Travelogue for England and France, 2007

Paris, FranceIf you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then whereever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Welcome! This is an online travel journal for my August 2007 trip to England and France, which covers the following destinations:

  • London
  • Bath
  • York
  • Paris
  • Versailles

Also, you should know that while I’ve embedded some photographs into the entries, many more from my trip are available on Flickr.

Enjoy!
DLG

Monday, July 18, 2007

Here I am again, sitting at the airport waiting for a red eye flight to London. It been a year since my first trip overseas and with those memories still fresh in my mind, I am eager to get back. But as I sit and wait, 8:55 PM comes and goes. I remind myself that I am at the Philadelphia airport flying on U.S. Airways. What were the chances I would actually leave on time? Never good. As the minutes slide by I can’t help but mentally subtract from the time I’ll have tomorrow.

I can see the plane sitting at the gate. It’s tantalizing, and yet one hour passes, then two. The young boy sitting behind me (whose behavior has been far better than mine) is getting restless. He leans over to his Mom and announces that he would rather be in school than sitting here at the airport. He would rather be in school taking a test, he says, adding the second part slowly for dramatic effect. I tell him that I feel the same way and he grins.

Finally, as we board the details trickle in. When the plane arrived from Las Vegas no one on the ground crew remembered to hook up the ventilation system that keeps the cabin cool while the engines are off. No one else noticed either as the temperatures inside soared. That’s all been taken care of, we are assured. But actually I don’t feel assured. A mistake like that does not instill confidence.

Everywhere around me weary and defeated passengers stir, pull out their passports, and prepare to board. We come to the sinking realization that we have another long wait ahead of us when we hear the pilot’s voice on the intercom telling us we are number sixteen for takeoff. It’s midnight by the time we do.

Once in the air, I become conscious of the fact that I have fallen into some luck at last, and it is not inconsequential. I am sitting alongside of no one. It is a perfectly empty seat. I have hit the seating lottery! I can claim two seats, two pillows, two blankets as my own. I push up the armrest between and curl sideways across both. It is not exactly comfortable, but I doze off believing that things are finally looking up.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I feel bleary-eyed when my plane arrives at Gatwick Airport in the morning. With the difference in time zones, I’ve lost track of exactly how late we are. As I munch on one of U.S. Airways’ stale pastries for breakfast, I begin to mentally revise my plans for the day. I will not have as much time in London as I had hoped.

Thankfully, the lines at the airport move quickly through passport control, and after a quick stop at a cash machine I am sitting aboard the Gatwick Express heading for Victoria Station. With the morning rush hour over, I consider dragging my luggage on the Tube for the three short stops it will take to get to Gloucester Road, but I sink into the back of a comfortable cab instead. When I arrive at the Millennium Bailey’s Hotel (the base for my adventures last year), it feels like coming home. I check in and find, unexpectedly, that my room is ready and waiting. I look at my watch and sigh. Yes, we really did arrive that late. 

My first stop is the Paul’s patisserie across the street. I pick up a bottle of water and a chicken sandwich and head to Berkeley Square for a picnic lunch. I want to find a house nearby and this is a good place to stop and check my map. Plus, it gives me a chance to turn on my iPod and listen to Bobby Darin croon about nightingales.

The address I’m looking for is close by at 5 Grafton Street. It was once the home of Margaret Alice Byron, a distant relative of the poet Lord Byron. When he died, the peerage passed to his cousin, Alice’s grandfather, George Anson Byron, who became the 7th Baron Byron of Rochdale, followed by her uncle (who died childless), and finally her brother, Frederick. I know this because I own the diary she kept from 1879-1882. She records her travels to places like Thrumpton Hall and Worksop Manor, but she considers London home. When I find the house, I am surprised by its simplicity. It is a stately, but understated, Georgian townhouse.

I stroll back to Green Park and pick up the Piccadilly line to Holborn. Sir John Soane’s Museum is just a short walk away at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It is a quirky and cluttered place, preserved as it was at the time of Soane’s death in 1837. There are Hogarth paintings hidden behind folding screens, and a tombstone outside the Monk’s parlour that reads “Alas! poor Fanny!” As a tour guide explains, it does not commemorate the death of his wife, but instead that of her beloved dog. It’s a nice touch.

After leaving the museum, I wind through the streets of London to the “Old Curiosity Shop,” a 16th century building said to be the inspiration for the Charles Dickens novel. Further on, I come to the home of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first comprehensive English dictionary. He, too, loved his pets. Among them was “Hodge,” who he once described as “a very fine cat indeed.” A bronze statue of Hodges, sitting on the famous dictionary with an oyster at his feet faces the house in Gough Square.

It seems only fitting on this day spent following in the footsteps of English writers that I should eat at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. I catch a glimpse of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral before ducking into the darkness of the “Chop Room.” I see the long oak table where Dickens ate, the chair where Johnson sat, and a stuffed parrot named Polly, whose death was so grieved that an announcement was made on the BBC. As for me, I sit in the “Cozy Corner” and eat a chicken entrée finished off with sticky toffee pudding for dessert. I am happy, indeed, to be back in London.  

I arrive back at the hotel just in time to change for the theatre. Jet lag is starting to set in, but so is adrenalin. It will be interesting to see which wins out as I head to the Apollo Victoria to see “Wicked.” In the end, it is adrenalin by a nose. I yawn here and there, but not because of boredom. “Wicked” is fantastic and Kerry Ellis brings the house down. My seat in Row M of the Stalls is perfect, and so too is the night.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Today is the beginning of a very odd itinerary. I’m heading by train to York where I will spend the night. From there, I want to go to Bath, but the most efficient route returns me to London first. So, I go from London to York, back to London, then to Bath, and back to London before heading to Paris. It is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. But with the need to change hotel rooms every night, I have grown skeptical of my own travel plans.  

I booked my London hotel through HotelDoorman.com and the rate includes a nice continental breakfast. After munching on a bowl of fresh fruit and a croissant, I head off to Kings Cross with my camera and a small (but surprisingly heavy) overnight bag. The Bailey’s Hotel has kindly offered to hold my suitcase until I return. Once at the station, I stand in line to validate my BritRail pass. Financially, it hardly seems worthwhile for the two roundtrips I plan make to York and to Bath, but I wanted maximum flexibility. I suspected weeks ago that my best intentions for early morning trains were likely to fall to the necessity of sleep. I was right. My itinerary says I will depart London at 7:30 AM. It’s more like 9:30 when I actually do. 

