(This page is part of a longer trip journal for a Viking River Cruise we took in the Spring of 2015.)
Prologue: Arrive in Paris (April 29, 2015)
We’re here! That sounds more cheerful than I feel. It was a long night on a long flight, and now an exercise in patience to get to the hotel and find food (as opposed to what they pretend is such on the plane) and a place to sleep!
We took the Air France shuttle from the airport because it stops (Port Maillot) “across the street” from the hotel. You know, you read that and “across the street” can be interpreted in different ways, but thankfully this was accurate. The bus stopped RIGHT across the street from the entrance to our hotel! And our room was ready! (This at 11:00 am!).
I want to sleep, but can’t. No surprise. Adventure beckons…who can sleep? We got settled in our room and headed back out.
Not our first (nor second, nor even third) time in Paris, we are on the hunt for things we haven’t done or experienced before so “Bois de Boulogne” floats to the top of the list. It is close by and the day is nice … Why not?
The Bois de Boulogne is like Central Park in New York. It is to the west of the “downtown”, and it must be known by some other names because when we asked passersby on the street how to get there, they had no idea…This despite the fact that it covers a couple of square miles! Wanting just a “walk in the park, “ without a fixed destination clearly in mind you can be sure one will, and we did, get lost! Thankfully, it was a beautiful day and the walk was so reminiscent of Wisconsin in the springtime, that we enjoyed it. There was not a lot to recommend, but the discovery of the Foundation Louis Vitton was a surprise and a photographable moment! [We did not visit the inside.]
Wandering around with a deficient GPS, we finally broke down, hailed a cab and rode back to civilization. We had lunch in a place near the hotel called Chez Leon (Leon being a brand name as opposed to the city or even a person), but a big bucket of mussels was just the thing we needed to launch us on a post-prandial nap that lasted about 3 hours.
Once among the living again, I donned my hiking boots and we set off for the Arc du Triomphe (via the ATM). I wish I could say that the weather was still beautiful and the pictures fantastic, but I may have to use Photoshop to make them even interesting. No photo could ever capture the magic of Paris, but “nebishy weather” certainly isn’t going to do it! For anybody!
Nonetheless we did walk to the Arc and take some pictures and then continued on to Place du Trocadero for pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Here our ideal photo aspirations were spoiled by construction and barricades (to keep people from climbing on and falling over (?) the walls). We walked down the various levels, threading our way between the hawkers of barking mechanical dogs, schlocky metal Eiffel Tower reproductions and “selfie arms” until we could cross the street and photograph the tower, as well as the bridge leading across the river. By now it was evening, and to our delight, the tower began to glitter and twinkle as the lights came on before they settled into a fixed lighting that (seriously underexposing) gave us some interesting night views with the rain-threatening sky.
Before long the threat of rain was a moot point, as the heavens opened and we sought shelter and food, yet again!
It is not so warm this time of year (late April) that rain can be ignored. It left us both wet and cold. We did find a nice dinner across the street from the quai. We ate and warmed up, but the combination of unpleasant weather and a sleepless preceding night made it fairly easy to opt to go “home” by cab.Thursday, April 30: Paris
Today, we are expecting all our traveling companions, arriving from Atlanta, LA and San Juan. Not sure exactly when everyone will arrive and in what shape, we made plans of our own. It is a rainy day, so it seems a perfect day to visit the Louvre, translated as “the wolf’s den” so called (we will actually learn this tomorrow on our tour) because when built it was in a forested area of the city. Turned out not to be a good idea since everyone else decided that is what they should do, too. The lines were way too long – too long at the front door and too long at the underground entrance (suggested as a better bet by the hotel clerk who checked us out of our first night’s room and into our Viking-booked room, fortunately one and the same!)
We had trouble finding the underground entrance because we emerged from the Metro topside, crossed the street and entered the immense courtyard of the palace and all its extensions. The good news was that we got to see the I.M. Pei pyramid and the Carrousel arch. The rain is a pain in the neck, but the colors are saturated and this is spring so everything that is growing is freshly green. Finally, directions in hand, we found the stairs to the shopping center beneath the courtyard.
The shopping in the Carrousel is great! The shops are all so beautiful that it is really inviting. Unable to resist totally, we did go into a few stores and bought souvenirs for others. We gave up on the Louvre, though, and went back to the Metro and continued on to Le Marais.
