Wednesday, February 15, Paris
I don’t mean to make a big deal of my being sick, really, but I was. I was taking the antibiotics, sure, but I’d only had them a couple days. I was still weak. The itinerary had to be trimmed because I just couldn’t keep up with the original plan—mostly because I never could get a real breath of air. For roughly fourteen days—from the day I got sick (the day after I arrived) until two days before I left—I felt like someone was constantly pressing on my chest. But what can ya do? So … we just moved slower. And things, as I’ve mentioned already, slid off the to-do list.
One burning question you may have had that I am pleased to be able to answer: do they really wear berets in Paris? Absolutely. The young, the old, men, women—there are lots of berets goin’ on there. Also lots of cigarettes: the old and, sadly, the young. I wrote in my journal: “I’ve breathed more close-at-hand cigarette smoke here in two days than I normally do in a year. And the cell phones! Everyone’s walking down the street talking on a phone! Don’t get me started … !”
But berets: yes. Simple, classic, chic. I’d read that Paris is a city of fashion, of careful dressing, and I saw that to be true. Even French men seemed to be very fashion conscious, even the old ones (which I found quite charming). And everyone—men and women—were wearing scarves. You see older women in the shops, all dressed up in hose and heels and a skirt, buying their groceries—no running down to the convenience store in your sweats on a Saturday morning, oh no. Paris is simply not a casual city. You can immediately identify the tourists: we’re the ones in the comfortable shoes.
And in jeans, of course.
It was overcast this morning, the fifteenth, and I found that I’d slept until almost seven, which is really late for me. Poor Gerry was trying to salvage what he could of sleep (with my deviated septum, I am an Olympics-caliber snorer*), so I puttered quietly in the kitchen, washing dishes, boiling some eggs for breakfast, then ran out to the boulanger and patisserie. When I came back, I brewed tea and had a bit of toast while I read the souvenir book I’d picked up at Sainte-Chapelle the day before. Later we had a light breakfast of that wonderful French bread, the eggs, and some thin, lean ham before heading out.
We crossed over the Pont Marie (bridge) to the Right Bank to catch the Metro, a route we would take often, as just past the Metro station (with that lovely red Art Deco sign—or maybe it is Art Nouveau?—from the 1920s) is the grocery store we would come to use, on the Rue de Rivoli, a major thoroughfare.
In the center of this boulevard is a tiny, permanent carnival, just three little rides, including a merry-go-round … a cheery sight, I must say. Sort of the French version of the Mommy-will-you-put-a-quarter-in-it plastic horses you see outside Wal-Mart, only better. In our apartment there was a collection of plastic tokens to use there, left, no doubt, by a previous tenant with children.
It apparently rained last night, or perhaps in the morning before we were out; the streets were wet but it wasn’t raining just then. Down the Metro we went, to ride out to the Champs-Élysées to see the Arc de Triomphe, and when we climbed out again, holy moly, it was right there, sitting in the middle of a roundabout intersected by twelve streets. Actually, Gerry insists that it is not really a roundabout, “because roundabouts have a sense of order to them, and this had none.” It was more like a free-for-all. Thank God I wasn’t driving in this city!
It’s huge. Often one finds that a thing that’s lived in one’s imagination since childhood is smaller than one expects (Stonehenge, for example, although that doesn’t diminish it one whit), but this was definitely much, much bigger than I’d imagined. So, we stood there and gawped for awhile, along with several dozen other tourists. We could see people all around it and on top of it, but we hadn’t a clue how to get over to it (because—trust me on this—there’s no way you could cross the traffic). Interestingly, the guidebook didn’t say, and it seems to me that this is a glaring omission, for tourists who might still be a bit overwhelmed by the whole getting-along-in-a-country-where-most-signs-aren’t-in-your-native-language thing (and I don’t just mean us English-speakers—at this point we’d seen people from all over: many eastern Europeans, a zillion Chinese, the odd Arab in swirling robes). Anyway, I must point that out to ol’ D-K Publishers—things that would be perfectly obvious at home in your comfort zone are not nearly so obvious here.
Because, of course, the reason it’s not in the guidebook is it is pretty obvious—we’d just overlooked it. There is a tunnel running under the street that brings you up like a prairie dog surfacing just to one side of the Arc. It has its own little stairwell that looks remarkably like an entrance to the Metro—two entrances, actually, on opposite sides; one was right next to us, but … well … we were turned around, and we missed it.
So we commenced to walk around the roundabout … and finally found the other end of the tunnel, on the opposite side, which took us under the street to the Arc. (It was here that we happened to look up and caught our very first view of the Eiffel Tower, and let me tell you … it was breathtaking.)
