1st August – Zurich to Paris
The train trip to Paris lacked the interest of the trip into Zurich and certainly lacked the comfort of the trips to date. The train was a fast one, reaching speeds of up to 320km/hr, but we had 2nd Class seats which were cramped and the carriage was somewhat on the warm side. The train was packed, and there was a lot of changeover of passengers at the regional stations such as Dijon. We were close to one end and the continual flow of people going out to the toilet or wandering through the train meant we kept losing what cool air there was coming from the air conditioner.
The scenery was nothing special, mostly mixed agricultural fields with only the odd small hamlet or chateau to break the monotony. Although the trip was only four hours, flying may have ben a better option this time.
Once in Paris, we chose to walk from Gare de Lyon to the Hotel Jardin de Cluny in the Latin Quarter. On paper, this is not such a bad walk and we figured that since much of it would be along the river, the paths would be wide and smooth. How wrong. We came to regret our decision as the path kept running out, the surface was the most broken and uneven we’d found in Paris and we constantly had to run the gauntlet of suicidal cyclists on the shared cycle ways/footpaths. By the time we were really fed up, it was too late to change our minds.
Eventually, we arrived hot and tired at the hotel, a cute little place called Best Western Le Jardin de Cluny beautifully located just off St Germain Blvde. There are lots of eateries around at a fair price and the even cheaper tourist areas of the latin quarter are a mere 5 minutes away.
We soon settled in to a spot on the street to wash the dust down and criticise everyone who walked past, one of our favourite pastimes. For dinner, we chose to eat at a Chinese place next to the hotel because it was cheap and convenient.
Armed with our list of things that we had missed out on the first time in Paris, we set out to tick off some more “must see” spots. The first stop was to be the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs D’Elysee, the most recognised attraction in Paris after the Eiffel Tower. This should have been very straight forward with the Metro station close by but we found that a stretch of Metro is currently closed for maintenance so we faced a bit more walking than we had bargained on. We ended up walking across the bridges to the other side of the river and catching a Metro at Chatelet up to Charles de Gaulle Etoile, emerging right on the World’s most horrific roundabout.
This is a piece of traffic madness, with no less than twelve avenues converging into one ring. We stood and watched near miss after near miss. I have no idea how people can possible drive and navigate under these conditions.
Right in the middle of the madness stands the glorious Arc de Triomphe, a monument to Napoleon’s victories and built in 1806. Fortunately, a tunnel gives access to the centre of the circle so we didn’t have to scamper across the road. It’s pretty certain we wouldn’t have made it. Close up, the Arch is even more impressive and the list of victories and names of Napolean’s generals reads like a history book. Beneath the Arch, the poignant “Eternal Flame of the Unknown Soldier” burns, remembering those killed on the fields of France in the Great War. While we have seen many Triumphal Arches around Europe, none compares with this, although even this one is actually a copy of the Arch of Titus in Rome.
From the Arc de Triomphe, we walked the length of the Champs D’Elysee to the Place de la Concorde. This wonderful tree lined avenue is a feature in its own right, filled with top shelf shops and fashion stores, and many eating establishments. The crowds were incredible, with tables filled for the lunch time break and tourists out and about in force.We did our bit to help the French economy by have a hot dog from a road-side stall. At least we can say we stopped to eat in the Champs D’Elysee.
From there, we crossed the Seine again to walk to the Museum D’Orsay, home of the art collection of the Impressionists and Post Impressionists. This collection is housed in what was originally built as a railway station but was found too small for modern trains and fell into disuse by 1930. It may not have made the grade as a rail station but it is a very beautiful building in its own right and a superb art gallery. The high arching roof encompasses and enormous floor area, and this was used to good effect for housing a huge collection of sculptures. We wandered through the various galleries, featuring works from Gaugin, Monet, van Gogh, Rembrandt and scores of other famous artists. Just as in the Louvre, priceless works of art are in abundance and just hanging on walls, all within touching distance of the visitors. It is such a vast collection that we found it hard to really do justice to it, especially with exhaustion setting in.
From the Museum, we continued our walk along the river. Twice, we were amused by gypsy women who magically “found” a gold ring on the pavement right in front of our eyes. This neat little scam is one where the girls finds the ring just as you approach and she asks you whether it is yours. Regardless, she offers it to you “for good luck”, then proceeds to offer a sob story about not having eaten for a day or so and needing a similar donation “for good luck”. The ring, of course, is rubbish. We were able to burst out laughing on each occasion and watch them scurry away looking silly. We came across lots more. There was the “blind man” who had got himself trapped between a wall and a guard rail and couldn’t find his way out with his cane. We ignored him, walked past, then I suddenly turned around to catch him looking at us. There was the old crippled lady who could barely stand, the shaking limbs rendering her helpless. She somehow managed to pass us in the space of half a kilometre and re-appear in a new location. The awful thing is, that like prostitution, these people are actually under the control of pimps and minders, the real villains. The fact that they continue to thrive is only because their work is profitable.
For dinner, we hung out in the Latin Quarter streets for a bit then found a nice Italian spot for some incredibly good bruchetta and ravioli.
