Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Paris, Premiere Visite

We wanted to go into the city of Paris, of course, but I was leery of trying to drive. So I went down to see the desk clerk Jean-Christophe to inquire about train service. He made that disdainful “pfui” noise at which the French excel. “Why don’t you drive?” he asked. “I weel show you zee place to go.”

It seems the train would cost us about 50 Euros for three round-trip tickets, and the service to Val de Reuil didn’t run very late in the evening. However, if we drove, it would cost us about 6 Euros in tolls, and about 15 Euros to park in a parking garage. Add a little gas and the whole adventure would cost less than 25 Euros. Plus, we could come and go as we pleased.

All we had to do was drive down one major highway until it intersected with the “Periferique” (the highway that circles Paris), take the first exit, and pull into a parking garage right at the top of the ramp in the district called Porte de Saint-Cloud. Directly across the street was a Metro station from which we could reach any point in the city. This strategy served us well, because we drove into Paris several times during the week. The biggest problem turned out to be rush-hour traffic, which is very bad in Paris, and is exacerbated by the fact that the 4-lane highway we used compresses to 2 lanes through Versailles, into a tunnel and over the Seine.

I didn’t want to look like a tourist, but as you can see, I’m hopeless. In fact, I’m lucky I didn’t get picked up for vagrancy.

We decided to walk for a while. After getting lost and wandering along the Seine for about half an hour, we decided to grab a cab. This took a bit of hunting, but eventually we found a cab stand. The cabbies in Paris roll down their side windows to determine your destination BEFORE they unlock the doors to let you in. I guess they have some bad neighborhoods in Paris. Once I said, “Tour Eiffel,” we were on our way.

Thirty years ago, I ignored the Eiffel Tower as a destination for shallow tourists, preferring museums, cathedrals and Bohemian cafes. This trip, we had our daughter with us, and it would have been shameful to deny her the experience.

We arrived at the base of the Eiffel Tower and I was immediately struck by its massive enormity. The thing is huge, and the sensation of weight and gravity are almost palpable. You have to remember that it’s made entirely of iron. It’s currently painted a kind of khaki tan color (they change the color and paint it every 7 years), and it’s the tallest structure in Paris. In fact, the entire Left Bank area around it is limited to buildings of 2 – 4 stories, so it looms over the city, and can be seen from almost anywhere.

The ticket line was blessedly short, due to the fact that it was shoulder season, and the weather that day was cool and damp. Elevators in all four legs carry visitors up at an angle to the first and second levels. The second level has a
gift shop and the Jules Verne Restaurant.

From the second level, you must wait in a much longer line for the elevators that carry visitors to the third, or top level. There are actually two top levels. The lower one is enclosed in glass and has maps that label the view of Paris. Up a flight of stairs is the upper level, which is enclosed in a wire screen, and offers visitors the best view.

The winds were strong that day, and the tower had a distinct sway. My daughter experienced a queasy fear of heights, so of course I teased her with statements like, “What’s that creaking sound?” and “This thing was never meant to last this long.”

After leaving the tower, we caught another cab, which had an interesting display of Matchbox cars glued to the dashboard. A sign proclaimed that it consisted of every car manufactured in France in the year 1960.

We rode to the Champs Elysees and had an overpriced lunch at a café where all of the seats face out to the street, enabling you to watch the parade of tourists. This particular café had an outdoor seating area, and the waiters raced in and out of the building carrying trays of food and drink, somehow failing to collide with the swirling horde of unwary people on the sidewalk, their eyes glued to shop windows or the Arc de Triomphe.

We visited the Arc de Triomphe after lunch, and I tried to imagine the colossal insult to France in 1940 when the Nazi soldiers marched beneath it into Paris. Originally built by Napoleon Bonaparte, today it serves as a memorial to the French Unknown Soldier as well as all French military campaigns. It’s a magnificent structure, covered with elaborate sculptures, and surrounded by one of the most insane traffic circles in the world, where seven major boulevards intersect.

We strolled up the Champs Elysees, past Cartier jewelers and a variety of trendy couture shops. I noticed a long line of
people waiting in a line outside of Louis Vuitton. They had a doorman admitting people in limited numbers, just like
some kind of exclusive nightclub.

The Champs Elysees is full of famous name brand merchandise, and things you don’t see in the United States, but I found myself intrigued by the trees. There are dozens of them, lining the boulevard for long stretches, and they must be 50 feet tall. Somehow, they’ve been trimmed into crisp rectangular shapes. So I had to wonder who does this? When do they do it? Do crews with huge cherry-pickers and gigantic hedge clippers show up once a week in the middle of the night and hack away at them? And how do they paint the Eiffel Tower? Do they shut it down so the paint doesn’t drip on the tourists? Do they have to spread a giant tarp on the ground? These thoughts keep me awake at night.

No comments: