Published: July 19th 2009July 18th 2009
It was time for my maiden trip to Europe. It was time to wear my tourist cap and head to Europe. The city of lights beckoned me and so did the swiss alps. After doing a bit of research as to where to go, I zeroed in on Paris and Switzerland. Paris, as I wanted to know what the hype was all about! Switzerland, as it has this 'paradise' image in the minds of many! Switzerland's landscape has been shown in many Bollywood movies and it has this image of a honeymoon destination! Anyway, I was traveling alone. I got a Schengen visa from the Swiss embassy in DC. UK is still not a part of Schengen treaty so no trip to London this time. After trying airfares for Paris and Amsterdam, and a return from Zurich or Geneva, I settled on flying to Paris and staying there for 5-6 days and staying in Switzerland for the rest of my two weeks trip and fly back from Geneva. I stayed in Paris from June 20 to 25.
Bonjour Monsieur or Madame, merci, sil vous plait. I memorized a few french words. Was it going to be enough? I learnt on
the web that the French expect you to try to speak french to them and they don't prefer to speak english even if they know the language! After doing some research on tripadvisor.com, I was feeling a bit comfortable that many French people who have to interact with tourists on a daily basis, do speak a smattering of English. When you ask them if they speak English, the reply is usually 'liteel beet' !
Interestingly, a recent survey put the French as the world's worst tourist with one of the reasons being their reluctance to speak in any other language than French!
I landed in CDG around 4pm. British Airways flight. Got some vegetarian food for a change. I was the last to leave the passport check area. I tried my first 'Boujour Monsieur' to the guy checking the passports. He swiped my passport like a credit card in some machine and examined it for a minute. He then asked me about my itinerary. I showed him my Orbitz email printout. Seeing nothing wrong with an Indian guy traveling alone to Paris, he stamped my passport and I was on my way. I had to buy a train ticket
to central Paris which cost about 8.50 Euros. Along with that I bought a carnet of 10 metro tickets. I also got my ticket for the TGV train to Bern which I had already booked on the SNCF website. While waiting in the line for the ticket, 3 guys swooped upon me asking to inspect my baggage. I had read about all kinds of scams in Paris to hoodwink the tourists. I thought, I had not even reached central Paris and lo and behold, these scam artists have already begun their act. I said 'Non Merci'. They didn't budge. They flashed some kind of badges. They asked me for my passport. They said they are from Customs. I slipped my hands under my belt and took out my hidden pocket. My secret pocket was out! I had read about the need to carry important travel documents and cash cards in a hidden pocket in big European cities as petty crime is common. This is something I had not even tried in India where crimes get pettier! The secret pocket had my passport, credit and debit cards. Those guys checked my Indian passport, asked what was in my bags and left!
That left me a bit puzzled.
The train ride from CDG station to St Michiel metro stop reminded me of India. There was graffiti all over the walls near the tracks. It did not look neat. I came out of the St Michiel metro with my backpack and the carry on bag in tow. I strolled out trying to make sense of things. I was in a new continent, a new city, a new culture and a new language. The Notre Dame area looked beautiful and old. Seine river was nearby. I was accosted by a 'Do you speak English' scam artist in front of Notre Dame. I said no. I did manage to find my hotel after 1 hr of meandering. It was Hotel Diana at Rue St Jacques, just 10 minutes walk from Notre Dame. Central location for 75 Euros per night. Nice hotel, nice location and not so high rates for Paris for a solo traveler like me!
I just walked around for the remainder of the day. After all the sunset was around 10pm near the summer solstice. Plenty of daylight and plenty to explore. I tried my Bank of America debit card immediately
near a BMP Paribas ATM near the Pantheon. It worked fine. I was a little apprehensive as this was my first trip to Europe and I wanted the debit card to work.
