Friday, 6 December 2013

PARIS: LOVE, LIGHTS, MEMORIES (PART 2)




Paris - Arc de Triomphe
This entry is part of "France: From Paris to the Riviera" series...

Paris has long been considered the romance capital of the world... so what better place to kick off our honeymoon?

Due to the amount of pictures/words this entry is posted in 2 parts


Detailed Itinerary: (what ended up happening) 

DAY1: (fly in) Vancouver to Paris + Sacre Coeur
DAY2: Louvre area, Galeries Lafayette, Eiffel Tower
DAY3: Musee D'Orsay, Louvre, Eiffel Tower
DAY4: Versailles, Eiffel Tower
DAY5: Ile de la cite area
DAY6: Petit Palais, Musee Rodin, E.T., Arc de Triomphe
DAY7: Pantheon & Latin Quarters area, Montmartre
DAY8: Paris to Avignon




DAY 5: ILE DE LA CITE, PONT DES ARTS
September 2, 2013 - Sunny

Ile de la cite, Paris Sainte-Chapelle, Paris Notre Dame, Paris Paris Cityscape - From the top of Notre Dame Paris Cityscape - From the top of Notre Dame Pont des Arts - Paris Louvre - Paris Louvre - Paris
Usually one of the first chapters in most Paris guidebooks, Ile de la cite was where Paris originated and thus it was full of historical must-visits.  How did it take us so long to visit the heart of Paris? We simply fell in love with the Eiffel Tower (we just somehow kept on returning to those steel beams).

For some odd reason, even metro rides were fantastic experiences in Paris... every metro station seemed to have its own flavor and history.  We arrived at metro station "Cité" via metro line 1 and we began our historic tour with a leisure walk around the petite island for some river Seine breezes.

As we walked counter-clock wise along the water we realized that we were in relative peace!  For a buzzing metropolitan like Paris how were we so alone in the historic epicenter of Paris?... The tranquility lasted for approximately 10 minutes until we reached Pont Neuf (or "New Bridge", which ironically was the oldest standing bridge across the river Seine).  We quickly vacated the area because to be honest the bridge didn't look that impressive up close (Pont Neuf did look impressive from a distance, try viewing it from Pont des Arts)

Conciergerie - Paris We reached our first destination "Conciergerie" which was a former royal palace as well as a prison.  Like many structures around Paris, each landmark had served multiple purposes simply because of Paris's rich history.  The entrance to Conciergerie wasn't well advertised with a very short queue line, and initially we did not plan to visit there until we were at the entrance (it was included in our museum pass, so why not?).  The interior of Conciergerie was dim (fitting as a prison), but the grand hall was majestic none-the-less with a beautiful array of stone arches.  The short self guided tour then led us through a few sample jail cells, one of which housed Marie Antoinette before her execution some 200 years ago.

Sainte-Chapelle - Paris A short distance down the street was Sainte-Chapelle and it came highly recommended by a co-worker as well as Tripadvisor.  Entrance to the church was expedited by our Paris Museum Pass but the regular lineup was only ~50 visitors long.  Upon entry we were directed into a tiny chapel dominated with a blue ceiling and petite stained glass windows.  Needless to say we were extremely underwhelmed until we realized that we were only in the lower chapel! My less-than-ideal impression of Sainte-Chapelle quickly reversed as we ascended the narrow staircase which took us to the main chapel.  The main chapel was surrounded by 12 gigantic stained glass windows and each window must've been 3-4 stories tall.  Even though Sainte-Chapelle lacked the square footage in comparison to other famous chapels/churches found throughout France, it did not feel crammed because I was too busy admiring at the rainbow-colored artwork.  I found the interior of most churches to be all-too-similar during our trip and I had a tough time differentiating one from another in my mind... except Sainte-Chapelle.  The entire chapel basked in a surreal multi-colored cast from these stained glass "walls" and they created a truly unique experience.  (At the time of visit 5 out of 12 windows were boarded up for renovations, but the view was still unforgettable... imagine the light from all 12 windows!).

Paris Street By the time we emerged from Sainte-Chapelle it was well past lunch time.  Our hunt for food took us off island to the opposite riverbank because most eateries on the island were either over-priced or blatant tourist traps.  On the way back to Ile de la Cite a two-hour lunch later, we passed several curb-side kiosks iconic to Paris with Notre Dame as the backdrop.

