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Published: April 24th 2012
The Sacre Coeur was a beautiful basilica.
Here is the final blog from my 2007 journey. It is set in Paris (despite what the tag says). Due to an unfortunate accident with my photos I only have the ones from the first part of my time in Paris – The gargoyles of Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and all of the other nice photos are gone.
After eleven months on the road I was on my way home. I was tired and I needed a break from the free, roving life. Thoughts of home-cooked meals and familiar faces excited me more than the most exotic of images I could build in my mind. It was an unexpected turn of events, but the same ‘boring’ aspects of the comfortable life that I had been living before I donned my backpack and hit the road had, at some point, become exciting and unusual. Little things like air conditioning, or having a wardrobe that included more than two pairs of threadbare underwear excited me more than the wonder of what was just around the next bend in my lightly trodden path. My flight home from Amman had just one stop, one final destination to add to the map
of my world tour. Despite my exhaustion, I was excited. It was a place that had filled my dreams for years, a city steeped in history and romance and art. I was in Paris, the City of Light!
Though I had never been there, I felt like I knew the city well. I had walked its storied streets with Hemmingway and countless other authors and, through the history books and art classes of my youth, I had learned about all of the grand monuments and museums that made the city so unique. Of course, my knowledge was of the romantic 1920’s Paris, immortalized in ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and ‘A Moveable Feast’, not of the Paris of the twenty-first century, so I had a lot to learn and experience and only three days to do it in. My first lesson of modern Paris came when I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport – How to get around a large European city paralyzed by a huge transportation strike!
On a normal day I could have taken a quick train ride from the airport to the center of town, but the strike had rendered the airport
train useless. Instead I found an expensive tourist bus that was still running and I bought a ticket. Being that it was the only way, other than taxis, to get into the city, the bus filled quickly and we were on our way. Before long the giant white dome of the Sacre Coeur rose up in the center of the city and served as my first recognizable view of Paris. We pulled off of the highway and worked our way toward the heart of the city. The bus dropped me off next to the Arc de Triomphe, a triumphal arch commissioned by Napoleon and completed in 1833. I hoisted my backpack and explored the arch for a little while before heading into the subway to catch one of the few trains still running, which, luckily, was headed toward Montmartre. After a long walk up the hill I found the hostel that would be my home in Paris. It was too early to check in, so I dropped my bag behind the counter and set off on foot to explore the city.
I was staying in the Montmartre neighborhood, famous for being the hangout for some of the
Walking the narrow streets of Montmartre with the Sacre Coeur in the background.
best artists over the years. Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Dali… the list of famous artists that called Montmartre home at some point in their career was impressive and I was in awe walking the same narrow streets as them. In contrast to the hot streets in Amman, Paris’ streets were freezing. I had my jacket on for the first time in months and the cold air was invigorating. I had no agenda, so I decided to walk up hill toward the summit of Montmartre. I slowly navigated the maze of streets, occasionally coming to a dead end, or road heading back down the hill. Eventually I found myself at the base of a grand staircase on Rue du Mont Cenis and I started climbing. The stairs led me up between beautiful buildings and cute little shops. My route occasionally leveled off to cross a street, but the stairs always continued on the other side of the road. After an enjoyably quiet stroll, I reached the top of the stairs and emerged into the hustle and bustle at the heart of Montmartre. I walked past the giant, ornately decorated water tower, which shined a bright white in the morning light, shattering
the shadows in the narrow streets of the old town.
I made my way to the beautiful Sacre Coeur basilica where the masses of tourists were already congregating. I spent the next hour admiring the grand stonework and cascading domes of the basilica, which was consecrated in 1919, just after World War I. The gleaming white travertine and the soft green of the tarnished bronze statuary made for a beautiful sight. I eventually made my way into the grand basilica’s main sanctuary where I sat for a while taking in the grand, but simple interior. When I left the hallowed hall I spotted a small sign with an arrow that pointed toward the crypt and dome – I was instantly excited because I have always wanted to get to the roof of a grand basilica. I followed the signs around the corner and along a narrow alley between the church and the street above. The crypt was not open, but the roof was. I fed my Euros into the automated ticket clerk and passed through the turnstile. I reentered the basilica through a side door where I found a beautiful stone spiral staircase. Round and round I
A close up of the Sacre Coeur.
went as I climbed into the unknown, keeping to the inside of the spiral, where the stairs were the narrowest and most exciting – A habit that has gotten me chastised on more than one occasion. After a long climb, I emerged into the sunlight on the roof beside a beautiful gargoyle waterspout shaped like a goat. I followed a lovely stepped path along one of the massive stone gables until I reached another spiral staircase in the base of the main dome. I emerged into the daylight again in a colonnaded walkway just beneath the giant dome. I had entered the realm of the gargoyles and the views of the city were grand. There were domes and spires and beautiful roofs stretching out in every direction, but one feature stood out above the rest – Gustave Eiffel’s grand creation on the far bank of the Seine. The famous tower seemed small and insignificant from my vantage point beneath the dome, but I knew it was just a trick of perspective. The distant sights of the city were impressive, but my favorite view from the dome was of a tree in the park beneath the basilica that had been set
On the Way to the Roof
This is the alley that lead to the entrance for the roof stair.
ablaze by its bright yellow fall foliage!
