Paris in Four Days
**Becauseitzthere is typically a hiking and outdoor adventure blog. But from time to time we will feature other sorts of travel and leisure on these pages. In other words…fu fu travel. And it don’t get no more fu than Paris.
After completing the grueling challenge of the Tour Du Mont Blanc we thought we’d end the trip with a completely straightforward touristy destination. And what could be more straightforwardly touristy than the world’s number one tourist destination…Paris, France..,the celebrated La Ville-Lumière (City of Light.)
From Chamonix to Paris is 422 miles – about the same distance as Raleigh is from Baltimore, MD. One of the reasons that we flew into Paris, rather than Geneva, was just so that we could stop there on the way back and tour the city. (Plus the fact that the extra cost of flying into Geneva was almost as much as two or three days in Paris anyway.)
We crossed this same distance on the way out with the pall of a national train strike hanging over us, which turned out to be no big deal. We figured getting back would be no big thing.
The first two connections went just fine. We had lunch during one of our transfers in the delightful little town of St. Gervais les Bains…where we were served by the nicest waiter of the whole trip. Nor was our stop in Annecy troublesome…except that we had no chance to explore this charming city due to time constraints.
After Annecy, things turned bumpy. First, the train carriage we were booked in was packed with an enormous group of what looked like elementary schoolchildren. So much for a peaceful ride. If this were not bad enough, the luggage area – which in a French TGV train is basically a small closet at the front of each car – was chock a block full with bags, leaving absolutely no room for ours.
All ended well though. The leaders of the school tour actually approached us about moving our seats into the quieter outside compartment of the carriage. And after several rounds of shifting, pulling, pushing, twisting and playing suitcase Tetris, we were finally able to shove our bags in among the pile and seat ourselves for the long ride into Paris.
Fortunately no one sat across from us, and we were able to stretch our legs out.
Arriving back in the Gare du Lyon station in paris…where we’d passed through more than two weeks earlier…we were only a two stop Metro Ride from our Hotel. No problem, right?
Problem. We had all of our belongings in two rolling suitcases…and the Paris Metro is a huge labyrinth of tunnels, with almost as many of them being for foot traffic to and from the platforms as for train. We had to go up and down, several flights of stairs (or non-operational escalators) to reach our destination. Every time we tried to seek an easier route, we ended up in a worse place.
And we had only one person in our party who could scale a flight of stairs carrying a loaded suitcase…which left us in a VERY awkward position in Paris, which in addition to other things is famous for petty crime. The negotiation of the Paris underground proved almost as physically taxing as any day on the Tour…and it marked the THIRD time on the trip that the suitcases had proven a major hindrance.
Note to selves for future reference…when travelling cross country by train, travel light.
Somehow, we managed to get up, down, around and over the obstacles and emerge from the deep Paris Metro Station not far from our hotel. From there on, it was fairly easy going.
I was struck instantly of how much Paris reminded me of Boston…Big, loud, dirty, full of surly people…yet proud, cultured, sophisticated, undeniably urbane. Both cities have many old buildings, mostly low skylines, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of inconsiderate drivers barreling down narrow roads.
We had big plans the next day, so the agenda for night one in Paris was…rest up as much as possible.
Day One Paris: A Tour of a Big House
Our first day in Paris we took the train outside the city for a tour of an unusually elaborate residential dwelling. Some might have heard of its last owner…King Louis XVI of France. But I hear there was some trouble and he ended up losing his home…along with some other things as well.
The line to get into Versailles was almost as impressive as the palace itself. Good thing it wasn’t that hot or anything…just a record heat wave across all of Europe. The local news that very morning showed the day’s high temperature in Paris to be equivalent that of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Twice, Sylvia and I had to warn off people who attempted to cut in front of us in line. Multiply that up and down a line of hundreds, maybe thousands of people. You might even say that getting inside was a royal pain in the something or other.
Once inside, some member of our party discovered at the last minute that he’d brought his multi-tool from the hike with him, virtually insuring that we would never make it through the metal detectors alive. (For those of you who have not been to Paris lately…expect HEAVY security everywhere. Checkpoints, bag checks, metal detectors and chemical sniffing dogs are legion, and patrols of heavily armed French police and soldiers walk the streets.) I had to surrender the multi-tool to a bag check to be reclaimed later…the French bag check woman seeming very impressed with the Leatherman.
Finally, we were inside!
Inside is a huge and (in places) seriously crowded house.
There sure are a lot of statues in Versailles.
There’s also a lot of rooms…hundreds, in fact. Built by Louis XIV, perhaps the greatest monarch in European history, the huge size and epic splendor of the palace is quite deliberate. In part it was an attempt to keep the French nobility in one place…and keep them happy and docile. This allowed Louis to completely centralize authority in France, with himself in the center…by the end of his unprecedented 72 year reign, he wielded almost absolute power. It was said that nobles bowed to the royal meal as it was carried through the halls to the King’s table.
Another function of the Palace was as a sort of sensual shock and awe attack launched at visiting dignitaries. European courts of that day prided themselves in their splendor…but Versailles, the ultimate MTV Crib, put them all to shame. It spoke to friends and foes alike that Louis was a man to be reckoned with.
Though his dress an appearance look a bit silly by today’s standards, underneath the wigs and powder Louis was in fact a shrewd, formidable man who outmaneuvered enemies and built the greatest military empire on Earth at that time. He won most of the wars he fought and didn’t win them by spraying perfume.
Most famed and splendid of the rooms is the 230-foot long, chandelier studded Hall of Mirrors, where the king often received guests seated upon a silver throne.
We made the mistake of trying to catch a meal in the snack bar, which was so packed they were letting only small parties of 8-10 in at a time. It took us an hour to get a seat. Damned lines.
Though the crowds in Versailles degraded the experience, it is probably true that in King Louis time the halls would have been busy, noisy places too, packed with servants, guards, envoys, officials, courtiers and general hangers on.
After the tour of the inside we went outside for a visit to the enormous royal gardens. These are as impressive as the inside of the palace.
After Versailles we took the train back into the city and walked along the Seine. Paris can be a somewhat intimidating place…but it can also be a picturesque one. The Seine very much reminded me of the Charles River that separates Boston from Cambridge.
While strolling we debated visiting a certain tower that you might have heard of, but it was too late in the day to go up, the lines were already quite long. Instead, we took the subway uptown to see an unusual stone arch.
I’ve spent some time in Arches National Park…I must say that this arch wasn’t quite that naturally beautiful, but it was still very impressive.
But we couldn’t linger long in the cafes because tomorrow we had yet another big day ahead of us in the City of Light.
NEXT UP: We Score a Touchdown At Our Lady of Paris