September 10, 2010 - Paris, France

“PARIS! I CANNOT believe we are in PARIS right now! This is crazy!” That’s all I could keep saying to Nic, Carly and Maria as we walked the streets of one of the greatest cities in the world!

I suppose I should backtrack a bit…

A day or two before we arrived at our first port in France: Honfleur, Carly filled me in on the news that the small vacation port was only 2 hours away from Paris, and a transfer could not only be accessible, but even easy. Well, enough said! I was in! I had no idea how close we were to Paris, but now that I did, I wasn’t about to give up the opportunity!

So, bright and early at 7:30 on the Friday morning of September 10th, Carly, Nic, Maria and I all met in the hall and then proceeded to the train station. I suppose it stands to mention that because of a miscommunication, we were actually docked in a port named Le Havre, not Honfleur, which actually worked out better because we were even closer to a train station. I also should mention where the random group member came from. Maria is the keyboardist in the orchestra. She is Ukrainian and visiting Paris has always been a dream for her. (Her three favorite composers are from there). Anyway, Sharmaine, being her roommate, knew all of this and asked us if we would mind if she tagged along. Of course we didn’t! Where was Kaitlyn? You might be wondering? Well, having been to Paris before, she said she just wasn’t up for it. We missed her, but we understood. Although, as a joke, all day long we kept referring to Maria as Kaitlyn!

The train ride to Paris was just as predicted – 2 hours, which went extremely fast for me seeing as how I was sleeping the entire time. I had partied a little too hard that night before for Beckie’s birthday celebrations and needed all the rest I could get. Nic and Carly found my sleeping positions not only very funny, snapping some photos along the way, but also embarrassing as well. They said people kept coming on the train and looking at me as though I was a bum. Haha! Oh well, at least I got my extra zzz’s! I was ready to take on Paris!

When we walked out of the train station the first thing that I noticed was nothing French at all, but rather the most American thing existing – Starbucks! Now, don’t get me wrong, this didn’t bother me in the slightest! In fact, it made all of us rather excited, especially Carly! We haven’t been in the same city as a Starbuck’s for months (none to be found in the Baltic) and it was definitely something she has been craving for quite some time! So there you have it, folks! The very first thing we did in Paris? – order Starbucks’! And now, with mochas and lattes in hand, we were ready to take on the city like nobody has before. We had to! After all, we only had one day (only hours really) to see as much of Paris as possible!

If there’s a problem with a trip to Paris, it’s the embarrassment of riches that faces you. No matter which Paris you choose – touristy, historic, fashion-conscious, pretentious-bourgeois, thrifty, or the legendary bohemian-arty Paris of undying attraction – one thing is for certain: you will carve out your own Paris, one that is vivid, exciting, and ultimately unforgettable. Paris is a city of vast, noble, perspectives and intimate, ramshackle streets, of formal espaces vertes (green open spaces) and quiet squares – and this combination of the pompous and the private is one of the secrets of its perennial pull.

For the first-timer, there will always be several “musts” at the top of the list, but a visit to Paris will never be quite as simple as a quick look at Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower. Every quartier, or neighborhood, has its own treasures, and you should be ready to explore – a very pleasant prospect in this most elegant of cities.

Yes, we were first-timers, and we were on a mission! We had already planned to see the three major attractions listed above, but added to our list was the Arc de Triomphe. We put Nic in charge of the map and before we knew it, he had come up with the best course for the day. We were walking the streets of Paris en route to our first sight to see, the famous arch.

Cue me: “PARIS! I CANNOT believe we are in PARIS right now! This is crazy!”

I don’t know what it was about Paris, but I felt so special and lucky for being there that day. It’s a little odd, seeing as how I’ve been to places far more unique and not as traveled, places that hardly anyone would ever get to see. I’m talking about places like Komodo Island, Indonesia and Ghana, West Africa. Who goes there!? But for some reason, I was more amazed, shocked and in awe that I was actually in Paris! I suppose it must have something to do with the exposure of it all. Everyone knows Paris. You can’t help but grow up seeing images and movies based in the dramatic city. It’s everywhere! And now, today, I was here! Wow!

We all went giddy as we arrived at the Arc de Triomphe! Talk about tourists! We were probably the worst of them all! We were so excited that all four of us immediately started posing and asking for pictures. If the pinching wasn’t working, this famous triumphal arch certainly was doing the trick to remind us that, “Yes. You actually are in Paris! Now get over it!”