On the train to York, I make what I think is an interesting observation about manners: The British have a knack for turning unpleasant news into a polite, rhetorical question. I am sitting in an aisle seat next to a businessman whose unfurled newspaper covers both our laps.  His partner is sitting a few rows forward. She needs to discuss something with him. He gets up from his window seat, excuses himself and disappears. He comes back minutes later, and then repeats the cycle. After a few rounds of this, he leans over and says to me, “This is going to be quite a difficult trip, isn’t it?”  I realize that he means difficult for me, not for him. I close my eyes and think “Yes, it will.” 

Actually, with my iPod for company, it’s not half bad. The time passes quickly and before I know it I’m walking out of the train station towards York Minster. Its gray Gothic towers stand tall among a sea of red brick, which makes it easy to find my hotel. I am staying at the Guy Fawkes Hotel on High Petergate, opposite the cathedral. It’s a lovely old townhouse with a cottage in back, purported to be the birthplace of Guy Fawkes himself. “Remember, Remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot?”  I do, from my trip to the Tower of London last year, which makes this an intriguing place to stay. The rooms all have names associated with the scheme to blow up Parliament, such as “Powder Keg” and “Treason.” I am staying in “The Plot,” a cozy little room on the second floor.

By now I am starving again. I want to eat at the Bettys Café in St. Helen’s Square for lunch, but the line is out the door and around the block. Remembering a fine meal I had last year at a Café Rouge in Windsor, I opt for a branch of the same here in York. It’s a bit chilly out on the patio, but I am grateful to see a few snatches of sunshine. I enjoy a “Tarte Paysenne,” filled with smoked bacon, mushrooms and cheese, before heading back to York Minster for an afternoon tour.

This is the reason I came to York, to see the Minster and its glorious stained glass windows. I fell in love with medieval stained glass last year when I saw fragments on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Here, the glass is where it should be, set into delicate stone tracery that rises high above the floor into fine Gothic arches. On a docent’s tour, I learn all about the history of the church and how difficult it is to maintain. For centuries cracks in the glass were repaired with additional leading. Those heavy lines gradually obscured the images by breaking them visually into smaller pieces. It also added weight, causing the windows to buckle. Today, glaziers can remove the glass piece by piece and bond the breaks with epoxy resin, but it is a slow and expensive process. Restoration of the “Saint William Window,” finished just last month, took ten years and more than £400,000 to complete. I stand at its base and marvel. I am looking up at a window that looks much as it did when it was new in the early 15th century. That’s worth every penny.

My last task at the Minster is to climb the 275 steps to the top of the central tower. The stairs, which turn in a tight spiral, are steep and narrow. I begin to feel tired and dizzy, and use the ancient graffiti carved into the walls as an excuse to stop and catch my breath. In the end, the view of red rooftops in every direction is beautiful (even under increasingly cloudy skies), but I am even more impressed by the humorous “grotesques” that populate the tower’s façade. They remind me of the faces in the Chapter House downstairs and I smile. The Middle Ages were anything but dark.

With my feet back on firm ground, I take a nice slow walk to the Shambles, York’s oldest and most famous street. Once used as a butcher’s market, it’s now lined mainly with souvenir shops. It’s quaint and incredibly narrow, and the overhanging second stories of several half-timber buildings nearly touch in the center. My department chair back home was born and raised in York. Apparently, he was a bit wild in his youth and used to drive his car down the middle of Shambles. Now that I’m here, I don’t know which is harder to imagine, a car careening down this tight little street, or my boss actually doing it. He’s quite a proper English gentleman. Or so I thought!

After a quick turn around Clifford’s Tower, I circle back to the Minster in time for Evensong. The resident choir is on summer holiday, but I feel lucky that a guest choir from Abbey Gate College is here to stand in. Their combined voices are extraordinary! I always enjoy the architecture of cathedrals like this, but tours are no substitute for experiencing the space for the purpose in which it was intended.  

When I return to Bettys for dinner, I find that the line to get in is manageable at last. While reading several books about the Minister I purchased in the gift shop earlier, I feast on a warm spinach and chicken salad and fresh raspberry lemonade, with several delectable petit fours for dessert. The atmosphere is lively, but relaxed, with a pianist playing in the background.

By 10 PM I am so tired that I long to go to bed early, but a moment later I change my mind and wander out into the misting rain. The night air is cool and crisp, and street lights reflect in the puddles that have started to form in between the cobblestones that run down the center of the Shambles. Aside from a stray tourist here and there, the city is empty and quiet, the shops all closed, weekend revelers not yet disgorged from the pubs. By the time I wind my way back to the hotel an hour later, I feel quite at peace in the world.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

It’s still drizzling this morning, but I am up early and ready to go. My nephew and I have been reading the Harry Potter series together for years and today is the release of the seventh and final book. I flip on the TV in my room while I dress and see an interview on the BBC with a child psychologist. She’s giving advice to parents on how they can help their children cope with the darker elements in the book. I wonder what they know about the plot and begin to worry that Harry’s a goner.

The “full English breakfast” must have been invented for mornings like this. The eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomato, and baked beans the hotel serves warm my stomach well. With an umbrella in hand, I walk around the corner to the Borders bookstore in St. Helen’s Square. There’s a large display of Harry Potter books, and blessedly no line in sight. I buy the adult version and glance at the epigraphs before heading back out into the rain. They are ominous. Good lord, she really is going to kill him off.

For now, Harry’s fate at the hands of Voldemort will have to wait. My first stop is the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. It’s a beautiful building with a first-rate audio tour. From there, with the fog lifting and the rain tapering off, I seize my best chance to walk the walls. I start at Micklegate Bar and head clockwise toward the Minster, over Lendal Bridge, past Bootham Bar, ending at Monk Bar. It’s a bit slippery and I wonder about the lack of railings. In the United States, surely, this would have led to some whiny lawsuit by now! But the views are stunning and I come to the realization that this weather suits York well.    

After a warm cup of chai tea at a local café, over which I devour the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I reluctantly head back to the hotel to gather my things. Because it’s so near the station, I stop by the National Railway Museum for an hour or so, but finally set off on a train bound for London.