My stomach started rumbling, so I said farewell to the Sacred Heart basilica and headed back down to the streets of Montmartre. I only had three lunches and three dinners in Paris and I didn’t want to waste them by searching out budget eating options. The city was known for its culinary delights, so I decided to break from my budget driven norm and search out some of the more interesting restaurants. I chose a small café in the heart of Montmartre for my lunch. It seemed to be very popular and it was decorated in a Moulin Rouge-esque way. The food was great and the waiter was good-natured, laughing often and gently correcting me as I tried to order in French. After lunch I headed back down to my hostel and checked in. I was still wearing the clothes I had put on in Amman the day before, so I got cleaned up and changed and then I headed out again to aimlessly walk the streets of Montmartre for a few more hours. I was tired, so I decided to call it an early evening and I headed back
The Water Tower
A view from the roof.
to the hostel around ten o’clock. I was serenaded to sleep by the drunken cackling of two obnoxiously rude women that were sharing my dorm and ignoring my pleas for them to relocate to the common area down the hall so I could sleep. They finally passed out around 1:00am and I slept well after that – Oh how I loved hostel living!
I was awake and ready to start exploring by 8:00am. Contrary to my normal, silent morning routine in a dorm I woke up feeling the need to reorganize my backpack, in particular the crinkly plastic bags and noisy zippers it contained. That coupled with some loud humming and other obnoxious noises, eventually elicited the annoyed response I was hoping for out of my two roommates. Once they were awake I thanked them for the noise they had made the night before and wished them both a nice day and headed out the door. I familiarized myself with my map of Paris while I ate a simple breakfast in the lobby of the hostel and then I put the map away and headed off to explore.
It was a brisk, chilly morning
The Eiffel Tower
From Sacre Coeur.
and Paris was still asleep. I started walking in the direction of the Seine. I didn’t have a route planned, so I turned down every street and alley that looked interesting. As I walked I found several small, tree-filled parks and some amazing buildings, both new and old. Most of the shops and cafés were still closed, but I enjoyed the window-shopping. On one of the more picturesque streets I found a small shop that seemed to specialize in fine bookbinding. Their window display was amazing, showing off several beautifully bound books and the antique tools of the trade – I decided, then, that I would learn how to bind books when I got home. After a wonderful hour of mostly aimless walking I emerged from the maze of streets into a large plaza beside the Louvre. The Seine was right in front of me. I looked up at the Louvre, longing to go inside, but then I turned away and started walking along the banks of the Seine – I didn’t have enough time to see everything I wanted to see from the Louvre’s vast collections, so I decided to come back another time when I had more energy.
The Seine was a river so steeped in romance and history that I was a bit awestruck as I walked along its promenade. The sun glistened off of the water and set the fading mist above it aglow. The sidewalk was still empty, except for a few joggers and a handful of early-rising tourist like me, so all was quiet. It was a marvelous time for a stroll. I walked slowly, pausing from time to time to admire one of the beautiful bridges that linked the two banks together. Eventually I came to a large island in the middle of the river and I walked over the bridge to explore. The island was the famous Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame cathedral and several of Paris’ other famous attractions were located. I walked past several ornate buildings as I headed towards Notre Dame on the southeastern end of the island. After a short walk I could see the amazing cathedral in front of me. I walked through the small plaza in front of Notre Dame and found a place in front of it to sit down and enjoy the scene.
Notre Dame was
completed in the 1100’s and was one of Paris’ most famous monuments. It was one that I had studied in detail in my art and history classes in school. As I sat taking in the grand façade, with its two huge bell-towers and the giant stained-glass window above the main door, I though back to the moment I first learned of Notre Dame. It was in a sixth grade French Class and we were watching a black and white, subtitled version of Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ in class. That film was burned into my mind because of the stunning cinematography and the shocking form of Quasimodo. We watched a small portion of that film every Friday for a few months and by the end of it I had decided that I, too, wanted to sit among the gargoyles one day, just like Quasimodo – If only I remembered the French I was supposed to be learning in that class! My reminiscing was cut short when a woman came up to me trying some of the begging scams that are so famous in Paris. I politely deflected all of her attempts at parting me from my money and
then she move on. I scanned the beautiful French Gothic façade until I found the famous gargoyles high up on the roof and then I slowly brought my gaze back down to the amazing arched entries that were carved with row after row of saints – We had spent a lot of time studying those in one of my art classes.
