Bonjour! Over the past two weeks you could say I’ve been pretty busy. I spent four days in Paris, two days in Amsterdam, and five days in Copenhagen. Three cities, five flights, and three different languages later, I’m finally back in Madrid and I’m ready to share my experiences with all two of you that read my blog. First stop: Paris.
Early last Friday morning (so early people back at home were probably just finishing dinner), I got up and headed to the airport for my uneventful flight to Paris, France: The City of Light/Love/Croissants/Rude People. After meeting up with my friend Peter, who is “studying” abroad in Amsterdam, we settled into our hostel and hit the Parisian ground running.
We had no real plan for the rest of the day, so we decided to explore on our own. With tourist maps shamelessly in hand, we jumped right into navigating the subway system and butchering the names of famous Parisian landmarks. Miraculously, we found ourselves at the Louvre, Paris’ most famous museum.
The Louvre is, in a word, gargantuan. It’s the world largest art museum and home to 35,000 pieces from around the world. Much of the collection is there thanks to Napoleon’s annoying little habit of conquering countries and shipping all their priceless artistic relics back to Paris. The Louvre has so many pieces of ancient Egyptian art that many people ask if there’s anything left for Egypt itself. According to our tour guide, Napoleon left one or two things there as a gesture of good faith. Nice guy.
We decided not to go inside the museum right then, so we just walked around in awe at the scale of the place. As we walked through the plaza, we watched as hundreds of people posed awkwardly for the classic finger-on-the-tip-of-the-pyramid photo. What pyramid, you ask? This one. It’s the entrance to the museum itself. Cool, right?
After making our way through the Tuileries Gardens, we saw the Luxor Obelisk (a gift from Egypt - pretty nice after France stole all their stuff), and we caught our first glimpse of the iconic Eiffel Tower in the distance. We also spotted the famous Arc de Triomphe all the way at the end of the Champs Élysées and decided that then was as good a time as any to make the trek and climb up it. After a deceivingly long walk down the shopping Mecca that is Champs Élysées, we finally arrived at the Arc, which lies in the center of an unmarked 10-lane wide traffic circle, a model of semi-controlled chaos. A word of advice: Just because there’s no apparent way to cross this circle of insanity does not mean you should run across 10 lanes of speeding traffic like a stupid American tourist. There’s a tunnel under the traffic circle. Use it or die.
When we reached the top of the Arc de Triomphe’s 284 steps, we were treated to an amazing view of the city. You can see the 12 major boulevards that radiate out from the Arc, and of course you can see Paris’ most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower. More on that later. Here’s a photo I took from the top (click through for the full-size version).
Having been traveling and walking all day, we thought the Louvre, the Champ Élysées, and the Arc de Triomphe were enough excitement for one day. But the next morning, we got up and went on a “free” walking tour of the city. The tour was a great way to see Paris, and I would highly recommend it. The guides only work for tips, so they try extra hard to give you a fun experience, which is exactly what we got. The three hour tour hit all the major sites and was full of fun facts. Did you know that Napoleon’s tomb, which lies in the old veterans hospital Les Invalides, is made up of seven different coffins made of seven different materials? People really didn’t want him rising from the dead. Or did you know that if you photograph the Eiffel Tower (which Parisians originally hated due to its resemblance to a certain anatomical feature) at night you cannot legally publish your photo due to copyright restrictions? Take a photo during the day and you’re fine.
Our tour gave us a great overview of Paris’ highlights, and after a quick look around Les Invalides we decided to head straight for the number one highlight: the Eiffel Tower. I’m not sure why I expected otherwise, but the Eiffel Tower is BIG, much bigger than I had imagined.
After taking it all in from a distance and making our way through a sea of street vendors hawking Eiffel Tower key chains (yes I got one), we finally got in line under the tower itself. Fast forward over an hour later and we made it to the first level. Already the views were impressive. After climbing up the stairs to the second level and discovering another hour wait for the elevator to the top (no stairs option this time), I figured that it wasn’t worth the time. The views were already amazing, and I’m told they’re actually worse from the top due to the pollution in Paris. The Eiffel Tower is probably one of the top things to see in all of Europe, and it was awesome to finally get to go up the tower in person and enjoy the views of Paris. Here’s a little taste of what you missed. Click through for a full panorama of the view.
Here’s another fun fact. See that out of place skyscraper in the background? That’s the Tour Montparnasse and it’s the tallest building in France. Immediately after it was finished in 1972, Parisians suddenly realized that it was a terrible idea. Why? Because it’s hideous and dominates the skyline view from the Eiffel Tower. With cries of “But now ze view iz so ugly!” they made a law right away that banned any more skyscrapers in the city center. However, one good thing about the 689-foot tall office building is that the top is open to the public, providing an unparalleled 360-degree view of the city, and one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower. So while that’s an upside, I still don’t understand how people didn’t realize that this would ruin the view. Just look at it.
On our last full day in Paris, we decided to take a train ride to visit the Palace of Versailles, which is the incredibly huge and extremely extravagant palace that served as the seat of power when King Luis XIV ruled France. This guy had some luxurious tastes and a seemingly insatiable desire for the world’s biggest, baddest backyard. The palace itself was as impressive and ornate as it was crowded with tourists from all over the world. It was basically too crowded to move, and the mob of people listening to their audio guides in every language imaginable definitely took the focus off the palace itself and put it on finding a way out. Nevertheless, the famous Hall of Mirrors and the Grand Apartments gave a good sense of the ridiculous level of power and wealth held by the French monarchy. What I liked much more than the palace itself was the gardens and the enormous palace grounds. The entire Versailles site is larger than the island of Manhattan, and only a tiny part of it is made up of the sprawling palace. The rest is a web of endless paths, ponds, and gardens that we spent the entire day walking through. You could walk for hours on end and never see the same pert of the palace grounds twice. Here’s just one little part of Versailles, including the corner of the palace. Click through for a panorama of the grounds.
Following a long day of walking around Versailles and an attempt at being French by trying escargot at dinner (verdict: meh), we made our way back to Paris with two goals in mind. First we went to see Notre Dame Cathedral and its famous gargoyles and second we went back to the Eiffel Tower to see its night light show for ourselves. The Eiffel Tower is always lit up at night, but since the new millennium celebration in 2000, you can see the tower’s sparkling light show every night on the hour. We raced to catch the 9:00 show and just made it to see the last minute or so - very cool. Seeing the Eiffel Tower at night was a great way to end an awesome weekend in Paris. And at the risk of upsetting the French government, here’s a photo of the iconic landmark all lit up. Ooohh ahhh.
So that is Paris. It’s by far the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen, and if I knew a word of French, it would absolutely be a great (but very expensive) place to live. I feel like we were there just the right amount of time for a whirlwind tour of the city, but there’s plenty more I would have done had we stayed another day. Actually go all the way up the Eiffel Tower no matter the wait, spend a few hours inside The Louvre and see the Mona Lisa (although everyone says she’s tiny and disappointing in real life), and maybe try some more real French food. Despite not doing those things, my trip to Paris far exceeded my expectations. The people are not as openly rude as I thought, the sites are all truly impressive, and the
city is world class. Overall, Paris was awesome.
With Paris checked off the list, I headed back to Madrid for two days (poor travel planning, I know) before jetting off to visit Peter on his home turf in Amsterdam. Look for a shorter, smokier, and more red-lit blog post on Amsterdam soon!