Friday, 4 October 2013

PARIS: LOVE, LIGHTS, MEMORIES (PART 1)




Paris - Eiffel Tower
This entry is part of "France: From Paris to the Riviera" series...

Paris has long been considered the romance capital of the world... so what better place to kick off our honeymoon?

Due to the amount of pictures/words this entry is posted in 2 parts


Detailed Itinerary: (what ended up happening) 

DAY1: (fly in) Vancouver to Paris + Sacre Coeur
DAY2: Louvre area, Galeries Lafayette, Eiffel Tower
DAY3: Musee D'Orsay, Louvre, Eiffel Tower
DAY4: Versailles, Eiffel Tower
DAY5: Ile de la cite area
DAY6: Petit Palais area, Musee Rodin, Arc de Triomphe
DAY7: Pantheon & Latin Quarters area, Montmartre
DAY8: Paris to Avignon




DAY 1: VANCOUVER to PARIS + SACRE COEUR
August 29th, 2013 - Sunny

Parisian Metro Sacre Coeur Sacre Coeur Paris Street
After a surprisingly good long distance flight with Air Transat we arrived in Paris!!! (Air Transat was simply superior to Air Canada in every way + why didn’t I invest in noise cancelling headphones 5 years ago?? I was able to catch a few quick naps on a flight for the first time ever).  I guess because Air Transat was a discount airline we weren’t taxied to the main terminal, and instead we were ushered to Terminal 3 by shuttle bus once we got off the plane.  My body was immediately assaulted by a blast of hot and humid Parisian air as we stepped off the air-conditioned cocoon.  (Us Canadians do not deal with heat too well… OK fine it’s just me).  Terminal 3 of Charles-de-Guille airport was like Tyrion in Game of Thrones (Tiny and ugly, but functional).  The mini-terminal was already congested when our shuttle bus arrived and we weren’t allowed off the shuttle for 10 minutes while we slowly baked… or shall I say sous-vided (We were in France afterall haha) in the bus cabin.  Baggage delivery was probably amongst the slowest of all the major airports I’ve visited.

Trains headed into the city depart from either Terminal 1 or 2.  After a longer than expected walk we arrived in Terminal 2 (the main terminal?) which actually looked like a real international airport.  We purchased a 6 day “Paris Museum Pass” for ~70 euros per person from the tourist information kiosk at gate 12.  We also purchased RER B tickets from the same kiosk for the train to get into Paris (it was about ~7 euros per person if I remembered correctly).  The RER station was easy to get to but then reality struck… the world did not revolve around me and I couldn’t find a word of English in any of the signage (honestly good for the French to stay French).  Luckily this time around (unlike when we traveled to China lol) my wife was able to put her semi-fluent French to use.  Even with my wife’s French abilities the directions were still not as informative as they should for first-time travelers to France like us. There were multiple platforms and there were minimal indications as to which train we should board.  There were monitors with scrolling French words which we assumed were train stations, so we jumped on the next train since our transit station appeared on every monitor (later on we found out we were on the express train).  [Tip: In France there are “long” and “short” trains (short meaning fewer cars than usual).  If you see the word “court” (meaning short) on the monitor, follow indicators on the platform to position yourself to where the “short train” will stop at.]


The Parisian train/metro system was gigantic and convenient with 15 metro lines + 6 RER lines that serviced the entirety of Paris and beyond.  With our RER tickets we were able to transfer to our destination via metro line 8 without additional fare with relative ease.  Slightly jetlagged we reached our apartment secured from AirBnB (first time ever) in the 7th arrondissement.  The studio-apartment was not much bigger than a hotel room - small in North American standard but probably considered average-sized in a buzzing metropolitan like Paris.  The apartment was extremely cozy and we will not hesitate to repeat our stay there upon our next visit.  After we settled in we scouted around the neighborhood looking for bakeries (for my wife) and groceries stores.  Hilariously enough we found 4 bakeries within a 200 m radius from our apartment and we sampled every one of them in the upcoming week.  Determined not to waste our day we hopped onto the metro towards Abbesses for Sacre Coeur after purchasing a package of ten metro tickets called "le carnet" (slight discount compared to buying individual tickets).  Parisian trains were not air conditioned and could get quite uncomfortable at times, however compared to New York the stations were very well ventilated (New York... probably the worst subway system I have encountered).  [Tip: Doors of French trains do not open automatically upon arrival… one must either pull a lever or press a button (from inside or outside) to open doors.]