Next day, I started with Notre Dame, a 12th century Cathedral. It looked beautiful from inside and out. Saw the stained glass patterns for the first time. I then climbed the stairs to take a look from the roof of the cathedral. Good view of the Gargoyles and the city from there. But I had to wait for about an hour in line to get to the top. Paris in summer attracts a lot of tourists and that means long lines in touristy locations. A street entertainer with a mask tried some practical jokes on people walking on the streets while people waited in line to go to the top.
It was June 21st. The longest day of the year. It was also the day of Festival de Musique all over the city. Be it Daniel Powter's bad day being sung near the Seine or Paul McCartney’s 'Let It Be' sung by somebody for doles in the metro platform, it brought out the joie de vivre
I started to look for all the main tourist attractions of Paris. I did not carry a map. I was just walking aimlessly hoping to find some familiar landmarks. Walked around Place de la Concorde. Saw Louvre and the pyramid from the outside. No signs of Holy Grail here. Near Hotel de Ville, I saw rioting my some protestors. Lot of riot police and some protestors, tear gas shells being lobbed by the police, the rioting mob obliging by throwing them back. It was quiet a scene. Tourists with their cameras tried to get close to the action. The crowd and the police dissipated after a few minutes of tense action.
I walked all the way to Arc de Triomphe. The walk is along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, a famous avenue of Paris. Retailers, shops, theaters all abound along this avenue. From what I had read, it used to be known as the most beautiful avenue in the world but recently it seems to have lost its charm. There was no way for me to imagine what the avenue was like in the past. It just looked like a busy street full of shops and tourists.
took the stairs to the top of Arc de Triomphe. Several major avenues of Paris merge at Arc de Triomphe making it an interesting vantage point to view the city. I stayed there till the evening taking some snaps. Then I headed towards the famous steel tower of Paris.
Eiffel tower looks like what it is. A tower of steel. Nothing charming about it during daylight. In the night however, it has a different look. It gets a golden hue due to the lighting. Ever hour starting from 10 or 11 in the summer, it twinkles for 5 minutes. Hordes of tourists line up below it to go to the top. I skipped going to the top this time.
The area around Seine river is active even after midnight. Youngsters holding wine bottles and cigarettes in hands are a common site. Smokers and cigarette butts on the streets are much more common in Paris than in the US. Streets also have more litter than I am used to seeing in say Washington DC.
Dames are in good shape here! Something not hard to miss for somebody who has been living in US for about 9 yrs:)
Food was something of a problem for me. It always is when I am traveling! Paris is a costly city and I am an animal lover! So no meat or fish. And I was traveling solo. I was a bit reluctant to sit in a cafe or a restaurant and try something. Paris is known for is gastronomical delights. But not for me! Menus are usually in French. Crepes, something like a thin pancake and prepared somewhat like an Indian Dosa, is one of the breakfast staple there. I tried it only once. It was a chocolate banana crepe. Not bad. As for lunch and dinners, I was just grabbing a sandwich or a baguette with just cheese or sometimes with cheese and vegetables. Since I was walking all the time and burning a lot more calories than I normally do, I had to grab one of these every 3-4 hours. I did try the L'As du Fallafel, the famous falafel joint in Paris. It is in the heart of le Marais in the 4th arrondissement. That falafel was delicious and was just 5 Euros. I gobbled two of them. Mind you though, they don’t have a place to
Next day, I roamed around the Seine river near the Notre Dame. Went inside St Chapelle and watched the beautiful stained glass windows. Next stop was the Louvre. I am not that much into museums but I thought if I am in Paris I might as well check out Mona Lisa! I had bought the 4 day museum pass for 48 Euros and that allowed free entry to many museums and sites. Inside the Louvre, it seemed that all tourists were headed towards Mona Lisa. So even though the museum is huge it was not difficult to find her. She is in a big room and dozens of tourists pack the room and jostle for position to take a good peek at her. And of course click their cameras at her to get their own Mona Lisa in their digital camera's memory cards. After I was done with the wife of the Italian merchant, I exited the room and roamed the corridors of the Louvre. Lot of paintings from Italian renaissance period adorn the walls of this world famous museum. Since I had not been good at History in school and had not done my homework on renaissance
art before the trip, I just skimmed the paintings and made my exit!
