I have been acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain – and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light… –Robert Frost
Friday, February 17, 2012
Like previous posts, pictures are coming as I’m stealing them from Jason this weekend (promise!!).
We set out early into a blustery morning – steel gray and drizzling off and on. Visiting Paris in the winter has its advantages if you’re properly attired for cold (wet) weather. Primitive of these is the lack of droves of tourist. We visited a number of the most iconic tourist attractions in Paris this day, and while we weren’t the only ones out there, we blessedly didn’t have to fight massive crowds. It helped as well that we were out on a Friday while many people were probably still at work.
We started our morning with the intention to head out to the Arc de Triomphe and make a counter clockwise circuit around the city, hitting the Arc, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame while saving Montmartre/Sacre-Coeur and the Louvre for Saturday. This was an ambitious plan because it entails a lot of walking. On a pleasant, warm, sunny day this would have been a delightful plan. On one that is cold and intermittently drizzly it was a bit less so. Still, I have to say that people absolutely must see Paris on foot. There is so much to see and admire that would be missed in a car or on a bus that it’s very much worth the walk – regardless of the weather.
We started off our stroll with a mind to grab some Frenchy breakfast, but made a quick detour into this park as we passed by it. There are some gorgeous water features, sculptures, and walking paths here. I would have loved to see it in spring or summer. There’s a small carnival area with a Jules Verne inspired merry-go-round and a little shop where you can buy goodies (coffee, treats, bonbons and the like). For a moment I forgot we were in a city; it was so quiet in the park. We spent only a little time here, but admired some of the lovely scenery and watched a tenacious mallard waddle around on the ice covering a small pond. My hands spent most of this day in my gloves so I got very few pictures myself. Thankfully Jason was dutifully playing his role as master photographer as it would have been a shame not to have gotten pictures here.
A little bit of history:
Parc Monceau has all the makings to be a gorgeous park in spring/summer. Even in the winter it was a cultivated, manicured haven of nature enclosed by a towering wrought iron gate decorated with gold in the magnificent style of 18th century Paris. The park’s life began in 1769 but continued to be developed and expanded by one person after another for at least another hundred years. It features an array of statues of French personages of varying significance, an old toll rotunda from the late 1780s (one of the last remaining in Paris), and some of the oldest trees in the city.
Arc de Triomphe
Leaving the refuge of Parc Monceau behind us we struck out again on our way to the Arc de Triomphe. We stopped at a small patisserie for an “on the road” breakfast (I got a salted pretzel. Jason ate some sort of chicken baguette sandwich). When in Rome…we ate our breakfast as we walked.
I have to say, I was a bit skeptical about how impressive the Arc de Triomphe was going to be, but it was very much so. From the standpoint of aesthetics, it is a beautiful monument. It stands on an island in the center of the busy circle, Place Charles de Gaulle, and positively commands your attention as you approach it. An underground walkway carries you safely to the monument’s site and houses all sorts of pamphlets and information boards giving the history and details of the monument…presumably. They were in French only so I couldn’t say for sure that’s what they were about.
A little bit of history:
The Arc de Triomphe, arguably one of the most famous monuments in Paris, marks the western end of the Champs-Élysées. It is a military monument honouring all those who fought and died for France during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Inscribed on both of its inner and outer surfaces amidst 4 massive sculptures (The Triumph of Napoleon and The Departure of the Volunteers of 1797 facing the Champs-Élysées and Resistance and Peace on the opposite two pillars) are the names of all French victories and generals.
Beneath the Arc is France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. It is marked by an eternal flame at the center of the Arc’s entrance between The Triumph of Napoleon and The Departure of the Volunteers of 1797.
Leaving the Arc de Triomphe we headed down the famous Champs-Élysées…one of the most famous and most expensive streets in Paris. It is lined with cafes, cinemas, luxury and specialty shops and even on a Friday was very busy. Jason and I nipped into one of the small “malls” here so I could warm my feet up a bit and get some coffee (apparently keeping with the standards of the street itself, Starbucks was easily twice or three times as expensive as usual). There are a number of a familiar shops, but largely the stores are high-end including names like Cartier, Gucci, Dolce and Gabana, Swarovski, etc. Needless to say we didn’t do a great deal of shopping. We were, however, treated to a bit of street performing:
A little bit of history:
The Champs-Élysées is known as “The most beautiful avenue in the world.” (La plus belle avenue du monde in French.) It was definitely pretty, but I wonder who gave it that humble title.