You know the story of the Arc. Napoleon wanted to celebrate his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, where he suckered the Austrian and Russian emperors into thinking he was in a weak position, and then trounced them, virtually destroying both armies. This victory is regarded as Bonaparte’s greatest, a tactical masterpiece. So he began work on this memorial arch in 1806, envisioning himself riding through the center of it on a huge white stallion (I made that part up, maybe he wanted a black stallion), his victorious troops marching behind him. The Duke of Wellington put the kibosh on that, of course, and the Arc wasn’t finished until 1836, partly because of Napoleon’s fall from power.
Now it is a memorial to all French war dead. The names of major victories won during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods are inscribed around the top; lesser victories, and the names of generals, are engraved on the inside walls. France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is here, in the center of the Arc, topped by an eternal flame that commemorates the dead of the two world wars.
So we bought our tickets, followed the entry signs, and found ourselves in a very (very!) narrow spiral staircase, ascending what Gerry estimates to be nine or ten storeys. A long way, anyway; the guidebook says 164 feet. And I wonder: did the guy who sold me the ticket and pointed me at the entry door also assess my physical health before he turned me loose in that claustrophobic stairway with no warning or caution? There absolutely were not signs warning of the distance of the undertaking, nor of the tightness of the space, nor that there is absolutely no place to rest save on the stairs themselves, as others squeeze by, sighing or grumbling or pitying, depending on their mood that day. Was that gatekeeper confident that this chubby middle-aged woman would not have a heart attack in that narrow stairwell? I wonder, I do.
Behind me by several steps I heard a Brit mutter “Pace yourself,” and that was my first clue that we weren’t just going up a few steps to catch the elevator! Like my ascent at the Giant’s Causeway in the north of Ireland in 2003, I truly wish I had a T-shirt that says “I climbed the stairs at the Arc de Triomphe,” but, sadly, they don’t sell them. We got to the museum, one floor before the roof, and Gerry looked around while I sat on a bench and recovered my breath and my sanity (I’m a little claustrophobic) to go up to the viewing platform—one more floor—on the roof.
There are elevators; the guidebook says there are. But they keep them, if not hidden, cleverly unmarked, and apparently they are only for the handicapped, though, again, I saw no signs (we discovered the lifts by accident, when, as we were preparing to walk all those stairs down—and those of your who know my fear of going down stairs can imagine how I was dreading it—we found an employee heading into the thing, and we hitched a ride, with me saying a silent prayer of thanks all the way down).
So we went up one more level.
The view from the roof was magnificent.
So … the view was really something—particularly of the Eiffel Tower. When I was planning our itinerary, I had us taking the subway from the Arc to get us a bit closer to it, but frankly it looked very close (and the subway took us out of our way), so after referring to the map we decided to walk. We also spent some time watching the cars going around the roundabout, but really: there seemed to be no order to it, it just looked crazy.
We’d laughed thinking that the Eiffel Tower was probably father away than it looked, and it was, but only just a little … and the walk through the Chaillot quartier was definitely worth it. We’d been in the city over twenty-four hours, and I was still walking around in a dream, asking myself: am I absorbing it all? Am I taking it in? I’m in Paris, for heaven’s sake! Well, this little stroll through Chaillot was very Parisian, and I did take it all in.
Chaillot was a separate village until it was engulfed by Paris as the city expanded during what’s known as the Second Empire (1852–1870). The wide boulevards and many public buildings and parks that are Paris’s trademarks all date from this period, and in Chaillot there are many lovely old mansions; some have been turned into upscale apartments while many now house foreign embassies. It was quiet, beautiful, and untouristy.
My guidebook had suggested that one of the nicest views of the Tower could be had from the approach from the Jardins du Trocadero, so that’s the way we headed. (Actually, it was the shortest way too.)
Like many public parks, the Jardins du Trocadéro has quite a bit of statuary. Like this one:
When we came upon this statue, my first thought was I’ll have what she’s having. 🙂 She’s dancing with wild abandon, I thought. But if you follow this link, you’ll see in the original, she is holding a long spear. This is a statue of the goddess Athena, who, in Greek mythology, rules over wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, mathematics, strength, war strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill. According to Wikipedia, “Athena is known for her calm temperament, as she moves slowly to anger. She is noted to have only fought for just reasons, and would not fight without a purpose.” The statue was executed in plaster by Charles Marie Louis Joseph Sarrabezolles (1888–1971), but apparently this one in the park is a copy. (Here’s a little more about it.)
