Sunday, March 30, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Monday, March 24, 2008
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Saturday, March 08, 2008
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 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!
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!
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.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
With breakfast out of the way, it was time for a short bus trip (this time on a more conventional carriage) to St. Paul's Cathedral, with our human encyclopedia, Stephen, narrating the way. This morning was to be a walking tour, so poking our heads inside the Cathedral was not in the cards. Stephen gave a wonderful lesson on the history of St. Paul's, however, and we learned that 'cathedral' comes from the Latin 'cathedra' which means 'throne' or 'chair' - and so St. Paul's houses the throne for the Bishop of London. There - now you're smart like me!
From St. Paul's we snaked our way to the Millennium Bridge which afforded a most scenic (and windy!) view up and down the Thames River. There we took time for pictures with the iconic Tower Bridge visible in the morning gray - offering proof for us all that this really was Merrie Olde London. At the far end of the bridge lie Shakespeare's Globe Theater - or at least a pitch-perfect reconstruction of the Globe. After a recent episode of Doctor Who, I had hoped to find the time to poke my head inside the the open-air theater - but that was not for today.
As I turned my eyes back across the Thames from whence we came, I was struck by the South Bank's transformation since my first-and-only trip to London in 1985. Where I had remembered warehouses and empty streets there were now shiny office buildings and tres-expensive condos. I could not decide if this was a good thing or not - but I'm always suspicious of new development aimed at a demographic with bigger offices and cars than I.
We met our bus once more after a brief stroll along the Thames. Now we were to cross back along the Tower Bridge to our next destination - the Tower of London! After a short 'welcome ceremony' out front of the Tower led by the Double-A's (Alex and Andrew), The Gang filed into the Tower grounds en masse with Stephen leading the charge. There was a short walkabout and an informative overview of Tower history by Stephen. At that, we were unleashed for a few hours of free time to explore the complex on our own.
To properly see every detail of the Tower would take the better part of a day, I imagine. So we decided to concentrate on a few sights. As is customary for all tourists here, we made a point of eyeballing the crown jewels. Similar to how one cannot really imagine 'a million dollars', it was difficult to comprehend the wealth sitting in those oh-so-fortified rooms. JediBoy (my son for you new readers) led us to the White Tower for its collection of swords, suits of armour, cannons, etc. This was interesting, but I will admit that, soon enough, all these bits of metal on display sort of 'ran together' for me. There are only so many suits of armour and rusty swords that can hold one's interest.
We also did the Wall Walk which afforded some great views of the entire complex and a peek into how the Tower's 150-ish residents actually live. It's also a great way to explore a few of the outer towers. And, of course, we made a point to have our family portrait taken with a Yeoman Warder (aka Beefeater) by our side. Interesting fact: one must have a minimum of 23 years military experience before applying for the position of Yeoman Warder.
We (or rather, I) wanted to check out a Torture Chamber exhibit, but no one was willing to sacrifice their lunchtime to learn about vivisection. Pity that. We opted for a bite to eat at the Tower's 'New Amouries Restaurant'. The food was surprisingly good - and I quite enjoyed my roast pork with mash (followed by some manner of banana cream cake).
By 1:30pm we met up with The Gang and shuffled back to the bus. I should backtrack a bit here. When we checked into Chancery Court we were given ABD passes to The London Eye to use at our leisure. Some folks had used theirs on check-in day, but many of us did not. For those who wished to ride The Eye today, the bus would drop us at the right place while the remainder of The Gang could stay aboard for a lift back to the hotel. So, it was to The Eye we went!
At 400 feet high, with a single revolution taking 30 minutes, The London Eye is an impressive piece of equipment snuggled up to the banks of the Thames. To actually get onto The Eye is a less impressive thing to experience. Confusion seemed to reign supreme. Our first task: get in line (with about a hundred other people) to exchange our vouchers for actual tickets. There were a few hot tempers as a mob mentality kicked in. In one small area there were a few lines to negotiate - one for people with vouchers and one for people with cash. The trouble was that it was unclear (even to Eye staff) which line was which. A little patience went a long way, however, and soon we were able to get our tickets from one of the harried ladies behind the counter.
