Monday, March 24, 2008

Euro Day 10: City of Heights

Author's note: My apologies on 2 counts. One, I've been far too tardy in getting these posts out and, two, this particular post will be long. Like - really long. It was that kind of day. Apologies aside, I hope you find it all worthwhile.

It's Tuesday, July 17, 2007 - and today we will be using our legs. A lot. In preparation for this day of physical exertion, I forgot myself and stayed up way too late the night before reading Michael Palin Diaries: The Python Years, 1969-1979. My fatigue lasted only as long as the carafe of coffee during breakfast at the Hilton, and I was able to meet my first challenge in boarding the bus without assistance from anyone.

We took a very short ride, narrated by Sylvie, to the Pompidou Centre where we would begin our walk to Notre Dame. The Pompidou is a building that is literally constructed inside-out to maximize it's interior space for art exhibits and the like. The effect, however, is an uncanny resemblance to a colourful oil refinery (which is how Parisians lovingly refer to it). An interesting competitor for Sylvie's narration: a young fellow standing near us in the almost-empty square training his pet falcon. That was pretty cool.



Whimsical fountains near the Pompideau Centre.

Sylvie led us the short distance to Notre Dame, where the outer square was already coming alive with its infamous 'gypsies' selling tin Eiffel Tower souvenirs, cheap postcards, and opportunities to get suckered into the 'my mother/father/sibling is in the hospital and I need money to get them home' scam. Some things never change, it seems. So long as we didn't make eye contact, none of these entrepreneurs were a bother.

We made use of our ample time to wander inside the cathedral. The 'rose windows' were just as I had remembered them from 20-odd years past - hypnotic in their way and almost magically lit. The rest of the cathedral was as I remembered, as well - gray, silent, and exuding its holiness. Religious or not, one cannot help but to be awed by those hands that have coaxed so much much beauty from cold, hard stone.

We soon met up with Alex outside the cathedral, for we would be among the first groups of the day to trace the path of Quasimodo up the stone steps of Notre Dame. After 10 minutes of idle chit-chat, the rope dropped (that's a Disney joke, folks!) and we started our ascent of 422 stairs. Having warmed up on the first few dozen steps, however, we were waylaid in the cathedral's imaginitively-placed gift shop as the Holy Keepers of the Cathedral Gifts made change for the tourists and (presumably) readied the rest of the stairs for us. Nice touch.

Up the narrow stone spirals we went and, soon, we found ourselves on the narrow walkway that joins Notre Dame's two towers part-way to their tops. The view of Paris, the magnificent gargoyles, the blue-sky weather - all breathtaking. To see Paris from this vantage point is to risk never having the will to look away. We needed to move on, however, so we we took a detour up some wooden steps for a quick look at Notre Dame's infamous bell. It's big and I was glad that it's only used on special occasions (our visit not being one of those). Sitting next to the bell in a chair was a young fellow - likely in his late teens - whose job it was to, well, sit by the bell. I suppose if one of us had actually touched the bell, our young friend would have sprung into action. Since we're good Canadians and follow all the rules, I guess we'll never know.


Looking up at Notre Dame cathedral

We were now ready to make our final assault on the very top of the cathedral tower. The stairs - still reassuring stone - grew much narrower and the spirals much tighter. But the effort was instantly forgotten the moment we reached the top. We were afforded a 360-degree open-air view of Paris, from 63 meters (about 207 feet) above the city, and it was stunning. Paris, with its blanket of low-rising buildings, appeared as a gently undulating sea of white and green that laps at the distant outcrop that is Sacre-Coeur. This was one of those moments you'd never want to end - and I silently hoped it was something that would stick my with kids for many years.

Before we ascend the stones back to Earth there is one item left to discuss - gargoyles. Europe is crawling with them, of course, but Notre Dame's are something special. Functionally, many of the gargoyles are just ornate downspouts. But as one ascends the cathedral towers, these grotesques become more ornamental - and hungry, it seems. I won't spoil any surprises here, but a close examination of the gargoyles may reveal their taste for smaller mammals. Nuff said.


A gargoyle stands vigil over Paris

Next on the agenda was cruise on the Seine aboard a Batobus - a wonderful water shuttle service that transports people up and down the river between tourist hot-spots. It's a very slow, but relaxing, ride - taking us about 45 minutes to reach the Eiffel Tower stop. And speaking of hot-spots, here's a tip: if the weather is sunny, find a shady spot in which to sit. A Batobus' seating area is largely covered by a clear, plexiglass dome. Think Sun, magnifying glass, and ants - and you'll get the picture.

As we exited the Batobus at the Eiffel Tower, Sylvie and Andrew led The Gang to a special elevator queue for those lucky enough to have a restaurant reservation. Mere mortals would need to wait in line for a few hours before their turn at navigating the Tower's tiny elevators. After (yet another) half-hearted Parisian security check, we were whisked up to Level 1 for lunch at the fashionable Altitude 95. The meal, the service, the view - simply incredible.

