OUR PARIS TRIP JOURNAL : Day 4

Thursday morning in Paris, France gave us something we had not seen yet. We woke up and opened our windows to see Rue Cler¬†buzzing under a bright sun and clear blue skies. How could we not be excited? Our plans were to head up to the 8th arrondissement and visit Parc¬†Monceau, a late addition to our itinerary. The weather couldn’t have been better for a morning in the park so we dressed, said our good morning to Rue Cler, then hit the metro and headed north.

One of the coolest things about the metro is walking out, especially for the first time in a new part of Paris. Climbing up those stairs you never know what delight awaits you. Such was the case on this day. We popped out right next to the park’s ornate fencing¬†and with beautifully constructed buildings across from us. Thick shade trees let through small beams of sunshine all around us which added to the neighborhood’s beauty. We turned towards the park’s entrance and headed in. It was a gorgeous park filled with joggers, pigeons, and little children enjoying the morning. We sat on a sun-soaked bench and¬†admired a beautifully arranged pond¬†bordered by¬†old Greek/Roman styled pillars around the outer edges. Joggers ran in front of us scattering curious pigeons looking for a morning meal. Some joggers looked ready for the Olympics. Others looked ready for an ambulance.¬†We¬†chuckled as¬†a¬†little local boy no older that 2 chased the pigeons around. The people-watching at Parc Monceau was splendid.

Parc Monceau

After a bit, we got up and walked around the park. What would make the warm, sunny day better? A picnic of course. We found our way out of a different exit and came out of a lovely street lined with cafes. On the corner we saw the cutest little boulangerie opened for business. In we went. Freshly made¬†breads, sandwiches, salads, and pastries sat behind a glass counter making our mouths water. We were a little early for lunch but the¬†nice French ladies let us grab some grub. Jacki picked out a delicious looking fresh salad while I got a warm sandwich and a chocolate macaroon. We made our way back to our park bench and enjoyed our wonderful little picnic. While we were eating, an older French gentleman walking by saw us and said “Bon App√©tit”. “Merci monsieur” I responded. Jacki and I¬†looked at each other and smiled. “I love this city” I thought to myself.

Parc Monceau

We hated to leave but we had other things to do. I figured out early that the park and garden scene was one element of the French culture that we were made for. Much like the long meals enjoying each other’s company, the parks were something that both of us could spend hours enjoying just like the Parisians. Nevertheless we left and headed over to the nearby Mus√©e¬†Nissim¬†de Camondo, a beautiful home with a sad history tied to the holocaust. We enjoyed the tour of the 18th century furnishing and¬†the glimpse into how the wealthy once lived. Afterwards we said goodbye to the area then headed back into the subterranean world of the Paris metro.

Our next stop brought us to¬†the awesome¬†Arc de Triomphe. Walking out of the metro stop, the towering monument to those who fought in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars took center stage. Plopped right in the middle of Place Charles de Gaulle, the Arc is a spectacle surrounded by a sea of fast-moving¬†and chaotic traffic. I stood amazed. Jacki was…well…not as impressed. We snapped photos and looked from different angles yet couldn’t¬†figure how to get over to it. We knew there was a tunnel but it was well hidden among the ocean of people. We soon found it and before long we were standing under one of Paris’ grandest sites. We decided to head to the top (thank you Paris Museum Pass) and were greeted¬†by a huge winding staircase. Jacki wasn’t exactly thrilled with the trip up but it was worth it. We were¬†rewarded with an amazing view of Paris. Going down was a lot easier and our next stop was right ahead of us – the Champs Elysees.

The Arc de Triomphe

There’s no denying that the¬†Champs Elysees¬†has been highly commercialized. But it was still a lot of fun. The famous avenue connecting Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe¬†was best known for the historical marches that took place there. Now it’s known for it’s pretty chestnut trees and upscale shopping. We saw fancy storefronts for Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Hugo Boss, and more. Cool car showrooms from Mercedes, Peugeot, and Toyota had¬†motor enthusiasts¬†drooling. Then there was McDonalds. Yes, the Champs Elysees¬†had a McDonalds. We thought it would be fun to pop in for a coke and fries just to say we did. Not the smartest thing. The line was long and this was the first place where we were met with rude service. My fractured French also ran into a wall. We ended up with four orders of fries and two cokes. I tried to clarify but our server would have none of it. We just took it, ate, and left. Just like in the states.