For some reason, I latched onto the idea of visiting Le Marais on this trip. Maybe because I knew we could do only a few things with so little time, this was something that really sparked my curiosity. Yes, we had seen the big “sights” of this quarter but there were some intriguing sounding little sights that were calling to me.
Neither Gerry nor I was disappointed. This is Paris, the Paris of memory and imagination! The Paris of narrow, winding little streets, beautiful old buildings, colorful street-level shops and cafes and – a surprise to us – pocket parks. It is spring so all were filled with flowers and flowering trees. The trees that line the streets are chestnuts, and those are all abloom with beautiful pyramidal towers of flowers that are sometimes pink and sometimes white. We also saw vines with heavy, pendulous bunches (think grapes) of purple blossoms – at least purple on the lower ones and white on the upper – a ombre effect – as if the purple had all drained to the lower flowers.
Amidst this floral bounty, cafés beckon from the sidewalks and we found a little place tucked into a corner for a cup of coffee and a pastry. (There are some things you just must do in Paris even if you wouldn’t dream of doing them anywhere else!) Our new destination is the Musee Picasso. For tourists, any museum in the rain, I guess, because though the line was not particularly long, the wait was about 20 minutes (in the rain). The time passed quickly once Gerry struck up a conversation with the others waiting in front and behind us, also Americans.
Once we were finally inside, the museum was crowded but we got to see a wonderful collection. The museum is in an old building, redone on the inside in quiet white with wood floors, spreading over 4 plus stories. We missed the very beginning of the chronology because we were directed to the rooms on the ground floor rather than the subterranean. But it was not such a loss as you might expect since the ground floor starts in about 1908. Though I was an art history major, I did not remember that Picasso’s cubist period was early in his life and did not last more than a decade, even if he did refer to back to it in later work. The arrangement of the works made it easy to see Picasso’s artistic development and production, sculpture as well as painting. Though before entering the museum I would have said the cubism was my favorite of his work, getting a good look at where he went with that shaped a new favorite for me in the very colorful, fanciful works of later years. All in all, it is a very enjoyable museum!
Afterwards we hit the streets again looking for the Marché des Enfants Rouges, hoping to eat lunch there. The market was not really bustling, some stalls were even empty, but there were many places with lunch potential (especially a Morrocan stall where the food looked hot and tasty!) But it was really too chilly to eat there. The market is covered but without walls so it was still basically outside.
Instead we went back outside to a café nearby (Café du Marché des Enfants Rouges) and had good lunch. As in all our other mealtime experiences we have been practicing our French, and to a person everyone has indulged us and even seemed pleased that we have made the effort. It increases our enjoyment and creates memories, too. Gerry had steak tartare which he judged very good; I am maintaining my vegetarian diet whenever possible. We both had large glasses of wine to sip as we watched our fellow diners and the ebb and flow of the restaurant. After lunch we intended to walk some more, but the rain intensified making that just a bit unpleasant, so we headed back to the metro and the hotel.
I went to rest and Gerry went downstairs to see what was up. He ran into Cindy and Greg having lunch/dinner and came back to get me. The four of us sat in the bar and drank wine, assimilating first Joanne, then Judy and Rod, and finally Luis into our group. Some five or 6 glasses (each) of wine later (but who was counting?), it was nearly 7:00 pm and everyone else went off to bed. We came up to our room; I worked a bit on the blog and Gerry took his nap.
For dinner, we went to a restaurant nearby referred to as “L’Entrecote” but whose official name is Le Relais de Venice. It was recommended to us by two taxi drivers, and was also highly rated on Google. An interesting place, it only serves one dish: entrecote (rib eye) in a sauce, with French fries and a salad to start. The waitress takes your order for drinks and how you want your steak done, which is written down on the paper tablecloth. Though we started at medium (au pointe – the only term we knew) we talked again with the waitress and with the two women at the table to our elbows and found out that “blu” is rare – so changed our order to rare. The food was delicious (if not one bit vegetarian!). Excellent food, friendly service and dinner “companions,” a bottle of wine and a late night all equal weird dreams!
Trip Day 2 (Friday, May 1): Paris
We met in the lobby at 8:50 am for our tour of Paris. We had a large, comfortable bus and our guide, Vincent, did a very good job. It is not my preferred method for seeing a city, and I don’t recommend it. I would not actually even consider this “seeing” Paris – that Viking says it is is a huge stretch (as is claiming this is “Day 2”). If it is the only way you can see Paris, then you will certainly be able to tell people you looked at the major sights.