Onboard I sit by the window in group of four seats. A young man is directly across from me, and a mother and her daughter are in the aisle seats next to us. The young man says he’s going to Boston this fall. I think Boston, Massachusetts. I look up from Harry Potter and tell him that it’s a wonderful city. He’ll have a good time. He says no, it’s a town called Boston in Lincolnshire, but am I from the America? I am. All three chime in. What’s Florida like, they ask? Hot, I say. How about Texas? Even hotter. They think this sounds wonderful, which I suppose makes sense given the dreary weather. They ask why I’ve come to the UK and seem surprised to learn that I did it on purpose. Why would I want to go on holiday here, they ask? I think, why would I want to go to Florida? For the first time, I truly understand what it means to say that the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” I suppose we all just want to be somewhere else for a while.

Back at the Millennium Bailey’s Hotel I run into a problem. My keycard won’t work. I fiddle with it for a few minutes before heading back down to the front desk. The desk clerk is cheerful and kind and follows me upstairs. Afraid of embarrassment, I pray that the door will not open for him. It doesn’t. I stay put while he goes back downstairs for another card. At last the door opens and my eyes are delighted to see that it’s a Club room, a complimentary upgrade for being a repeat customer. My nose, however, is less thrilled with the strong odor of cigarettes. I joke with the desk clerk about the hotel’s non-smoking policy and the fees they impose for non-compliance. I want someone to be billed £200 for this. He offers to call someone to sanitize the room. I’m skeptical because the smell is strong and it will take at least an hour. He says that they can give me another room, but it will have to be a standard double.

I’m already running late. I have to eat dinner and get to the theatre by 7:30. He understands and offers to deliver my luggage to a new room while I’m gone. He’s sorry about the Club room, but I smile and tell him somewhat sheepishly that I will be back in London for one last night on Monday, so perhaps he can upgrade me then. He promises that he will.

For dinner, I decide to go to an Italian restaurant called “Il Posto” near the Victoria Palace Theatre. I have a Caesar salad and spaghetti Bolognese. I snap a picture of my plate, which arouses the curiosity of the owner. I explain that I am keeping a photo diary of my trip, and I’ve come because his restaurant was recommended by various Trip Advisor members. He seems genuinely pleased. He is proud of his food and hands me a business card.

When I arrive at the theatre to see “Billy Elliot” I see that the Theatre Monkey website has once again given me great advice. My seat in Row F is perfect, and so is the show. There is a constantly rotating cast of young Billys. Mine is Travis Yates, a 13-year old from Middleton. I’ve seen the movie, but the musical is absolutely fantastic! I laugh until my sides hurt as the cast sings “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” wearing giant Thatcher heads made of foam rubber, and find a lump in my throat at the end when Billy walks away up the center aisle, suitcase in hand. 

When I get back to the hotel late, I find a smoke free room with my suitcase safely stowed in the corner.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Oh, bloody hell. When I get home I really must commit myself to learning a greater variety of British swear words. What little I know I learned watching “Billy Elliot” last night! More would certainly come in handy. Take this morning, for instance. I’m groggy from my late night at the theatre and the cumulative effect of three days of solid walking, but I am determined to make the 9:07 AM train to Bath. Actually, my original plan was to take the 7:37, but even I know that is sheer folly. I stumble across the street to the Gloucester Road tube stop only to find that the District and Circle line trains are not running, which means trouble if I’m going to get to Paddington Station on time. For a moment, I consider my options. “I could take the Piccadilly line to Green Park and then transfer to…”  But that would take time. I opt for a taxi instead. The driver gets me to the station with time to spare, but I can’t believe what this is costing me. Nearly $25 dollars. 

Once inside the station, I check the departure board and all is well. The train is on time. Engrossed once again in Harry Potter, I look up when I hear the crowd groan a few minutes later. The train has been cancelled. Not late… cancelled. I listen in as angry customers approach the service desk. It’s something about lack of staff. I hang my hopes on the 10:07. When it finally arrives the crowd is even larger and more unruly. I have my rail pass in hand, but no reservation. I count heads, the seats are limited. As soon as the track number is put on the board, people dash madly to the train. I do the same. It feels like a descent into The Lord of the Flies. Panting, I collapse into the first unoccupied seat I find and rejoice for it.  

By noon, I’m in Bath at last and ready to put my troubles behind me. But trouble is not yet ready to let me go. I walk out of the station to face the glories of Bath, to see Georgian architecture at its finest. Instead I see a construction zone. Not just any construction zone. This looks like something out of World War II, the Blitz perhaps. An entire city block has been razed. All that remains is rubble. I check my directions to the hotel: “Exit station walking left along Dorchester Street to end of buildings, go around building…” OK, the building is gone.  “…over bridge, under viaduct, through subway and turn right.” Here is where things go seriously wrong. I head up the hill and look for the comfort of a street sign that says Wells Road, but see nothing. No street signs at all. I stop and ask a group of men standing outside a pub for directions. They point further up the hill and tell me to keep going. By now my legs are burning and I’m grumbling audibly about the “8 minute” walk from the train station advertised on the hotel’s website. Were they carrying luggage when they timed it? I don’t think so. It dawns on me that the men outside the pub are probably laughing by now. They have sent me seriously off course. A kindly woman points me back down the same hill.

After a 30 minute odyssey, I find Oldfields at last. I tell a sympathetic woman manning the front desk of my plight and she says “That’s not good, is it”? It’s another rhetorical question and it reminds me of the businessman on the train to York. I smile for the first time in hours. 

With a bacon, leek and cheese pasty and a bag of chips in my stomach I feel refreshed, my optimism renewed. I sit eating on a park bench by the Bath Abbey watching a changing selection of street performers. When I’m done I buy a ticket for the City Sightseeing bus at the tourist information office and pick up the “Skyline” loop to the Prior Park Landscape Garden.

I stand at a top of the hill looking down into the valley, toward the Palladian bridge and an impossibly perfect herd of cows. I stop to catch my breath, not because of the climb, or even because of the morning’s stress, but because it’s just that beautiful. I follow the path down through the woods until I come to the foot of the valley, circle around the pond and walk slowly to the bridge itself. I stop to read the graffiti carved into the stone pillars and wonder what it was like the day J.D. was here on the 26th of May, 1810. I feel that I am not just miles away from the rest of the world, but centuries as well. In my head, I imagine I am Lizzy Bennet hoping for a chance encounter with the infuriating Mr. Darcy.