Laduree

But things would get better quick as we soon found Laduree, a high quality pastry shop known throughout all of Paris. Jacki’s face shined. She had been waiting for this moment. Unfortunately the fancy shop was closed off for renovations and we had to buy our sweets from a makeshift building on the sidewalk. We bought our macaroons and were off again. We were getting tired and thought about using the metro to get to Place de la Concorde. But my judgement of distance was way off and we decided to walk it instead. By the time we got there we were zapped. Our itinerary had us taking the #12 metro line up to Montmartre and the hilltop Sacr√© CŇďur. We thought about calling it off but decided to press on. We finally found the metro stop and headed north.

At Montmartre we immediately got turned around and headed in the wrong direction. Mix the steep hills in with the walking we had already done and it’s safe to say we were laboring, especially Jacki and her 127 lb purse. I carried the pink purse for her until I was whistled at by a group of playful local boys. Jacki tried to coddle my fragile male ego by saying they were whistling at some young girls, but I knew the truth. I offered several times to turn around and head back but we kept living under the illusion that we were close to the well-known¬†basilica. We topped a steep flight of stairs and found ourselves on a lovely street lined with trees and snug little cafes. We asked a couple of locals for directions. None spoke English but each was extremely nice and understood the universal language of “help”. We moved on and before long we found Place du Tertre, a square once frequented by the likes of Picasso and Renoir, now filled with street artists and street dancers all catering to the steady flow of tourists. We didn’t stay long because Sacr√© CŇďur was just ahead.

Montmartre

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart (aka Sacr√© Coeur) sits upon the highest point in Paris. It’s truly a site to behold. It took Jacki a second to really appreciate what she was seeing. She was more impressed with the fact that she made it to the top of the hill. We realized what all of the fuss was about. The view was phenomenal. From the top steps Paris stretches out before you like a canvas. I can only imagine what it must look like at night. But I have to admit, some things really turned us off. Vendors had set up shop on the top of the steps blocking the view with their cheap trinkets. Others were walking around trying to sell bottles of beer right in front of the church. The clamoring of bottles and loud laughter had an almost irreverent party feel, a feel completely at odds¬†with the spectacular church¬†that stood above them.

The view from the steps of Sacre-Coeur

Even though we loved our glimpses at the city below, we quickly realized that it just wasn’t our scene so we headed into the church, but even that was a chore.¬†¬†Before entering the doors we were approached by some very pushy scammers trying to get English-speaking¬†people to sign their petitions. This was the second time we had run¬†into this and I gave them a loud and profound “NON” before they could get any closer. An Asian couple behind us was having a harder time getting away from these potential pickpockets. But soon we were in the safety of the church and in a way, I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be.

The towering Sacre-Coeur

The church was marvelous. While far from being the oldest church in Paris it’s¬†as impressive as any you’ll see. Unfortunately we were told at the door “NO CAMERAS” and they meant it. We same the camera police usher several people out who didn’t heed the stern warning. A church service was going on and didn’t seem to mind the steady stream of tourists that walked through admiring the amazing architecture. It was something to see and we sat and admired the hard work that went into creating such a place. I sat thinking about the stark contrast between the spiritual and the worldly. I thought about the humble, solemn sanctuary of inside the church while right outside the door, worldliness was in full bloom. While I’m not Roman Catholic, I did have a heartfelt spiritual moment there that I didn’t even share with Jacki. It’s yet another part of the trip that I’ll never forget.

But we were a long ways from the 7th arrondissement so we left Sacr√© CŇďur¬†and found our metro station. After one quick train change we popped back above ground only a few steps away from Rue Cler. In we went to Grand Hotel Leveque¬†to freshen up before hitting the town for dinner. I had a harder time deciding on our restaurant that evening. We¬†chose Le Florimond, again with no reservations. They were full so we wandered down a side street and found Pasco on the corner. We walked in and they sat us immediately. It was a lovely little restaurant and we were treated like royalty. Jacki had a lot of questions about the menu and our waiter went to great lengths to break it down for us. I had a delicious cut of beef and an even better hot chocolate cake with a side of ice cream. We enjoyed the typical Parisian two-hour meal. We enjoyed the food and each other.

