Tuesday, August 30, 2011

La Ville de Lumière (or: Oh, hey, Paris!)

Trip Date: August 9, 2011

When I scheduled my flight from Dublin back to the US, I had the option to route it through Atlanta, New York City, or Paris. In each possible layover scenario, I would have to wait for at least 16 hours again before my connecting flight so I thought to myself, "Eric, you've already spent a day in Atlanta and you've been to New York a number of times. You're already in Europe, it's been a while since you've been to Paris, and you'll get to visit another airport!!"

Paris it is!

My flight left Dublin at 9am and I arrived in Paris's Charles de Gaulle International Airport (CDG) a little after noon. On the way to Ireland, if you remember, I had problems with an overnight layover and had to claim my luggage at ATL rather than checking it all the way through to SNN. On the way back, though, the ticketing agent at DUB asked if I wanted my bag checked all the way through back to ORD and after I confirmed I would not need to pick it up in Paris, I was scot-free and only needed to worry about my backpack and camera!!

Part of the reason I decided to hit up Paris was that some good friends of our family from home in Michigan sold their business a year ago and moved to Paris. I figured this would not only be a great opportunity to see a few sites, but a great opportunity to meet up with some friends, too! Judy sent me explicit instructions on how to get from CDG to their apartment and it was at the airport that I ran into my first obstacle: the RER. There are multiple ways to get from CDG to downtown Paris, but the RER (Paris's light-rail system) is the easiest...if you have change on hand. There are about 50 ticket-vending booths for the RER and they take most credit cards and coins. I had my AmEx and MasterCard on me, but the machines did not take AmEx and only took the European MasterCards: thus, not mine. Noon at CDG is a very very busy time and the lines for the RER offices were hundreds of people long and I didn't have time nor the patience to wait. After all, I just needed to exchange some €10 and €20 notes for coins...but the exchange machine (the one exchange machine) was out of order and I was told to wait in line. All I needed was €7 and I decided it would be time to try a new approach, so I went to the little café in the lobby, bought a bottle of Coke with a €20 bill, and tried asking in my much-forgotten French, "Est-ce que vous échangez mon papier pour les argent?" I have absolutely no idea what the word for bill or coin was, so I hoped she would be friendly enough to understand what I wanted. I was disappointed and walked away with a €5 and a €10 bill and about €2 in coins. So I needed €5 in coins... I got frustrated with the café girl and walked back out to the lobby and started waiting in the big line. But the obvious thing to do didn't come to me for another ten minutes before I went to a newsstand and bought a bag of candy with my €10 bill and got enough change in coins to buy my ticket. FINALLY!!

The ride in from CDG to Paris didn't take too long at all and the trip was pretty comfortable and I soon found myself standing in front of my friends', Bruce's and Judy's, apartment. It was really good being able to see them and they welcomed me in to their cozy, but spacious, flat and we talked for a good hour before deciding we would take a little excursion.

Bruce and Judy live only a few blocks away from the Seine so we walked down to the riverfront, right through the plaza in front of the Hôtel de Ville. To me, it is absolutely amazing the variety of architectural styles in Europe. Berlin was more industrial and there was no real unity, architecturally, from one building to the next, though the European elements were still present. And Ireland was much more pastoral and simplistic with the smooth, painted, stucco-front buildings lining the small town centers. The buildings in Paris are pieces of art themselves. Every street is lined with stone buildings, each façade flush with the next, but the amount of detail going into the stone carvings, the wrought-iron, the courtyard gardens, and window glass was so precise that it just makes you wonder how many days' worth of work went into building what are even now simple apartment complexes! And then of course you have the city landmarks like the Hôtel de Ville that take the level of detail and architectural style to an entirely higher and more unfathomable level!

