Journey To The West: Paris

Nothing prepared us for Paris. Even though we had a scrumptious brunch at Le Pain Quotidien (I will later find out that this delicious chain of pastry cafes originated in Brussels, not Paris) at the St. Pancras Station before we departed for Gare du Nord, the French capital would soon present itself in a way that we will remember for life in a span of four short days.

But first – all aboard the Eurostar!!!

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— St Pancras Station – such beauty!
--- All aboard!!!
— All aboard!!!

Boy oh boy! I’ve always wanted to ride on a high-speed rail service and I did not hesitate spending a little bit more for train tickets, even though flying was actually the cheaper option. I chose 2nd class (the cheapest option) and it was even more comfortable than economy seats on a plane. Legroom was aplenty and there’s even a fully equipped bathroom (with a cheeky portrait of the Mona Lisa) at every coach for passengers to freshen up.  The train journey took about 2 hours – from London into the English Channel (underground)  and then Paris – the entire journey was smooth like butter.

Just like their people, the Gare du Nord station tries to minimizes the usage of English as much as it can. The first (very useful) word my mom and I learned was “sortie”, which means exit. I bought a carnet of (10) Metro tickets before we made our way to our Airbnb apartment which was cheaper than buying individual tickets.

--- Gare du Nord Station - one of the most diverse places I've seen.
— Gare du Nord Station – one of the most diverse places I’ve seen.

Here’s the lowdown on the Metro- anyone who complains about our local LRT has probably never taken a Metro before. It’s dirty, it smells like pee and some (not all) of the trains are very, very old – so much so that you actually have to manually open the latch of the door when you reach. But it’s the most efficient way to get around Paris, and the stations serve as temporary shelters from the temperamental Parisian rain  – so we got used to it quite quickly.

--- The Paris Metro. We have a lot to be thankful for our LRT.
— The Paris Metro. We have a lot to be thankful for our LRT.

To understand how Paris works, the city is divided into 20 arrondisements, spiraling outward starting from the Louvre, and split by the Seine river, where we have the Left Bank (“below” the river as in the map) and the Right Bank (“above”. Our AirBnb was located in the 5th arrondisement, which is located at the Quartier Latin, a district dominated by university students.
Carte-Paris-Arrondissement

Our AirBnB apartment was lovely! It was tiny (and so was the elevator – it could barely fit the two of us with one large backpack), but very well-kept. We were greeted by our host’s dad and while he spoke no English, the earlier instructions that were given to me was clear enough so the transaction of the keys went smoothly (although he did come by a second time because he forgot his “chapeau” and it took me five minutes to realize he was referring to his hat). We also found a bottle of red wine as a welcome gift from our host.

--- Our AirBnb near the Campo Formio station - worth every Euro!
— Our AirBnb near the Campo Formio station – worth every Euro!
— This Joan of Arc statue was our northern star as she was on the same street as our crib.

As soon as we settled down, we were off to get some lunch and explored the areas nearby on foot. The skies were cloudy and it wasn’t too cold – perfect. Another reality check came about rather quickly – while it may seem as if all the famous landmarks in Paris are about a stone’s throw away from one another, the hilly roads do make it seem longer than anticipated.  This is why investing in a good pair of quality shoes is very important.

About 15 minutes of walking brought us to the Seine river,  where it was hard to miss the Notre Dame de Paris that stood out majestically. Upon admiring one of the greatest French-Gothic architectures in the world, I remember thinking “This is it.” – that I was really on European soil with mom. I was crossing off one of the major items in my bucket list that I’ve had since I was in school – it was almost emotional.

--- Walking across one of the many bridges along the Seine.
— Walking across one of the many bridges along the Seine. T’was a really cloudy day.
--- And there she was, the Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cite.
— And there she was, the Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cite.
--- We were there. We were really there.
— We were there. We were really there.

Towards the evening we took a cruise with Vedettes du Pont Neuf along the Seine river, where we departed from one of the 26 bridges called Pont Neuf, which is also the city’s oldest bridge, opened by King Henry IV in 1607. It is situated on the west tip of the Ile de la Cite, the same isle that houses the Notre Dame on the east side.  The cruise was a great way to give us an overview of the famous buildings and monuments (not to mention the countless bridges!) of Paris. I believe it would be equally fascinating if we took it at night when the entire city is lit up.