Notre Dame was arguably the second most famous landmark that represented Paris (The Eiffel Tower = #1), and the amount of tourists was absolutely insane.  The queue to Notre Dame was intimidating but the lineup moved swiftly and we were inside the church within minutes.  The interior of Notre Dame was dominated by grey stones with an impressive stained glass rose window similar to the churches we had visited previously.  Perhaps it was due to the fact that I wasn't religious (no appreciation for religious paintings/artifacts), or maybe because we had just visited Sainte-Chapelle a couple hours before... Simply put, I did not think Notre Dame deserved its iconic status (but I shouldn't complain since admission was free).  Despite the free admission, I found Notre Dame to be over-commercialized with gift kiosks and souvenir dispensers (inside the church!) = an overall negative experience unfortunately.

As we exited Notre Dame we quickly jumped into a second queue for the bell tower on the left side of the church.  Unlike the main church, entry to the bell tower cost $$$ but it was included in our pass so it wasn't an issue (either way it was inexpensive... less than 10 euros).  The queue itself was only 50-60 people long but we waited for approximately 1 hour. (FYI - The bell tower visit is NOT wheelchair friendly and may be difficult for elderly or obese visitors)

Upon admission we passed yet another gift shop (at least this one was empty since it was exclusive to the bell tower visit haha).  We bypassed the gift shop and headed straight for the spiral staircase.  The stairs probably took us 5 minutes to hike up and I heard several tourists struggling/complaining toward the latter portion of the trek.  The view from the viewing "deck" was enjoyable (well worth the wait) as it offered a fantastic view of Paris flanked by the river on both sides.  The viewing area was basically a one-person wide path along the edge of the bell tower and thus created a potential problem:  I would be super frustrated if there were always visitors behind me pushing to get ahead.  My solution? Stay behind everyone else (think like a photographer lol).  The stone gargoyles along the roof-top were interesting, but the most intriguing part of the visit (aside from the view/photo ops) was to see the power of weather corrosion over hundreds of years.

I thought our bell tower visit concluded when we circumvented the bell tower.  To my surprise there was another viewing deck at the top of the bell tower =  MORE STAIRS!  The staircase became narrower and the steps became child-sized as we ascended to the very top of the tower.  There were two major differences between the 1st and 2nd level: 1) Everything looked tinier, 2) The top was very spacious VS the 1st level... otherwise everything else was similar.  The descend down the stairs took approximately 5 minutes and it was somewhat hard on my knees.  As we exited Notre Dame half dazed from the spiral staircase we saw a bride & a groom taking wedding photos at the square in front of Notre Dame!  I felt bad for the groom because I was already sweating in a thin T-shirt, let alone a 3-piece tuxedo!

We had planned to visit the tiny island "Ile Saint-Louis" directly adjacent to Ile de la Cite, and apparently my wife had been fueled by my promise of "best gelato/sorbet in Paris".  We (by we I meant me) decided against sweet Italian treats in favor of thirst quenching golden bubbles so we postponed our gelato plans for a later date and instead we parked ourselves at a local pub... a few 1664s later we were off to our last destination of the day - Pont des Arts.

As we approached Pont des Arts the bridge sparkled silver and gold as the setting sun reflected off a sea of locks left behind by lovers across the globe.  A Parisian co-worker informed me of this tradition and I came prepared with a combination lock.  (the original tradition: Write your names on the lock; secure the lock on the bridge; and throw the key into the river... I didn't want to pollute the river so I decided to bring a combination lock instead.  There were copious amount of street vendors selling pad locks so don't worry if you're not prepared).  100000 brownie points with this romantic gesture later the beers kicked in and we were off in search of washrooms.

Louvre with Stuart According to Google Maps we were near the back of Louvre and since we had museum passes we could use the washrooms at the Louvre!  When we arrived we were shocked to see the main courtyard of the Louvre so empty... something was odd...  Of course it was Tuesday which meant the Louvre was closed! (however the lobby remained open = washrooms were available = happy wife).  We took full advantage of the relatively empty square in front of the Louvre for some fantastic photos in the setting sun.  We then metro-ed back to our apartment to rest our exhausted feet and turned in early.