This 164-foot arch was planned by Napoleon to celebrate his military success. Yet when Empress Marie-Louise entered Paris in 1810, it was barely off the ground. Napoleon had been dead for 15 years when the Arc de Triomphe was finished in 1836. The arch looms over place Charles-de-Gaulle, referred to by Parisians as L’Etoile (The Star), one of Europe’s most chaotic traffic circles. Short of attempting a death-defying dash, your only way to get over to the Arc de Triomphe is to take the pedestrian underpass. France’s Unknown Soldier is buried beneath the archway; the flame is rekindled every evening at 6:30.

Although it took us a while to discover the correct underpass to use, we eventually did find our way to the other side of the circle, right under the arch. It was awesome! I do have to admit, however, that the “death-defying dash” did come into play when we ventured out into the roads for a quick photo shoot, but it allowed for us capture some really great pictures! And nobody got hurt!

So…happy, healthy, and injury-free, we set off for our next adventure – the Eiffel Tower! As we were walking there, we came across many more of these traffic circles, but none as frenzied as the first. All of them, however, caused a very roundabout way of travel. It seemed like we were always at a crosswalk. During our walk, I was surprised that, as we kept clearing building after building, I still could not see the Eiffel Tower, not even a glimpse. I had just assumed that it was visible from every part of the city. And because I couldn’t see it, I questioned how big it actually was. Was my image of it all these years too exaggerated? Was the Eiffel Tower really this small, diminutive clone of the figure I had in my head?

I am happy to report the answer to both of those questions is a resounding, “NO.”

What is now the worldwide symbol of Paris nearly became 7,000 tons of scrap iron when its concession expired in 1909 – now much loved, it was once widely derided by Parisians as too big and too modern. Only its potential use as a radio antenna saved the day. Architect Gustave Eiffel, whose skill as an engineer earned him fame as a builder of iron bridges, created his tower for the World Exhibition of 1889. Restoration in the 1980’s didn’t make the elevators any faster, but decent shops and two good restaurants were added. The view from 1,000 feet up will enable you to appreciate the city’s layout and proportions.

The Eiffel Tower was perfect! And I am happy to report that once it came into my sight, standing majestically off the Seine River, it was everything I had ever dreamed it to be. It was romantic. It was grand. It was dreamy. And it was proud. As I was staring across the water at this iconic structure, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with feelings. Not anything deep or melodramatic, but plain and simple happiness. Seeing the Eiffel Tower made me happy. I couldn’t help but smile as I stood there staring at it. I probably would’ve been there all day, too, if Carly hadn’t brought me back to life with a picture request. When I snapped out of it, there she was, posed and ready to be photographed.

If you haven’t noticed by now, our day in Paris included many, many photo shoots. Onlookers probably thought we were absolutely insane. One by one, we would all pose and get our pictures taken. Then, if somebody came up with a different, more creative pose or saw a better backdrop, every one of us would instantly want the same exact picture. So, needless to say, we came home from Paris with more pictures of ourselves than necessary, but at least we had several to choose from!

With that being said, after we got our fill of pictures from across the river, we made our way over the bridge and directly underneath the Eiffel Tower, where we instantly got in line (with hundreds of others) to head straight to the top! The line was long, but we didn’t care. This was our main goal of the day! I mean, we couldn’t go all the way to Paris and come home not being able to say:  “We climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower!” And the good news is we didn’t have to! We did it! We made it all the way to the top!

Actually, we stopped first at the second level (didn’t bother visiting the first), where we walked around all four sides to take in the breathtaking views of the city below and, of course, take loads of pictures. I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of my favorite movies, “(National Lampoon’s) European Vacation”, when Clark throws Rusty’s hat off the side of the tower and a dog jumps off to catch it, landing safely in the Seine below. It made me laugh! Anyway, the panoramic view of the city was completely incredible, especially the Palais de Chaillot in the distance, perfectly symmetrical and exquisitely proportioned, just like the rest of the city.

Then, we boarded another elevator to head to the very top of the tower, something we weren’t positive we were going to be able to do at first. Apparently, the top often gets closed due to crowd congestion. But, as I mentioned earlier, we were very lucky and had the chance to make the ascent. The ride in the elevator was pretty thrilling. It just kept climbing, higher and higher. It was like when you are on a rollercoaster and you don’t know how tall the first hill is. When will it end? When it finally did stop, we made our way outside, and were blown away!

Of course we were staring at the same exact city that we had one level lower, but from up here, it was even more magical – everything a bit more miniature, yet equally as lovely. It was at this point that I realized something that I hadn’t noticed while walking, and that is how extremely white Paris is. I had taken note of the city’s cleanliness and pristine appearance on street level, but it didn’t register how literally white everything is. You will be able to see what I am talking about in the photographs of the buildings from above. They all match – blending whites amongst parks and trees of green. Beautiful!