The Montmarte area was full of life with artists and street-side cafes similar to the Kitsiloano neighborhood in Vancouver.  In order to reach Sacre Coeur which was situated at the top of the hill one must either embark on an easy 3 minute climb via stairs or there was a tram service that would transport tourists up the mini-hill for a small fee (maybe a 30 second tram ride?).  There is a reason why Europeans have a longer lifespan/healthier when compared to North Americans in general, they walk everywhere!  So unless there are truly some physical disabilities HIKE THOSE STAIRS!  I passed a 70 year old local making the short climb, and yet I saw overweight middle-aged tourists pouring out of the tram… WTF.

 
The view from Sacre Coeur was amazing as it offered a panoramic view of the city.  We arrived close to sunset on a beautiful sunny day so there was an amazing golden hue that blanketed the city… What a first day impression! (from the ghetto Paris airport terminal to a golden panoramic view of the city.. what a turnaround!).  Having visited many cities considered world class (New York, Hong Kong, London, etc), Paris was strikingly different because the city’s architecture was so historic and well preserved.  Instead of being screened by skyscrapers only to have taller skyscrapers lining the horizon, Paris’s cityscape was dominated by 6-7 story buildings that extended vast into the horizon.. LOVED IT!  Behind the awe-inspiring cityscape lied Sacre Coeur which was a dominating marble white catholic church.  Sacre Coeur, like many famous European churches, was awe-inspiring when we first stepped foot into its interior.  Its sculptures, stained glass windows, marble columns and floors, along with its historic significance, made the visit unforgettable (possibily because we simply don't have the history nor these historic monuments in North America).  Unfortunately we were losing our battle with jetlag and we headed to Snooze-ville at the conclusion of our Sacre Coeur visit.

 

DAY 2: LOUVRE AREA, GALERIES LAFAYETTE, EIFFEL TOWER
August 30th, 2013 - Sunny

Louvre - Mona Lisa Crowd Louvre - Busy Lobby Paris Streets Paris Streets Galeries Lafayette Paris Cityscape - from Galeries Lafayette Eiffel Tower at Night
After a solid 12 hours of sleep we woke up around 9 AM (we made it a rule to minimize alarm clock use while traveling... why do people join tours that start at 6:00 am anyways? That’s worse than a work day!).  Today we had our first ever Croissant from Paris from a neighborhood Boulangerie (bakery).  [Tip: In France there are differences between Boulangeries and Patisseries (one which sell baked goods such as baguettes – Boulangeries, whereas patisseries specialize in pastries)].  As per my wife that croissant was the best croissant she had ever had (a phrase which would be repeated almost at a daily interval haha).  To accompany my croissant breakfast I headed to a supermarket around the corner for milk (a routine maintained since I was a child) only to find milk on a normal shelf and NOT stored in the fridge… milk with a 3 month expiry?!?!?! that's CRAZY! It tasted delicious nonetheless.

Due to the excessive heat (30 degrees Celcius) we decided to start off our day in an air-conditioned environment so off to the world famous museum Louvre.  This giant museum was world-renowned for having one of the largest collection of priceless treasures from around the globe.  Amongst the treasures were paintings such as Mona Lisa by Da Vinci and sculptures such as Venus.  Unfortunately all these artifacts/antiquities also attracted copious amount of art admirers to such an extent where Louvre’s long queue became almost as famous as the artifacts it housed.  There was an underground entrance directly from the Palais Royale/Musee du Louvre station that rumored to be generally less busy, and when we arrived the queue was virtually non-existent.  However, once we reached the lobby we experienced the hoards of tourists that were notoriously mentioned by all guide books/internet forums.  The Louvre was so busy (especially the Denon wing which housed Renaissance paintings and the Mona Lisa) that it was nearly impossible to enjoy each display.  After a couple hours of crowd surfing (and my wife was getting tired of translating art history since most signs were in French only) we decided to revisit the Louvre at a later date.  My impression of the Mona Lisa:  the painting itself was way smaller than I anticipated and to be honest I didn’t like the painting at all… but the shift in artistic style that stemmed from Leonardo Da Vinci's work is undeniable... feel free to comment on my travesty.

Place des Victories - Paris
It was way past lunchtime by the time we left Louvre and we were on the hunt for some food.  We walked aimlessly down narrow streets past countless open-air cafes and restaurants while we marveled at unique French architectures.  Even though we were on the lookout for food our eyes were constantly overwhelmed by the architectural details around every street corner.  Near the end of lunch service we were able to find a local restaurant that was still open for lunch (French restaurants are required by law to display their menu around the entrance) where we enjoyed our 2 course meals.  After lunch we went across the street and visited the famous patisserie “Stohrer” where we bought one of the most intricate pieces of cuisine art called “Puits D’Amour” that was just as delicious as its presentation.  On our way to Palais Royal we stumbled upon a photogenic traffic circle which I later found out was called "Place des Victories".  Once we reached Palais Royal we enjoyed our food art at "Jardin de Palais Royal" surrounded by local families soaking in the sunshine.