--- Time for a cruise down the Seine!
— Time for a cruise down the Seine!
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— King Henry IV of France who officiated the Pont Neuf
--- Every bridge tells a story. This is the Pont des Invalides - the lowest bridge traversing the Seine
— Every bridge tells a story. This is the Pont des Invalides – the lowest bridge at the Seine
The Pont Alexandre III is described as the most extravagant bridge in the city. In the background is the Grand Palais.
— The Pont Alexandre III is described as the most extravagant bridge in the city. In the background is the Grand Palais.
--- Musee d'Orsay that houses paintings by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and many other famous artists.
— Musee d’Orsay that houses paintings by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and many other artists.
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— Institut de France. There are tons to see along the Seine, it’s a good place to start!
--- And what is a cruise without the sunset? Breathtaking.
— And what is a cruise without the sunset? Breathtaking.

After a well-needed good night’s sleep, mom and I were on our way to the Louvre the next morning. Of course, not before grabbing some delicious croissants and coffee for less than €3 to kick start our day! It’s one of the things I miss most about my trip – the ease of grabbing cheap but quality breakfast on the go. To save a bit of energy, this time we took the Metro to the Lourve.

--- Armed with a croissant and a cup of coffee, we are ready!
— Armed with a croissant and a cup of coffee, we were ready!

The Louvre is, to say the very least, ginormous. I was a bit skeptical when people kept telling me that they needed a few days to cover the place (I mean, how big can an art gallery be?) and now that I’ve been there, I’d have to agree. The Mona Lisa, on the other hand, was a lot smaller than I thought. We got there quite early, and even then there was a small crowd where we had to make our way through to see the portrait. If we were any later I probably would’ve given up entirely.

--- Entrance to the Louvre. It was raining most of the time.
— Entrance to the Louvre. It was raining most of the time.
--- People clamouring to see the Mona Lisa - and we were early!
— People clamouring to see the Mona Lisa – and we were early!
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— The Louvre Pyramids in the main courtyard.
--- Christ Carrying the Cross by Lorenzo Lotto in the Renaissance period was among my favourite pieces there. The pained look on His face was surreal.
— Christ Carrying the Cross by Lorenzo Lotto in the Renaissance period was among my favourite pieces there. The pained look on His face was surreal – if you look closely, you can see a tear on His cheek.
--- There are plenty of statues to see as well. Clockwise from top left: The Winged Victory of Samothrace; Mom being cheeky with Alexander the Great; Osiris and Isis
— There are plenty of statues to see as well. Clockwise from top left: The Winged Victory of Samothrace; Mom being cheeky with Alexander the Great; Osiris and Isis
--- It was very difficult to get a clear shot of the Inverted Pyramid, but no surprise there - everyone wanted to pose like mom did.
— It was very difficult to get a clear shot of the Inverted Pyramid, but no surprise there – everyone wanted to pose like mom did.  Was still quite a majestic sight nonetheless.

As predicted, we couldn’t finish the entire museum and soon we left for the Tuileries Garden to enjoy the sunny outdoors. I was getting the hunch that the French really, really loved their sculptures. And based on the size of their landscape and buildings – it was really go big or go home for them.

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— Not many people are aware of this but there is a baby arc called Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel at the beginning of the Tuileries Garden. It also served as an ad hoc shelter from the rain for some of us.
--- By now I'd have drawn the conclusion that the French really take pride in their gardens and sculptures.
— By now I’d have drawn the conclusion that the French really take pride in their gardens and sculptures.
--- By now I would have figured something - the French take a lot of pride in their gardens and sculptures.
— Of course, one of the rare photos of the photographer.
--- The garden is a really good place to just chill and catch up on some crepes and ice cream...when it's sunny.
— The garden is a really good place to just chill and catch up on some crepes and ice cream.

Pass the garden we soon found ourselves trotting along the Champ Elysees avenue, making our way to the Arc de Triomphe. At this point, my RM29.90 Uniqlo umbrella was becoming our best friend. Now, taking a photo of the Arc de Triomphe was a little tricky. It is, after all, right smack on a roundabout in the middle of the road – which means that traffic is everywhere.

--- Autumn colours accompanying us along the Champ Elysees Avenue
— Autumn colours accompanying us along the Champ Elysees Avenue
--- After a long walk and a few abrupt showers later, we made it!!!
— After a long walk and a few abrupt showers later, we made it!!!
--- The Arc de Triomphe in all her glory.
— The Arc de Triomphe in all her glory.