We didn’t spend any time, really, investigating the park itself, which has a beautiful water fountain and houses a large museum, all of which was created for the 1937 World’s Fair. We only had eyes for the Eiffel Tower (and we knew my energy was limited).
But the guidebook was right about approaching the tower from this garden. It was stunning and exciting. It’s quite a sight, of course, from any angle. It’s funny the way something as iconic as the Eiffel Tower, something you’ve seen images of your whole life and that you feel is as familiar as your own backyard can be so jaw-droppingly, staggeringly incredible when you finally see it in person. (I’ve since read that the Eiffel Tower is the single most recognized landmark in the world; I don’t doubt it.)
So, then, we walked right down to this little herb garden, and across the Pont d’Iéna to le Tour Eiffel.
Built for the Exposition Universelle (a World’s Fair) to celebrate the French Revolution (did you know that, the French Revolution part? I didn’t), le Tour Eiffel opened on March 31, 1889 (they’d begun building it in 1884). It’s over a thousand feet tall with its spire. Here’s something else I didn’t know (courtesy of Wikipedia): “Maintenance on the tower includes applying … three graded tones of paint every seven years to protect it from rust. On occasion, the color of the paint is changed (the tower is currently painted a shade of brown). On the first floor, there are interactive consoles hosting a poll for the color to use for a future session of painting.”
For fun, go to the official website, then click on “Eiffel Tower Gallery,” and then on “360° Virtual Tour,” for some splendid photos. (For a really lovely nighttime view from a different perspective, go here—this website has been up at least since 2005, when I discovered it, and hasn’t been updated, really, but it’s still beautiful. Use the scroll bars.)
The tower is definitely geared for tourists, with signs in both French and English. It being winter, they were only running the lift in the Pilier Nord (north pillar), and I was very disappointed to learn that we could not go all the way to the top viewing platform, due to some construction work. Nonetheless, we bought tickets to go as far as we could (needless to say, there was absolutely no discussion about taking the stairs), which was the second stage, and the view from there was a fine one. It was breezy and chilly.
The first stage—which you bypass at first, if you’ve purchased a ticket to go higher—is a shopping emporium, with a couple restaurants and, interestingly, a post office. Anything mailed from here is hand-cancelled, and the postmark reads “Tour Eiffel,” which is cool. I’d prepared postcards in advance of this, and bought stamps, and watched the postmistress as she carefully and thoroughly stamped over each postage stamp. (Regarding souvenirs: in contrast to what must be MILLIONS of people, given the number of them on offer in stores, I did not buy an Eiffel Tower trinket, plastic or otherwise. Not that I wouldn’t have—I just never found the right one.) 🙂
I’d thought this was going to be an easy day; after all, we’d knocked out the first two things on the list in fairly short and successful order. My itinerary called for a quick lunch and then to head over to the Louvre, which stays open late on Wednesdays—we could browse as we desired, without feeling rushed by a looming five p.m. closing. However, we (ahem) decided to press on, so … on to the Louvre.
It’s hard for me to articulate the feelings I had about the Louvre. Unlike the Arc de Triomphe or le Tour Eiffel, I don’t associate an iconic image with the word “Louvre”—it’s more of a state of mind for me. As if … as long as the Louvre exists, God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world. Knowing that, then, you’ll understand why the next few paragraphs pain me.
We took a very short ride on the Metro to the museum, where we discovered that not only was this week spring break for Irish children (and, apparently, British children, too, as we’d seen loads of Brit families on this trip)—it seemed the French were on spring break as well. The area under I. M. Pei’s lovely pyramid was raucous with noisy children going to the Louvre with parents or grandparents … and that was only the beginning.
Unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre is much less easy for non-French speakers to navigate, or at least it seemed that way to me. Something as simple as buying the tickets became a challenge. We walked through a courtyard to get to the pyramid, stood in line to go through security, and then went down an escalator into the lobby—but then what? Or where?
First order of business: we were parched, so we headed for a little café to get a bottle of water. They were only €2.30 each (that’s nearly $3 per bottle, kids). All I really wanted to do was sit down, and the lobby, as huge as it is, has very few places to sit. We were chased out of the café’s sitting area by a waiter who gestured that we couldn’t sit there (we’d unknowingly bought to-go bottles, not to-stay cups) and—for the second time in two days—I was about ready to provoke an international incident (this one intentional!), so tired and cranky was I. I just wanted five minutes of sit-down time. But no, Gerry rescued me from a night in jail by urging me away before I told the waiter to kiss my very tired behind, and, instead, we went in search of tickets.
