In France this time
I've always enjoyed sharing my friends' travels vicariously, so I assume they will all want to share mine. So come with me to France...
The photos in my Picasa Album appear in the approximate order of this narrative. I hope you'll enjoy them.
On 11 September 2014, around 04:55, I headed down the street to the bus stop. First steps on the way to France. Still dark, slight wind, so I was glad for my fleece sweater. Of course, when I finally arrived at the airport 2.75 hours before my flight, after two bus rides and a short trip on the MAX (light rail), there were none of the crowds I'd expected, and I slid through security very quickly. Fortunately I had a good book loaded on the tablet.
Had a middle seat going to Philadelphia. The fellow on the aisle was trying to sleep and I had to ask him to let me out three times. Poor guy. Fortunately I had an aisle seat across the Atlantic. The Philadelphia airport provides rocking chairs for passengers. Charming!
Arrived Paris 07:42 and went right through customs, etc. Found an info desk and the nice lady there called my transportation for me. I had time before it arrived to get my Paris Visite pass--barely (my research had showed Paris to have an excellent public transportation system, which fit my budget nicely). The pass would let me ride everything for 3 days. Long walk to where they sold them (and back), hauling my suitcase. The driver was waiting when I puffed out the exit. He was a nice young non-European (North African?) man who could put the van in places I would hesitate to take my bike, even without traffic all around. We circled Charles de Gaulle airport several times while picking up three other passengers. Big place, and in order to get 200 meters behind where we were, we had to drive about a kilometer in a circle..
Dropped baggage at the hotel (Kyriad Bercy Village) and headed for the nearby Metro stop. The hotel is adjacent to Gare du Nord, After a couple of complicated changes (lots of stairs and long walks), I decided that I wanted to see Paris aboveground. The buses are a bit more of a challenge because there doesn't seem to be much logic to where the stops are placed, and they aren't always easy to spot. It also took me a while to catch on to the next stop announcements--I wasn't sure what prochain arrêt meant, and didn't realize that all the stops have names. You have to know the name of your stop, and you can miss it, because the shelters have their names facing the streets, where they are hidden from bus passengers when it is stopped there. I did a fair amount of off-and-on because I only knew where I wanted to go, and when I saw it on the on-board notice, I thought I was there. Not necessarily true. On the way to the Bastille site I got off when I thought I was there, and it took me a while to figure out where I really was: Republique square. But it was a nice place to have lunch so I sat on the edge of the four-sided fountain and watched people.
I did eventually find the Bastille monument, but in trying to locate a bus stop I walked a long way in the wrong direction. Finally gave up and took the metro. And when I got to the Bastille circle, I realized I didn't have my camera. But I did have my tablet, and got a photo.
Decided to check out the Rodin Museum, as it was at the top of my to-see list. I got there by Metro--a block from the entrance. It was around two in the afternoon by then, and I (optimistically) figured the crowds might be less. Ho ho. The line was about a block long (75 meters), and not moving very fast. I checked the Saturday opening time (10:00) and resolved to be there early. Back to metro, and to Invalides, where I could catch a bus.
Rode around after that because my feet were starting to hurt and I was tired. I found a bus route that seemed to go to the Eiffel Tower, and even found a stop for it, so I took the next one that came along. It wandered a bit, past the Ecole Militaire. Almost fell asleep on the way to the tower and decided to come back when I had more energy, as the walk from where the busses stop is a ways. On the way there and back I saw quite a lot of Paris.
The little market near the hotel (Franprix) had a good selection of produce and packaged deli items, so I bought a salad and a Coke and headed for my room, footsore and ready for bed. But it was way too early, so I forced myself to stay vertical until nearly nine p.m.
Saturday I left the hotel at 08:00 and arrived at the Rodin Museum around 09:00. No one in line, so I leaned against the barred gate and waited. It didn't take long for the next tourists to arrive, and by the time the museum opened, the line extended about 50 meters. But I was first.
