Paris - April 2011 

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Paris, finally! Why hold on so long? Maybe because the list of places-I-wish-to-go-to has been and still is very long. But now the time has come to visit Europe's second most visited city.

Finding a flight wasn't so hard, Air France had a very good offer for a return trip at less than 1000 NOK, and was easily
cheaper than my 'usual' carrier.

Finding a hotel however, is a big challenge in such a city. But thanks to Tripadvisor and a lot of browsing, reading, website visiting, considering..and in the end a bit of gut instinct, the hotel of choice was Concorde Montparnasse. Being ranked as number 200-something on Tripadvisor may not sound like much, but considering the list of almost 2000 hotels, it means it is among or near the upper 10% overall..so there are different ways to read the rankings, non? For a 4 star hotel in a very expensive city such as Paris, 135 EUR per night seemed almost like a bargain, although it was excluding breakfast. And the location seemed to be a good one, as the direct Air France shuttle bus from the airport stops at Montparnasse Bienvenue, a 5 minute walk from the hotel.

Day 1

Air France used to have Airbuses on the route OSL - CDG. But they fly frequently, and also compete with SAS as well as Norwegian, so there are heaps of flights going there every day. They changed their aircraft into a slightly smaller one, an Embraer E90. I have used one of these before, on my trip with Finnair to St Petersburg via Helsinki. The good thing about these is that the seat rows are configured in 2+2, so it actually feels more spacy than a 3+3 737 or Airbus 319/320/321. They even serve a 'light snack', which turns out to be a mini baguette - still, anything is better than what SAS offers at a higher price - which is absolutely nothing.

Around 2 hours after departure, a couple of raindrops fall on Paris Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2G, a very small and recently built addition to the vast main terminal 2. But seeing the traffic and size of the rest of the terminal, it is oh-so-much-more peaceful, and in this case, being small is definitely an advantage. 2G is quite a way from the rest of the main terminal, so there is a free shuttle bus to take you to it. And from here, on the ground level, 'les cars Air France' depart at ground level. Route number 4 goes to Montparnasse-Bienvenue, and 27 € lighter (return trip) and 50 minutes later the destination is reached. The 'Tour Montparnasse' towers 210 metres above ground level here, and it is a very viable alternative to the crowds at the Eiffel Tower. But the destination lies in the opposite direction, and indeed after 5 minutes of walking and reaching the 'Place de Catalogne', the hotel is there.

The reception area and lobby are fairly small and can be crowded at times if there are tour buses dropping off their loads, or if there is a conference at the hotel. The reception staff is efficient though, and checking in was a breeze. The elevator will not work unless you insert your room key card - a good safety measurement which I would have liked to see more of elsewhere too.

My room of choice was a standard room facing the interior courtyard. Upon request and availability, you may have a room with a view of the Eiffel Tower, but my experience with many hotels is that air conditioning is at times weak, perhaps depending on season, so I prefer to be able to open a window on the 'quiet side' and thus still be able to sleep.

The room itself is not overly large, but real estate in popular cities is extremely expensive, and it was more than adequate enough. Twin beds, a work desk, a wardrobe, safe, and a tv with a bunch of channels. The bathroom was great, although I personally prefer a shower cabinet instead of a bathtub. As expected - room air conditioning allowed a minimum temperature of 18°C or so - too high in my opinion and I was therefore thankful that the windows could be opened. Only on one night did I hear some loud talking from down below, otherwise it was really quiet - a godsend in a big city like this :)

As already stated, the rate for the room itself was not at all bad - 135 € for a 4 star hotel fairly centrally located in Paris is actually less than what I had feared. Note that this was the room price alone - breakfast is extra, but you have a choice between a continental version in a separate room at 12 € - which I didn't even consider trying, and a full breakfast buffet at 23 €. The latter deserves special mention - in a country where the usual breakfast is a croissant, a coffee and on a good day a glass of juice, this was quite overwhelming and well up to the standard of the big international chains (read 'american breakfast'). There was nothing missing from the table as far as I could see, and the freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juices alone was enough to come back for more. The breakfast room isn't overly big though, and with 280 rooms it can be pretty crowded at times. There was a day when there was a line of 10 people waiting to get inside, yet it only took a few minutes to get seated. The breakfast room was also very well staffed, and even then they seemed to have more than enough at their hands.

There's a chinese restaurant right across the roundabout, and many other eateries within only a few minutes walk from the hotel, so it is very nicely situated in this regard. And as already mentioned, the train station is nearby, as is the metro station. The system is very simple to use, efficient and not overly crowded compared to for example Rome (which has only two lines, while Paris has 14 plus a couple of small ones). Single tickets are 1.70 €, while a 'carnet' of 10 tickets costs 12 €.

