Wednesday, June 4, 2014
Three Days in Paris
Since moving to Berlin, we've gone on a business trip to Dubai and taken a day in Potsdam, but other than that we haven't been able to travel outside of the city. One of the biggest reasons we moved here, though, was to see Europe, with all of its glorious capitals so close at hand. So we were very excited to finally have a weekend free this month. But where to go first? Easy answer - Paris!
We found a great deal on a Thursday through Sunday flight on Air France. Air travel within Europe can be very affordable, especially if you're flexible on your dates and are willing to spend time checking lots of different airlines. Of course, the budget airlines like Easyjet, Air Berlin, Ryanair, etc. are always pretty cheap, but a good tip is to also check the larger, traditional companies like Air France because they may have a special deal available. If they do, you can fly for a price similar to the budget airlines, but in more comfort and with more generous baggage allowances.
Another travel tip - we used a site called Airbnb to find a place to stay in Paris. It's a great alternative to regular hotels and hostels. Basically, there are tons of listings on this site for rooms to rent in private apartments and homes. This gives you two big advantages - lower prices than traditional lodging, and none of the usual taxes and fees since it's a private transaction. In our case, we were able to find a clean, simple room with a private shower for only about 40 euros (55 dollars) a night.
We arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) in the mid-afternoon and took the airport tram over to the adjacent train station, which is quite large. We rode into the city on the RER B train, which costs 9.75 euros (that's the cheapest transit to and from the airport). That's a pretty good deal compared to some other cities, but expensive compared to Berlin, where travel to and from the airports costs only 2.60 or 3.20, depending on which airport you're going to.
Our room was in the 13th Arrondissement, and we had relied on the official Paris metro website for directions. Apparently, that is not the right thing to do, as we learned later. The site had us get off the RER train a couple of stations too early and then, inexplicably, transfer to a bus to take us the rest of the way. It would have been easier to stay on the RER and transfer to the metro, but in any case, we made it just fine. Our room was in a big flat hosted by some nice young Parisians. Once we were oriented, we headed straight out to into the city.
After we finished our snack, we found ourselves at the Pont de l'Archevêché, a short bridge covered in "love locks" - padlocks with lovers' names or initials inscribed on them. On the stone wall where the bridge met the shore, hundreds of couples had written proclamations of their love. We added ours to the mosaic of romance.
From there, we wandered into the Latin Quarter to find dinner. We ended up at a place across from the Thermes de Cluny - ruins of ancient Roman baths - called 96 Cafe. We ate some galettes (savory buckwheat crepes) with white wine inside near the windows while all the locals smoked cigarettes and drank the happy hour deals on the heated patio, laughing gaily about their fortune-
filled Parisian lifestyles.
On a whim, we walked back across the Seine and took the Metro line 1 to the Arc de Triomphe. It was dark and windy, so it was relatively deserted around the Arc. We took photos from across the roundabout with its mad, lane-less traffic, and then walked through the underground tunnel to the Arc itself. The strong winds were only gently moving the massive French flag that had been hung to celebrate World War II Victory Day. It was a strange coincidence that we had arrived in Paris and ended up at the Arc de Triomphe on this holiday. As well as the flag, there were bunches of flowers laid all around the ever-burning flame of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And there were risers and bleachers set up all around and under the Arc, which we assumed had been for an official event earlier in the day. We sat under the giant flag and discussed the history that had happened there. It was a beautiful and poignant hour.
Next, we walked slowly all the way down the Champs Elysees, past the shops and quiet parks. The street lamps on the long boulevard were burning brightly, and many of the storefronts were still open despite the late hour. There were still people out, but the street emptied out as we descended toward the river. We passed young lovers in the dark under the trees, and a homeless man sleeping on a grate venting heat from the subway tunnel below. At last, we arrived at the emptied Place de la Concorde and Obelisque. We walked around and looked at the fountain and statues before finding the metro station and heading home for the night.
We had reserved tickets to the Musee du Louvre through the Fnac website before leaving Berlin. Fnac is a chain of entertainment stores that also have ticket desks, so once you're in Paris, you have to go to one of their branches in person to pick up your tickets. For some reason there is no way to print out Louvre tickets at home - you either have to get them by mail, in person at a Fnac store, or in person at the Louvre itself. The advantage of not buying them at the Louvre is that you get to bypass the regular line and enter more quickly. It turned out that we really didn't need that anyway because there was no line when we arrived in the afternoon, but if you are considering going to the Louvre in the morning or at some other peak time, it would definitely be worth it to have tickets in hand.
So on Friday, we walked through a bustling street market near our flat, and over to a Fnac in the shopping center at Place d'Italie. We grabbed our Louvre tickets there, before hopping on the Metro line 7. We got off near the Pont Neuf on the Seine and walked down to the river's edge. We sat there for a while on a stone brick wall, enjoying some more tasty baguette sandwiches, with thin ham, emmentaler cheese, and butter (we had picked them up at a neighborhood bakery on our way). The sun was shining but the air was crisp, and the river looked gorgeous, with the bright Pont Neuf on our left and the dark metal Pont des Arts on our right, and the green leaves and beautiful buildings of Paris framing the scene.