Rodin's work is, to me, incomparable. But it was a pleasant surprise to discover that he'd collected paintings and sculptures by other artists. A van Gogh is the only one I remember by artist, but they were all impressive.
Once I'd explored the inside, I stepped out into the garden. Almost the first thing I saw was The Thinker. There were a number of pieces, not all by Rodin, and some weren't to my taste, but a few were interesting . Of course, the Burghers of Calais and the Gates of Hell were there, and their impact was just as powerful as the first time I'd seen them when they were part of a traveling exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. It seemed right that they were outdoors, rather than in a sterile museum environment. .
After that I took the Metro, intending to head to the Eiffel Tower, but got off at the Champs-Élysées Clemenceau stop out of curiosity. I walked upstairs and just stared. What a marvelous place. From there one can see to the Arc de Triomphe in one direction and to the Place de Concorde in the other. After admiring the scenery, I went back to the Metro and came out somewhere or other that let me board a bus to the Eiffel Tower (again). But I got on one going the wrong way and the next thing I knew, we were approaching the Pompidou Center. What an opportunity, as it was a place I was curious about. Off the bus to explore. Aside from the boiler-room architecture of the Pompidou Center, the Stravinsky fountain got my vote for the most interesting in Paris, and my eye was caught by a wind-driven mobile that looked like a Calder (learned later it is). A nearby square was surrounded by shops and some of them sold food, so I purchased a panini and a Coke and sat at a table and watched Parisians and tourists for a while.
My maps told me I wasn't too far from Rue de Rivoli, where I could catch a bus that, with one transfer, would take me to the tower. But I got turned around and walked parallel to Rivoli instead of toward it for several blocks. By the time I realized my error, I found myself diagonally across the street from the Louvre. Spent a hot but interesting half-hour waiting for my bus (the notice screen kept setting arrival time back, probably due to heavy traffic). When I finally got on it, I discovered to my delight that it was going to cross through the Louvre. So I got my first view of the Pyramid, and a good look at Notre Dame as we drove past it
This time I got off the bus near the Eiffel Tower and walked toward it. I'd had some idea of taking the elevator to the 2nd level, until I saw the lines. Four of them, snaking across the vast area under the tower. I took some photos, walked through the crowds, and ended up on the bank of the Seine (on Quai Branly) directly across from the Trocadero. Tour boats were loading on the river below, but I'd already decided against that treat.
It was getting late, so I took a bus to Madeleine, where I could catch the Metro line to the hotel. By the time I got there, I was ready to call it a day. Went back to the little supermarket and bought another salad, some cookies, and a Coke. Supper at seven, and bed by ten. My Fitbit was still on Portland time, but it showed I'd walked around 13000 steps. Not bad.
Sunday was to be my last day on my own, and there were still places I wanted to see. The Jardin des Plantes was at the top of the list. Arrived at the garden early, but it was already heavily populated with runners. The sandy paths must be much more comfortable than running on concrete. An interesting example of fauna met me at the gate. Nothing was open yet, so I wandered among the flower beds. Climbed a steep hill to the labyrinth, which was quite small, with only a single spiral path. But the center gave a good view over Paris, between trees. I winced at the entrance fee at the Grande galerie de l'évolution (within the Natural History Museum) and decided against it, but discovered the Botanical Museum was free. It's a huge building but the display only occupies a small portion. Interesting displays, but I wished I remembered more of my college French. While I could understand a lot of what I read, I know I missed even more. My favorite display was the Welwitchia skeleton. Wandered a bit more, and had my first experience with a Parisian Toilette. Interesting but a little scary, since the door apparently locks automatically--I hoped. The runners were still going strong when I left the garden, even though it was getting quite warm.
