Tuesday, February 14, Aer Lingus Dublin-to-Paris
WHO KNEW that Brad and Angelina would be in Paris (as the copy of People magazine I picked up in the airport informed us) on February 14th (and, in fact, for most of February)? But then as the world’s most famous lovers, why WOULDN’T they be in Paris on the International Day of Love and Expensive Meals, eh?
After some discussion with Anne Rogers last night (she and her husband, Kevin, owners of Blaithin House, were departing for Barcelona that day about forty-five minutes after we were due to take off for Paris), they decided not to ride to the airport with us. I can’t blame them—Anne offered to leave breakfast out for me, but I really couldn’t imagine giving up any sleeping time to eat, so why would they want to give up the extra sleep either? (I would come to regret declining that breakfast, though!)
Travel Tip: Eat your breakfast. You never know when travel circumstances may interrupt or delay your regularly scheduled feeding … forcing you to resort to, say, copious amounts of French chocolate until a real meal can be had. (Contrary to popular belief, chocolate—French or otherwise—is not one of the major food groups.)
Gerry likes to be early—or, I should say, he likes to have enough time to allow for mishaps, which, as we discussed in an earlier rant, are the herbs and spices in the recipe of international travel, in my humble opinion—so we arrived at the airport a bit after five a.m. Obviously there was no one to receive the rental car out at the lot, and by five-thirty, when we’d checked our bags, there was no one at the Europcar counter inside, either, so we just left the keys and went on.
We wandered through duty-free just to see what was there (forward planning for my departure in ten days)—and let me tell you, it was weird to see that much retail happening before six o’clock in the morning! Dublin has an excellent duty-free mall, by the way.
We’d heard earlier from Pat that this week is spring break for all Irish schools (the first time ever, it seems, that the event had been coordinated), and suddenly it made sense why there were all those teens roving around like packs of wild dogs—our plane to Paris was packed with teenagers on the loose, as well as families with small children on their way to EuroDisney, which is just outside Paris, apparently. Considering that Gerry’s house (and my B&B) is just a fifteen minute drive from the airport, and I still had to rise at four a.m. for this seven a.m. flight, I could only imagine how long some of those Irish folk had been up, and how cranky some of those kids must be, although we were, of course, soon to learn.
Another Travel Tip: Europe is awash in discount airlines; Ryan Air, originating in Ireland, is one, but there are several, all competing to fly folks between the major European destinations. Can you say “Price War”? If you’ve got your heart set on Rome, but the cheapest flight from the States is to London, jump on it. You can get there from … well … there. Anne and Kevin flew from Dublin to Barcelona for €25 each. Hel-lo—you read that correctly: twenty-five euro (roughly thirty bucks). Think about it, and plan accordingly.
Our flight was, as I’ve said, full, but it was uneventful (and in the case of air travel, that’s a good thing)—but that was the only easy thing about the morning. The French—with apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald—are different from you and me. Especially as it regards, um, signage.
Yep, Charles de Gaulle airport is just a bit confusing, and I’d done my homework, I knew where we wanted to go! I could even see it—the RER (in other words, the underground train into/through Paris)—on the signs. I just couldn’t find it.
Here’s the thing in a nutshell: we landed at Terminal 1, and the RER only departs from Terminal 3 (oh, did I mention that CDG is spread out into several different terminals?). My guidebook failed to tell me that important piece of information, because it’s intended for the American market, and if you fly into Paris from the U.S., you’ll land at Terminal 3, and that will be that. But I entered Paris from another country in the European Union! Suddenly, it was a whole new ballgame.
Yet Another Travel Tip: I love the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. I’ve bought more than one brand of guidebook in my time, but I keep coming back to DK (I love the detailed street maps of the more important towns, for one thing). And now they make these “Top 10” books—Top 10 Dublin, Top 10 Paris—for people who have a limited amount of time. They give you the top ten don’t-miss spots, and then they break down each venue (the Eiffel Tower, for example) into the ten things you should see while there. They’re small (fit in a small purse like mine) and reasonably lightweight.
