“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic.” -Victor Hugo
Paris to London Travel Day:
Stepping off the train from London, my first impression of Paris is that it’s hot… and humid. The air is like an ocean, and we swim through the moisture to our hotel down the road. It takes a half hour, and not figuring out some sort of transportation may have been a mistake. Along the way, we pass through clouds of cigarette smoke, and I think back to being a teenager, when this moment would have would have left me gasping for air. Thankfully, things have changed for me, but here, maybe not so much has in that same timeframe.
After dropping off our gear at the hotel, near a different train station (Gare Saint Lazare), we head south, toward the Louvre. Along the way is a tourism office. We stop in and buy a pair of Museum Passes, which promises to save us money and give access to some express lines. Whatever it takes to maximize our short time here sounds perfect.
Walking by the Louvre, it’s busy, buzzing with camera-wielding tourists (like me) and a lot of people waiting in a dreadfully-long line to buy tickets. I’m not sure where the building ends and where it begins. It’s massive and hard to imagine a place this size (652,000 ft² / 60,000 m²) previously being used as a royal residence. Comparatively, the White House in the U.S. is a relatively modest, at 55,000 ft². During a trip to D.C. and standing outside the gates, Janine found our nation’s official residence to be underwhelming.
The Louvre Museum of Paris, France is shown in an exterior view as bicyclists ride by in the evening.
Facing the Louvre is the Tuileries Garden. It’s a beautiful, public space for all to freely enjoy, and we take a stroll through it. Who needs lawnmowers when you can chain up goats and have them munch on grass all day?
Just beyond the Garden is Place de la Concorde. Nobles such as King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette unceremoniously lost their heads to the guillotine on this spot. Also here is the Luxor Obelisk, which was moved to the square in 1836. The origin is similar to Cleopatra’s Needle in London (if you haven’t seen that post, here), and this ancient monument is sure to appear on some history fanatic’s obscure bucket list.
Arc de Triomphe is shown from Place de la Concorde in Paris, France during sunset.
As the day draws to a close, we grab a meal and try out the French we were practicing before the trip. It doesn’t take long before the waiter has had enough. “We can speak English… please,” he says. It’s a little embarrassing and a little comical. I was always taught in foreign language classes that people will appreciate the effort to speak in the local language, but not this guy.
The first full day in Paris is here. We start by retracing our steps from yesterday, to the Louvre, through the Tuileries Garden, then to Place de la Concorde. Straight ahead is one of this city’s major roads, Champs-Élysées. It’s like the Rodeo Drive (Beverly Hills) of Paris, featuring shops like Louis Vuitton, Hugo Boss, Tiffany & Co., and upscale car showrooms along the way.
From the Tuileries, it’s about 1.5 mi (2.4 km) directly to the Arc de Triomphe. The monument always looks like it’s just within reach, because it’s so freakin’ massive. I’ve seen other places like this. Take Las Vegas, for example. Everything is on a grand scale there, but it all feels like a movie set… Open the right door and you might see the whole facade is being propped up by telephone poles. Here in Paris, things are obviously built to last, and they have.
The Arc de Triomphe monument, completed in 1836, is shown towering over its visitors during the day in Paris, France.
I’d like to check out the observation deck on the top of the monument, but we need to put our Eiffel Tower tickets to use, so we head in that direction. Due to my crappy phone reception, this whole time I’ve been playing phone tag with one of my TV Executive Producer co-workers. All I know is that he’s renting an apartment somewhere near the iconic tower. And now I really understand how vague that info is. Since I can’t get phone reception underneath the various antennas at the top of the Eiffel Tower, I’m probably not going to get a signal until I’m back on wifi.
The Eiffel Tower of Paris, France is shown in a daytime view from the Champ de Mars park.
A quick personal back story about this experience… Janine and I grew up near Cincinnati, close to King’s Island amusement park. The place has a lot of thrilling, famous roller coasters, but the centerpiece is the Eiffel Tower. For that area, it’s iconic, so it’s kind of mesmerizing finally seeing the real deal. Also, the scale is a bit different – the Ohio theme-park version is 314 ft (96 m) tall. In Paris, the height is 1,063 ft (324 m)!
