France – Paris

On the Saturday morning we had to check out by 6.30am and get ourselves through to the Victoria Coach Station for our 8am bus to Paris. Saturday morning traffic wasn’t heavy so we made good time getting across London and before too long we were on the highway heading towards the English coast. We had assumed we were going to be crossing the channel on a ferry but as we needed the coast we discovered we would be crossing to France via the Chunnel or Eurotunnel – a bonus as we thought we would only have been able to do so if we had taken the high speed train. As we neared Dover and the Chunnel entrance, we had to clear a couple of customs checks – UK to let us out and French to let us in. This process ended up being a bit more drawn out as our bus-line (Eurolines) had been sloppy with the paperwork and so the UK customs made us drag all bags off and go through a full screen – with a stern message to the driver that his bus-line needed to tidy it’s act up. Once we cleared the customs process the bus was driven onto one of the Chunnel transport wagons – cars and buses all butt up to one another in the wagon. We were told to stay in the bus – if you needed the toilets you were allowed out to use the one at the front of our wagon, otherwise we just stayed seated. As it turns out the 25-mile trip (the longest underwater tunnel in the world) took us about 50 mins from start to finish – getting onto and off the wagon – so a fast process. No, you don’t get to see anything on the trip – there were windows on the wagon but once you enter the Chunnel tunnel its dark and that’s that. I picked up some facts and figures on the Eurotunnel, so if anyone wants all the detail, just message me as I’ll be happy to share the facts – but will finish by noting that the Eurotunnel is considered one of the 7 wonders of the modern world.

Before we knew it, we were disembarking in Calais and heading straight up the road towards Paris – a trip of around 260 km’s – and we were back to driving on the wrong side of the road – like the US. Crossing into France we jumped forward another hour so it was now early afternoon. The run to Paris took the better part of 3 hours as the bus had to drop passengers off at Charles de Gaulle Airport around 25 k’s out of Paris. Our trip through to Paris was quite a change from the English countryside – the A1 (pretty sure that was the main road) was all countryside – farmland with smaller villages off to the sides here and there – nice to see. We arrived at the bus terminal in Paris around 4pm and braved a couple of Paris Undergrounds to get ourselves in to the very busy Gare du Nord Station – huge and crazy busy late on a Saturday afternoon. Getting ourselves out of the station was one thing – reaching outside you are then hit by the French past time of smoking – there were smokers everywhere, and loads of guys hustling cigarettes as you walk along. We managed to find our hotel – Hotel Paris Nord just down from the station, and got ourselves checked in. We braved the conditions and headed out for a bit of a walk up the road – thinking a bite to eat was in order. That was my next surprise – how expensive Paris seems. Don’t get me wrong, London was expensive as well, but here in France we were back to using Euro and food and drink seemed very expensive to me. We had some Chinese that you paid for by the 100 gm’s – didn’t look like much on the tray but was 20 Euro which when we equate it back to NZ would have been $35 or so. To make matters worse, we headed back to the hotel thinking we would have a cuppa and call it a day but no, the hotel didn’t have or offer any facilities for us to do so, so we had to trot back over to the station and get a take away – with Starbucks charging 4.50 Euro for a cup – first place we went into was charging 5.50 Euro a cup – what’s going on. Finally found a place doing tea for 3.20 Euro and that place became our go too for the week ahead – bit frustrating though.

On Sunday, the Paris weather packed in and greeted us to cold and rain. We rugged us and hiked into the centre of town in order to see some bits along the way and to find the Tourist Office so we could book a couple of excursions. We found a café along the way and got some breakfast for 16 Euros – crusty toast and a cuppa but it was warm so not complaining. We got to the Tourist Office and agreed upon a Paris Excursion package that offered us train / bus travel for 2 days, Museum Pass for 48 hours, River Cruise, Skip the Line entry to Versailles and one of the local Hop On Off buses. In hind sight I’m not sure we managed to get true ‘bang for buck’ from our investment, as we weren’t in a position to utilise the Museum Pass to it’s potential, but this package still gave us options. With our plan in hand, we walked up passed the Louvre and got ourselves a train to the north side of Paris so we could head to the National Air and Space Museum. Being unaware of how the train system ran and the zones that apply, we took the cheap option thinking we would be okay – wrong move. We got off the train up in Le Bourget and headed for the gates only to find our tickets wouldn’t let us out.

