We had only 2 1/2 days back in London before another adventure away. Last Thursday we packed up again, and this time headed across the English Channel (Oceanus Brittanicus to Julius Caesar) to France via the Eurostar high speed train. If you’ve never traveled on a train at 200 MPH, it is hard to describe what that feels like. Anything closer to the track than 500 feet is a complete blur. And so smooth. Given the hundreds of thousands of Amtrak miles we’ve traveled over the years (and bless Amtrak for existing; it’s not their fault that the U.S. refuses to invest in rail transportation the way Europe, China, South Korea, Japan, India . . . well, so much of the world does) riding on a train like this seemed a reward from locomotive heaven. We arrived at Paris Gare du Nord at dusk with a light rain falling, stepping into the City of Light as it glistened as in a Gustave Caillebotte painting. We made our way on foot to the Air BnB our friend Andy, who would meet us the following day, had booked. We could write so much about the sensations of being in Paris. Suffice it to say, the distinctly French ordering of space (which in Paris, it should not be forgotten, was partly to open up clear firing lines to suppress insurrections), the cleanliness (save for the omnipresent cigarette smoking), and the exuberant outdoor character of life (even on rainy evenings, the cafe’s are full), and stood out as an immediate contrast to London.
Our flat was near Porte St.-Denis on Rue Blondel in the 2nd Arrondissment , which is in the middle of a red light district. (Of that I will only say the neighborhood is not what most Americans would imagine a red light district to be.) A few photos below of the flat and the neighborhood.
On Friday morning–and every morning we were there–we indulged ourselves with breakfast goodies from the bakery around the corner. The boys experienced authentic pain au chocolate for the first time (we were pleased to be reacquainted), and we generally got some croissants and a baguette as well. Fortified with who knows how much butter, we headed off to see the shell of Notre Dame while we waited for Andy to arrive. This photo is from Monday and does not convey the massive effort being undertaken to reinforce the arches and finish the task of removing debris–which includes scaffolding that looks like melted plastic. Even as we stood there hoping the restoration project is a success, we couldn’t help think about the massive lead contamination that continues to impact the people and ecology of Paris, something the authorities did not do enough to address in the aftermath.
After Andy arrived we walked to the old Jewish Quarter in the Marais for some falafel. L’As du Falafel (the Ace) consistently gets touted as the best place to get street falafel in Paris and we would agree that it has earned that reputation. Warm falafel and a cone of frites in hand we headed to a park nearby and contemplated the quiet ambiance of that neighborhood (Isaiah and Samuel experimented on the playground).
After lunch we headed to the Catacombs of Paris. The line was long, but we did the Parisian mid-afternoon cafe in rotation while one person held our place in line. The catacombs were originally a stone quarry, miles and miles of subterranean tunnels where the classic white stone of Parisian buildings was quarried. In the mid-eighteenth century local cemeteries were starting to overflow. It was decided to create a city ossuary or bone storage location. Over several decades the remains of over 6 million people were relocated to these tunnels. The long bones and skulls were used to create walls and the other bones are thrown in behind.
On Saturday we had the most amazing museum experience we’ve ever had. Andy bought us all a skip-the-line private tour of the Louvre with an agency called Tours By Locals. Our local tour guide, Bertrand, was incredible. He was extremely knowledgeable, funny, and really made an effort to make history come alive for Samuel and Isaiah. In explaining intricate royal family history, for example, he’d tell each kid what their role would have been (especially relevant for brothers during the age of monarchies) and ask them how they would have reacted. He made the museum and French history really come alive.
Here a few images from our tour (the ones where Isaiah is touching the sculptures are in a special touch gallery for the seeing impaired). Bernard is explaining how the posture of the statues communicates intent, how part of it is a function of the material, and generally making us all appreciate Greek statuary from a whole new perspective. It’s impossible to see even a small portion of the museum in one day. We toured for three hours with the guide, had lunch and then returned on our own to the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit in the afternoon (although so crammed with people it was difficult to see many of the exhibit objects–especially the smaller items like Da Vinci’s exquisitely wrought notebooks–the exhibit nonetheless powerfully conveyed Da Vinci’s genuis; he was centuries ahead of his time in many ways). When the I.M. Pei designed renovation in the 1980s was completed, the Louvre was intended to be able to accommodate 6 million visitors a year. Last year they had 10 million, so they have instituted the policy that you cannot leave and re-enter (partly, also, to deter tour operators from having people leave, hand back their tickets, and ushering in a new group–apparently this was happening with some frequency).
On Sunday morning we headed north to the French Air and Space Museum at the old Le Bourget airport not too far from Charles de Gaulle. Isaiah had chosen this as the one thing he wanted to see in Paris, and it was impressive. You can get up close and personal with some of the largest and fastest commercial airplanes in the world: an Airbus 380, a Boeing 747 and two Concordes.
On Sunday afternoon we headed up Montmartre to see the famous view of Paris. Just for fun we took the funicular rail car. It was cloudy, blustery, and packed with people. But the view hasn’t changed since we first saw it together in 1995. It is the best view of the city by far. After a long day of walking, we treated ourselves to a real crêpe on the walk home.
As is the case in London, many churches host free concerts in Paris. We went to the Sunday evening organ concert at St.-Eustache (right), a lovely 16th century Gothic style church near the Louvre. The program consisted of mostly 20th century pieces, including a bizarre but entrancing composition by Francis Chatelet, “Etna 71” (Mt. Etna erupted spectacularly in 1971), which was meant to capture the fury of a volcano through the sounds only an organ can make–check it out, ideally with headphones. The organist actually used his elbows to play at times.
Paris is alive at any hour and in any weather. We ventured out one final time on Sunday to see if we could spot the Eiffel Tour ablaze in its garish light show and get some frozen yogurt at a place Isaiah had spotted earlier on the charming pedestrian street Rue Montorgueil. We had just turned to head toward the yogurt shop when the wind increased in velocity and chill right before rain began to fall. We ran through the downpour and the puddles along with hundreds of other people, pausing briefly to get the frozen yogurt before scurrying back to the flat, where the yogurt went into the freezer while hot showers were taken. Somehow, even while getting wet and cold Paris is endearing.
After a final Parisian bakery breakfast on Monday morning, we stowed our bags at the Gare du Nord (again noting how much Amtrak could learn from the SNCF–it cost us the equivalent of $6 to put our bags in a locker for the day, a fraction of what it would cost to do the same in Chicago). From there to the Arc de Triumph. We’d never been up to the top, so we splurged a bit and did so–the views are almost as impressive as from Montmartre, and in every direction.
We thought lunch al fresco in the Jardin du Luxembourg would be fun on a sunny day–we weren’t alone in that idea, as hundreds of people were walking, eating, sitting soaking up the mid-February sun. We had bread and cheese, and some fruit–and just absorbed the atmosphere in this space that was once an exclusive royal domain but is now a lovely public park. Isaiah did some more communing with birds.
I had wanted to see the unicorn tapestries at the Museum of the Middle Ages (also commonly known as the Musée de Cluny) again, something that held little interest for the boys, so we split up. They went with Kristen to see the grand arch at La Défense. I was disappointed to find that the gallery with the tapestries was closed, so I went to Ste.-Chapelle instead. Even with hundreds of other people the towering 13th century stained glass windows are utterly transporting. I wish I could have stayed another hour.
By the time we boarded the Eurostar back to London that evening we could only marvel at what an unforgettable four days we had just experienced.