French signage is like a scavenger hunt: they only give you one clue at a time. So, we collected the luggage, said to ourselves, “OK, let’s get to the RER,” and then found a sign that looked something like this: RER —>
Hey! We don’t need to speak French to follow arrows, right?
We walked in the direction the arrow pointed, and ended up at an elevator. When we got to the elevator, the sign regarding RER only told us to go down one floor. When we got down one floor, the arrows pointed us outside, where shuttle buses were pulling up, and we overheard someone say that we could catch the train at Terminal 3 (someone who knew more than us). So that’s how we got to the train station, along with a load of puzzled Irish folk. But what should have taken us about ten minutes actually took about forty-five; there were some moments wandering around the airport when I felt pretty hopeless. I stopped and asked airport workers twice, and that interaction left us a bit frustrated too (oh, let’s be honest: they weren’t helpful, and it felt … as if they were unhelpful on purpose).
A note on foreshadowing: this isn’t foreshadowing. Normally I like to just let the story unfold. But right now you may be thinking that I had a bad French experience, which, in fact, couldn’t be further from the truth. So I just want to tell you now that this all has a happy ending, I had a lovely time in Paris, France, and want to go back as soon as I can manage it. Frankly, Paris is one of those places that you have to go back to, because you do spend a certain amount of time fumbling around in the dark, so to speak. But then you figure everything out—what works and what you like, and where things are, and how much time to allow—and the vacation becomes everything you’d hoped it would be, only two days shorter. 🙂
But back to those frigging signs. It just seems like it could have been easier. For example, a sign that said RER, TERMINAL 3 would have made a lot of sense to me, and would have set us on the right path. After all, all we had to do was take the luggage fifty feet from the carousel to the elevator, go down one floor, catch a shuttle bus to the next-plus-one terminal where the train station and ticketsellers were, buy two tickets, and get on. We’re both reasonably intelligent people; this should have been doable. (Later our landlord agreed that Terminal 1 is, in his words, “a nightmare.”)
And don’t get me started on the kiosk-computer that was supposed to sell us a ticket; even with the help of an American woman who spoke (and read) “a little” French (in case I was doing something wrong, which I wasn’t), we never could make it sell us a ticket. We gave up, and she tried to buy a ticket and had the same problem as us (later I had the identical problem trying to buy tickets from a machine at the Louvre, which led me to conclude that my credit card—and possibly many American credit cards?—had some fundamental incompatibility with the French automated system; the machine would just spit it out after a certain point. Makes me wonder about their ATMs. It worked just fine, thankyouverymuch, at French stores though! Ooo la-la!)
Bottom line: I’ve only traveled to English-speaking countries thus far. Stepping outside that particular comfort zone (although, let’s face it, sometimes in Ireland I’m not completely certain I’m speaking the same language) takes international travel to a whole new level. I read up about this trip, I tried to prepare, and I actually thought I could handle it (and I did, most of the time). Having said all that, though, most places that tourists might go in Paris had (ahem) English subtitles. Restaurant menus had English translations. Most shopkeepers spoke more than enough English to sell us what we wanted. Paris is the number-one tourist destination in the world, for heaven’s sake, and, trust me, most of those tourists do not speak French. Parisians have definitely gone the extra mile to make us welcome.
So … putting all that behind us, we bought tickets from a human, not a machine, and finally dragged our luggage on to the train—the RER B-line, which goes straight through the middle of Paris. We exited at the St Michel-Notre Dame exit, which is pretty much dead center. Gerry was cursing as he dragged my suitcase up those last stairs—but there we were … Paris!
As we’d been instructed via e-mail (in English), we crossed the street, and met our landlord, Giancarlo Buccafusca. He is an emergency room physician at the Hôtel-Dieu (apparently that means hospital in French), and we just walked in and asked for him. Giancarlo came out to give us the keys and the security entry code, told us he’d drop by later to settle up on the rent, and gave us directions to the apartment.
