Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Paris in the Springtime

Yes, I’m still alive. I apologize for going so long without updating the blog, but I have a good excuse: I was on vacation. In Paris! (Okay, I wasn’t on vacation this whole time, but between decompressing from the craziness of the TItanic centenary and preparing for the trip, then recovering once I was back home, there hasn’t been much time for blogging.)

I’ve been home almost a week now, and finally have some time to get my photos sorted out and my thoughts written down. It took a little longer thanks to the nasty cold I brought home with me, but I’m starting to feel normal again, finally.

Because I can be long-winded, and tend to take a lot of photographs, I’m going to split this travel blog up over a few days. Today’s post will be the first couple of days of the trip, which were also the days I did the most, so it will probably be the longest. I will aim for brevity, but make no promises. “Short” has never been my strong suit in writing.

We’ll start with a random pretty picture of Notre Dame, because Blogger makes the first photo the post’s cover shot, and otherwise my first photo would be a set of keys to the Bastille. Interesting, but not as pretty.

A little background on how this trip came about. I had the hankering to go somewhere this summer, but couldn’t find anyone able to go with me. So rather than stay home I decided I’m a big girl: I can go on vacation by myself. People do it all the time, so why shouldn’t I? Since this would be my first solo vacation, I figured my best bet would be to start with something familiar. That way, if the experience was overwhelming, I’d at least be somewhere I knew, so I wouldn’t feel too lost. Enter Paris. I’ve been there twice before, and am completely in love with it. Going back was a no-brainer. I know my way around, there are still parts of the city I had yet to see, and the more I thought about returning, the more excited I got. I could rent a cute little studio apartment for myself and feel like a Parisian for a week. It would be great!

And it was great. I found that I really enjoyed vacationing by myself. I Skyped home every night to talk to my family, so I never got lonely, and during the days I had the whole city in front of me to do with as I pleased. I could rush through places that didn’t interest me and could linger at others if the mood struck (or if I was getting camera-happy and taking a bazillion pictures), without it bothering anyone. Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoy traveling with other people. It’s nice to have someone else to talk to and share the experience with. But now I know that if I find myself companion-less again, I can travel alone and still enjoy it.

I took an evening flight from Tampa that arrived in Paris around 2:00pm, thinking it would help with jet lag to get in later in the day. I don’t think it did, and by not arriving in the morning like most people do, I ended up losing that whole day for sightseeing. In the future, I think I will go back to arriving in the morning, to maximize my time. As it was, by the time I got to the apartment I’d rented, it was after 4pm. There was some miscommunication between me and the landlord, so it took some extra time to get me and the guy meeting me in the same place, but eventually he found me and we got into the apartment. It was as cute as advertised, and I was excited to get settled in, but it would be another hour before that could happen due to some trouble we had with the TV and Internet. But he was very kind and determined to get everything working, for which I was very grateful, and by 6:00, he was gone and I was finally on my own. While I never had much use for the TV (all the channels were in French), the wifi was essential, so I’m glad he got it working. But at that point, all I had time for was a quick dinner (a crepe, something I’d been craving ever since my last Paris vacation) and some unpacking and relaxing from the long flight.

After a long night of not much sleeping thanks to a combination of jet lag and very stompy upstairs neighbors, my first full day dawned grey and rainy, but in the upper 60s, so not too cold. Given the weather, I started with a museum, the Museé Carnavalet, a free museum about the history of the city. It’s in a big old hotel (the Hotel Carnavalet) in the Marais district of Paris and covers the long history of Paris, from a prehistoric dugout canoe from 4600 BC to the present day. It’s a fascinating museum, one I might have enjoyed even more if I was fluent in French: all of the signs and descriptions were in French only, and while I do understand some of the language, a lot of it was lost on me. I could have gotten an audio guide that would have helped, but by the time I realized it would be useful, I was too far into the maze of rooms to go back.

A lesson to anyone going to Paris that doesn’t speak French: always get the audio guide in museums! Most of them don’t have English descriptions posted.

My favorite part of the museum had to be the section devoted to the French Revolution. That era of French history has always fascinated me, and I wasn’t disappointed here. One of my favorite displays was the room about the Bastille, which included these keys from the prison:

See, not as pretty for a cover image

Once I was finished with the museum, I headed for the Place des Vosges, the oldest “planned square” in Paris (according to Wikipedia). It has a beautiful old Paris look to it, surrounded on all sides by what I consider typical French buildings. It also has the house where Victor Hugo once stayed (back when it was a hotel, I believe), which is another free museum I wanted to check out. It was much smaller, and to be honest, not as interesting to me, but that’s mostly because I haven’t read much Hugo and therefore wasn’t as interested in him. But the square was beautiful and peaceful and it was nice to sit and rest for a little while before moving on with my day.

