This was how I arrived in Paris. Crammed onto a “couchette” in a 6-person compartment on a high speed train. Being me, I actually enjoyed the couchette experience, and didn’t have much trouble sleeping once I established that I would have to scrunch my almost-5’11″ frame down to 5’8″ in order to lay comfortably.
Couchette aside, I think the best part of our Munich-to-Paris overnight train trip was when Maria and I attempted to brush our teeth as the train pulled out of the station and picked up speed. Failing entirely to keep my balance, I slammed into a few walls, and then almost fell over. I was also foaming at the mouth with toothpaste, and we were both laughing hysterically. Then the conductor came by and we had to sober up and show him our tickets.
We arrived in the city at around 10:30 a.m., and then came the (by now ritualistic) task of figuring out:
1) How to buy tickets for the train/metro/bus
2) Which train/metro/bus stop is closest to our hostel
3) Which route to take in order to end up at said train/metro/bus stop
You may not believe it, but I’ve actually become somewhat of an expert at navigating public transportation, and at reading maps in general. It took me until this long trip, but I think my sense of direction is finally emerging from its 21-year hibernation.
After checking in to our hostel, we set off again to explore. Controlled exploring, mind you. We wanted to do so many things in Paris that we actually worked out an agenda for every day. (I have the itinerary saved on Mac, for those of you who don’t believe me)
Day one began with the Stravinsky Fountain. Gabi, one of my traveling mates, is a music major, and so naturally wanted to visit the fountain. I don’t know what she was expecting, but I was expecting some ominous stone bowl with a Poseidon statue spraying water from the center (or something). In fact, we paused by a bright, modern-looking fountain at one point, and getting impatient, I suggested we continue our search for the actual Stravinsky Fountain, only to get laughed at. The funky fountain was indeed Stravinsky’s. Here it is:
In an attempt to gracefully segue into our next excursion, let me tell you that I’ve seen a lot of churches this semester. I’ve been in monastery chapels, I’ve been in glittering Baroque basilicas and I’ve been in dim Gothic cathedrals. So I feel secure saying that I’m a fair judge of churches. Despite my newfound “authority” on the subject, however, Notre Dame completely blew me away.
Sorry about the blur, but I wanted you to get the scope of the church, looking at the altar.
After Notre Dame, we walked across the Seine to my dream bookshop. My REAL dream bookshop. Every other book store I’ve ever been in was just preparing me for this one.
Even thought I promised myself (following the purchase of the 700+ page John Adams biography in Munich) that I wouldn’t buy any more books over here, I couldn’t help myself. Be assured, however, that the purchase I made at S&Co. was extremely appropriate:
The Louvre, as you know, is huge. Supposedly, if you were to look at each item in the museum for 4 seconds, it would take you 3 months to get through the entire collection. Not being blessed with that kind of time, we hit the high points.
And of course…
Saturday (October 29th) was our trip out to Versailles. Unfortunately (I was really kicking myself over this one), I FORGOT MY CAMERA. And Versailles happened to be one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. Out of the kindness of her heart (and probably so I wouldn’t pout for the rest of the day), Gabi took plenty of photos for me. These are all hers. Thank you so much Gabi!
So, to begin: we had bought (and printed) our Versailles tickets ahead of time, and decided to spring for the “behind the scenes” palace tour. However, due to a series of unfortunate events involving a metro that would go no further and a few instances of getting on The Wrong Train, we were late for our tour. About a half hour late. (Here is where my playing up of Versailles begins (warning: I may compare it to Disney World at some point in the near future)). When we finally did arrive, we went straight to information, showed the woman behind the counter our tickets, and explained our dilemma. She then proceeded to lead us through a(n exclusive) back door and all the way across the enormous Versailles courtyard to where the tours were meeting. She explained the situation to the man there, and he simply changed the time on our tickets and told us to have a seat; the English tour would be starting shortly. It was all very above and beyond, and I can’t tell you how happy we were that everything worked out so nicely.
Our tour group consisted of the three of us, a friendly British couple, and a rather passionate guide. It truly was a behind the scenes tour; we got to step over velvet ropes and go up secret staircases, with the guide offering interesting little tidbits all the while.
Especially fascinating to me was the fact that everything in the palace was taken away and auctioned off during the French Revolution, and that the Versailles museum is still today receiving pieces back. Not everything is given back, however; these paintings and chairs and rugs have been in wealthy families for years (and after all, wouldn’t you be keen on having a Versailles treasure in your home?), so obviously they’re not all willing to relinquish them. This is where the palace funds come in; they have a certain amount of money given to them by the French government (I assume) with which to repurchase said pieces.
