Dikes and Towers Part II: Paris
Paris is a city of contradictions, as its picturesque boulevards streaked with urine puddles attest. Our experience there was one of contradictions also; it validated some French stereotypes for us and disproved others.
We got right to sightseeing when we reached Paris. Our tour bus took a circuitous route to our hotel, so we could promptly begin our oohing and aahing. We ate lunch at Galeries Lafayette, the oldest department store in Paris and the fanciest retail space I’ve ever seen. (Even the ones in NYC can’t compete.) We circled the Palais Garnier, the famous opera house that’s the setting for The Phantom of the Opera, and stopped to gawk at the Eiffel Tower.
After checking into our hotel, most of our group took the metro back into the center of Paris. There, we walked by the Hotel de Ville, witnessed the glow of Notre-Dame, ate crepes at a cafe in Notre-Dame’s shadow, meandered along the Seine River by Parisians picnicking in the dark, and passed by the Louvre’s unconventional pyramid. It would have been a tremendously-romantic stroll if it weren’t for the 18 students accompanying Jason and me.
We spent the majority of the next day completing business visits, but no need to feel bad for us; these weren’t with common corporations. At BNP Paribas, we saw where Napoleon and Josephine got married. We toured the American Embassy at the Hotel de Talleyrand, gilded halls that once welcomed emperors and kings. In between, we ate French onion soup and crème brulee at the first restaurant in Paris, Le Procope, with representatives of another company. This eating establishment used to be frequented by Ben Franklin and is now home to Napoleon’s hat.
During our free evening, we took a boat ride on the Seine River and saw the Eiffel Tower twinkle like a 1000-foot sparkler. Afterward, we got sociable with some of Paris’ most enduring citizens. The bushes along the river were literally crawling with rats that fine night. On the positive side, they were cuter than New York City subway rats.
The following day, we spent the morning and afternoon at Versailles, the largest palace in Europe. Most of the main building was packed with Asian tourists. The opalescence was impressive, but the crowds were oppressive. The nearly-2,000-acre gardens were far less peopled. These grounds, monuments to man’s mastery over nature, seemed boundless. We walked through them for two hours and only saw some highlights. If you go to Paris, don’t miss Versailles’ gardens.
The Eiffel Tower is something you have to do in Paris whether you really want to or not. That evening, we crossed that “must” off our you-have-no-choice-but-to-do-this bucket list. Going up the Eiffel Tower involves a series of lines. The whole process of waiting in one line after another took us a few hours. The views were pretty cool though… and you HAVE to do it. Afterward, we ate dinner down the street at Café Gustave. There, one of the members of our group got her first “French” kiss from our frisky waiter, much to the amusement of the rest of us. He was relentless in his pursuits, despite her lack of enthusiasm. I laughed so hard I hit my head on our table. I guess that French stereotype has some truth to it.
Our last day in Paris, Jason and I got up early to reach the Louvre before things got too crazy there- they were still crazy. We did the “Welcome to the Louvre” tour that covers many of the museum’s most popular pieces like the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and Mona Lisa. The tour was a good intro, but the museum was so busy that we could hardly see some of the masterpieces discussed. The Mona Lisa, a small painting, was the most disappointing. We couldn’t even get within about 20 feet of it due to the crowds. Also, there were way too many aggressive Asian tourists in the Louvre. Jason got pushed, elbowed, and shoved by them for no reason. (The old ladies were particularly belligerent.) So, while the building is beautiful, and the collections are overwhelmingly magnificent, the Louvre isn’t my favorite museum. I prefer Eugène Delacroix without an elbow. In contrast, at the MOMA in New York City, you can get close to such works as The Starry Night without having to put someone in a half nelson.
After that artsy insanity, we took sanctuary amongst the grotesque chimeras and gargoyles of Notre-Dame. Notre-Dame was enchanting, and we preferred its views to those provided by the Eiffel Tower.
Following our Notre-Dame refresher, we gave the Louvre another try. It happened to be one of its open-late days. We had heard these evenings were the best time to visit the museum as most tourists are unaware that its hours are occasionally extended. Those claims were correct. We had a much better experience without the distracting and discourteous throngs.
So, which rumors about the French and Paris are true and which aren’t? True Facts: 1. Paris smells like urine. 2. The French have a pride in their heritage that borders on elitism. 3. Ratatouille is real. 4. The French are casually affectionate in ways that some Americans might find inappropriate. Untrue Myths: 1. The French are rude. We found the opposite. A random lady on the metro saw our confused faces and came to our aid unsolicited, speaking in English, when we couldn’t figure out which platform to get on. 2. The French won’t even try to communicate with you if you don’t speak French. Plenty of Parisians were happy to converse with us in English. 3. The Eiffel Tower is the best part of Paris. No, visit it if you must, but Notre-Dame and Versailles are more impressive.
Next week, I will discuss Provence, a quaint region that has been a tourist destination for two thousand years, dating back to its days as a Roman spa retreat.