When we think Paris, we think Eiffel Tower, cafes, romantics, stylish people, sophistication, and high-end art. But what we saw in Paris was a down-to-earth multicultural melting pot with a rich architecture, fun people and an open progressive society. This is a place I could easily live in, maybe its more expensive than New York City, but the rich cultural and social life there more than makes up for it. And though I already reminisce of all the sights and sounds, and the wonderful art, and the fantastic food, the one thing I truly miss about Paris is walking. Walking in big avenues and small alleys, roads lined with famous sculptures, roads lined with hole in the wall cafes, boulevards laid with large square stones, streets with small round stones; walking anywhere and everywhere in Paris was delectable, much more than it was in New York. The walking is not just a part of life, it is the way of life in Paris, you walk to work, you walk to cafes with friends and sip cappuccinos and lattes in the day, you walk to restaurants and sip wine in the evening, you laugh, drink and make merry till late at night, walk back to your apartment, and you do it all over again. I constantly wondered how life there could be so care-free, and I realized that most folk live in small dinghy apartments, don’t have cars, don’t have high-definition anything, don’t save much, don’t pay for any healthcare, education or social services, and in general don’t use and spend money like we do. In many ways, that concept of minimalistic living – simply live everyday, eat and drink and make merry, and don’t worry about tomorrow, is so alien to us children of capitalism that we almost detest it. On the contrary, we worry, we save, we budget, we dream about buying stuff, we like expensive things, and we always want more. Always. Of course I am generalizing, it is silly to imagine a life so rosy for everyone. Of course all over Paris, there are also the lesser fortunate, the poor immigrants from Eastern and African nations that live on government rations.
We went from Brussels to Paris early on a Sunday morning. It had rained at night, and we worried that it might be wet and soggy in our first stop in Paris, the Versailles palace. I was thrilled that the taxi from our hotel to the train station was a Mercedes, a decent one that too. This was the one of two times we took a taxi in all our travels. The train station in Brussels was beautiful and modern as in any European city, but the government employees who worked there were slow and lethargic, much more than any DMV here. Maybe something to do with the entitlement feeling. To initiate our rail pass, we had to go to agent, prove that we were not zombies, show our passports and visas, and get the pass stamped. Fortunately, I have a feeling doing this in Brussels was an easier ride than if we had started in Rome.
As for the rain, after staying for five days in Paris, we permanently wrote off the rain as a non factor. For it rains when the sky is bright and it rains when the clouds are gray, it rains in the morning, and it rains at sunset. Paris without its rain would be the pretzel without the salt. But the spells of rain are short and light and everyone in the city carries an umbrella perpetually. Arriving at Paris Nord, the first thing I looked for was a bakery. Half an hour before reaching Paris I was already imagining myself a Parisian sitting in the middle of a busy station with a hot cappuccino and croissant. And so we frantically searched all three levels of the station and finally found the baggage deposit. The baggage deposit is the tourist’s best friend in all of Europe. For five euros, they are happy to stash your bags while you embrace your wanderlust. The cappuccino and croissant, starting with the one in the franchise in the train station became our breakfast, lunch and snack for the remainder of our stay.
The train to Versailles was sunny and somber as we battled the jetlag. We took in the real city with all its seedy suburbs and unimaginative apartment buildings with the realization that Paris is no enchanted place beyond the historical center, and life in the rest of Paris is possibly as normal and inconsequential as in any large metro. The entire city is divided into zones much like boroughs in NYC, and traveling between different zones will typically vary in both price and scenery. The idea of hitting Versailles on the first day was that once it was out of the way, we could spend the remaining four days exploring central Paris. When we reached Versailles, we were immediately overwhelmed by the number of tourists that thronged the tiny train station. We were hungry again, maybe our stomachs were still out of sync with the new place and time. The only reasonable, non-tourist-trap, non-price-gouging joint in the little town of Versailles is actually a McDonalds. We briefly indulged ourselves in the idea to go to a fancy Gordon Ramsay restaurant down the street, but immediately detested the idea of dropping 200 euros on a lunch. For some weird reason, I actually liked the McDonalds, it was clean, had some slick automated order stands, the menu had some before unseen items beyond the McBurgers. They even had a bakery-esque stand with an assortment of macaroons and cookies. The macaroons were surprisingly good.
