Published: May 2nd 2008September 18th 2007
Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle
Paris is cold and the sky is incredible when we arrive. Fast moving, low hanging storm clouds, intermittent sun, and a biting wind all push those feelings of euphoria that come from traveling and finally being off the train after 12 hours. It's a welcome change from the heat of Spain and Florida before that.
So this time around we get into Paris' Austerlitz station at 0900 with only a name and phone number for our couchsurfing hosts and an "international" phone card that we can’t figure out how to use in order to operate a Paris pay phone.
I don't know what it is about foreign phone cards and me, but my brain becomes thoroughly non-functional when it comes to their correct use. During our Scandinavian trip we never figured out how to make a call from a pay phone, but then, it was only a matter of minor inconvenience and not a necessity to getting through or enjoying our trip. Over the next three hours we finally get a phone card that works AND
the proper directions for completing a call, two absolutely necessary ingredients to completing a call anywhere in the world.
Luckily we aren't
Notre Dame across the Seine
planning on trying to make our way to our hosts apartment until the afternoon, so after we stow our packs at the train station and buy train tickets for Amsterdam on the 20th we start wandering down toward the Seine and Notre Dame. So along with trying to find a working phone card, or if we’re scoring points for honesty, a phone card that was simple enough for me to have a chance at using, we also grab a panini sandwich and start falling in love with Paris.
I’ve said many times that it probably doesn’t matter where I go, I’ll enjoy the trip and find something to love about a place. But Paris, for me, is that quintessentially romantic, literary icon of history. Walking along cobblestone streets that are centuries old while watching modern cars race by and strolling along the banks of the Seine--the feeling of history is a physical sensation along every nerve ending. Notre Dame from a distance is incredible and imposing. We walk out along a bridge to stare and try to prolong the feeling of grandeur. It turns out the feeling doesn’t dissipate with proximity.
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe everything
Amy w/Notre Dame across the Seine
we’ve seen or the experiences we’ve had up to now. This is just as true regarding Notre Dame where even the hustlers out in front of the massive gothic cathedral milling amongst the hundreds of tourists seem appropriate. I can’t help but think of the generations of people who have lived and died before us, building the structure, living their daily lives, begging, eating, drinking, completely unaware of the future me. Just as there will be generations long after I’ve come and gone who will look up at this place and, I think, be just as moved and awed.
We decide to do a thoroughly touristy boat tour on the Seine to see a few of the have to
sights and get a kind of feel for the city and distances. We hop off at the Louvre and it turns out the museum is closed on Tuesday. Still, the famous inner courtyard with the glass pyramid is nice without a huge crowd, so we walk around and take in this impressively massive structure.
A young woman also tries to run a scam on us that I hadn’t seen yet. She walks up to us and just before we
reach her, she makes as if she just spotted something on the ground and reaches down to pick it up. Being a cynic I know she’s just bent down and “picked up” something she’s been palming in her hand. She immediately shows it to us as she exclaims that it must be a gold ring. She is also trying to get me to take it and I make sure to hold my hands palm out so there’s no chance she can drop it into my hand. We make a beeline away from her and it doesn’t take long for her to give up and try the scam on someone else. I think she would have either asked for money in exchange for the worthless ring or started screaming that we were trying to steal it from her in order to get some money.
While we wait for the boat to take us to our next destination, I talk to the girl selling tickets along the Seine and explain what is going on with our phone problems. She takes some sympathy on me and tries to call the phone numbers we have for Julien and Caroline since she has a
working phone but the numbers don’t work as we have them written down and she doesn’t really know what else to do for us. I thank her and then jump on the boat to the next stop. We get off at the Pont Alexandre III bridge, which I’ve read is supposed to be the most beautiful bridge in Paris. It’s easy to see this may be a reasonable possibility. We walk around this area along Avenue Winston Churchill and Avenue des Champs-Elysees, checking out the Grand Palais and Petit Palais. Here is where we also manage to find a pay phone that takes the new phone card we bought and a kind Parisian to explain the proper dialing of the contact numbers we have for Julien and Caroline. They let us know how to get to their apartment and we make plans to meet up around five in the afternoon.
We still have a few hours to kill before we make our way to the apartment so we catch the boat over to see the Eiffel Tower. This easily recognizable icon of Paris is a huge tourist attraction. Despite this, it’s worth the trip to go and see it.
