Friday, February 22, 2013

Paris on the Fly

Early morning we hop on the TGV express train from Avignon to Paris. The high speed portion of our trip from Switzerland to Avignon had been after sunset so this was a chance to observe the French countryside. Eurail passes allow foreigners first class travel. We lounged and ate breakfast in comfort.

Because France is a large country, and one of continual fascination for me, I was interested in the landscape and future places to ride a bike. I tried following by map. I guessed we headed northwest, directly towards Paris. I could neither confirm our whereabouts, by road signs or track crossings, because of the train's blazing fast speed. I gave up. I relaxed as we zipped through rolling vineyards with typical blessed narrow roads, then flatter farmland dotted with white cattle. I have no idea where we were.

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Patty, near Notre Dame cathedral.
2.5 hours later we disembarked at Gare de Lyon and in typical European fashion—like clockwork— arrived a minute early. We scrambled to lug two large duffel bags between us, navigate the Paris train system, climb stairs, and make connections—all to go about 2 k. I purposely packed light for the hiking and cycling adventures. With a medium sized backpack, one shoulder bag, and one small pannier, I could walk anywhere and would've gladly stayed above ground to locate the hostel. However, both Patty and Michele lugged heavy bags. Patty's duffel consisted of two tents—which we all benefited from—but the weight neared 50 lbs. Despite her size she's mostly able to heft it herself—except it seemed ridiculous to try—especially after she'd previously mentioned her boyfriend rarely helps (I'd seen an example in Switzerland). I was reluctant to assist, at first, because of a chronic stiff back. With proper care and routine stretching, I'd managed quite well on the entire trip, which in turn boosted my confidence. When I could, I helped Patty lift a luggage handle to speed the journey.

Michele and Patty with lunch.
With bags stowed at The Oops! Hostel, we set out on foot. With less than 24 hours until plane flights home, we avoided the Metro, and with a loose itinerary, started off towards Notre Dame Cathedral. We picked up a baguette and ate lunch on a park bench on the cathedral grounds. Though I'd been in Paris nearly 20 years ago, I'd never taken in the magnificent building, decorated in flying buttresses and spires.

Paris has earned its reputation as the most visited and romantic city in the world. It exudes its charm through its buildings, museums, cafes, nightlife, and food. I can't help but wonder what would've happened had Hitler bombed the heck out of the city. Instead, Paris was largely preserved because Hitler was smitten, wanting to build Berlin in a similar style—only better—to outshine Paris.

Of course the interior of Notre Dame is magnificent, especially the rose windows, stained glass dating to the 13th century. It's difficult to get a clear view however; the glass is easily 4-5 stories overhead, yet I'm humbled in the presence of this voluminous space like I am in all Gothic churches.

We'd wanted to climb the north tower to have a bird's eye view of Paris, but the lines are too long. Instead, we head towards Sacre Coeur, which is situated on a hill.

Along the way we stumble on another spectacular square: Hotel de Ville. We couldn't find information on a sign or in my simple guide book, but later I discover it's city hall, the mayor's office and residence.

Along Rue Saint Merri—a pedestrian-only street—an artist draws Jimmy Hendrix in chalk. I love the silver platter and inscribed "Merci". Quintessential Paris.

A moment later armed soldiers walk by.

A mime performs in Place Georges Pompidou.

Then we head north along Rue Montmarte.

I'm excited to see Paris's bike share system, the Velib, in action. In fact, it's highly utilized, as I later learned.

After 3-4 miles of walking we take a break, headed for the outdoor cafe on the corner, straight ahead.

On the cobblestone side streets, lots of bicycles and motorcycles are parked. On busy streets, Smart Cars were prevalent, plus European compact vehicles. Like all of Provence, white vans zip everywhere supplying all the stores.

Practical city commuters.

Approaching the hill where Sacre Coeur sits, we first climb 200 steps (I counted), then we pay to climb 300 more to an overlook, for expansive Paris views.

One of Sacre Coeur's spires stands in the forefront with the Eiffel Tower
in the distance.
There are periodic showers in the distance, but nothing to worry about. We marvel at the sprawl. Interestingly there are certain districts, highlighted by a confluence of high-rises—like what you'd expect in a U.S. city with a central core—except there are several regions in Paris.

We check the map and decide to head to the Arc de Triomphe.

On the descent down Sacre Coeur's stairs, I spy a gargoyle.

Then it's a long walk down Boulevard des Batignolles. Parisians ride their own bikes...

..or the Velib.

Michele and Annie at the Arc de Triomphe.
The last time I visited the Arc de Triomphe was by bicycle. My husband and I joined the traffic and safely navigated all 14 avenues that converge at this special monument. Parisian drivers were accommodating—at least then. This time around, I'm glad we're on foot. It's easier to check the map and make the most of our hours, all while getting exercise.

The monument is accessed by underground entrance.

A special ceremony was taking placing at the eternal flame of the unknown soldier. We weren't free to roam around.

Flower garlands surround the tomb for a special event.

The Arc is a extraordinary place. Built under direction from Napoleon to celebrate his victories, it is now a memorial to all who've defended France.

The architecture is none too shabby either.

Michele is in the foreground. She wears colorful clothing compared with the Parisians.
Then we cruise down famed Champs Elysses. With wide avenues and hordes of people, cafes, car dealerships, and expensive shops; it's craziness! Parisian's wear mostly black clothes. They are walking and eating and texting—sometimes all at the same time.

A kelly green two horse-powered wonder: the Deux Chevaux.
We turn off the fast-paced avenue and head towards the Eiffel Tower. Along Avenue George V, I can't believe I encounter another Deux Chevaux. They were a common sight the last time I was in France; this trip they are rare. (I later learned they were manufactured up to 1990.) This is only the third Deux Chevaux I've seen in nearly two weeks in the country. They are a French icon, made by Citroen, and to me, undoubtedly the cutest foreign car ever made.

When Patty, Michele, and I crossed the street, I snapped my photo and waited for the Deux Chevaux to start up from the stop light. I wanted to hear it's pitter-patter engine. Unfortunately, the car died. The woman driver seemed embarrassed as a couple guys pushed her and the car to the curb. The demise of the Citroen two-stroke seems destined for museums and collectors, belying it's initial intention as a car for the peasant masses. C'est la vie.

Another twenty minutes and we are at the Eiffel Tower. Lines are long. Again, patrols scan the crowds. It's a new age, unfortunately, where high security is necessary to protect national monuments.

Photo credit: Patty
The sky has cleared and the sun is low. We stroll beneath George Eiffel's engineering achievement, constructed for the 1889 World's Fair. I wonder what he'd make of it today, if he were alive, and the throngs that await to ascend by foot or elevator. It still holds the power to captivate and enthrall—no matter how many times I visit.

After walking for 7 hours we are exhausted. We'd initially wanted to view Paris after dark, but we can't make it. We opt for the Metro back to the hostel.

I never tire of visiting this lovely city. Paris, I'll be back.

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