Oct 22, 2015

An Innocent Abroad Part 4 – Paris

An Innocent Abroad Part 4 – Paris

Paris. City of Lights. City of Love.
Gare du Nord
Our Eurostar train pulled into the Gare du Nord ahead of time. We gathered our luggage and exited the train, emerging into a cavernous, Victorian era building, bustling with people and awash in shops with anything and everything imaginable for sale. After clearing the platform Kim and I headed outside to find the nearest Metro Station. I turned back to look at the massive train station and my jaw dropped – nothing like what I had seen back in South Carolina. Even the train stations in Paris were works of art!
gare-du-nord ext
After a short 5 minute walk, we arrived at the Metro station. We bellied up to the kiosk and purchased a metro pass, allowing us travel on the metro for the duration of our time in Paris. We made our way to our hotel, the Appart’City Paris La Villette, just a steps away from the Ourcq metro station. Pleasant greetings from the hotel manager, and a lovely room set the pace for the next three days. After a few minute’s rest we made our way back to the metro station and headed out for the heart of Paris.
The Louvre is a must see while in Paris. Unfortunately, I underestimated the sheer size of the place and was only able to take in about a quarter of the available art and statues. It would literally take days to see everything in the museum, a luxury of time that I didn’t have. I made sure that I saw the Mona Lisa, albeit from a short distance as the crowds around the small painting were always very large. I was struck by some of the large paintings that lined the walls leading up to DaVinci’s masterpiece.
Rembrandt’s The Supper at Emmaus, Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon and Water Lilies by Claude Monet are but three of the hundreds of paintings that I admired, but stand as the most memorable for me.  Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian statuary, Italian Renaissance sculpture,  Dutch Baroque paintings, my God! The list goes on and on. Depending on the section of the building, the floor and the hallway you go down will determine what you will be fortunate to see.  After more than half a day of being up to my eyes in high art and culture, I found Kim and we headed out to the Eiffel Tower.
Finding a grassy spot in a park adjacent to the famed tower Kim and I sat and took in the beautiful spring-like day that we’d been blessed with and gazed up at the wrought-iron wonder. I then decided to call my friends back at work in the states and share my location and experience. After quality time at the Eiffel Tower it was time to hit the Metro for the trip back to the hotel and a good french dinner.

Next morning, I stumbled out of bed and began the search for coffee. I found the small coffee maker and brewed the two cups that it would provide. I then decided that I wanted to pick up some breakfast for Kim and I and find some real french coffee. Around the corner from the hotel stood a quaint bakery with a beautiful young lass minding the store.  “Bonjour monsieur! Comment puis-je vous aider?” “Good morning. May I please have two bagels and two cups of coffee?” She didn’t understand what I was saying so I pointed to the bagels in the case and held up two fingers. I then pointed to the carafe of coffee behind the counter and again held up two fingers. She smiled and acknowledged my order and gathered it for me. When she steps up to the cash register she said something to the effect of ” quarte euros”. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a handful of euro coins and held them up to her. She took the coins that she needed and placed them in the register. I had to trust her as I was still really new at this euro thing, which I understood far better that this french language thing. She smiled a sweet smile and said “au revoir”. I would have my breakfast there for the next two days.
The next day found us at the Musée d’Orsay, a former train station built at the turn of the last century located on the left bank. The Musée d’Orsay holds mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1915, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography. It houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world, by painters including Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Sisley, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Kim was adamant that we visit and I’m glad that she insisted. I was finally able to see, up close and personal, my favorite painting – the famed Starry Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh.
I was also able to view a work that I’d heard mentioned since I was a child – Whistler’s Mother, which was known by the original title of Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1.
After a day filled with art and culture, Kim and I set our sights on the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Notre Dame
The rain worsened as we ascended the stairway from the metro to street level. This did not, however, deter the crowds that were moving along the sidewalk toward the grand cathedral. Crossing the Seine it comes into view. From the front of the structure, it’s imposing. You can’t help but be reminded of that iconic 1920’s era movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, ducking in and around the massive bells that fill the towers. A larger than life-sized statue of Charlemagne stands outside the grand chapel, reminding me of the great historical heritage of this parcel of land. Taking our place in the line to enter the church, Kim pointed to the elaborate artwork that decorated the building. After entering, we made our way around the line and ended up in a small area away from the main chapel to look at some of the clothing worn by priests of long ago. While there, a young lady approached us and, in perfect English, stated that she was a personal tour guide for the church and that her small group had failed to show. She asked if we would be interested in a private tour of the church. After agreeing, she took us to places that the regular tourists weren’t allowed to enter, all the while giving us various descriptions of events that had taken place in said areas. As we slipped behind the velvet ropes which blocked access to some of the areas, the others would look at us as if we were visiting royalty. We were extremely fortunate to be given access to these areas, with a knowledgeable tour guide to boot!
After our personal tour, Kim and I wandered back to the metro and caught a lift to the Place de la Bastille, a monument which stands to mark the spot of the infamous prison that was the ignition point for the French revolution. In my head, I was singing the RUSH tune from 1974 (and they’re marching to Bastille Day. The guillotine will claim her bloody prize.) After a quick dinner at a lovely French restaurant near the hotel we called it a day. Tomorrow-more bread from the sweet mademoiselle at the corner bakery.
Our third day in Paris was a walk about day. I had stayed up most of the night walking the streets of our hotel neighborhood. Ducking into an all night convenience store for a pack of smokes, the owner asked if I was a tourist. “Yes”, I replied. “Why are you walking in this neighborhood at this time of morning? Very dangerous!” Thanks-I’ll just head back to the hotel.
My short morning ritual was observed while at the corner bakery. Same pretty girl, same order, same trust that she would only take the correct amount of euros from my outstretched palm. She did. Awww…love this life!
Then it was time to catch the Metro and walk some of the gardens of Paris. Everywhere you look there are beautiful gardens and parks. We sat on a bench in one of these parks next to a pond and watched the birds do their mating dances. Wow! Does this city also have an effect on wildlife?
A stroll next to the Seine to look at the houseboats completed our wandering. Time to catch the metro, head back to the hotel and collect our belongings. Next stop: Gare du Nord for the trip back to London. Then back home to the good old US of A.
While I enjoyed every single moment of our trip to Europe, and I want to revisit both cities, there’s no place like home. The cabin beckons!

