September 11, 2014 – Today was one of our two full days in Paris. Tomorrow was bookmarked for Versailles (at least in the morning), so we wanted to try to see as many museums and monuments today as possible. Let’s see how we did.
The day started off with a subway ride and then a short walk to the Eiffel Tower. Try to keep moving, otherwise either teenage gypsy girls or African men selling fake souvenirs will try to talk to you (or, you know, pick your pocket). Just be aware of your surroundings and your wallet and you’ll be fine. Our original plan was to take the stairs up, since we thought that line would be much shorter. Turns out we were wrong, and that was the longest line. So we took the elevators up. Since this is a major tourist attraction, and in Europe, space is tight (forget any notions you have of personal space – that 2″ between you and the next person, and 0″ between you and anyone with a bag, are more than enough).
Even though we were there early (around 9:30am) it was already very crowded. We walked around the top platform, admired the view (particularly the view across the water to the Maritime Museum – the light was most cooperative in that direction), and peered into the little apartment that the builder made for his family. Then we started our walk down. This turned out to be a great decision, since we could really pause and admire the construction of the tower. And there happened to be a little cafe with sandwiches, donuts and coffee – a perfect late breakfast.
Just across the river from the Eiffel tower is the Maritime Museum, housed in an old palace. (As usual, watch out for the fake souvenir sellers.) The museum was large and calm inside, and made for a nice break from the hectic touristy-ness of the area by the Eiffel Tower. We particularly liked the model ships, old mast heads, and Napoleon III’s barge (built in a record-breaking matter of weeks, rather than months).
Up next was a subway ride and a short walk to the Arc de Triomphe. This is a massive, solid monument. Under it is the tomb of the unknown from WWI with an eternal flame (the first lit in Western Europe since the 4th century), and memorial markers to the later wars. On the arch walls are lists of the various French military campaigns and victories. Our museum pass came in handy again since it let us skip the ticket line and climb the few dozen steps to the inner section of the arch. From there we went up a few more small stairs to the top, with its great view down the Champ Elysees, towards the Place de la Concorde. We enjoyed our time on and around the arch, it was fairly quiet and a nice refuge from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. Plus it had a great view, and space to actually enjoy it.
Hotel des Invalides was the next stop on the trip. It’s a very large building built as a home for retired, wounded soldiers, and now the site of several museums. First up was a stop at the cafeteria for quiche and salad, lasagna (excellent) and potatoes, and some nice beer. The food was very good, and the cafeteria was nice and bright. We were fortunate to find a table for two in the back, away from the hustle of the area by the cash registers. We found all the service workers to be very friendly and willing to work with our incredibly limited French. I’d like to think greetings, general politeness, and saying please/thank you/good bye were part of this, but it could just be they were very well trained.
Next up was a walk through the WWI and WWII museums. The museums were very well done, with artifacts, photos, precise timelines, and an undercurrent of bravery, horror, and survival. The museum tells the timeline from multiple perspectives. Interestingly, the one spot where the writers broke their restraint was when talking about the French surrender of Paris. Napoleon’s Tomb, as well as the graves of some other notables, are in a very large rotunda. The building is beautiful and bright, and surprisingly uncrowded.
It was towards the end of the day, and we wanted to see if we could make it to the Notre Dame towers. We first waited in the slow but steady line shuffling into the cathedral. The stained glass was very nice, but the rest of the space was crowded, felt closed in, and was dark and underwhelming. Compared to the soaring spaces of Strausbourg, Ulm, Koln, or St Paul’s in London, it just seemed… off somehow. Whether too dark, crowded, or every-so-slightly rundown (or perhaps it was the dog poop and unkempt characters hanging around outside), the cathedral was disappointing overall. The view from the back is much prettier though, particularly during the day.
When we couldn’t get into the tower at Notre Dame we headed across the island to Sainte-Chapelle. Sainte-Chapelle is a beautiful church with an illuminated Bible done in stained glass. We were there near sunset, and the glass was very nicely lit up. The church is inside the Palace of Justice courtyard; part of the main building is still used for legal purposes, and the security is controlled by the police. Parisian police wear military-styled dark blue uniforms, and carry some very impressive firepower (both hand held and thigh holster). It’s a different look from the usual American police, and even more so from the unarmed (and completely unimposing) English police.
We knew we wanted to get some food in the apartment, so we spent a few minutes that evening to go grocery shopping. There was a small store (about five aisles worth of goods) a few blocks from the hotel. We got a nice baguette, sliced cheese, salami, juice, pear yogurt, pears, bananas, and a few bottles of beer.
After the eventful day we also wanted to have a relaxing dinner, so we walked over to Presto Fresco to get Italian takeout. The food was excellent and prepared quickly, and we enjoyed our penne and pesto, mushroom ravioli with cream sauce, rolls with black olives, rose wine and beer (as well as some bicycle racing on television) back at the apartment. We would definitely go back to this restaurant, the food was good, fresh, with excellent sauces (pesto, cream… you couldn’t go wrong), and the rolls were fantastic (though we expected nothing less from a restaurant in France).