Before our trip started, Amy had contacted numerous couchsurfing hosts in Paris. So even though we had Julien and Michelle’s place to ourselves, we had made plans to stay with a host, Fabien, and he sounded like such a great guy to hang out with that we packed up all of our stuff and headed back across the right bank to the 11th Arrondissement, not too far from Sheila and Austin’s place. It is always hard to pack everything up after spreading out and having tons of space.
We had plans to meet up with Sheila, Austin, Gus, and Jenn for an early dinner again at Chartier. Before that happened, we wanted to finally make it to Parc des Buttes Chaumont. This was the 4th time we had planned to go. Ideally with such a big and sprawling park, we would have a few hours. Unfortunately, we will have to save major exploring of this park for our next time in Paris. It was about a 1/2 hour walk from Fabien’s and without a convenient metro stop to get us there quickly, we had less than an hour to hang out in the park. We set up shop on top of a steep hill overlooking tons of people enjoying the scene and each other. We didn’t get to walk to the pond with the island, but more south Asians tried to sell us Heineken.
We rode the metro back to Chartier to meet up for dinner at 7 before the crowds of people got there. It was a good thing we did because the line was very long just 30 minutes after we sat down. We ordered a string of traditional French food and shared it at the table. Fois gras, endives and Roquefort, smoked herring, steak tartare, duck confit, and poop sausage. Everything was great except for the poop sausage, poor Gus. He took it like a very polite champ. We were all eating, but he didn’t seem to like his dish. We each took a taste and it really tasted like poop. Gross.
After dinner, Sheila and Austin left to meet up with some friends and the four of us who remained headed to the Eiffel tower. We couldn’t get enough. We walked a completely different way and sat down in a green space near a giant fountain. The fountain nearly drenched dozens of unsuspecting tourists when it was suddenly turned on full blast.
Jenn and Gus are tons of fun and we had a blast taking pictures, eating another baguette, cheese, and more wine. At 10 the Eiffel tower began to sparkle again and it was glorious. Nathan started experimenting with the camera, using the lights of the Eiffel tower to paint the picture. Our couchsurfing host Fabien is into light painting as well, which is why Nathan was inspired to try his hand at it.
A beautiful evening just couldn’t end, so we went off to find a hang out spot recommended by Fabien called Place de Tokyo where there were people who played with fire. We had to check it out. It was awesome. On one side of the plaza there were a few people playing with fire. A unicyclist, skateboarders, a balance beam. On the other side were about 75 people swing dancing. Many of them we had met at Austin’s surprise party because they are swing dance instructors. Above us was a posh cafe. A lot of Paris is this way, many people in public places enjoying the good life. We were doing the same. We headed off a bit early because tomorrow was the end of the Tour de France and we wanted to be prepared for a monster day.
We got up the earliest we had for the entire trip to head to Giverny, the home of Monet during the last few decades of his life. Many of his most famous paintings were painted there, notably the giant water lilies we’d seen at the l’Orangerie. Monet had a house and extensive gardens, both the water gardens and flower gardens. He designed, planted and maintained everything himself, and his landscaping style is rambling and natural, very unlike the gardens at Versailles or those seen elsewhere around Paris.
The train ride is a little less than an hour, and takes you to Vernon, which is little ways away from Giverny. It was recommended to us to rent bicycles to get from Vernon to Giverny. We did so, and had a lovely morning ride through the countryside of France. It felt great to be away from the crowds of people that are everywhere you go in Paris, and to breathe the fresh air. It was about a half hour bike ride, and we had to wait in line just a few minutes to begin our tour of Monet’s house and gardens.
We started in the gardens behind his house, and just enjoyed the natural beauty of the flowers. It truly is like being inside an impressionist painting when you’re there. Young people run around with wheelbarrows, tending the plants behind the scenes – what an amazing summer job to have. There are also some free range chickens of unusual breeds. When Monet lived here, he kept chickens for daily fresh eggs for the family.
