Paris Blog

June 3, 2008

Paris – Magnificue

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive in Paris is just the magnificence of it.  The architecture is just stunning and there is no other word.  You would expect to see beautiful and magnificent buildings, but not to this extent.  Everywhere you turn is history and beauty.  I have never seen a city so beautiful.

We arrived at Charles De Gaulle airport and it was quite modern.  Traveling within EU countries is very simple and all you have to do is show your passport.  Our driver was waiting at the luggage area and we were off to our airport.  I know, I know, my driver?  I arranged for a pickup from my hotel so that at least for day one, no stress.  We were dropped off at our hotel, Hotel Theresé on Rue Theresé which is about two blocks from the Louvre.  The location turned out to be perfect for walking to many of the sites and almost all of the city is easily connected by subway (Metro).  The hotel rooms are small, but very comfortable and the staff was very helpful.  We walked down to the Louvre and decided to jump on Le Tour bus to take in all the sites and then decide where we wanted to spend more time the next day (2-day hop on-hop off).  So in about an hour and half you drive by (could get off if you choose) all the great sites in the city.  I highly recommend this to get your bearings in the city.

I won’t bore you with all the details of places probably many of you have been to, just some highlights.  The Louvre is overwhelming.  You could spend a week there.  The building itself is a work of art.  I have to admit I have very little interest in religious art (naked cherubs and people gazing into the heavens), but the early Egyptian and Mesopotamian artifacts were amazing.  We then toured the north part of city (Monmarte). Finally we got off at the Opera which is another building of stark beauty, and pursued the shopping district (high end and not near as much fun as the small shops you find elsewhere). There is just one interesting street after another.  There are cafes/brassieres/restaurants everywhere with people sitting out drinking and eating at all hours.  Up from our hotel on a narrow street (most are with small sidewalks) was a wonderful bakery.  It is a town of little shops and each is a discovery or interesting food or goods owned by small proprietors who’s personal touch makes each special.

Cash is easy, either use your credit card or get Euros out of the ATM.  Every time I looked at the exchange rate I thought bad thoughts about where George Bush has taken us and our economy.  If I thought of Euros as dollars, I thought every thing was quite reasonable.  But of course you multiply by 1.58 and it gets worse.  But think about it.  The built in tax is about 19.5% but it is always included in the price and if you were on the Euro it is not bad.  I keep thinking maybe we ought to join the EU if things continue to degrade in the United States if they will have us.  For food we have tried nothing fancy but have found some great meals in the street cafes.  Breakfast is a continental breakfast at the hotel which is included in the rate.  The coffee sucked (instant I think) but great espresso almost everywhere.  We would then eat a late lunch at one of the cafes and that would usually do us.  Finding just a glass of wine is somewhat of a challenge because they want you to eat.  You can usually order just a drink at the cafes/brasseries, but the restaurants wanted you to buy a meal.  Most Parisians eat late and the places don’t really get going to eight or nine when we are closing down our restaurants.  I would get one of the wonderful sandwiches sold at most shops and they were wonderful.  Maybe Thursday (our last day) we will stay up late and go out somewhere really nice.

On the issue of the French being rude, I have not met one person that was not very friendly and helpful.  I truly enjoyed them and if you just smile remember Bonjour and Merci they return the favor.  I could easily live here.  Today we figured out the RER and Metro system (we bought a 5 day pass before the trip along with a museum pass, both worth their weight in gold).  We went to the Musee d’Orsay which has the most astounding collection of Van Gogh’s, Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir and other impressionists.  It was glorious.  We got there early and with our pass got right in.  Then we took the RER (Express Rail) to Norte Dame and toured the spectacular buildings.  Back on the RER we transferred to the Metro and went up the District that Rick Steves likes (Rue Cler) to look at the shops and have a late lunch.  Then off to the Opera District again for some late shopping.  Right now I am resting before a late night “illuminations cruise” of the Seine tonight.  Tomorrow it is off to Versaille.  Au Revoir.

