Monday, March 5, 2012

France - Pedaling in Paris

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10 miles, Thursday, August 4

The campground is on the edge of a huge park, Bois du Boulogne. We’d contemplated taking public transportation, but Gerrit, a Dutch cyclist on a tour of France, recommended we pedal to the attractions. He cycled late at night during the coolest part of the day and still felt safe. Immediately we got lost. Several cyclists looped the park roads and one helped us navigate to the Arc de Triomphe before waving and continuing on his ride.

Goosebumps prickled my arms as the great arch towered above our heads. We rattled over the cobblestones and locked our bikes on the outside of the roundabout for the underground entrance to the Arc. The monument sits in the middle of the largest traffic circle in the world. It is also the confluence of 14 avenues, one of which is the infamous Champs Elysees. Traffic weaved in and out, curving around the monument. Horns honk. The amazing feat is that the drivers negotiate it all, six lanes wide, without markings. No wonder the tourist entrance is underground!

The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800s as a tribute to his army’s success, but was never completed during his reign. It was finished in 1836. A panel displays Napoleon with an angel flying over his head—a true depiction, Andy said, of his apparent arrogance. Various armies have marched through the arch, including Hitler’s soldiers as they stormed into Paris. There is a tomb for an unknown WWI soldier; its flame is rekindled every evening.

Bicycling through Paris was surprisingly easy. Our Dutch friend was right. Though traffic was heavy, the drivers were conscientious. And pedaling over cobblestones was interesting. The stones are laid in a diamond pattern as opposed to checkerboard fashion, allowing the wheels a smoother ride. It was all really confounding and the crazy traffic a bit overwhelming, but orderly nonetheless. I was giddy as we headed to the Eiffel Tower.

The iconic structure rises far above any other building in Paris and was originally built in 1870 for the World’s Fair. For a lesser charge, 12 Francs, we walked the stairs to the second platform for a magnificent view of the city. By then Andy and I were hot. We lingered for a time, soaking up the breeze. At 11 million inhabitants, Paris was my largest city to date. Only a few “bumps” swelled from the landscape. Otherwise it was mostly flat.

The view from the lower platform on the Eiffel Tower.
On the ground we sweated profusely and cycled under a sprinkler. Our bellies grumbled. Andy stayed with the bikes while I gathered baguettes from a storefront, fruit from another stand, then went inside a supermarche for cereal, yogurt and orange juice. We’d adapted to the French foraging way to buy things. I lingered in the dairy aisle for a moment of coolness.

By late afternoon the heat was unbearable. We were edgy and impatient with each other outside the Louvre. The line to get into the museum was 100 feet long. Instead, we crossed the Seine to visit the Musee de Orsay.

The museum is famous for its collection of Impressionist art. I lost myself among its Picassos, Renoirs, and Cezannes. It may have the largest accumulation of Monets; I saw at least 30 of his paintings, including a famous water lily scene. As I walked along the high ceilinged rooms among the great masters, it was an education to appreciate how many artists were notable (posthumously), while Monet continues to enjoy so much notoriety. I sat on benches, enthralled for minutes at a time.

By early evening we were exhausted. In 45 minutes we made it back to the noisy, crowded campground. I queued up in a 20 minute line, waiting for an available shower. The facilities are rather dismal, with perpetually wet and dirty floors, so it’s a balancing act to wash and leave with clean feet. One concrete block houses these “foreign” toilets, the hole in floor variety between raised stepping stone-style footprints, and a nearby water spigot—all without toilet paper. We avoid their use out of unease, preferring the conventional toilets, even though they’re further away.

Courtyard at the Louvre with glass pyramid entrance.
15 miles, Friday, August 5

A thunder and lightning storm belts the sky with high winds. We wait out the storm inside the tent, catching up on correspondence. Andy has become the “contact scribe”. He writes postcards and letters home to family and friends while I am in charge of the journal.

When the deluge and gusts subsided the air is less humid. Used to Paris traffic now, we brave the roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe. I held my breath, but the automobiles parted the way as if we were dignitaries. And then in the busy environment we rode right down the wide Champs Elysses to the Louvre. How truly exhilarating!

Impressive Venus de Milo statue.
The lines were fortunately short this time. We descended inside the glass pyramid entrance, a recent addition designed by I.M. Pei which seems to stand on the cobbles of the square like a child’s block. It’s also a modern accoutrement in a classic old city—a bit out of place to my eye. As the museum was formerly a royal palace, the building itself is a spectacular exhibit and we marvel at the interior as much as the exhibits. Frescoes, golden domes, and tiles adorn the ceiling. The floors are mosaics of marble. We could’ve spent 3 days in the museum but we concentrate on the cooler temperatures of the lower two floors and peruse the Roman, Greek, and Medieval displays.

But we couldn’t ignore the crowds around the armless Venus de Milo statue. This 200 year old marble edifice was found in the waters around the Greek island of Mios. Or pass up the opportunity to see Davinci’s Mona Lisa. Behind protective glass, the painting is much smaller than I expected. Unfortunately its mystique was lost in my glimpse above a sea of heads. I imagine there are only moments in a day when one can truly appreciate the masterpiece.

City traveling. Using the toilets or WCs under the street.
A red granite sphinx from 2000 B.C. sits alone. We circled the ten foot creature, noting a smoothly formed tail that swept back to his haunches and tucked beneath his body. This grand statue is an appropriate introduction to the medieval section. The remains of a 12 century castle are showcased within the grounds of the Louvre. It was excavated in 1984 to expose the base walls, crypts, and several pieces of pottery for display to the public. The lower portions of the perimeter turrets and inner tower are amazingly preserved.

The Latin Quarter

With our heads filled with wonder we left in the afternoon for errands: food, bank, post office for a phone card, then wandered towards the Notre Dame cathedral. On the way we walked the bikes though the Latin Quarter. Greek restaurants spilled onto the narrow alleys of cobblestones. Hunks of lamb sizzled on vertical spits. The smell of gyros and pastry was tantalizing, making our grocery purchases suddenly seemed inadequate for our taste buds. Oh, to spend whatever I wanted on the restaurant life!

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