After a while, we decided to go find the archeological crypt at the Notre Dame (it had been closed when we walked by on Thursday). So we walked across the Pont Neuf to the Ile de la Cite, and through Place Dauphine, past a big courthouse building. Back at the Notre Dame, the bread festival was still underway and was super-crowded. There was also a huge line waiting to get into the cathedral itself. But the archeological crypt, which is under the square, was almost completely empty. It's relatively small, but there are some very interesting ruins from the ancient Roman era as well as the middle ages. They also have some well done interactive CG models of the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame, that allow you to explore this historic island through the centuries.
It was so sunny and beautiful that we walked around the Notre Dame again, this time while enjoying a perfect little apple tart from the bread festival. Then, we continued our food tour by walking over to the Berthillon ice cream shop on the Ile Saint-Louis. Their ice cream is simple but very refined and flavorful. We were following the recommendation of a friend, and it was definitely worth it. Then we continued the indulgence by sharing bites of a warm Nutella crepe from a nearby street stand. Stuffed with French treats, we headed towards the Louvre.
We entered the Louvre complex through a courtyard neither of us had seen before, with a big fountain in the center. It was patrolled by roving souvenir vendors, a common sight around all the major tourist destinations in Paris. Most of the ones we saw were African immigrants, and they carried big metal rings with Eiffel Tower trinkets hanging from them in bunches. It looked like a terrible job, and they didn't seem very happy.
Passing through an arch from this courtyard into the main courtyard of the Louvre presented us with a dramatic view of the Pyramid, surrounded by fountains and pools and people everywhere. Descending on the escalator beneath the Pyramid, we felt transported into another world. The light from the Pyramid fills the huge lobby, and the different passages branch off in all directions. There are so many wings and levels that studying the map and deciding which way to walk is a task in itself.
We chose to first spend some time in the beautiful Italian Renaissance paintings section in the Denon wing, standing in awe before pieces such as Salvator Rosa's L'ombre de Samuel. We didn't intend to see Leonardo's Mona Lisa, but happened to walk into that room anyway. It was in a different location than when we were both there last. We were surprised at the poor quality of the presentation in this new room. The first impression was that the whole room - and thus, the painting - was very yellow due to the type of lighting. The lights were also positioned in such a way that the heavy protective glass was very reflective from most angles, making it even more difficult to see clearly than we remembered. The painting was set very deep in a wooden cabinet, and the rope barrier kept us very far back from the cabinet itself. For a relatively small painting, this makes it impossible to appreciate as anything other than a novelty. Also, as we waded through the loud and pushy crowd, it was clear that for many of the people there, the Mona Lisa was something they were checking off their list of things to see, and to take a photograph in front of her in the same way one would in front of the Eiffel Tower. We know that it has been like this for a long time, but it seemed worse in this new location. We both remember being able to get closer to the painting and actually have some relationship with it despite the crowds.
We were much more impressed by the huge French paintings in Salon Denon, a burgundy-walled vestibule with a very high vaulted ceiling painted by Charles-Louis Müller. Stand-outs in this room were Marius Granet's Interieur de la basilique basse de Saint-Francois a Assise, Charles Gleyre's
Les Illusions perdues, dit aussi Le Soir, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' Roger délivrant Angélique, and our favorite, Paul Delaroche's La Jeune Martyre. The links provided here don't do the paintings justice because there is a surprising lack of good photos or scans available online.
Next, we crossed over to the opposite Richelieu wing to see the Napoleon Apartments. The apartments are very impressive. You first enter through some relatively modest, small family rooms, and then pass through a room with a marble staircase and large chandelier. On the other side of this, the rooms begin to get more and more ornate. There is a meeting room with a long table and chairs, a richly decorated receiving room, and then it all opens up into a grand salon. This is the most popular and beautiful room in the apartments, judging by the number of photos of it you find on google images. It's on the corner of the Richilieu wing with windows facing west and south, and east onto a balcony. The salon is filled with matching chairs, couches, and drapes and decorated with sconces, wall and ceiling paintings, a piano, and chandeliers including a huge one in the very center above a big circular couch. The room is the definition of opulence. Past the salon, there are a few more decadent rooms that lead into the hunting-themed dining hall. The dining table is very long with rich chairs crammed around it. Hunting and wildlife paintings adorn all of the walls.
Finally, we headed up into the Dutch paintings section. Unfortunately, it was too close to closing time for us to linger as much as we wanted to. But we managed to see some absolutely beautiful paintings, including Jan van der Heyden's The New Town Hall in Amsterdam, Willem van de Velde's Seascape, Calm Weather, and Vermeer's The Astronomer and The Lacemaker. At this time, we were the last visitors in this area, and were thus swept out by a phalanx of staff and security.