Oct 7, 2015

An Innocent Abroad part 3 – On to Paris

We’re sitting on a plush, comfortable seat, arranged two to a row. Two seats face us, but they are unoccupied. We’re traveling at close to 186 mph and suddenly we feel the train slow down. It slows to 100 mph and suddenly everything goes dark. We are now in the Chunnel.
After seeing the major sites in London, which included Buckingham Palace, the National Museum, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace, former home of Henry VIII, we are now heading to Paris on Eurostar.
The train glides through the English countryside, offering spectacular views of small towns, medieval villages, cows, hardware stores, big box stores and country lanes. Anything close to the train goes by with a blur, but looking out into the distance you get a sense of this part of the country. I walked to the bar buffet and nabbed two Diet Cokes and a couple bags of ‘crisps’, known as potato chips in the US. Kim and I talked of our previous few days in London and some of the sights that I should see if I ever return and have a bit of time to explore the country. We did get to meet up with some of Kim’s old friends who lived in Greenwich, not far from the Greenwich Observatory and the International time line (where we get GMT). It was special having a meal with the couple and enjoying their home, which was crammed with books and beautiful knickknacks. We then went down to the Thames and walked along the river, which I enjoyed almost as much as the historical sites that surrounded us. Then off to another pub to enjoy the locals and be immersed in the culture of soccer-British style. And, as a special treat, Kim took me to Rules, a restaurant which has been around since Jesus. Then it was off to the Globe Theater to catch “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But I digress…on to Paris.
Emerging from the Chunnel, I realized that I was now in France for the first time. Thoughts of my maternal grandfather filled my mind – he had been an American Dough boy in the First World War and his unit, the Old Hickory 30th Division had served in France in 1917 and 1918. I wondered, as I looked across the open fields covered in flowers, if my grandfather had looked at this scene upon arriving here nearly a century before. Although the mix of modern autos and convenience stores would not have muddled his view, would he have seen that huge oak in the distance when it was a mere sapling?
The open fields gave way to small towns as we made our way across the French countryside at 186 mph. The small towns and villages that we passed were a mix of new buildings that surrounded an old church or castle that looked as if it had always been there. In the distance we could see Paris approaching and we knew that soon we would be walking in the “city of lights”. My excitement at this prospect, however, was grounded by my realization that I didn’t speak French. How would I navigate my way around the city? How would I order breakfast? Ask for directions? This would certainly be an interesting trip!