Something Interesting: I didn’t know this until recently, but in major tourism cities like San Francisco, say, or Paris, there’s quite a bit of business done in short-term apartment rental. This gets you out of the hotel district and into a neighborhood, and in the case of Paris, integrates you into the life pretty quickly. (Of course, you take your chances: sometimes you end up in the Village of the Damned. But sometimes … you end up at 23 rue le Regrattier.) My friend Jenny had had a good experience with this type of accommodation in Paris, and had suggested several Web sites; I’d chosen one that you worked directly with the owner of the apartment (thus no brokerage fees). I’d decided what part of Paris to stay in, looked at several apartments, e-mailed Giancarlo, negotiated a price (because it was the off-season), set a date—and that was that! I cannot emphasize enough how much we loved this apartment, loved the location, loved having more than just a room in a hotel—for a lot less than we’d have paid for “just a room” in a hotel.
So we walked the seven or eight minutes to the apartment on the Île St-Louis, dragging our luggage behind us. Île de la Cité is pretty touristy, even in mid-February; there are dozens of shops selling little plastic Eiffel Towers (and other plastic Paris memorabilia) lining the streets. We walked right past Notre-Dame, and I was literally agog with the wonder that only a girl from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, could feel. Notre-Dame, y’all! Flying buttresses, gargoyles, tourists in the courtyard, yeah.
The temperature was in the 40s, just as weather.com said it would be. But when you’re on the move, it doesn’t feel all that cold.
Île de la Cité is where Paris was born: the first inhabitants of this area were a Celtic tribe, the Parisii, who settled on the island in the third century BC. Romans later destroyed the Parisii city and founded their own on the Left Bank (calling it Paris, after the Celts); and in 476 the Franks captured the city, converted it to Christianity, and made Paris the capital of their new kingdom, France. French kings even made their residence on the island until 1358.
Nowadays, all distances in France are measured from Point Zero, which is in the courtyard just outside Notre-Dame Cathedral—so you see, this island is pretty meaningful in French history. Its little sister, connected by a small bridge that ends up at Notre Dame’s backyard gate (so to speak), is Île St-Louis, where we were headed.
For a long time, Île St-Louis was nothing but a cow pasture, but in the seventeenth century, lords and financiers and other important folk began building their homes there, and that is pretty much the situation now. It is considered to be the most exclusive address in Paris. It feels like a small village, and when you leave Cité and walk into St-Louis, you can even sense the noise level dropping … it was quiet in among those old, old buildings. The island is fortified by a stone wall; you can take the stairs down to the river level and walk all the way around the island, which, I’m told, takes about ninety minutes all in. (Because I was still ill, this was one of the things that just slid off the to-do list.)
The street that runs down the middle of the island (rue St-Louis en L’ile) has plenty of shops (although the grocery store was pricey, so we shopped off the island for grocery items, once we learned where), and not a touristy shop among them! We did get in the habit of running out in the morning for fresh bread, right around the corner from the apartment. Oh, those French pastries. Oh, oh, oh.
And what a gorgeous apartment! Just a block away from Notre-Dame, we turned left on rue le Regrattier …
… went to the third doorway (past an antique shop and an entrance to another apartment building) …
… inserted the funny plastic key and waited for the lock to release. Once inside there’s a covered anteroom where the mailboxes are, which ended in another door. This required entering a security code; past that door the tiny, tiny courtyard held garbage bins and more doors. Ours was the first.
This building is very old (built in 1642, we’ve read); since our apartment was mostly below street level, Gerry speculated that we were probably in a piece of what used to be the servants’ quarters. From the front door stairs you can go down into the living quarters or up into the loft bathroom and sleeping area. (Note: these photos were taken on my old [film] Canon F-1, with no flash. They’re not great.)
The high ceiling has two magnificent—and obviously ancient—wooden beams running the length of it; again, these probably supported the floor of what was once a mansion above, though now it’s just other apartments. There is nary a straight line on any wall in the place, such is the age of the building.
