On our last day in Paris we decided to get a quick crepe to “take away” (to-go for us North Americans) from a place near our hostel. Hanna asked for two jambon, oeuf, et fromage crepes (quickly becoming our signature dish), and the guy gave us the death stare. He then looked at the “line” behind us (consisting of one other person), and started grimacing and shaking his head as if to say “hmmm, I don’t know, crepes take a long time to make…” Finally the reluctant crepe-maker gave in and produced two of the best crepes we’ve had so far.
We ate on the walkway in front of the Metro Station (all Metro stations in Paris have these weird Carnival-ride-esque signs in front…
very creepy at night), and about halfway through our crepes we noticed some suspicious behavior. This guy walked by and stuffed a brand-new black leather suitcase into the garbage can next to us. Having adopted the “trust no one” motto based on numerous suggestions from Hanna’s family, we were understandably concerned. Add to that the numerous terrorist attack warnings for Paris and we decided to quickly finish our crepes. We elected to throw our trash in the next available receptacle just in case it was some pressure-sensitive bomb that would go off at the softest contact from a crepe scrap wrapped in a napkin. Yes, this is actually the way we think.
So we arrived at the Paris Gare de Lyon train station at 1:00 pm hoping to catch a train to Lyon, which we were told ran pretty regularly. In four full days in Paris we got to see pretty much everything I had wanted to see and more, so we were ready to see what another part of France looked like.
Turns out we would have to wait longer than we had anticipated.
Of course, due to la greve, the next train to Lyon wasn’t until 16:54 (that’s 4:54 pm for us North Americans). Other than the delay, the activation of our Eurail Passes went surprisingly smoothly, and we officially used the first of our fifteen days of travel.
So whatever, we had to wait a couple of hours in the shady Paris train station, sitting on the freezing cold floor and eluding highly aggressive French bums who, when we told them we didn’t speak French, offered us the universal sign of two hands in the cupped formation. We got on the train in our first class seats (ooh la la!) and rode in extremely comfortable fashion towards Lyon.
When we got there, finding our hotel was extremely easy (we found a proper hotel for 44 euros, about half of what we paid per night in the HOSTEL in Paris…ridiculous), and we were introduced to the Paris Metro’s cleaner, more pleasant cousin, the Lyon Metro.
We checked in to find our bed unmade and towels strewn about the bathroom. “Um, front desk, I’m pretty sure there’s somebody still staying in our room.” The receptionist apologized and gave us a new, freshly prepared room, we unloaded our stuff, and went in search for food.
We walked up a street that had plenty of stores and restaurants, however most of them were ferme (a word we got to know very well in Paris…it means “closed”). We figured it was because it was late, but then we checked our watch and saw that it was 8:30 pm! I guess the part of Lyon in which we stayed is more of a business area and stuff shuts down early there.
Lucky for us, we found a terrific Middle Eastern take-out place down the street (it seemed to be a highly Muslim area of town), and we were treated to the best shwarma and kofti we’ve ever had.
This was a great introduction to the self-proclaimed “food capital of the world.” The next day would do even more to support that claim.
So after pushing the trip to Versailles back a day, it was finally time to head out…or so we thought.
We bought our tickets, got to the train station, and walked down the platform to screaming tourists and locals. After much confusion (the signs for the above ground trains are much more difficult to understand than the metro), we finally got in line behind about 30 other people to talk to the agent.
After about the fifth person, the guy working there grabbed the mic and started shouting in English with a seriously French accent, “This is for everybody! The next train to Versailles is 1 hour 30 minutes!”
I guess because of our beloved strike, there weren’t as many trains running. After taking about 10 minutes to study the map, we finally figured out that the train we wanted would have the name “VICK” on the front.
So there we waited, next to a very happy Indian man who couldn’t stop laughing, nervously watching a couple of trains go by until finally we saw “VICK” and jumped aboard.