The sightseeing will be saved for...

Day 2

It's time to get up and about! After a very hearty breakfast buffet with delicious freshly squeezed juice, part 1 of the sightseeing rounds will be fairly extensive, at least distance wise. Hop on the metro to get to station 'Franklin D. Roosevelt' and walk along the super famous Champs Elysées! Hmm..there is indeed a lot of traffic here, and it is very noisy. And even though the pavements are very wide, the tree line does not offer much protection from the noise. I have a phone call from work and struggle hearing it all in the noise even though I try to withdraw as far away from the street as possible. Not very romantic ;)

I see a couple of famous places along the wide boulevard - Gaumont and Lido. Apart from this, I must admit I find this famous street to be very overrated and a bit of a letdown. At least the Arc de Triomphe towers impressively at the end, and is for sure well worth a visit. It takes some time navigating across all the streets before finally finding the underground passage leading to the arch itself.

The arch was commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon at the peak of his days, after his victory at Austerlitz, but it was not finished until 1836. It lies along the historica axis of the city, which starts at the Louvre, continues to Place de la Concorde, along Champs Elysées, Arc de Triomphe and finally ends at the modern area of La Défense and the modern Grande Arche.

From here, another metro trip to Anvers at the base of the Montmartre hill. The walk from here to the Sacre-Coeur is quite short, and even though it is possible to take a funicular up the hill, it is just a few steps. The church itself is beautiful and definitely un-European in appearance. It is a mixture of Roman and Byzantine build styles, and when it rains, it is supposed to be completely white due to the calcite the material exudes when wet. Inside, the church is fairly plain and a little dark.

Montmartre itself is claimed as a charming place, yet there were way too many people there to actually enjoy it. Squeezing through masses of people and having a hard time of getting anywhere at all doesn't feel particularly romantic either - disappointment number 2 is noted on the list :) And no, I did not see the Moulin Rouge.

Now for the highlight of the day - another metro ride to Place de la Bastille, which was where the infamous prison stood and the start of the 1789 revolution took place. Now it is just a wide open space with a column. But the goal of this particular visit was to see something well off the beaten path of the mass tourist - Promenade Plantée. This was originally the so called Vincennes railway line, which closed in 1969 after 110 years of operation. Elevated to a height of 10 metres above the asphalt jungle, the total length is almost 5 km. The start, near Place de la Bastille, is also known as the Viaduc des Arts, and indeed, many shops are housed below the actual walkway. It is a very pleasant walk in the middle of the city, with lots of blooming flowers and bushes, and you definitely feel that you are a rare visitor there, as most people will be locals.

Dinner at an italian place near the hotel..salad and pizza is the usual fare, but this one is definitely not ground-breaking. Slightly cold service too..

Day 3

Today will be the 'big central walk', and it starts from the metro St-Michel, from where it is only a short hike to the Notre Dame cathedral. From the south side of the Seine river, it looks very good, especially with the very colourful blooming trees nearby. The small bridge crossing over to Île de la Cité is "littered" with padlocks, a sight that I so far have only seen in Riga previously. I still assume it is marriage related?

The cathedral itself is quite impressive, but the front is less so. Inside, it is fairly dark but photography is allowed, the stained glass windows are magnificent, and there is a soft chorus in the background..either someone is playing a tape or they have a choir somewhere ;)

The cathedral's construction started in 1163 and was completed in 1345 - as usual these magnificent cathedrals have a building period which sometimes spans hundreds of years, often with long breaks in between or significant remodelling. It is well worth seeing for sure!

What I had thought would be a less known sight is the Sainte Chapelle which also lies on Île de la Cité. But upon arriving there, a long queue is already present. It takes at least an hour to reach inside, and it only turns out to be a security check! Once through there and inside the courtyard, there is another queue for the ticket booth which does not move at all for some reason. Perhaps they follow a timed schedule for a certain amount of visitors, but after wasting 1 1/2 hours here, the project is abandoned. Too bad, as the upper chapel with its multiple stained glass windows is said to be absolument magnifique :(

Onwards to the next stop...Hôtel de Ville, which in english means Town Hall. This structure is very impressive, and is different in appearance from many other ones I have seen, for example in Germany. It was built in Renaissance style between 1533 and 1628, a surprisingly long period, then further expanded in 1835.

Since today's walk will be quite long (5-6 km) and the distance between Hôtel de Ville and Louvre is quite a bit, I feel that hopping onto the metro for a couple of stations isn't cheating...much. From Louvre Rivoli, it is a short hike into the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre building itself with its small triumphant arch. What surprised me was that there is a road going through the building at one point.