Emm, obvious thing to do would be to get into the train office and buy another ticket but you needed a ticket to get into the station so we were somewhat stranded. We tried asking a couple of people with our pigeon English but to no avail. We were getting a bit frustrated with the situation and thinking we would just head back to Paris and call it quits when one of the ticket gates just sprang open and stayed open so we made a beeline out of there. Rest assured, we purchased new tickets to get back into Paris when we came back to the station – can’t rely on gates being faulty to get in and out but that said we did see people jumping gates and tail gating to get onto the trains without paying. Right, once we were out of the station we put our heads down and hiked up the road to the museum – bit further than I’d imagined and needless to say, we got our step count up for the day. We finally made it to the museum and headed in – museum is free to look around so should have been all straight forward – no. For some reason we found ourselves in a que of maybe 100 people going nowhere quickly – yes the museum is free, but it has a number of excursions that you have to pay for (like going onboard the Concorde) and there was only one ticket person working so it took us a very frustrating 50 mins or more to finally get the map and be allowed to enter. Carol will vouch for how frustrating I found that situation – we were missing valuable viewing time.

We finally got in to have a look around and yes, it was worth the wait – I managed to view some aircraft I hadn’t seen before with a couple of special bonus planes thrown in for good measure so I was happy. The museum is broken down by theatres similar to a number of other museums – older through to more modern, with this museum focusing almost solely on French built aircraft and rockets. There are theatres and hangars to take in and also a good static display area outside around the hangars storing the collection. The weather wasn’t flash but it wasn’t going to deter us from taking in what was here to be seen. As you would expect, a load of pictures were taken to remember this sight. With the museum due to close we made the hike back up the road to catch the train back to Paris – feet were tired after all the walking we have achieved today. A bite to eat was needed before we got back to fighting the cigarette sellers outside the train station – a good day in Paris done.

Monday’s mission was to take in what the Hop On Off bus service offers around Paris. Part of the excursion ticket included a day pass on the Foxity bus so we needed to get a couple of trains down to the station near the Eiffel Tower where the tour bus starts from. Reading French isn’t the easy thing – working out some of the train station signage wasn’t as easy as we’d expected and as a result, we managed to get ourselves misplaced so some extra walking between stations was needed to get us on the right track – to find a special tower. We came out of the station to be rewarded by the sight of the Eiffel Tower and what a sight it was. The day was cold and grey – maybe in support of the day itself – 11th November being Armistice Day – the capital was having celebrations / memorials / parades throughout the morning to remember. Part of the bus route was disrupted for the morning as a result. The Eiffel Tower was all that I had hoped it would be – looking like one enormous Meccano set. As you’d expect there were loads of people around taking in all that the Tower offers – we didn’t opt to go up the Tower, settling instead to have a good look around the base of the structure – very impressive. Getting on the bus we did a good circuit of the city taking in a number of sights from the semi comfort of the bus on a cold morning. Sights included the Place De La Concorde, the Opera House, pass / through the Louvre, along the River Seine up to Notre Dame – which unfortunately is covered up as a result of the devastating fire, up and along Champ Elysees which was a real bonus, around the Arc de Triomphe and then back around some of the historic Military buildings before lopping back around to the Eiffel Tower.

As we’d expected there is just so much history here in and around this large city – another surprise was the fact that the ‘tourist loop’ takes you away from the more modern business centre / heart of the city. We took the bus around for part of another loop getting off up along the Champ Elysees – it was quite different from what I had expected with loads of very high-end stores – very flash. We went into the Renault showroom – they have a new Formula One race car on display and a load of new cars that visitors were climbing in and out of and through. We walked up to the Arc de Triomphe which was decorated with a very large French flag – the mornings Armistice parades had been up the main Champ Elysees boulevard. You go down underneath the ‘roundabout’ that circles the Arc – you can pay to climb to the top of the Arc itself and many people were doing just that. The day had improved so we walked from the Arc back up the road to have a look around the Grand and Petit Palais’s – the Grand Palais has a very impressive glass dome roof – another striking architectural feature in this city, dating back to the 1700’s. We got ourselves back to a pick up point and took another lap of the city to see some of the evening lights coming on – our timing wasn’t quite right as the lights were only just coming on, but by the time we got around to the Eiffel Tower again we got to see it in all’s it’s sparkling glory – very impressive. More train struggles later and we managed to finally get ourselves back to the hotel – it had been another big walking day despite seat time in the bus and on trains, but we got a great overview of the ‘older’ part of the city.