Sitting on a bench just soaking in the beauty, we thought of both of our moms. Nathan’s mom is an artist and has always loved Monet, particularly his water lily paintings. She hasn’t been to see them or to see Giverny, but Nathan could see her really enjoying both and hopes she gets to go sometime with brushes and canvas.
Amy’s mom Rebecca is a landscape designer and Master Gardener. At Versailles, Amy kept on thinking about how inspired her mother was when she visited King Louis XIV’s gardens. It was on such a grand scale, and magnificent. But Giverny is magnificent too, but in a completely different way. It very much reminded us of all of the planning and hard work Rebecca puts in to creating a masterpiece garden. Giverny felt much like home to Amy.
We made our way to the water gardens, where the water lilies grow and weeping willows dip down into the streams and ponds. Many people were sketching and painting the scene, and we sat down to do the same. Well, Nathan drew while Amy took a nap. Of course the water garden is pretty crowded. The grass looked so beautiful, it looked like the perfect nap spot. But you weren’t allowed on the grass and so we had to fight for spots of benches. Amy had envisioned just being able to chill out where Monet had, it didn’t quite turn out that way. But it was still just beautiful.
We walked back to his house to visit the interior. Monet had an extensive collection of Japanese woodblock prints from Hiroshige and Hokusai; Amy particularly loves Hiroshige’s style and we both enjoyed seeing the collection. It’s also fun to be in the house and look out a window and see the gardens, thinking about what it would have been like to have that for your view each day.
We left Monet’s house and bought some sandwiches, finding a little spot of grass by the Impressionism Museum to picnic. Then we biked back to Vernon, and went down by the lake to take a nap. The Fat Tire Bike Tour group was just finishing up their lunch and headed to Giverny. Out on the lake we could see the remnants of a Norman stone bridge. In fact, Giverny and Vernon are in Normandy, and there are a lot of half timbered houses which are interesting and fun to see. We tried to take a nap but there were too many bugs and things falling from the tree whose shade we were under. So we got up and went back to the train station, returned the bikes, and caught the train back to Paris.
Sheila had invited us to a surprise birthday party for Austin, which we were happily able to make it to after getting back. A large group of their friends showed up at L’Assassin, a restaurant near their apartment. Austin and Sheila showed up, and Austin was surprised. We had good beer (Delerium Tremens on tap) and good food, and got to know some of their friends, including some Americans who were studying in Spain: Gus and Jen. Eventually we got tired and left the party heading back to crash after a long, fun day.
As our time in Paris neared an end, we continued knocking things off our list that we hadn’t gotten to yet. Many people had recommended going to a traditional (if not touristy) French restaurant called Chartier. We decided to go for lunch, when prices are more reasonable and lines are shorter. It’s a large restaurant that kind of looks like the interior of a train station, with rows of tables along what look like the luggage racks of a train. We were sat down next to another couple that was finishing up and soon left, and soon after another couple was sat down next to us (they fill all the seats). The couple was from England and we had fun hearing about each others’ vacations.
Paper menus are printed daily and of course are only in French. We looked to the recommended menu for suggestions and decided to try the entree (starter/appetizer): terrine. We didn’t know what that was… it’s a cold slab of ground up mystery meat. Amy was not a fan. Nathan enjoyed it. For our mains, we tried a white fish dish and roasted chicken with fries. Both were good (not great).
After lunch, we walked to the Pompidou for a second visit to see the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective exhibition (it hadn’t been included on the museum pass). We had to pay full price again unfortunately, but it was well worth it. We both enjoy Lichtenstein’s work and this show was extensive and well put together. One strange thing was that if you got too close to a painting a little alarm would go off. Although there were lines on the floor, it was all too easy for a stray elbow or pointing camera to go over the edge, so the alarms were going off a lot. We wouldn’t want to work there.
There was another large solo show in this part of the Pompidou by an artist named Simon Hantaï, who is known for twisting and folding large canvases, painting them, and unfolding them – think sophisticated tie dye. Some of them were pretty cool.
