From the Depths to the Heights of Paris

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IMG_1365The 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.

IMG_1372Two 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!

IMG_1375The 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.

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Amy excited by her new sunglasses, since she had been going without for a few days after her old ones broke

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IMG_1420It 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_1497A 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!

Versailles

We dedicated the last day of our museum pass to Versailles, the palatial complex built by various kings and queens of France (mainly Louis XIV in the late 17th century) to escape the rigors of public life in Paris, and to impress various constituents at home and abroad. It’s a little over a half hour train ride from Paris to Versailles.  It is a place of grandeur, built to reflect the immense ego of the Sun King.  Every angle and detail designed to put you in your rightful place far below the king.  So of course, we were curious to see if it would live up to its reputation.

Versailles is so popular, especially in the summer, that you either have to get up really early and get there before it opens, or get there in the middle of the day and do the normal route backwards. We decided to take the latter option, and headed to Versailles at about 11am. We had a rough idea of what to do based on our tour guidebook. But there were a number of things that we couldn’t really know.

It’s hard to understand how big Versailles is until you get there. It’s like going to an entire different city in and of itself. Not just a beautiful palace and gardens… it was built to be an escape from Paris, and they kept building palaces to escape further. Sometimes they built palaces to escape from their palaces. It’s all rather ironic.

Anyway, we got off the train with the idea that we would go check out Marie Antoinette’s area of Versailles, which opens at noon and is in the back, away from the main chateau that most people queue up for. Unfortunately, the maps we had were somewhat confusing and we found ourselves in one of those lines that we were trying to avoid, only to discover that we could have bypassed it altogether. There were just SOOOOO many people there, it was like being herded around like cattle, through various gates and barriers.

After that mishap, we got some direction and headed towards what looked like an opening into the gardens on our map, that we could enter, rent a bike, and ride up to the secondary area. Amy hadn’t done most of the research, so she was shocked at how far away Marie Antoinette’s chateau was. At the train station, the guy told us it would be a 20 minute walk and it wasn’t worth waiting for the bus that only ran once an hour between the train station and Marie Antoinette’s area. This may have been true, but we made a few mistakes that extended our journey (a common theme for us… it’s hard to over-research for these things; we tend to under-research).

First off, when we got to the side entrance to the gardens, we found out that we weren’t able to purchase the special garden tickets that were required in addition to our museum passes (due to it being a special musical fountain day at Versailles). So, we had to take a longer route through the town. Eventually we got to a bike rental station, but we forgot our identification which made it impossible to rent bikes (the alternative to an ID was a 100 euro per person deposit). Continuing on foot, we took the long way accidentally, which to be fair was quite a beautiful walk through the countryside, but started to wear on us as it was quite a long walk and we were hungry and thirsty and tired.  We did like that it felt like we were miles…or kilometers, away from the masses back at the entrance to the main chateau.

IMG_1152Eventually, we made it to Marie Antoinette’s estate. We toured a few of the “mini palaces” and marveled at the scale and beauty of this escape. As we wandered into the rest of the estate, we laughed about Marie’s desire to live a “simple peasant lifestyle”, which she attempted to accomplish by building a little farming village with thatched roof homes, animals, footbridges, etc staffed by many servants that she could walk around dressed in her simple white peasant’s dress. Of course, the farming village also had an extensive library, places to perform live theater, and other such “necessities”. Very fun to wander around as it’s quite beautiful and makes you feel like you’re in a movie.  Marie Antoinette’s unfortunate end comes into a different light when you look at the disconnect between her desire for simplicity and the extravagance of her actual lifestyle.

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Amy was worried about running low on time, so we kept on pushing forward with our itinerary, which next included the main gardens of Versailles. We had to ask for some clarification on whether the next entrance to the gardens that was close to us would allow us to buy the special access tickets. After finding out that it would, we headed that way, and made it to the base of the Grand Canal, just outside the gardens. We picked up some sandwiches and coffee, and sat down by the canal in the shade, taking a much needed break. There were people all over the place. Near us, there were families picnicing, and young people playing with soccer balls and flirting with each other. Further away on the canal, there were people in rowboats, and up the hill towards the gardens and main chateau there were hundreds of people exploring Versailles. Nathan said it felt like being inside Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (the one in Ferris Beuler’s Day Off, for those of you who get that reference).

After lunch, we bought tickets to the gardens, grabbed a map, and began our own exploration. The scale is just monumental. You can wander the gardens for hours. On days like today, the fountains are all running, some of them synchronized to classical music blasting from the bushes. Many of the fountains and their water special effects were built over 300 years ago – ridiculous! There are many moments when you’re wandering through the gardens of Versailles where you turn a corner and something magnificent, unexpected, and just cool greets you.

Amy's sunglasses broke, but were still necessary, hence the crookedness :)
Amy’s sunglasses broke, but were still necessary, hence the crookedness 🙂

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IMG_1236We wound our way towards the main chateau, making sure to get there in time to get through and see especially the Hall of Mirrors. Once again we were herded like cattle through room after room of sumptuous furniture, wall hangings, paintings, and architectural details. There were SOOOOOOO many people! We can’t emphasize that enough. Once you get to the Hall of Mirrors, however, it opens up a bit and you can pause, take in the beauty, and take some pictures, which we of course did.

We knew Versailles would be incredible – and it was that and more. We just kept looking at each other, wondering if it was real or if we were in a movie or a dream. At the same time, it was so crowded that it was a bit exhausting and overwhelming.

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On our way out, Amy found a new skill: bartering. She wanted the Versailles postcard set (12 not so great postcards of the different parts of Versailles). You could buy it for 12 euro inside; outside, the hawkers were offering it for 5. Amy got a pretty good set for 3 euro. High on her victory, she saw a guy selling water, and he also had a can of Coke (which she was craving). So she walked up to him and asked how much? He said 2 euro; she said “no, no, no” and kept walking. He said “1 coke and 1 water for 3 euro” and she said “no, I’m ok”. She kept walking, and he said “how much?” and she said “1 euro” and he accepted. Nathan was a bit wowed and asked her where she had acquired these skills. She said, “I don’t know, but I would have paid 5 euro for that Coke – good thing he didn’t know that!”