We are just back from our Thanksgiving day holiday in Paris. This was our first trip after the 9-11 tragedy, and things didn't look very different. Security in Paris was as tight as we've come to expect in Europe, and the procedure in Philadelphia did take a little bit longer. Fortunately, we started our trip from our small airport in Avoca, so there were no lines at all. After the overnight flight, we arrived in Paris at 7:30 local time. For the first time, we had arranged for an airport shuttle service to meet us at the airport. Well, by 9:00 we were still waiting for them, and after three phone calls to their answering machine, we decided to just take a cab. There were no lines for cabs at 7:30, but by 9:00 the line was over 30 people long. With the Monday morning traffic, it was past 10:30 by the time we checked into our hotel in the city's 5th district, the Latin Quarter. It is the area of the Sorbonne, or University of Paris, and is on the left bank (Rive Gauche) of the Seine.
Since we were only a few blocks away from Notre Dame, we made that our first stop. Notre Dame is built on an island in the middle of the Seine, The cathedral is breath-taking and extremely large. Even more impressive are the dozens of gargoyles that "guard" the cathedral and chase away the evil spirits. You had to climb over 300 steps in the circular tower to reach the top of the church were the gargoyles were. Another hundred or so more took you to the very top of the tower. The views of the city were beautiful, and it was from this viewpoint that we first saw "La Tour Eiffel".
After Notre Dame, we walked over to the other island in the Seine, the Isle of St. Louis. It contains a very old section of the city filled with tall apartment buildings separated by narrow streets and alleyways. After walking around to soak in the atmosphere, we decided to eat at a small restaurant near our hotel. I think that we may have insulted the owner by eating too fast and leaving - the couple next to us were done eating when we sat down, and had just gotten around to ordering coffee when we were leaving! But we were both tired, and Adam was starting to fall asleep, so we left and went back to the hotel for a nap.
Feeling refreshed, we decided to go see the Louvre on the one night it is open late. We walked along the Seine from our hotel, figuring that a museum so large would be hard to miss. When we finally thought that we had missed it, we stopped and asked for directions, only to find out that we had been walking along the side of the building without knowing it. Once we went under the arches to the open courtyard, we could see the famous glass pyramid, and all of the statues, but the perimeter of the building could have been mistaken for a warehouse at night!
Once inside, we immediately made our way to the Mona Lisa. It is on the upper level of the museum, and even though everything is written in French (and only French), the directions were easy to understand. It was a lot less crowded than I expected. We also made sure we saw the Venus de Milo and Winged Victory statues, and the code of Hammurabi. Then we spent our time just wandering around the ancient sculpture and medieval paintings, stopping whenever something caught our fancy. We could have spent a whole week inside and still not have had time to see everything.
The second day, we took the metro over to the Luxembourg Gardens, and made our way through the park towards the Eiffel Tower, once again, walking mostly by the Seine. The tower is over 1,000 feet high, and you have the option of walking up part of it, or taking the elevator. We opted for the elevator, and took it to each of the observation levels (called groin, hip, and eyes!) Once again, the view was beyond belief. You could see the whole city, even though it was a little overcast and foggy. The gigantic monuments and bridges looked like child's toys from that height. After eating some crepes at the cafeteria, we continued on our way to our next stop.
We caught a cab to the Arc de Triumph, Napoleon's grand monument that rivals the great Roman arches in Italy. The Arch is covered with bas relief carvings of French victories, and the French tomb of the unknown soldier is now located underneath the arch. Once again, it was another 250+ stairs to get to the top, but well worth it for the views of the broad avenues that emanates out from the circle.
We left the arch, and walked down the Champs Elysees, the ritzy wide tree lined boulevard that is a fancy shopping area. We looked around for a while before taking the metro back to the Latin Quarter, and spent the rest of the day walking around the Sorbonne before heading to the Arab Institute, a museum of Arab Culture. Unfortunately, it was a disappointing stop - most of the Institute was a large library, with only a small exhibit to actually see. Our third day was spent in Disneyland Paris, as it is now called (instead of EuroDisney). It looked like Disney Jr to me - all of the main attractions that made Disney famous were there, but in a more compact area. We heard more English (from visitors from England) than French. It was not very crowded, so we had no waiting time for the rides or shows. We spent the whole day going from one ride to the next ride, before finally taking the train home late at night.
Our last day was spent on a bus tour of the city that pointed out all of the landmarks that we hadn't seen yet. When that was over, we walked around in the area of the Opera House before heading back to Notre Dame again. The archeological excavations under the cathedral had been closed before, so we saw them now. Then we went over to see St. Michael's church. As we walked back to the hotel, we stopped at the local bakery (there is one on every corner) to get some chocolate croissants and other goodies to take home - we had been eating snacks from there all week! That night, we had dinner at a local restaurant, and tried to be a little more "French" - we actually took our time and made the meal last a while :)
I was a little disappointed that we never met a stereotypical arrogant, rude Frenchman - everybody that we stopped or talked to was at least polite, if not friendly. Perhaps it was because we always tried to speak French first, even if it was just BonJour followed by Parlez Vous Anglais. Or perhaps it was just the stereotypical rude American tourist that created the stereotype in the first place.