Near the entrance to the museum there was a small interactive exhibit primarily targeted towards kids, with clay and magnets and various other art objects to play with. A clever installation of bicycle reflectors instructed the viewer to photograph it with the flash on to reveal the true nature of the installation (your flash lights up all the reflectors).
We wanted to make sure we maximized our visit, so we walked through some group exhibitions from young contemporary artists that sounded interesting. But in reality, they were strange, disturbing, and sloppy, so we breezed through them quickly.
Outside the entrance a huge fiberglass ice cream cone appears to have been dropped and left melting on the open courtyard. Looking at the clock and our plans for the rest of the evening, we decided that we once again couldn’t make it to Parc des Buttes Chaumont, and went directly to the river cruise, which left right across from the Eiffel tower. We picked up Vietnamese sandwiches on the way and a bottle of wine. We were herded like cattle onto the river boat, where cheesy music started playing. The best part of the cruise was being able to sit. There’s one pretty cool view of Notre Dame, but you’re too low to see the buildings when you’re on the Seine, so all you can see is trees. We did see a bunch of people dancing right along the river, which was pretty cool. And you get a good sense of how many people hang out and picnic/drink/chat along the river during the summer (tons of people). But we wouldn’t recommend a river cruise in Paris. Amsterdam, worth it; Paris, definitely not.
The catacombs opened at 10 am, so we figured that getting there at 9:30 would’ve been sufficient. We were wrong. At least the line wrapped only half way around the little roundabout where the entrance was located, instead of all the way around like it did yesterday. Despite it being so early, it was really hot and we tried to rotate so that we’d get evenly cooked by the sun.
Two hours later, we were finally descending into the depths of Paris. It was dark and cold and wet, but marvelous. You walk through all of these tunnels and then after 15 minutes you enter into the Domain of the Dead filled with the bones of more than 6 million Parisians. It would have been a very strange job to dig up graveyards, transport them underneath Paris, arrange them into walls and mosaic-esque designs, sometimes 80 feet deep!
The long bones formed the basic structure, with the ends of femurs lined up in rows and columns. Skulls missing lower jawbones are placed to form patterns in the walls. There are other mysterious things, like deep water wells glowing eerily, and small scale models of buildings, carved out of stone and hidden in random niches along the walkway.
After we reemerged into the land of the living, we headed back to the apartment to chill out and do some blogging and rest our feet before our planned climb of the 669 steps to the 2nd level of the Eiffel Tower.
We picked up picnic stuff and headed off at about 5 to go to Parc de Buttes Chaumont, which we had been meaning to go to when we stayed at Austin and Sheila’s because it was a 15-20 minute walk. It turns out that leaving at rush hour was a terrible idea. The metros were really crowded and incredibly hot. Our metro also broke down, numerous times, leaving everyone (or at least us) to wonder if we’d all get stuck in between two stations.
So we hopped off once it reached the next station and decided once again to skip Parc de Buttes Chaumont. It turns out that pretty much anywhere you get off the metro in Paris, you’ll have an awesome spot for a picnic. We ended up near Canal Saint-Martin, which we had also been meaning to visit. We spread our blanket and got to work on our bread, cheese, meat, fruit, chocolate, and beer. Later we walked along the canal a bit and over one of the pedestrian bridges to get some pictures.
It was finally time to visit the Eiffel Tower and make our way up to the 2nd level. The heat was breaking a bit as the sun neared the horizon. We waited in the shorter “stairs only” line, and chatted with a group of guys from the US who were on a whirlwind tour of Europe. They had little champagne bottles to celebrate once they got to the top. Most of them were able to get through the security checkpoint, but one guy didn’t. Instead of trashing his bottle, he decided to drink it immediately, before climbing up the stairs. We laughed and hoped that he would make it without too much dizzyness.
The climb was on. Step by step, we spiraled up from the bottom to the first floor: 328 steps. The view was stunning and we were glad to have started the climb when we did in the early evening, as the light was really beautiful with the sun slowly setting. We continued the climb to the second level: 669 steps total. The sun continued to set and we walked around along the crowded fenceline, enjoying the magical view.
