Way back when I was planning this holiday I made sure any travel days had as much slack in them as possible. My paranoia about missing something and throwing the whole holiday out of whack was strong back then and, unfortunately wasn’t made any easier by this morning’s events. You see I’ve never really used the train as transportation, save for a few scant trips around Sydney back in my youth. So the notion of crossing country boundaries via a land based transportation system was foreign to me and, even with the reassuring words of my friends that trains were “the way to go” in Europe I was a tad anxious at the prospect.
Arriving at the Gare du Nord in Paris I was greeted with a similar level of bedlam that I’ve come to expect at airports of similar size. Then a sinking feeling hit me: was 1 hour enough to navigate this mess and find our train? We initially hopped in a line that appeared to be leading somewhere only to be told that it was for a train to London. A few more helpful people later and we’d activated our Eurail Pass and found the line for our train which was departing in about 20 minutes. So whilst I might have panicked initially really there wasn’t much to worry about.
The train ride from Paris to Amsterdam, which I’m told is monopolized by Thalys, was amazing. The seats were the size of business class seats on any airline and there was more than ample space between rows, even for someone of my stature. The food service was generous with the hostess coming past multiple times in our 4 hour journey asking if we wanted drinks or snacks. Best of all the ride was smooth and incredibly quiet. Basically it’s everything you wish air travel was, save for the fact that for longer trips it loses out on the time factor. Now I wish I had known about the overnight train between Munich and Rome before I had booked the hotels as I think that would’ve been quite the treat.
We arrived late in Amsterdam late in the afternoon and quickly made our way to our hotel which is located right next to the Van Gogh museum. It’s an older establishment, essentially being an overgrown bed and breakfast, but the woman who greeted us at the reception was kind and incredibly forthcoming with information about where we should go. After we got settled in I established contact with an old friend and former housemate who we’d arranged to meet here and we began the trek to meet him at the halfway point.
We met up at a place that reminded me of a lot of the bars in Melbourne, a place called Kriterion, The beers there were extremely cheap and the quiet ambiance of the back street it faced a nice backdrop for sharing our current travel stories. It wasn’t long before we all downed a couple beers and were looking for some food which led us on a winding tour of the surrounding district. We eventually settled on an Argentinian steak place that did their signature cuts very well although the beers and drinks had a distinctly weird taste to them. Satisfied with our dinner we parted ways for the night, although I’m sure this won’t be the last post where I mention our friend.
It will probably come as no surprise that I was struck by the number of bikes, both those in use and locked up on the streets. This is a town that was made for bikes, the distances between places short and the streets built around them. What also took me aback was the similarity of architecture from street to street, enough for a new tourist like myself to get lost in (and I did more than once). There are colourful and unique places to be sure however in general most streets had a very similar look and feel to them.
Tomorrow we’ll finally do something we’ve been wanting to do since we landed in Europe: a bike tour of the city we’re in. Our hosts here at Hotel Fita had good things to say about the tour we chose so hopefully we’ll get a good look over the city proper. After that we’ll probably visit the Anne Frank house as our host had said that it was much less busy in the afternoon. Potentially after that I might be swayed towards a night of debauchery with my friend, a known fiend for finding interesting places to drink in foreign countries. Should tomorrow’s post come a little late then you’ll know why and you should probably not assume the worst.
If another day passes however, send help.
Not having a firm schedule is a blessing…most of the time. My alarm that went off at 7AM (unchanged from yesterday because I had simply forgotten) but we didn’t make it out of our room until 2 hours later. This is something of an issue if we wanted to catch breakfast in our hotel which stops getting served after 10AM. Still we made it with time to spare and spent the next hour or so making final preparations before our trip to 3 of Paris’ big attractions. The first stop: the famed shopping street of Champs-Élysées.
The street of the Champs-Élysées is quite impressive, harboring a massive 2 lane highway that’s surrounded by high end shops on either side. Whilst they were great to gawk at we didn’t end up buying anything from them, likely due to my long relationship with Internet shopping which has ruined me for travel purchases. Still I love a good browse and there was definitely some interesting affair on display. The highlight would have to be the people peddling 20 minutes in a Ferrari for the low price of €90. I declined of course, I far better things to spend my money on than a short joyride that would be equivalent of a month’s worth of petrol for my trusty Volkswagen back home.
