Sunday, March 4, 2012

Around the World: Paris

March 4, 1992

Last night, Pauline and Ben sent me off with a reassurance to contact them if I need anything on my journey through Europe.  They dropped me off at the bus that brought me to Poole, where I caught the ferry to France.  I found a spot on the floor of the lounge and managed to nap a little until the ferry arrived in St. Malo, France at 8:30 this morning.

The train station is a short walk from the ferry dock, where I activated my Eurail Pass for the first of many trips by train, the first stop being Paris.  When I arrive, I convert some traveler's cheques into francs at a Bureau de Change, pick up a map of Paris and a brochure on accommodation before leaving the station.

Hotels in Paris are not cheap.  I decide to store my knapsack in a locker at the train station and spend the day exploring the City of Lights.  The very first place I want to visit is a little bistro across the street that serves coffee.

I ask for "cafĂ©" and the lady behind the counter reaches for an espresso cup.  "Plus grande, s'il vous plait," I say, only having managed a couple of naps on the ferry to carry me through the day.  She shows me a larger cup, the biggest available, to which I approve.  Coffee is expensive, about $5 for the cup I've been given, but I need a boost of caffeine to rid my head of groggy cobwebs.  The first sip of very strong coffee jolts me awake.   I can only manage to drink about two thirds of the cup, by which point, I have forgotten that I was ever tired.

Powered by the brain zinging boost of caffeine, I walk, guided by my map, to The Louvre.  It is a daunting, but incredible museum.  After viewing numerous huge pieces of art, I stumble upon one of the museum's most famous paintings, the Mona Lisa.  It's not at all what I was expecting.  I somehow thought the painting would be much larger.  It is guarded by security and can only be admired from behind ropes to keep the viewing public well out of reach.

In another wing of the Louvre is the Venus di Milo.  A plaque beside the statue explains that the statue originally included arms, which have long since been lost.  There remains much controversy as to how the arms were positioned.  The Louvre would take days to see everything on display.  I, unfortunately have only a few hours.

I'll never think of a bakery quite the same again.

From the Louvre, I walk to Notre Dame, stopping along the way at a boulanger for a baguette and the shop next door for some cheese and juice.  The crowds around Notre Dame make it impossible to get inside so I find a place to sit along the wall of gardens that surround the courtyard.  While I enjoy the freshly baked bread and the sharp, tangy cheese, the air is garnished with the effervescent Parisian melodies of musicians playing a saxophone and a guitar. 

Even a day trip to Paris wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower.  It's quite a hike from Notre Dame so I find a nearby Metro station.  The Paris subway system is a veritable maze that requires the assistance of a helpful commuter to help me purchase my ticket and direct me to the correct platform. 

The cost to ride the elevator from the ground is 51 francs (about $10).  The other option is to climb the stairs to the second tier where the fee to ride the elevator to the top drops to 17 francs ($3.50).  My desire to carefully stick to a budget of $20 a day inspires an unplanned cardio workout.  The view from the top offers a spectacular view of the city and the Seine as it meanders along under the bridges of Paris.

Paris at dusk.
Photo courtesy itsallmaya

With a little time left to waste, I walk back to the train station, savouring the early evening sights and sounds of bustling nightlife.  I find myself expecting to be stared at or to find a wayward cow strolling at will down a crowded avenue.  I am delighted that neither occurs.  I stop the occasional pedestrian to ask directions to the train station in French and pleased to learn I understand most of the directions.  The dreamland French lessons of Egypt appear to be paying off.

The TGV, France's high speed train, makes the trip to Bordeaux in three and a half hours.  I opt for the less speedy route that makes more stops and adds significantly to the travel time.  The train is also my bed for the night and I would like more than a short nap before waking up in a new city tomorrow morning.

Au revoir, Paris.

• ¤ •

“A final reminder. Whenever you are in Paris at twilight in the early summer, return to the Seine and watch the evening sky close slowly on a last strand of daylight fading quietly, like a sigh.” 
~Kate Simon

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