Next up: stand in another line (this time outside) to get onto The Eye. It took 45 minutes to prevail over drizzly weather, line-boredom, and security checks, but we eventually made in onto one of The Eye's 24-person capsules. The view, however, was all worth it. The leisurely revolution of The Eye gave us an amazing sweep of London, with Big Ben just a stone's throw across the Thames. Half-way through the ride, we watched a driving rainstorm sweep across London - and it was beautiful. And - lucky you, Gentle Reader - here is a bona fide snippet from our home movie of our lovely ride on The Eye.
By the time we exited our capsule - rain ponchos at the ready - the storm had passed. We picked our way down the flooded walkway, passing soaked tourists caught unawares - as we headed back towards the Parliament buildings. Our next goal for our afternoon of free time - Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. We found our destination without much trouble, paid our money, and found ourselves in the underground complex from where Churchill & Co. had run much of WWII. The complex - with its institutional-green meeting rooms, barracks, and such - have been left just as they were when the Rooms' inhabitants emerged into the sunlight on VE Day. The experience was singular in recreating the sights and sounds of living underground during the height of WWII. It was very sobering for us all.
With Churchill behind us, it was time to park ourselves on the museum steps and ponder our route back to Chancery Court. We were exhausted - and it was fortunate we had a few swiped chocolates from the Chancery lobby's candy dish to fortify us! Our plan was to make one more foray in the Tube for a lift home. As luck would have it, a procession of cabs came along and we were able to flag one down (were we going native?). We were back at Chancery Court in just minutes, thankfully.
Tip: For anyone who carries a PDA of some kind (I use a Palm Tx), there is a wonderful little application called MetrO that allows you to carry transit schedules for many cities worldwide (I carried along London and Paris). MetrO does more than just list transit schedules, however. It also allow you pick 'to' and 'from' destinations (including landmarks) and will automatically calculate the best route to take based on criteria such as quickest time, fewest transfers, etc. I will never without MetrO when I travel - and you can check out this free application at metro.nanika.net.
Since tomorrow would be a travel day to Paris, we needed our luggage packed and ready for the porters by 7:30am. We used this rest period, therefore, to get our suitcases put together. The kids - it should be noted - opted for some quality Gameboy time. Eventually, our fatigue subsided and our stomachs let us know it was time for some dinner. We decided to head over to Covent Garden (also within walking distance of the hotel) to see what we could see.
Covent Garden is quite a place. It's very large and was full of people milling about and lots of street performers to keep us entertained. We eventually settled on an outdoor cafe with a very talented guitar player nearby to help us pass the time. We had the added bonus of watching a slightly(?) inebriated fellow try to bribe the guitarist to play a few requests. It was all in good fun, however, and the crowd appreciated the show all the more. As had been our custom since we arrived in England, I gave the kids some coins which they dutifully (if not shyly) placed into the performer's guitar case. So while we started dinner a little tired and grouchy after a long day, the meal and the music made for some nice family time - and we went home a lot happier.
Something occurred to me while sitting under that cafe awning - England smelled different. It had been in the back of my brain all week - fighting to be recognized. It was nothing unpleasant or even unusual and, in a way, it was a bit like the ozone smell that lingers after a good storm. I came to remember that same smell from my short time there in 1985. I liked it in 1985 - and I liked it again in 2007. But it made me a tad melancholy as I remembered how very different my first trip to England had been - just me and 3 friends. No firm plans and no sense of anxiety about being in a place so foreign. I felt older. Maybe the responsibilities of being a parent, having a career, and all that middle-class suburban 'stuff' had dulled my sense of wide-eyed wanderlust. Or maybe - just maybe - I think too much.
Our bellies full, we found a shorter walking route back to Chancery Court. We finished up our packing. I wrote in my journal. And we closed our eyes for awhile. Tomorrow - it would be Paris!