Back in Bath, I transfer buses to continue on the main “City Route.” There is live commentary and on the way to the Royal Crescent the tour guide tells us about the wealthy people who made Bath fashionable in the 18th century. As an aside, he improvises a line about Americans and how we are all rich, too, aren’t we? Well, no we’re not. But there’s that rhetorical question again.

As we move on it becomes clear that Bath is justifiably proud of their connection to Jane Austen, but the more I listen to stories about where she lived, the stranger it all seems. By the time we get to the Gravel Walk, where Anne and Captain Wentworth finally declare their love for one another in Persuasion, I remember with irony that Jane disliked Bath a great deal. And so did Queen Victoria, we are told. After a critical reception here in 1819, she did not return to the area again until her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 at which time she instructed the coachmen to draw the curtains on her carriage, lest she see the city again.

Here in the 21st century, the sun is shining and the day is long. Despite the opinion of these two fine women, I find that I like Bath very much indeed.

I end what has become a lovely day with a quick visit to the Fashion Museum, dinner at the Pump Room restaurant, and a late trip to the Roman Baths which by now are illuminated by torch light. I head out of town and back up the hill on tired legs, glad to find the hotel easily this time, even in the dark.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Rain, rain go away. It’s raining in Bath this morning. Pouring down rain. For Britain this is not exactly news. It’s been raining all summer. There is flooding everywhere. But as a tourist I am ensconced in my own little world. It is rude and narcissistic, I know, but the weather is interfering with my plans.

As in York, the full English breakfast I have at Oldfields warms my stomach, but this time there is no avoiding the messiness of the situation. If I walk into Bath for the day I will have to walk back up this bloody hill. I had planned to leave my bag at the train station, but the desk clerk tells me they no longer have left luggage facilities. Would I like to leave my bag at the hotel instead? They could arrange to have a taxi drive it down to the station later. This sounds quite odd to me. My bag riding alone in the backseat of a cab. I decline. But I can’t carry it either. The circumference on my travel umbrella is quite small, and putting the bag on my shoulder means it will immediately soak through. I decide to rest on the laurels of yesterday afternoon and take an early train back to London.

By afternoon I am back, for the third and final time, at the Millennium Bailey’s Hotel. My friend at the front desk has come through for me in spades. I am directed to a palatial Club room on the 3rd floor. It is so large I could do cartwheels down the center. Well, theoretically at least. I have not done a cartwheel since I was twelve. I love upgrades.

I venture out briefly, first to the gift shop at Kensington Palace to pick up a DVD I regretted passing up last year, called “Tales from the Palaces.” My second stop is at Starbucks for a chai frappuccino. It’s raining in London and Harry’s final adventure beckons. Drink in hand, I spend most of the afternoon curled up on the couch in my hotel room reading.

By 5:30 PM, things are getting intense. The Battle for Hogwarts is raging, but it’s time for me to head off to the Lanesborough Hotel for afternoon tea. When I made my reservation weeks ago I was told that the Conservatory would be closed for renovations, but I am delighted to find that it is not. I am escorted to a choice seat facing the center of the room and I anticipate an elegant experience similar to one I enjoyed at the Ritz last year. Alas, it is not. A server delivers a meager looking tea tray with a few tiny pastries and sandwiches. At first, I expect it to be refreshed, but it is never is. The service is not just indifferent, it is almost non-existent. I guess after they won the UK Tea Council’s top prize in 2005, they stopped trying. It’s among the most expensive meals of my trip, but the only truly disappointing one.

I spend my final night in London watching “Les Misérables” at the Queens Theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue. Perhaps it is because of the comparisons I draw to “Wicked” and “Billy Elliot,” or because I am fighting off hunger following that dreadful tea, or maybe it’s because I finish reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows moments before the curtain rises and my mind is reeling, but it is my least favorite of the three. It’s very good, of course. Nothing on the London stage is ever bad. But it does not captivate me in the same way as the others.

On my way out of the theatre I realize that I’ve been in this city off and on for five days and I have still not seen Big Ben. In a light rain I walk to Trafalgar Square and stand for a good long while at the base of Nelson’s column looking down Whitehall. The view satisfies some small part of me and I say goodbye to London.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Today, I am Paris bound!

I am up at the crack of dawn to catch a taxi to Waterloo Station where the Eurostar will carry me to the Gare du Nord. I try to sleep on the train, but it’s hard. There is a gaggle of teenagers in Carriage 3 and while I cannot place where they are from, boisterous behavior knows no language and requires no further understanding. They have clearly come from some bonding event, like summer camp. Before long, they are singing at the top of their lungs. I think again of the businessman I met on the train to York. That line seems to follow me everywhere I go.

After a few disorienting moments at the station, I find a cash machine and the kiosk that offers tourist information. I buy everything that occurs to me, but should have made a list. I get a 6-day Paris Museum Pass and a ticket for the l’Open bus tour. I forget all about the “forfait loisirs” for Versailles from the RATP counter, a critical mistake that will follow me later.

As I contemplate all of the French signs around me, I feel my courage wane. I won’t try the RER just yet. I’ll get a cab to the hotel instead.

I am staying at the Hôtel des Grands Hommes in a “superior” room facing the Panthéon. I booked it months in advance on the hotel’s website at a special summer rate. Seeing it now, I cannot believe my good fortune. It’s stunning! My room is small, but it’s exquisitely decorated with fine furniture, an open beam ceiling, and upholstered walls in a Toile de Jouy fabric. This is a boutique hotel in the truest sense of the word. There is none of the bland and uniform decoration typically found in chain hotels. As I look around, the daze that descended on my brain at the Gare du Nord suddenly lifts and I realize truly that I am in Paris

For the rest of the afternoon I sit on the top deck of the l’Open bus and snap pictures of places I have long known but never seenNotre Dame and the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. I stop at an Orange shop by the Madeleine and buy a French SIM card for my mobile phone. I’m traveling solo and am aching to call home to share this with someone.

I eat dinner at “Le Luxembourg,” a brasserie on the Boulevard St. Michel near the Luxembourg Gardens. By now I feel more relaxed and take my best stab at speaking French, something beyond the obligatory “bonjour” and “merci.” Granted, it’s not much beyond, but the waiter seems to recognize that I mean well.

For dessert, I stop at Dalloyau next door and buy my first pistachio “macaron.” It’s like sheer heaven in cookie form. I wonder if I could make these at home, but I know the answer to that question. Not in a million years would they taste this good.