More walking. More baguettes with cheese. I made a beeline to Montmartre. I took the Metro. I had downloaded the Paris metro map on my iPhone which made commuting easy. Montmartre is known for the Basilica of the Sacre Coeur which is situated on top of a hill and gives a vantage point to view the city. A couple of street performers showed their skills with the soccer ball on the steps of the basilica. Elsewhere, artists were drawing sketches on canvas, people sitting in cafes gossiping in french. A lively setting. Nearby, you have the Paris red light district. While walking, I spotted a crowd of people at an intersection. They were ogling at the famous Moulin Rouge.
I made my way back to Eiffel Tower. This time with the intention to go to the top. The line for the elevator looked longer than the line for the stairs. After waiting in line for 45 min for the ticket for the stairs, I started the climb. After all that walking in the city, do I have the energy to climb the stairs? Did I
have enough baguettes with cheese today? Somehow, it did not seem that exhausting. I reached the first level, and then the second level. Second level is only about 1/3rd the height of the tower. You can go to the top from there in an elevator. I stayed in the second level soaking in the beautiful views of the city around sundown. The tower stays open even after midnight. Around 11pm, I made my way back through the stairs. Streets were less active in this area. It took me a while to find a metro. I was starving and it was time to find a baguette with cheese!
Next day, I toured the Hotel Invalides. It is a prominent landmark in Paris and easily visible from all vantage points. It has a military museum. The main attraction here is the Napoleon’s tomb. After exiting Hotel Invalides, I found myself walking along Boulevard St Germain. I then headed to see the interiors of the Pantheon which was near my hotel. The Pantheon is a burial place for many famous French luminaries including Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Louis Braille.
I then walked to the only skyscraper in central Paris. The building
is the Montparnasse Tower. After a quick ride in the elevator and some climbing the stairs, I was on the roof of the building. Nice view of the city at dusk.
Next day, I made a trip outside of Paris to Versailles palace. The palace was the seat of regal power from the 17th century till the French revolution. I went there early in the morning to avoid midday crowd. I did not like the palace that much so I came out fast and spent some time walking in the Versailles town. Since it was the last day of the validity of my museum pass, I checked out Orsay museum after returning to the city. Paintings and sculptures adorn the walls and space here. I am not an art buff and frankly I cannot distinguish between a Picasso painting and a painting done by say an artist in Montmartre! So I made a cursory look at some of the exhibits and made an exit. They are excellent but I guess I do not have an eye for them.
My legs were beginning to protest after all that walking and climbing stairs. No more walking, I decided. I hopped
on a L'Open tour bus. It is a double decker with an open deck at the top. You can hop on and off as you like. They pass by all the major tourists’ attractions. I took all the four routes they have over the next two days. I climbed to the top of Arc de Triomphe once again. I guess I have a penchant for bird eye views of places. I stayed on the top till 11pm which is the time till the top remains open.
One the last day, in the evening, I went to the top of Eiffel again. This time I took the elevator. Long lines. About an hour wait. When I reached 2nd level, it started raining. It stopped after a while. Then a rainbow appeared over the city. Nice. It being a real touristy place, expect a lot of people at the top. There was an american women saying she is having the best time of her life! Another american lady with a southern accent told her teenage son that Eiffel is considered one of the most romantic spots in the world and it is one of THE places to propose to your girlfriend!
this is where Napoleon's tomb is
I guess the son will be visiting Paris again! Many seemed excited to be there. Views of the city at dusk are magnificent. As it got darker, it was time for me to leave. I had not done a river cruise so I hopped on a boat for a night cruise of Seine. Metro and some walk found me back in my hotel. Next morning, I had to catch a train to Switzerland, my next destination.
Paris is vibrant in summer; there is a sense of culture here; plenty of old buildings and beautiful architecture all around; people seemed vivacious and enjoying their life especially the ones sitting in those cafes! joie de vivre is after all a French phrase!
There are more photos below