Eventually Notre Dame’s giant doors swung open and I joined the wave of humanity flowing in to explore the giant sanctuary. I spent about an hour inside exploring the mysterious dark recesses and enjoying the amazing works of art that had accumulated over nearly a thousand years of use. The giant gothic arches towered over my head. Sunlight flowed through the hall in dusty shafts of light from the high windows and a kaleidoscope of color burst across the shadows from the magnificent stained-glass windows – It was a beautiful place to be. Eventually I left the hallowed halls behind me and headed around the corner where I got into the long line building beside the northern bell-tower. It took more than an hour of waiting, but eventually my turn came and I ascended the ancient
spiral staircase all the way to the roof, passing a hidden room on the way that had a beautiful gothic arched ceiling and a souvenir stand. I emerged into the sunlight on a small walkway along the top of the frond façade of the building. All around me the beautifully grotesque gargoyles stared out across the city – I was finally sitting among the gargoyles of Notre Dame just like Quasimodo! A quote tied to the ‘anti-suicide’ cage roughly said, ‘Quasimodo found friendship among the stone saints because they always gave him compassion and the monstrous gargoyles because he was one of them…’ I spent as long as I could on the roof taking in the many different forms of the gargoyles. I also explored the beautiful southern bell tower, which played a big part in Quasimodo’s story. The bell was massive and the structure holding it was built out of giant wood beams and columns, which were designed to absorb as much of the vibrations from the bell as possible to prevent damaging the stonework. Just before I headed back down to the street, the bell in the north tower tolled in a deafening explosion of delightful noise that
sent everyone’s fingers to their ears as we all stared in delight at the bell tower – That was an unexpected treat!
When I left the cathedral I headed west to a small park at Pont Neuf called ‘Square du Vert Galant’, which was a triangular park formed at the end of the island where the river’s two channels joined back together. It was a beautiful little park and I ended up sitting there for some time watching the river go by. I spent the rest of the day strolling down the Seine towards the Eiffel Tower. Along the way I perused the selection of leather-bound books in the small green vender stands along the river. I even found a few exploration journals that I had been looking for, but they were too expensive for me to justify buying books I couldn’t read. I took my time walking. I stopped for lunch at a little café just off of the river and then I continued walking. I found several lovely government buildings and countless small parks and monuments. I happened across a huge plaque on a building that read ‘Alexander Von Humboldt lived here…’ with some dates.
That was special to me, because he was one of the biggest explorers of South America and, oddly enough, I had a book in my bag, which I had been reading on and off since I found it in a book exchange in Namibia, that he had written about his journey along the Orinoco River.
Just as the sun was setting I arrived at the Eiffel Tower. I bought my ticket and I started climbing through the amazing truss work of the tower. I reached the first platform and then the second, only pausing for a moment at each. My goal was the top platform and I had hoped to climb all the way there, but the stairs had been closed to tourists for some time and I was forced to pack myself into a small glass elevator and go up the easy way. The elevator ride ended up being a lot of fun. The structure of the tower gradually got narrower until it seemed impossibly small, yet we continued ascending at a rapid pace. The city got smaller and smaller below us as we climbed and it seemed that we were at an impossible height. Finally
we slowed and stopped. The doors opened and a burst of cold air filled the cab as we stepped out. It was dark and the city lights stretched out in every direction. I spent a long time on top of the Eiffel Tower. I had fun taking long exposure pictures of the skyline, trying to catch the blue ‘V’ pattern that the multiple spotlights on top made as they overlapped. Eventually I decided to head back down the tower and head out to find dinner. I paused for some amazing photos of the lit up tower and then I headed off into the dark streets of Paris, slowly making my way towards Montmartre.
I was surprised by how safe the streets of Paris felt at night. It wasn’t late yet, but even the darkest streets were crowded with people out for a Saturday night on the town. When I got to the area at the base of Montmartre where it seemed like the nightlife was centered I started looking for some good food. I ended up eating dinner in an excellent Indian restaurant next to the Moulin Rouge and then I headed back toward the hostel. It
had been a full day and I had been walking for the better part of 15 hours, so I was tired. I spent the rest of the evening talking with my new roommates, who were considerably more agreeable than the ones from the previous night, and then I set up my transportation to the airport for Monday morning – I didn’t want to chance having problems with the transport strike, so I was taking an expensive shuttle. My second night in Paris was more peaceful than the first and I easily drifted off to a restful sleep.
