Sunday, July 24, 2011

J'aime Paris!

I love Paris!  I love the busy streets, the crowded bistros and the wonderful history that resides in this city.  Joe and I have been here 3 times before, but this time is different.  This time, we get to see the city through the eyes of our boys.  When asked what they wanted most to see, the obvious came forth - the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.  Since we arrived by train mid-day Friday, we decided that the Champs Elysee would be our starting point for our weekend.  The boys learned quickly that visiting Paris does not equal a relaxing vacation.  You walk everywhere.  Yes, the metro gets you where you need to go, but you have to factor in the numerous steps required to get from one train line to the next, and you quickly question whether you were better off staying on the streets, taking in the sites and walking on level land, rather than enduring the endless train connections, stairs,... and smell.  So, we decided to teach them early that we would be doing a lot of walking on this trip, so we might as well begin by walking down its most famous street towards its most famous museum. 

We started at the Place de la Concorde and walked towards the Louvre.  Since this is the only museum open late on a Friday night, we decided to take in the highlights.  The boys were adequately impressed by the I.M. Pei pyramid, the size of the museum, and the large crowds.  It was not surprising when they were as equally unimpressed by the Mona Lisa.  Of all the wonderful paintings and sculptures on display in this former palace, the Mona Lisa is only impressive from the standpoint of the security involved to protect it and the enormous crowd surrounding it trying to take pictures. 

Following our quick tour of the Italian paintings and Grecian statues (Venus de Milo and Victory), we concluded our brief tour and headed down the busy Champs Elysee, which was already set up in preparation for the country's prized bike race.  Grandstands and barricades lined the famous street in anxious anticipation of the tour's finale on Sunday. The wheels in the boys' heads quickly started turning on the thought of getting up really early in order to secure some of these prized seats, only to have their bubbles burst by mom and dad who quickly instilled shots of reality on these hopeful ideas, insuring them that these seats were certainly not meant for the die-hard fans willing to camp out a night or two before like those determined Apple first adoptors with their iPads.  No, these seats were meant for celebraties of the French variety and we were not among that elite.  So, we ushered them past the priority bleachers and tents to our destination at the end of this famous rue - the Arc de Triomphe. With a little persuasion, I had convinced Joe to invest in 4 day museum passes for our stay here in Paris.  Not quite an easy feat given he is not generally a museum fan and the cost of the two required tickets was 100 euros (the kids get into most museums free). Though the purchase required a special trip at the Louvre, the expense and trouble paid off in spades at our first stop when we were able to bypass the hour and a half or so long line and were able to enter the Arc after a very brief security check.  Only 268 stairs or so later, the boys were gazing on the city of lights from an amazing perch above the Champs Elysee. The view was quite breath-taking (as was the ascent).  We ended our night with our quick trip via train back to the Bercy Park area of town where our hotel is and hit our pillows ready for our next busy day in France.

Saturday morning promised off and on rain showers, so we decided to make our venture to the outskirts of Paris - Versailles.  Joe and I had not been to Versailles since our honeymoom back in 1993, and we were looking forward to seeing the sprawling estate in summer weather (we had last seen it on a cloudy day in March).  Despite taking the wrong train, our timing could not have been better.  Our passes enabled us to once again bypass the ticket lines, but the security line took approximately 45 minutes to manage.  That was just enough time for the ominous black clouds to descend and break open just as we made our way into the palace.  The boys were impressed with the ostentatious architecture and decor of the famous "Sun King's" (Louis XIV) masterpiece, a never-ending maze of halls and rooms adorned with paintings, tapestries and sculptures of the grand monarch, his family and his not-so-successful succesor (Louis XVI).  You are quickly reminded of why democracy is so highly regarded when you are faced with the grandeur of past monarchies and the resulting revolution that brought those very noble men to their knees (minus their heads.)

