Provincial French Countryside: Part trois (Paris!)

Last month I hosted a group of Iowa State alumni and friends, along with four couples from North Carolina State, on a two-week tour of the provincial French countryside. We spent two days in Toulouse in southern France, three days in the Dordogne region, three days in the Loire Valley, three days in Normandy, and two days in Paris. Here’s the last of three installments of my travelogue:

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PARIS

The focus of this tour was the French countryside, and we had seen some incredibly beautiful farmland, fields of sunflowers, adorable cows, and charming villages in the Loire Valley, Normandy, and the Dordogne region in our travels over the past two weeks. Paris seemed like an afterthought, and I’d been here twice before. Besides, we had only one full day here, and I was ready to go home.

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And then our motor coach entered the city, and I was surrounded by Parisian streets and the people and the historic architecture, and then I saw the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower and I remembered HOW MUCH I FREAKING LOVE PARIS.

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Our Paris lodging for two nights was the Hotel Chateau Frontenac. This elegant old hotel was located close to the Seine, close to the Eiffel Tower, and close to the Champs Elysées – so it was a GREAT location. My fourth-floor room had a balcony, which made me extremely happy in and of itself, and when I walked out on it and realized that I could see the Eiffel Tower, well, you should have seen my face. I was ridiculously excited about this. I couldn’t wait to start exploring.

It was already late afternoon, and our group went on a brief orientation tour, led by our tireless tour guide, Anita. Out the front door of our hotel, if you turned right you ended up on the Champs Elysées within minutes. Turn left from the hotel, then left again, and you were a few blocks from the river. Easy, right?

I tried to get a small group together to take a night cruise on the Seine. Everyone seemed tired. It had been a long two weeks, and a long day of travel. We sat together for a while at a sidewalk café, soaking in the sights and sounds of Paris, ordered some beer and wine, and talked it over. There was a restaurant nearby at which everyone wanted to eat. It was very meaty. And I didn’t want to take time to eat; I wanted to see the city. So I headed off on my own.

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It was a few short blocks to the closest bridge that crossed the Seine. I could already see the Eiffel Tower, so I just walked in that general direction.

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I love how that structure, huge as it is, can be hidden when you’re walking through the neighborhoods and then just BAM! There it is, big as life at the end of the cross-street. It’s almost like a game of hide-and-seek. I took a million pictures. And then, there it was in its full glory, surrounded by a thousand people (and a security fence). The sky was beginning to show its dusky color, and I was truly, madly happy to be there.

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After taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower from every conceivable angle, I walked back toward the river and viewed it again from the bridges, where it looked even more gorgeous in the distance, and watched the sun go down.

I was trying to decide if I really wanted to go on a river cruise; it was getting cold, and I’d be walking back to the hotel by myself in the dark. But what else was I going to do? Sit in the hotel? Go to a bar? NO, I was in Paris, by god, and I was going to do this.

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I walked down the entrance to where the boats were docked – how many are there, anyway? I think there were at least 20 cruising up and down this short stretch of river already, filled with hundreds if not thousands of people each – and asked for a ticket. I’ve forgotten now how much it was, but it was really reasonable (less than 20 euros), and the next one would leave in 45 minutes.

The whole time I was on the cruise – and, in fact, pretty much the whole time I was near the river today and tomorrow – I could NOT get the lyrics out of my head from the Audition Song from “La La Land”:

Leapt, without looking
and tumbled into the Seine
The water was freezing
she spent a month sneezing
but said she would do it again

Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

 
Ah, if I had to have an ear worm stuck in my head, I’m glad it was this one, because I love it. Tomorrow I’d get a second one stuck in my brain, but tonight it was just this one.

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The boat was large, and it filled up quickly. I found a seat on the upper deck, outside, knowing it would be cold, but refusing to sit inside where the view would be restricted. By the time we launched, it was already pretty dark.

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I was not disappointed in the experience. In fact, it was pretty exhilarating. (Or maybe I was just freezing.) The “tour” itself is lame: a recorded voice, repeating the script in a number of languages, about what we were seeing on both sides of the canal. Many of the buildings were lit up; it was Saturday night, so there were party cruises and groups dancing to music on the shore line. Many of the tourists on the boat with me were frantically taking selfies in the dark with their annoying selfie sticks. The bridges were fabulous. We cruised past the Grand Palais, the Assemblee Nationale, Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, Ste-Chapelle, and Notre Dame (below).

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I tried valiantly to take pictures of all this, but it was very dark and we were moving and my camera only has so much capability. Most of my shots are pretty bad, but a few were decent.

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Eventually, the boat turned around, and we cruised back along the other side of Notre Dame and Ste-Chapelle. I thought we’d stop when we got back to where we started, but happily we continued on to get the most fabulous river-views of the Eiffel Tower, lit up with a gazillion watts of light against the night sky.

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I was a happy girl.

Once we finally docked, it took forever to get off the boat, and then I had the challenge of finding my hotel in the dark. A hotel I had been to only once, during the day. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the cross-street? But, happily, I found it without getting lost. And then realized that I never had dinner. By this time, it was really too late to eat. So I went to the café across from the hotel, sat at an outdoor table, and ordered a beer. Ahhhh! What a great night!

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The next day, the plan for our group was to take a bus tour of the city and then visit the Louvre. Much as I love the Louvre – I mean, it’s the Louvre!!! – I’ve been there twice before and really wanted to spend more time outside exploring.