As I’ve mentioned already, the ATM-like machine that I tried to buy tickets from spit my credit card out in disgust. Fortunately the lines to buy tickets from humans weren’t long, and we soon had them, although, again, we weren’t really sure where to go next. It just wasn’t obvious—and hey, call me an unsubtle American if you must, I just like a little unambiguity now and again. Like, you know, one of those schematic drawings they have at the mall, with the red arrow and the words “YOU ARE HERE.”
As it turns out, there are three ways to go in, because there are three wings: Denon, Richelieu, Sully. These wings, actually, are what’s left of the French monarchy’s royal residence, built over hundreds of years (and obviously without a building permit! Ha!). The guidebook tells us that King Philippe-August built a fortress along the Seine in 1190; some of this building, which was the royal residence, is still a part of the Louvre as it exists today (Sully). In the sixteenth century, François I built a Renaissance-style palace next to it (Richelieu), “and founded the royal art collection with twelve paintings looted from Italy.” By the time Louis XIV moved the royal court out to Versailles in 1682, various wings and buildings had been added by various monarchs, creating the behemoth that it is now; when the Sun King left, however, building ceased. Revolutionaries opened the collection (which had grown, of course) to the public in 1793, and shortly thereafter, in 1800, Napoleon renovated the building intentionally to create a museum. Today there are over 350,000 priceless objects in the Louvre. You could spend days there and not see everything.
The thing about these old museums in these old buildings is they’re just not user friendly. I’ve become quite spoiled by some of the newer American (and Irish) museums I’ve visited, where the visitor is led from exhibit to exhibit, all but guaranteeing that everything is seen. Well, you just can’t see everything in the Louvre. They say you should decide what you want to see, and then go to that spot—and that’s a great idea, if you can figure out how to get there. Even the maps were confusing (in fairness, the buildings’ layout is confusing), and I’m normally pretty good with a map. Can you hear a rant approaching?
The long and the short of it: the Louvre was the biggest disappointment of my entire trip. In a word: I hated it. (Gerry says I hated it because we were there at the end of the day, and I was tired and—don’t forget—sick; he contends that if we’d gone there first thing in the morning, I would have liked it a lot better … and next time—next time!—we will do just that.) But picture this: Jamie and Gerry, walking through room after room of magnificent art, eyes glued to the map (“What room is this, honey?”), trying to get where we’re going. We spent forty-five precious minutes doing that. The place was packed, and there were tons of kids running around loose. The crowds can’t be helped (if Paris is the number one tourist destination in the world, the Louvre may well be the number one destination in Paris; certainly my Paris Top 10 book lists it as number one), but don’t people understand they should point their eyes in the same direction they are walking? Walk, or look at art: it’s a choice you have to make! There were people taking flash photography when it’s clearly signposted not to (and this wasn’t a few isolated incidents; it was constant). The security personnel, standing around in groups of two or three, chatting with each other, didn’t bother to try to stop it. (End of rant.)
As I write these words, it occurs to me that perhaps it was the seeming lack of respect—even my own as I strode through rooms that I didn’t even look at—that got under my skin. Attention must be paid! This is the Louvre, for heaven’s sake!
I wanted to see the Dutch masters; I fell in love with Vermeer and Rembrandt as a teen, and I’m still fascinated by the detail in the paintings from that school, still fascinated with the realism, with the portraits of old people with gnarled hands. I know very little about art history, and understand even less, but I know what I like, and I like these paintings. So that is where we went, finally. After we walked through that area, we headed down to see the Mona Lisa (because that’s what everyone does, of course; and that smallish room was packed). You can’t get close, and she’s behind glass (as were many paintings we saw), which means you might as well look at a photograph, but, as Gerry says, now I can tell my future grandchildren that I’ve seen the Mona Lisa in person.
At that point it really was time to go. We hopped on the Metro back to the Pont Marie, found the grocery store Giancarlo’d told us about, and yes, the prices were much better than what we’d paid on the island the day before. We were both beat and ready to be home in our snug, comfortable little apartment. We were going to stop in the boulanger around the corner for fresh bread.
At least, that was the plan. We were literally just two blocks from the Seine at that point (and just another one block from the apartment), but somehow we got turned around when we came out of the store, and we headed off in the wrong direction; eventually we walked in a big circle, about thirty minutes’ worth. My feet were killing me. By the time we got our bearings and the right direction (thanks to a barkeep who spoke no English but who did “speak” map), we arrived back in our neighborhood too late for the boulanger. Not that that spoiled our meal.
And just in time—it began raining as we sat down to eat.
* It would also turn out—though I wouldn’t know for years—that I was suffering from sleep apnea.