Tuesday was an early start to get a couple of trains to the south west of the city for us to go to the Palace of Versailles or the Chateau De Versailles. We managed to get out to the village / township of Versailles just before 9am and joined the early que to go into the Palace – I want to call it a Palace as opposed to Chateau as it really is such an impressive building / series of buildings and then the grounds are another thing again. I think the history is that Louis 14th had the Chateau enlarged to the colossus that it is today. The main theme is the ‘home’ that Louis 14th built for his wife Marie-Antoinette in the latter part of the 1600’s, and was then subsequently ‘expanded’ by Louis 16th, Napoleon the 1st, and then back to the Royal family with Louis-Philippe in the early 1800’s. The Palace takes you through the history of this palace – how it was developed and expanded and expanded some more. It then went through the turmoil of the French Revolution which saw Louis and his wife taken from the Palace, imprisoned and then ultimately beheaded. It takes you through the Napoleonic period, and then how the Palace came back to be a Royal residence and then Presidential residence. There is so much art and I guess artefacts from the era. The walls and ceilings were either painted with art and murals, or art covered the walls. The Hall of Mirrors is this long corridor consisting of 17 pairs of mirrors – striking. The Palace is set up to reflect / remember the different phases the place has been through. One area of the Palace is dedicated to Napoleon and there is a Gallery of Battles which records in paintings, all the key French battles dating back as far as you can. I think we spent 3 hours alone looking around inside and certainly not taking all the detail in.

From there we headed outside to take in some of the gardens. The Palace Gardens stretch for as far as the eye can see – there are lakes and fountains, a large Grand Canal that runs out and across through the middle, and then a whole series of themed gardens and groves – a little too much to take in on foot as we were, so they have a load of golf carts that you can hire for getting around, and a mini train runs to some key points around the gardens. We could see the weather turning and as we were heading along the Grand Canal the weather hit – heavy hail storm and then heavy rain. We weren’t prepared for it and had to find some cover to hunker down as it rolled over us. After a time the weather eased up, so wet and cold we headed back out to get to a couple of the smaller palaces on the wider sight – the Grand Trianon, and Petit Trianon Palaces – one become Napoleon’s summer palace, the other was the Palace for the Mistresses’ if I recall the story correctly. Out beyond these palaces there is an English Hamlet which we walked to, and then we started the big walk back up to the main Palace just as the weather started to look threatening again. After what had been a very big day, we left the Palace and headed back to get our couple of trains back to the hotel – no wrong turns tonight – all went well finding our way back.

Wednesday morning was another early start to get us down to the Louvre to try and beat the cue. I think we were lined up by 8.30am with a good crowd already formed ahead of the 9am opening. With security checks behind us we got into the Louvre properly. Carol had some key pieces of art that she wanted to see, so I was a bit like a lost puppy following her along. The obvious one was to find and have a good look at the Mona Lisa – being as early as we were, we were able to get in without cueing to study what is probably the most famous painting in the world. You don’t get too long to stop and stare due to the crowds, but we did get a good look at this piece of work. The museum which is in a Royal Palace dating back to the 1200’s I think it was, is huge, there is art everywhere – paintings, sculptures – all historic pieces of work – the modern art isn’t anywhere to be seen, residing in other museums around the city. I think we were told that there is something like 35,000 pieces of art in the Louvre, and if you spent 30 seconds looking at each that it would take you 3 months – day and night to get around the museum completely. I ended up leaving Carol to study things up in more detail and found myself a spot to type up some blog. The better part of 3 hours later we finally connected again – she was bubbling with all that she had seen today.

We worked our way our of the Louvre and made our way over to do a cruise up the Seine. We made our way down to the head of the island where the cruise boats run from and got onboard. The cruise takes in 30 key points up and along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower and then turns back and heads south beyond Notre Dame. The lower part of the cruise encompasses 2 islands that sit in the Seine – there’s a load of structures and history in this area alone. The cruise passes under a series of bridges – you get another great perspective from the seat of the boat. A very full hour later we tied back up and exited the boat. We got a train up the line to see the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre. The Basilica is up the hill looking down over the city – a good number of steps later we made it up and into the Basilica. The Basilica dates back to around 1870, but has it’s roots as far back as the 3rd century. The Basilica was striking and has the added bonus of looking out over the city of Paris. We took the funicular back down the hill – a short, sharp ride downhill. We walked back down some of the streets and found ourselves a good bite to eat before finding our way back to the hotel one last time.

Thursday morning saw another early start – we needed to get ourselves back to the bus terminal to head out of Paris. We tackled rush hour on the tube – we were pinched in like sardines with the early morning rush – big bags not being the best addition for us. We got ourselves to the terminal only to be kept waiting for a bus to arrive. Our time in Paris had been full on – loads of steps ranked up this week. Impressions of Paris were varied – there is so much to see around this grand city – a city of 2 halves with the older tourist area and then the business heart of the city. There’s history on show everywhere you look from Palaces to Palaces. On the downside for me were some of the people – not the friendliest of sorts – you’d ask for help or directions only to be ignored or snubbed. And then you had the cigarette sellers to deal with. But all that aside, as you’d expect, Paris really is one of those cities that you have to see once in your life time. I’d planned to bring Carol here for her birthday next year – looks like we moved the schedule forward some – happy early birthday Carol!

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