The apartment is small; if you’ve looked at the Web site [now defunct] you’ll have seen it’s just 560 square feet—but let me tell you, it’s 560 well-used square feet, and, of course, modern and nice and comfortable. (Unlike the Village of the Damned, the heat had been turned on in anticipation of our arrival.) The kitchen was fully stocked with plenty of dishes, pots and pans—and, amazingly, olive oil, spices, condiments in the fridge, even cookies and cereal in the cabinets! (We made sure to leave some treats behind too.) The bathroom is quite large, with a built-in washer and dryer, and plenty of extra towels. And a bidet (a first for me). And there was even a box of Kleenex in the kitchen, which I would make ample use of as I continued to recover from my cold.
“Hey! Come see this!” Gerry called from upstairs. “Steve McQueen is on the telly, and he’s speaking French!” During our stay in Paris we also managed to see Starsky and Hutch speaking French, and Billy “City Slickers” Crystal speaking French; who knew these guys were bilingual, eh? (While this phenomenon of familiar American movies dubbed into French was amusing at first, let me assure you it lost its charm pretty quickly—especially when there was, um, Paris to explore.)
So we were out the door. We found the baker (la boulangerie), and yes, we walked around with a pair of loose loaves of bread stuck under our arms. Found the greengrocr (la marchand de legumes), the cheese shop (la fromagerie), and ooooh yes, the patisserie (need you ask?). A deli (la charcuterie) for cold cuts. Found a small grocery store and bought a few supplies for breakfast. Since we didn’t speak—or read—the language, we shopped by looking at the pictures on the packaging, although I was amazed at how much of my high school French started coming back to me. We carried all this culinary loot back to the apartment (it’s so cool, this neighborhood shopping!) and then set off again.
Now we crossed back over to Île de la Cité, walked past Notre-Dame—it was much larger than I expected—straight up the island to Saint-Chapelle (translated literally, this means “holy chapel”). This is what the official guidebook says: “The Sainte-Chapelle was built by St. Louis, king Louis IX, in the middle of the thirteenth century, at the heart of the palais de la Cité, the sovereign’s residence and the seat of his administration.”
It is a spectacular little jewelbox of a building, originally built by the very devout Louis to house holy relics: Christ’s crown of thorns, a fragment of the cross, and other items. (Remember, of course, that this was in 1239—in other words, more than a thousand years after the Passion. Everything Louis kept in Sainte-Chapelle is gone now, so we’ll never know if they were … uh … real, but I for one have serious doubts.) Be that as it may, the chapel was built (consecrated in 1248), and attached to the enormous royal residence. At that time it was taller than everything around it, sitting in the center of the palace’s courtyard. Now it is almost invisible, having been swallowed up by larger buildings built all around it, most notably the Palais de Justice.
[My photographs aren’t great, so I poked around the Web trying to find some. Back in 2006, there wasn’t a lot but these days, Saint-Chapelle has a Facebook page. 🙂 The photos here are magnificent, and I recommend you stop and take a look.]
Admittedly, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, until you’ve been inside: gothic in style, the building is in remarkable shape (think of every World War II movie you’ve ever seen and then remind yourself that the Nazis entered Paris in mid-1940 and stayed a really long time—it’s a miracle it survived). It reminds me of a doll’s house, with every perfect little detail.
A website I investigated gave these directions—“To visit, go to the Palais de Justice, and follow the signs”—which made me laugh out loud.
You see, we did that. And once again we fell victim to the whimsy that is French signage: we saw the sign that said Sainte-Chapelle, and we followed the arrow, which led, as best we could tell, right into the Palais de Justice, which houses the city’s Judicial Court.
We got in line, went through security, removing belts and shoes and coats—and then realized we were actually on our way into a court of law, not into a tourist destination. (Later, retracing our steps, wondering what happened, we realized that we should have seen the next sign and arrow, just past the doorway we entered; sort of the bread-crumbs-in-the-forest method of directional signage.) Anyway, I almost caused an international incident when I dashed out the next exit: an agitated cop followed us, shouting the French version of “Stop or I’ll shoot,” but when he saw me and realized that all he really had on his hands was a chubby discombobulated Yank, he just threw up his arms, rolled his eyes, and let us go.
