An American in Paris
September 3, 2005
Today was once again a travel day as we said good-bye to Russia. Our driver picked us up at 7:15 and the fog was so thick, we were certain that our flight would be delayed. We got to the airport in good time and had to wait until check-in for our flight opened at 8:15. We were pleasantly surprised by how orderly the customs, immigration and check-in process was. After our arrival in Moscow 8 days ago, we expected things to be a bit more chaotic.
Everything seemed to be proceeding for a delayed departure of only 15-20 minutes, but unfortunately, we sat at the gate for nearly an hour before we taxied out. It was a great flight, once we were in the air. Mark and I were lucky enough to have a row to ourselves, so he sat on the aisle and I sat by the window. One thing we thought was really humorous is that when we boarded, we thought we had walked on to an Aer Lingus flight (national carrier of Ireland). For those of you that visited us in Dublin, and flew Aer Lingus, you will probably remember the green upholstery with "hand written" excerpts from Irish authors stitched into the fabric pattern.
The flight was uneventful and 3 hours later, we were in Paris. We had to take a shuttle bus to get to RER train to get to the Metro to get to the hotel. We are staying in a self-catering studio apartment within stone-throwing distance to the Louvre. It's not a bad little place - couldn't ask for a more perfect location, and there is a pretty good supermarket just a few blocks walk away. And, best of all, they have in-house laundry facilities!! Funnily enough, we are finding that laundry is turning out to be one of the biggest challenges on this trip - getting visas and communicating in any number of languages is a piece of cake compared to finding a way to launder clothes!!
Every time I see Paris, I am struck by what an incredibly beautiful city it is. This is our fourth visit to the "City of Light", and I never tire of it (even the snobby Parisians). This visit seems particularly nice because, having been here so many times before, we don't feel the need to see all the top tourist attractions, but rather, can just amble along the streets enjoying a different side of the city.
And, today, we did just that - ambled along the streets - first along Avenue de l'Opera to the Paris Opera House and then back to the top of the Jardin del Tuileries at the Musee du Louvre. As we were taking pictures near one of the fountains, a French couple approached us and asked if they could borrow our extra set of batteries to take a photo - their batteries were dead, and I guess they really wanted a picture in front of the fountain (this exchange occurred with them speaking French and us speaking English - oh the power of pantomime!). We were happy to assist, and Mark took 2 pictures of them using my batteries in their camera. They were so grateful and it made us feel good to be kind.
We continued through the gardens, across the Place de la Concorde and on to the Champs Elysees, where we stopped for a cold refreshment. Afterward, we crossed the Seine and walked by the river for about a half-mile. It was very hot in Paris today - about 90*, with brutal sunshine. As such, the pace today was very slow - people were laying in the shade or near the fountains - anywhere that they could get out of the sun. As for us, we withered after only about 2 hours and retreated to the air conditioned comfort of our hotel room for a break.
We ventured out again this evening for a quick bite to eat and drink. It was still fairly warm, and being a Sunday evening, pretty quiet - not much going on. We joined the crowd and returned to our room for an early night.
September 5, 2005
Today we visited le Louvre - even after 3 hours, we barely had time to see even the highlights. We can't even imagine how long it would take to walk through the entire collection, let alone, actually stop and see the exhibits. Following, is our photo-tour of some of the objects d'art we saw today.
From left to right:
1) This beautiful 19th century tapestry (circa 1840-1843), depicting an elephant in an exotic landscape was woven at a carpet factory in Aubusson, France. It measures 7 meters wide and 5.86 meters high.
2) La Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (painted in Rome in 1814). The painting was commissioned by Caroline Murat (1782-1839), Napoleon's sister and the queen of Naples, in 1813.
3) The Grand Salon of Napoleon III's apartments, with decor of gold, stuccos, marble, bronze, silk and velvet.
4) Michelangelo's Slaves - From le Louvre's website "Works by Michelangelo are seldom found outside Italy, but the Louvre owns these two virtuoso statues, given to the king of France by the Florentine Roberto Strozzi, who received them from the artist himself. They belong to a group - the other statues are in the Galleria dellAccademia in Florence - intended to adorn the tomb of Pope Julius II, originally a colossal project but modified several times and finally scaled down drastically."
5) The Venus de Milo, or Aphrodite of Melos (named after the Greek island on which it was discovered in 1820), is believed to date from 100 B.C. Her naked torso enabled her to be identified as Aphrodite, the Roman Venus, goddess of love and beauty, born out of the foam of the sea.