Following our tour of the palace, we decided to finish our day with a tour of the gardens.  Being a Saturday, the palace fountains were running - a special treat for summer visitors. Classical music is piped into the never-ending maze of trees, flowers and fountains.  It's no wonder that a country-loving king would turn his back to the poverty stricken streets of Paris - who wouldn't want to bask in the beautiful surroundings of the countryside when you can have hundreds of tradesmen maintaining your endless acres of perfectly manicured lawns and gardens?  Hundreds of years later, the scenery is quite breathtaking.  Again, so are the requied walks to enjoy the vastness of the property.  We completed our day by returning to Paris via the correct RER train and decided to give the kids their requested "close-up" of the Eiffel Tower.  Though they were eager to stand in the two hour long lines for the Tower elevators, we convinced them that we should wait until a later day in our trip - one that did not preceed the country's most famous athletic event! The crowds were quite large, even given the fact that it was a Saturday, but the Tour had brought out just about every tourist (French or otherwise), and everyone was looking to take in some of the city's highlights.  Besides, we knew we would need to make our way back to our hotel in order to get up early for the big event.

This morning, following a quick breakfast at the hotel, we began our trek back to the Place de la Concord so that we could scout out our observation point for the race.  The only difference in this train trip was the various barricades set up at several of the train station's exits.  After exiting at Rue de Rivoli, we quickly grabbed a spot near the barricades off the street and began the wait - the FOUR hour wait.  What we didn't know was that four hours of waiting would require an incredible amount of patience and tolerance for the heat and our fellow race observers.  Many of these die-hard fans had been lining the barricades at least an hour or so earlier than we had, but it didn't take long for the crowds around us to amass, many of whom were Parisians used to the spectacle and prepared to shove their way to the front and immediately indulge in their pack-a-day cigarette habits, scattering their ashes along the sidewalks in what felt like attempts to mark their new-found territory.  Although our street camping began around 11:30 a.m., it wasn't until at least 2:00 p.m. before the action even began.  As the bicyclists made thier way towards Paris, their team sponsors were parading down the streets of Paris, honking horns, shaking pom poms and blasting music in their efforts to rev up the crowds for their eventual arrival.  Although I have never made it to the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, I can only guess that the experience must be a similar, though simpler, version.  Cars, vans, and large 18 wheeler trucks sporting various team logos and mascots made their way past the Louvre, down the Rue de Rivoli, past the Place de la Concord before entering the Champs Elysee.  The parade was not as creative or jaw-dropping as I imagine the Rose Bowl floats or balloons are in the US, but the distraction helped kill the last couple of hours leading up to the arrival of the athletes. Despite the hour or so between the parade and the arrival of the bikers, the crowds continued to grow and the anticipation mount.  We knew the time had finally arrived once we could hear the helicopters above and the cheers making their way toward us, similar to the way the wave makes its way around a baseball stadium.  From  where we were standing, we knew to anticipate at least eight blurry views of the racers.  The tour route makes its way through the Parisian suburbs, into Paris, down the Champs Elysee, u-turns, and makes it's way back towards the Place de la Concord, past the Louvre, and back down the Rue de Rivoli, down the Champs Elysee-repeat... 7 times.  Each lap of the racers was slightly different as they began their sprint to the end.  All in all, the event (a total of about 5 minutes of watching blurry bikers fly past us) was a people watching experience, a mark off the bucket list, and an opportunity to say we've done it.  All in all, it took 4 more hours to find out who actually won (the Aussie), but at least the brothers from Luxembourg took second and third.

Cadel Evans - yellow jersey and 2011 Tour de France winner.

Our last two days in Paris will find us making our way through a few more museums and, our favorite, to Notre Dame and the left bank.  I am sure we will endure those inevitable lines at the Eiffel Tower and will celebrate J's birthday a few days early at the Hard Rock.  My legs ache, my eyes are drooping, but I couldn't ask for a better way to introduce the kids to a city Joe and I just can't seem to get enough of!


1 comment:

  1. It's wonderful that the boys are old enough to enjoy & young enough to get those free passes into the museums!!! Eat a crepe for me -- one of those yummie ones full of Nutella! (or maybe just eat an omlette -- like the most fabulous you would ever have in your whole life!) Love French food... especially the cheap French food!