Energized, we hurriedly walked ten minutes to the entrance of Versailles. With a high statue of Napolean on a horse guarding the gold-fenced entrance of the palace, we immediately felt the immensity and the grandeur of our surroundings. The ticket counters were a mess like most government run things in France, even with prepaid tickets, we hurdled between two or three entry points before getting in. The palace itself was beautiful – think old musky furniture, large chandeliers, fantastic paintings on every ceiling and marvelous views to the palace gardens. The best room in the palace was the grand ball room where a century ago were held some of the most vivid and extravagant parties in the continent. The views from this room into the palace gardens were simply jaw dropping. Photographs simply don’t do justice to the vastness of the gardens; the gardens extend so far into the horizon that the palace seems but puny in the vast scheme of green. So we stumbled out of the palace and were greeted by a beautiful swath of garden flanked on both sides by large marvelous pools. We walked all the way down the stairs, past the Latone and Apollo fountains to the long reservoir, appropriately called the grand canal. The reservoir was surrounded by gigantic trees that are perfectly trimmed to be like walls of a fort. As we reached the long pool, when we were just beginning to get tired of walking, it started to rain. And we panicked, with one umbrella we scooted to the shade of the trees and waited all of fifteen minutes till it was nice and sunny again. As the rain faded, the richness of the green and raindrops on all the leaves brought out a new luster in all of Versailles. Relishing the beautiful sight we strolled to a small vendor and grabbed some cappuccinos and sandwiches. The standard fare for those on the go are these simple baguette sandwiches; being the lingual genius I immediately confused jambon poulet to mean chicken sandwich and always complained that I was getting a ham sandwich each time. I learned after two days that jambon meant ham and poulet was chicken. The main fountain, the Apollo fountain normally runs only at predefined times of the day. When this beautiful fountain of Apollo riding across the sky rises from the water majestically with water spouting from every nozzle, the sun comes out from the clouds and suddenly the sight is one fit for kings.
I believe we enjoyed the gardens far more than the palace; there were so many styles and settings adorned with majestic fountains and sculptures that we thought there would be no way of seeing them all. We were fortunate to see the fountains because it was apparently the last day that the fountains would be active in 2011 and my wife had the foresight to plan our Paris itinerary around this once in a year opportunity. Still delirious from the jet lag, we wandered the rest of the palace as well as Mary Antoniette’s palace before finally calling it a day and heading back to Paris. It was a slow and tiresome journey back in a crowded train to Gare du Nord where had to pickup our bags and head to our hotel. From Gare du Nord, it took two metro trains to get to the Ecole Militare station, which to our delight was right outside of our hotel, La Motte Picquet. We chose this hotel for around the corner was the Eiffel Tower and we had every intention to walk to it every chance we got. It was tiny hotel, with tiny rooms, with a tiny staircase leading to our room, with a tiny bed, with a tiny attached bathroom, with a tiny bathtub. Welcome to Paris, we said to ourselves. Despite the size, it was cozy and snug with free wi-fi, and the receptionist’s french accented English was fun to listen to. After resting for a two hours, we head out to Rue Cler, the famous street next to our hotel filled with great restaurants and bars. After a quick survey, we decided on a light dinner at Tribeca restaurant. It was not the greatest choice for it was a mid range americanized version of a french one, but it was the best for a light meal. We walked around the block to get a first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. We passed by many restaurants with people boisterously drinking and eating on the patios enjoying the cool and humid evening with friends. In Paris, life happened over drinks and dinner. The Eiffel Tower stood tall and magnificent, the quintessential symbol of France was clearly visible with its warm orange lights piercing the night sky. We couldn’t wait to come back the next morning to scale its summit.
Early the next morning, we had an prepaid reservation to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. As usual, we woke up nice and late and rushed out without having breakfast. Boy were we glad to have stayed right around the corner from Eiffel Tower, but the walk was still a good half mile to the bottom of the tower. As we panted and ran to the north pillar of the tower which was the designated elevator for tourists, this was the first time we could admire the massive iron scaffolding unfold over our heads. Though I had a pretty good idea as what to expect, I was still awestruck by the scale and grandeur of the structure. Throngs of tourists crowded the ticket booth in order to get a last minute ticket; with our reservation in hand we waited a mere ten minutes despite arriving late and missing our time slot. There are two elevators, a big one going climbing the incline of the of the pillar till the first level and a second smaller one zooming all the way to the top. It was a beautiful sunny day in Paris, and without a cloud in in the sky, we took in the fabulous views of the city as we climbed up. Every direction we looked, the sights of Paris were as awe inspiring as they probably were over a hundred years ago. For something built over a century ago, the tower had barely aged. The strong brackets and bolts seemed to hold her in place ever so tightly. The wind and the snow had not weakened a single strut over the years. The view in every direction is simply enchanting. Paris is wonderfully flat with only a small downtown consisting of a few dozen skyscrapers in the distance. Thousands of old building are packed into blocks of every shape, and hundreds of monuments and fountains separate localities. We spent a good hour at the top snapping photographs and enjoying the fall breeze and filling our eyes with every inch of the view. It was a glorious morning to be in one of the most glorious cities of the world. As the next batches of tourists poured out, we decided to go down to the first level and grab a bite of breakfast. Unfortunately the cafe on the first level was understaffed and after a ten minute wait, we lost our patience and headed to sea level again.