Next on the list were the Arc de Triomphe and Sacre Coeur. Luckily bus service to both areas looked good, even for a Sunday. The Arc first. My bus took me the length of the Champs-Élysées, and what a trip it was. I never expected it to be so commercial between the circle where the FDR statue stands and the Arc. Even the ice cream stores are posh and many of the clothing labels represented are the sort one only reads about. The Hôtel de Crillon is closed for renovation, but the façade alone was worth seeing. I got off the bus just past the Arc and just stood and watched the traffic for a while. There are no rules. Bravado and nerve are all that will get one into and out of the rapidly circling traffic.
Back on the bus, bound eventually to Sacre Coeur. Only trouble was, that particular bus offered only partial service. It dumped me on the Left Bank, which was interesting (and tempting, because the prices of some botanical prints wasn't too exorbitant. I resisted). When a bus finally showed up, I caught it and got off at a stop somewhere near Ste. Marie Madeleine, where a bunch of bus routes seem to cross. I kind of wanted to see Place Pigalle, so when I saw a bus named, appropriately, "Pigalle" I hopped aboard. Interesting trip, through a part of Paris most tourists probably don't see. Narrow streets lined with down-at-the-heels shops, peopled by mostly unsmiling folks in work clothes. Eventually we emerged onto Place Pigalle where several buslines, a Metro station, and the Montmartrobus stop. I took the little electric bus which was supposed to take me to Sacre Coeur, but I must have gotten off too soon, because I ended up in the heart of Montmarte. Very interesting place, with lots of street artists, shoulder-to-shoulder restaurants, and crowds of tourists. I joined the flow and climbed a few twisting blocks until I rounded a corner and there it was, spread out before me: Paris. And behind me was the Cathedral de Sacre Coeur. I took a selfie (of my sunglasses and hair), just to prove I'd been there. After a suitable time soaking up atmosphere and admiring the scenery, I took the funicular down the hill, with a vague notion that I'd probably end up back at Place Pigalle.
Wrong. I came out of a narrow little street at the next Metro station on the line, Anvers. But before I headed back to the heart of the city, I had lunch at a busy café. The three-course formule included salad, main course and desert, for just under 10 euros, so I had a glass of (adequate) white wine too. I chose roast chicken, and got a breast and wing, tender, juicy and delicious. The frites were edible, but better soaked in the chicken juices. One waitress handled about twenty tables and she moved at an incredible pace.
Back to the hotel by a circuitous route that allowed more sightseeing. I transferred from a bus to the RER rail line at the Musée d'Orsay, with a short stop in the courtyard to photograph the menagerie. While my journey on the train was only three stops, it completed my intention of trying all the different forms of public transportation Paris offers.
And so back to the hotel (with a short stop again at the Franprix) in time for the first meeting of our tour. They promise to be an interesting group, mostly women, but a few couples. About half are Australian or new Zealanders, with one woman from Tasmania, and there were three of us from Portland. Our guide was a personable young man named Simeon. His English was heavily accented but fluent.
Monday began with a bus tour of Paris, with stops at the tower and Notre Dame de Paris, a couple of circuits of the Arc de Triomphe, and drive-bys of a bunch of places that I had trouble keeping track of. Too much information too quickly given. In the afternoon was the optional tour of the Louvre, which I had signed up for. My left leg was not holding up well, so I'd planned to take my cane. Simeon said it was probable they wouldn't let me take it inside so I left it in the bus. So much for the world's largest museum being accessible. Pooh!
I managed to keep up with Bridgette, our guide, but I admit I was disappointed with her choice of the "best" exhibits. I've never understood people's fascination with the Mona Lisa, which has never struck me as particularly interesting. Perhaps if I could have gotten close it would have shown the incredible depth that the tiny da Vinci I saw at the National Gallery a few years ago had. Seeing it across a sea of heads, from a good thirty feet away, took away any thrill I might have felt. We also viewed the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which I've been familiar with since childhood, because there is an exact replica in the Idaho State Capitol. But a sphinx was interesting, a room full of Greek sculptures (part of the Elgin marbles loot, I gathered), and the enormous painting by Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, were definitely worth seeing. Bridgette gave us some interesting background about the David painting. Hobbled through the depths, past the original foundation, and eventually found an exit. Thence back to the place where we were to meet the bus, with a stop at McDonalds for a Coke.