When we first arrived in Paris, Amy was set on going all the way to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but Nathan thought that the 2nd level would be sufficient. However, when the moment came, we had a role reversal and Nathan wanted to go to the top, and Amy didn’t care. As a side note, Amy was already a little nervous at being so high up (~400 feet at this point) and the thought of going in a small elevator shaft encased in glass up to nearly 1000 feet was pretty scary.
After some deliberating, Amy deferred to Nathan and we bought an inexpensive ticket up the elevator to the 3rd level. As the elevator ascended, Amy’s grip on Nathan’s hand tightened. But once we reached the top, everything was so beautiful. The sun set and lights started to come on around the city. The rosy scene turned violet as we reached the top at 281 meters above street level.
A young Ukranian couple asked us to take a photo of them; we did so and asked them to return the favor. They took the first photo without flash and it was too dark. We turned on the flash and the guy took the second photo. He looked down at the camera to see if it was good, and a look of concern crossed his face. “What is that?” he said in a thick accent. We looked at the camera and started laughing. The bag Nathan was wearing has retroreflective material on it (to make it visible at night) and the flash had illuminated the bag into a glowing mass. Unfortunately the bag was positioned around his midsection; hence the concern from the guy (you can see for yourself what he saw here). A quick rotation of the bag and a final photo and we were all happy.
Satisfied with our time on the tower, we went down to relax on the green space to the southeast of the tower, where tons of people hang out and (of course) picnic, drink and talk. It’s nice to have a tasty beverage when you’re sitting out on the grass at night in Paris. We didn’t have anything on us due to the restrictions of what could be brought up the Eiffel Tower. Not to worry… there are throngs of young men, mostly from south Asia, hawking beverages, muttering “1 euro, 1 euro” or “water 1 euro”, or “cold beer, cigarette”. Some have wine or champagne with them as well.
A guy approached us, and Amy asked him how much for a beer. He said “5 euro” and she said “no thank you”. He said “how much?” and she said “2 euro”. He came back with “3 for 10”. But what we really wanted was some wine. Amy asked him “how much for the bottle of red?” and he said “25 euro”. She said “oh, no thanks.” He said “4 beer and wine, 20 euro”. Amy painstakingly counted out her coins, and countered “I only have 10 euro for the wine” and he went for it. The barter queen strikes again! (There might have been another 20 euro hidden somewhere).
As night comes on, the Tower lights up with various colors. Right now, it’s red, green, blue and yellow in an arrangement that mimics the South African flag, in honor of Nelson Mandela. Throughout our time there have been numerous events throughout the city honoring Mr. Mandela. Also, on the hour starting at 10pm, there’s a sparkling light show for about 5 minutes that everyone stops to Oooo and Ahhh at. Although it’s touristy, it’s also magical, or at least was for us!
We needed a rest day. After a long and awesome week of tourist activities, our brains needed a break. Julien and Michelle kindly offered to let us stay at their place while they were on vacation, and they were supposed to leave today, but were delayed by train problems. There had been a bad train wreck south of Paris a few days before, and the cleanup and investigation was still ongoing. That was the direction Julien and Michelle would be headed, so they had to figure out an alternative way to get there besides the train.
After sleeping in, we met up with Sheila for some delicious Asian food in our new neighborhood on the left bank. She and Austin had returned the night before from their cruise and we gave them their apartment back and the key. Each restaurant we went to was not open for continuous service. Many places shut down in the afternoon to change out the menu. We had just had Vietnamese food a few nights before so we walked right past Pho 14 (yes, there are so many that they are numbered). But our path eventually led back to this delightful gem and we had the best Pho we ever had! Pho if you don’t know is a wonderful Vietnamese noodle soup and is amazing! It was great to catch up with Sheila, hearing about her experiences in Italy and Croatia on her cruise, and telling her about our experiences in Paris.