I believe we spent close to three hours visiting the Eiffel Tower. Even after we had made our way back down to ground level, we walked to the end of the park to have another photo shoot with the tower in the background. It was then that I got one of my favorite pictures of the whole journey so far – me in midair, jumping in front of the Eiffel Tower! It was also then that it hit us how absolutely BRILLIANT the sky was! The weather was perfect! We could not have asked for a better day! But what really stuck out was how incredibly beautiful and vivid the sky was. It was an incredible shade of blue, with just the right amount of bright white clouds to show contrast. You’ll notice what I am talking about when you see the pictures. They almost look fake!

At this point, although hunger and fatigue were showing its first signs, we knew we had to keep on truckin’ if we wanted to make it to our final two destinations, not to mention, do some souvenir shopping. So, with some pep in our steps, we continued, en route to Notre-Dame. I am happy to report that along the way we found a souvenir shop where we were all able to find gifts and trinkets. This did, however, set us back some, so we ended up taxiing to the cathedral.

If I’m being honest, at this point of the trip, we were running so tight on our schedule that the stops we made were almost just for the pictures. We certainly didn’t have time to go inside the Notre-Dame Cathedral, let alone make it to the famous bell tower, but we did have time for a brief photo stop, and a moment to let it all sink in.

The cathedral of Notre-Dame remains Paris’s historic and geographic heart, a place of worship for more than 2,000 years (the present building is the fourth on this site). Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo sought sanctuary in its towers, kings and princes married before its great altar, and Napoleon crowned his empress here. The magnificent structure was begun in 1163, making it one of the earliest Gothic cathedrals, but wasn’t finished until 1345.

Next, we hoofed it over to the Lourve, where, again, we just had the time to capture some pictures and admire the outside. I have to say, I was very impressed by the museum. In this instance, I wasn’t expecting something so huge and dominating. And then, add in the glassed pyramids! It was all such a spectacle of modern mixed with classic. The appealing exterior made me wish even more that I had the time to go in and see the famous Mona Lisa!

Once a royal palace, now the world’s largest and most famous museum, the Louvre has been given fresh purpose by more than a decade of expansion, renovation, and reorganization, symbolized by I. M. Pei’s daring glass pyramid that now serves as the entrance to both the museum and an underground shopping arcade, the Carrousel du Louvre. Many thousands of treasures are newly cleaned and lighted, so plan on seeing it all – from the red-brocaded Napoleon III salons to the fabled Egyptian collection, from the 186-carat Regent Diamond to the rooms crowded with Botticellis, Caravaggios, Poussins, and Gericaults. After all the renovations, the Louvre is now a coherent, unified structure with a more spacious and navigable layout.

Once we finished at the Louvre, it was back to the train station. Our only pause in stride came when a photo stop was requested in front of the Opera House. Aside from that, it was full steam ahead. It was when we finally did make it to the train station that everybody lost their steam. It was clear that with no food for hours and a bit of exhaustion was making our tempers a little short, so after we had our tickets in hand, we immediately purchased sandwiches and sodas (+ croissant for me) from a local vendor and carried it to the train.

When we boarded the train, we were surprised to see the throngs of people already seated and ready to go. It was a far cry from this morning when I was able to sleep across four seats. Now, we were having trouble finding even two seats next to one another. In fact, we were having trouble finding a seat at all! When we did, we let Maria have it and Nic, Carly and I kept searching…

...and searching…

…and searching…

…Then…well, let’s just say for the first half of a long ride back to Le Havre, Nic, me, and Carly acted as suitcases, stuffing ourselves in the luggage racks, the only place left to sit. So, contorted and tired, we sat there, laughing at ourselves, but finally able to refuel with food!

Our adventure in Paris was by far one of the best days of this trip. Although it was quick, I am so thrilled that I had the opportunity to make it there. It was as though I had jumped into a movie! Seeing the icons I’ve heard so many people talk about, seen so many times on television, and read so many stories on, was a dream come true! Just as the guidebook suggested, we carved out our own Paris. And it was vivid, exciting, and ultimately unforgettable! The city holds true power that I cannot quite explain. All I know is that I cannot wait to return when I have more time to spend. I believe that a week and a half would be the perfect amount of time for a vacation to Paris, and I’m looking forward to the day I am able to mark that return visit on my calendar!

“PARIS! We went to PARIS today!! Isn’t that crazy?!”



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