We decided to take this trip, only a few months after our 3 week trip through Southeast Asia, because an opportunity presented itself. Princess Cruise Lines came up with a unique itinerary, sailing on the Ocean Princess, the same ship we took in Asia. Dianne agreed to go if we could also indulge her longtime dream to tour Paris. Apparently she wasn't impressed when I took her to Paris, Illinois last summer. The county seat of Edgar County doesn't have the same pizazz.
We flew American Airlines out of Chicago. Our travel agent got us seats in an exit row which has more legroom than a normal coach seat. On our previous overseas trips, we flew either first class or business class, using frequent flyer miles. But the 7 1/2 hour flight was tolerable. The food wasn't as good as first class. We were served tortellini with lettuce and tomato salad.
Arriving in Paris the next morning, we found Shawn, our driver, in Charles DeGaulle Airport, holding up a sign with my name on it. It was a 30 minute drive on a modern expressway to the Hilton Hotel on Rue de Courcelles
. In case you wondered , there is
no Paris Hilton hotel, probably for good reason. (we checked.) Our hotel, the most centrally located Hilton in Paris is called Hilton Arc d' Triomphe because of its proximity to the famous monument to French military glory (!). We arrived at the hotel around 10:30 A.M., but couldn't check in until 2 o'clock.
We decided to take a walk around town. Paris is the City of Light, and we searched for some Bud Light or Miller Light, but didn't find any. I don't speak a lot of French, but I do know the word for seal (un phoque
--you don't want me to pronounce it for you). It was a 3 block walk to the Arc d' Triomphe which was built by Napoleon in 1806 after he led France to triumph in the Battle of Austerlitz. Never mind that several years later, Napoleon and France met their Waterloo, but the arch had already been built, and they weren't about to take it down. Actually, it wasn't completed until 1833.
The French are lovers, not fighters. Their great military victories were hundreds of years ago. Charlemagne started it all about 1200 years ago when he kicked some serious butt around Europe before Y1K. France also won the Thirty Years' War which ended in 1648. Since then we've had the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and World Wars I and II--well, they wound up on the winning side. And who can forget Dien Bien Phu? Agincourt, back in 1415? They did
win the French Revolution, but then they were fighting the French. As a Chicagoan, I can understand. Back home we have the Chicago Cubs. In any event, there are military monuments all over Paris.
The Arc d' Triomphe is quite an impressive structure, 164 feet high and 148 feet wide. The arch is wide enough to fly a small airplane through it, and somebody actually did in 1919. Charles Godefroy flew a small bi-plane through the arch a couple of weeks after another pilot was killed while training for it. Twelve streets radiate out from it in all directions, the most famous of which is the Champs Elysees
(Elysian Fields), the fashionable business street. Amid the many sidewalk cafes one finds Louis Vuitton, Hugo Boss and other well known retailers. The most popular store on the street is McDonald's which is doing a land office business.
We were looking for but still hadn't see the Eiffel Tower. We consulted the map and located it about a mile away. We turned right, down George V (Fifth) Street toward the Seine River which divides the city roughly in half. Arriving at the river, the majestic Eiffel Tower loomed into view, and we stood on the bridge taking pictures.
We crossed the river down to the Left Bank and walked toward the Eiffel Tower past several art museums. One featured African and South American art, but we didn't need to come to France to see that. We approached the tower and didn't realize how big it is. We've seen the one in Las Vegas many times, but that one is a half size replica. The Eiffel Tower, about 1000 feet high, was the tallest building in the world when it was built in 1889--it surpassed the Great Pyramid of Giza and also the Washington Monument.
When it was built, many contemporaries considered it an eyesore. For example the novelist Guy de Maupassant ate lunch there every day because, as he put it, "It was the only place in Paris where he couldn't see it." It was built for the World's Fair of 1889 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. The architect, Gustave Eiffel, who had also built the Statue of Liberty in 1885, intended it to be temporary, and it was slated to be dismantled in 20 years. By 1909 it had become important in the communications industry and they left it there. Periodically, the French considered dismantling it for scrap metal because it is costly to maintain--the 9400 tons of wrought iron must be painted every seven years to protect it from rust.