Sure enough, it was the right train, but it let us off slightly farther away than we anticipated. Luckily we were accompanied on our walk by a nice young man from Seattle, who explained to us that he was on a three-week “scouting trip” to Ireland, England, and Paris to see where he wanted to take his next real vacation. Hanna said he walked on his toes like a basketball player, so we’re gonna go with that.
Anyway, he was a nice guy and through him we got a glimpse of the true backpacker/hostel lifestyle. He came to Europe by himself, stayed in the dorms in the hostels, woke up early and drank all night. He also explained to us that when ordering food, you have to “figure out the density of the food” and how much it will fill you up compared to how much it cost. He found a “custard-type thing” that did the trick, and apparently ordered it everywhere he went.
We said our goodbyes to the Seattle Basketball Player as we approached the gates to Versailles. I remember teaching all about this last year, as it was built by the greatest absolute ruler of all time, Louis XIV. Louis basically wanted to get out of the city and create a palace worthy of both his country and himself.
And that he did…
Ornate gates, elaborate paintings on every ceiling, and acres and acres of immaculately manicured gardens highlight the amazing palace. You could see why the French had a revolution as they were starving and the king and nobles were living here (poor Louis XVI, Louis XIV’s great-grandson, felt the brunt of the French’s ire…he was beheaded along with his wife Marie Antoinette of “let them eat cake” fame).
Anyway, we got our audio guide (free with admission) and started the tour. We were walking along normally, when suddenly we were surprised to see this monstrosity sitting in the middle of one of the Palace’s rooms:
As one Brit behind us so Britishly put it: “I don’t think that was there in the 18th century.” Turns out that a Japanese artist named Murakami somehow was allowed to create an exhibit in which he would display his artwork throughout the Versailles Palace.
So that meant that every room we went into, for every bust of a French noble and ceiling painting of a scene from Greek Mythology, there was one of these things:
The best part was that the Murakami sculptures had audio commentary too, and they would say things like, “obviously there was no other place to put the Flower Monster than in the War Drawing Room.” Absurd.
Hanna and I got a kick out of them though, and started to look forward to them almost more than the original Palace art. Our favorite had to be this one, a commentary on how the simplest things in life can be the most valuable. It seemed artistic, and then we found out that Murakami had only created the outside. The platter on the inside was created by “the creator of hip-hop” Pharrell Williams! Yes, this Pharrell Williams has his art displayed in the Palace of Versailles. What a world we live in.
So the Murakami stuff was definitely a highlight of the trip so far. After that we grabbed some food and headed back. The Eiffel Tower was on our way home, so we stopped there because I never got to see it at night.
It was open, so we went up, but there were too many people with tickets to the top level, so we couldn’t go all the way up. The “second floor,” which is actually hundreds of feet up, was good enough for me. We got to see some spectacular views of Paris at night and take some artsy photos using the night-photography function on our camera.
After that we found a nice Italian restaurant, although the waiter/owner was quite pushy. Hanna warned me that this is what they will all be like in Italy. Oh boy.
Despite that, the meal was great and we couldn’t have asked for a better last day in Paris. The next day, we would be off to Lyon. Just for fun here’s some more-akami. I came up with that myself.
On the third day we got some much needed rest. We slept in and then headed to Notre Dame, which was not only open, but free. Very confusing, but we weren’t going to complain. Surprisingly, I didn’t see any fighting Irishmen outside.
We walked through the magnificent cathedral, which put St. Paul’s in London to shame. Amazing how much beautiful, expensive art is devoted to worshipping God.
Outside the Cahtedral, Hanna picked what she considered to be the best of the hundreds of crepe stands, and we ordered a jambon, oeuf, and fromage (ham, egg, and cheese). It was predictably delicious.
We planned to go to the Louvre that night, since there was a reduced rate if you go after 6 on Wednesday, so we hit bakeries again all afternoon. We got some salami and cheese to go with the pastries and baguette we picked up along the way, and had lunch in the park outside the Natural History Museum. It was lovely and it really felt like we were in France.
