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Christmas in France!
Rating: (5.00) (2 votes)

Paris, France
December 25th, 26th, 27th & 28th, 2004

Pros: So much to see and do
Cons: None

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.

Trivia #1:
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 it.

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 and furniture.

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 by Carpeaux.

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.

Trivia #2:
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 in 1789.

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 demonstrations.

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.

Trivia #3

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 indeed.

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 cabaret performance.

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 the replicas.

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 park.

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.

Au Revoir!