Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Loveliness of Paris


September 1. Thursday. 
Today would start with the “Access To Eiffel Tower Summit, Skip the Line” tour. Since I was traveling solo I had to call and reconfirm the tours twenty four hours in advance. It was a little inconvenient, but I did it for most of the tours. The meeting point today was the carousel near the Eiffel Tower. Eleven a.m. It should be easy to find that. I walked through the Champ de Mars again. There were joggers and people beginning their daily routine. I returned to the tourist area around the Tower. It was early. The crowds of tourists hadn’t arrived yet.  
The carousel was across the street, closer to the Seine. There was an old couple already waiting. Other tour members were often easy to spot. They were looking around with the same voucher on a sheet of paper that I had. It was always reassuring to find someone else looking for a tour. The couple was from Tasmania. They were friendly in that Down Under way. We were joined by another couple from Australia. 
Our tour guide was Emid. She was an open, friendly woman. She told us that today was the first day of school for Paris kids. There would be more traffic on the streets of Paris, but there would be less people going up into the tower. 
We waited by the carousel for some late comers. A song playing on the merry go round caught my attention. It sounded familiar. I didn’t recognize it at first because it was a wild, circus organ version. What is that song? It took me a minute to realize it was “Scotland the Brave!”    
While we waited Emid told us that during peak season it could take two to three hours of waiting in line to get to the top. We would be “Skipping the Line,” but it would still take two lift rides to get to the top. She pointed out the second level where we would stop and then take another lift up to the top. It was still early, but it could take forty-five minutes to get up there. 
Every major landmark had security, but it seemed to be more intense here. That was understandable. It’s quite a target. There were more military walking around. We went through the airport security.  
We waited for the lift. It seemed to take a long time. About fifty of us crammed into a large car. We could see the old mechanism grinding as we rose. You can take the stairs if you want. There were 1700 steps to the top. I certainly wasn’t looking for that kind of challenge today. 
We stopped at the second level. It’s 376 feet high, 115 meters. It was a sneak preview of the view that we’d see from the top. You could still make out individual buildings. The third and top level is 899 ft. (274 meters) high. 
We enjoyed the view. Another lift would take us all the way up. While we waited Emid warned us about pickpockets. Many of them were gypsies. She told us of an incident she witnessed. A Japanese woman had realized that her purse had been taken. She was quick enough to confront the young gypsy girls she suspected. Male gypsies surrounded her and accused her of robbing the girls. In the confusion the girls slipped away. It cost the woman five hundred Euro!
A sign on the tower warned against graffiti. “The Eiffel Tower is an international treasure.” The punishment would be severe for anyone tempted to leave initials or some other memento of their visit.   
The Eiffel Tower is now a beloved landmark, but there was a time that it was considered a burden by the city government. It was costing money to maintain. Some thought it should be scrapped for the metal. “It was radio that saved the tower.” It was perfect for the new sensation, broadcast radio. 
Another lift took us to the top. It was a long ride. At the top was the great view of Paris. It was a clear day and we could see for miles. The loveliness of Paris! It was another experience of a lifetime.   
I took a cab to the Convention Bureau. No screwing around today. The cab dropped me off at the proper address. I had been very close when I had looked for it. I was getting a little more into the European pace, but I was still a bit hyper. It was offseason and there were only a couple of people in line in front of me. It was a short wait, but I had to wonder. Why didn’t they just mail me this stuff with the other vouchers? Why did I have to check in? Was it some kind of security measure? I was getting excited. My next stop would be The Louvre.
From the convention bureau it was a short walk back to the Louvre through some of the Opera Quarter. The Louvre was an obvious big “must” on the trip. I couldn’t leave without seeing, “The greatest museum in the world.” 
I entered through the “pyramid” entrance. It was odd to go through such a modern edifice to enter such a historic museum. Security was tight. There was a large modern entryway and I used the Paris City Card for the first time.  A stairway lead to a large main gallery. When I entered the main gallery I was hit by a wave of emotion. I could see the sculpture, the Victoire de Samothrace at the end of the hall. I was finally here. No more reading about it. No more seeing it on film. I was really here. This would be one of the highlights of the trip. It was one of the reasons for taking the trip. 
