(5.00) (2 votes)
December 25th, 26th,
27th & 28th, 2004
Pros: So much to see and do
Rajiv must have been practicing French in his sleep because when
breakfast service started, he confidently asked the steward for
Café au plait. The French attendant though taken aback at
first, politely enquired if monsier would like a café au
‘lait’ J. The pilots on our United flight were from
Chicago but the flight crew was French. To our great delight, the
weather seemed to be clear as we neared Paris. In fact the sun was
shining right through the port holes as we landed in Charles de
Gaulle Airport at 9.45am.
From the moment we landed, CDG was an airport with a difference.
People from both arrivals and departures appeared to be in the same
area and there were signs only in French. Later we learnt this was
Terminal 1, the old airport. The airport has a circular design and
escalators to different levels crisscross in an open central cylindrical
area. After a very disadvantageous currency exchange ( the USD apparently
had dropped to a new low against the Euro on that very day) we considered
our options for getting to the hotel. Air France ground transportation
turned out to be the answer. The airline runs shuttles to the city
center almost every 15 minutes.
Fast forward to Arc de Triomphe (the Arch of Triumph) and Hotel
Kleber on one of the 12 avenues radiating from it …
The hotel room was nice! It had one of those wrought iron balconies
and wall to wall French doors. We were forewarned about the size
of Paris hotel rooms from reading countless reviews, so the tiny
bed chamber didn’t lead to a big disappointment.
A little French trivia is in order here.
Old French bathrooms are known for interesting plumbing arrangements.
Our hotel bathroom had gone through a modern renovation but still
contained a legacy attachment called the ‘douche’. Strange
or not, we found it a great place for soaking our tired feet after
a long day of walking !
Our preliminary venture on Champs-Elysees Avenue (one of the twelve
and the most famous avenue leading off Arc de Triomphe) left us
shivering. We stopped to read the menu at each brasserie and ate
chocolat crepes and roasted chestnuts (yummy) from sidewalk vendors
but were finally driven back by the cold.
Our evening walk followed the river Seine starting from the twinkling
lights of the Eiffel Tower to historic Notre Dame in the island
called Ile de la Cite. We crossed bridges several times between
the left bank and right banks and enjoyed watching lit up cruise
boats plying the waters.
On the right bank Champs-Elysees lived up to its reputation. It’s
long tree lined avenue was resplendent in lights from the Arc de
Triomphe at one end to the giant Ferris wheel at the other in Place
de la Concorde. Perpendicular to the avenue was the Madeleine church
on one bank and the National Assembly with a matching Greek façade
on the other. A ride on the ferris wheel though a trifle expensive
completed that magical feeling.
That night we got our first sight of Notre Dame cathedral. It stood
tall and proud bathed in the soft glow of moonlight.
Our plan today was to see the Orsay Museum and wander around in
St Germain and Latin Quarter districts (6th and 5th districts respectively).
We spent a good several hours at the museum which is really a grand
converted railway station, and were surprised at how much we enjoyed
The Orsay contains collections devoted to the years between 1848
and 1914 when artists were experimenting with new concepts and ways
of putting paint on canvas. Not only is it an easy museum to see
in its entirety, it is bright and cheerful and the exhitibts are
a diverse collection of arts including sculpture, paintings, architecture
It was a delight to walk through the galleries of impressionist
painters – a virtual treasure of Monet, Manet, Pisarro, Renoir
and Van Gogh and many more. Equally beautiful were the sculptures
Finally with tired feet and rumbling stomachs we ventured into our
first Paris Café. Our 3 course meal included French appertif
wine called Kir, authentic French frites (fries), hardboiled eggs
with mayonnaise, more eggs in an omelette, a poisson (fish) quiche
and café au lait. The French are very unhurried with service
and it provides a wonderful relaxed atmosphere for dinner. In fact,
that is what we loved most about Paris. Whether you order a café
au lait, glass of wine or a five course meal, the table is yours
as long as you desire.
We walked around in St Germain des Prez, entered the church, then
walked around the Luxembourg garden and Pantheon. Being Sunday night,
things were a bit slow. We bought some French bread and cookies
from a grocery store and browsed a bookstore which contained mostly
titles in French of course.
When you are out so long, you’re bound to use the facilities.
So if you’ve been to Paris, you know there are portable toilets
installed on public streets that can be accessed for a few cents.
In fact this modern porta-potty is not an experience easily forgotten
and if you’ve had occasion to use one, you know why! For others,
let me say this - there are no flushes
The first working day after Christmas break, activity started early
in the morning. Delivery trucks, green garbage trucks, workmen,
professionals – everyone was up and about and traffic buzzed
around the circular intersection of Arc de Triomphe.