The Eiffel Tower
After a long trek down the Champs-Élysées you end up in the backyard of the Eiffel Tower. Another monument that is far more impressive in person than you might initially think. I was struck by two initial observations. 1.) It’s enormous (apparently the equivalent of an 81-story building). 2.)There is something very interesting/beautiful and terrifying about a structure that is nothing but lots of iron beams and no concrete.
It’s very cheap to go into the tower (and if you’re willing to climb the stairs the wait is significantly less daunting as well). I can only imagine how heinously packed it must be in the summer. Once again, I’m grateful for having gone in winter to avoid crowds and lines and three hour wait times. Steeling myself with one big deep breath, we headed up.
With more than 300 steps to go from the ground to the lowest level, climbing up the tower is an achievement. The stairs are well guarded with rails, but you can see out the entire way up. Naturally, the higher you climb, the more frightening the climb gets…I imagine it’d be impossible for someone scared of heights. Also, good god in heaven is it a work out. An additional 300 steps lead up to the second tier. (If you climb back down on foot as Jason and I did, that’s 1200 steps total!) Jason and I went up as far as the second level. The third and highest level is only accessible by elevator; it happened to be closed the day we went.
The view from either floor is breathtaking. You have unobstructed access to every cardinal direction of Paris and can see a number of famous monuments from the observation decks. There’re bathrooms and a cafe on each of the bottom two levels for you to get refreshments, and a souvenir shop or two as well. I looked desperately for a little Eiffel Tower toy that folded over or stood erect when you push a button (like in the movie French Kiss) but couldn’t find one.
A little bit of history:
Nicknamed La Dame de Fer (The Iron Lady), the Eiffel Tower is a puddle iron lattice tower built in 1889. It is the tallest building in Paris standing 1,063ft high and was initially built to be the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair.
By the time we had our feet gratefully on firm ground again it was getting dark, and cold–er. With a potentially long ass walk ahead of us to get to Notre Dame, Jason and I decided to hop on a tour bus and ride the rest of the way to Notre Dame.
Up to this point in our trip, Notre Dame was my absolute favourite thing I had seen yet. It is more stunning and awe-inspiring than you can imagine simply seeing it in photos. Beautiful, biblical carvings cover the edifice from the three entrance doors all the way up to its spires and gargoyles. We had the good fortune to arrive during Evensong (something I’d wanted to experience at Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s in London but haven’t had the opportunity to). The Evensong makes the whole experience even more moving. I tried to capture the sheer size and elaborateness of the building in the following video, but unfortunately the light in the hall was too low to get a good image. I’m sorry for the shaky picture. It was cold, and I was using my iPhone to film.
Unfortunately most of the informational plaques here, like at the Arc de Triomphe, were in French so I wasn’t able to read much. Touring the church is a quiet, reflective experience that I found to be quite emotionally and spiritually moving despite not being a very religious person.
Construction on Notre Dame began in the 12th century and did not finish until the 14th century. The three portals on the western edifice (the front) from left to right are The Portal of the Virgin, The Portal of the Last Judgment, and The Portal of Saint Anne. The Portal of the Virgin, according to Church tradition, depicts the death of Mary, her ascension into Heaven and her coronation as Queen of the Heavens. In the center of the Portal of Saint Anne is a magnificent Virgin with Child in the Romanesque style. The Portal of the Last Judgment was the last of the portals to be built. It represents the Last Judgment as depicted in the Gospel of Saint Matthew. The interior of the church is just as impressive with massive arched ceilings, stained glass, paintings and sculptures of saints and other important religious personages, an incredible organ, and numerous pews and confessionals for worship.
The Quest for the Holy Adaptor…
It was pretty much completely dark by the time Jason and I left Notre Dame. We ducked into a cafe right across the street for a quick dinner. Then began our epic quest to find an adaptor so that we could charge our phones and Jason’s iPad (continental Europe doesn’t use the same plugs as the UK). We must have gone into 3 or 4 pharmacies, two grocery stores, and a couple of bags of snacks later we finally found one. We stopped for one last try in a pharmacy near our hotel. By some miracle they had an adaptor tucked away on shelf somewhere…apparently we went in just in the nick of time too because the moment we left the guy running the place turned off the lights and locked the door. Either that or he just wanted to ensure no more silly tourists came into his shop.
We headed back to the hotel with great intentions to go out and enjoy some Parisian nightlife (we were loosely planning to go out for some drinks at one of the pubs near Moulin Rouge or try to catch a show). We never did end up making it out, though. Both of us lied down for a nap and didn’t wake up until the next morning…the result of a very busy day of sightseeing. Ultimately, this was probably for the best; we needed to be all refreshed for round two.