The Arc de Triomphe is an impressive structure, towering over the intersect that snakes around it. We decided against ascending to the top since it didn’t seem worth it, especially compared to the view we got at the Eiffel Tower the day before. I have numerous pictures of it that are ruined in some way by…ugh… people. I’m sure a bit of work in Photoshop could see them removed but I can’t help but think how much easier my photography life would be if people weren’t a part of it. We didn’t spend too long here before trekking off to our next destination: the Notre-Dame de Paris.
The scale of the cathedral really cannot be understated, it’s an incredible structure especially given its age. The religious aspect was, of course, completely lost on me and indeed I’m sure many people would mistake the awe of something so huge for some kind of religious divination. Regardless it was still worth the visit, providing ample photographic opportunities and a place of quiet respite after the couple hours we’d spent traipsing up and down the Champs-Élysées.
Around the time we finished up at Notre Dame we decided to find ourselves some lunch and, burned by our experience with a restaurant near a main attraction the previous day, decided to go for a short walk. We eventually settled on a nice little Chinese restaurant which had an amazing lunch special, far too much food for the amount of money we paid. After an hour and a half we pulled out the metro map we had again to see if there was any other sites we’d want to see before we called it a day. As it turns out we were only a couple streets away from the Pantheon so we headed on over to check it out.
It seems Paris has a thing for massive structures as the Pantheon was, yet again, just awe inspiring to see. I was surprised to learn that it housed an experiment that proved the Earth turns on its own axis, a pendulum suspended from the roof that precesses gently throughout the day. Even more surprising was that, in the crypt below, was the remains of Marie and Pierre Curie, the husband and wife pair credited with many advances in the fields of radioactivity. Standing next to her grave I couldn’t help but wonder how radioactive it was since I’ve long heard reports that her office is still highly contaminated even to this day. There were no signs however so I’m guessing it’s relatively safe.
With our day thoroughly completed we headed home, angling for a simple supper of pizza from a small shop down the road and wine from the hotel lobby bar. The pizza and wine were both surprisingly good, especially considering the price I paid for both. I have to admit something of an ulterior motive with this, wanting to recreate an experience that some of my friends had relayed to me when they had visited Paris some years ago. Whilst it wasn’t exactly the same the essence of it was still there and I can definitely see the attraction to simple Parisian foods and their accompanying booze.
Tomorrow we will say goodbye to Paris and move onto Amsterdam. Like all good trips it seems that just as we were getting comfortable with our host city we’re bound to leave it. Strangely though Paris was meant to be a sort of throwaway for us, a short stop to get us started in Europe before we moved onto the real parts of Europe we wanted to see. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time here however, finding much to enjoy in Paris’ sights and attractions. I guess the real test now will be how the other European towns we have scheduled stack up and whether or not Paris can stay on top.
An all too familiar noise blared from the table across the room: the sound of both my watch and my phone hammering their alarm tones. We’d made a plan last night and were determined to stick to it and that meant getting up at a respectable hour. Thankfully the half day we’d spent lazing around yesterday meant we were mostly up to the task, slowly getting ready before we trundled down stairs to face the day and the hotel breakfast. After we were fed and watered we made our way down to the closest Paris Metro station and were off on our first journey all by our lonesome in the city of love.
Our first stop was a must-see attraction that numerous people had recommended to us: the catacombs of Paris. I had read several people mention that showing up after it opened was a sure fire way to lose 2+ hours and so we arrived at 9AM sharp in the hopes it would only cost us an hour wait. After circling the block several times trying to find it we eventually figured out that the small line of people, which I had initially dismissed, was actually the line for the catacombs. It was good we showed up when we did however as by the time the doors opened the line was around the block. Not 5 minutes after it opened we were in and descending down into the underground labyrinth.
I was first struck at the magnitude of the place, a giant network of tunnels buried under the bustling city above us. You always see things like this in movies and pictures but it’s a whole other thing to experience it for yourself. Then you come across the catacombs itself and it’s just awe inspiring. We spent so long looking at the piles of bones, seeing the different types of skulls and my wife translating the (admittedly extremely morbid) French writings on the walls. Definitely worth the early start and the hour spent waiting in line.
Afterwards we figured that going straight for the Eiffel Tower would be a bit of a crap shoot so we headed over to the Louvre. Despite what many people had said online the lines to get in where fine, maybe a 15 minute wait to get a ticket but then you were free to roam around the museum as you pleased. Again I was struck by the sheer scale of the place with multiple wings and levels all full to the brim with historic artifacts and art pieces. We made a beeline for the ancient Greek antiquities section (since I kinda dig Greek mythology) and spent hours perusing the collection.