June 5, 2008

Paris – Magnificue II

Tomorrow we depart for Dublin to connect (after a night layover) back the United States.  I will miss this city very much.  We have traveled all over it and there is still so much to see.  When I left you last we were going to take a night “illuminations tour” on the river.  It could have been wonderful, but sadly it was a disappointment.  Don’t get me wrong, the city from the Seine at night is beautiful with even the Eiffel Tower lit up.  But the “tour” itself was very strange.  We were picked up by our driver, driven to the boat, given our tickets with the caution that he might be a few minutes late on our pick up because another party was delayed.  We then got in a long que for the boat.  I knew in a minute we were in trouble because half the crowd was teenagers.  Sure enough during the entire cruise they were running up and down, texting or talking to each other on their cell phones, making noise and generally getting in the way of the view.  It really ruined what could have been a very pleasant tour.  Teenagers regardless of country of origin, when running in packs are basically out of control.  Upon returning our ride was 45 minutes late (we could have walked back) and then after a short “vehicle” tour decided to drop the other couples off first so after another 45 minutes we got back to our hotel room way past midnight.  So all in all I would mark the “illuminations tour” off your agenda.  I have generally found self-guided tours are the best and with a hop on-hop off bus, and picking your own Seine cruise you would do just as well.

Anyway that left us somewhat tired the next day so we decided to put off Versailles until Thursday and do some other exploring.  I have to admit this, but walking to the Musee de L’Orangerie, we passed a Starbucks and Candace had to have a decaf.  I tried to hide my Café Mocha from the locals.  On the way to the Musee, we passed through the Jardin des Tuilieries which is a beautiful morning walk.  Musee de L’Orangerie has a wonderful display of Monet’s larger paintings (Water Lilies).  Then we caught the Metro down to Norte Dame and saw some of the amazing buildings in and around Norte Dame including La Conciergerie which became the prison for Marie Antoinette while waiting the guillotine.   It is a forbidding looking place.  Then we walked through the quaint Ile St. Louis which is a small community on the second island in the Seine behind Norte Dame.  They also have one of the best ice cream shops I have ever been in.  We then toured the Le Louvre des Antiquaries which is the largest collection of antique shops I have ever seen (or ever want to see). Then we went over to the Eiffel Tower (Metro) so I could see it up close and personnel, but had no inclination to scale it.  Then we strolled down the Parc De Champ de Mars to the Ecole Militaire (another beautiful park), stopped at a café for a beer/wine and then finally called it a day.  We ate as always in one of the cafes around our hotel as they were all wonderful.

This morning we struck out for Versaille and I had carefully planned our route only to be foiled by my lack of French.  We left early to be in Versailles by 9 am and got on the RER (Express Train) heading toward Versailles, but  about half way there everyone got out (except us of course) then it pulled out of the station went about 1000m and then stopped and turned off the power.  Uh-oh.  Turned out it only went half way and then started back.  So with about a 15 minute delay it started up again went back into the station and we got off, carefully studied the train information (all in French of course) figured out the right train and we were off again.

I won’t bore you with Versailles except to say DO NOT MISS IT.  Go early so that you can tour the Chateau before the crowds build and then explore the gardens.  I would say the gardens make Chicago seem small.  Okay, a little hyperbole, but they are immense.  Do not miss Jardins du Petit Trianon.  Marie Antoinette  had a small village built for her pleasure and it is beautiful.  Plan on spending most of the day and then head to a café for a cold one.  You will have earned it.  We then returned to the city, again on the wrong train, but I could connect with the Metro, went to Rue Cler for a wonderful meal, down to Ile St. Louis for some more ice cream, and then finally returned to our hotel this evening.

I know this travelogue is somewhat boring, but it gives you an idea of what you can do in the city even if you are language challenged as I am.  With a museum pass and a rail pass, life is fairly simple as you never have to que to buy tickets.  Remember that the French demand one thing, politeness.  Every conversation starts with hello (Bon Jour) and don’t forget Merci.  With your passes, and those simple rules you will find this the most beautiful and friendly city on earth.  I did.  Tomorrow I will write of my general impressions and final thoughts.

June 7, 2008

Paris – Adieu

Some final thoughts as I sit here in the hotel lobby awaiting our ride to the airport.  This is a wonderful city.  It has so many things to do and see.  What I loved most was the art and the small streets and shops.  There are a ton of boulangerie (bakeries) owned by the baker who makes wonderful pastries and sandwiches.  Cafes are everywhere and they are the place to eat.  Each is different, some good, some not so good.  Read the menu (brush up on your French, and look at how many people are eating there.  The city is a breeze to get around in so buy a Metro Pass and explore.  There is a bookstore on the Avenue de Opera that has a wonder little book on seeing all of the historical and interesting sites on each Metro line.  It also has some great map books which I recommend you invest in.  Pretty soon you too will be navigating from your favorite café to your favorite ice cream store clear across town.  Best shopping for cloths (you never have enough) is around the Opera District.  Plan to spend one whole day in Versailles and buy a museum pass for at least 4 days.  That way you can return to the Louvre or any other museum you take a fancy to.  It even gets you into Versailles.  My favorite museum was the Musee de Orsay with its wonderful paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Rousseau and many more.  It is a lovely stroll from our hotel down the Seine to get there.  In a word, the charm of this city is paramount.  Wherever we got lost, we had fun and you can always stop in a café, have a beer or a glass of wine and regroup.  It is a must on anyone list.  The people all were extremely friendly and helpful.  Just remember bon jour and merci.