3rd August Paris
After breakfast, it was down to the Metro to catch a ride across town to the RER, the regional train to Versailles. With our stretch of the Metro closed, we needed a bus for part of the journey, then it was onto the train at Invalides for the half hour trip to Versailles. After extensive searching on the Internet, we decided to actually book a tour of Versailles. Although it is a lot cheaper ($18 each) to just do it yourself, the lines are very long and a tour promises a special entrance and the chance to skip the lines. Some tours are up to 30 people, so we paid more ($60 each) to join a group of no more than 10. It proved to be money well spent. The lines into the palace were a good hundred metres long, if not more, and moving quite slowly due to the exhaustive security scanning on entry.
We met our guide “Aisson” and teamed up with another group of three Aussies from Sydney to begin our tour. After the short walk to the palace itself, we headed to the gardens, enormous formal affairs covering some 800 acres and Louis XIV’s pride and joy. The floral displays were absolutely stunning and the statues and water features on a huge scale but it was the overall grandeur and scope of the grounds that makes the Versailles Gardens so special. Long avenues radiate out from the palace, some containing carefully manicured shrubs and trees while others were more water oriented, such as the Grand Canal that Louis created to ferry guests around to the accompaniment of fireworks displays. During the reigns of Louis XIV and XV, the gardens were the playground of the aristocracy and a showcase of French superiority.
From the gardens we added a couple from Indiana to our little group and entered the palace proper, avoiding the line by using a special booked tours gate. We did have a short wait, but occupied ourselves by admiring the stunning exterior architecture of the palace and the abundance of gold leaf embellishments. The way it presents today is not actually as spectacular as it would have been prior to the French Revolution, when most of the gold and many of the statues of past Kings were removed. Restoration programs run continuously, aiming at replicating what is known of the original building.
Once inside, we began a dazzling tour of chamber after chamber, most featuring incredible artworks on walls and ceilings. Everywhere was crowded but Aisson was quite brilliant at finding space and moving us through the throng with ease. We each had a radio powered earpiece so we could hear her from where ever we were, allowing us to wander around a room a bit and still keep track of her commentary. It was really informative, particularly the insight into life for the royals of the 18th Century and the way in which they tried to manage their official duties and private lives.
Once again, much was destroyed in the Revolution, Louis and Marie Antoinette’s beds being a particular target, but the replicas are said to be very carefully researched copies, faithful to the design and materials of the times. One absolute highlight was the famed Hall of Mirrors, an incredible reception hall filled with crystal chandeliers and mirrors, created in an age when any mirror was a rare and prized object. Incredibly, there are modern sculptures dotted around both inside and out, all created by one woman. While a giant pair of shoes created exclusively with stainless steel pots and pans or a hanging rotating heart formed from a massive collection of plastic cutlery may be all very interesting and enthralling, why anyone would consider placing these works in the Palace of Versailles is totally beyond me. People do some silly things in the name of art.
Eventually, we both reached the stage of being completely overwhelmed with chambers, anti-chambers and state rooms and were very glad that the tour finally finished. Three hours was probably enough, even though we could have opted for a further visit to Marie Antoinette’s farm, a play farm that she set up to entertain her guests with perfumed sheep and manicured vege gardens., or a look around the Prince’s quarters. Acres of gardens remained to explore. Instead, we chose a baguette and a beer at a local boulangerie. Versailles and all its glory is definitely not to be missed. Who knows, we may one day return to explore further.
Our last afternoon in Paris was an exciting one, spent doing the washing at a nearby laundromat. In reality, this meant chucking all the wash in and going down the street to a little pub for a beer. What other way is there? There are quite a few sights left unseen, but we feel we have done fairly well in our two short visits to Paris. Monmartre and Sacre-Couer was missed (not sure why) and neither the climb up the Eiffel Tower, nor seeing it lit up at night ever eventuated. Oh well!
We left the hotel at 8:15am to get to the airport for a 12 o’clock flight, not bad we thought. As it happened, we had a bare 20 minutes of sitting around at the airport before boarding. The wait for trains seemed endless, and the procedures at the airport even worse. The line for our flight was terribly long when we arrived, although we were able to skip through to Business Class. After that, we headed for the lounge, but took so long to find it because it was poked away on the 10th level down several corridors and with a door that poorly marked. After a quick drink, we had to shoot off again, down the lift and start the security thing. It seems like every time we go through a check it gets worse, this time we needed not only laptops out but cameras. Even passports had to go through scanners. The woman wanted me to remove my belt, until I finally convinced her that plastic belts don’t count. Of course, they had lots of scanners around but only one or two actually operated so the whole thing was a nightmare. Then they boarded us at 11:20, which was terrific because the plane finally climbed into the sky at 12:30. This represents a mere 4 hours and 15 minutes from leaving the hotel to lift off. This is why we like train travel.
Farewell Europe! We leave much wiser and much more confident about travelling around this varied and complex continent. In hindsight, we didn’t make too many poor choices along the way although we are now in a much better position to travel here again. Next time, it will be longer stays in fewer locations, with more self catering. We may even learn to drive without messing our undies.