When we emerged from the museum it was dusk and we decided to find something to eat. Under the advice of a foodie blog, we worked our way through the labyrinthine Parisian alleys to the hidden Verjus bar a vins (wine bar). This American-owned restaurant serves small plates at the intimate brick-walled ground-floor bar, and we had a heavenly cheese plate and delightful salad with burrata mozzerella. After this and two glasses of the cheapest but perfectly exquisite house wine, we walked to the metro and went home. Just before we left though, we met a young dancer/choreographer living in Paris who by serendipity was a alumni of Rahsan's high school, School of the Arts in San Francisco.
On Saturday, we decided to see more of the city by way of bus versus the quicker but underground metro. We took bus 21 to bus 63 up to the Eiffel Tower neighborhood and walked down Avenue Bosquet to Rue Saint-Dominique to Cafe Constant for a small lunch. This restaurant is small, so it's popularity among locals and visitors makes for a cramped experience. Still, we were served by a very friendly Dominican immigrant who gave us patient French lessons after each attempt to pronounce the dishes and phrases we struggled through. Here, we shared a lovely artichoke heart salad and a steak with some wine.
We went straight to the Tour Eiffel a couple of blocks away and spent some time around the base of the tower. It was rainy and cold, but as was the throughout our visit the sun would come out for a few minutes and warm us significantly, then get chilly again as soon as the clouds covered it. Not surprisingly, there were again lots of scammers and vendors all around the site. It's such an impressive edifice and despite the obvious air of concocted symbolism, we participated and took the opportunity to share a romantic kiss.
On a nearby street, we caught Bus 69 to the Rodin Museum. Auguste Rodin is one of our favorite sculptors. An example of the amazing work on display there was his Meditation in marble (the linked picture is of a bronze cast, but was the best we could find), as well as I Am Beautiful, which is hard for a photograph to capture, because you really need to view it from multiple angles. Disappointingly, we had only seen half of the collection before being told that the museum was closing (an hour earlier than advertised online). The museum guards were kicking everyone out of the sculpture garden, but after viewing all of the studies for The Gates of Hell that are displayed inside, we couldn't leave without seeing the full bronze cast version that was in the garden. We caught a glimpse of it over the hedges and started walking towards it, trying to time our steps to avoid the guards. But one of the guys cut us off and tried to shoo us toward the exit. Shannon appealed to his hopefully innate French nature and passionately gestured and pleaded for just a moment to see it. He initially was staying firm, but then suddenly he caved and let us slip past. We jogged over and for 15 seconds soaked up the incredible piece of art. It was worth it.
We left and walked past the Hopital de Invalides and down a street which led had a view straight to the Tour Eiffel. While we cruised we were entranced by sweets in the window of Le Moulin de la Vierge. While looking over the last few treats left (we noticed that this was a popular place with locals, and after tasting we knew why there was hardly anything left in the displays), we picked out a Cheesecake de Jean-Louis and a Tartelette Citron. The cheesecake was unbelievable, a little round delight, with a very thick foundation of rich, soft, dense crust with a stupefyingly creamy topping. The tartelette was just as breathtakingly tasty, with a sweet and intensely lemony custard-like filling. The experience quickly reduced us to greedy, spellbound zombies. We narrowly escaped buying a second round.
Around the corner, we caught a bus all the way up through the city to the north side of Montmarte. We hiked up the hill and the many steps to the Sacre Coeur. It was near sunset, and we enjoyed the panoramic view of Paris before going inside the basilica. We spent quite a while looking at all the ornate chapels and beautiful sculptures. We sat in the back pews with the other non-believers and watched the delicate light of the setting sun coming through the stained glass windows.
We descended down the hill and rode Bus 54 out of the Montmarte district to Bus 95, which then took us to Gare St. Lazare, where we caught Bus 21 home. On the ride, we drank in the sights one last time, knowing that it would be our last view of the city for now.
We got up at 4 am, and walked to the nearest RER station to catch the first train of the morning to the airport. We often have had bad luck on our return journeys, so we were thrilled to arrive with plenty of time before our flight, and to find that our gate was not at the very end of the terminal as per usual. We were also relieved to find a comfortable, spacious, stylish waiting area with nice cafes directly adjacent. We had just picked out a seat and were preparing to get some breakfast, when there was an announcement that our flight had changed gates. We got up and searched for the new gate, laughing in frustration that not only was it in the furthest section, detached from the main terminal, but it was under the main airport level on the tarmac - cold, harshly lit, with old seats and nothing but a vending machine as an amenity. And rather than a comfortable jetway to board the aircraft, we were actually herded onto a cramped standing-room-only bus and driven to our plane way on the other side of the runways.
But at least we were home on time, exhausted from our non-stop weekend, but filled with great Parisian memories and happy to be back in Berlin with Flash!