African street vendors hawked small replicas of the Eiffel Tower and we saw them often scooping up their wares in blankets and leaving the area when the gendarmes
approached them. The Eiffel Tower sits in a small park and has several gift shops, food stands and ticket offices at the 4 massive legs of the structure. Throngs of tourists milled about and purchased tickets for the elevators to take them to the second level (about 300 feet up) where you have to buy another ticket to go to the top.
We didn't go up then, but we did so two days later. We took the diagonal elevator to the second level which boasts gift shops and the exclusive Jules Verne Restaurant. They pack about 60 people in the elevator car. The view is very nice when it isn't overcast and rainy. People lined up to buy tickets to ascend the remaining 700 feet or so to the top. We would have considered it, but it was raining and getting late. We had reservations for the Moulin Rouge and had to get cleaned up for that.
We walked the mile or so back to our hotel to get some rest. Although the Hilton is a first class hotel, the nicely furnished rooms are significantly smaller than those at the Hilton in Shanghai or the Conrad in Singapore where we stayed a few months ago. This Hilton has no gift shop and no pool. It has the Purple Bar, not to be confused with the Purple Hotel near Chicago. You couldn't write a poem about it because there are no words that rhyme with purple.
The concierge was very helpful. On TV, they have all Jerry Lewis, all the time. Actually, I'm kidding about that--I scanned the TV listings and found no Jerry Lewis movies. There weren't even any Dean Martin movies.
At dinner time, we asked the concierge for a restaurant recommendation. He directed us to the Cafe Loricime, about 3 blocks away, across from a flower market on Rue du Faub. St.-Honore ( I love the street names!). We had oysters, escargots in the shell, Scottish salmon, Sole Meunaire. Before the main course, they served small cups of vichyssoise soup, not cold but at room temperature. The best part of dinner was the French bread rolls. We had wine. The worst part was the bill which was 115 Euros including the VAT (value added tax). The VAT tax is 5.5% on food and 19% on alcoholic drinks. They charge 3.5 Euros for water. We're talking about 159 bucks for dinner for two!
The next morning, Monday, we planned to visit the Louvre, the famous art museum and also the world's largest palace. We walked to the Champs Elysees and waited and waited for the Green Bus, a double decked tourist bus which didn't show. So we hailed a taxi for 2 mile or so drive to the Louvre. The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays and Versailles is closed on Monday, so if we didn't go today, we were in trouble. On arriving, it was bedlam, with tour groups and students lined up. You have to enter through a large glass pyramid, built in the 1990's which seems out of place here.
The Louvre is about 900 years old. The French kings lived there until Louis XIV, the Sun King moved his operation to Versailles in 1682 and used the Louvre to house his art collection. The most popular exhibit is DiVinci's La Gioconda
(the Mona Lisa) which is surprisingly small in size. Unlike other priceless paintings, it is kept behind bullet-proof glass and a railing with a guard, so you can't get really close to it, making it difficult to snap a good photo. The painting actually was
stolen in 1911 by a former employee who tucked it under his coat and walked out. It wasn't recovered for 2 years. I elbowed my way to the front of the crowd to get the best photo I could.
The lines to get in the museum were long, and I can see the benefit of going on an organized tour group. The museum is huge and one can spend days there viewing the multitude of artworks. They had Roman, they had Greek, they had Egyptian--not to mention painters of French, German, Dutch, Flemish and Italian origins, as well as sculptures (does Venus de Milo ring a bell?). But we had only an hour or two and didn't have time to really do this place right. We were schlepping our jackets because of the cool, rainy weather, and it was getting stuffy in there because of the throngs of people. We finally had to get out, and we caught the Green Bus which we couldn't find earlier in the day.
We sat up on the open top of the bus in the cool, gloomy weather. We got the full sightseeing tour--Notre Dame Cathedral, the Sorbonne, the Left Bank, Hotel des Invalides
(disabled veterans home), listening to the English narrative. We got off near Notre Dame to have lunch at a small cafe. Dianne had onion soup and I had poisson
(fish) soup, served with French bread and cheese. Everything is very expensive in Europe, and it probably cost us around $25 for the small lunch, but the food was good. We hopped back on the next bus and rode around Paris on three different bus routes. We saw the Opera
(remember the Phantom?) and the Pantheon where many great Frenchmen are buried.
That evening, we visited the Italian restaurant next door to the Cafe Loricime. We feasted on gnocchi, linguine with clams, and bruschette. To me this was good ol' American food.