We headed to the northern district of Montmartre (18th arrondissement)
which was incorporated into the city only in the mid-nineteenth
century and still retains its quiet rural air. At 130m the Butte
Montmartre is also the highest point in Paris and you can get splendid
views from the top of Sacre-Coeur Basilica. It was just lovely to
sit on the steps and take in views of Paris while a break in the
clouds allowed rays of sunshine through. From the basilica we walked
to Place du Tertre also known as artists corner where more than
a hundred artists were sketching portraits and caricatures of tourists
at an astonishing pace.
Our day was also productive in the shopping department. Rajiv didn’t
have time to get a long coat before leaving so when we saw a mens
outerwear shop, we decided to check it out. The lady spoke little
English but was friendly and helped him with different models of
jackets and coats. We settled on one and it turned out to have a
20% discount. From the charming narrow streets and steps of Montmartre
we went to the busy Boulevard Haussman in the heart of Paris’s
Grand Boulevards. This was undoubtedly more like the Paris I had
imagined with wide avenues, dazzling department stores with fascinating
Christmas window displays and the magnificent Opera house in marble
and gold. It had been commissioned by Napolean III but hist empire
had crumbled by the time it was finished. The Opera house is now
simply known as Opera Garnier for the name of the young architect
Charles Garnier who built it in 1875. The previous day, at the Orsay
museum we had seen a true to life cross-sectional model of the opera
building including its complicated machinery for changing backdrops.
Orsay also a street model of the avenues especially redesigned by
Baron Haussman (Napolean's deputy) to showcase the Opera House.
If was impressive to see the real thing. In front of the entrance
is a replica of Carpeaux’s ‘La Dance’ that caused
such a stir when it was first revealed because of its boldness.
The original of this sculpture is also housed in the Orsay museum.
Nearby is Paris’s main visitor center where we also caught
a film about Paris – the Paris story narrated by Victor Hugo
which related 2000 years of the city’s history.
From glamorous Paris it was off to party–time Paris at La
Bastille. The Place de la Bastille is one of the centres of Parisian
nightlife with the new modern Opera house and lively streets that
branch off it. The Bastille originally built as a fortress in the
14th century with eight towers and surrounded by moats, was rarely
used for its original military purpose. It was mostly used as a
prison for VIPs who could pay for their luxuries. It is said that
Marquis de Sade had bread delivered and Voltaire thought that the
food was excellent. The place de la Bastille evokes one of the best
known events in French history : the storming of the Bastille prison
Today there is a column to commemorate the victims of the 1830 uprising
(not the surrender of 1789) and is a popular point for large national
Later that night after a brief rest in our hotel room we went back
to the Madeliene area for dinner and walked the entire length of
Champs-Elysees avenue with its galleries and boutiques, cafes and
cinemas – always a special feeling.
Even the French prefer ‘Friends’ in English. The NBC
sitcom has been dubbed in French but one of the reception staff
at our hotel revealed that he likes it better in English
woke up this morning, peeked out and saw that it was raining. The
thought of walking in cold and rainy Paris was not inspiring. Promptly
back to sleep I was awake only 30 minutes later. This time I summoned
all my ‘tourist’ discipline and got dressed. I was really
missing the customary coffee maker provided in US hotel rooms which
I might add, I had frequently dismissed as being insufficient. By
the time we walked out, the sky had cleared considerably and we
could see blue in patches. We set course for the river Seine via
Avenue Marceau and decided to swing by the Eiffel Tower. Eiffel
Tower during the day was quite different from the night. I could
not help but wonder what Mr. Gustave’s inspiration for this
complicated metal structure was.
As we continued to walk it seemed like we had taken a wrong turn
somewhere. Looking around for a café, we noticed a hair salon
– Lucie St. Clair. Satarupa wanted a haircut so we walked
in. After looking at the prices my lovely wife needed a little moral
support. Add to that the fact that the two hair dressers spoke no
English whatsoever. After some convincing she bravely decided to
put her hair at risk. This was one experience in Paris where we
were reduced to a game of charades in order to communicate. Pretty
soon the two hairdressers started scoring by using my hair to indicate
short and thin and we settled on the amount of trim for a ‘short-but-not-that-short’
trim. The rest of the dialogue was equally engaging. We greeted
them, enquired whether they were owners of the business, and told
them we were visiting from San Francisco. They told us their names
and where they were from. All in all it was a high scoring game
of charades enthusiastically played by both teams.
After this we headed straight to Sainte-Chapelle. In no time we
had reached the church via Paris’s excellent Metro system,
had a ‘kebab-pita’ from a street corner store and were
standing in line in the snaking queue waiting to enter St. Chapelle.