It was the funniest thing to have our tour guide point out an intricately carved table and say, “Oh yes, that one came back last week.” The French court was extremely meticulous about cataloguing every item in the palace, so historians today are able to put every lamp back in the exact spot it occupied over 200 years ago.
After our tour, we walked out to the grounds.
The Versailles grounds are enormous, and once you get away from the main (formal) part, you’re faced with dozens of different paths, and private fountains around every corner. We stumbled upon this at one point:
When you really get away from the central area, you enter Marie Antoinette’s private domain. She wanted a place where she could be away from the strict etiquette of the French court, and so she created a small peasant hamlet for herself. Literally. There’s a mill, a dairy, a dovecote, a barn, various animal pens, and a large house for the queen in the middle of it all. The buildings are very rustic looking; they’re wood with thatched roofs. Even the queen’s house doesn’t stand out from say, the barn, save for its larger size.
I loved the Queen’s Hamlet (as the village is formally known) most of all because it was so, so lovely. There were ponds filled with swans and fish, wild gardens and hedges everywhere, and the buildings sprawled with simple charm.
There were even animals in all the pens! They had pigs, sheep, goats, donkeys, geese, chickens, and cows.
A goat actually escaped while we were walking around the hamlet; all of a sudden we heard shouts and looked up to see a little white goat trotting jauntily towards us, with a grounds worker chasing after. I have a feeling she would have enjoyed the whole scene:
Our third day in Paris was officially called our “Grave Day.” The Grave Day consisted of two cemetery visits and a catacombs tour. Yes, we are witty indeed.
We also saw the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysees, and the Arc de Triomphe, but they don’t fit the theme.
First stop was the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.
We ran into some old friends while wandering around:
Cemetery No. 2 was the Cemetery de Passy. It had a view of the Eiffel Tower:
Another of my favorite artists:
So what happens when you run out of burial room in your large, rather unsanitary city? What happens when all of your cemeteries and churches are filled to overflowing? Why, you exhume the long-dead, of course, and artistically arrange their bones in underground catacombs.
As we exited, a woman stationed by the door checked our purses. Apparently visitors quite frequently try to steal a souvenir femur or two. Gross.
After our eyes adjusted and we took a few deep, cleansing breaths of fresh air, we made our way over to the Eiffel Tower.
We arrived just as it was getting dark, and only had to sit in the grassy park for a few minutes before this happened:
Thanks to my Lit. professor, I know that when the Eiffel Tower was first built, the French absolutely hated it. I’m not sure if that feeling still exists, but back then they thought it was ugly; just a big hunk of twisted iron towered over everything else in Paris. A 1889 newspaper story on the tower claimed the following: ”And during twenty years we shall see, stretching over the entire city, still thrilling with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see stretching out like a black blot the odious shadow of the odious column built up of riveted iron plates.”
I’m sure that I walked up to the Tower with a bias; I’ve been seeing it in movies and reading about it in books for years, and thus have the Eiffel Tower imprinted in my mind as the great romantic symbol of Paris, and largely, of Europe.
But it is, my friends; it truly is. Despite being made of iron, and despite its sturdiness and its height, the Tower up close is spidery and delicate. Pieces of rust-colored iron loop together over and over all the way up into the sky, and when you stand beneath it craning your head back, you find it hard to believe that hundreds of people are dining in restaurants and buying tacky souvenirs and riding in elevators above you. I didn’t want to go up myself. Not just because of the long lines, but because I found I would rather just sit and look at it. So that’s what we did.
After about 45 minutes, we finally turned away from the Eiffel Tower, and walked to the Arc de Triomphe.
I didn’t take any good pictures of the Champs-Elysees. Mainly because it was just a big shopping street. With about 4 H&Ms. They sure like H&M over here. In German, it’s pronounced “hah und emm,” which I think is hilarious.
Before calling it a night, we traipsed over to the Moulin Rouge. It wasn’t far from our hostel, in the Montmartre district of the city. I later found out that Montmartre is where the “soiled doves” used to hang out. It’s also where the likes of Dali, Van Gogh, and Picasso used to hang out.
So there’s Paris for you. I’m only realizing now that I didn’t take any food pictures! It’s too bad, because we certainly ate well in Paris. My favorites were the French onion soup and the macaroons. And the bread.