So, I ate breakfast with the group and then went off on my own (as did a few others who had been to Paris before and wanted to spent time in the Musée d’Orsay or other museums). My goals were to walk the city, go to the top of Notre Dame, and eat a chocolate éclair. Pretty simple, really.

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It was raining when I started out. Umbrella up and camera tucked under my arm, I set out walking along the Seine. Even with the wet, chilly weather, the canal was filled with boat after boat of rowing teams – a lovely sight.

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I continued along the Left Bank of the river until I reached Blvd. Saint Germain, a street I’d walked along when I was here in 2008 with Dave. The street is filled with wonderful shops (all closed, since it was Sunday morning), cafés, restaurants, and historic architecture. And it goes for miles, so you don’t have to worry about inadvertently getting lost.

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The rain stopped. I walked past charming patisseries with windows filled with macarons and croissants. I wanted to get to Notre Dame before it got crowded (yeah, right), so I turned on Blvd. Saint Michel and headed to the cathedral.

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Boy, did I screw up Notre Dame. It makes me appreciate having a tour guide. Mistake #1: The line to get into the cathedral was very long. I stood in it, enjoying the view. It moved slowly, but soon I was inside. A church service was going on. This wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to go up the 400 steps to the tower. So I asked the woman in the gift shop, and she said I had to stand in a different line, on the side of the cathedral. Once I walked over there, it made sense. I had done this before with Dave. I got in line. That was mistake #2.

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A lot has changed in nine years. Now, instead of just standing in line, there’s an app to get a timed ticket for the tour. Who knew? Since I didn’t have a ticket, I was shown the line for the kiosk, which would assign you a time for your tour. My time was an hour and 15 minutes later. I had a lot of time to kill.

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I walked back the way I’d come, thinking, hmmmmm, those pastries would taste pretty good about now. I found one of the little shops, filled with the most amazing-looking goodies, and ordered a coffee with a chocolate éclair and ate it on the sidewalk. (Chocolate éclair: check!)

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Even with the leisurely coffee break, I got back to Notre Dame too soon and still had a ton of time before my tour (which, by the way, was free today for some reason. It’s usually 10 euros).

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Walking toward the cathedral, the bells began to play (do they do this each day? Or just on Sunday?) and I was overwhelmed with emotion. What is it about bells that does that to me? I freaked out in Venice a few years ago, crying happy tears. I began to think about Victor Hugo and Quasimodo, the lonely bell ringer in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Disney soundtrack became the second ear worm, with songs like “Out There” and “The Bells of Notre Dame” stuck in my head while I waited my turn.

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I also had time to gawk at the ornate Gothic architecture of this medieval building. Did you know it took nearly 200 years to complete?

The line moved slowly. My ticket time came and went. We were moved from one waiting line to another to another, then we were finally allowed to enter the building. This was sort of my moment of truth. In 2008, I was out of shape and had a really difficult time climbing the stairs. I thought I would A) never make it to the top and B) die trying. I exercise regularly now, but I’m also nine years older. Would I be able to climb 400 steep stairs to the top of the tower?

It turns out I can. In fact, I had absolutely no trouble making it to the top. It helps that you stop twice on the way up: once in the gift shop and once on a lower viewing area before getting to the very top of the tower.

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The first viewing area (officially called the Chimera gallery) is actually my favorite, because that’s where you are face-to-face with the gargoyles – fantastic birds, hybrid beasts, and mythical monsters perching on the towers. I don’t know what I love best about Notre Dame, the gargoyles or the view of the city. They are both all-time highlights of my travels. I love, love, love this place.

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I took a ridiculous number of photos. I wanted to share the experience with someone, but I was with a scattered group of strangers. The view was even more spectacular than I remembered. The gargoyles were so familiar! (Hello, Mr. Pelican! Hello, whatever you are, you gross thing – and what are you eating?) It was sort of like visiting old friends. My fellow tourists and I were allowed to walk up some steep stairs into one of the actual bell chambers.

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And then, up and up again to the very top of the tower. The view from here is so incredible; better than the view from the Eiffel Tower in my opinion. You can see the whole city, all the way to Sacré-Coeur in the Montmartre area.

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Then the bells began to play again. Thrilling! I was in utter bliss.

And then it’s down, down, down the skinny spiral staircase, so tight and corkscrewy that I got dizzy and had to hold on to the handrail. Then, once back on land and out into the sun, it was bright and disorienting. I sort of forgot where I was and just stumbled off.

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The rest of the day was dreamy: Walking around the Louvre and Tuileries garden (above). Stopping at the Musée d’Orsay and so very much wanting to go in, but seeing the line (and the time on my watch) and walking on. Stopping for a beer at Les Deux Magots café on Saint Germain. Window shopping in the fashionable stores that were, fortunately for my credit card, still closed.

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I meandered back to the Eiffel Tower, taking more unnecessary photos, because I just can’t help myself. And then the sky darkened and it looked like a big storm was coming my way, so I headed back to the hotel.

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By now it was about 4 o’clock. We had our farewell dinner tonight, so I needed to get dressed up for that, and I needed to pack my suitcases because tomorrow morning’s flight would be leaving early. But I was so happy. Today was an all-time Top 10 Day. I wanted to stay here forever. 

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1 comment so far

  1. Mary on

    If you haven’t already seen it, get a DVD of the French musical production of “Notre Dame” starring Garou. Glorious music.


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