On the way back to the hotel for the night, I gather up my courage one last time and ask for a Carte Orange at the Luxembourg RER station. I printed out the text months ago. I even downloaded the pronunciation from the AT&T speech lab on the internet. I want to get it right. And, buoyed by my relative success at dinner, I do. But I never thought about what would happen next. The gentleman behind the counter asks me a question. I panic. I don’t understand what he says and do my best to explain, in French, that I do not speak the language well. He becomes frustrated with me and starts saying “finis, finis” over and over again. At first I think he is finished with me, that he has run out of patience and wants me gone, but I gradually realize that he is trying to explain something about the Carte Orange. It’s ending soon. He doesn’t think I should buy it. I want to explain to him that I need it for just one week, but that’s beyond by abilities. I nod appreciatively at him and hope he understands. It must be a difficult job, dealing with tourists all day.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

After yesterday’s whirlwind tour, it seems only right to begin my real exploration of Paris where Paris began, on the Île de la Cité, one of two small islands in the very center of the city. After an easy walk from my hotel, I am standing outside of the Palais de Justice which serves as an inauspicious entrance to Sainte-Chapelle. My museum pass allows me to bypass by the ticket line and head straight for the security checkpoint.

Once inside, I appreciate the lower chapel, but the upper chapel… well, there are hardly words to describe how glorious it is. Compared to York Minster, St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, it feels small and intimate. Here, there are no cross-cutting transcepts, just a single nave in Gothic style. Built in the mid-13th century over a span of six short years, it was intended to house the relics of Christ’s passion, including the “Crown of Thorns,” for which Louis IX paid an exorbitant sum of money to the emperor of Constantinople. It is said that one item alone cost three and a half times more than construction on the chapel itself. Today, the remains of the crown rest in the Notre Dame cathedral, while the fame of Sainte-Chapelle lives on in the quality of its medieval stained glass.

My guidebook tells me that this space was once described as “one of Heaven’s most beautiful rooms,” and in looking around under a painted canopy of cobalt sky and gold stars, I believe it. There is scaffolding in the apse for restoration work, but it does little to distract.

In clockwise direction, the windows illustrate the biblical story from the Book of Genesis through Revelations. I spy the panel in which Cain kills Abel, and a graphic beheading from the Book of Kings with a face rendered in red glass to suggest a profusion of blood. Absorbed by the play of light and color, I feel faith and art and the violence of history merge seamlessly into one.

After leaving Sainte-Chapelle, I walk toward the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and the bronze star embedded into the cobblestones in front. I am standing at “point zéro,” the official center of the city, the place from which all distances are measured. I claim a seat outside at Aux Tour de Notre-Dame, a large café next to the cathedral. I have my first genuine “pain au chocolat” and a glass of orange juice while soaking up my surroundings.

By the time I head into the church, the square in front is bustling with tourists. I am approached by a gypsy who nervously glances about before showing me a note on a slip of paper, written in English. Wary of pickpockets, I move quickly inside.

In The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), Victor Hugo described this church as “a vast symphony in stone,” but one with a sad and difficult history. Tempus edax, homo edacior. Time is a devourer; man, more so. “[I]t is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant,” he wrote, “before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.” During the French Revolution it was converted into a Temple of Reasonmuch of the original stained glass was broken, the interior plundered, the statues beheaded. The popularity of the book was its salvation, inspiring Violet-le-Duc’s extensive restoration of the cathedral in the mid-19th century.

It is an awe-inspiring space, classic in its proportions. There are two long naves lined with small chapels that intersect in a cross, with rose windows at both ends of the transcepts. It was here that the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots was wed to a man to whom she had been promised since the age of five, here that Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint, here that Napoléon Bonaparte seized the crown of France from the Pope’s hands and placed it on his head himself to become emperor. Hugo was right. I look around at the statuary and the stained glass windows, both restored in painstaking detail. “Each face, each stone of the venerable monument, is a page not only of the history of the country, but of the history of science and art as well.”

After a brief walk through the archeological crypt under the cathedral (where nearly all of the commentary is in French) I move on to the Conciergerie. It is the ancient prison where Marie Antoinette and so many others were kept during the Revolution before their execution at the blade of the Guillotine. I read Antonia Fraser’s biography of the much-maligned Queen before coming here and now that I have it makes me sad. So much damage to so many lives.

In the early afternoon, I measure the length of the line to climb to the bell tower of Notre Dame. It’s long, but I decide to take a chance. The day is clear and visibility will be good. I stand there leaning against the wall for an hour and a half, moving mere feet at a time, with long intervals of nothing in between. I had planned to take a 2:30 PM “Paris Walks” tour of the two islands. Should I give up my place in line, or should I skip the walk? I decide to see it through. I have come this far. I am within twenty souls of the entrance when a woman comes out with a handwritten sign. The towers will be closed for the next two hours.

The translation is quickly passed from one tourist to the next like a round of “whisper down the lane” and soon those in line begin to scatter in disgust. Much of the afternoon has been wasted. There is nothing to be done. I think that perhaps I could find the tour group and join them late, but I decide to satisfy my hunger instead.

I order a ham and cheese crêpe from a street vendor next to the cathedral, half way down the Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. There is a steady line, but the man behind the counter is unfazed as he swirls the batter with a small wooden mallet and flips it gently over from one griddle to the other. I linger just to watch him work. He must make a hundred crêpes or more every day, and yet he seems intent on making each his very best. When I finally bite into mine, he asks me how it is in broken English, a genuine smile upon his face. Très bon, I say, and mean it.

By the time I cross the bridge to the Île Saint Louis a few minutes later, my crêpe has vanished into my stomach and I am already thinking about dessert. The legendary ice cream shop La Maison Berthillon is, as usualin one of the sad ironies of Parisian lifeclosed for the summer. But thankfully there are Berthillon signs everywhere in the take-out windows of cafés. I stop by “Le Flore en l’Île” and order a double cone of pistachio and raspberry which I eat while window shopping up and down the island’s quiet streets.

Eventually, I cross over to the Left Bank and browse the stalls that line the Seine, opposite Notre Dame. The “bouquinistes” offer an eclectic mix of second-hand books, antique prints, and modern souvenirs. I’ve seen old photographs of Paris and the view is wonderfully the same. I drop by “Shakespeare & Company,” a bookshop once frequented (albeit in a different location) by American ex-pat writers of the “Lost Generation,” such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Further down I cross over the Pont Neuf and laugh at the odd faces (or “mascarons“) that hang like ornaments on the side. My destination is one of the great museums of the world.