(Aside: It was hilarious how attractions and restaurants in France would close on random days... Usually some day between Saturday-Tuesday.  Please do your research in advance because there were numerous occasions where we arrived at an attraction/restaurant only to find that they were not open for business that day.  Going out for food/ supermarket on Sundays? If you are away from tourist areas don't even bother lol).
 

DAY 6: PETIT PALAIS, MUSÉE RODIN, E.T, ARC DE TRIOMPHE
September 3rd, 2013 - Sunny

Pont Alexandre III - Paris Musee Rodin - Paris Stained glass at Basillica of Sainte-Clotilde Trocardero - Paris Traffic at Arc de Triomphe Paris at Night - Arc de Triomphe Paris at Night - Arc de Triomphe Eiffel Tower from Arc de Triomphe French Flag - Arc de Triomphe
Our time in Paris had gone by so fast!!! With only two full days left in the city we only visited 1/3 of the attractions on our list... but since my wife and I were having such a fantastic time we decided to maintain our pace knowing that we would miss out on a few attractions.

Our agenda took us to the Grand Palais which was a highly-rated attraction on guide books and travel websites.  Upon arrival we were greeted kindly with closed doors (of course museums close in the middle of the work week - Wednesday!).  Instead we traveled 100 meters across the busy avenue and found the Petit Palais - to our relief the lights were on.

Mosaic Petit Palais The Petit Palais was a quiet and marvelously maintained museum.  Although we were completely museum-ed out at this point of our trip it was difficult not to admire at all of those priceless paintings and sculptures.  We were able to enjoy each artifact and sometimes entire exhibits in absolute peace... which was a refreshing contrast to the frantic pace of the Louvre and Musee D'orsay.  However it was the intricate interior of the museum itself that wowed me the most - especially the mosaic-tiled floor and those cast iron spiral staircases.

After Petit Palais we visited one of the most extravagant bridges in Paris: Pont Alexandre III which was only a stone's throw away.  The white, black, and gold decorated bridge was lined with classic Parisian lamp posts on either side and it was extremely well maintained - minus some fresh graffiti on its railings.  (personally my favorite portion of the bridge were those steel support beams on the underside of the bridge).  After our brief stop at Pont Alexandre III we once again proceeded on foot toward our next destination: Musee Rodin.

We had no idea who "Rodin" was and our decision to visit this museum was purely based on fantastic reviews from TripAdvisor.  The leisure walk from Pont Alexandre III took us through a business-oriented neighborhood where we stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of suits and business attires.  Our walk also took us through countless packed restaurants which reminded us that it was indeed lunch time.  As we walked into a "suitable" aka air conditioned restaurant we were severely under-dressed... until 3 construction workers walked through the door... whew lol.  2 hours later we emerged happy and refreshed, and I also found a new love for chicken gizzards.  (I ordered it accidentally since our free iPhone French dictionary wouldn't tell us what gésier meant unless we upgraded to the full version... lol.... hmmm.. salty goodness) 
Musee Rodin - The Thinker
Musée Rodin was a comparatively smaller museum that housed numerous sculptures by a supposably famous artist called "Auguste Rodin".  Rodin's works were scattered throughout an immaculately manicured garden that was rivaled only by the Palace of Versailles.  Groups of local artists could be seen translating their favorite iron/stone sculptures onto sketch pads.  Impressed by its garden we headed into a mansion where smaller/less weather resistant/delicate masterpieces were stored.  The contrast between the garden and the main building of Musée Rodin was shocking to say the least.  Even though the artworks were undeniably inspiring, it was difficult to look past the squeaky & uneven floors and the general state of disrepair of the building.  Upon our exit from the main building we headed down a narrow path where an unusually large amount of tourists congregated... then eureka!  Instead of being a mystically famous sculptor named "Auguste Rodin", I finally gazed upon a piece of work of which I can identify with!  I was staring at The Thinker!

As we departed Musée Rodin I was still proud of myself for being an art aficionado (for knowing The Thinker... lol), we walked past a grand-ish looking church called Basilica of Sainte Clotilde.  We were the only visitors at the time of visit (it was a work day and I don't think this church was a tourist attraction) and it was obvious that the basilica would benefit from some minor restorations.  However, its hardened "demeanor" reasonated with me and I ended up appreciating this simple church much more than some of its more famous counterparts.  An impromptu soccer game had erupted at the tiny square outside of the church and we were greeted by a flying soccer ball as we exited from the basilica.