Monday we took off early, headed for Giverney. Lovely place, with the kind of semi-unrestrained gardens I like best. I don't think I've ever actually seen autumn crocus before. The stream and ponds were picturesque, and the house was interesting. But no photos inside, which seems odd since the Louvre allows them. I wanted to take a photo of a beautiful roll top desk with elaborate inlays for Chris. No dice. The kitchen was very blue. What I liked best of the interior was Monet's studio, with a fainting couch.
On to Rouen. The cathedral there took 400 years to build and exhibits both Gothic and Renaissance architecture (quote from Simeon). Although the city was heavily bombed during WW II, it miraculously survived. As did many of the half-timbered houses. There is a memorial building and a cross in the central square of Rouen. The cross marks the spot where Joan of Arc was burned. Several of us sat on a low wall near the memorial, eating what we'd picked up in nearby shops. I had a lemon tart--delicious--and splurged on some dark chocolate-dipped candied orange slices. If I'd known they would cost €14.60, I probably would have passed. I managed to get the bag home unopened, and shared them with Star. Delicious.
As we approached the mouth of the Seine, I asked Simeon how far upriver the tidal influence extended. He didn't know. The fellow in the seat ahead said probably not far above the mouth because the land was so flat, and when I questioned that assumption, he got a little snippy. Channel tides are pretty high, so I'll bet the influence goes a ways inland. Something to check. Later I discovered that the tidal reach of the Seine ends at St. Aubin. There are several St. Aubins in France, but my best guess is Saint-Aubin-lès-Elbeuf, a "light industrial town situated in a meander of the river Seine, some 19 km south of Rouen." (Thanks, Wikipedia).
Our next stop was Honfleur, a quaint little fishing village that is also an art colony and a popular tourist stop. The boat basin is surrounded by sidewalk cafes. I scored a table near the water and enjoyed the breeze while I drank sweetened (ugh!) ice tea. Should've bought wine. The town boasts a wooden church (very unusual for France, according to Simeon) and I attempted to photograph it, but the sun was in the wrong place.
We traveled on to Deauville, where we spent the night. The first of our two included dinners was there. Roast turkey with gravy, scalloped potatoes, apple tart for dessert. All of it bland and not very interesting. Deauville is rich folks' country, and there isn't much interesting to see but old mansions and the casino, all of which we saw on a brief bus tour before we stopped at the hotel. After dinner several of us decided to try Calvados (apples are a major crop in Normandy). Interesting, but I like plain brandy better.
On our way to Omaha Beach Tuesday morning, Simeon gave us a brief history lesson from a French perspective. He went back to the 1870 war between France and Prussia and showed how it led to both WW I and WW II. He spoke at length of de Gaulle and how he never stopped being a French patriot. His take on European history was a little different from any I've encountered before, and very enlightening.
Omaha Beach is amazing. The emotional impact of it began when I was an inadvertent participant in a memorial service. Two veterans of D-Day were there, old men standing tall and proud as they listened to the Star Spangled Banner played on a carillon. I was enormously proud of them and all the men and women who'd been there. The strong emotional impact of the whole place was completely unexpected, but I think I would have felt it even without the memorial service. It got even stronger when I went through the visitor center. It's very well done, without melodrama, and makes for an enormously moving experience. If you've not visited the cemetery, there is a good video at the Normandy American Cemetery.
We went on to Arromanches, the site of Gold beach where the British/Commonwealth forces landed. Still visible at low tide (which it was) are pontoons of Mulberry Harbor, the floating port built to handle ship traffic during the military campaign following D-Day. I had forgotten about it, although when Simeon told about it, I recalled seeing photos a long time ago, probably on newsreels.