When I arrive at the Louvre through I.M. Pei’s infamous glass pyramid, the “no photography” signs are turned backwards facing the wall. To my surprise and temporary delight, hundreds of people are snapping happily away. In some rooms, so many flash bulbs burst I feel like part of the paparazzi chasing a Hollywood movie star.

I plan to return to the Louvre again later in the week, but suspect that the crowds will be smaller in the evenings and so I decide to hit some highlights now: the “Venus de Milo” and “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” and, of course, Leonardo’s iconographic “Mona Lisa.”

In the Denon wing on a Wednesday night, watching people watch the Mona Lisa is a fascinating study of human behavior. All attention in the room is trained on a single fixed point, the other works of art unnoticed and abandoned. The crowd presses in toward the center, its momentum checked only by a tenuous section of nylon rope. Unable to see above the crowds, people stretch their arms high and I see her image refracted onto the screens of dozens of cell phones and digital cameras. I find that my own self-interest in taking pictures conflicts with a deep understanding of why they banned photography in the Louvre in the first place.

There is subtle pushing and shoving under the watchful eyes of the guards. Parents put their hands on their children’s backs and press them forward. The kids look mortified. In a jumble of various languages, I hear them beg their children to stand still for just one more picture. One more. The kids clearly don’t believe it, and neither do I.

And then there are those who want only to have their picture taken in front of her. They jockey for position and attempt to clear the crowds around them for a clear view. Of them. Some never bother to look at the painting at all. It is as inanimate as the Eiffel Tower. A backdrop which exists only to prove that they were in Paris. 

I think of these distractions and about a song Christine Lavin sings called “Two Americans in Paris“:

We run the length of
one more cavernous hall
a knot of people has gathered
round a certain painting
on that wall
you push me toward the front
of the reverent crowd
yes it’s her, I know that smile
can we leave now?

But you whisper
“Look the Mona Lisa
look at that face”
but I’m thinking
of the waiting cab
and flying back home to the States

You hold me by the arm
say “count to twenty-five
don’t miss this opportunity
it makes me feel alive”
but I’m looking at my watch
I’m telling you we must go
but you can’t release your grip
you shake your head “No”

“Look at the Mona Lisa
stare at that face
I will do the counting for you
just stand here in place”

un
deux trois

quartre cinq six sept
huite neuf dix onze douze treize
quartorze quinze seize dixsept dixhuite dixneuf vingt
vingt-de-un vingt-deux vingt-trois vingt-quartre vingt-cinq

I start to count myself, but it’s hard in this crowd.

Out of nowhere, two little girls in identical green dresses and pale pink shoes squeeze under the rope line. With the guard’s permission, they stand alone in front of the painting and stare. Innocent of the madness around them, one crosses her arms on the wooden railing and rests her chin upon it, as if contemplating the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile. Perhaps they are counting, too.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

This morning I am determined to try again for the bell tower of Notre Dame. It opens at 9:30 AM and I am there a full half hour early. When the gate unlocks I am among the first to climb slowly up the 387 stairs to the top. In the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), Victor Hugo tells the story of the deformed Quasimodo who is deafened by the sound of these bells. It is here, far above the streets of Paris, that he lived his life among the gargoyles. With my own eyes I see the 13-ton bell in the South Tower, known as “Emmanuel,” which survived the pillagers of the French Revolution, and the great stone beasts that ornament the façade. Some are intended simply to ward off evil spirits, while others have the more practical purpose of directing water off the roof into drainpipes. I think again of Hugo and of the melding of fact and fiction, of past and present.

The view of the city in all directions is grand. I spot the neo-Gothic spire of Saint-Chapelle and the ovoid dome of the basilica of Sacré-Coeur high on the hill in Montmartre. To the west, Gustave Eiffel’s iron creation towers over a tangled mass of rooftops, challenged only by Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides and the ancient Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Back down in the square in front of the cathedral I rest for while on a bench and watch a little girl chasing pigeons. She runs toward them, her arms extended, and laughs as they scatter in all directions.

By midday I am heading west along the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay. The St-Michel station on the RER line B is closed for renovations, so I walk instead along the quai. The distance is longer than I had expected and my feet are tired by the time I arrive.

The Orsay derives its name from the old train station it inhabits. Today, it holds one of the finest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world. For this reason, it does not surprise me that the line to get in is coiled tight and far out the door. I slip past it and use my Paris Museum Pass to enter off the Rue de Lille instead. Already on the second day I feel justified in the price that I paid.

My first stop is not the Monets on the top floor, but the museum’s restaurant instead. For lunch I order medallions of pork with tomatoes and gnocchi on the side in a room that is itself a work of art. I sit at a small table facing the Seine under a ceiling framed in gold leaf. There is a mural painted by Gabriel Ferrier in 1900 depicting the “Four Seasons,” from which a dozen crystal chandeliers hang. The food is fine, but somehow the view and the art make everything taste even better.

Before coming on my trip, I listened to the audiobook version of Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris, which is about the birth of the French impressionist movement. In it he contrasts the lives and careers of Edouard Manet and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. In a reversal of their reputations at the time, Manet is well known to us today, while Meissonier’s work lingers in obscurity. With my energy recharged, I am excited to set out and find Manet’s most controversial worksLe Déjeuner sur l’herbe” and “Olympiaand to see Meissonier’s meticulous “Campagne de France” as well.

The first two canvasses are prominent and easy to locate. I listen to the commentary on the museum’s audioguide, and from there I find myself wandering from room to room, pressing numbers into the keypad. After a lazy afternoon spent with Monet, Degas, Cezanne and Renoir, I head out into the sun. I am well down the Boulevard Saint-Germain when I realize I never did see Meissonier. It feels ironic and sad, but it’s too late to go back.

I stop walking to appreciate two literary icons, the Café Flore and Les Deux Magots, before heading inside the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Dark and mysterious, lit almost entirely by candles used for worship, it’s a peaceful retreat from the traffic outside.

I am heading back to the hotel now and find it both convenient and pleasant to cut through the Luxembourg Gardens along the way. I come to the battered old carousel Adam Gopnik writes about in Paris to the Moon, the one where children use wooden batons to catch rings as they spin around on the backs of horses, camels and giraffes.

