Sunday, March 30, 2008

Euro Day 11: Parisian Palette

Set the way-back machine for Wednesday, July 18, 2007. With only a few days left in Europe, there is still much to do! As we planned out the day's activity over another Hilton breakfast, we four came to realize that this might be the most jam-packed day yet. While our morning would be Disneyesque, our afternoon and evening would be our own - and looking at our hoped-for itinerary, we were being pretty ambitious.

By 9am we had met up with Sylvie and our new (additional) guide Alec in the Hilton lobby, where we were to begin a lovely stroll to the Louvre. That suited us just fine as the weather was warm and sunny - perfect for walking. The Gang set off into the Parisian sunshine and we soon passed through the 'fashion neighbourhood', which is anchored by familiar names such as Hermes and Chanel. I thought the store window-displays seemed interesting enough, but a bit frou-frou for the likes of this fashion hound. Nowhere did I see any signs of denim or sweatshirt material. Go figure. I could see the wheels spinning in the minds of Dee and BandGeek, however. Our bank account stifled a little scream, and I was silently thankful we had no time for stopping right now.

Further along our route was the Presidential residency, Elysee Palace. I was struck at how the Palace just seems to be right there on the street. Perhaps it's just my North American sensibilities that expects lots of real estate between Them and Us. I was further struck at the security arrangements there. Because the Palace's entrance is off a very public street, there were a number of Surete directing traffic, and any driver who fancied slowing down for a little rubbernecking was met by wild arm gyrations and many loud bursts from an official Surete whistle! Stiff medicine, indeed. In addition to the local police, there were a number of military types hanging around in small groups - either on foot or sitting in vans. The folks were very low key, almost to the point of napping, it seemed. I swear I saw some of them playing cards! As The Gang - 34-ish strong - strolled through this tableau, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to all of these security arrangements. Perhaps the President was elsewhere and security was slacking off. Or perhaps this is just the way things work in France. Since the President was still alive, I supposed this was effective somehow.

We soon found ourselves at Place de la Concorde, once the site of many a grisly death by guillotine during the Revolution. Today, the obelisk in the center of the Place (a gift from Egypt) anchors the west end of Tuileries Gardens - while the Louvre backdrops the eastern end. We strolled the broad walkway through the Gardens, admiring the lush trees and posing for pictures by various fountains. We approached the Louvre end of the Gardens, which is a sort of miniature version of the Arc de Triomphe called Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. This spot was perfect for many family photos - the Louvre wrapping itself around us, its dramatic (and controversial) glass pyramid, the Arc, and the Place de la Concorde's obelisk still visible in the distance. Here was beauty - old and new - and history upon history, all writ on stone, glass, and metal.

View towards the Louvre

Once inside the Louvre (under the pyramid!) we were divided into groups for the 2-hour tour. The kids would have their own tour with The Double-A's while the adults were divided between Sylvie and Alec. Dee and I fell in with Alec, although I secretly envied the kids. Their tour would hit the same highlights, but would have more a scavenger-hunt-meets-DaVinci Code flavour.

Alec handed out small headsets to everyone and we were instructed in their use. Alec would be using a microphone tuned into our headset frequency - and this would let him narrate us through the Louvre while dealing with noisy crowds. Brilliant! Alec was obviously a seasoned guide since he seemed to know just how to navigate the crowds, always get a front-row seat, and never feel rushed.

While we had only a few short hours in the Louvre, we seemed to hit many highlights: Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, ancient Greek statuary, painting upon painting and, of course, the Mona Lisa. The temperature variations between sections of the museum were very noticeable. Rooms containing statuary were generally quite warm, while other rooms were very cool - all to keep these treasures healthy. All through the tour, Alec regaled us with his lessons on art and history. The time flew by and I was disappointed to realize that it was 12:30pm and time to re-group with The Gang.

The kids really enjoyed their time in the Louvre, too. Their highlight: being able to see the Mona Lisa up close and personal. This famous bit of paint on a wooden plank is displayed inside a case that controls heat, light, and humidity. There is a corral of sorts, marked off with velvet ropes, that lets people get no closer than about 7 feet from the painting. The corral was constantly jam-packed with touristy types - their cameras ready - all shoving their way to the front. The kids, however, were allowed by Louvre staff to ignore the velvet ropes and simply walk right up to the display case and inspect that Mona Lisa smile from mere inches away. And you know, she really does have a lovely smile.

Kids-eye view of Mona's smile

Venus de Milo - up close

Now, it was free-time - no more Disney-driven activities for the rest of the day. The four of us decided on a quick lunch at the Louvre to fuel us for the rest of our ambitious day. I should make a point of mentioning the food court at the Louvre. In a word - outstanding! Oh that food courts in North America served such fresh, delicious Italian and French food with (horrors!) the choice of wine and beer for a civilized repast. Within a half-hour or so, we were stuffed and ready for mega-walking around Paris.

