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FRANCE > Paris (and the Louvre)

Magical Paris

Jennifer Vargas

Article © 2006 J. L. Vargas
Pictures R. Vargas (except Mona Lisa picture)

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There was no quiet adoration of a great work of art. Just hundreds of people aiming for a good picture so they could run off to the next “famous” painting.

Looking up in a Paris street - click to enlargeHere we sit on the long, green grass, staring up at the Eiffel Tower. It is far more magical to see it in person. I was mesmerized the minute our plane touched down in Paris. It is more beautiful than pictures can capture. The city is painted in light. Buildings are white, grey, and brown, portraying cleanliness and detail. Trees and parks line the landscape, with colourful flowers fully in bloom all over the city. Ah, Pari. It doesn’t get any better than this.

We couldn’t wait to get on the plane on Wednesday evening. and I scooted right through security with my husband, Ricky, relieved to be able to carry on our backpacks. The seats were small and cramped, but we drugged up on Tylenol PM, putting us out for a half an hour at a time. After a small plate of pasta and a mystery dessert that left a powdery chocolate aftertaste, we were unknowingly preparing ourselves for the tiny portions that would greet us in France.

We landed in a suburb of Paris and then struggled to find the train station. After standing in a very hot queue, we found out that our transportation pass would lead us right through the gate with no problem. The metro ride into Paris was thrilling. I gazed at the French passengers, soaking in the culture at once. My impression was that the French were petite, dark haired, well dressed, polite, but quiet. Graffiti decorated the landscape, not so different from Chicago’s, except much neater and in French, of course.

My shoulders were sore by the time we reached our hotel, California Saint Germain. It was small, but clean, with large windows that opened to no view, but a beautiful breeze. The windows had no screens at all, nor did they have any bugs to speak of in the city of Paris! I don’t know where they were, but I was thrilled not to see any.

Our first stop was lunch. The waiter spoke only French to us, and seemed slightly unhappy with us. I had delicious gnocchi’s and Ricky had a plate of spaghetti. The portions were tiny. Buy water in Paris if you like, but I drank a lot of tap water from our hotel room and it was fine.

For our first trip we trudged, dreadfully tired and jet lagged, to Notre Dame, flooded with hundreds of tourists. It looked surreal, with its stained glass windows and detailed sculptures covering the façade. There was a statue of Charlemagne nearby (intriguing since I am a direct descendent).

Eiffel TowerNext we hopped on the metro (thrilled to have a 3 day pass) and got off at the Tour Eiffel stop. As we approached it, we were stunned with how much nicer it looked in person. We must’ve taken a hundred pictures of the Eiffel Tower over two days.

The queue to ride up the elevator was outrageous. We waited about two hours to get to the middle level, packed with people. After snagging some baguettes, we took the metro back to the hotel and crashed at nine p.m.

The following day we found a cash station before heading to the metro once again. There was one around the block from our hotel with a people mover underground to the next large train station, St. Michel, Notre Dame. From there we rode for a half hour and got off on the wrong stop, which led us to a 15-minute walk to the Palace of Versailles.

As we approached the palace, the massive golden gates towered at the entrance. It was hard to imagine anyone needing such a huge place to live. Thanks to our museum pass, we avoided the long, meandering ticket queues. I tried to use the Rick Steve’s walking tour, but crowds and noise made it difficult to concentrate.

King Louis XIV was quite a guy — power hungry and materialistic. I was amused by the fact that he had a separate bedroom from his wife, and a secret door to lead to other chambers as well. The war room had paintings on the ceiling to intimidate neighbouring countries, portraying France, and moreover. Louis. personally taking over each country. The Hall of Mirrors was pretty as well, built opposite the enormous windows, allowing the mirrors to show Louis’ magnificent gardens below. Although we didn’t tour the gardens, I understand he had long canals built to imitate those of Venice so that guests could be entertained on a gondola ride in his backyard — which was truly massive.

We found phone cards and called home. Then we hopped back on (you guessed it) the metro, this time to Musee D’Orsay, converted from an old railway station. It was gorgeous, with its roman sculptures and painting. We found Claude Monet’s rooms, once again packed with tourists, photographing one painting after another. It was great to see his paintings in person. We also saw Van Gogh’s famous paintings.