Place des Vosges

Since I was already halfway there, my next stop was the Place de la Bastille, the site of the Bastille prison. There was a café there I wanted to check out after seeing glowing reviews about the croque monsieurs (ham sandwiches with melted cheese on top. Yummy!), and it was nearing lunch time. It was still gloomy out, but that’s Paris for you sometimes. The sandwich was fantastic, and it was nice to spend a little time sitting at a café and writing in my journal. One of the great things about Paris is that they don’t mind if you linger over a meal, so there’s never any pressure to hurry up and clear the table for the next diner. The only downside to the outdoor cafes? Smoking is banned indoors now, so that’s where all the smokers go. I probably sucked down more secondhand smoke in that one week than I have in the last ten years. All part of the Paris experience, I suppose.

The July Column (Colonne de Juillet) in the Place de la Bastille (the glass building on the right is the new opera house, the Opéra Bastille)

After lunch, I was off and walking again. (This would come back to bite me in the ass – or rather, the feet – later.) It was so nice out (still gloomy, but no longer raining and a very comfortable temperature), I wanted to explore some more. I headed for the Hotel de Ville next, walking along the Seine for maximum scenery. You can’t actually go inside, as it’s now a government building, but I love the Robert Doisneau photo, Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, and have always wanted to see the place for myself. Well, here it is:

The Hotel de Ville, minus the kissing people and from the other angle

More walking along the river was next, with no specific destination in mind. It was a lovely, if grey, day, and I was enjoying my wander. At this point, my feet weren’t hurting and I was marveling at how wonderful my Dr. Scholl’s shoes were. Not a blister in sight yet and I felt like I could walk for days. So off I went, enjoying the scenic views of the river despite the overcast skies. I had my first sighting of the Eiffel Tower (for this visit)…

...and a lovely view of the Ile de la Cité, the larger of the two islands in the middle of the river, where Notre Dame is located.I’ve always meant to check out the park at the point of the island, but never made it there. Something for the next trip!

It wasn't long before I was nearing the Louvre, somewhere I hadn't planned to go on this trip, as I've already been there twice. But it was there, and it didn't cost anything to see from the outside, so I figured why not? That little detour turned out to be one of the highlights of the day, so I’m glad I made it. The museum building is huge and beautiful, and I'm always happy to spend some time photographing it from every conceivable angle. Once I was done wandering around and aiming my camera everywhere, I headed for the park in front of it, the Jardin des Tuileries, to sit for a while and take in my surroundings. Along the way, I stopped to get a pastry and a water, and had myself an impromptu snack. And made some new friends.

One wing of the massive Louvre building, as seen from the Jardin des Tuileries

My new friends, who appeared about two milliseconds after the first crinkle of my pastry bag. The male had no fear whatsoever of people, so clearly this wasn't his first encounter with a snacking human. They were both cute, though, quacking and sidling up to me. I'm a sucker for animals, so I contributed to their delinquency by dropping a few scraps of croissant.

The other end of the park is the Place de la Concorde, the site of the guillotine during the French Revolution. Since I was practically there already, I headed that way, got some photos, wandered around a little, then set off for my last quest of the day: shopping. I wanted to get myself a scarf or two to wear during my stay, in the hopes that it would help me blend in more and look less like a tourist. But my choice in shopping locales that day left some to be desired: I went first to the two big department stores, Au Printemps and Galleries Lafayette. Designer department stores, with prices to match. Not even close to my budget. After much walking around (and now, aching feet), I found a little shop having a sale and picked up two for 5€ each. They were pretty and kept my neck warm all week, but I live in Florida, so I have no clue when I’ll ever wear them again. Very sad: I really loved the purple one.

The Place de la Concorde, shot on a later, sunnier day. The obelisk originally stood in front of Luxor Temple in Egypt.

This is Luxor Temple, taken on a previous vacation. So now I've seen the whole set, thousands of miles apart!

I’m a little ashamed to say my first full day in Paris ended with dinner at, of all places, McDonald’s. But in my defense, I’d been walking ALL day and my feet were aching (complete with blister). All I wanted to do was go “home” and rest, so I grabbed a burger and fries before jumping back on the Métro to return to my apartment. Sadly, this would become a theme at dinner time. A full week in the city and I never once sat down in a restaurant for a proper dinner. I was always too tired, so dinner would become a crepe or a baguette or, yet again, McDonald’s. I guess that’s one advantage to traveling with other people: they force me to eat a proper dinner. Left to my own devices, even at home, I don’t eat much.

Well, that's day one of my trip. My intention to combine a few days into one post seems to have failed. Rather than let this get way too long, I'll stop here and pick up where I left off tomorrow.


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