The following day, Tuesday, it rained pretty much all day, but we were going to Versailles, about 18 miles out of town, no matter what. Versailles is a huge palace. It began as a hunting lodge out in the country for Louis XIII. Louis XIV played and hunted there as a boy. XIV decided in 1682 to move the government there, partly so he could keep his eye on the nobility. (Keep your friends close and your enemies closer!)
Essentially, he kept them in gilded cages. Louis XIV, called the Sun King, greatly expanded the palace in his 72 year reign. He believed that bathing in water was harmful and, during his lifetime, he took between 2 and 6 baths, depending on whom you talk to.
Louis XIV became king at age 5, but his mother, Anne of Austria, ran the show with her prime Minister, Cardinal Mazarin, for about 15 years. She was resented by the nobles because she was Austrian (or was it Australian?), and so she often went out of her way to piss them off. During her regency, France settled the Thirty Years' War at the Treaty of Westphalia, to France's benefit, receiving Alsace and other Habsburg lands.
Ultimately, Louis XIV took over, followed by XV and XVI. There are no records of what they called each other. The salons
(rooms) are spectacular, with priceless paintings adorning the walls and ceilings, not to mention the Louis XVI chairs and other furniture that the French are famous for. The beautiful Hall of Mirrors was used for grand celebrations. It was the site of the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I although it was not called that at the time. Just outside are the exquisite gardens which you have to pay extra to see. We would see it from the windows, but since it was raining, we passed on that.
One thing that was lacking is they don't have a lot of washrooms in the palace. In Louie's day, they used chamberpots which they emptied out the nearest windows, but that doesn't sit well today with tourists. According to Duc Saint-Simon, a contemporary of Louie, the smell was said to "unique out of all the palaces of Europe". On this day, the ladies' queue extended into the parking lot.
We were herded through the state apartments which included the king's bedroom and the queen's bedroom--they didn't have to share one. Along with the bedrooms, or bedchambers, as they were called, each had a library, drawing room and guardrooms. Among the many drawing rooms were the Mars, Venus, Hercules and Diana Drawing Rooms. I'm not sure what kind of drawing they did, but in the old days, they would serve hors d'oeuvres to the nobles in those rooms.
We saw the guillotine which was applauded at the time because it was a humane way to kill political prisoners. The French thought of everything!
In the evening, we took a taxi to the nightclub district in Montmatre to see the famed Moulin Rouge which is one of the most famous cabarets in the world and one of the 500 places you must see before you die. Moulin Rouge, which means "red mill" is a Paris landmark with an iconic red windmill on the roof. This is a garish nightclub located across the street from a lap dance joint and sex shops. Our concierge asserted that Moulin Rouge is overrated, but we were not disappointed at all. The musical show, Faerie
was terrific. It featured about 30 can-can girls and about 10 male dancers. We saw lots of T and A. I've seen every show in Vegas, and I found this to be even better.
We were advised that the dress code was formal, which meant coat and tie for men. I dressed properly, but much of the audience, many of them Americans, did not. When we walked in, we were seated at a back table because we had not made dinner reservations. We got champagne with the show, but we wanted some food. Since we were dressed well and we greased a palm, we were moved up close--to a table in the front row by the stage.
Immortalized by the famed artist Toulouse Lautrec who used to hang around the Moulin Rouge and paint the posters which hang on the walls, I can see the appeal of this club. In Toulouse's day, it was a classy brothel. It is considered the birthplace of the modern form of the can-can dance, which was a seductive dance by the courtesans who operated there to entertain the male clientele. The rich Parisians went slumming there, and the place is very expensive. I felt, however, the we got good value for our money.
In the U.S. we have a streeotype of the French people as culturally and linguistically superior people who wear berets and spend their time watching goofy Jerry Lewis movies. We didn't observe that stereotype. We made efforts to use French phrases and ask (in French) if they spoke English. We found the French to be quite friendly and helpful.
One thing that did drive me nuts--their keyboard is different. In the U.S., we use the qwerty
keyboard. In France, the Q and W are on the bottom, not the top, and a few other letters are in different positions. I was typing gibberish on the hotel computer until I figured out the French system.
Despite the wet weather, we had a wonderful 3 days in Paris, and Dianne can't wait to come back. There is much more to see.
Next: Belgium, the home of waffles, chocolate and lace.