Cappuccino and croissant from a street vendor in hand, admiring the Eiffel Tower from a park bench on a windy yet sunny morning was an experience for the ages. Satiated with the tower, we took what would be first long walk all the way to the Jardin Lu Luxeomboug gardens. A good hour cutting across a large swath of central Paris, through mostly large boulevards, we got a glimpse of life in Paris – walking along schools, offices, residential units, markets, pharmacies, and cafes. The rain made an appearance for a brief ten minutes along the way but could not stop as for we were prepared with a raincoats and an umbrella. The Jardin was large and browning, the fall leaves just beginning to fall, and but for a few walkers it was mostly empty. Despite being somewhat tired, it made for a pleasant stroll as we passed by a few greened fountain sculptures and finally reached the Luxembourg Palace at the of the gardens, which is seat of the French Senate. Of course the official areas were cordoned off, but one side of the palace was exposed for some photo opportunities. Given it was noon, we decided to grab a quick sandwich from a small booth in the park; I would remember this as our worst food investment for we lost ten euros for two stale slices of bread and slice of chicken in between. Feeling duped, we started another long walk north to head to two churches – Saint Sulpice and Notre Dame. Saint Suplice was half as big and half as baroque as the Notre Dame itself, its distinctly bland facade with two colonnades that made it look like a garrison rather than a church, hid behind it a equally bare church but for a outsized pipe organ. We spent all but a half hour after peeking inside and realizing that there is no rose line as depicted in the Da Vinci Code. Another half hour of walking took us through small winding streets and finally along the Siene river until we reached the bridge next to the Notre Dame. We were greeted by the greened statue of Charlemagne which though not as old as the Notre Dame was equally magnificent. The Notre Dame is a must see in Paris for it is the epitome of Gothic architecture in Europe and has stood its test of time many times over. The exterior of this church is adorned with so many sculptures and gargoyles that we couldn’t help think that the reputed damage in the French revolution is non-existent. I could easily spend a week just admiring the exterior that going inside would have been an after thought. A short line later we were inside this massive cathedral. The inside of the cathedral was in simple words, dark and bright at the same time. Though devoid of artificial lighting, every direction we looked were massive stained glass windows with incredibly detailed paintings of Jesus’ life and lessons. There were people everywhere, from every religion and nation, admiring the windows, the sculptures and the paintings that adorn every square foot. I bought a small jewelry box for my grandmother which said Notre Dame on the cover. It would have been a real treat if we were there for a Sunday service, but nonetheless the hour that we spent inside Notre Dame was both memorable and inspiring. We walked around the cathedral looking at the gargoyles one more time before heading off for a walk along the Seine.
It was beautiful evening with the sun setting and the wind getting a slight bit chilly. People were in groups everywhere with picnic baskets or wine bottles, along the river, on the bridges, at cafes all along the riverbank. The Parisian life in full rigor, there is nothing like it. I have heard from people who have traveled the length of France and they tell me there is no other city like Paris in the country. We crossed the Pont de Arts bridge to get to the Louvre and were pleasantly surprised by the hundreds of padlocks on the fences along the river. Called lovers locks, these locks started appearing on many bridges all across Europe in the last decade. The beautiful golden reds of the sunset in the background, cool fall air wafting, there is something in Paris that puts one to ease, makes everyone feel like a romantic or inspired artist. We crossed another bridge on the Seine to head to the Louvre to get tickets for the next day. The setting sun glimmered in all its glory reflecting in every direction from the glass pyramid – a perfect first impression of the magnificent home to some of the world’s most beloved treasures. The plaza was empty but for just a trickle of people streaming out looking more or less museum-ed out. Apparently, you can buy tickets for the Louvre in the tobacco shop next to the entrance and avoid the long lines the next day. We took two metro trains back to our hotel for a quick shower before heading to our first elegant Parisian dinner.
Based on the numerous reviews on TripAdvisor, we headed to Le Florimond, a small but authentic French restaurant which was all of five minutes away from our hotel. The food was classic French, the dishes were finger licking good and the service was slow as expected. We parted with almost 200 euros and an appetite that was jaded for the evening. From the Foie Gras to the Flan, everything was as perfect and ravishingly delicious as it could be. At least half the patrons in the restaurant were foreigners and I am pretty sure I caught some New York and Texas accent in the room. If I was wealthy, I would eat French food every day of the week. The portions are always perfectly sized and the taste is out of the world and there is no food in the dinner in the world like a perfectly cooked French dinner. It was a perfect ending to our second day in Paris.