This chapel is on the same island as Notre Dame Cathedral where
Paris was first established and the center of power was. Indeed,
even today it is the symbolic center of Paris and all distances
in France are measured from Notre Dame as kilometer zero.
Some history might be helpful here.
Paris was settled in around 300 BC by a Celtic tribe, the Parisii,
and the town that grew up was known as Lutetia. In 52 BC, it was
overrun by Julius Ceasar’s troops. The Counts of Paris became
kings of France around 987AD. The Frankish kings transformed the
old Gallo-Roman fortress into a splendid palace of which the Sainte
Chapelle and the Conciergerie prison survive today. At the other
end of the island they erected their most famous monument, the great
cathedral of Notre Dame.
While Satarupa watched the movement of clouds impeding the sunlight
that was our only hope of seeing the much acclaimed stained glass
panels, I took in the huge iron gates of the Palace of Justice and
wondered what the chances were that a common man’s woes would
reach the king who governed from within. Later we learnt that the
kings were frightened away to the greater security of the Louvre
palace after Marcel’s bloody revolt in 1358.
When we finally made it inside, I beheld what will remain one of
the most beautiful sights I shall remember from Paris. The exquisite
stained glass windows in the upper chapel is a truly dazzling sight
. The chapel is considered one of the finest achievements of French
high Gothic and was built to house the holy relics of the Passion:
a small piece of the cross and Christ’s crown of thorns which
are said to have cost Louis IX (Saint-Louis) a fortune to buy from
the Byzantine emperors. Both are housed today in Notre Dame cathedral.
It takes a while to capture the visual beauty of the interior. Each
of the panels depicts stories from the Bible, starting with the
Genesis. Then there is the ceiling that seems to be miraculously
supported by a diamond shaped structure attached to thin pillars:
this is known as the flying buttress. The pulpit faces the rose
window which is the focal point of the church. Depicted in the rose
window’s stained glass is the story of the Apocalypse.
I must mention though that the panels could do with a good bit of
cleaning because the dirt is quite obvious when the sun is not cooperating.
However as we stood there, the sunlight drifted through and lit
up each panel till finally the whole chapel was gently illuminated
with a glow. All the reviews from tripadvisor.com about visiting
on a cloudy versus sunny day suddenly made sense. I can only imagine
what it must be like on a sunny summer day. We watched for a while
as the sun and clouds continued their dance and felt very lucky
Walking back towards Notre Dame, we again admired its visible Western
façade. According to our guide book, events this cathedral
had borne witness to included – Saint-Louis wearing the crown
of thorns (1239), Napolean’s coronation (1804), the commemoration
ceremony of General Charles de Gaulle (1970) and the celebration
of the liberation of Paris (1944). It was begun in 1160 under Bishop
de Sully and completed around 1345, and produced six popes in the
heyday of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
In the other half of the day we took in sights of Paris from the
open top deck of the Paris visitor bus tour. It was well worth braving
the cold to get the elevated 360 degree view, not to mention that
our aching feet resoundingly thanked us.
The first circuit toured Eastern Paris along the banks of the Seine
to Place de la Bastille (the English audio commentary pointed out
tidbits like where the outer walls of the Bastille used to extend
to), across the bridge to the new National Library with its four
towers made to resemble open books (modern French architecture is
as ambitious and dramatic as the eras gone by) and back to Notre
Dame. The second circuit toured the Southern district of Montparnasse
(14th arrondissement). This was the place for bohemians and left
leaning intellectuals and artists. The bus took us into areas where
the intelligentsia gathered in cafes and had lively discussions
- among them Baudelaire, Hemingway and Sartre. Montparnasse also
enjoyed the patronage of artists who moved out of the Montmartre
area in the 1920s. Some of the cafes like La Coupola which Picasso
and Monet frequented still exist. This I think captures the experience
of Paris beautifully. Each neighbourhood tells a story and is witness
to historic events that we have read in books. And best of all it
has been preserved very close to its origins instead of being modernized
into cookie cutter apartments and buildings. Not to leave out the
scientists, we saw areas where Lagrange and Lavoisier lived, as
well as the street where the famous revolutionary Dante lived.
The third circuit tooks us through central and western Paris (4th,
8th and 16th arrondissements) and we got off near our hotel at the
Arc de Triomphe – also the tomb of the unknown soldier.
Though it might seem like a very tourist like thing to do, the open
tour was a very useful way to get oriented with the districts and
offered the ability to hop on and off at any point of interest and
do your own walking tour.