We decided to try to go to L’Orangerie, the home of Hanna’s favorite paintings in the world, Monet’s Water Lilies. Turns out the museum was closed, of course, but luckily it is just a short walk from the Louvre, where we were headed anyway.
We stopped and picked up a hot red wine with cinnamon (about as gross as it sounds) and then headed to the Louvre, which was surprisingly…open! This was probably the biggest building I’ve ever been in, let alone the biggest museum.
We picked out the stuff we wanted to see because there’s no way we could come close to seeing it all. I was most impressed by the ancient Egyptian stuff, namely because it was thousands and thousands of years old, and all in near-perfect condition. We saw everything from tools, to hieroglyphics, to statues…we even saw a real life mummy (which was actually pretty creepy).
Of course, I had to see the Mona Lisa, which you could find by following the huge crowd. I’d seen replicas of it so many times, it wasn’t that impressive, but it’s still cool to think that we saw the original. We wandered around the rest of the museum, and it is truly impressive.
The best part about it is that amidst all of the works of art on the walls, the museum itself is a work of art. There are elaborate frescos painted on the ceilings and the architecture is amazing. If only it weren’t for all of those priceless works of art on the walls!
After three hours of walking around the museum, we decided to call it an early night. We headed back to the hostel and at the leftover meat and cheese we had from lunch. Overall it was another great day in Paris.
We woke up to our hostel breakfast, which was included in the price. It was about what we expected: croissants, cereal, coffee. We grabbed a quick bite and headed to the Arc D’Triomphe.
It was pretty easy to get there. We bought a 3-day unlimited pass on the metro, which came in very handy, and were assured by the front desk that despite the strike trains would still be running…just not as often.
The Arc D’Triomphe was beautiful, a memorial built by Napoleon to honor his soldiers. After our experience the night before, it was nice to get that sour taste out of our mouths and start to enjoy all that Paris has to offer.
Hanna told me that you can go up to the top of the monument, which gives you a spectacular view of the city. Unfortunately as we got there a woman was taping a sign to the door: “Closed due to the strike.” This would prove to be a recurring theme. Apparently the museums and tourist attractions got in on the strike as well.
We walked (carefully) down the Champs Elysees (it had to be open…it’s just a street), and we ran into a tourist booth. We told them we were planning on heading to the Musee d’Orsay. Closed. What about the Louvre? Closed. Ok, why don’t you tell us what’s open. There was a museum of Napoleonic Art that was open (a period in which everybody was at war and nobody was painting…no thank you) and they said another one was open, but they couldn’t find it on the map…not a good sign. No thanks.
The lady assured us that the Eiffel Tower was open, so we figured we go see that at night and use our new-found free time to look for bakeries on Hanna’s holy list (which she compiled weeks in advance of the trip).
We found a bunch of them (I’ll let her fill you in on the details) and stumbled upon a great lunch at a café called Le Diplomate. Hanna got a tremendous, creamy, almost puree-like squash soup and I got the quiche with Spanish ham, basil, and emmental cheese. It was probably the best quiche I’ve ever had (besides my mother’s, of course 🙂 ). Now that’s more like it.
More bakeries in the afternoon until we decided to head to the Eiffel Tower. I had read in the book that the French didn’t look to kindly upon the legendary landmark:
Critics dubbed it a “metal asparagus”…Writer Guy de Mauspassant ate lunch every day at its ground-floor restaurant—the only place in Paris, he claimed, from which he couldn’t see the offensive thing.
We got there while it was still light outside, so I could definitely see the eyesore characteristics, but still…it’s the freaking Eiffel Tower. We took our pictures out front and headed inside to buy tickets to go up. Hey, guess what? It was closed! This damn strike.
