|Day 38 - The City of Lights
We still can hardly believe that we are in Paris, France! So far we are really enjoying the city, and are looking forward to another day of discovery. The primary complaint we have about France is that their computer keyboards are set up quite differently. You must press shift to get a period symbol, Q & A qre switched around, M is in a different place ...
We arrived early morning at Gare du Nord station, and after admiring the station's facade and breathing in the French air made our way to the Metro. Navigating through the Metro was relatively easy, with the hardest part being buying tickets. Despite only having been in France for a matter of hours, we have found it to be really enjoyable being in a country where we can understand the language.
Our first order of business was to get to our hotel and shed our bags! Our Metro stop was Nation, and we emerged above ground at the storied Place de la Nation. Once used to celebrate the French monarchy, Revolutionaries set up a guillotine here to deal with "enemies of the Republic." A bronzed statue depicting the Genie of Liberty stands in the middle of the square, facing towards Place de la Bastille, to celebrate the triumph of the Republic. At one end of the "square" are two columns, and the square itself takes the form of a wheel shaped park, with streets radiating out from the centre like spokes on a bicycle. There are many nice shops surrounding the square, and we would return to these later on.
Down one of the streets, and only a few blocks away was our hotel, Grand Hotel Francais. Checking in was a breeze, and the hotel staff even spoke French to us, despite the fact that they could speak English well. It was refreshing to be able to converse with someone, albeit with some difficulty, in French - it finally feels as though our years of French in school have paid off! Parisian french is so much easy to understand then Quebecois. The room looked fantastic, newly renovated with plenty of room and a great view out on the neighbourhood.
Having taken note of some of the cafes and bakeries along the way, we headed out to sample some of the local food before heading down to le Champs-Elysees.
It was not a difficult choice - Le Fournee d'Augustine looked inviting enough. It turns out that the baguette here have been voted the best in Paris! We left the shop with some really tasty sandwiches, quiches, and tartes and ate our lunch in the middle of Place de la Nation. The weather did not look like it was going to cooperate, but we got back on the Metro and headed for the River Seine.
We got off on the South side of the river just down from Les Invalides. With its distinctive golden dome and green esplanade, Les Invalides is a major Paris landmark that is noteworthy for its military museum and, more importantly, Napoleon's tomb. Our understanding on this trip was that we would spend most of our time enjoying the exterior beauty of Paris, and so we continued on our way. The way across the Seine here is the pont Alexandre III, and it was an interesting site for us for three main reasons: 1) Walking across the bridge afforded us our first views over the river Seine, the final river of cultural and historic importance we would visit before returned to the banks of the Grand River in Ontario. 2) Walking across the bridge afforded us our first views of the Eiffel Tower! To be so close to such an iconic stucture was surreal. 3) The Alexandre III bridge was built to celebrate a turn of the 20th century treaty between France and Russia, yet another Russian connection from afar. We would get a better view of this bridge later on, from the water.
Once on the other side, we enjoyed the architectural splendour of Le Grand Palais, with its glass roof and elaborate sculptures. Across the street from there is the Petite Palais, outside of which we were surprised to find a statue of Sir Winston Churchill in the grounds of the palace.
Our ultimate destination of choice on this walk was the famed Champs-Elysees, and we were not disappointed when we got there! We came upon the avenue at Place Clemenceau. We could have stood and stared up and down the length of the world famous avenue for hours ... so much history, and such a beautiful place. It was great to be there in person, looking past the tree lined avenue in either direction at the larger than life Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde. On either side of Champs-Elysees is a large garden, with walking paths that follow the length of the avenue. We set off in the direction of le Place de la Concorde, along the crushed gravel paths and well manicured trees.
Place de la Concorde is an important site, the centre point along a line that locals have called the "royal perspective." Standing in the middle of Place de la Concorde, one can see down the entire length of the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. Looking across the river one can see the French National Assembly, and in the other direction lie the gardens and palaces of the French monarchy, struck down by the revolution on the ground beneath your feet.
Standing at such an historical place, one is immediately struck by the Obelisk at the centre of the sqaure, and the fountains on either side of it. Laura had been here last year, on her way to Egypt where she found the matching Obelisk at Luxor temple - these Obelisks are about 3300 years old, easily making this the oldest structure in the city!! It was fun to stand at the base of the Obelisk, over a plaque that marks the spot where the Revolutionaries executed King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette by guillotine.
We continued along the "royal perpective" into le Jardin des Tuileries, the former gardens associated with the royal palace we now know as the Louvre. It was an enjoyable enough place, and the ferris wheel was a nice touch [!?]. Once through the gardens, we came upon the Arc de Carousel and got our first glimpse of the aged buildings and distinctive pyramids of the Louvre beyond.
Our biggest surprise so far has been actually going into the Louvre! We had not planned on going in because we had heard that the queues were ridiculously long. However, at the end of our Champs Elysees walk, we discovered that there were no queues and found admission to be an easy process. As was the case with the Hermitage, we found that the architechure of the building was every bit as interesting as the artifacts it housed! Dodging large tourists groups all the way, we managed to throughly enjoyed the magnificence of the building, the Dutch Masters, some ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, and the Mona Lisa.
Having had enough of busy tourist groups, and having seen what we came for, we walked out of the Louvre to the banks of the Seine. Of course, to actually walk along the river one has to descend down a series of stone stairs from the city above. We eventually crossed over the river on the Pont des Arts, from which one can get an excellent view on the Ile de la Cite .
Once on Ile de la Cite, we enjoyed looking down river from Pont Neuf, and wandered through the narrow streets to Place du Parvis and Notre Dame Cathedral. Just in front of Notre Dame is the geographical centre of Paris, the so-called "Point Zero" from which all distances are measured. This is obviously one of those places one wants to spend a great deal of time simply admiring the exterior ... and we enjoyed looking across the Place, past all the people and bicycles to the imposing Cathedral. Eventually we made our way insde to enjoy the spectacular Gothic interior - the height of the ceilings and the main rounded stained glass piece were particularly striking. It was too late in the day for us to be able to ascend the Cathedral's towers for a view over Paris, so we wandered outside in search of a nearby creperie to which Laura had been before. The gardens behind Notre Dame were perfect for an impromptu picnic, and we enjoyed our ham and cheese-stuffed crepes in full view of Notre Dame's flying butresses.
Our ultimate goal today was to time our Seine cruise to coincide with the sunset so that we could enjoy sites along the way, and then the City of Lights all lit up on the way back. While our timing was a little off, we enjoyed the cruise anyway! As in Moscow, it was interesting to get a different perpective on the sites we had walked around earlier in the day, this time from the water: the Louvre, Orsay, Grand Palais, Pont Alexandre III, Notre Dame, and Ile de la Cite. It was just as interesting to see the old buildings and grill-work along the river banks, as well as the many bridges that cross the Seine. Looking up the Eiffel Tower from the water was thrilling and we are excited for our visit there tomorrow morning.
Tired but not anxious to turn in for the day, we stood on Pont Neuf for a while to admire the lights along the Seine. We strolled down Rue de Rivoli, and ended up back at the Louvre. The buildings and pyramids are spectacular when lit at night, and it was well worth going back for!!
Tonight we look forward to a good night's sleep at our awesome hotel. Hopefully we will feel much more well rested and ready to go see the Eiffel Tour, Arc de Triomphe, and Luxembourg Gardens while also meandering through the streets!