After lunch we went on to Bayeaux. The Bayeaux tapestry (it's really an embroidered length of linen) is incredible, I only wish there had been time to study it thoroughly. I couldn't decide if the solid color areas were couched or just filled with tiny stitches. Colors were amazingly vivid. Bought a book and hope it will show enough detail.
I saw a magpie on side of road on our way to Mont St. Michel. Google says it's the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica). I could see its coloration was slightly different from our American magpie, but a quick glance didn't show exactly how.
Mont St. Michel is everything I imagined. Words fail me (for now, anyhow). I was delighted to see the progress on restoring natural water circulation around it. Sedimentation due to the causeway interrupting natural water circulation had nearly turned all the former tidelands into dry ground. Once the massive project is finished, the sea will reclaim its own. It was very crowded with tourists, and I only walked about a third of the way to the top. Some of the "streets" are really narrow.
Prices were outrageous in the little town at the land end of the causeway, and there was nowhere to get deli food. It's like a gated community, and our driver (Tom) had to enter a password to get inside. So the local supermarket and restaurants have visitors captive. I bought a banana from Martinique, some sardines at nearly €2 for a can, a Coke for €2.6, and a bottle of cider for €2.10. And then I discovered that I couldn't get the cider open (no twist-off caps there!), so I packed it. Sooner or later... Fortunately I still had half a baguette from Monday, a little dry but edible, and I'd had cheese for lunch. What I am missing is veggies. At that point I'd have given a lot for a head of romaine and a carrot.
Hotel Vert had no air conditioning, nor were there the usual amenities (i.e., coffee maker, cups), but my room, which had 3 twin beds, also had nice firm bolsters which mean I could sit comfortably on one of the beds--a rare privilege.
I drank my Coke tepid that night. I doubt there was ice anywhere but in the fancy restaurants. Guess I will never get a chance to try Normandy mussels and frites.
The next day I finally remembered to ask Simeon about the road signs where there are pointers hither and yon and usually a larger one that says "Autres Directions". Yes, he told me, it really does mean "Other Directions" because everything that isn't specifically named is in other directions.
Thursdays' schedule included St. Malo, a walled seaport that's actually an island. I didn't walk all the way around the walls, but explored a bit and returned to the boat basin where there was a sailing ship and a shady bench. It's against the law in France for any flag to fly higher than the Tricolor. But the folks in St. Malo are willing to pay an annual fine, and they fly theirs high and proud. Nice to have some quiet time. We stopped in Rennes, and it made so little an impression on me that I cannot recall anything there. The Cosmos schedule says it had timber-framed houses. I guess...
On our way to our overnight stop in Amboise, I saw what looked like a nuclear power plant a ways off the highway. Simeon says it is. I also saw a raptor sitting on a fencepost. It had a definite v-shaped mark on its breast, but other than that I couldn't tell if it was a harrier, a hawk or a kite. Later I saw several more, all with similar markings.
The hotel in Amboise is a few blocks off a busy highway and not near any restaurants or markets. The desk clerk at Villa Belagio said there was a supermarket about a ten-minute walk along the highway, so after checking the prices on the limited menu in the hotel restaurant, I set out. Never made it, because after about seven minutes I was distracted by a boulangerie/patisserie. It was clearly a popular place, very busy, with a good selection of breads, prepared salads, some cheeses and delicious looking deserts. I bought a salad with fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and smoked salmon, a baguette and a Coke. Delicious, and much cheaper than the restaurant. To bed early because the next day we were headed to two chateaux and a winery.
The Chateau of Chenonceaux is sometimes called the Lady's Chateau because it's always been owned or occupied by women. I kind of got lost with the history, but it's all on Wikipedia. What really makes it remarkable is that it spans the River Cher like a bridge. It's beautifully preserved (restored?). The kitchens are much as they must have been a couple of hundred years ago. The mostly manicured grounds are meticulously kept. There is a labyrinth which was really a maze, but it's a pretty simple one. The French don't seem to distinguish between mazes and true labyrinths. On the way to it, I walked through shady woods with great swathes of pale pink cyclamen.