Afterwards we had another after dark stroll eventually arriving at our hotel. This was the most exhausting day of the trip and we realized that we had tried to do a little too much. But we also talked about the amazing things we saw and the amazing city we had grown so familiar with. We cleaned up and spent some time with the window open listening to the sounds of  Paris winding down for the night. I fell asleep excited about what was ahead. The city literally had me under her spell. I had fallen head over heals for her, without a doubt.

OUR PARIS TRIP JOURNAL: Day 1

After a short hour and a half flight from Little Rock to Chicago my wife Jacki¬†and I were ready for the big leg of this crazy adventure we began planning months ago – Paris, France. The flight from Chicago took off around 5:45 PM. After¬†close to 9¬†hours we crossed the Atlantic and made a successful landing at Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris at around 9:40 AM. Neither of us had slept much on the flight over. Maybe it was excitement, adrenaline, whatever. But that didn’t matter. All of our planning was about to be put to the test and this, the greatest adventure we have¬†set out on¬†in these 17¬†wonderful years of marriage, was upon us.

We navigated through the airport almost as if we knew what we were doing, got our first ever passport stamp, and made our way with our two carry-on bags to the “sortie” (a term I had learned in planning). We found our exit where a steady parade of taxi’s picked up travelers to take them to their destinations. We had an older gentlemen¬†who never spoke a word other than “Bonjour”. I gave him a piece of paper with the name and address of our hotel. He knew right where to go and off we went with a nod. I sat in that back seat thinking “Whew, one of my biggest concerns is behind me”. That concern wasn’t flying. It was navigating the international airport for the first time in a foreign country. It went very well.

Our driver sped along¬†before running into some pretty heavy traffic. We couldn’t help but notice how seemingly few rules there must be to driving in Paris. Scooters and motorcycles zipped by¬†and weaved between cars. Vehicles would, for the most part, force themselves over in front of you. This resulted in a few brake¬†stomps by our driver which had Jacki gripping the seat in front of her. As I looked at the surroundings outside my window, I remember saying to myself “This isn’t nearly as pretty as I expected”. That was soon to change. In almost a snap of the finger, we saw the breathtaking Arc de Triomphe. Welcome to Paris! The city architecture had changed before our eyes and I was stunned at the massive monument before us and the gorgeous buildings¬†running down the street. We took several turns before the taxi made its way¬†down the cobblestone¬†pedestrian street of Rue Cler. Front door service to the Grand Hotel Leveque in the 7th arrondissement.

We jumped out, grabbed our bags, and tried not to look as stunned as we really were. The cab fare after a tip was around 57 euros, steep but the best option for first time travelers. The cool blue and gold hotel metal awning stood right in front of us and we¬†walked in. We were greeted by a friendly young lady who informed us that our rooms wouldn’t be ready until around 2:00 PM. That made sense, after all it was¬†only around¬†11:30 AM. But they had a luggage room so we left our bags and headed out to explore our new neighborhood.

Rue Cler

It was Monday and I had read that Rue Cler¬†wasn’t as lively on that day as others. We strolled through getting acquainted¬†with our new street feeling like we were seeing a real bit of Paris. There were shops specializing in cheese, bread, fish, chocolate, and pastries,¬†some open, others not. Three different cafes caught our attention. It was getting close to noon so why not start out by getting a bite to eat. I broke out my fractured French on a nice young waiter who spoke a little English. Our meal was pretty good but the experience was priceless. French chatter surrounded us at every table and the people-watching was all we envisioned it to be. We set there and smiled at each other fully aware that we were really in Paris.

We finished then started walking. I mentioned walking towards the Eiffel Tower since our¬†itinerary¬†had us starting with it. The clouds were thick and gray and rain sprinkles made it even colder. We made our way to Champs de Mars and there before us stood Eiffel’s tower. It was pretty amazing at first even though we had seen it in hundreds of photos, movies, and TV shows. We walked towards it barely avoiding mud puddles as our eyes stayed focused on the once controversial metal structure. Jacki was wrapped up but kept mentioning how cold she was. She quickly became aware that she had packed too lightly, skipping a¬†jacket for light sweaters. As the rain and wind picked up, we decided to skip the Eiffel line and find her a warmer layer.

