Saturday, March 08, 2008

Euro Day 9: A Tale of Two Cities

Monday, July 16, 2007. With our luggage packed and ready for transport, we opted to partake of this morning's optional guided tour led by our local Blue Badge, Stephen. At 7:30am we met the other early birds in the Chancery lobby and we were soon prowling the neighbourhoods surrounding Lincoln's Inn Fields - which is just steps from the hotel. Among other things, this area is the historic and current locus of the legal profession in London while said-named park is thought to be an inspiration for NYC's Central Park. The buildings and inner courtyards of the Inns were such serene places on a busy Monday morning - yet just a block away was the hurley-burley of London as she awoke for another workaday week. The tour, while just an hour in length, held a few notable highlights for me: the shop said to be the inspiration for Dickens' Olde Curiosity Shop, Temple Church (though I would have liked to see the inside), and a little shop that sells wigs for the legal folk.

JediBoy poses in the alleyway
enroute to Lincoln's Inn Fields

A lone Knight Templar
stands guard over the Inns

With our visit to the Inns at an end, we bade our goodbyes to Chancery Court as our bus departed for Waterloo Station. Our mission, catch the 10:40am Eurostar for a 3-hour trip into to Paris' Gare du Nord station.

For those of us who are used to the sleepy, somewhat low-pressure experience of riding trains in Canada, getting onto the Eurostar was something very different - more akin to boarding an airplane at a busy airport. There was security everywhere, metal detectors, and x-rays for ourselves and our carry-ons. I could only imagine what was happening to our other luggage. Even my 14 year-old BandGeek was subjected to a very friendly and very thorough search of her backpack.

The Eurostar looking serious

The train, itself, was quite comfy but not much different than our own (Canadian) Via1 service. I will say that the Eurostar's decor is quite modern and bright - and my fervent hope is that the invention of the adjustable head-rest 'wings' resulted in a Nobel prize for someone. The brunch served to us was quite nice: yogurt, fruit, coffee, souffle, etc. But the real prize was the free-flowing champagne. While sitting in the seat directly in front of me, Dee was somehow unaware of this service and regretted the missed opportunity to get buzzed on a train traveling 300 km/h. My descriptions of the experience were sadly lacking for her, so it seemed.

The scenery from the Eurostar is largely unremarkable. On the English side it's mostly urban terrain that continues to thin as the English Channel approaches. While it's allegedly possible to catch a glimpse of Dover before entering the Chunnel, this eluded me. As for the Chunnel experience, it's simply 20 minutes of absolute darkness until the train is expelled into the French countryside. Here the scenery is definitely rural - and it is here that the Eurostar glides towards top-speed on the flat French countryside. The following video clip is a condensed version of this trip and, if you're lucky, you may catch a glimpse of Your Humble Authour peering into the inky black that is the Chunnel.

Once at Paris' Gare du Nord, with it's reputation for pickpockets and ne'er-do-wells, we were met by our new local guide Sylvie. She, along with the Double-A's, deftly led The Gang through the throngs of people and onto our waiting motor-coach. We were to get a brief narrated tour of Paris on our way to our hotel. We spotted a few highlights along the way such as the Eiffel Tower and Opera Garnier - and I had that feeling of otherworldliness that we were (indeed!) in Paris. The bus parked at the Trocadero, which is perhaps the most famous vantage-point for taking photographs of the Eiffel Tower. And that's just what we did!

View from the Trocadero

After our leisurely picture-taking, we boarded the bus once again for a short ride to a local park. Here, Sylvie taught us all to play a traditional French game called Petanque - which is a hybrid of bocci and curling. We split ourselves into several teams and had a few rousing - if not amateurish - games. We were all rewarded for our efforts with some lovely desert croissants. And lest anyone think that Petanque is 'just for the tourists', rest assured that I did witness a televised match while in Paris - and the players were most serious about their sport!

Sylvie readies les boules
for a game of Petanque

Finally, it was time to check-in to the Hilton Arc de Triomphe - really just steps away from the actual Arc. The Hilton is beautifully appointed in the Art Deco style, and we were checked in at light-speed. Since we're a family of 4, Paris hotel regulations stipulate that we must have 2 rooms. So it was that we were given 2 adjoining rooms, actually connected by a private hallway. The kids were in their glory, being on their own. Dee and I were in our glory, being on own. Paris was going to be nice.

After some settling in, the kids elected to chill out in their new apartment while Dee and I took a stroll around the neighbourhood. A few blocks from the hotel is a park - Parc Monceau - designed in the English style, with ponds, lush greens, benches, and even pony rides. The park - as we later learned - is surrounded by expensive apartments - which was reflected by the armies of nannies and their charges we encountered in the park.

Dinner that night was a lovely private buffet at the hotel. The food was very good and prepared in the French style: fish, chicken, salads, mousse, etc. The good people at Disney had even supplied a sketch artist who did caricature portraits of each kid - a great way to keep them engaged during dinner.

By 8pm, the skies above Paris clouded over and it began to rain (our one-and-only instance of inclement weather). Since we were tired from the long day anyways, we retired to our rooms to read our guidebooks and prepare for the day ahead. I turned on the TV and caught a bit of BBC World Service. Oddly, they were doing a travelogue of Vancouver, Canada. The 'locals' came off looking somewhat like wanna-be surfer-vegetarian-hedonists who wear magic crystals and lace their speech with 'dude' or 'far-out'. I smiled and thought of Douglas Coupland.

As I closed my eyes and coaxed sleep to arrive, my dreams reminded me of stairs. Tomorrow, we would climb many of them.