First things first… how could I forget that Kenny, my tour guide for the walking tour, is also a Marillion fan! He’s originally from Scotland and we’re just chatting away and then I say I’m a fan of This Scottish singer named Fish at which point he starts quoting Marillion at me. Me! He’s quoting Marillion at me! The conversation continues and he’s a writer, MFA from a university in Scotland and has been working on his novel for a few years. Needless to say, I could have a friend for life here.
Something else I’m wondering about… am I not being introspective enough? I mean it seems to me I’m just delivering a travelogue, a running guide to my fun-filled days. Yet there’s a lot of stuff I’m thinking about during these days, about the society and culture I’m wandering through and I don’t know if that’s coming out or not. So anyway, if you want to know more about what I’m thinking, just let me know.
Now, getting back to what happened on Monday… On the tour I met and talked with a number of people. You already met Kenny the guide and Miki the Jew. Then there was Bec the Aussie and Elsie the Token Black Girl. Elsie became my photo buddy on the tour itself. See, one of the problems with travelling alone is that you never end up in any pictures because there’s no one to take them of you unless you ask. Si since Elsie and I were both on our own, we took pictures of each other. Elsie is from Ghana, originally, but has lived in America for over 10 years and was in Berlin for just a week while her father was attending a conference. So during the tour, she complains a bit about wanting to see Paris while she’s over here. Me being me, I jump in with “let’s go!” So she comes out after the tour (all told, there were 9 of us that went out for drinks after the tour) and we continue talking about going to Paris. Since we’re not that far from Berlin Hauptbahnhof (the central train station) we walk over and check the times of the overnight train. It’s an 11 hour trip, leaves at 9:30pm and gets into Gare du Nord in Paris around 8:30am. Then there’s a return train which leaves Paris at 8:45pm the following night. We figure we can go to Paris, spend around 10 hours there, then hightail it back to Berlin. Two nights sleeping on the train and BAM, we’ve seen Paris! So we agree to meet at the train station at 8:45 that night and away we’ll go.
We meet up, buy our tickets, and ask about the return. Our ticket agent recommends waiting until we get to Paris as the return will be less expensive from there. No worries (although this WILL come back to bite us in the ass). We get on the train, in a compartment with six seats and two other people, and we’re on our way. The ride there is uneventful and we hit French soil running (kinda like the invasion of Normandy). Grabbing a quick bite to eat, we also grab maps and make a plan: Notre Dame first, then the Louvre and the Eiffel Tour. Of course, our first hitch comes while we’re in line for Notre Dame when someone in line points out that the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays (for those playing the home game, it’s now Tuesday, June 10th). No problem, we think and enter the cathedral.
It’s stunning. It’s huge and beautiful and still an active church. It’s not as crammed as Westminster Abbey, which is incredible in its own way. Instead, there’s a sparseness which is refreshing. This isn’t to say there’s not a lot to see, there is, but it’s not as in your face as other well known churches I’ve been in. When we were inside, there was a choir group of young girls singing on the altar and the acoustics were spectacular. We wandered around for a while, Elsie, a catholic, took a moment to say a prayer, and then we went outside again. Yes, the inside was cool, but what about the hunchback? What about the gargoyles? What were those people lined up against the side wall for?
To answer the last question first, the people were lined up to pay a fee (the main cathedral is free, with donation boxes EVERYWHERE) to climb the towers. Well, we didn’t come this far to back down now (especially since the Louvre was closed and we had extra time on our hands). So we got into line, started talking to the mother and daughter in front of us and, naturally, the daughter knows Elsie’s sister back in Ohio – the small world principle at work. Eventually, we get to the front of the line and head up. And up. And up some more. There are a lot of stairs here. Daylight finally breaks in and we find ourselves on the balcony, on gargoyle row, I’m impressed by the view, certainly, but then I turn and see the most famous gargoyle in the world – the monkey-thing with his head in his hands. For the first time this trip (and not the last, I’m certain) I’m sorry I don’t have my good camera with me. I did take a few pictures and spent a good number of minutes just staring. Gargoyles are just really cool and these are where they all come from. So that’s the second question answered. As for the first, the Hunchback, he’s actually very important to the history of the cathedral itself. The building had fallen into disrepair and was being used for storage and livestock and it wasn’t until Hugo’s book that people began to take an interest again and the preservation and renovation truly began. In the gift shops in the tower (not the church, mind you) there were a number of Victor Hugo items. They know the debt they owe.