Throughout the day... actually throughout our stay in Paris we noticed the popularity of the citywide bike sharing program called Vélib'.  These grey-bronze cruiser bikes were everywhere in Paris and I (not my wife) wanted to try them out since day 1.  A few minutes on the automated terminal and a minimal fee later, we were on our bikes!  We cruised for approximately 20 meters until my wife got too scared to travel on the busy Paris roads/sidewalk... so we walked our 50 ton tanks bikes to the next nearest Vélib' station which was only a 5 minute walk away.  From there we took the subway back home even though it was only around 4PM because we had a romantic evening planned!
Trocadero Picnic at Trocadero
A bottle of cheap wine, a couple of plastic wine glasses, two sandwiches, and assorted desserts in my backpack later we were back on Vélib' bikes riding toward... that's right we were going back to the Eiffel Tower hahaha. (Ironically the package of plastic wine glasses were more expensive than the wine, which was 1.80 euros LOL... it was important to J that we stayed classy with the cups).  The bike ride on Blvd de Grenelle wasn't as scary as anticipated due to a dedicated bike path, but we were on high alert for those crazy French motorists anyways.  Once we dropped off our bikes around Trocadero we found a shaded patch of grass, fanned out our tiny bamboo mat, and enjoyed an inexpensive yet romantic picnic dinner staring at the Eiffel Tower.  By the time it was cool enough to wonder off again the sun was low enough on the horizon where everything was blanketed in a warm orange hue... giant water cannons also went off in an hourly interval at Trocadero (worth seeing).  We spent 2-3 hours at "Place du Trocadéro" chatting, photographing, and being silly until the sun was no more.  From there we proceeded on foot for 25 minutes towards the Arc de Triomphe through quiet residential streets and by the time we reached our destination the sky was pitch black.

Arc de Triomphe Staircase The Arc de Trimophe was an EXTREMELY busy traffic circle where 12 main roads intersected.  The arch trumped all other surrounding structures in terms of height and grandeur, and sometimes flashes of white strobe lights would sparkle at the roof - those lights turned out to be camera flashes from crazy tourists thinking they could illuminate the entirety of Paris using their camera flashes (photo tip - most camera flashes have an effective radius of < 3 meters, so taking night landscape photos with them would essentially give you a completely black picture... so turn off your flash and use a tripod or have steady hands).  To our relief there were underground tunnels to access the Arc de Triomphe, and similar to the Notre Dame bell tower we had to hike up a long spiral staircase in order to reach the top (there was 1 elevator for the less physically abled).  Due to the fact that it was late at night (an hour before closing) and it wasn't peak tourist hours, there were no lineups at the counter and it was quite enjoyable at the top with only a handful of other tourists.  The view from the top was so spectacular I was grateful (and still am) to have had such dumb luck to visit during night time instead.  The panoramic view of Paris was illuminated by golden lights with bone straight major avenues extending from the arch to the peripherals of Paris.  I was able to look straight down the busy Champs-Élysées, then to my right was the imposing Eiffel Tower and its rotating beacon, and behind me lied La Défense with its skyscrappers and the Grande Arche.  In fact, I enjoyed the top of Arc de Triomphe much more than the Eiffel Tower strictly in terms of the view (just like why we went up the Rockefeller Center to marvel at New York rather than going up the Empire State Building).  The eye-gasm presented to us at the top of Arc de Triomphe was further sweetened by the hourly Eiffel Tower light show (during the latter part of the show I snuck to the abandoned sides of the viewing deck to do some quick photography projects :P).

P.S. Make sure to spend a few minutes looking down at the traffic circle and witness the chaos and horrors of French driving - there were no lines or anything on the road... it was simply cars weaving in and out at "inappropriately" high speeds... yet no accidents, just lots of horns.

We walked down Champs-Élysées and realized that it was nothing but a busy and glorified shopping district.  Since we had zero intentions of buying thousand dollar handbags I was finally able to persuade J to give Vélib' another try (we were also out of metro tickets haha).  After we navigated away from Champs-Élysées the streets were fortunately quiet, and we slowly made our way back home zigzagging through Parisian neighborhoods.  For some reason there was something magical and romantic about strolling through quiet Parisian streets on unpredictable beater bikes... the 45 minutes it took us to get home was my absolute favorite portion of our honeymoon. (to avoid extra fees we changed bikes half-way through the trip because only the first 30 minutes were free... and we got lost a little bit haha).