Somehow we found ourselves around the Louvre once again.  More specifically,  we were standing underneath the Arc du Triomph de Caroussel and we were stormed by illegal street vendors selling miniature Eiffel towers (it was hilarious how fast they flee from Police, and more humorous how fast they return after the policeman evacuated the area).  As a Claude Monet fan we headed straight to the Musee de l’Orangerie which housed some of Monet's famous panoramic water lily paintings and it was only a 7 minute walk from the Louvre.  The museum was quite petite with only 2 rooms displaying the panorama paintings, but I loved this miniature museum because the quieter atmosphere allowed me to enjoy the artwork in relative peace.  After hours of walking (even with new runners!) our feet were protesting from our abuse and the Jardin des Tuileries adjacent to the Museum offered a perfect pit stop with green metal loungers freely available.  In fact we ended up spending over 45 minutes conversing and people watching while an amateur trumpet player was practicing in the background.


Since we did not reserve any restaurants in advance, many Tripadvisor's top-ranked restaurants were unavailable during our trip (I was warned 1000s of times to make reservations but I was too lazy, and I didn’t want to commit to any restaurants since I didn’t know whether we would be in the area until the day before… Having a flexible schedule allows me to adapt our itinerary (mostly to weather/work closures, etc) and usually leads me to interesting travel stories that I am able to share on here).  I remembered Lafayette Gourmet mentioned in one of the Parisian food blogs and it was only a 20 minute walk per Google Maps so we started our trek northwards.  The reason why we tried to walk everywhere instead of taking the metro was because Paris offered so many photography opportunities that would be otherwise wasted if we traveled underground – I encourage all visitors to do the same.  


By the time we reached Galleries Lafayette (which were two large buildings… one dedicated to ladies and the other one for men) we went into the ladies building to do some window shopping, and window shopping we did because the prices were 2-3X more than what we would deem reasonable in North America!  The interior architecture of Galleries Lafayette was jaw dropping (it was only a department store afterall!) with gold-painted walls matched with a multi-colored stain glass dome that would rival the grandest church (I guess it was a shopaholic’s church haha).  We kept on ascending the seemingly endless floors until we reached the rooftop lookout.  It was sunset by the time we reached the top and since today’s weather was similar to yesterday’s, the entire city basked in a photogenic golden glow with Palais Garnier (Opera House) directly adjacent to us and the Eiffel Tower in the distance (if you want a romantic spot to take your girlfriend/fiancĂ©e/wife for some brownie points… go there).  We were politely encouraged to head back downstairs around 8 PM (closing time) and since Lafayette Gourmet closes an hour or so after the actual store, we crossed the street toward the men’s building (where the Gourmet food court was located on the 2nd floor).  A bottle of wine, gourmet breads and pastries later we were on the metro heading back to our apartment.  
Paris - Eiffel Tower at night sparkling
As a romantic post meal walk around the neighborhood we visited the Eiffel Tower at night (a major perk for staying in the 7th arrondissement… Eiffel Tower was only a 10-minute walk away) and to top off the night there was an organized outdoor ballroom dancing party in Trocadero!  

DAY 3: MUSEE D'ORSAY, LOUVRE, EIFFEL TOWER
August 31st, 2013 - Stormy & Overcast, then sunny

Paris - Musee D'Orsay Paris - Inside Musee D'Orsay Paris - Louvre Paris - Tuileries Garden Paris - Eiffel Tower Black and White
I discovered "pain au chocolat" when buying croissants for breakfast today. Pain au chocolat was basically a square croissant with a little bit of chocolate stuffed inside = Heaven! I also had wine with breakfast for the first time in my life (leftover from last night's bottle I swear...) The weather forecast was less than optimal because rain was predicted to last the entire day. We were going to take the train to Versailles but we adjusted our plan to visit another museum that was highly recommended by guidebooks instead: Musee D'Orsay.