The documentary film “The Rape of Europa” tells about the people of France scrambling to protect art treasures from the expected Nazi bombing. Still pictures showed volunteers and employees removing paintings and ancient statues. When they moved the Victoire de Samothrace, the head curator of The Louvre was terrified that something would happen and that the statue would be damaged. The sculpture has a prominent spot in the gallery. People surrounded it, taking pictures.   
I was a little surprised at how modern that first big gallery looked. The Louvre is massive and it’s impossible to see everything. I passed the Egyptian and Roman antiquities for now and went upstairs to see paintings. I wanted to see massive canvases. 
I entered a large gallery of French paintings (1780-1850.) There was masterpiece after masterpiece. There were few that looked familiar. Most were done by painters I knew little or nothing about. I tried to take my time and enjoy each painting, especially the large ones. 
Some great pieces of art are very hyped up. The excitement around them seems to take on a life of its own. They are “must see” pieces. Maybe the greatest of these is The Mona Lisa. There are claims that its the greatest painting ever. Like everyone else, I had to at least get a look at it. “Yeah. I saw the Mona Lisa.” 
The painting is displayed in its own area that is cordoned off by stanchions and velvet ropes. It’s under a protective glass covering. At least fifty people jockeyed for position to take pictures. I overheard a guard telling someone that we were lucky. There is often a wait to see it. 
I thought about how stupid this was. Like many “must see” sights, everyone wants a picture. We’re trying to capture the image. Make it our own. There’s photographic proof that you saw it. Yeah, I took a picture too, but I didn’t linger for long. There was too much else to see here.
There were too many masterpieces to be described. The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault was a massive canvas. It looks like the stranded victims would be saved. There were pieces of art that had a history of their own. The Dying Slave by Michelangelo.
A painting that really caught my eye and imagination was Les Mysteries de la Passion du Christ by Antonio Campi. It’s a view of the Crucifixion on Golgotha. Suspended in the air on the right is an odd figure. It looks like something out of the TV show Ancient Aliens. Some Passion legends say that when Christ died it caused a rift between heaven and earth. A split in reality. The odd circular figure looks like a UFO. It could be the entry to another dimension. 
Now I walked through the Antiquities section. Most of the pieces were sculptures. Many were likenesses of Roman Emperors. Some of them were modeled on the real deal. It was a look into the faces of the past. 
The exit is through an underground floor. A long hallway leads to the exit. Along the hallway are the remnants of the original fortress that stood here. There are the bases of large, circular towers. It’s quite a contrast with the more modern looking galleries. Three hours in the Louvre was sensory overload, but I still didn’t want to leave.     
The Hop On Hop Off bus ticket was supposed to be good for twenty four hours. They had a funny idea of what twenty-four hours was. I just bought another ticket. I had learned to take advantage of these buses. Most of this route was a repeat of the route I had already taken. We went through the busy streets of Paris again. 
The church of St. Mary Magdeline was near a large intersection. it’s a rarity because it has no windows. It’s home to great artwork. There were so many sights like this that I wouldn’t have time to check out. 
I walked by the Glass Palace. It was tempting to go in, but I was starting to drag a bit. A black security guard stopped me on the driveway. “Just a minute, monsieur.” He was friendly, but firm. He seemed to expect me to protest. He let some limos with a VIP escort go by. I wondered what would have happened if I didn’t cooperate.    
  Tonight it’s Cafe Cambronne, the other cafe near the Metro stop. I sit outside on one of the tables facing the street. Four young French women are next to me. They must be in their early twenties. I couldn’t help but watch them a bit. They all had that French fashion presence. It sounded like they were gossiping. They spoke fast and smoked a lot. 
Maybe it was the jet lag, but I thought my time in Paris was coming to an end. It had been a couple of active days. My time in Paris was too short. Then I realized I wasn’t flying to Montenegro until Saturday. I had “discovered” another day in Paris. Yeah, I was getting pretty spaced out, but the “extra” day did seem like a bonus.   
It’s six o’clock, and I really hit the wall. It’s a combination of jet lag and a couple of  busy days of tourism. I take a nap and assume that I’ll wake up in the middle of the night. I’m very surprised to wake up after a couple of hours. I’m raring to go. 
I go down to the cafe near the Metro. In Paris there aren’t “bars” like I think of them. People stand at the bar In Paris. This is great, but after a day of touring I have to admit I was looking for somewhere to sit. There aren’t many bar stools. This cafe has seats at the bar! I have a Stella Artois. There was a big football match on TV. There’s a big football match on TV every night in Europe.   