6) The winged goddess of Victory (Nike, in Greek) standing on the prow of a ship (cut off in the picture) overlooked the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace. This monument was likely an ex-voto offered by the people of Rhodes in commemoration of a naval victory in the early second century BC. The monument was unearthed in 1863 on the small island of Samothrace in the northwest Aegean by Charles Champoiseau, French Vice-Consul to Adrianople (Turkey).
It is probably needless to say, but we also walked by the most famous painting in le Louvre's collection, the Mona Lisa. This was the busiest part of the museum with about 50 people queuing to take pictures. The problem is that Mademoiselle Mona is behind glass and measures a mere 77 cm high and 53 cm wide - this combination makes for very poor photographic conditions, so we didn't even try.
Le Louvre has a fantastic internet site, which we would encourage you to look at if you have even the slightest interest in art. It is at www.louvre.fr. As we walked through the various galleries today, we realized once again, that this is truly our favorite museum in the world - not that we have seen ALL of the great museums, but we've seen a fair number from the Met and Moma in NYC to the British Museum and Library in London to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg to St. Peter's and the Vatican Museums in Rome to the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, plus several others that don't exactly make "the list".
September 6, 2005
Today, we left Paris, and entered the Metro to begin our journey back to the airport. Unfortunately, the automated ticket machines were out of order, and the female employee that I encountered absolutely refused to speak a single word of English. So, we had to regroup to Plan B, which meant that I had to get back in the ticket line - wouldn't you know it that the two women in front of me were trying to plan their entire RTW journey on the Metro? ....Not really, but they were trying to pay for a monthly pass with a bank check, which the system refused. In the end, they had to use a debit card. Finally, we were able to get 2 one-way tickets on the Metro to go a grand total of 2 stops.
We got off of the Metro at Chatelet to transfer to the RER train to Charles de Gaulle. This time, we were able to complete our transaction using the automated ticket system. However, when we proceeded through the automated double turnstile/barrier door system, both Mark and I had our carry-ons caught in the doors. The doors close with such force that the strap on my carry-on was torn off. But Mark had an even more difficult time, as the doors closed right behind him with his back-pack on the other side. The problem was that the pack was literally on his back - picture elevator doors closing thightly between you and your backpack- you can't get the pack off and you can't use your arms to force the doors back open. An incredibly kind French damsel came to his rescue and between the two of them, they were able to muscle the doors open enough to allow Mark to get the backpack off and pass the pack over the top. I was wrestling with my own carry-on and couldn't assist in the endeavor.
We proceeded to the platform, where we nearly boarded the wrong train - that being the train to Charles de Gaulle Ecoile (as opposed to the Charles de Gaulle airport), but luckily, after much hesitation, we were able to reason our way through to the correct train. We arrived at the airport without further incident, and after stopping at the information desk, we made our way to the Avis car rental. We loaded our bags in the car and I took a few minutes to study the map, while Mark attempted to get the a/c cranked up (it was another 80* day in Paris). Not only did the a/c fail to work, the fan did not run at all. So, Mark went back to the counter to switch cars - we ended up with an Opel Vectra (a 2-car upgrade from our reservation), but the down-side is that it smells horribly of cigarette smoke. However, another plus is that it is equipped with a GPS navigational system, which now makes my job as navigator redundant - I never thought I would be replaced by a sexy British female accent!
Anyway, without further ado, we got checked in at Auberge la Lucarne aux Chouettes, (the Owl's Nest, owned by Leslie Caron) in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. We went out to explore the town and enjoyed a sunset walk along the river, followed by dinner at an Italian bistro. The food was delicious and we will probably try it again tomorrow!
The Auberge (Inn) itself is a bit of a disappointment. It is acceptable,
but we expected it to be a bit higher on the luxury scale. Our room (there
are only 4 in the entire auberge) is called "The Suite", because
it is two rooms joined together. This means that the room is quite spacious,
which is unheard of by European standards. The bed is a king-size bed and
very comfortable, but the bathroom is lacking a bit, both in size and quality.
The view of the Yonne river is quite nice though. We have definitely stayed
in far worse establishments, but we have also stayed in far superior ones
as well. The dining room is truly gorgeous with much of the original detail
of the building preserved.