Of course we hit a few of the main attractions like the Venus De Milo and the Mona Lisa. Frankly the scene that I saw at these works of art angered me in a way I never thought I would be.
I get it, you want a picture to show you were there. You need proof to validate the fact that you were within a stone’s throw of an iconic piece of art. But that picture will likely never see the light of day or go unnoticed in a mass uploaded album with the 30+ other pictures you took of all the art you saw. None of these people who you see stammering for a photo took even a few seconds to stand back and appreciate the art for what it is, they were all concerned about capturing it for later when that later will never come. It really does sadden me that this is what iconic art is reduced to for some people: a status symbol that conveys no status.
I did have a lot of fun photographing the crowds that were taking photos, however!
After a pit stop for some lunch at a nearby cafe we made our way over to the Eiffel Tower after successfully navigating the convoluted route that Google Maps had put us onto. The lines to get into the tower weren’t so bad in the mid to late afternoon although getting to the summit took us at least an hour shortly after. The views of Paris, even from the second level, are quite stunning, highlighting just how big the city is. You can see all the big attractions from up there and even size up the Eiffel Tower against all the other tall structures of the world. Surprisingly Telstra Tower even gets a mention, being about 2/3rds the size of the Eiffel Tower. After we’d spent a good amount of time at the summit we descended back down and made our way back to our hotel.
If I’m honest I expected at least one of the activities I described above to go belly up due to any number of reasons. The weather has been pretty fickle of late and it was threatening to rain all day. We seemed to have lucked out however with the rain only coming down when we finally decided to leave the comfort of our hotel bed in search of dinner. Hopefully our luck holds for the rest of the trip.
Tomorrow will probably be a much lazier day as we’ve already hit our big 3 and what’s left are things we could easily go either way on. Plus I’m not particularly looking forward to a repeat of today’s walking performance (my UP3 reports a total of 21KM today). I’m sure we could do more if we wanted to, and if we really wanted to splash the cash on a few things, but we’ve still got the rest of the holiday to look forward to and I don’t think either of us in much of a rush.
Our flight over to Paris was uneventful and short by comparison to our previous endeavors. When I had arranged everything I knew we were going to be arriving well before check-in was open at our hotel (Holiday Inn Canal De La Villette) but the reviews had said a few people had managed to wrangle their way in early. Alas we were not so lucky and had 3 hours to burn while we waited for our room so we could wash away the previous days travels. I had figured we could just take a short trip into the city’s center and wander around for a bit but my poor wife was in no form to do so.
We followed the canal southward, perusing the various cafes and restaurants as we went. I was a little taken aback by how similar all the menus seemed to be, all offering the same variation of a couple dishes. Turns out this must just be the street menu as when we finally decided on a place their offerings were far more wide and varied. I settled on duck with a pepper sauce accompanied by potatoes covered in bacon. A decadent meal, to be sure, but its simple composition is something that I really did appreciate.
Full from lunch we waddled our way back to the hotel, only managing to kill a couple hours. My wife decided it was nap time and used my legs as a pillow whilst I continued reading my book and playing a few games on my phone to pass the time. We were eventually allowed up into our room, a balcony suite on the top floor, and we both quickly made a beeline for the shower. My wife then collapsed on the bed where we inadvertently spent the next few hours, something that won’t do us any favors jet lag wise.
We then started to plan our activities for the coming days only to find that trying to book things this close is something of a fool’s errand. Now this may be because we’re here during the middle of the Euro 2016, something which I (in my usual fashion of not following sports at all) had neglected to account for. So instead we’ve settled on something of a priority system: go early to the things we really want to do and then do others if we’re able. This has us settling on doing the catacombs in the morning, the Louvre right after and then seeing what the lines are like over at the Eiffel Tower. Whether we make that all or not is a question I’ll answer tomorrow.
My first impressions of Paris are much like that of Montreal, although without the dichotomy of new and old in such stark contrast. It is interesting to note the cycle of the city is different to what I’m used to, the ebbs and flows of everything happening well after I’d expect them too. We’re towards the outer rim of the city so I’m sure it will be much more frenetic when we finally make the journey to the center tomorrow morning. I’m hopeful that we’ll get to do all the things we’ve planned tomorrow, even though we haven’t been able to secure our spots ahead of time.
We almost immediately fell back into our old habits again, trying to plan as much as we could in the short time we have here. Whilst I certainly want to make the most of this trip the last thing I want to do is burn myself out on planning before it even starts. I’ll have to keep an eye on that.