An elderly woman came in and sat at a small table. I’ll guess she was eighty. It takes her a while to get settled. She orders an espresso. She counts her money very carefully. Is she a regular? How long has she lived in Paris? What has she seen here? 
Friday. September 2. It’s an open day. No tours. I walk through the Champs de Mars. It’s early in the city. There are more joggers than commuters. I’ll go on a boat cruise, but the real objective today will be the D’Orsay Museum.   
My Paris City Pass, “Pass Lib’” includes a ticket for a boat cruise on the Seine aboard the “Bateaux Parisiens.” I get there too early. There has to be a minimum of ten for the boat to go out. There would be another attempt in a half hour. Eventually there are eight of us waiting. The ferry operator calls it. Then a couple arrives, but it’s too late. Once it’s canceled, it’s canceled. 
My sister Joan had warned me. “Don’t expect the French to be too friendly.” Most of the French I came in contact with were tourism professionals. Waiters. Tour guides. Shop keepers. Staff at the landmarks and museums. Most of them were very friendly. It may have been the power of the tourist dollar. 
  There would be a half hour wait before the next cruise. It was a bit aggravating, but I would just hang out by the Seine. I was starting to relax a bit after getting two tours under my belt. I went to one of the coffee wagons near the Eiffel Tower. Most of the French drink their coffee as a shot of espresso. It is strong, but I have to confess that I found myself craving a full cup of coffee. Yeah, like a Starbuck’s.  
The guy at the wagon was surly. It was early, and my attempt to spend money was distracting him from his morning routine. I got a coffee and croissant. The French are arrogant. After a couple of days in Paris I could see why. The pastry was great.  
I went back down to the dock. The stone walls on each side of the river looked ancient to me. The areas where people walked were still cobblestones. The road along the river was more practical. It had been paved over for practical reasons, they still moved freight on it, but it still looked old to me.  
The “boat” was a long, thin ferry style vessel, built to give the best views on both banks. The cruise is a great look at the biggest landmarks of the city. It was great to see the area around the Place de Concorde from the river. We came up to the Ile de la Cite. Notre Dame Cathedral loomed on the bank. I recognized the shape, but I had a hard time realizing it was really Notre Dame and not some other historic church. It’s really the original! 
An obnoxious Chinese guy in a yellow shirt took about four million pictures. Couldn’t blame him in a way, but I’m glad there weren’t many other people on the boat. He stood on the seats for better shots. A crew member came up and chastised him, giving the rest of us a break. A young couple lost a cell phone that fell behind a seat. The beleaguered crew member returned to fish it out.
People hiked or biked along the river. It was a school day, but there were groups of teenage and college age students hanging out on little wooden docks. We looped around the Ile St-Louis. At the end of the isle there were sun bathers. It looks like an idyllic but urban lifestyle. Basking in the sun and watching the river flow.  
I hadn’t been as excited about taking the cruise as I was about the other tours. It turned out to be one of my highlights in Paris, and a relaxing start of a long day. 
 
It’s back on the Hop On Hop Off bus. It’s funny. In San Francisco I look at these busses as a bit of an aggravation. I certainly have nothing against tourism. It is San Francisco’s number one industry, but it gets old being solicited to take a tour of the city where I live in every time I go through Union Square. Before this trip, I wouldn’t recommend a tourist taking the bus tours in San Francisco. Now I was realizing how essential these tours were to someone new to a big city.
The goal today was the Musee D’Orsay. I would use the Hop On Hop Off bus to get there. Then I would do another lap on the bus to see more of Paris. 
I got off at the Musee D’Orsay stop. Before going into the museum, I had a big lunch at Cafe Los Desperadoes. Filet of Beef. I wanted to be well fueled before entering the museum. 
The Musee D’Orsay is a former train station. The building itself is a work of art. The railroad tracks are gone, but it still has the shape of a train station. It was recently renovated, and many paintings had been lent to San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum for a great exhibit in 2010. The main hall has two huge clocks. One of them has a view of the Seine through its clear face.  
The D’Orsay is not as massive as The Louvre. It’s still a treasure trove of great art. The D’Orsay has more “modern” paintings. Here modern means 1848 to 1914. The huge skylight gives the main gallery great light. There is a ring of sculptures in the main gallery. Galleries on the side show classic paintings.  
