It was Saturday, the last day of June, and we decided to start off with a long walk down the Champs Elysees to the Louvre. As we walked, we were continually awestruck by the sheer volume of magnificent architecture. We were especially taken by the great, glass-domed Grand Palais, which was built for the Universal Exposition of 1900, and today houses a science museum. We considered stopping in for a look, but with only three full days in Paris we had to prioritize, so opted to keep moving toward the Louvre.
Between the Grand Palais and the large roundabout at Place Concorde, workers were setting up bleachers along the boulevard to accommodate the thousands of people who would descend upon the city to witness the finale of the Tour de France in three weeks. It was exciting to think about what that day would be like, and we longed to be a part of that. We had briefly considered catching a stage of the tour on our trip, but it started this year over 200 miles north of Paris in Liege, Belgium, making the logistics more difficult than we cared to tackle.
We crossed over to Rue de Rivoli and continued on toward the Louvre, taking in the shops along the way and passing the great ferris wheel, making a mental note to check it out later. When we finally reached the museum, we stood agog at the size and scope of it.
Of course, we expected this – we had read that it would take nine months of daily visits to see every piece in the museum. But until you see it, until you are faced with the utter enormity of the place, you just cannot truly appreciate it. We entered through the modern glass pyramid in the courtyard and rode an escalator down to the visitor’s entrance where we purchased tickets. We took a seat in the museum café where we sipped coffee (even museum lounge coffee is, predictably, excellent in Paris) and tried to formulate a plan of attack.
The museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, which was constructed in the 12th Century as a fortress under Phillip II. Over the years it was expanded and repurposed many times, finally opening as a museum in 1793. Under Napoleon’s reign, the museum’s collection increased greatly and it was renamed the “Musee Napoleon”, proving on a grand scale the extent of Napoleon’s unparalleled narcissism.
The museum’s collection continued to grow throughout the years, eventually culminating in the modern Louvre we know today. It is the most visited museum in the world, containing nearly 400,000 objects and 35,000 works of art from Egyptian antiquities to Greek and Roman statuary to, of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, the most famous painting in the world. For a guy more accustomed to traveling Norman Rockwell exhibits, it was overwhelming.
We spent about an hour looking around, which included a brief and pleasantly non-crowded viewing of the Mona Lisa. By the time we saw her, we interpreted her mysterious hint of a smile to mean that there was more to see in Paris, and it was much too nice a day to hang around indoors. We felt that she was telling us, in her oh-so-subtle way, that if she were us she’d go ride the ferris wheel. Who were we to argue?
Feeling a sudden bout of claustrophobia, we exited the museum, thankful to be back outdoors and walked the short distance over to the ferris wheel. Here where we were happy to find barely a line at all. We thoroughly enjoyed both the rest and the views as the big wheel went around three times over the next twenty minutes. By the time it came to a stop, we were famished, and made our way to the Bis Repitita, just off Rue de Rivoli. We took an outdoor table in the shade and both ordered quiche and 1664 Beer. We were starting to feel the miles in our legs and realized that we had not fully recovered from the Ironman, just six days before. So we took our sweet time, savoring each bite and discussing where we would go next.
We walked over to the Musee de Deportees, which is dedicated to the French victims of Nazi Germany. Over 160,000 residents of France, including over 70,000 Jews and 11,000 children were deported to Nazi camps, a vast majority of whom were efficiently and unceremoniously murdered by the German government.
The monument was situated on the banks of the Seine and we walked down an outdoor flight of stairs to the entrance. A guard stood sentry and, in a quiet voice, asked everyone who entered to be silent and respectful. There was heaviness in the air there and a palpable sadness. We felt a million miles away from the cheerful, bustling sidewalks just a few dozen feet away.
I had recently read a book about Auschwitz, and was reminded of the horrible atrocities as we read the names of the concentration camps in stone, ringing the monument’s upper walls. We lingered for a while, taking it all in and attempting to wrap our minds around the numbers involved. Before long, we walked back out into the sunshine, not quite understanding how something like that could happen. We walked in silence for quite a while, making our way across the Seine and over to Notre Dame Cathedral.
Notre Dame, the purported home to Jesus’ crown of thorns, and perhaps the finest example of French Gothic architecture in the world, was completed in 1345 after nearly two centuries of construction. Imagine a prominent building, say in Washington D.C., which had its cornerstone laid in 1832 – when Andrew Jackson was President. Now imagine this building being completed this year. Things like this tend to recalibrate the sense of age and history in the mind of an American.
There was a huge crowd lined up to get into the sanctuary – hundreds of people ringing the exterior of the building. As we walked to the rear of the great church, I was surprised by the poor condition of the many gargoyles, which formed water spouts along the roofline. Many of them had crumbled extensively, and some were completely unrecognizable. Some of this was due to the ravages of time and some was likely due to sporadic vandalism over the centuries, most notably during the French Revolution of the late 1700’s. A program of restoration was begun in 1991 and was originally intended to last only ten years, but is still ongoing today. I suspect it may go on for quite some time.
After Notre Dame, we decided to head back to the hotel. We stopped, as was our custom, on the way back for a beer at Café LeCarre on Avenue de Franklin Roosevelt, just off of Champs de Elysees. After two straight days of heavy walking, we were beat.