In Paris in the summer, there is a Caribbean beach vibe as the city brings in loads of sand for beach volleyball courts in front of the Hôtel de Ville and along the Rive Droite (Right Bank), the city closes one of the streets that courses right along the bank of the Seine and turns it into a beach called Les Paris Plages, complete with lounge chairs, sand sculptures, playgrounds for kids, and a host of other activities for people of all ages! It was so neat to be strolling through Paris and feeling like you're somewhere tropical!
The ornate façade of the Hôtel de Ville
Les Paris Plages
Les Paris Plages
Looking across from Les Paris Plages to La Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned before her death
Playing volleyball in front of le Hôtel de Ville
We hopped on a Metro to get from Les Paris Plages and took it to the Trocadéro stop where once you get above ground, you look to your left and see one of the most magnificent structures known to man! The Eiffel Tower, built and designed by Gustav Eiffel, was constructed for the 1889 World Exposition being hosted in Paris in celebration of 100 years of Independence. The tower took a lot of criticism because it was so big, cost so much, and literally had no purpose and it was slated to be deconstructed after the Exposition. At the time it was the world's tallest man-made structure and after encouragement from Eiffel, the tower was left standing and re-purposed as a radio and communications tower that was then opened to tourists. Today, it is one of the most striking, interestingly complex, yet elegantly simple structures in the world! We walked underneath its four supports and on down the Champ de Mars, deciding it would be better to go up into the structure some other time when I was not short on time. Even with the number of tourists around, you feel like it is just you and the tower and that it is yours. It is truly breathtaking and I look forward to my next visit to go up into the structure.
These photos need no captions
Bruce, Judy, and I took a bus back toward le Hôtel de Ville where Bruce left us to go home and start working on dinner. Judy and I then walked over to my favorite landmark in the world: Le Cathédral de Notre Dame de Paris. When I was in fifth grade Disney Animated version of Victor Hugo's classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I read earlier this year) was released and I'm not sure if it was the story, the music, the colors, the animation, or what, but I immediately was enamored with this building! The intricacy of the stonework, the sun glinting off the colored shards of stained-glass, the menacing looks given by the gargoyles, the majestic flying buttresses, the tolling of the bells...everything about this structure comes together in a symphony of texture, visuals, and sound that is unmatched by any other building that I have ever been to. The last time I was here in Paris was in 1998 with my family on our first European vacation and while we visited Notre Dame, the front façade was being refurbished and cleaned and sadly covered in scaffolding, but not this time and it was beautiful!
Full façade of Notre Dame
Upper façade of Notre Dame
Lower façade and transepts of Notre Dame
Main rose window
Bell towers from behind
Rear of the cathedral and its flying buttresses
Judy and I then walked across a bridge to the Île Saint-Louis, the smaller of the main two islands in the Seine, stopped for some gelato, at a nice little shop where I was able to use my French to ask about different flavors and order. It was refreshing to have someone working the store who knew I was not a native French-speaker yet spoke a little more slowly and clearly so I could understand what he was saying. It was my only successful foray into conversational French the entire time I was there. Judy explained to me that Paris is divided into 20 different "arrondissements" or neighborhoods. The oldest part of the city is in "le Première Arrondissment" (or the first section) and as new arrondissements were added to the city the layout kind of spiraled around the old city-center, giving the layout the nickname of l'escargot (the snail). Judy gave me a tour of the Quatrième and Troisième Arrondissements on the way back to their apartment and we passed such sites as the Place de la Bastille and La Place des Vosges before returning.
July Column in the center of La Place de la Bastille commemorating the July 14, 1789 storming of the Bastille (a political prison set up by the monarchy) and successful capture of the arms and ammunition being stored there.
Le Place des Vosges was built by King Henri IV  (completed in 1612) and is one of the few buildings in Paris made of brick. It is also one of the oldest and earliest planned squares, an archetype for many more subsequent constructions all over Europe. In the corner of the square is the home of author, Victor Hugo.
Judy and I got back to her apartment and we sat down to a great chicken dinner with asparagus, potatoes, and salad and spent the rest of the evening catching up. It was so much fun to be in such great company and be offered such fantastic hospitality, but just as all good things, it came to an end and I was soon getting a few hours of sleep before having to work my way back to the airport.

My original idea in coming to Paris for the day was to run a smash-and-grab sightseeing operation, but I am so glad we took things easy because there is just so much to do that one day is not even enough time for a single site. Paris is a city I will need to visit again and take a few weeks to explore!

Until next time, Paris, au revoir!

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This work by Eric W. Portenga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.