Monday, July 30, 2007

I’m up early, heading by metro to the Tour Eiffel. This is my last full day in Paris and I hope to go all the way to the top. It’s a lovely morning and the temperature is cool, but when I arrive, I am disappointed to see that the tower is shrouded in fog. Hopeful that it will burn off soon in the summer sun, I join the queue.

Nearly seven million people visited this monument last year, but today the wait is pleasant and surprisingly short, which leaves little time for watching the trio of military men in fatigues and black berets paroling the perimeter. The ticket booths open at 9:00 AM and by 9:45 I’m standing in the first elevator heading up.

The scene from the top is indeed hazy. Looking north and east, Sacré-Coeur is little more than a silhouette on the horizon. I can see the glass roof of the Grand Palais, but not Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, the gold dome of Les Invalides, but not the Panthéon. When I look straight down, I’m surprised at what I can see—the unmistakable shape of a heart trampled into the grass on the Champs de Mars.

The sky is clearer in the west and the view of Trocadéro is broken only by the shadow of the Eiffel Tower itself. To the south, I spy a tiny replica of the “Statue of Liberty” on an island in the Seine next to the Pont de Grenelle, given by Americans as a gift in return for their own in 1889.

Before I leave, I buy a few cards and mail them from the post office on the first floor, assured they will receive a special cancellation stamp to prove that I was here.

My next stop is the Arc de Triomphe, built to honor France’s dead during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s an impressive site, especially after I find the tunnel underground which leads me there without the necessity of crossing a dozen lanes of traffic. Actually, as the view from the top makes clear, there are no real lanes, just chaos as cars and trucks hurl around the rotary.

By now, the fog has receded and the sky is bright. Looking out at the Paris landscape, I can appreciate what Baron Haussmann had in mind when he modernized the city in the mid-19th century—twelve grand avenues lined with trees, radiating from a single point. I snap a series of pictures from north to south, hoping to combine them later into a sweeping panorama.

For lunch I stop at the “Ladurée” tearooms on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, an elegant choice on the most famous street in the world. In the upstairs dining room, I order the Salade Concorde and a cream puff for dessert, called a “Religieuse à la violette.” There is soft music playing in the background while I eat. At first I notice the classic French song, “La Vie en Rose,” followed by a Norah Jones piece I can’t quite place, and inexplicably, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” I’m serious. It’s a downright strange mix. I buy a box of assorted macarons to take home to my family and then head out down the street.

I walk as far as the Egyptian obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, window shopping along the way, then take the metro to the Marais district to see the Place des Vosges. It is the oldest public square in Paris, built for Henry IV in the early 17th century. Here, Parisians and their dogs are lying on the grass, basking in the sun. I sit in the shade on a park bench instead and listen to the narration of one of Sonia Landes’ ParisWalks tours on my iPod.

Afterwards, I head south past the Paris Plage onto the Île Saint-Louis one last time, stopping for a raspberry tart from the Gabriela pâtisserie on the Rue des Deux Ponts. It is, quite possibly, the best thing I’ve tasted all week, and in a city of outstanding cuisine, that’s saying something.

Back in my room, I start to pack my bags, reluctantly. I’ll have to get an early start to the airport in the morning, but for now I’ve planned one more excursion into the City of Lights. I’ve scheduled an “Illuminations” tour on an open top bus and need to meet the group outside of the Paris Vision office on the Rue de Rivoili at 9:30 PM. I have little time to spare and stop only for a quick crêpe along the Rue Soufflot, where discover that I dislike the buckwheat version of this classic very much.

If the Rue Mouffetard felt like the genuine Paris, this is tourism at its worst. The bus is careening through the streets of the city at breakneck speed. I am grateful for the seatbelts. We pause no where, and I begin to rely on traffic lights for brief windows of opportunity in which to take pictures.

I enjoy photography and don’t mean to discourage anyone from taking the same liberty. I understand full well the memories a camera can capture. But my experience on this bus makes me wish I could give some well-intended, if somewhat sarcastic, advice to fellow travelers everywhere:

Rule #1. When taking pictures of landmarks at night, please turn off the flash. I beg you. It will not illuminate the Eiffel Tower a quarter of a mile away. Trust me, it won’t.

Rule #2. Please do not hold your camera or your cell phone at arm’s length. Yes, I know you want to see the picture on the little screen, but unless you are middle aged and you left your bifocals back at the hotel, there is no need to thrust your arm so far forward. The extra three feet you gain will not make a difference, and there is a very good chance you will whack someone else in the head if you do it while turning on a moving bus. This is especially dangerous to other passengers if you have not also followed Rule #1. A blinding flash directly in the eye is not pleasant at any time of day. Ever.

Our one stop of the night is on the Champs de Mars. By now my stomach feels queasy, perhaps from the buckwheat crêpe, but more likely from the lurching of the bus and the strobes of a hundred flash bulbs. When some in the group disappear and fail to re-board ten minutes later, part of me wishes I had done the same. But there is a bright moon over the École Militaire tonight and I can see the Tour Montparnasse rising out of the darkness behind it. It’s 11 PM and behind me the lights on the Eiffel Tower are sparkling like diamonds. I think of all the places I’ve been and what I’ve seen from those heights and know that I leave with no regrets.

One thought on “Monday, July 30, 2007

  1. Thank you for your greaqt blog, discovered just today! I’ve visted many of the places you mentioned, but have made notes of some ‘new’ experiences for my next trip, and a wonderful list of restauants, cafes and tea houses! Yum! You do seem to have a knack for finding pleasant places to enjoy solo dining.

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