That night, we took at cab to a wonderful brasserie on the other side of the Arc, L’Auberge Dab. This was the best meal we had in Paris. After a 30 minute wait, during which we sipped a crisp white wine and inhaled the perfumed early evening air, we were seated by a window in the back of the restaurant. We started with bread and tapenade, then ordered steak carpaccio, which nearly brought me to tears. From there, Melissa ordered grilled tribat, a succulent white fish, and I had roasted lamb. We finished with crème brulee and espresso.
We didn’t leave the restaurant until almost 11:30pm. We had planned an after-dinner walk to a nearby hotel for live jazz, but were utterly exhausted by the time we finished coffee and dessert. We hailed a cab and once again, collapsed back at the hotel.
One last day in Paris
We started Sunday like every day in Paris, with breakfast at the hotel – always good and always free. We planned to check out some of Paris’ markets, which was a recommendation from Melissa’s sister, Jenny. We were looking forward to a little less walking today and a decidedly laid back itinerary.
On the way to the markets, we decided to check out the Musee d’Orsay – a former railroad station built circa 1900. It holds works from mostly French artists from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh and many more. We intended to see it the day before but arrived just before closing. When we arrived on Sunday there were hundreds of people in line and, eerily, a half dozen or so armed French soldiers with automatic rifles standing guard. Not wanting to stand in line, and a little put-off by the machine guns, we reluctantly bid adieu to Monet and Company and kept walking.
This was the coolest day in Paris by far – high in the mid 60’s – and as we read headlines of the brutal heat wave back home, we made a concerted effort to enjoy the comfortable cool while we could.
We found the open-air food market first, on the Blvd Raspal, and we were immediately taken in by the wonderful smells of baked goods and fish and beef and desserts and every imaginable kind of food. The market went on for several blocks and we were starving by the time we exited. We had lunch at Le Deux Magots, which I can assure you was much better than the name might suggest.
My favorite part about Paris was sitting at the cafes and brasseries, facing the sidewalk, sipping beer or coffee, people-watching. The thing about Paris and people-watching is that there is no pretense. There are no furtive, sidelong glances from inward facing tables. In Paris, the chairs and tables face out, toward the sidewalk, unabashedly, as if an audience watching street performers. And sometimes, while walking along, it feels as if you are on stage.
After, along Boulelvard Edgar Quinet, we walked through the Art market, which was also open-air, stretching for several blocks. Booth upon booth of antiques, paintings, sculpture and even hand made furniture – it was very cool and perfect for walking. Since it was Sunday, the crowds were light, which added to the experience.
Following that, we had coffee and dessert and Le Café de la Place and we sat down just as a jazz trio was setting up across the street under some trees. As we sipped our café au lait in the shade of a canopy, it was cool enough to remind us of fall. It was nearly 4pm on a perfect Sunday. We were pleasantly fatigued, and happy.
That night we lamely decided to order room service and watch a movie – Bridesmaids – in the hotel room, succumbing to our exhaustion. Criticize if you will, but it was awesome. We’d walked dozens of miles, eaten well, and seen much. This night, we drank and ate and laughed and luxuriated in the comfort of our hotel room. We felt not one bit of guilt about whatever Parisian delights we missed that night. We packed for our flight home the next day, and we drifted off to sleep, tired and happy.
The airport and then home
After a stress-inducing 70 Euro cab ride to the airport the next morning, we experienced the unparalleled cluster-fuck that is Charles De Gaul International Airport. It was monument to France and her many idiosyncrasies. Beautiful, yet functionally inept, it was total chaos.
Check-in at Delta was so bad that many people were running desperately late for their flights. Airline attendants gave their attention to those who yelled the loudest or who physically accosted them in the most compelling manner.
There was no order whatsoever. People were shoving each other. Some were crying. You got a sense of how very thin the veneer of social civility actually is. The whole scene brought to mind the footage of 1975 Saigon, as the last helicopters took off from atop the US Embassy. There was desperation in the air.
We arrived in what would have been plenty of time in Chicago or Atlanta – both considerably higher-volume airports – but made the flight by the skin of our teeth in Paris after struggling mightily through check-in and customs. But we did make it, and even had a few minutes to stop for sandwiches at a shop on the way to the gate. We were going home.
On the plane, we both thought and talked a lot about our trip. One of our greatest and most pleasant surprises was the warmth of the Parisian people. We experienced that in Nice as well, but Nice is a beach town, heavy with Italian influence, so that was not a complete surprise. But Paris – we didn’t know what to expect. You hear stories of their snippiness – of their rudeness, towards Americans in particular. This was not our experience of Paris.
Politeness and a simple “Bonjour” will take you a long way. Smile, be pleasant – be a decent human being – and Parisians will treat you well. They do tend to be somewhat reserved in nature, and that may be the root of their sullen reputation. But don’t mistake reserve for sullenness. They warm up if you treat them well – if you treat them the way your mother taught you to treat people.
We arrived home, tired but thrilled with the experiences and memories we’d created. We knew we would be richer for it, although our bank account does not currently reflect that.
I know these blogs are entirely self-indulgent. I appreciate those that read them, and empathize with those that do not. The world went on as usual during the eleven days that we were gone, and what we experienced is monumentally insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But it meant a lot to us, and as all travel tends to do, it changed us in ways that we might not even understand for years to come. As the title of Hemingway’s book would suggest, Paris – and all travel, really – is a moveable feast. You breathe it in and it enters your bloodstream and it becomes a part of you for the rest of your days.
I appreciate the opportunity to share just a bit of it with you.