We left Sheila, and headed back to Julien and Michelle’s apartment and chilled out. The four of us ordered in (pizza; four different kinds) and debated which movie to watch. We settled on Boy. Have you heard of it? We hadn’t, but we recommend it. It is an independent film from New Zealand and had a great sound track and dialogue. Oh, and the pizza was really delicious. You could taste the distinct flavors of all of the different cheeses used in the four cheese pizza!
Montparnasse, Luxembourg Gardens, Street Skate
The skyline of Paris is world famous. Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees, Montparnasse… wait, Mont par what? It happens to tourists all of the time. You’re looking out at the city from the top of Parc de Belleville or the steps of Sacre Coure and you see old buildings and older buildings and the Eiffel Tower and strange new buildings like the Pompidou. And then you see a giant, ugly, out of place skyscraper. That’s Montparnasse.
Parisians hate it too, but there’s one big plus. Thanks to the 1970s architecture, we have an awesome building to see Paris from and the building of course disappears from the skyline if you’re on it. We paid top euro for this much famed view. Unfortunately, it was a bit hazy at the top of this 60-story monstrosity. You’re pretty far south of the main city and so while we liked the view, we preferred the view we’d seen from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. There was one additional point of interest though: the window washers. There’s a contraption that the window washers can operate to drop themselves down and around the outside of the skyscraper. No thanks!
From the top of Montparnasse, we descended Europe’s fastest elevator and headed off to the catacombs. The catacombs span many miles under Paris and many people go hang out in the tunnels, mostly illegally. Young people on adventures and secret clubs that pop up for a few hours.
But then there is an official entrance – a tourist attraction that everyone told us that we had to see. It’s always busy for many reasons, but two would be that there is no sun and is under ground so it is nice and cool. The other reason is that a few centuries ago the city officials decided to make more room for living people by emptying the cemeteries and placing the bones underground and arranging them in various ways. So that sounds weird, but also cool.
As it turns out, the line was way too long and we decided to come back another day, to get there earlier before it opened.
We headed toward the Pantheon to see Foucault’s pendulum (a giant pendulum that reveales the rotation of the earth by the way it’s orbit shifts) but it was undergoing restoration… for the next three years! It’s supposed to be a pretty cool building inside with Victor Hugo and other famous people buried there, but we decided to skip it.
Instead we grabbed sandwiches and headed to the nearby Luxembourg garden. This is a giant city park that may be familiar to many people for its famous pond where you can sail the little sailboats. It’s pretty cool: young kids (mostly) push their rented little boats off of one side of the pond with sticks and then joyously watch it cross the pond with the help of the wind. A boat almost was stuck under a fountain’s waterfall in the middle; it submerged and then came out the other side. Nathan loved watching this process unfold and said he would definitely be doing that if he were a child here. After eating we walked around the park watching Parisians soaking in the sun, or lounging in the shade, or even playing chess.
We had yet to see the inside of Notre Dame, so we headed over to Our Lady of Paris after lunch only to be overwhelmed by yet another long line. We watched a few minutes to see how fast it would go and it wasn’t a bad wait at all; about 10 minutes and we were in. The first thing we noticed was how dark it was compared to the other churches like Sainte Chapelle, whose walls are 75% stained glass. Once our eyes adjusted to the dim light, we found a seat and just sat back and enjoyed the peace and beauty of this incredible cathedral. It’s huge, with bursts of light from the stained glass far above, very impressive and mysterious but we missed the glorious light of Sainte Chappelle.
Amy had been invited to another street skate by Eloise, but this time she was prepared for the streets of Paris with all of her gear. She met the girls at Gare de Lyon and the heat was intense even at 7 pm! Every few minutes looking up at cool stuff in Paris was very surreal. Oh, there’s a famous building; and another one. It was awesome. It was tough to keep up with these girls. Amy had no idea how long they would be skating – it ended up being about two hours in all. Their skating ability and stamina were awesome and Amy is inspired to join in more trail skates at home. She felt it really helped her skating to see all of the places and obstacles they encountered on every skate. Inspiration!
Nate cooked a delightful curried lentils and potatoes and we called it a night. We were determined to get a good sleep and get up early to get in line for the catacombs.