One of the first galleries holds works by Eugene Delacroix. I was always drawn to his Romantic paintings. Delacroix gave us exotic themes with a lot of action. Arabs hunted lions and tigers. It was art I could understand. He was one of the first painters I remember appreciating.
There were some paintings that I had seen at the DeYoung exhibit. Le Dejeuner sur l’ Herbe by Manet. Olympia by Manet. Among other classics: Dancing at the Moulin de la Galette by Renoir. Breton Peasant Women by Paul Gaugin. Summer Night by Winslow Homer. It was amusing to see Portraits at the Stock Exchange by Degas. There were many works by Rodin including The Gates of Hell.  
A special exhibit honored Charles Gleyre. He’s a painter I never heard of. The paintings are large canvases with mythological themes. They’re very Romantic. He was an adventurous traveler. When he traveled in the Mideast it was much more dangerous for Europeans. He took great risks to explore the Mideast of the Victorian era. 
I spent three hours in the Musee D’Orsay. I didn’t want to leave, but I was glossing over. Jet lag might still be a factor. I got back on the Hop On Hop Off bus.  
There was a stop at Notre Dame Cathedral. It was tempting to get off and walk around here, but the square in front of the Cathedral was swarming with tourists. I got a good look at the Cathedral, but stayed on the bus.  
The bus went up the Champs Elysses, the main boulevard of Paris. There’s a taped running commentary on the bus that we listen to through ear buds. It is cool to hear the descriptions as we ride by.   
The area of the Champs Elysess had been a bad part of the city, a “no go zone.” It was a dangerous neighborhood before the boulevard was put in. Now, it’s the site of huge celebrations like the end of World Wars or France’s victory in The World Cup of 1998.
When the Nazis fled approaching Allied forces, Hitler ordered his generals to blow Paris up. Burn it to the ground. The story is told in “Is Paris Burning?” Riding along the boulevard I thought about what madness it would have been.
I’ll take it easy a bit and stay near the hotel tonight. I’m getting tired of getting lost. I walk around the Cambronne area a bit. Teenagers are hanging out at the little Garibaldi Park. It reminds me of my old neighborhood. Young people wasting time at a local park seems to be an international past time. Do American kids even do that anymore?  
Another night at Cafe Cambronne. The friendly waiter isn’t there. The waiter tonight isn’t as good. I had a big lunch, so I thought I would order something light. On the menu is “Mixe Planke. Charcuterie and fromage.” I assume it’s an appetizer. When it arrives it’s a large platter of meats, bread and cheeses. It’s quite a feast. I have a Pouilly wine. I wonder what the meats and cheeses would cost at a grocery store in San Francisco. It’s twelve Euro here. Some restaurant prices seem to be at least half price to me, especially considering San Francisco standards.
There’s a Friday night scene going on at Cafe Moderne and I stop in. Young people are out having a good time. Every table is taken. It’s an early night for me. I’m flying to Podgorica tomorrow!
Saturday. September 3. I’m flying later in the afternoon, so I do have some time to explore the area around the hotel. On all my other walks I had walked on Rue de la Nivert towards the Seine. Today I walk the other way. I want to check out the neighborhood. There may not be any big tourist sites that way, but I was curious to see some of the “normal” Paris.
I stop at a local patisserie for coffee. It’s certainly a local spot. It’s early, but there’s already some betting action on some kind of Keno game. Numbers are displayed on a grid on an electronic board. A couple of guys are standing at the bar having morning beers. I went into the local post office and waited in line to mail some post cards. Even going to the post office was interesting in Paris.
Going up Rue de la Nivert I came to a park. There were government buildings around a square. It was a local city hall. Well dressed newlyweds wandered around the small park getting their pictures taken.  
There was another park that was smaller. There was a well dressed tour group of around twenty people standing around a small fountain. The men were in suits and ties and the women wore dresses and hats. I assumed they were French. It was interesting to see natives taking a tour of the Cambronne. 
More coffee! I went into anther cafe. A replay of Game Three of last year’s NBA Finals is playing. Two guys are watching it as if it’s a live broadcast. They’re hanging on every play. The Warriors seem to be in control. I had a croissant. It was one of the best I ever had. I’d miss the French pastry. I kept thinking about the old song: “How you going to keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Par-ee!” It was time to get back to the hotel and get ready for the next stop on the tour: Montenegro.

