am a first generation Polish American, I wondered if I should say excuse me in French, English or Polish as I slipped past them, but then realized I didn’t know how to say it in Polish (I don’t know the language fluently, just a few words). I knew how to say please, but that wouldn’t have gotten me far.  So I smiled and said it in English.  They were very accommodating.

I decide to go to the towers, but to be honest, unless you have no plans to go to the Eiffel Tower or the top of The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, I would pass on the Notre Dame towers. I waited ninety minutes to get in, thinking that the reward would be a view of the towers themselves or some nice piece of architecture up there. But that was not the case. The view of city was the main attraction. It was very nice, but since I had planned to go up high in at least two other places that day, I was a bit disappointed. There were also many steps to climb. I had to take a breather once or twice. The staircase was circular so dizziness was an issue as well, but I managed to make it without getting too dizzy.

After Notre Dame, I got back on the bus, put the headphones on and listened to the audio tour while I rode it past a couple of stops to my next destination, The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile. You can see the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel from there. They’re practically a matched set.   The audio guide on the bus said that there was a lift to the top. If there was one, I never found it. However, there weren’t as many stairs as in Notre Dame, although my calves were starting to scream at me with all the climbing. The view from the top was very nice. I stayed up there for a while, taking photographs, then descended back to the inside of the arch where they had an exhibit. After that I went back down to street level, circled the arch and took photographs, then headed to a nearby restaurant on the Champs Elysees called Pizza Vesuvio, where I had lunch.

The waiter was very nice. Every time I spoke French, he patted me on the shoulder. He understood English very well, so it wasn’t a problem. I played it safe and ordered a hamburger “sans onion”. It was very good. Yes, it was a hamburger, but I wasn’t in the mood to experiment at that point and wanted some protein. I did have some pommes frites, though.

I took in the Champs Elysees and then got back on the bus and listened to the audio tour while admiring the sites until we reached the Eiffel Tower. Once again it was 3pm and I was in luck. The lines were manageable. That was a great thing, as the entire excursion up and down took roughly 2 hours for me to complete. First you stand in line to get tickets. Then you stand in line to go through security. Then the next line is to get the ticket scanned. Then you wait for the elevator which takes you up to the second level, where you can walk around and enjoy the view for a while before getting into the next line for the elevator to the top floor. Once up there you can spend as much time as you want taking in the view, drinking champagne and snapping photographs. Then it’s back to the lines. First, there’s the wait for the elevator to go down to the second level. Then, once there, going to the elevator to get to the ground floor. It wasn’t bad at all.

The sight from the top is definitely worth the wait. It’s a gorgeous view of the city. The tower itself is a marvel of architecture and history. It’s impressive.

After the Eiffel Tower I walked around the Champ de Mars for a while, which is a park adjacent to the tower, and tried to take a selfie of me with the tower in the background. A couple of American women stopped and offered to take a photo. One of them said she’d have to tilt the camera sideways because I was too close to the tower. I hesitated, wondering how it would look rotated on my computer, but her friend assured me that she was a photographer by trade and knew what she was doing. It turned out very nice.

I hopped the bus and continued the tour back to the hotel. I do recommend the Hop-on-Hop-Off bus tour as it does go by some nice buildings and gives some interesting history about them. I was a bit surprised that they did not stop at a few of the locations such as Place de la Concorde, but I guess they’re not allowed to stop there. So I made a point to spend the next day walking to those areas the bus drove past.

On Wednesday morning I went to the Opera House (Palais Gagner). I wasn’t sure if I should visit it, but I’m glad I did. It’s quite beautiful inside. The marble staircase is amazing, as is the grand foyer. In case you aren’t aware, The Phantom of the Opera was set in this location. The audio tour does lead you to his box, which of course really isn’t his box, but it was funny to see it was on the tour. Speaking of which, of all the audio tours I have taken in Paris, this one was the best. It was easy to use and very informative. I highly recommend it.

After the opera house, I took the bus again back down to Notre Dame and walked from there to Place to Concorde, and stopped on the way lunch at a very nice restaurant in the Jardin des Tuileries, where I had a delicious steak. The Place du Concorde is Paris’ largest square. In the middle is an enormous Egyptian obelisk, best known as Cleopatra’s Needle. I found it fascinating. In that same spot prior to the installation of the obelisk was a guillotine which was taken down in 1833.

Afterwards I walked along the Seine toward the Grand Palais and the King Alexander III Bridge. I took several photographs, then headed to the military museum where Napoleon’s tomb was located.

If you like looking at several hundred pieces of armor and weapons, then this place is for you. Sadly, the audio guide didn’t work well for me and kept reverting back to French, so I gave up on it and walked quickly through the rooms of military memorabilia. Then I walked to the dome in the back where Napoleon’ s tomb was. That was impressive to say the least.   It was worth a visit, not just for the tomb itself, but the entire dome and its contents.

After that I turned on my internal GPS and headed in the direction of the Eiffel Tower. I wanted to take another walk through the Champ de Mars and then catch the bus back to the hotel. The walk through the city streets took roughly ten to fifteen minutes, but it was quite nice walking down the narrow streets and alleyways.  I made it to the park very easily and strolled slowly through it to the bus stop. Then I took the bus back to the main stop, went to the hotel, had one last salmon sandwich and packed for my trip to Brussels the next day.

In retrospect I think I did very well for two and a half days in Paris. I saw what I wanted to see and still was able to walk through the city and take in all the exterior sites. I’m sure there’s much more I could have seen, but I think I got a good feel for the city and what it has to offer in my short stay. It would have been nice to have gone to Versailles, but perhaps I will decide to return one day.

Here’s a link to the photographs I took in Paris.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/10114819@N04/sets/72157648025253452/

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