Sunday, March 2, 2014

More about France (aka "Return to Baltimore Part II")

Somehow I’ve failed to write about Paris at all, anywhere (I fell behind in my journal keeping pretty quickly) so I figure I better do it now and also fulfill Part II.  

The Sacre Coeur
I didn’t sleep very well in Montpellier; whoever was in the room next to me kept going in and out, and the doors to the rooms stuck which meant that he or she kept slamming it. I was also nervous about catching my train, I think, but I made it just fine. Once I arrived in Paris, I got a little lost relying on screenshots of Google Maps again, but I eventually found my hostel. I couldn’t check in yet as it was too early in the day, but the desk clerk spoke excellent English (which was less surprising in such a big city) and explained to me all the sites I could go see in the meantime. They stored my luggage for me and I wandered off to the Sacre Coeur, which was close enough to walk to.  It was huge and gorgeous, of course, a giant domed cathedral with marble everywhere. It kind of struck me as unfortunate how touristy it’d become (there was a gift shop inside, and coin pressing machines) but it was still beautiful. Plus it’s built on a hill with stairs and terraces which allow an amazing view of Paris. And, along the side streets, was Montemarte. I had some quiche and coffee on an outdoor terrace of a restaurant within view of the Sacre Coeur then wandered through the little tourist shops and into the square, where there were rows and rows of artists set up under tents, doing portraits of people and selling their art. The weather was lovely and sunny and it was… well, me in Paris, thrilled.

After a few hours, I went back to the hostel and checked in, then took the Metro to the 7th arrondissemont to fulfill a life goal: Le Tour Eiffel. After some debate I decided to only go to the second level (that way I have something to look forward to the next time I go, hopefully with a travel partner). It was strange to be touring it alone – and I felt silly doing the selfie thing, but didn’t want to ask a stranger to take my photo for me, despite being behind a pair of American girls in line. The views were amazing nonetheless and I even saw a hot air balloon floating over the Seine, which seems so postcardy. Also, unbeknownst to me, there’s a bar/club on the first level of the tower, and a super fancy expensive restaurant on the second (or maybe I have that backwards). There were gift shops too, of course, but I avoided buying anything.

Versailles from the front gates
After the tower I wandered a bit and found the Arc de Triomphe, then took the Metro back to the neighborhood of my hostel and had dinner. Back in my room, I discovered that, as a female travelling alone, booking a bed in a “mixed dorm” meant I’d be the only girl in the room. No matter; the three guys in the room, also all travelling alone, were perfectly respectful (though unfortunately the one in the bunk below mine was a crazy-loud snorer and I didn’t get much sleep that night. I did acquire some ear plugs the next day at a pharmacy, though it was a particular challenge trying to explain what I wanted to the shopkeeper). I also made a friend, a software engineer from California named Sunny who became my temporary travel buddy for Saturday and part of Sunday. We went to Versailles for the day and toured the castle, the grounds, and Louis and Marie Antoinette’s summer homes (yeah, they each had their own). And also Marie Antoinette’s custom-built English hamlet in the French countryside. Talk about opulence. Even the train to and from Versailles from Gare du Nord was lavishly decorated, and a man came through playing the accordion. Before we got back on the train for Paris that evening, we stopped at a McDonald’s where they had self-order kiosks and a separate pastry counter, and I ordered a coconut frappe that was incredible.
The Hall of Mirrors in Versailles

Sunny and I went our separate ways once back at the hostel (well, as separate as we could seeing as we shared a room).  I had intended to just eat at the hostel that night since I’d brought some food from Labastide, but Sunny talked me into eating at a restaurant (which I suppose makes sense since it was his last night there) so we walked over to the Moulin Rouge – also on my  to-do list, though in a weird part of the city with many sex shops around (I didn’t have any real desire to go inside; mostly I just wanted to see the windmill) – then wandered around for a while, trying to decide on a restaurant. Being a Saturday night, many of them were either full or expensive, but we found one with a table near the window that had a prix fixe menu. Montemarte is quite lovely at night and the food was delicious (I think I had salmon).

Sunday it rained ALL DAY. And of course I didn’t pack an umbrella. After breakfast Sunny and I walked over to an area rumored to have some amazing outdoor markets; part of it was rows of these sort of ragtag shacks lined up and part of it was just tents lined along the street (though a few vendors made good use of a wide sidewalk under an overpass). I searched a few book stands for the French language version of Harry Potter (I’d seen them in Montpellier but they’d been pretty pricey) but had no luck. We stopped at a bakery and got some pastries, then stood under the awning outside and ate them (I LOVE strawberry tarts).

Sunny and I parted ways on the Metro after exchanging email addresses, and I went to explore the Left Bank a bit more. I found Notre Dame but decided not to wait in the incredibly long line to take the interior tour; I bought an umbrella instead then circled a few blocks trying to find the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore. I was finally victorious, after my shoes were good and soaked. The bookstore is a famous English-language shop with used and new books; they were also incredibly pricey. Upstairs was a little library/reading room where I found a copy of the Paul Auster book I’d started at La Muse but had to leave behind. I read for a while, partly hoping the rain would stop and that my shoes would dry a bit, but no luck on either front.

Notre Dame Cathedral
French Starbucks in the Champs Elysees
In the same area were two cafes made famous by such American writers as Hemingway and Fitzgerald; after some walking, I found them both but both had menus with prices a bit out of my budget. I found a restaurant on a little back street nearby and had more quiche and coffee (I also found a book store with Harry Potter #4 and #5 for €1 each, which led to some hard choices later about what to leave behind due to a lack of luggage space). After lunch I went back to the hostel for dry socks (it’d mostly stopped raining by then) before heading back to the Arc de Triomphe. Wandering the plazas nearby were several French military personnel, complete with berets and big guns, which was a little disconcerting. No one else paid them any mind though, so I assumed they were a regular presence.

The price of tickets to the top of the Arc de Triomphe was more than I wanted to pay, so I circled the outside then headed for the Champs Elysees. They were, in all honesty, a bit disappointing. I wandered through a French Gap and a French H&M (passing a French Starbucks along the way) before deciding I’d had enough. Plus the rain was starting again. So I went back to the hostel for my second-to-last night, packed up most of my stuff, and got ready to go to London the next day.