Chris across the Seine from Notre Dame
Maybe it’s only the time of year (shoulder season), but the crowds are not overwhelming. We decide we’re going to save our money and come back tomorrow for a trip up. You have to pay more to reach the second floor than the first, and more for the third than the second. We still need to go back to the train station and get our packs, then hop on the metro and head back this way toward the apartment, so after the Eiffel Tower we get on the boat and ride it back to a drop off point near the Austerlitz train station.
We arrive at the apartment and it turns out to be the typically French apartment of my imagination. Several dark, narrow flights of stairs until you finally reach the door you’re looking for, which opens up to a bright airy living space. Julien and Caroline give us the grand tour and we settle our stuff into the room we’ll be staying in which has an air mattress and really warm comforter. They want to fix us a classic French dinner of crepes, salad, and some sort of Cobbler dessert, which is a really delicious break from
street food and stuff we’ve been throwing together from the grocer. They have a bunch of maps and suggestions for us on what we can skip and what we should see with the limited amount of time we have.
The dinner conversation covers all the taboo topics—politics, social policy, religion, economic policy, culture. I’ve never been a big fan of talk for the sake of filling the quiet spaces, and being in a place for a limited time that you may never be in again makes it easy to broach those meaningful topics. We turn in for the night with an idea of a general plan for the next day, full bellies, and happy to be snug in a bed of sorts in the home of two strangers who have opened it up to us based on a couple of e-mails and one profile
. Wednesday 19 September
The day does not start off auspiciously; Amy is still sick and dragging a bit. She thinks she might be coming down with a cold on top of everything else. But of course, the feelings that make you curl up with a hot cup of soup and blanket to watch
Inside Notre Dame
some television and be miserable at home, are shrugged off on the road and treated as if they weren’t there.
We eat a light breakfast and go over a few last details with Caroline before heading out. Like any marvelous place, we know that we are not going to see everything we’d like in the two days we have, so we accept it and jump on the metro to Pigalle in the 18th arrondissement (I think).
With limited time, who wouldn’t put hookers and porn at the top of their sight seeing list? In the daylight the district is not nearly as risqué as imagined, but it still doesn’t disappoint. The historical red-light district is filled with sex shops and cabarets (including the Moulin Rouge). Like much of Paris you can feel the history permeating every breath of air and I wonder how it must’ve looked in the days of Toulouse-Latrec.
We opt for a free view of the city by hiking up to the Basilique du Sacre-Cour instead of paying for the Eiffel Tower. When we get to the top, we see that there is a tourist tram that takes you to the top of the hill sans
Amy inside Notre Dame
stairs. I can’t tell you how much it costs, but it might be worth the coin unless you love the idea of hiking up an endless number of stairs for, you know, the hell of it. At this point we’re both tired but I’m getting nervous that Amy is not going to make it. She’s really feeling bad so we take our time at the top looking around at the city spread out in front of us and just try to recuperate for the rest of the day.
We’re trying to make our money last so we decided the night before that we’ll go to one museum. The museum we decided on is the Pantheon on the Left Bank in the Latin Quarter. Of course, once we actually arrive, we get cold feet and start thinking that we shouldn’t miss the Louvre. Soooo, we stroll the Left Bank and pick up a picnic lunch that we eat along the Seine near the Pont des Arts, a wood and steel pedestrian bridge across the Seine leading from the Institut de France to the Louvre. Somewhere in there though we had to force ourselves into a McDonalds for two reasons, the
Inside Notre Dame
first reason was to use the water closet, and the second, more important reason, was to check on the veracity of the famous "Royal with Cheese"
line from Pulp Fiction
. I find great pleasure in seeing that the Quarter Pounder is indeed called a Royal (with) Cheese. Why? I can't explain, but it makes my enjoyment of the movie arbitrarily worthwhile somehow.
It’s a lovely day and by the time we make our way through just a small fraction of the Louvre we feel overwhelmed. The building itself is a work of art and the entire design and layout is intended to envelop and stun you with its size and detail. We see the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory of Samothrace, and countless other paintings, sculptures and relics. It’s truly exhausting and in the end we decide to set off for “home” so we can buy a few groceries to replace the stuff we ate and relax before taking our hosts out for dinner tonight. They also want to take us on a night drive of Paris, which I’m really hoping we can do. City of Lights and all that.
After all that we'll probably try and get some
Amy w/statue of Joan of Arc
sleep before catching a train to Amsterdam tomorrow.
There are more photos below