Musee D'Orsay Clock Musee D'Orsay (M.O.) was converted from an old train station located on the riverfront and it housed numerous impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces. M.O. was deceivingly large with numerous galleries and sub-floors - we originally anticipated a two-hour visit but we ended up spending more than 4 hours there and we only covered about half of the museum. By the time we reached the 2nd floor we were exhausted and luckily there were full sized sofas where it was comfortable enough for visitors to nap in! Right next to the sofas was a gigantic clock window left over from M.O.'s train station days which was quite photogenic in my opinion. Highlight of the museum included countless sculptures, paintings from Monet, Renoir, and of course Vincent Van Gogh (the reason why I wanted to visit and stay in the town of Arles was because of his painting "Starry Night"). Once we exited the museum we suddenly realized that it was 3PM and we neglected lunch again. There was a sandwich shop near the exit of the museum (an obvious tourist trap but we didn't care) where we purchased the last two sandwiches available + a 3 euros Orangina. The sandwiches were happily consumed on the steps of Musee D'Orsay while a local Jazz band filled the air with fantastic 50's music (bad sandwiches don't exist in France).

After calming our hunger we visited Louvre across the river where I retook some photos that turned out to be out of focus from the previous day. One of the advantages of the Paris Museum Pass was that we could revisit any participating site we wanted repeatedly (highly recommended for Louvre and Musee D'Orsay). The weather seemed to be turning for the worse as wind grew stronger and light rain started to coat the dry ground. The changing weather also brought some much welcomed relief from the supra-30s heat; however, the dip in temperature was short-lived as the wind made short work of the rain clouds.

Paris - Eiffel Tower As we slowly made our way back towards the 7th arrondissement on foot along the bank of River Seine (we wanted to visit a particular restaurant recommended by friends called "Les Cocottes de Christian Constant"... reviews to come at a later date), several rest stops were needed to rest our achy feet (I told my wife to wear comfortable shoes, but apparently looks > function still held true). The riverbank was quite lively with street vendors, street performers, wine/beer bars, tourists, and locals all enjoying the breezy riverfront. Bikes were also a common sight along the banks (and really they were all over Paris) and that was when I first took notice about the citywide bike rental program called Velib' (more on that in a separate post later).

Paris - Eiffel Tower at Dusk It took about 40 minutes to walk from Louvre, along the riverbank, to our destination restaurant. Since the restaurant did not accept reservations our brilliant plan was to get there early to beat the dinner rush at ~5:30 PM. Our brilliant plan fell flat when we realized that most restaurants in France opened at 7 PM for dinner service... what should we do for the next hour and a half? With the Eiffel Tower in plain sight towering over the typical 4-5 story French buildings that surrounded us, we bought a cold beer along with some ice cream bars at a corner store and headed for the Paris landmark. We returned to the restaurant shortly before 7 PM where we enjoyed our first proper 3 course meal in France (first of many). We concluded our evening walking past the Eiffel Tower once again on our way back to our apartment. 



DAY 4: VERSAILLES, EIFFEL TOWER
September 1st, 2013 - Sunny

Palace of Versailles Inside Palace of Versailles Inside Palace of Versailles Versailles Garden Versailles - Grand Trianon Versailles - Marie Antoinette's Residence
Woke up today around the same time (9 AM) but the scenery outside our apartment changed drastically. Usually a quiet street, Boulevard de Grenelle had transformed into a buzzing open-air market selling everything from baby clothes to the freshest produce every Wednesday and Sunday. Unfortunately we did not have time to check out the market as we were already running behind for... Versailles!

We made our way to Champ de Mars/Tour Eiffel Station for our RER C connection to Versailles [Tip: Buy a return ticket on your way to Versailles in order to avoid long lineups at the Versailles station on your way back. In addition, there are several destinations for RER C so make sure you board the correct train heading for Versailles Rive Gauche (or "Versailles" on the monitor)]. It was only a 25 minute train ride from Paris to Versailles, but it was nice to catch a glimpse of the suburbs of Paris (In France, graffiti were extremely common on the walls of train tracks, abandoned buildings, tunnels, and many public properties... more on that in a separate post).

Versailles was one of the richest cities in France and it was evident from the 5 minute walk between the train station and the Palace of Versailles: well maintained buildings devoid of graffiti. We purchased sandwiches and refreshments on our way to the Palace because judging from the amount of tourists on the train it would simply be frustrating if we were limited to purchase food from the palace cafeteria. There were two long lineups when we arrived at the palace: one to purchase tickets and the other one to get in. We were able to bypass the tickets queue since admission was included in the Paris Museum Pass , but the queue for security check remained intimidating (there were probably 2-300 people in the lineup). Luckily, the security check was quite efficient (never thought I would say that about France lol) and we only had to wait for about 20 minutes.