I’d been told that late afternoon was the perfect time to see it, so our timing was excellent. The building is very tall, and very narrow. You enter, at street level, the lower chamber, where services were held for the palace staff during the time of the French monarchy. The colors are rich: reds, golds, and blues, with the French fleur de lys appearing everywhere. It’s impressive enough (until you get upstairs); I kept repeating to myself: “Built in 1248, built in 1248, oh, my.”
Although in Louis’s day there was an outdoor ramp-like staircase that led into Sainte-Chapelle, today we climb an interior spiral staircase to reach the nave above, which is 34 feet wide, 108 feet long, and 67 feet tall. There are practically no walls—it’s almost all glass (but remember, it didn’t look like that from the outside!); what walls there are are cleverly disguised.
And besides, who would notice a wall beside those dazzling 51-foot-tall stained-glass windows! More than two-thirds of the original thirteenth-century windows survive; the rose window at the front of the building was damaged and repaired in 1485. There was a major restoration of the building in 1840, to repair damage sustained during the Revolution. It is, in a word, stunning. Nothing I can write can do it justice—you’ll just have to go there and see for yourself. : )
We walked around the outside of the building, then headed further along toward the tip of the island. We ended up at a little triangular park, the Place Dauphin. My guidebook says it is a charming place, but in winter the grass is dead, apparently, and, even though it is clearly posted to scoop your pooch’s poop, the first thing I saw in the Place Dauphin was dog crap. Everywhere.
At this point—having been up since four a.m.—we were tired, and, frankly, my feet hurt. On the way back to the apartment, we stopped at Marche aux Fleurs to buy fresh flowers; hey, it was Valentine’s Day! Marche aux Fleurs is sort of like the floral section of the Nashville Farmer’s Market: held in the center of a plaza-like area, it’s a combination of vendors in semipermanent stalls, selling potted plants and cut flowers. It’s the oldest market of this kind in the city, dating from the early 1800s. I picked out red tulips to match the apartment’s decor. The shopkeeper wrapped them in cellophane and tied them with a burgundy satin ribbon, which she affixed with a pretty sticker. This was my first experience in Paris with such elaborate packaging, but that is the way they do it: everything carefully wrapped, often beribboned. Presentation is important.
Just over the bridge from Cité to St-Louis there is a little brasserie with brick-red awnings hanging over plenty of outdoor seating (though it was too cold for that), and a prix fixe menu posted. It looked reasonable, so we went in, where the seating winds itself around a central bar. It’s all very close and cozy. No one spoke English, but everyone was friendly, and we managed to get a good hot meal, although it was a bit pricier than we’d expected, as the prix wasn’t REALLY fixe (The French fries were extra! Who knew!).
After this nice rest, we strolled down the main shopping street to get some Berthillion ice cream (it’s considered the premium ice cream in Paris, and, I can assure you, it is very, very good)—and it’s not busy in February!—then walked back to the apartment to relax and wait for Giancarlo to come and settle up.
He was a lovely guy; interestingly, exactly what I expected in terms of age—looked to be early forties. He speaks excellent English, and is very chatty and friendly … and this at the end of a long day in the emergency room! He spent an hour with us, giving us tips and suggestions (“Don’t buy groceries on the island, it’s very expensive!”), showing us on the map where we could find wifi (that would be wee-fee in French!), giving us directions to the closest supermarket (about a five-minute walk away), showing us features of the apartment, asking us if we needed anything. We had a laugh about trying to get out of the terminal, and about dragging our luggage up out of the subway—and we got our first real insider’s tip: although the guidebooks may recommend it, don’t take the train from the airport—take the bus. Buses depart from all the terminals (not just Terminal 3), and you don’t have to schlep luggage up a flight of stairs once you’ve arrived. In the end, Giancarlo even said he would come pick us up on Saturday and drive us to the nearest bus terminal; he wrote it in his Daytimer (and he showed up too). But that’s a story for another day. 🙂