Our sense is that the village is a very affluent bedroom-community of Paris, as it is only 90 miles outside of the city, with regular train service. The population can't be more than a couple of thousand, but we counted 4 banks, at least a dozen hair salons, a very high-end bicycle shop (average price about Euro 1,500) and a BMW motorcycle dealership all within abut 4 square blocks- need we say more?
This morning, we got a local map from reception, and set out to explore the famous "Chablis" wine region. We drove through a multitude of small towns, but unfortunately, this not being the height of the tourist season, none of the tasting rooms and sales centers of these smaller vintners was open. Luckily, this was not the case in the town of Chablis itself - nearly all of the tasting rooms were open, and we chose one at the edge of town, where we were the only customers. After tasting a 1999 Premiere Cru, we purchased a bottle. Then, we stopped in at the "Chablis Bar" for refreshments (it was another extraordinarily hot day in France).
We programmed the navigational system in the car to bring us back via secondary roads and the scenery was really beautiful. The route took us along the Canal de Bourgogne for quite a ways, with its system of locks for boat navigation. We passed through the towns of Tonnerre, St. Florentin and Joigny, just to name a few, before arriving back at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne.
Evening rolls around and our thoughts turn to dinner. Hmmm, we think, why don't we just try that Italian place across the street where we ate last night (I told you we would be back!)?? 7:45 and it is not open...Ok, let's try the place where we had refreshments yesterday - they serve food...Not open either...Okay, there was that other place behind the church that we saw on our walk around town...Chairs are on the tables already...How about we just pick something up from the market and make a sandwich...CLOSED...Oh no, we're going to starve!...Saved by the little market that stays open until 9:00, we dash in for a package of cold cuts and a half-loaf of bread. This is an obvious reminder of midweek life in small town Europe - you just never know what to expect after 6:00.
September 8, 2005
We checked out of our hotel this morning and hit the dusty trail once again. Our destination was Heidelberg - we took several rest stops along the way, and stopped once to fill up the car with gas (total was Euro 70, or about U.S. $7.15 per gallon - and you think gas prices in the U.S. at over $3.00 per gallon are out of control!).
At the gas stop, Mark was approached by two young men from Berlin looking for a ride. We agreed that we could take them as far as Kaiserslautern, about 200 km away. They were very nice and we really enjoyed speaking with them - needless to say their English was excellent. They had been visiting a friend in Paris for a few days and were making their way home. Hitch hiking like that is quite acceptable in Europe, and you can feel secure in trusting your instincts regarding whether to provide a ride. Of particular interest was their slant on the upcoming election in Germany. They were quite certain that the conservative candidate will win, which means that Germany will have the first female head of state (chancellor) ever in their history -Germany has never even had a female monoarchy.
We decided to take a detour around Kaiserslautern and check out the base at Vogelweh and our old home town of Otterberg. The base wasn't much different than we remembered, except that it is gated and guarded now. Mark told the guard that he was lost and just wanted to turn around and he waved us on through. We drove on to the base and went to the on-base Burger King to use the restrooms - not very secure, after all. The route to Otterberg from the main road has changed since we lived there 8 years ago, and we have to admit that we had to make a u-turn along the way - several round-abouts have been installed and this confused us slightly. The town of Otterberg itself has hardly changed at all and our house still looked exactly the same.
We got back on the autobahn and continued to Heidelberg - we got checked into the Marriott Hotel and were very pleasantly surprised when we got to our room. Our room is on the executive floor and has a huge, gorgeous terrace overlooking the Neckar River. The view of Heidelberg Castle is also incredible, but it is so hazy that unfortunately, the pictures aren't very good at all.
September 9, 2005
Today, we walked down to the Altstadt and along die Fussganger (the pedestrian area in the old town). We stopped in at several shops and even made a purchase at the bookstore. We strolled the rest of the way down the Hauptstrasse and then strolled back along the river. We stopped at the old bridge to take a few pictures of the castle, but it is very overcast today, so the photographic conditions weren't very good.
We walked along several of the side streets and happened upon an Irish pub with an enclosed outside garden, so we decided to take a refreshment break. The proprietor was from Dublin, so we talked to him for a bit. He said that he had just been back in Dublin about 2 weeks ago, and that he couldn't believe the prices - this was confirmation of what we thought about Dublin when we were there a month ago.
After our break, we returned to the hotel to sit on our terrace and watch the barges go up and down the river. The Neckar is nearly 400 km long, originating in the Black Forest and traveling to Mannheim, where it joins the mighty Rhine River. The barge traffic is really amazing with many from a thousand kilometers away.