Between two elevators, the ride up takes us something like 7 or 8 minutes. At the top, it’s gusty, and we can feel the tower swaying. Expensive glasses (plastic flutes) of not-so-spectacular Champagne are being sold, and we indulge for the sake of the experience. From here, you can get a really great look at how much the Haussmann-style residential buildings provide an aesthetic uniformity in the city. Before we head back down, I check my phone – still no reception.
Janine and Justin at the top of the Eiffel Tower, with Champagne in hand
When the evening starts setting in, we walk about 20 minutes northeast from our hotel to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. The beautiful, three-domed white church is perched atop the Montmartre hill and is a Paris icon.
Sacré-Cœur Basilica of Paris, France is shown at night.
This place is really busy. Street merchants are cooking food, dance music plays from a big stereo someone lugged in, and fire dancers are put on a show. The energy here is borderline rowdy. An empty wine bottle rolls down the pavement past our feet. No one comes to collect it, and it just keeps rolling away. A group of soldiers, with automatic weapons in tow, walk through, maintaining a presence and the peace.
Flames from a fire dancing performance are shown in a long exposure image during the evening in the Montmarte neighborhood of Paris, France.
Shady characters hang out near the stairs back down to the neighborhood below. Some people stare. Some people try to sell you junk you don’t need. We ignore anyone there seeking our attention and briskly make our way down the big staircase.
Moulin Rouge is along the way back to the hotel. I love the building and the lively energy of the crowd waiting to get in. Maybe next time we will take out a small loan and join the fun.
The famous Moulin Rouge cabaret house is shown at night in Paris.
Still not yet being adjusted to the local time, we are up bright and early and start the day at a small bakery near the hotel. You’ve heard the hype about French pastries being so good. Judging by my chocolate croissant, there truly is something special happening here. Maybe it’s the flour, or the water, or the butter, or all of those. Whatever it is, I wouldn’t mind having a second pastry, but moderation defeats gluttony this time. I’m sure I’ll have this moral dilemma again tomorrow (or in a couple hours).
Our first sight today is Notre Dame. As expected, it’s really busy. We put our museum passes to use again and walk through the church. Incredible! I learned all about the place during an Art History class in college. This year (2013), the cathedral turns 850 years old. So long ago, the place was an engineering marvel, being built large enough to support 6,000 worshipers. Today, some people pray from the pews, but it’s mostly tourists quietly marveling at yet another grand Parisian structure.
Next up is the Louvre, for an official visit this time. We skip a long line, yet again. Right off the bat, it’s obvious you could easily spend half a day here, if not longer, but I have three very specifics pieces of art on my list to see: Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory of Samothrace.
We come to the latter statue first. It’s beautiful and intriguing and imposing, positioned alone at the top of one of the main staircases. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about this particular depiction of a goddess that’s missing its head and arms, but it’s an incredible, 2,200 year old work of art.
The area around da Vinci's Mona Lisa (completed sometime around 1506) is crowded, and the painting is smaller than you would imagine, at 30 in × 21 in (77 cm × 53 cm). There it is. I’ve now seen it in person. Getting out of this mess and moving on…
Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa painting is shown at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
As for the Venus de Milo statue, I know exactly where my interest in that one originates – Salvador Dali’s “The Hallucinogenic Toreador.” I saw that painting in St. Petersburg, Florida when I was 15 and was blown away by the layers and meaning behind the imagery. The painting is huge, too, at 157 in × 118 in (398.8 cm × 299.7 cm). In other words, that's roughly 13 ft. x 9 ft. Since then, I have wanted to see the statue that inspired Dali… and here it is in front of me. I like it, though not on a Dali scale, but it’s nice and is easy to respect the work that went into the statue. Venus has killer abs, too.
After more wandering in the Louvre, next up is Père-Lachaise cemetery. It’s a couple miles (a few kilometers) east from central Paris, so we finally give the subway a try. Our destination is the eternal home for Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin, and Jim Morrison, to name just a few. This old cemetery is massive. Between the old trees, cobblestone paths, and interesting mausoleums, getting a little lost here isn’t so bad and somewhat therapeutic.