We took some more pictures, evaded the thousands of Africans selling trinkets outside the monument, and made our way to the Corner Café for dinner. Another great meal, Hanna had the French Onion Soup (which, amazingly, they just call “onion soup”) and the bouf bourgingon of Julia Child fame. I had the salmon tartare (extremely fresh, not fishy at all) and the veal medallions with risotto and mushrooms. Another great meal and the nicest waiter I’ve ever had capped our first full day in France. Despite the obvious setbacks, it was a fantastic day.
We took the Eurostar from London to Paris, which is the train that runs through a tunnel underneath the English Channel (the Brits call it the “Chunnel”…so clever). In the brochures it assured us that the change in pressure wouldn’t be a problem. They lied. Every time we would go from above ground to underground (quite a few times), our ears would feel like they were stuffed with cotton. It happened so often in the first half hour that we thought it was going to be a miserable trip. We were right…but for the wrong reason.
Either the ear stuff got more mild or we got used to it, and we were comfortably riding/sleeping comfortably for most of the 2 hour and 15 minute ride. I woke up with about 15 minutes left to the sound of Hanna whispering, “I think we’re in France!” Those last 15 minutes, however, would prove to be a little bit tricky.
Just outside the Gare du Nord station where we were set to touch down in Paris, the train came to a halt. After sitting around wondering what was going on for a while, the “train manager” got on the horn and announced that there had been a problem at our station, and that details would follow. Everyone breathed a huge sigh, anticipating a minor delay.
About five minutes later, the manager gave us an update: “There has been a suicide at one of the stations, so all trains are going to be stalled. We could be delayed for up to 2 hours.” Gasps of horror and shock went through the train like dominoes. I’d like to think it was a reaction to the poor soul who decided to take his or her own life, but I’m pretty sure the 2-hour delay is what caused the majority of the disgust.
While we were sitting in the middle of nowhere waiting to get the “all clear”, our train manager reminded us that the bar would remain open for the duration of our delay! (Apparently one man found that comforting news; when we finally arrived at the station he had to be helped off the train by his buddies while providing a stirring rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” for all of Paris to hear)
As we anticipated some movement to the final station, the manager got back on the intercom and gave us some more great news: “Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your indulgence (something must be lost in translation there)? I would like to announce that there is a strike in Paris that will disrupt train service, starting tonight at 8 p.m.” Fantastic. Luckily we didn’t have any connections to make, but the strike would cause problems throughout the trip (that’s called foreshadowing, for you non-English majors).
Finally the announcement came: “We just got news from the next station and they reported no suicide there, so we will proceed to our final destination…slowly.” Despite being utterly confused, everyone was excited to be moving again. However the thought of our train proceeding slowly in the night looking out for dead bodies along the rails was a bit disturbing.
We arrived in Paris with no further delays, and we got out our directions to the the Regent Marmonte Hostel, where we’d be staying for the next five nights. The directions (which were provided by the Hostel) were simple enough: Come out of the train station, make a right and we’re less than a 10 minute walk. Again, lies. If it weren’t for a kind soul who pointed us in the right direction at the Rue de Rouchechouart-Avenue de Rouchechouart intersection, we might still be walking around.
When we got there we were treated to the stereotypical French customer service. The check-in lady asked for our reservation, then proceeded to answer the phone at least four times before completing our check-in. What could we expect, right?
We took the “lift” to the third floor (we couldn’t even fit both of us with our backpacks in at the same time), and were introduced to room 304, right next to the douche (that’s shower in French, in contrast to the English definition of “undesirable male with questionable etiquette”). There was supposed to be a bathroom on the floor, but it was actually on the 4th floor. I didn’t know this at the time, so naturally I relieved myself in the douche next to our room. Rude Americans.
We got a bad dinner which caused Hanna to remark, “So I guess you can get bad food in France.” At least the TV was on and we were treated to our second rugby match of the day (we had watched part of one in London earlier that day before taking the Eurostar), and I got to see the most Irish name I’ve ever seen: Fergus McFadden.
After dinner we went home, hoping that our first day in Paris would be more exciting.