Paris Versailles


Tuesday. August 30. I land in Paris! I’m such an inexperienced traveler that I was a little surprised that I had to go through “Passport Control.” That’s right. I’m in a foreign country. They don’t know who I am. They have to check me out. There was a long line. Stern guards in plastic booths carefully examined each passport. What is embedded on that chip on my passport? I studied the border patrol officer’s face. He eyeballed me and stamped the passport. I was on my way. 
I toyed with the idea of taking the train into the city, but it didn’t take me long to figure out how stupid that would be. Start out the trip right! It was about a forty-five minute cab ride into Paris. A new law made it a flat rate.   
The landscape looked like typical airport territory at first. Highway. Billboards. Motels. Then there were some more rural and wooded areas. French forest preserves. I had come from the golden hills of California. There had been some rain, but most of the state was dry and burnt. I wasn’t used to seeing green. It reminded me of the ride into Chicago from O’Hare. Maybe it was because it was almost ninety degrees out. 
The cab driver was friendly and spoke good English. He was glad to point out some spots on the way. We passed the football stadium where the UEFA Cup finals had just been held.  As we approached the city I caught my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Nothing tells you you’re really in Paris like seeing the Eiffel Tower.  
We entered the city. There was still an air of unreality about it to me. The old buildings. The cobblestone streets. We heard a siren behind us. It was the pulsating wail I was familiar with from French films. Someone in a limo was getting a police escort. I felt like I was in a movie. People would notice the siren and take a quick look, but most just kept going on walking.  
We passed some official looking government buildings. On every corner there were groups of reporters with microphones and TV cameras. The driver explained that, “The Minister of Finance resigned today!” 
My hotel was in an area called Cambronne. It was about a mile from the Eiffel Tower, on the Rue de la Croix Nivert. The room on the third floor was small, but it would fit my purposes. There was a small porch, and I could see the shining dome of The Invalides through the gap in the streets. 
Rick Steves says it’s best to go for a walk after a long flight. It’s tempting to take a nap, but it’s better to stretch the legs and get some fresh air. After a ten hour flight I was ready for that. My plan was to find the meeting point for my first scheduled tour at Versailles. It would be leaving the next day from the Invalides Metro stop at 13:15. They like military time here.   
I’m used to cities built on a grid, like Chicago. If you have an address there you can usually find it on the grid. I was beginning to realize this was an older city. The streets are shorter. Sometimes they were only a couple of blocks long. 
The streets were paved with cobblestones. I went down the Rue de la Croix Nivert towards a Metro stop. Three streets converged. There were several cafes and restaurants. A few commuters made their way to and from the station. Rue de la Croix Nivert became Avenue de Lowendal. I could see on the map that this led to The Invalides. I was strolling on the boulevards of Paris! 
I passed the Ecole Militaire, a school Napoleon attended. There were jeeps and trucks parked in an empty lot. I got a better look at the Eiffel Tower. It was tempting to walk over there, but I knew I would be going up to the top of it on one of the tours.
It was easy to find The Invalides. Napoleon had built it as a hospital for his veteran troops. His motivation wasn’t entirely humanitarian. Most veteran troops were idle and unemployed. They became a problem. The Invalides got many of them off the streets. 
The Invalides has a military museum and the tomb of Napoleon. The weather was just too good to go into a museum. I continued wandering. The Invalides was surrounded by stone walls and a moat. Security was heavy here. There were soldiers and jeeps at all entrances. It was my first look at military security around a Paris landmark.  
Somehow I didn’t see The Invalides Metro stop. I took the first of many wrong turns. I must have read the map wrong. I found myself at the Sevres Babylone Metro stop. I was lost for the first time, but I didn’t care. 
They’re not neighborhoods here. They’re arrondissements. St. Germain-des-Pres is a busy shopping district with a downtown feel. People were in business attire. The pace was faster. There were large retail stores. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Everything seemed so ... French!
I came to an intersection and realized I had gone in a circle. There was a large church. I popped into my first Church in Europe: St. Francis Xavier.  
The church was larger than most American churches. I realized my idea of “old” was going to change. The paintings inside were huge. In the right corner there was a shrine that held the remains of Saint Madeline - Sophie Barat. I would go into these local churches as often as I could on this trip. Some held art treasures. This church was impressive, but it was just a hint of the churches I would see.