Musée du Louvre, as it is named today, started as a palace for the emperor back in the 12th century. There are only some remnants of this fortress left, as it was changed several times over the following centennia. In 1546 it was changed into the now-known French Renaissance style by Francois I, and the same guy was the one who acquired Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa..you may or may not have heard of it :)

As the rulers slowly collected pieces of art for their own pleasure, by the middle of the 18th century there was a general concensus to create a public gallery - a display of the royal art collection. Louis XV was the one to agree and opened up the gallery, however it was held in the Palais du Luxembourg and not in the Louvre palace itself. In 1780 it closed, then Louis XVI made a policy out of the royal museum idea. However, as the revolution was "just around the corner", the palace was soon transformed into an actual museum, which was opened to the public in 1793. The palace museum has later been added to, both building wise (the extensions further towards the Jardin des Tuileries and art wise. Today the museum area is around 60.000 square metres and houses around 35.000 objects (it's still quite behind St Petersburg's Winter Palace, which houses some 2 million objects though).

I decided to not spend time inside the museum and perhaps be disappointed by the tiny picture of Mona Lisa..many who see it say they are surprised how small it is, and having already seen the much grander 'Last Supper' in Milano, Louvre would be left unvisited due to time constrictions (and indeed lost time at the silly security queue at Sainte Chapelle).

It is relaxing and fitting to have a baguette in the Jardin des Tuileries. Here you are at least somewhat protected from the traffic noise. On the other side of La Seine lies Musée d'Orsay, cleverly housed in an ornately designed railway station.

Next stop: Place de la Concorde. It is a grand open space, but unlike when the finish of Le Tour de France is shown worldwide on tv, it is now also heavily trafficked, and this makes it somewhat unpleasant for a stroll. The fountains are impressive though, and the obelisk - an original from Luxor, Egypt is indeed worth seeing. But what's up with the fountains? There is no water there! In april? Tourist season? Not even the basins are filled - they are completely dry! What a huge disappointment in a city which is supposed to be proud of its fountains!

A walk along the Seine offers a chance for..either good vistas, or an attempt by con artists at the (partly) well-known 'ring trick'. A person walking towards you just happens to scoop up a seemingly valuable ring right in front of you! What a coincidence! Of course you didn't drop it, you know that..but since they offer it to you, you could of course sell it and satisfy your personal greed, right? That is what they prey on, and of course the ring is worthless. So I say a very firm NO even before this person has a chance to say something..and may I add, it was quite pleasing to do so ;)

 

Further along is the Pont Alexandre III, by far the most beautiful bridge in the city. It is named after Russian tsar Alexander III, who concluded the French/Russian alliance in 1892. The style of the bridge reflects that of the Grand Palais, and it leads from there to L'Invalides, or officially L'Hôtel national des Invalides. It was originally built as a hospital and retirement home for war veterans. Now, it houses among other things the army museum of France. The golden dome of the church is a well known sight in the city, and inside it is the grave of, among others, Napoleon Bonaparte.

It is a bit of a walk from L'Invalides to Champ de Mars, which lies on the southeast side of La Tour Eiffel. I find out that I really need to use the bathroom but am reluctant to use a public toilet, as it doesn't appear too attractive..perhaps it is better inside but..I'll try to hold on ;)

The Eiffel Tower is indeed a very impressive structure. One wouldn't think that a 10.000 tonne building made just of steel girders could be made pretty, but Gustav Eiffel proved that he was a worthy winner of the competition held before the exhibition in Paris in 1889. The structure was massively unpopular originally, raising huge debates, and it was indeed planned to be dismantled not long after the exhibition was finished. But they found out that it worked very well as a radio antenna thanks to its very impressive height - the top of the antenna is 324 metres above ground. It was the world's tallest building for 40 years, finally surpassed by the Empire State Building in New York in the early 1930s.

Standing directly below the feet, the height is not easy to grasp, but the feet are colossal, and stand on huge blocks of granite. Each 'foot' has an entrance, but only two have elevators, while all of them have stairs to reach the first or second level. Since this may be the only chance..let's try the queue...which I may add - does move much more quickly than I had feared. It doesn't take too long to get a hold of a ticket, but..the next queue waits at the first elevator, which brings you smootly up to the second level - 115 metres above ground. Queue number 3 takes longer, as it is for the final leg up to the viewing platform at 294?? metres, but from here, Paris lies definitely at your feet! It is also easy to see how well divided the city is, from gardens to straight lines, the line of La Seine, the huge area of Bois de Boulogne, the distant glass and steel buildings at La Défense..only at this height do you get a feel of the immense size of the city - as far as I know, one of the three largest (London, Moscow, Paris?)