I was out even earlier the following morning. The crisp, cold air and the grey, overcast sky matched, perfectly, the Paris of my dreams. I retraced my steps back through the maze to the Seine and then to Notre Dame. I crossed over the adjacent bridge to the south bank of the river. A short walk further and I arrived at Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore that I was searching for. The store was known as one of the best places in Paris to find new and used English-language books. Being early on a sleepy Sunday morning in Paris, the
store was closed. I went off to explore the area around the store, which was known as the Latin Quarter. It was Hemmingway’s stomping grounds during his time in Paris. The original Shakespeare and Company had been one of his hangouts in 1920’s Paris, though the original store closed at the beginning of WWII.
I found a nice little café overlooking a lovely park and I went in for a delicious breakfast of chocolate-banana crêpes and some excellent coffee. I took my time eating and then I walked around the narrow streets taking in all of the sights in the area – I came across a quartet of men playing different horns on one street corner, so I listened to them for a while. The streets were getting busy by the time I got back to the bookstore, which was just opening. I had grand visions of finding a dusty bookstore with old books of every genre piled haphazardly on unorganized shelves, which is one of my favorite things, but instead I found a store that sold mostly new paperbacks – Not exactly what I was hoping for. In contrast to the store portion of Shakespeare and
Company, the second floor contained the owner’s book collection, which was open for viewing, and it was impressive. I wasn’t in need of any new reading material, so I set off to see more of the city. I spent a few more hours walking around the Latin Quarter looking through the shops and exploring its many fountains and parks. I ate lunch in a small Chinese restaurant on a hidden alley. The food there was wonderful and the owner was very friendly, but their bathroom was my favorite part of the restaurant, being that it was hidden in an ancient cave-like cellar beneath the building.
After lunch I took another long stroll along the Seine. Eventually I came to the Musée d’Orsay, a famous art museum. The museum was located in a beautifully restored train station and housed the French national collection of paintings. Some of the most important works from impressionist and postimpressionist masters were housed within its walls and, unlike the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay could be seen in an afternoon. I waited in a long line beside a giant bronze rhino and finally made it inside. I spent the next several hours wandering through
amazing rooms filled with paintings by Monet and Manet and Van Gogh and countless others and halls filled with lifelike sculptures in marble, bronze and plaster. I had seen many of the paintings before, though in the considerably less grand setting of my art textbooks in college. As if the art wasn’t enough, the building, itself, was an amazing work art with its giant barrel-vaulted ceiling and ornate clock. I left the museum just prior to succumbing to museum-burnout, which was happening quickly by that point in my trip, and I headed across the river toward the giant Ferris wheel. There I found a large Egyptian obelisk, which had been taken from the Temple of Luxor in the ancient city of Thebes – I remember feeling sad when I stood beside the empty spot across from the obelisk’s twin at the entrance to the grand temple, wishing it was still where it belonged.
Paris’ streets were alive with Christmas decorations and holiday cheer. The holiday season was rapidly approaching and I was excited by the though that I would be home in time for Thanksgiving. I slowly walked back to Montmartre taking in as much of Paris
as I could along the way. I was ready to be home, but I wasn’t quite ready to leave Paris. I went to one of the touristy restaurants, called the Ambassador, for my last dinner in the City of Light. My French was better than it had been on my first day, but I still struggled to order my food. The waiter and several of the guests were rolling with good-natured laughter as I repeatedly tried to say chicken. The people at the table next to me helped me out with my pronunciation, and I finally succeeded. We then had a pleasant conversation (in English) about my short stay in their beautiful city. After dinner I took the long way back to the hostel and then I packed up my bags and made sure all was ready for my early morning departure and then I drifted off to sleep.
My journey to the airport went exactly as planned and before I knew it I was nestled into my seat on the plane with my time in Paris, but a memory – There was no question in my mind that I would return someday. I put the romance
of Paris behind me and set my sights on the comforts of home. It had been eleven months since I said farewell to my family and boarded the plane bound for Argentina. In that time I had traveled over forty thousand miles, more than one and a half times the circumference of the planet, and more than half of those miles had been on the surface. Despite the distance, I never actually made it around the world, performing a semi-circumnavigation of the Atlantic Ocean, instead. It had been a grand journey on planes, trains, busses, cars, horses, square-rigged sailing ships and quite a few miles of good old-fashioned walking. With the screech of the plane’s tires I was on the ground in Atlanta, Georgia. My mom’s smiling face greeted me on the curb. In contrast to my homecoming from Central America, when my gauntness brought her to tears, she commented on my long mop of hair with a smile. Three days later I gathered with my large family and celebrated Thanksgiving with a giant home-cooked feast and lots of storytelling – I was thankful to be home!
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