It had been a long day, and I was running out of gas a bit. I looked at the map and realized I hadn’t covered that much territory. I hadn’t found the meeting point for the tour tomorrow. The tour would be in the afternoon, so I had time to figure that out. It was time for some French food! I retraced my way back to the Avenue de Lowendal. I would stay close to the hotel tonight and check out the area around the hotel. 
Near Cambronne I walked by Garibaldi Park. It’s a little square with a children’s playground. There were little parks like this all over Paris. A few people relaxed on the benches. There was a statue of a mounted Garibaldi. I didn’t think of it until later, but why was there a park in Paris named after an Italian hero? Some graffiti on a nearby trash can was a bit jarring: “Islam hors de France.” Islam out of France. Did most people agree with this after the attacks?
People were finishing their commute and leaving the Cambronne Metro stop. I took a look at the menu posted outside “Cafe de la Place 2.” A friendly waiter greeted me and guided me to a table. It wasn’t a hard sell. My first French cafe. Most of the tables faced out towards the street. It was a great view of the passing parade. The menu was a bit puzzling. I picked out a “Pappardelle” dish. It was fresh pasta and really great. 
I watched my waiter working the crowd and the street. He made apparent regulars feel at home. He greeted many people on the street. People passing by knew him. This guy was good. I wondered how much money he generated for this place.  
Paris is a more diverse city than I had expected. It surprised me that there were so many African and Asian people passing by the cafe. I got my first real look at French women. Many were returning from work. They were well dressed. Every woman seemed to have her own fashion sense. 
It was Tuesday night, but there was still a little nightlife on the Rue de la Nivert. A few people stood outside of a nightclub that was blasting Blues. I wasn’t ambitious enough for that tonight. Closer to the hotel was the Cafe Moderne. It was on the corner of Rue de la Nivert and another street that didn’t look like much more than an alley to me. The cafe stretched down the street. People sat at tables along the side of the cafe. There were some young people inside, but it wasn’t crowded. It was still early. When I passed it later on other nights every table would be occupied. In the back there was a large figure of an Asian woman. A lighting effect made it look like she was constantly winking. It gave the place more of a nightclub atmosphere. 
Closer to the hotel there was a comic book store. This was a little bit of home. There were figures of familiar Marvel and DC characters in the window. 
Wednesday. August 31. Today would be the first guided tour. This time I found the Metro stop behind the Invalides. I wondered how I had missed it yesterday. It was early and I wandered to the river for my first look at the Seine.
I crossed a grand bridge, the Pont Alexandre III. The bridge itself is a work of art. Across the river were two impressive buildings, the Grand Palais and the Petit-Palais. This was real Paris stuff! It was tempting to take a closer look, especially at the steel and glass of the Grand Palais, but I pressed on. I wanted to walk through the Tuileries Gardens. 
As part of my tour package I would get a Paris City Pass. It included tickets to museums and a boat tour of the Seine. I was supposed to pick them up at The Convention Bureau that was on the Rue de la Pyramides. I located it on the map. It was near the Louvre. I’d see some sights and pick up the City Pass before the Versailles tour. 
I walked along the Seine. It was already hot. A young woman approached me. She didn’t look homeless, but she didn’t have that Parisian fashion sense either. “Would you sign a petition?” I noticed about four other females with clipboards sitting on a bench in the shade. I had been warned about the gypsies. Before she even got close to me, I gave her a heated, “No!” Her friends seemed surprised and a bit amused by my response. I guess they figured I wasn’t worth the bother of leaving the shade.
I do have my uniform that I wear when I’m wandering the streets. A black vest type jacket with large pockets. Black pants. Gym shoes and a baseball hat with the USF (University of San Francisco) logo on it. It may have screamed American tourist, but I think it did keep some pests away. It usually works in San Francisco.  
The Place de la Concorde is not only an impressive space, but it’s the site of maybe the most exciting, dramatic history ever. This is where thousands cheered as the guillotine fell. It had been the Place de la Revolution. It takes a little imagination to picture mobs howling for royal blood here. The large square is dominated by the large obelisk brought from Egypt by Napoleon. There’s a large carousel and souvenir tents at the entrance to the Tuileries Gardens. 