It was 6.30pm and time to get ready for dinner at La Fermette Marbeauf
(the sign outside said they had been open since1900) with Naren
and Ambica. Coincidentally our trips to Paris were at the same time
and we enjoyed being able to have dinner with friends from the bay
area. That day we didn’t just eat dinner – we dined
in true French style. Post dinner we set off for the Lido theatre
on Champs-Elysees avenue and were treated to a spectacular yet intimate
We finally tackled the Louvre on our last day. Sufficiently intimidated
by its vastness and horror stories of interminable queues we had
put it off too long. Having bought tickets earlier at the FNAC music
store (equivalent to Borders in America), the queue time should
have been much shorter. But communicating with the French was not
to be our strong point today. With 2 tickets in hand Satarupa went
to enquire if we were in the correct line and was immediately directed
to the other queue near the pyramid. We wasted no time in rushing
there only to be sent back to the original one which had of course
tripled by this time. This was one of those times we felt frustrated
at the lack of clear signs and English speaking staff at what is
probably the world’s most famous art museum. Once inside though,
the beauty of the museum is quite obvious. Once the palace of French
royalty, it is fittingly adorned with world famous art pieces today.
Since there are volumes written about the Louvre I shall not spend
much time describing it except that we visited some floors of the
Denon and Richelieu wings. We saw the museum’s largest painting
– the wedding feast at Canna by Paolo Caliari (a.k.a. Veronese,
1562) in which Jesus turns water into wine. It covers the entire
wall at 9.9m by 6.6m. It was remarkable how much symbolism went
into paintings as an interpretation or moral comment or criticism
of the times. In this picture for example, the two dogs in the center
of the picture symbolized the bond between husband and wife.
We also wondered what made certain paintings world famous while
others didn’t make the cut though they looked equally good
to us. There was a special exhibition of Napolean at the time where
we saw another huge and detailed painting – that of Napolean’s
coronation by David (1808). In fact, it is said that this picture
is so true to life as well as being at eye level that Napolean first
reaction was that it was too real and not a painting.
Of course we saw the famous Mona Lisa by Da Vinci which through
a curious circumstance of events has become the world’s most
popular painting. In the limited time we were given to appreciate
it, I noticed the smile, the eyebrows – or lack thereof and
the the background which struck me as bluer than I remembered in
Satarupa’s favorites were Liberty leading the People by Delacroix
(1830), Michelangelo’s sculpture of the dying angel and our
joint favorite - the original stone depicting the code of Hammurabi.
We knews that a visit to the Louvre could take days and definitely
an entire day. Instead we had reserved a boat cruise on the canal
St-Martin to enjoy Paris outdoors. The Canal St-Martin is a network
of waterways to enable boats to cross Paris by cutting across one
of the loops of the Seine. It links Paris-Arsenal port near Place
de la Bastille to the La Villette canal basin near Parc de la Villette.
Nine locks enable barges and in particular cruise boats to navigate
up the canal. Along the sides you can see walkers and tourists,
small café-restaurants, children and cyclists and a quiet
picturesque view of the people’s Paris.
This was the most relaxing and personalized tour we experienced
in Paris. Elizabeth, our guide spoke animatedly in both English
and French to her small audience of tourists pointing out sights
and trivia. She showed us where the Mona Lisa lay hidden during
1911-13 when it was stolen by an Italian carpenter who wanted to
return it to Italy. Navigating the canal itself was a novel experience.
At each lock the boat is locked between double gates while the water
level is raised to that of the next stage of the canal. The highpoint
of the journey was the tunnel under Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. Round
beams of light are cast down through the ventilation holes while
the boat travels undercover for almost a kilometer.
Equally charming were the different types of bridges that opened
to let the boat pass through – a 19th century turn bridge
that swung open, a more modern hydraulic bridge that lifted up.
In this unhurried fashion we made our way to Parc de la Villette
which houses a science city in the midst of its 28 hectares of urban
In true tradition of save the best for the last, that night, we
finally took a ride to the top of the Eiffel tower. When it was
built in 1889 it aroused fierce condemnation – hollow candlestick
was how it was described. Today it has become one of the best known
monuments in the world. The closer you get the more surprised you
are at how unfamiliar this familiar structure looks. The views were
gorgeous and there was the added bonus and joy of being able to
identify buildings and places we had visited.
The next day we got up early to walk down again to the Seine to
see the Eiffel Tower in the early hours of the morning. At this
hour you can also see the bakeries opening and the cafes getting
ready for the day – setting out chairs and unloading from
delivery trucks. With the taste of fresh café and French
croissant in our memories we left for Charles de Gaulle airport.
Such was our experience of Paris between December 25 and 29, 2004.
We'll be back someday to see Paris in summer.