We stopped at Monmousseau to explore the limestone caves where sparkling wine is stored as it matures. The whole area is riddled with caverns and tunnels where limestone for local buildings was extracted. On the way to the winery, we passed many houses that looked as if they were only shallow facades in front of homes extending deep into the hillside. The tour of the limestone caverns was far too quick, with little time to read the interpretive signs and practically no opportunity to ask questions. I did get a good photo of the mold hanging on overhead pipes. Very high humidity in the caves, above 90 percent. The winery was very generous with their tasting, full glasses of a delicious sparkling wine. I bought a half-bottle, and would have bought more if I hadn't hoped to buy scotch in the duty free store on the way home.
The day's second chateau was in Amboise and is where Leonardo da Vinci is buried. Our guide was determined that we would learn about its history (structural and political) and most of us tuned her out about halfway through the tour. I'm sure it was fascinating to someone who actually knows something about French history, but most of us were woefully ignorant. Seeing da Vinci's grave was special, though. From the ramparts the house where he spent the last years of his life was visible, but my photo isn't very good.
The dinner that night was included in the tour and this time it was excellent. A pureed bean (or lentil) and vegetable soup, lovely moist baked salmon with a tasty sauce and steamed vegetables. For dessert a chocolate tarte that was almost like eating a candy bar. Yum!
Before leaving the area, we stopped for a quick visit to the Blois castle. Blois is one of those French words that seems unpronounceable to non-French. None of us mastered it. Two hot air balloons were rising above town as we drove up to the castle, and they made a nice contrast with the medieval towers of the cathedral. Simeon showed us Louis XII's blazon above the entrance. A porcupine. I found the plants growing between stones of the castle wall almost as interesting. I think I was getting castle/chateaux/cathedral saturated.
And finally! On to Chartres. But I wasn't as excited as I thought I would be. After so many years of dreaming of walking the labyrinth at Chartres, I'd learned that it was partly covered with chairs and is thus unwalkable. The cathedral is breathtaking, though, and the blue of the glass in the stained glass windows certainly is dramatic. Simeon told us that Chartres had been completed in about sixty years, making it the most architecturally harmonious of the great French cathedrals.
Chartres has a permanent outdoor market, roofed against the elements. We were turned loose to find our own lunches and I took off on my own. So many choices! I ended up with a slice of Roquefort direct from the fresh wheel, another slice of Pate de Chartres (pork chunks with what was probably pork liver pate in the center, all set in meat jelly and surrounded by a delicious bread crust). I accompanied them with a baguette containing flax and other seeds and an orange fresh from somewhere in Africa. And a Coke, of course. I seriously thought about getting a small bottle of wine, but knew if I did I'd sleep all afternoon. There was enough food that I was able to save half for my supper.
We were offered a tour of Versailles as an option, but it was expensive and lasted only about 2.5 hours. I decided to skip it, and according to one of the people who did take it, I was wise to do so. She said they felt hurried and the crowds were stifling. There is also a little of the republican (French style) in me, I guess because I found myself feeling a bit of disapproval of the place whenever someone mentioned it. Gold leaf is pretty, but perhaps they should have used it to buy food for the people.
By the time I reached my very comfortable hotel room in the Villette area, I knew my holiday was over. Exhaustion had set in, along with sensory overload and a blustery rainstorm. The bartender was generous with both ice and bottle opener, so I was able to drink my cider, finally. That accomplished, I really didn't care to see another sight, take another step, learn another historical or architectural fact. As I made a few last notes that would lead to this account, I found myself very happy I'd visited France, already a bit nostalgic about my three-day solitary adventure in Paris, and very, very ready to go home.
© 2014 Judith B. Glad