But gargoyle row is not the end of it. Nope… there’s more stairs which lead to the top of the tower where the view is of the whole city. At last we get a really nice view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance and we’re able to plan our afternoon. We look down and see the river Seine and the huge, flat barge boats, bristling with seats, which are showing people the sights. We decide to do that and then hit Mr. Eiffel’s creation itself. Getting to a boat tour was an adventure in itself, involving long walks, crossing bridges and braving tour groups of small children. We do all these things and spend an hour resting on the water, gazing in longing as we lazily cruise past the closed Louvre. That’s okay, we’re fine, we have a plan. Off the boat and off to the tower. When we get there, there are ticket booths at the base of all four legs. Elsie looks at me and says, “we’re taking the stairs.” I attempt to argue, but secretly I know she’s right. Even if I was there myself I would take the stairs. I think that’s part of the joy of it, climbing up the legs to the second observation deck (you can’t climb all the way to the top, but more on that in a minute). So, complaining all the way, I follow Elsie up the stairs. About 150 steps in , I notice the stairs are marked every 10th one. This makes it easy to mark your progress (as can be seen by the following series of pictures).
700 steps later and we’re at the second level. We realized there was a much missed marketing opportunity (and, let’s face it, they didn’t miss much in terms of kitschy souvenirs) in that there were no t-shirts proclaiming “I climbed the Eiffel Tower” or “I made it all the way to 700” something…anything to commemorate the achievement. To get to the top, though, you have to take a second elevator (even those who took an elevator to the 2nd floor) at an extra charge. And the final push? The jump from 2nd floor to roof? Another 1000 steps. We weren’t even half way up the thing! So we paid our money and took the ride. WOW! The view is unbelievable! There’s even a room up at the top where Eiffel used to entertain guests and dignitaries (it’s set up in diorama with Thomas Edison presenting Eiffel with an original phonograph). After we filled our eyes and cameras, it was time to head for the train station and our ride home. It had been a good day in Paris.
But since things can’t run smoothly, our train was sold out. There was nothing we could do to get home so we sucked it up, bought tickets for Wednesday and found a cheap hotel near the train station. Since we had some extra time, though, and we booked our ticket again for the overnight train, we had time to see the Louvre.
We only had two things on our agenda for Wednesday – The Louvre and the Arc d’Triumph. I figured we could do the Louvre until we were “arted” out and then move on. Elsie agreed and away we went.
The Louvre is huge! All told, we were there six hours and didn’t even scratch the surface. I could go back a dozen more times and still not see everything I wanted to see. On this trip, though, we started at random and got halfway through the first room before I broke down and ran back to the front to get the audio tour. All of the descriptions were in French and I needed to know what I was looking at! Now, with audio tours slung around our necks, we chose to go on a “guided” tour of the Italian renaissance, which included the Mona Lisa and several of Michelangelo’s sculptures (as well as a lot of other things, but we figured we’d hit the high points). It should go without saying that the art is amazing. So is the building and the layout and everything else. The Mona Lisa is indeed smaller than I thought and honestly, a bit disappointing. I listened to the commentary so I now know why it’s important, but because it’s SO famous the crowd in front of it was worse than the one outside Michael Jackson’s house awaiting news of the verdict. Also, it’s roped off so you can’t even get close enough to actually look at the painting. Yes, we both got pictures with our heads in the foreground and the smiling lady in the frame, but… eh.
My favorite art was the sculptures. I’ve included a few I really liked, including Winged Victory which is my absolute number one, but not the Venus de Milo (which is pronounced with the short “e” sound) because, somewhere in there, I broke my indestructible camera. I was handing it to Elsie to take a picture of me and it dropped, at which point the screen would no longer work. I made her take pictures of me for the rest of the day so hopefully she’ll email them when she gets home. All in all, we did a lot of walking and climbed up and down many more flights of stairs. At this point, if there was one word to describe Paris, “stairs” would be it.
We had lunch in the museum café, which I’m only mentioning because they had the best tiramisu EVAR! And then left for the Arc d’Triumph. Remember yesterday when I talked about the Brandenburg gate and how important it was and how impressive? Well it ain’t nothing compared to this monstrosity. You cannot fathom its size until you are standing below it. It is 150 meters high, and almost that many wide. If we had had more time, it is possible to climb the inside and get on the roof, but we were exhausted and it was getting close to time for the train. So back to Gare du Nord and again, we were in a 6 person compartment with two other people, one of whom was a photographer named Barbel (I haven’t looked her up yet, but she was really funny). I fell asleep fairly quickly, but was woken up when the train was stopped to throw off a couple of guys who were traveling without tickets and were accused of stealing stuff.
We were back in Berlin by nine in the morning on Thursday and I was ready to begin my day!