After our lunch, some of The Gang (my family included) opted to follow Andrew on the stair climb to Level 2. It really was an easy climb for everyone (the stairs are not steep). At the risk of runing surprises, those of us with Sherpa-blood coursing our veins were rewarded with commemorative coins for our efforts. Disney does think of everything, you know.


From the ground, up - underneath the Tower

After a quick tour of Level 2 (think: Level 1, but higher), Dee, the kids, and I got into the very long queue for the Level 3 elevators. There are no stairs available for this journey, and the elevators are necessarily smaller for the narrow climb to the top. After only 20 minutes of waiting, however, we made the tranformation into sardines and found outselves on Level 3. The view from there is really-and-truly amazing. Some of The Gang did not make it to Level 3 because of crowds, etc. - but I could not fathom how anyone would miss what could be their only opportunity ever to stand atop the Tower.


From the Tower, towards the Trocadero

Once we'd had our fill of amazing panoramas, we re-traced our path to the ground: elevator to Level 2 and then stairs all the way down (definitely easier than going up). Andrew was waiting nearby to send The Gang back back to the hotel in a succession of cabs. Alex met us at the Hilton and paid the driver to complete this efficient and effective process. The Double-A's continued to impress us all! We were now on 'free time' for the rest of the day.

Our plan was to visit Montmartre, which is sort of a Parisian artist enclave. This area is also famous for nearby Sacre-Coeur, its windmills, and nighclubs such as the (in)famous Moulin Rouge. Alex was able to show us the best way to get to Montmartre: a 5-minute walk to the Metro and then another 15 minutes on the subway. Before we knew it, we were standing at the base of the funicular that transports people up to Sacre-Coeur. A footnote: the Paris Metro system was far-and-away easier and more pleasant to navigate than the London Underground (and its air-conditioned!).

The funicular line was long, however, and we elected to walk the stairs to the top of the hill. This was decidedly more work than climbing the Eiffel Tower, it seemed. The view from the top was lovely - sort of an analogue of the view from the Tower. The basilica at Sacre-Coeur was something else. While we had seen a lot of churches in England, Sacre-Coeur was (and is) in a class by itself in terms of beauty - delicate white stone against a blue Parisian sky.


Sacre-Coeur under the Paris sky

In the heart of Montmartre is a square called Place Du Tertre, which was packed with artists doing cheesy (and expensive) 'tourist art'. It was row upon row of Paris skylines and such - all being painted in real-time for us on-lookers with our Bermuda shorts, camera bags, and disposable cash. We found solace in one of the tented cafes, where we sat down for a lovely (and filling) dinner of crepes (with a beer-chaser for me). It was just a nice, relaxing family time and I could not imagine being (or wanting to be) anywhere else at that moment.

Our bellies full again, we strolled the narrows streets of Montmarte - following our noses and our tourbook. We saw the windmills, we saw the creepy/gothic Montmartre Cemetery, and we saw the Moulin Rouge. In consideration of the kids, both the cemetery and Moulin Rouge were only experienced from the outside looking in. Interesting tidbit one: it was only 7:00pm and there was already a line of well-dressed folks waiting to enter the Moulin Rouge. Interesting tidbit two: I believe the guard house at Montmartre cemetery's entrance offers guidebooks for locating the famous residents sleeping nearby. And now, a short travelogue of some shufflings through Montmartre - set to music, of course.



By this point, the day's walking was taking its toll, and we elected to return to the hotel. The Metro whisked us back and soon I was dozing in front of the TV, being surprised that The Simpsons had learned to speak French. But by 9:30pm we were somehow restless again and Dee seized the opportunity to drag me out for a walk. The kids - far more clever than I - elected to camp out in their hotel room. Dee and I wandered over to the Arc de Triomphe, which is only about a 10 minute journey from the Hilton. We discovered along the way that the Saudi and Japanese embassasies have offices in the neighbourhood - which made us feel quite safe being out and about.

The Arc is impressive at night, with its moody lighting adding a sense of the dramatic to its carvings and inlays. We also saw the Eiffel Tower lit up for the first time and discovered that it actually sparkles! Could there be a more romantic moment: Paris lit up at night and no kids around?



The Eiffel Tower at night.

Being the good parents we are, by 10:30pm we thought we should return to the Hilton and check on the kids. They were about to seal the deal with Mr. Sandman when we got back, so we ended our own day with journal updates and some expensive beer from the mini-bar.

Tomorrow, we would learn about The Arts - and practise our walking some more!

7 comments:

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David said...

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Crazylegs said...

Thanks, David, I'm glad you're enjoying them. I'm having fun putting them together, but it's been a bit more effort than I had imagined. That said, it's pretty cool to see the number of visitors from the world of Disney - many of them 'regulars'.

So listen - maybe you, Barb, and myself could get something off the ground to make some real money. What do you think? Should I forward along my bank acount info?

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Eww...I just said "Barb" and "encrusted". I think I just put myself off my feed.

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David said...

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