Stop number one was the Opera Garnier. This historical theater, the setting for Phantom of the Opera, is decorated in a style that seems lavishly over-the-top even by French standards. Visiting the Opera was my idea, and I'm glad to have seen it. It's just a magnificent, dramatic building inside and out - with its marble friezes, gold leaf everything, and soaring spaces. We wandered its corridors and spied its treasures for a solid 30 minutes, and then it was the ladies' turn to lead the march.

The Opera's stage

Opera Garnier lobby area

Shopping! Close to the Opera is the massive Printemps department store, which actually spans 4 buildings around a Paris intersection. BandGeek wanted a new purse - which she found at a bargain price of 10 Euros - while Dee was content to purchase genuine Parisian silk stockings at a somewhat higher price than the purse. JediBoy and I just affected our signature 'department store shuffle' - making sure we kept the ladies in sight at all times.

With shopping done it was back towards Place de la Concorde, across the Seine, and over to Hotel des Invalides. The Invalides is actually a complex of buildings that have fulfilled various military purposes over the last 300 years or so - including an army hospital. Our main purpose was to visit Napoleon's tomb. By this time, however, we had walked far - very far. The hot sun and tired feet were taking their toll, and the Invalides was going to be a heart-breaker. The massive size of the place gave a false sense of how far one must walk to actually reach it from the street. Walking the uneven cobblestone laneway - which is guarded by trees and shrubs forced into precise geometric shapes - seemed to take an eternity.

Once we reached the archway that marks the entrance to the complex, we made a beeline for the nearby cafeteria for beverages and rest. Afterwards, I found my way to the information desk and used my very rusty French to purchase tickets. As has been my experience in France and my boyhood home of Montreal, any attempt to speak French will usually find receptive ears. Any attempt to speak English slowly, loudly, and with hand gestures will usually result in trouble. Alas, the poor fellow beside me at the ticket counter did not possess such secrets, and I left him vainly trying to explain that he was a Customer dammit and he needed someone to speak English!

We headed straight for Napoleon's Tomb, which is located in the Dome Church. One such as I cannot express the scale and decoration of this final resting place - other than to suggest it befits Napoleon's legendary ego and accomplishments. My first impression upon entering the rotunda was that somehow we had wandered into the Vatican. Entering through the main doors, the first sights are the soaring Dome, the massively ornate alter, and the delicate stonework throughout the well-lit space. Approaching the center of the Dome, a circular stone railing provides a vantage point to the floor below which is home to the Tomb, itself. It is the centerpiece - large, ornate, polished wood - guarded by statuary fulfilling their duties in half-light. On one side of the Dome, we found the stairs down to the bottom floor for a closer look at the Tomb. On the other side of the Dome, display cases containing Napoleon's trademark hat and long-coat. Whether one has any understanding of history or not, I cannot imagine that anyone could leave this place unimpressed and even a little overwhelmed.

Napoleon's famous clothes

The Tomb

After the Dome, we decided to forgo a tour the Invalides military museum (which is assuredly impressive). Instead, we headed back towards our hotel by way of Champs Elysees. This must be one of the most scenic tree-lined boulevards in the world - bookended by the famous Arc and the golden obelisk of Place de la Concorde. Along the way we had planned to find the Disney Store (yes, there is one there and, yes, this is foreshadowing) where we would purchase tickets for Disneyland Paris. Our secondary goal, find ice cream. While the Champs was tres packed with busy shoppers, we managed to complete both tasks and I managed to use some more French.

Back at the hotel by 6:30pm, we discovered how dead on our feet we really were! After walking perhaps 10 miles this day, we found the best antidote was rest and blessed showers. By 8pm, however, BandGeek was looking for some dinner. A mere 10 minutes later, we were back on the Champs Elysees where we found a table in lovely cafe across the street from the Arc. There could not be a more perfect spot for a leisurely dinner on a warm Paris night. We all ate a lot - including lots of wine and decadent desserts. And in true Parisian fashion, dinner lasted close to 2 hours!

It was nearing 10pm and we knew that soon the Arc would soon be closed to visitors who wanted to see the view from the top. There was no line, so we were able to purchase our tickets and make our way up the spiral staircase right away. This proved tiring after our big meal, of course. The view of Paris by night - all lit up - made it worthwhile. The Eiffel Tower was especially beautiful - outlined by lights which would shimmer from time to time.

I don't know how many pictures we took of the scenery below and of each other. None of us wanted to leave this bit of fairyland. The following snippet of video and music captures the experience just right, I think. Maybe you'll feel it, too.

But after 45 minutes we needed to leave since the Arc would be closed by 11pm. Down the stairs we went, down Avenue Hoche, and down Rue Courcelles to our hotel. Sleep would come easy tonight. We would dream of Kings and Queens knowing that, tomorrow, these dreams might come to pass.