After this, we found the quintessential Parisian café and enjoyed beef and chicken (which looked much like the chicken) but tasted magnifique. They served French fries with it, a little strange.

As we walked to the metro I couldn’t help snapping photos of the tiny cars parked on the street. Even the vans are like miniature versions of the US cars. We plopped down on the grass beside the Eiffel Tower and enjoyed golf ball sized scoops of chocolate ice cream.

At 9 pm, twinkling lights flashed on the tower, but lasted only a few minutes. The sun had barely set by 9:15, so we rushed down the steps to the boat stand and bought tickets for the last river cruise back to Notre Dame. Unfortunately this cruise was not narrated but did have glass windows on the side and top of the boat for a nice view.

The next morning we tested Ricky’s alarm. It didn’t work, but waking up at 9:30 sure did feel great! We ate our brownies and set off for the Arc de Triomphe. Like the previous two mornings it was cloudy and grey. A few raindrops fell, and “voilá”, by noon the sun was shining again. Paris is cold like Chicago: high 50s, low 60s — and windy!

We took two transfers to arrive at our stop. We had to walk downstairs underneath the street to arrive at the base of the Arc. They were doing scaffolding work, so half was closed off. It didn’t make for very pretty pictures. No problem though. Our Museum Pass allowed us to climb all 256 winding stairs for FREE. We almost died of a heart attack going around and around. It was embarrassing when people were right behind us, anxious to keep going, and we wanted to stop and catch our breath before we passed out. By ¾ of the way up, both our calves were aching.

The view at the top was pretty, but that twenty minutes was the time the skies decided to open up and bless us with rain. We didn’t overstay our welcome. But, I must marvel at what a guy Napoleon must have been, to order this humongous arch (the largest in Europe) to be built in his honor. These rulers and their egos!

Oh, and Ricky couldn’t resist taking a picture of the beggar woman on the stairs to the Arc’s underground entrance. It was probably the first we saw in Europe. She definitely wasn’t like the bums in Chicago. She had her head down the whole time and a small cup in her hand. We would see more beggars to come in Italy, but mostly sitting next to their dogs. (If you don’t have money to live, how can you feed a… never mind.)

We tackled the Musee du Louvre next. The Museum itself was massive, way too big for our aching calves and feet. We trudged through the Egyptian sculptures and artifacts, tired but determined. They really were a sight. Then we followed the signs (and people) to a headless and quite famous statue, the winged something or other. (Okay-I had to look it up: The Winged Victory of Samothrace is the proper name.)

The Mona Lisa - click to enlargeNext stop, The Mona Lisa. The hallways leading to it were right out of a storybook, or a movie. Or a book I’ve read. I just can’t place it, but the colorful and breathtaking paintings lined the walls with frames of all sizes and positions. I think I was more impressed with the hallways than with Lisa herself. (No offense, Mona).

“The” room was ridiculous. Picture a wall with one painting at eye level. In front of it, blocking its view, mobs of tourists holding cameras over their heads to get a “shot” of the small painting. Talk about taking the magic out of the moment. (In Rome I will have another of these “magic” moments stolen by raving mad tourists.) Their pictures will probably turn out with the back of 100 heads and a sliver of Lisa’s eyeball.

I just don’t get it. I couldn’t get close enough, and when I attempted, I was more concerned about being shoved by the people around me. There was no quiet adoration of a great work of art. Just hundreds of people aiming for a good picture so they could run off to the next “famous” painting.

The Louvre - click to enlargeI couldn’t get out of there fast enough after that. We had to sit on a bench for half hour before our legs could carry us two blocks to the metro station. We sat and admired the glass pyramid. There was an artist sitting on the sidewalk, drawing the Louvre. Very interesting. Of course my hubby got a picture of that!

No luck with the Internet connection back at the hotel. Besides, the keyboards are very different. Letters are in different places, and forget trying to type the @ symbol. Don't the French send emails? It took me ten minutes to find it, and another 5 to make it appear correctly on the screen. We ate at an outdoor café down the block, and did a little souvenir shopping. Then we were off to bed for our 5:30 wake-up call on Sunday. We weren't trusting the clock any more. As we left, there was no doubt: we must return to Paris when we have more time.

See also the companion article on The Louvre.

The Louvre Museum

Why not find out it it's any easier to find Mona online?


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