Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Au Paris!

After a two-hour-and-15-minute train ride, it took me a minute to catch my bearings as I stepped onto the platform. I was in Paris! The Eurostar high-speed train makes the 214-mile trip an easy jaunt from London, through the "Chunnel" (which only takes about 20 minutes) and across the French countryside.

My friends and I had all eaten sandwiches on the train, but by the time we checked into our hotel around 10 o'clock we were in desperate need of a little refreshment. We found a cafe down the street with tall glass doors lining the front, outdoor tables and French food. We scrolled the menu for something to snack on. But, neither the frog legs or croque monsieur sandwiches struck our stomachs. We ordered wine and asked the waiter for a baguette, but he said they ran out of bread for the night. We toasted our drinks and hoped the next day would promise a more appetizing spread. So, when the waiter came out of the kitchen carrying a heaping plate of French Fries, we looked at each other wondering how we had missed the familiar fare on the menu. Much to our surprise, he set the piping hot plate down in the middle of our table. "From me," he said. I suddenly found a warm affection for French cuisine.

The Paris weekend was not just vacation, but a study trip for my architecture class. First thing Friday morning, we saw the "Grande Arche" (the 1982 version of the "Arc de Triumph" -- a square arch big enough to fit Notre Dame underneath). We toured the Villa Savoye, a weekend home designed by French architect Le Corbusier. Don't let the 1920s date deceive, the geometric lines and flat roof of this second home looks contemporary even by today's standards. Walk in the front door and a ramp leads up to the second floor. From modern to decadent, we continued on to the Palace of Versailles (arguably the most opulent in all Europe). Visitors get a flavor of what's inside as soon as they pull up to the gate; it's all gold. The Hall of Mirrors alone boasted over a dozen crystal chandeliers and the pristine formal gardens stretched in all directions around the palace. We finished our day's tour at an architecture museum just across the river from the Eiffel Tower.

After dinner that night, one of my friends suggested climbing to the top of Montmarte Hill to the basilica, Sacre Coeur (because everything worth seeing is always on top of a hill). As soon as we climbed the last set of stairs to the top, we knew exactly why she wanted to come up. Sitting on the steps of the Byzantine-style church offered a spectacular view of Paris, the lights of the buildings and Eiffel Tower flickered across the jet black sky. Though I expected to be nearly alone in front of the church at 10:30 on a Friday night, I was quite wrong. Bring snacks, bring a bottle of vodka and bring your friends -- half of Paris was enjoying our view. We found a convenience store and a bottle of wine, and soaked in the Parisian night. And on our way down the hill, we happened upon an outdoor cafe, a waiter named Niccolo and some delicious chocolate crepes.

The next morning, we jammed the morning with Paris sights. We walked the Latin Quarter, saw Sorbonne University, poppped into Notre Dame, crossed the River Seine and finished at the Louvre. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the art haven. We saw sculpture by Michelangelo, the arm-less "Aphrodite" from the 2nd century and Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." The famous lady will never disappoint viewers, but a rope keeping visitors three yards from the painting and protective glass left me feeling that I could have more closely examined the painting from a book than in my 60 seconds in front of the masterpiece. I found the profile view of the Mona Lisa most interesting -- a scene of outstretched limbs waving cameras toward the wall. Another highlight of the museum was seeing the remnants of a medieval castle which were discovered underneath the museum when the recent subterranean renovation occurred. Visitors can walk along the old castle walls which mark the size and shape the mammoth structure had been.

That evening we saved the Eiffel Tower for after dark. After waiting in line about 20 minutes for a ticket, we got on the double-decker elevator to the first floor. We walked around the observation deck and took in the spectacular view of the city. Then, up we went again. A second elevator takes the fearless all the way up to the top of the spire. It's a little like being at the top of the Sears Tower, but instead of more than a hundred floors of offices between you and the ground, there's only a few steel criss-crosses. Just don't think about it... There's also an incredible view of Paris -- my favorite was looking up the River Seine.

By the time we reached street-level, waited around for the light show at 10 o'clock, caught the metro to the Latin Quarter where we had planned dinner and found a restaurant, we finally faced food at midnight. Baguettes and Dijon never tasted so good -- the waiter refilled our bread basket three times before the end of the meal. Along with my carbs, I ordered one of my French favorites: French onion soup (just "onion soup" in Paris).

Before catching the train home Sunday afternoon, we made a few quick stops. We saw the famous cemetery, Pere-Lachaise (resting place of notables from Oscar Wilde to Frederic Chopin to Jim Morrison). We walked the perimeter of the Centre Pompidou (the Parisian arts center built inside out). And, we took a stroll through one of Paris's more inviting parks in which we encountered half the city either jogging or taking yoga classes in the mid-morning sun.

Au Paris...a city of lights, a city of art and a city of renowned baguettes.

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