Some interesting differences:  Bathrooms in most places are small and you will never find a paper towel, just air drying so don’t slap that water on your face unless you like the sweat drenched look.  Many are co-ed in that it is one room with private stalls and a shared sink.  Most were very clean.  All the rooms we stayed in had a light switch the turned off all the power in the room.  It was convenient for coming and going and probably saves a ton of power.  Bicycles are everywhere and there are automated machines where you can rent them and drop them off at the next bike station.  The first 30 minutes are free.  This is truly an international city and so many languages are spoken.  The Europeans are miles ahead of us on being bilingual and I think it adds to their worldliness.  I will continue to learn Spanish then French.  When you don’t speak the language you feel retarded although almost everyone here speaks some English.  I think learning another language opens up your mind.  When you are done eating you usually have to ask for the check (la addition) since the French never want to hurry you.  Airports, at least DeGaulle and Dublin you have to read the board for the Hall or queue you are suppose to be in for your flight instead of finding your airline counter.  You will find few bars, especially wine bars.  Almost all restaurants do not allow seating just for a drink and do not have bars.  Cafes and brassieres allow either or food or drink service.  Everyone smokes although the inside of all buildings are smoke free as well as on the Metro/rails/bus, but half the French world is standing outside smoking a cigarette.  That kills sitting outside most of the cafes if the smoke bothers you.  But you can usually get a window seat inside to watch Paris walk by.  People usually eat lunch between 1330 and 1430 and dinner starting around 2000 or 2100.  Everything is in the 24 hour clock and metric.  When will we join the civilized world on that one is a question I have asked many times.  As I said earlier all prices include the tax so the marked price is the price you pay.  Once again I have never figured out why we don’t do that except once again to treat our citizens as morons.  The real advantage is that you have very little use for pennies since everything is rounded up or down to the nearest 5 cents.  I personally throw my pennies away.  For the amount we spend on the production of pennies over their worth, we could feed the starving in Ethiopia.

News in English in France is provided by CNN International, and I have to say it is quite an improvement over CNN in the United States.  They are unafraid to say curse words or show nudity if it is part of the story.  The coverage of the Turkish courts overthrowing the law allowing headscarf’s at Turkish universities was extensively covered by both the French and International CNN with their sensitivity to keeping their countries secular.  Once again they are way ahead of us on this one. The anchors are much more informed, without all the chatty B.S. and the focus is on both the United States and the EU.  I wish I could get it at home.

Europe is facing many of the crisis of the United States in high mortgage rates, lack of credit, and with the price of food and gasoline going up, a threat to tighten credit by raising interest rates.  What is refreshing is that they have a much more world view of this problem understanding that this is what globalization is bringing although you still see striking truckers wanting lower fuel prices.  All of the collected economies in the EU are in this together and they approach this in that vein.  What I saw in Paris was a truly international community speaking many languages and the whole EU experience may in some ways be creating more immigration than is wanted.  The French are very sensitive to their Muslim population and were outraged when a judge granted an annulment for a couple when the husband determined that his bride was not a virgin.  The French do not want religion entering their law system and are moving to correct this loophole in the law.  Their view is he could have had a divorce, but annulment should be reserved for very special circumstances like impotence.

EU has its problems, but all in all, I found it what we must do in the future.  We need to be more of a world economy and culture, open to many different societies, but maintaining basic rights for all.  As our economic problems worsen, as they will, we may find that being closer to the EU than the Middle East is our ticket to the future.  Western culture has taken some hits in recent times, but it is a great culture and we need to be part of it, not the Bush-go-it-alone guys who know what is best for everyone.

It was a wonderful trip, and now as I sit in the DeGualle airport awaiting my flight, I wish I had much more time here.  I and we could learn a lot.  Maybe next time.  I already miss Paris.

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