Eiffel Tower

We made our way down a couple of streets and eventually to a souvenir shop where Jacki bought an overpriced pink hooded sweatshirt that screamed “I’m a tourist”. She didn’t care and quickly pulled it on. It’s not that the hoodie was ugly, it just stood out brightly among the grays, browns, and blacks worn by the locals. The sweatshirt became an ongoing joke throughout our trip and in turn a fun memory that we wouldn’t trade. With both of us now dressed warmly we¬†took to¬†the streets once again.

At first I was worrying that even with my usually solid skills at navigating and learning my surroundings, this was going to be tough. We meandered through streets trying to get our bearings and match them with our Fodor’s¬†map. We finally ended up at Les Invalides. We headed to the Army Museum and after tons of searching we finally found the entrance. We bought our six-day¬†museum pass at the ticket counter and then went straight to the World War I and World War 2 wings. AMAZING! The amount of exhibits and information was overwhelming. From authentic uniforms to authentic weaponry, the museum starts at the beginning of the war and moves to its end¬†touching on everything including the rise of Nazism, the American entry, the Russian progression, the concentration camps, and the eventual end of the European campaign. We were blown away by what we had seen.

Les Invalides

We finished our tour just as the museum was closing and at closing time they waste no time ushering people out.¬†After a few pictures of the building, we headed to the front of the Invalides¬†and sat on the¬†small wall and watched the traffic. This was another one of those small moments that we will cherish. A high traffic circle is in front of the Invalides¬†facing the Seine. There are no traffic lanes and the cars weave and cut in to try to get where they’re going. Bicycles shoot right in the middle of¬†the¬†congestion with unwavering confidence. Road rage only goes as far as honking horns. All of that made for good theater for these two new travelers from Arkansas.

After watching the cars for a bit, we crossed over and headed towards the beautiful Pont Alexandre¬†III bridge. We snapped photos and admired the beauty of the bridge and the Seine it covered.¬†On one side of the bridge¬†a bride was having her wedding pictures made and several other tourists posed for pictures that, like ours, would end up in a vacation photo album. We left the bridge and admired the Grand Palais and Petit Palais before hanging a right¬†at the Champs Elysees. At this point we were getting a little tired. It wasn’t that we were feeling any real jet lag. In fact, that really surprised me. I was expecting some sort of internal clock malfunction that would cause us to flatline. Instead we just felt like we had been up past bedtime (which we had).

Place de la Concorde

We sat on a little bench and watched the traffic before hopping up and heading to Place de la Concorde. I was so excited¬†to see what I thought were two of the prettiest fountains in Paris¬†and of course the Obelisk. So much amazing history is tied into the square and it was pretty overwhelming. Cameras snapped and cars whizzed by but I still felt as¬†though I was standing somewhere very, very significant. We scooted across the busy street to the beautiful Tuileries Gardens. We lounged in¬†two of the cool reclining chairs by the huge pool and made ourselves believe we were Parisians. After making our way to the other side of the garden, we crossed back over the Seine and ended up on Boulevard Saint-Germain. It was getting late and we were getting hungry so we stopped at a little cafe and had a pretty good meal. It wasn’t the best but the waiter was friendly and the time together talking about what we had seen was wonderful. After a¬†fantastic chocolate dessert we headed out. It was dark and we enjoyed the rather lengthy night-time¬†stroll back to Rue Cler. But we were ready for some sleep.

Our hotel room was waiting for us. Grand Hotel Leveque¬†has one tiny glass elevator for one person and a piece of luggage. It was quaint as was our hotel room on the third floor, room 32. We arrived and opened the streetside window to let in some of the street’s ambiance. Our room was small but clean and it offered everything we wanted. We showered, turned out the lights, and had no problem falling asleep. It had been a really long day. But it was also a perfect way to kickstart our vacation and we had so much more ahead of us.