Versailles Interiors With audio guides strapped around our neck (which were free by the way) we embarked on our journey through the Palace of Versailles along with several thousand visitors. Initially we were herded through a series of rooms taking us through the palace's history, after which visitors were free to roam through rooms and halls at their own pace. The palace was overwhelmingly luxurious with antiquities, crystal chandeliers, and ceiling paintings covering every inch of the palace. As we proceeded onward through different halls we would often find a bigger chandelier, or a more lavish decoration than the room before. This obvious flaunt of wealth culminated in the grandiose Hall of Mirrors where golden walls, countless chandeliers, and matching windows/mirrors combined together to inspire awe. After having visited the Hall of Mirrors the rest of the palace became ordinary and paled in comparison.


We were quietly laughing inside when we walked past the ground floor cafeteria because the line up was absolutely monsterous.  Access to the palace gardens required a separate admission fee today because it was a "musical fountains show" day.  In other words, for 8.50 euros per person one could enjoy the gardens with music playing in the background (fountains were operational only at specific times).  For the first time at the palace we were able to find a relatively quiet spot away from other tourists where we consumed our delicious sandwiches in near isolation (it was amazing how the most ordinary sandwich could taste so good... only in France).

The gardens at Versailles can only be described using one word: Ginormous.  There were several options available for visitors to tour the gardens with limited time: Bike/golf cart rentals, and mini-trains to transport tourists to popular attractions around the grounds... for a moderate fee of course.  Since we had the entire day scheduled for Versailles we opted to casually stroll through the gardens instead.  The music was a pleasant addition but it was hardly worth the admission fee.  We gathered near the edge of "Basin d'Apollon" and by the time the fountain show was about to begin there were about 1-2000 people around us.

The fountains started right on time to more up-beat music (not elevator background music like before) to everybody's excitement.  However, after patiently waiting for 3 songs worth of music it was apparent that the water fountains were static and the "fountain show" was simply having the fountains turned on.  Disappointed from our expectations we visited several other smaller fountains (one of which was a dancing fountain but quite small in scale). We then abandoned the fountain shows all together and headed toward the smaller royal palaces/private royal residences (Grand Trianon & Petit Trianon).

The walk from the main palace to Grand Trianon was about 30 minutes and the walk itself was lovely with manicured shrubberies/well-groomed trees along the paths.  The further we walked away from the main palace the more locals we seemed to encounter... we soon figured out the reason why... the outer gardens were accessible by car! (there must be another entrance somewhere).  The Grand and Petit Trianons were beautiful to look at from the outside, but to be honest the interiors were underwhelming.  There was a significant difference in the state of upkeep between the exteriors and the interiors of the building; combined with the fact that we had just visited the Hall of Mirrors less than an hour ago, contributed to our lackluster attitude for the Grand and Petit Trianon.  Our memorable Versailles day trip concluded with a casual stroll back towards the main entrance near sunset.

An uneventful train ride later we were back in Paris once again.  Our hunt for dinner took us to a posh eatery called "Pottoka" where we had one of the weirdest, most polarized meal ever (for me it was possibly the best meal I had in Paris, whereas it was the worst food in the entire trip for my wife... she was not into gastronomy at all).  When we finished our meal it was only 10:00 PM and we didn't want to turn in quite yet, within seconds we were on our way walking toward our favorite location in Paris: The Eiffel Tower. (We visited the Eiffel Tower almost every day we were in Paris)

Eiffel Tower at Night We originally planned to go up the Eiffel Tower during daytime.  Since we were at the site already and unlike during daytime there were no line ups nor 2 hour waits for the elevators to the viewing platforms, we arrived at the lower viewing platform within minutes.  (One could also hike the stairs for the lower platform, and since we walked the entire day at Versailles already = elevator!) The lower platform was busy, but WOW the panoramic view was so spectacular that it simply made us forget about everyone around us.  When we woke up from the mesmerizing Paris lights ten or so minutes later, we realized that people WERE actually disappearing around us and tourists were emptying from the viewing platform: It was getting close to closing time!  We bought tickets to the upper viewing deck as well so we quickly queued up for the second elevator to the top.  It turned out that we were one of the last visitors to the top deck that night because they closed the queue shortly after us.  The view from the upper platform was similar to the lower deck but with a stronger breeze.  The changing lights from Tour Montparnasse; red and white lights from street traffics; dim orange street lamps illuminating the bridges on River Seine as well as the city itself, created an unforgettable image that will be cherished for the years to come.  The fact that we enjoyed such scenery in near isolation made our experience infinite times richer.

We stayed at the top for as long as possible and we were ushered back down on the last elevator for the night.  Our evening concluded with one final Eiffel Tower light show (where the entire tower sparkled) until the landmark went dark at 1 AM.

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