 

DAY 7: WEDNESDAY MARKET, PANTHEON, LUXEMBOURG GARDENS
September 4th, 2013 - Sunny

Wednesday Market Blvd de Grenelle- Paris Paris - Pantheon Paris - Luxembourg Gardens Paris - I Love you wall Paris - Metro Station Concorde
Wednesday Market breakfast For the second time this week a large market was underway underneath the elevated railroad on Boulevard de Grenelle and we were determined to participate this time around (the market was right outside our apartment).  This busy market sold everything from fresh produce, seafood, cheese, all the way to baby clothing; and judged by the market population it was evident that many locals gathered their ingredients from these markets.  We happily browsed through all the stands and we ended up acquiring both our brunches and some souvenirs.  (French melons = looks like cantaloupe but sweeter = heaven; don't buy baked goods from markets because they are likely not as fresh as store baked croissants).  

To top off our breakfasts/lunches we took the metro all the way to "Cit
é" station so we could enjoy the "best ice cream in Paris" on Ile Saint-Louis at a shop called Berthillon (and to make good on my promise).  Once that sugary goodness touched our lips it made the 10 minute trek through the scorching heat worth it.  (Aside: a particularly disturbing scene occurred at the metro station where one "bum-looking" racist man screamed and spat at an oriental lady, then jumped the ticket turnstile... my fists were clenched and I was ready to lay a beat down if he made a move towards my wife and I... luckily for him he didn't)

Paris - Saint-Etienne-du-Mont We got off the tranquil residential island, crossed the river, and navigated through to the lively Latin Quarter.  Latin Quarter was a youthful neighborhood being situated in proximity to academic institutions.  The hike uphill to Pantheon was particularly unpleasant because it felt like I was being slowly roasted by the midday sun... alas... 1 bottle of warm water later we arrived at our intended destination.  However, we ducked into yet another church called Saint-Etienne-du-Mont which was directly adjacent to Pantheon because: 1) it was close, 2) it was shaded.  This church was extremely well maintained and quiet, but also quite typical in terms of its external/internal appearence.

Paris - Pantheon Across the street the Pantheon stood alone in the middle of the square.  We knew very little about this landmark but from its exterior it seemed like some sort of state or government building.  The lobby/main foyer of Pantheon was decorated tastefully with impressive stone/marble columns and wide-open floor spaces (even during renovations).  However, the true purpose of this building turned out to be hidden from the foyer... Pantheon functioned as a secular mausoleum for distinguished French citizens such as Victor Hugo and Pierre/Marie Curie! (amongst numerous names unfamiliar to my wife and I).

A 10-15 minute walk away was the famous Luxembourg Gardens.  On our way to our next destination we had little choice but to retreat into a familiar but air-conditioned restaurant called McDonald's due to the overwhelming heat.  (Yes we went to McDonald's in Paris the culinary paradise).  We then proceeded to the Luxembourg Gardens which was only a few steps away.

In my opinion the Luxembourg Gardens was more like a park rather than a garden... granted there were a few well maintained flowerbeds but the majority of the space was dedicated as "leisure space".  With much difficulty we finally found an empty park bench and quickly realized that those park benches were empty for a reason.  About 10 meters away congregated a large group of ethnic individuals (~50 people?) whom were obviously from a less fortunate social-economic background (most of them didn't have shoes nor proper clothing... I thought French had robust social programs?).  We later vacated that park bench because they were so obnoxiously loud... 

Paris - Montmartre We concluded our day back at Montmartre (where we began our Paris journey) because we were too jetlagged to enjoy this artsy district on our first day.  We visited a small church close to the metro exit as well as the "I Love You" wall (le mur des je t'aime) which unfortunately were both disappointing.  However, Montmartre offered an entire street full of shops where we were able to purchase some cheap souvenirs.  On the metro back to our apartment we stopped at a couple interesting stations for some photo ops (see picture of the Concorde station on the left).  We hit the local bar 1 block from our apartment for some happy hour booze amidst locals to conclude our fantastic week in Paris... and who knew even random pubs would serve such good chicken gizzard + foie gras salads?! 


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