Next, we were on our way to one of the most beautiful (and dangerous) landmarks of Paris – the Sacre Ceour. This was where my mom almost got her pocket picked when buying a bottle of water at one of the stalls. Initially, she thought the yelling stall keeper was just being rude and impatient (as with many of the French we have encountered in our journey) – as my mom reached for her pocket she felt a cold hand that quickly retracted upon contact. Turns out, the stall keeper was shouting at him for his attempt, and mom was very shaken upon that incident.

Despite all that though, mom recovered very quickly (that, or it was the adrenaline rush talking) and insisted that we finished our climb towards the church, even though I had suggested for us to go elsewhere. Seeing her determination as we climbed each step (it was quite a long climb since this is one of the highest points in the city) touched me – I knew she wanted to make sure our trip was worth it and did not want an incident like this spoil the holiday. I had almost forgotten how strong she can be.

--- On our way to the Sacre Ceour. The streets are steep and surrounded with police and thieves.
— On our way to the Sacre Ceour. The streets are steep and filled with police and thieves.
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— With a sight like that, it’s hard to not be distracted.
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— A closer look: The Sacre Ceour was consecrated after the WWI
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— It is located at the summit of the butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city – it’s worth the climb for a panaromic view of the city.
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— We weren’t allowed to take photos inside to allow the visitors to pray in peace. This was one of the very few shots that I managed to take quietly.
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— Mom was a trooper! She insisted that we finished the climb even though she was quite thrown off by the pickpocket incident. I was extremely impressed and proud of her.

After the brief but scary episode at the supposedly holy ground, it was time to visit the Eiffel Tower. Paris proved to be no short of drama once more when we saw police barricading the streets leading to one of the world’s most famous monuments and shooing tourists away. We soon found out from another tourist that somebody had thrown a television from the first floor of the tower, and so it was closed for investigation. So we walked around the area and managed to find a cozy little corner with an unobstructed view of the tower!

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— It’s a lot taller and bigger than it looks. The Eiffel Tower and Margaret Thatcher share the same nickname – La Dame de Fer (“The Iron Lady”).

The third day was Chataeu de Versailles day! To go to Versailles we had to purchase tickets for the RER (another train service). While it was convenient to purchase the tickets through the machine, it only took coins and credit cards! We did not have enough coins and could not find anyone at the counter to purchase our tickets from, so we had to opt for the latter. Thank goodness I had activated my credit cards for overseas use prior to our trip (I needed them to buy some Longchamp bags anyway, but more on that later).

Even though we were early at the station, the first couple of trains leading to Versailles had to undergo maintenance so by the time we boarded, we had to join the other tourists that arrived later, and even more of them when we reached. We managed to skip the queue to buy our tickets as we had purchased our passes earlier – but so did everyone. The long queue that I imagine might resemble the scene at the pearly gates, was the security line.

--- This, is one single line that has formed a "W" leading to the security check at the chateau. We all have our tickets and passes.
— This, is one single line that has formed a “W” leading to the security check at the chateau.

But once we got in, all that waiting was forgotten. From the chapel, to the gallery, Hall of Mirrors, the queen’s chambers and the garden – no details were sparred in putting this palace in a class of its own.  Like the Louvre, 24 hours just isn’t enough to see and absorb everything!

--- The Chapel
— The Chapel
--- Hall of Mirrors
— Hall of Mirrors – this was also where Charlize Theron and Rihanna shot the Chanel commercial
--- The Gallery
— The Gallery

It was so crowded during the tour of the chambers that we just wanted to get over with it, because we couldn’t wait to get to the next part – the gardens.

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— I mean, how can you not want to run into that?
--- There are many, many sections like these in the garden
— There are many, many sections like these in the garden
--- One day is not enough to fully appreciate this wonder
— One day is not enough to fully appreciate this wonder

We finished the rest of the day by visiting the Notre Dame before it closes, shopping at the La Fayette Gallery, where mom wanted to help her friend get a couple of Longchamp bags (I think it’s the only place in Paris where I’ve seen the most Asians) and a final look at the Eiffel that was gloriously lit up at night.

--- We're back at the Notre Dame!
— We’re back at the Notre Dame!
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— The interior of the Notre Dame – a lot more crowded and touristy-feel than the Sacre Coeur, but still very beautiful.
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— Interior of La Fayette
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— One final look at the Eiffel before we call it a day

There’s a lot to hate yet there’s also a lot to love about Paris. Merci beaucoup, Paris – you are of sorts, but still the sort that I would like to get to know again.  It’s now time to bid you au revoir and make our way to Belgium the next morning!

Read the previous post of our little adventure here: Journey to the West: Prologue

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