First up was the Arc du Triomphe (no surprise as it is close to our hotel). We drove around the rond to look at it from all sides; then drove down the Champs Elysées to La Concorde, the la Madeleine, L’Opéra and the Louvre.
It was the 1st of May, a holiday in France, so the streets were relatively traffic free and we could move about easily in our huge bus. Near L’Opéra, crowds were gathering and we could see large numbers of armed police. The Le Pen family has two rallies planned for today, promoting their Nationalist agenda. Our guide was not at all reticent about warning us of the dangers the Le Pens present with their message – anti-Semite, anti-immigration – echoes of the intolerance that wracked Europe leading up to the Second World War.
We continued our route around the city, again and again seeing evidence of crowds gathering, some in opposition to the Nationalists, at least. We drove to the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) where we got out of the bus in order to visit Notre Dame. The guide walked us across the bridge, and left us in the huge square in front of the cathedral. Joanne and I got in the line to go in for a visit. We were joined by Judy and Rod. The line seemed long, but it moved very fast. There was simply a bottleneck, the line squeezing down to single file, but no entry fee nor bag search. Inside, the cathedral was full of tourists and it was hard to get up close to anything. Nevertheless, is there anything more inspiring than a high Gothic cathedral? Not for me, and especially so once mass started and the priest’s singing resonated magnificently, swelling and growing, as only sound in an acoustically sophisticated building can!
Joanne and I got separated from Judy and Rod, so we agreed to meet at the back of the cathedral, but we got sucked into a flow of tourists exiting the cathedral and didn’t realize we had left our friends behind until we were outside! With my hackneyed French I talked the guard into letting me go back in through the out door to find them. Good thing, too! By the time we came out line was more than twice as long, reaching all the way back to the end of the plaza and looping back all the way to the cathedral!
Once back on the bus we headed to the Left Bank to the Sorbonne, and the Pantheon, St. Germain des Pres, Palais du Luxembourg, then to Les Invalides and the “back” [Champs du Mars] of the Eiffel Tower. I gave up trying to take pictures from a moving bus of rainy scenes. Finally, we were back at our hotel. I enjoyed the guide’s commentary, but honestly, if you have ever been to Paris before, I suggest you skip this type of tour. You could use the time instead to walk a quartier that is unfamiliar, a little like we did the day before when we went to le Marais. (Please note, because it was a holiday, all the shops and museums were closed. A bus tour might be a decent option on a rainy holiday.)
For lunch, we went to a restaurant near the hotel, fun because we are in a group of friends, but otherwise unremarkable.
Indulge me a slight digression here about our hotel, Le Meridien Etoille. It is located apart from the tourist action, near the Porte Maillot (the far west side of the city). Though this seemed to be a negative thing, our guide, Vincent, pointed out that being away from the major tourist centers meant that our opportunities to experience the Paris of Parisians was far greater than it would be closer in. This actually played out for us. The area behind our hotel has many restaurants frequented by locals. L’Entrecote of the night before was such a place and so was our lunch spot today.
Mid-day we napped and then met again about 5:00 with an evening in Montmartre on the schedule. Cindy and Greg opted out (sleep catch up is still their major focus), but Gerry and I shepherded Luis, Joanne, Judy and Rod onto the Paris metro, and through a Metro construction detour, to the Abbesses stop in Montmartre. From here it was a short walk to the funiculaire. We took that up to the square in front of Sacre Coeur, to see an albeit foggy view of the city stretched out below us.
We skipped visiting the church itself and instead wandered the narrow, cobblestone streets with hundreds of other tourists. My memories are of cheerful squares filled with artists doing caricatures or serious portraits, painters selling miniature watercolors of Paris scenes – but those were in short supply. Instead there were lots and lots of schlocky tourist shops all selling the same things, and all selling the same things you could buy near any of the major tourist sights in the city. Add that it wasn’t warm, and you will understand why we ducked into a little wine bar, ordered a bottle and the cheese and charcuterie to accompany it, and whiled away a pleasant hour or so before we packed up and headed down the butte.
There are such great memories for me in this neighborhood. Those are memories of a dear friend, Nana de Herrera, who lived on the Rue Lepic, and with whom I had more suppers than I could count back in the summer of 1975. At the base of the butte is the famous Moulin Rouge – Photo op! Then it was back to the metro and “home” to the hotel. The next day we need to get up early to head for our ship.
Tomorrow, we leave Paris for Luxembourg and finally we board the riverboat!