We round a corner and see two young guys, probably around age 16, huddled together, listening to “Light My Fire” on a cellphone. There are still some glimmers of hope for the future. This, of course, also means Jim Morrison is right around here somewhere. Just on the other side of a defaced mausoleum is Mr. Mojo Risin’s plot. I have wanted to see this for a long time. Even as a kid, it was an oddly beautiful moment at the end of the film “The Doors” when the music plays over a montage of legendary names on Père-Lachaise gravestones, ending at Morrison’s, topped with a bronze bust. The marble version was stolen in 1988, and I suppose the bronze version in the movie was a prop. Now, the place is a little sad, with the battle against graffiti continuing and access to the gravesite being blocked off with bike rack barricades.
The grave of Jim Morrison is shown in Pere-lachaise Cemetery of Paris, France during the day.
After viewing the “greatest hits” this cemetery offers, we find an exit, knowing the place will be closed and locked up very soon. What next? Get some snacks and head to a park, shall we? A cheese shop is along the way. We walk in, then walk right out. Flies are buzzing around in the glass display, happily jumping from cheese wheel to cheese wheel. If I ever try casu martzu, hopefully it won’t be as a surprise from a Paris cheese shop.
We enter the subway station, and I literally spot one of my coworkers, my counterpart in the TV show’s Production office, on the other side of the turnstile. She rounds the corner, toward the stairs down to the platform. “Sara! Sara!” The place is so noisy. Janine starts yelling “Sara!,” as well. Sara doesn’t hear us. This ticket line is slow-moving, and I hear another subway train arriving. When we finally make our way downstairs, no surprise, my coworker is gone. Over 5,500 miles from home, and I see someone I know…
Back in the center of the city, we find a small market and opt for some pre-packaged/fly-free cheese, a bottle of French red wine, and a big, fat hunk of brioche bread. With these items in tow, Janine and I stroll on down to a secret garden and pull up an extra chair to use as an impromptu table. The wine, cheese, and bread are all a nice treat after a long day of walking. This moment feels perfect, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now.
Cheese, brioche bread, and a bottle of red French wine are shown being consumed in Paris.
During this elation, I take a bite of bread and something splatters on my pants. I look up. I have taken a direct hit from bird poop. The pigeon on a branch overhead seems to be looking around for someone to blame. Why this is considered good luck, I’ll never know. Maybe it’s the reward for the cleanup effort. And if that’s it, maybe the reward is even greater here in Europe, where they seem to like napkins so thin, they are more effective at smearing than absorbing. As I struggle to clean up this mess, I can't help but wonder what pigeon tastes like.
Via train, it takes about an hour to get to Versailles from Paris. Stepping onto the platform, it isn’t clear which way the ginormous palace is, so we see which way most people are heading, then try that same direction. It pays off, when we get past some buildings, and the view opens up. Woah! “That has to be it,” I say, and Janine’s response is “All that gold looks tacky.” Haha! I don’t disagree, but my mind is on the history and magnitude of this place, as well.
The Palace of Versailles is shown during the day. All of the buildings shown are part of the palace.
The lines are long, and once we get in, we are greeted with even more gold – on the doors, reliefs around the paintings, the crown molding. I guess if you’re already in one of the world’s biggest buildings and the money keeps flowing in, gild everything with gold leaf. All that leaf is estimated to be worth several million dollars today. Being flashy with gold, of course, continues to this day, and it still isn't impressive.
Outside, the Grand Canal is amazing. It seems to continue past the horizon. Maybe flat-earthers can follow this waterway and finally tell us where the falling-off point is. We take the trolley around the property and miss the stop for Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet, where the queen could go dress up like a peasant and fantasize about being poor. Forget it. We aren’t going back. The hustle and bustle has quickly caught up with. We’re heading back to Paris.
After a long day, we have a nice dinner and take in the scenery from our final stop:
"Exploring: Four Nights in Paris" (June 2013) Written by Justin Kilmer, Edited by Janine Kilmer
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