On this late mid-summer afternoon, the pond in front of the Palace is alive with miniature sail boats, rented from a nearby vendor. Sunbathers recline on lawn chairs next to potted palm trees, and a woman wearing what I can only imagine is a frog costume strides by without a hint of self-consciousness. I trust Ella Fitzgerald when she sings about “April in Paris” and the charm of spring, but the city in July is perfectly wonderful, too.

I pick up a caprese sandwich from “Pomme de Pain” along the Rue Soufflot and relax in my hotel room for a few hours before heading out into the “City of Lights.” This time of year it does not get properly dark in Paris until after 10 PM, an inconvenience that has me bordering on exhaustion. I put up my feet and flip on the TV. Before long I feel rested enough to venture out into the night.

I pick up the Batobus in front of Notre Dame and take it up beyond the islands. It loops around and follows the Right Bank past Hôtel de Ville to the Louvre. I take pictures of the museum with I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid in front, the light leaking gently through the triangular panes of glass. Back on the Batobus, I hop off again at the Eiffel Tower, just in time to capture the light show that sparkles for ten minutes at the top of every hour.

The Batobus has closed for the night. I will have to take the metro back and face the long uphill walk from the Maubert-Mutualité station to the Panthéon. But for now, the view in front of me is all that matters.

 

Friday, July 27, 2007

My first stop of the day is the massive building directly outside my hotel window, the Panthéon. An inscription in gold lettering above the portico reads: “AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE.” To great men, the grateful homeland. This is the burial place of France’s favorite sons, its best loved national heroes—Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexander Dumas, and many others. In 1995, when the great scientist Madame Curie became the first and only woman to be honored here, her remains and those of her husband had to be reinterred from the small town of Sceaux just outside of Paris.

It is a quiet space bathed with natural light from the rotunda, and with the exception of the young couples that congregate outside to kiss and watch the sunset over the Eiffel Tower each night, it seems to go largely unnoticed by tourists.

From there, I walk to another overlooked jewel of the Left Bank, the Musée National du Moyen Age. It is best known for a series of 15th century tapestries called “The Lady and the Unicorn,” but the museum’s collections also include important fragments of Gothic sculpture—the original apostles from the Sainte-Chapelle, and several heads from the statues of Notre Dame that were mutilated during the French Revolution. The latter were discovered thirty years ago in the basement of a Parisian bank and are thought to have been salvaged by an ardent royalist and then forgotten.

It is a pleasant and relaxed morning, far away from the maddening crowds. But things are about to get worse…

I am planning to head to Versailles tomorrow morning and given the closure of the RER line B between St-Michel and Les Invalides, getting there will be cumbersome. It will be easier, I think, to buy a combination rail and admission ticket, known as a “forfait loisirs,” today. Like the Paris Museum Pass, it not only saves money, it saves time by allowing pass holders to cut queues. But despite my best efforts in halting French, this is something I cannot manage to do, and I obsess by travelling from station to station. I am angry with myself for not buying a ticket when I had the chance the day I arrived. More than at any other time since I came to Paris, I feel helpless and lost, deeply aware of the fact that I am alone in a foreign country where I do not speak the language well. The feeling will pass, but for now it consumes me.

I finally end up back at the Gard du Nord, where I meet a sympathetic clerk at the Transilien ticket counter. She speaks excellent English. At last, I have what I need.

In looking at a map I realize that I am not terribly far from the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery. It is not a major item on my itinerary, but with some time to spare before the 2:30 PM “Paris Walks” tour of Montmartre, I decide to take the metro down for a brief look. I choose not a buy a guide at the entrance, so I walk somewhat aimlessly up and down the lanes. I know that an eclectic mix of famous people are buried here—Sarah Bernhardt, Édith Piaf, Frédéric Chopin, Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde—but I don’t know where. I wonder though, if in a country of brilliant minds, they are somehow considered “B list” stars, since they rest here and not at the Panthéon.

I grab two quick crêpes—one savory and one sweet—from a café across the street before heading to the Abbesses metro station to meet up with the tour. Together, we wander the back streets of Montmartre with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. We see the studios where Van Gogh and Renoir painted, learn a bit about Saint Denis and his famous head, and are rudely interrupted by a well-dressed drunk who insists we should know him from the newspaper. We don’t.

Afterwards, I gaze down at the rooftops of Paris from the steps of Sacré-Coeur and circle through the artist’s square, where the paintings are mediocre at best. The sky is grey and when it starts to rain I take shelter in the funicular down to the base of the hill. When I see the carousel in Square Louise Michel, I am reminded of a playful scene in the movie “Amelie,” but I’m awakened from the memory by an insistent man who wants to tie a string bracelet on my wrist. Having read the Trip Advisors forums, I know this scam well. I cross my arms, refuse to make eye contact, and push quickly by. He yells after me, but does not follow.

Back at the hotel, I follow the advice of the desk clerk and go out for Italian food at “Casa Valentino” on the Rue Saint-Jacques, topped off with a delectable combination of crème and caramel ice cream from Amorino on the Rue Soufflot. There are so many places to eat in my neighborhood, and so little time left in which to explore.

I end the night with a surprisingly short elevator ride to the observation deck of the Tour Montparnasse. It’s a tall, nondescript skyscraper that looks awkward and out of place in the Paris skyline, but the view from the top conveniently removes it from sight. From here, all of Paris is at my feet. The night is dark and the glow of the Eiffel Tower, École Militaire, Les Invalides, and the Arc de Triomphe makes the city’s greatest monuments look like stars in some constellation; the “Little Dipper” perhaps, with Notre Dame at the end of its handle.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

I hear the unwelcome sound of rain as I wake this morning. It’s like Bath all over again. I think about the gardens at Versailles and the fountain show known as “Les Grandes Eaux Musicales,” and about the long walk from the palace to the Queen’s Hamlet I so want to see. For a moment, I consider pushing the trip to tomorrow instead, but I would rather not. I’m looking forward to the end of the Tour de France and would hate to have to rush back to the city to see it. Regardless of my hopes and expectations, the weather is what it is. At least I have my ticket in hand, and given how painful it was to obtain, I’m committed to making the most of it.

Because of the closure on the RER B between St-Michael and Les Invalides, I have to take the metro further west to connect to the line. I get off at Javel – André Citroën and finally realize what those dashed lines on the map mean. I have to climb the stairs out of one station, walk a fair distance down the road in the rain, and connect with the RER at another. It is not a promising start to the day.