Back down? Wait in queue number 4, then queue number 5 which takes waaaay too long..and the total time spent for visiting the tower is somewhere between 2 and 3 hours. Now..back to the hotel and a desperate potty visit!!

Dinner at the same chinese restaurant..it feels good to not walk too long to have some food this time ;)

But after..time for another walk, this time in the dark and with a tripod. First stop: Hôtel de Ville..what a dark disappointment (3 disappointments so far?) :(

Second stop..I wish it would be Louvre, but have a feeling it will be another disappointment..therefore the metro station of choice will be Trocadéro, from where it is a short walk to the place with the best view of Le Tour Eiffel..and this one is indeed well lit up! And for a few minutes on every full hour, it lights up even more, flashing wildly, although I had hoped it would be a more colourful spectacle. And what about the fountains of Trocadéro? Nosiree! Not a single drop of water here either! We do not have water in our fountains, sir - sorry! Watch it on tv instead, maybe we will try to give a good impression then! Disappointment number 4?

Day 4

One full day remains - a metro ride to Bir Hakeim, then a switch to RER line C, bound for Versailles-Rive Gauche! The RER train is very impressive, a two storey modern line which runs as smooth as silk along the suburbs (and centre) of Paris. On the way, an immigrant leaves notes to all passengers stating that she and her daughter will die if we do not part with some of our money in the name of humanity...and yet, how does one afford to move to and live in Paris if one is so poor?

 

From the train station, it is a short walk to the entrance to the Sun King's modest apartments. Built at a time when it was important to show how-much-bigger-mine-is-than-yours, it is supposed to dwarf any other similar structure ever built. But as the palace draws nearer, I wonder which parts belong to the palace, and which ones are separate buildings in front of it? It looks a bit chaotic, and there is no unity in the structure at all. I recognise the gates from pictures, but the palace is...to say the least, unimpressive!

There won't be a tour inside - I have seen many baroque palaces inside, even Ludwig II of Bavaria's began copy of Versailles at Herrenchiemsee, where the hall of mirrors is bigger than the one at Versailles (mine-is-bigger-than-yours!!) Instead, an option is to visit the gardens and park area, which is very vast. But only one small corner actually has any coloured plants in it - the rest is just green, green and more green and nothing else. The statues are impressive, but the park itself feels somewhat unimpressive, and my mind is drawn towards the royal palace of Drottningholm in Stockholm which was a bit of a letdown as well.

Anyone may want to decapitate, guillotine or cannonise (pardon the pun) me for saying it but in my eyes, Versailles is overhyped. My two definite favourites so far are Schönbrunn in Vienna and Peterhof in St Petersburg. The palaces look better, the gardens are by far more impressive, and the fountains of Peterhof...well, nothing will ever surpass it in my eyes. And the Winter Palace is even beautiful outside, which I also expect the Catherine Palace to be. Speaking of fountains..did I think there would be any in Versailles? Yes..and there was actually water, aqua, de l'eau, H2O in the basins. But running water? Come on! It's fountains! Why would there be running water there?? It's April, it is 25°C, of course there is no water in the fountains! Thanks for your tourist money though *cough*sucker*cough* (note to self: disappointments number 5 and 6)

On the way back, a 'slight' detour to Bois de Boulogne, more precisely a visit to the famous Stade de Roland Garros, where the French Open Grand Slam tennis tournament is held every year. Seeing it on tv, it appears to be a nice place to stroll outside the centre court, but when arriving there, it seems to be a veritable fortress, with a fence, a gate, and a guard who comes out and (politely) says it is not allowed to walk around, but a guided tour is possible..at certain times. Hmm..that wasn't quite as planned. Can I count it as disappointment number 7? Can I?

Ok..the final impression for the day will be a dinner at another chinese place, but this one lies on Avenue de Maine and is named Deli Bay. A free starter made of potatoes which was delicious sets the scene for a fabulous dinner, with a very charming and chatty host whose dream it is to see the northern lights :)

Day 5

I would like to thank the hotel for allowing two extra hours before having to check out, that helped a lot with a late flight back home! Taking the shuttle bus back is again relaxing and pleasant, although it takes well over an hour to cover the relatively modest 30 km in the beginning rush traffic. Again I get the impression that Charles de Gaulle is really large, with the six sub-terminals attached to each other, and again thanking unseen powers for having to go to 2G somewhere out in the fields ;)

Final thoughts: Paris is a grand city and quite impressive with its size and majestic grandeur. But I will not rank it as among my favourites, nor will I expect to come back at least in a while. My favourites therefore are: Prague, Vienna, St Petersburg (Rome has been pushed down after the third visit and a couple of downsides to it).

 


UNESCO sites visited:

Paris, Banks of the Seine

Palace and Park of Versailles


 

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