May 17-18, 2014
We had been meaning to visit Paris for a while now, so when a friend of Dan’s wrote and said that he and his wife would be there for a weekend, it was a great excuse to finally go. It couldn’t have been a better weekend for it, either: the weather was perfect and the early summer foliage was still fresh and green.
We are fortunate to have the TGV run directly from Basel to Paris. It makes a trip that takes usually 5 hours by motorcycle into less than 3 1/2 hours by rail, station to station. The fact that the train reaches speeds of over 300 km/h certainly helps to keep the time short, and when you’re only going for a weekend, those few hours can mean a lot. We didn’t leave the apartment until well after 8 am on Saturday and arrived at Gare d Lyon in Paris at noon. The hotel was an easy 25 minute walk from the station, across the Seine and passed The National Museum of Natural History. My first strong impression of the city was formed as soon as we reached the river banks. I stopped to take a photo of some graffiti but as I crouched down for the shot, an overwhelming smell of urine assailed my nostrils. I hurried up my photo but the smell lingered. The gardens at Jardin des Plantes more than made up for the rank smells of earlier and we wound our way to our hotel. As we were checking into our room at Hotel de la Place des Alpes, who should walk in behind us but our friends, Eric and Diana. They had suggested this hotel so it wasn’t surprising to see them, but the timing was impeccable.
Gare d Lyon
My first view of Paris
Hotel de la Place des Alpes
We immediately went to lunch at a little place across the street called Assis au Neuf. The food was good, although we focused more on catching up and reconnecting than what was on our plates. We eventually got the waiter’s attention, paid our bill and finally began our tour of the city. We meandered north back to the Seine and then turned west, following the banks of the historic river. The river wasn’t what I expected, although to be honest, I had never put much time into the thought “I wonder what the Seine looks like” before now. It was wider than I expected, and for some reason I never considered that there would be boats tied up along the banks. The boats were much larger versions of the canal boats we had seen in London, and a few of them had restaurants and bars fitted onto the decks. Most of the boats were very well maintained and some were of unusual shapes and designs.
The first landmark I noticed was the towers of Notre Dame. The shining white stone building sat majestically on the Île Saint-Louis while fat tour boats plied the waters around it. I was surprised to see people walking high on the towers, as I had assumed that anything that interesting would be closed to the public. Some day I’ll have to check it out myself, but not today. Today was dedicated to seeing Paris “from the outside”. We had been walking for a while and Diana and I were starting to complain about our shoes. You’d think that I would have found a good pair of walking shoes by now but no, I was getting blisters on the back of my heel. Coincidently we were standing in front of an attractive restaurant housed in one of the riverboats moored to the promenade. A table had just opened up and we took our seats. The service was slow but we finally placed our drink order. The boat bobbed gently as we took in the sights, sounds and smells of The City of Light.
Walking along the Seine
Notre Dame and a fat tour boat
Our lunch boat across from the Notre Dame
Feet refreshed, we continued along the river, passing more boats and moving beyond Notre Dame as its bells tolled to mark the hour. The earlier aroma of the “outdoor urinal” continued to waft from underpasses and musty corners, something I’d notice throughout the weekend. The frequent bridges we walked under were clean looking, at least. We finally crossed one of those bridges when we were near the Louvre. The Louvre looked grand, sitting across the water from us, partially hidden by the thick green foliage. We crossed the bridge and entered Place du Carrousel, the exterior heart of the Louvre. Unwilling to sacrifice our short time in Paris by going inside, we instead trekked under the Arc de triomphe du Carrousel and on to the Champs-Élysées. The graveled path was wide and smooth and covered with people. We tried not to lose each other as we worked our way through the crowded thoroughfare and passed lush colorful gardens. Many people were taking advantage of the warm sunny weather and they sat on the green grass among the closely trimmed hedges.
We kept on walking some more, our shoes covered in dust while people continued to cover the lawns and outdoor cafes seats. We reached the home of the 3,300-year-old Luxor Obelisk standing tall in the middle of the vast cobbled area while traffic of all kinds circled around it.
Arc de triomphe du Carrousel
View down Champs-Élysées
We had reached the paved and traffic-laden shopping portion of the Champs-Élysées and our paced slowed. Diana and I were both having problems with our choice of shoes, but she was to the point of being willing to buy new shoes. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any luck with finding something that she liked (and came in her size), so we continued to limp along. We passed so many stores I never heard of, a few I had seen before and many that didn’t have much interest to me. But if there was ever anything I needed, I have no doubt that I could find it there.
The sun was falling towards the horizon as we reached the L’Arc de Triomphe. It was still light out, but the shadows were growing longer and the heat of the sun was fading, thank goodness.
The feet cried out for another break and it was late enough that it was high time to stop for dinner. We decided to just head back towards the hotel and find something along the way. We were just a block off of Champs-Élysées but it was a completely different world. The sidewalks were empty, the cars were few but fast and the buildings locked up for the night. It was not a good place to find something to eat. We trudged down the sidewalk, hoping that something would show up before we reached the hotel, about 5km away. But then we saw colorful awnings down the block and across the street – salvation! We sat outside and enjoyed the dropping temperatures and lowering sunshine. The food was ok, but it was nice to sit outside and watch the locals go by.