The ride to Versailles on the double-decker train is short but eventful. A group of musicians comes onboard and passes through the car laughing and singing and playing the accordion. Their gaiety is infectious and I am glad to contribute when they pass the hat around. They have distracted me from watching the weather out the window, so much so that when we arrive at the station near the Château I am surprised to see that the rain has stopped and that sun is breaking through the clouds. Oh, hallelujah!

When I see the ticket line, all of the bitterness I feel about yesterday’s quest evaporates. My pass does exactly what it was intended to do and I slip neatly inside. A woman at the information desk hands me a map, and while I am eager to get to the gardens while the weather is good, the suffocating crowd makes it impossible to do anything but follow en masse through the state apartments. The “Hall of Mirrors,” reopened recently after a multi-year restoration, is beautiful, but it is hard to gauge the full effect of the room while surrounded by tourists on all sides.

When I break out into the gardens at last, it is (quite literally) a breath of fresh air. I am just in time to see the fountains spring to life at 11 AM and stand in awe at the effect, looking down the “Grand Perspective” from the Palace steps. Classical music plays in background and I pick out the familiar strains of Charpentier’s “Te Deum.” Oh, to have been royal in the days of the Sun King

I sit for a while on a park bench, listening to the music and watching people pass by. I chuckle as young women traveling together, regardless of nationality, snap pictures of one another. They are happy and unaffected teenagers enjoying a summer’s day, but once the camera turns on them they adopt their best model’s pose. “The Fountain of Latona” becomes a catwalk, and they pout their lips and cock their shoulders trying to look aloof in these magnificent surroundings.

For lunch, I stop at one of the garden cafés and order an omelet served with French fries. Afterwards, I stroll down to the “Fountain of Apollo” and bear right, away from the canal. I stop first at the Grand Trianon and then at the Petit before winding my way to the Queen’s Hamlet, a quaint little village built for Marie Antoinette.

In my travels, I do not use the word picturesque lightly, or quaint for that matter, but both apply here. In my head, I know this small collection of buildings is the equivalent of today’s Disneyland. Built to amuse the Queen, it is here that she pretended to be a milkmaid while tending to her flock of perfumed sheep. Still, I am utterly captivated by it. I would move in tomorrow if I could, even if they all turned out to be false exteriors like those used on movie sets.

Along with Sainte-Chapelle and the bell tower of Notre Dame, this day in Versailles has been one of the highlights of my trip to Paris. Never would I have imagined after yesterday’s woes and this morning’s rain that things could turn out so very well.

Back home in the Latin Quarter, I cap off the day by treating myself to a classic French dinner at “Le Coupe Chou,” where I feast long and well on marinated sweet peppers, boeuf bourguignon, and crème brûlée.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

This morning I have entered the Empire of Death. I am not trying to be overly dramatic. That’s what the sign at the entrance to the Paris catacombs tells me: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” I feel well warned not just by that exclamation, but by the bilingual note affixed to the door outside. It says: “We inform people suffering from cardiac or respiratory insufficiency of risks related to the visit to the Catacombs. The ossuary tour could make a strong impression on children and people of a nervous disposition.” Rather sure that I don’t qualify under the former conditions, I wonder about the latter. I wasn’t feeling at all jumpy until now!

Far below ground, it is a creepy, but not exactly frightening, place. Miles of disembodied bones line the paths of old stone quarries, neatly arranged into artistic compositions—femurs here, skulls there. It’s hard to believe that I’m looking at the remains of six million Parisians in this subterranean vault, nearly three times more than the number of souls living and breathing in the city proper today.

From here I take the metro to Place Monge for a walk along the Rue Mouffetard, one of the city’s oldest streets. It is late morning by now and the neighborhood markets are bustling with people, despite a light rain. For the first time, I feel as though I have slipped through the invisible barrier separating “tourist” Paris from the “real” Paris. In the square in front of St-Médard church, a crowd has gathered to listen to classic French chansons performed by two men on their accordions. Under a circle of umbrellas, I watch transfixed as a couple in the center dances to the tune of “Le Mer.” In English, it means “Beyond the Sea.” It’s a popular standard in both countries, used in America for the closing credits in Finding Nemo, and as the title song for a movie about Bobby Darin. The dancers are light on their feet, unconscious of the weather. Her skirt swings as she pivots in his arms. I know that when I hear the melody again I will associate it always with this place and this day.

I walk by fruit stands, butchers, and boulangeries, their windows filled to the brim with tempting treats. I devour a dish of oriental rose ice cream from “Gelati d’Alberto,” buy a box of Jeff de Bruges chocolates, and a delicate dragonfly pin in silver with green enamel wings made by a local artisan. Paris has been easy to admire, but hard to know. Here along the Rue Mouffetard, I feel at home.

As the afternoon slips by, I decide to make a return visit to the Louvre, this time to the Richelieu wing to see Napoleon III’s apartments, the Rubens Room, and two of Vermeer’s best known works, “The Astronomer” and “The Lacemaker.” I visit the Musée de l’Orangerie as well to see Monet’s waterlillies, and then settle into the crowd outside to wait for the riders to arrive in the Tour de France.

I am standing just off the Place de la Concorde, but the giant television screens that follow the race do little to tell me when they will arrive here. I listen for the cheers that roll like a wave through the city streets, and watch as the helicopters overhead swing around in my direction. They arrive in a pack and are gone in the blink of an eye.

After the riders disappear down the Quai de Tuileries, I look down at the screen on my digital camera. I have managed to take just one picture and I’m not entirely certain that the blob of yellow color I see is a bicycle. It could just as easily be Sponge Bob Square Pants running underwater at the speed of light. Thank God they’re on a loop! Before the riders return, I set my camera to multiple exposures and bump up the shutter speed.

I know nothing about cycling and never cared to watch the Tour de France on TV before, but being here in person has its own unique excitement. I am not near the finish line on the Champs-Élysées, and when it’s crossed at last, I am not there to see it. Like most in the crowd, my interest is tangential, my attention more on the lively atmosphere than the sport itself. It would be nice, though, if when I sort through my pictures later, I find that I captured the winner in one of the frames.

After a delicious dinner at the “Royal Thai” on Rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques, just around the corner from my hotel, I end the night with a sunset cruise aboard the Vedettes du Pont-Neuf. It’s a beautiful night, and by the time we arrive back at the bridge, there is a full moon rising high over the Île de la Cité.

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.