Staying up as long as possible, pushing yourself past the point of exhaustion, and only succumbing to sleep when it’s bedtime locally, rewards the international traveler with a great night’s sleep and a fresh, clear-eyed approach to the following day.
Paris was awake, it was Saturday and we had a full day to spend in the city. But first we had some chores to attend to – coffee and croissant. Having accomplished this we checked out of our hotel and moved our luggage to the luggage lockers at the Austerlitz train station. Our night train to the south was to depart at 10pm. By 10am we had our bags stowed and our only appointment was with the Eiffel Tower at 3pm.
Appointment with the tower? When I was a kid, we lived in Europe and one spring holiday we went to Paris. While there we visited the Eiffel Tower. Back then, 1983, you could either pay to take the elevator or walk up. My Dad and I walked to the top. It was a long walk and I remember when cresting the last flight of stairs there was a woman just in front of me at the top, whom had walked the entire distance in stiletto heels. Today, you have to buy tickets and if you want to access the second or third level you have to take the elevator. Tickets are for entry, sold at half hour increments, and sold for which level you wish to access. A little pre-trip planning at the Tour Eiffel website allowed me to purchase and print the tickets at the time and date I wanted. This was a great tip, from a friend who had visited Paris recently, and it saved us from standing in an enormous line.
But it was only 10am and we didn’t need to be at the tower until 3pm. The entire city lay before us like a giant cultural amusement park. Art, architecture, history, food. What fascinating fact will our morning bring? We chose to go to the Catacombs – supposedly 6,000,000 Parisians are interred there and for a fee, tourists could visit the ossuary. When we got to the spot, a small green door next to a round-about, we saw the line, hundreds of people and they weren’t all tourists. Parisians were out enjoying the cultural sights of their city too. I did a rough count of the people in line and came up with around 250. A sign at the door said no more than 200 people could be in the tombs at once. So I thought that they’d let 200 in, run a tour and then let another 200 in. But in actuality they let 200 in and then when some exit, (it could be 5 or 50) another sum can go in. Our line was moving, but ever so slowly, and it could have been moving because people who were tired of waiting were leaving. After about two hours we also abandoned the idea of seeing Paris’s dead and I’m sure the people at the end of the line thought, “Yea! We’ll get to go inside soon!”
The metro took us over to the tower. We had some time until our lift to the top so we went to another suggested eatery, the Sancerre restaurant (supposedly the best omelets in Paris). I can’t speak for the omelets, I had melon and ham, it was the plat du jour, but the Sauvignon Blanc (which is what they specialize in in the Loire valley region known as Sancerre) served up at this restaurant was very good – if you go, take it by the glass as the locals do. While we were here a family of four came in for a meal: parents, son and a little dog. They took a corner table and ordered champagne and omelets, their dog sat patiently under the table. This was nice to see, nobody was hung up about a dog in a restaurant and its owners were drinking champagne, not because they were celebrating but because, I imagine, it was a perfect pairing with their omelets.
After lunch we set out to find the tower. We found it looming over the neighborhood. Seeing it like this was stupendous. It’s much bigger than in your imagination. The tower was built for the 1889 World’s Fair, by Gustave Eiffel and is one of the most recognizable structures in the world. It is 1063 feet tall (about the size of an 81 story building), is painted every 7 seven years by a team of 25 painters using 60 tons of paint and taking 18 months to accomplish the task. It is painted a shade of bronze. The tower is held together by 25 million rivets and took just over 2 years to build. I was told that the view from the second floor was as good as the view from the top but that wasn’t true. The view from the top was magic. And this is a great place to orient oneself in the city.
The lines to enter the tower were long, the ride up the elevator was very crowded, the line from the second floor to the elevator to the top was long, the ride to the top was crowded, the line to the elevator to ride down was long, the ride down from the top was crowded and the walk down from the first floor was 300 steps but none of that mattered. Visiting the Eiffel Tower is magic. If you have just one opportunity to see something in Paris, then visiting the tower is a great choice.
From the tower we could see where we needed to go to get back to the train station and since we had all evening we decided to walk through the neighborhoods to try and get a feeling for Parisian life. This is one of my favorite things to do – walk through a city. You never know what you’ll find. We found Le chocolat par Michel Chaudun. His shop grabbed us like a magnet. Crossing the street we peered into the window aghast at the sculptures of chocolate. Entering the shop was like entering a magical wonderland of sweets. Everywhere we looked was chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, and we needed fortification. With a couple truffles, a pack of chocolate planks and a small matchbook sized box of his famous Paves de la rue de l’Universite we headed back out into the city feeling like we just robbed a bank. It was torture – trying not to gobble down my truffle, but I knew the city had a spot for me to eat and enjoy this treat, I just had to find it. Within minutes we were at the little park. Our feet were tired, we needed a rest, and this is what I was waiting for. Eating a truffle from one of the best chocolatiers in the world while sitting on a park bench in the heart of Paris on a lovely September afternoon, with my best friends Sara, Kris and Carolyn was perfect as the Eiffel Tower – this is why I like to travel.
We wandered through the city making our way back toward the river and Notre Dame and as we went we collected food from this shop and that. Sandwiches, as only the french can make (baguettes with roasted vegetables, unpronounceable cheeses, sliced meats, olive oil and herbs), Lebanese shawarma and falafel, a bottle of good but inexpensive Bordeaux, and some fresh fruit. All this for our anticipated last dinner in Paris.
Taking a cue from the Parisians, we set ourselves up on the banks of the Seine, with a nice view of the cathedral at sunset. We opened our wine which we drank like barbarians (sharing and drinking straight from the bottle – I’d remembered the cork screw but forgot the glasses) and enjoyed our collected foods in an impromptu dinner picnic. Nothing could have been finer. It was Parisian perfection.
Next up – A first class night train trip to Narbonne and the Canals of Southern France.