L’Arc de Triomphe
Once again refreshed, we decided not to go directly back to the hotel but instead make a slight detour to see the Eiffel Tower. We were, after all, in Paris. And seeing it in glow of twilight would be a special treat.
The area around the base of the tower wasn’t nearly as crowded as expected and I was glad for it. I’m not a fan of crowds and I appreciated having the space to walk around and check out details of the famous tower. Dan and I were both surprised at how big the Eiffel Tower is. We’ve seen the Statue of Liberty in person, which is much smaller than it appears in photos. Even the Tower of London was smaller than I expected. But the Eiffel Tower was taller and more structurally substantial than the photos make it appear. The sheer amount of steel involved is impressive, and the base of the tower is so open and welcoming to visitors to mill around underneath. We watched the elevators climb their way up and down, but declined to make the trip ourselves. It was getting dark and if we were going to see the city, we wanted to do so in full light. Instead, we found a seat on a bench and waited for 10 o’clock to strike. In the dying light, one by one, the lights on the tower illuminated until it was a glowing amber spear. But at 10 o’clock bright white lights twinkled brilliantly all over the face of the tower in a random pattern. Ten minutes later the lights stopped their flashing and the night sky was once again given over to the somber glow of the historic tower.
Army dude for scale
It was now dark and we had been roaming the city’s streets for eight hours. We eventually found a Metro station and took the train back to our hotel. It was a pleasure to sit in the slightly-worn seats and watch the city flash by the train’s windows. Tomorrow we’d start all over. Our room wasn’t one of the typical rooms in the building but instead was tucked off to the side of the central courtyard. This meant no windows, but it also meant peace and quiet. It was a very solid night’s sleep.
Breakfast was supposed to be at a restaurant with orange juice and crêpes and pastries. Instead, we went to the popular boulangerie around the corner and bought fresh croissants and bottles of water. They were so fresh and tasty, we didn’t feel the need to eat again for quite some time. The boulangerie was quite popular with the locals, and during a 10 minute wait for our friends I saw no less than 6 people walk by, each with one or more long baguettes poking out from their bags. Always watch the locals for the best places to visit!
It was tiny inside
Bellies full, we hopped directly onto the Metro and went north. It was time to leave the key Paris sightseeing behind and instead see some of the quiet, historic districts. Our hotel clerk enthusiastically recommended that we check out the 3rd District and the area near the canals. It was a good recommendation. We exited out of the Metro and meandered our way in the general direction of the canals. At least, that’s what we hoped; the streets were a maze of intersections and our free tourist map wasn’t always the clearest. But we had success and found Canal Saint-Martin, a man-made river built in the early 1800s by Napoleon I to bring fresh water to the city. The canal was peaceful, with large trees shading the smooth water. There were no boats here, not like the canals that run through London. Instead we saw some ducks and a couple of joggers along the edges. I’m sure that the early Sunday hour had a lot to do with the lack of crowds as well.
Our 2nd breakfast stop
View from our table
There wasn’t much of a plan for the day. Dan and I had to catch the 5 o’clock train back to Basel and Diana and I weren’t too eager to put in another 10km day like we had yesterday. We followed the canal – when it wasn’t covered – back towards the Seine, but quickly got distracted by a small cafe; it was time for coffee.
After a short break we left the canal and went in search of Paris’ oldest neighborhood, the 3rd District. We didn’t see the oldest surviving house (1407), but we did stumble upon a massive outdoor market wedged into the tiny streets. The sun was getting warm and the streets were crowded with vendors. We wound our way through a few blocks of it, looking at a most amazing array of objects I’ve ever seen at an outdoor market. I can’t even begin to describe the selection, but think “old, cool, eclectic stuff” and you’ve got it. It wasn’t the usual cheap junk that I see in so many US market stalls. And what is considered “antique” is on a whole different scale here.
Narrow streets of the 3rd District
We finally escaped from the stall-filled streets and found ourselves looking for lunch. The perfect restaurant presented itself to us almost immediately and we took a seat just out of sight from the harsh sun. Our waiter was jovial and I liked him, even though he got our order wrong. It was a leisurely lunch and we enjoyed watching the people come and go. But eventually the smokers at the table at the table next to us encouraged me to get us moving again.
Our table and the view from it
After lunch, about a dozen of these pulled up and parked
It was mid-afternoon and we still had no plans for the day. The river was calling to us, especially since we had to go in that direction to get our bags from the hotel anyway. A smooth stone wall welcomed us and we sat and chatted with our backs to Notre Dame. The pedestrian walkway in front of us was teaming with walkers, joggers, inline skaters and bicyclists. It was nice to just sit and watch other people move while we sat in the shade and relaxed.
Although we sat still, the clock continued to tick and it was finally time to say good bye to our friends and head back to Basel. Despite construction and poor signage, we found a Metro stop and were back at our hotel in just a few minutes. Our bags were waiting for us and it didn’t take us long to grab them and head back to the Metro. Another short trip took us back over the Seine and dropped us off at the Gare d Lyon station. The station wasn’t conducive to waiting, but wait we did. We had severely overestimated the travel time using the Metro and had some time to kill. Eventually our train was ready to board and we took our seats. The trip back to Basel was just as quick as the way out and we were home in time for another great sunset.