The Tuileries had been built as gardens for French royalty. The gardens were looking a bit dry in the heat, but they were still beautiful. The Tuileries is the very definition of a garden. It has to be the world capital of landscaping. There are many sculptures among the flower beds and lawns. It’s an outdoor art museum. People were already settling into chairs at large reflecting pools. 
The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel is topped by reproductions of the four bronze horses Napoleon brought back from Venice. The originals were returned after Napoleon’s demise.
It was early, but there were still family groups of tourists. Some kids wore those Mickey Mouse Merlin sorcerer hats. It wasn’t hard to tell where they had just visited. Europe is Disneyland for history and art buffs. Some college age kids were cautiously throwing a frisbee around. 
There were guys selling bottled water, selfie sticks, wooden baskets, little aluminum Eiffel Towers and other trinkets. When you get closer to the Louvre there’s more of them. They almost form a ring. Later I heard that most of them are Senegalese refugees. Near the Louvre they really get into a hard sell. It’s almost like running a gauntlet. I went by the glass pyramid entrance to The Louvre. It was exciting to think that I would be going in there soon. 
A building covered the Rue de la Pyramides, but a passage allowed traffic through a large opening. It was almost a tunnel. On the other side the buildings were old. It seemed to be more of a business district. I tried to find the convention bureau. I knew I was very close, but I couldn’t figure out the map or the address. I decided to head back to the meeting point for the Versailles tour. I knew where that was. I’d figure out where the Convention Bureau was later.  
There was a coffee stand inside the Invalides Metro stop. It was still early, but well dressed commuters were drinking beer at the bar. I took a look at a menu. I got the attention of a young waitress behind the bar to order something. She freaked out a little bit, “I don’t speak English!” That’s OK. I had learned how to deal with the language barrier in the Russian deli in my San Francisco neighborhood. I just point at things behind the counter and buy them. I pointed at the menu. “La Croque Monsieur.” I knew what that was. A toasted ham and cheese sandwich. It could be a long afternoon at Versailles. I was directed to a table. My waiter seemed a bit miffed. I had violated some kind of ordering protocol. Maybe I was in too much of a hurry.  
The Metro stop was in a park. It was easy to spot the City Tours people. They wore blue shirts and carried clipboards. There were eight of us in the group. A young woman was our contact. She would take us to Versailles to meet our guide. We took a twenty minute ride on the Metro to the Versailles stop, and then took a short walk through the town. The streets were lined with souvenir shops. We turned the corner on a boulevard and there it was. Versailles! It was the biggest palace I’ve ever seen.
We went to a prominent statue of Louis XIV and waited there for our tour guide, Herve. We could call him Harvey if we had trouble pronouncing his name in French. There were eight in our group. Herve had us introduce ourselves and say where we came from. When it was my turn I told everyone I was from San Francisco. It was the first time I got the San Francisco reaction from my fellow tourists. It was either, “We love San Francisco!” or “We’ve got to get to San Francisco.” On every tour I became “The guy from San Francisco.”   
As we walked towards the palace Herve talked about the history of Versailles. The area had been a hunting grounds for the royalty and nobles of Paris. Louis XIII built a large hunting lodge here, but it was Louis XIV who had the grand vision to build the largest palace in the world here. 
We stood at the entrance to the buildings. There was a large courtyard. Being in the city of Paris had been amazing, but the grandeur of Versailles is hard to describe. This would be the first of many moments like this on the trip. The building had two large wings. The building in the center had a large balcony.     
Our guide was very enthusiastic and really brought the history to life. In 1789 events were really spinning out of control for the French royalty. Louis XVI had left Paris twenty years before and made Versailles his home. This alienated him from the people of Paris who thought he was under the control of Marie Antoinette. A mob walked out from Paris. “Imagine,” Herve said, “They walked the distance you just covered on that Metro ride.” I had to wonder what the “walk” to Versailles had been like. It wasn’t just a stroll here. It would have been an angry mob. It was a Revolution! 
The people stopped right where we were standing and demanded to see the King! They hated Marie Antoinette. The royal couple came out on the balcony and addressed the crowd. The mob would not be pacified. The royal couple was forced to return to Paris. 
We went into the wing of the palace on our right. This was the first of many “airport security” stops for me before entering major landmark sites. There were a few military vehicles outside. Stern soldiers stood there with automatic weapons.
It was the “Skip the Line: VIP Secret Rooms of Versailles Tour.” Herve checked in with security guards and we walked around some velvet ropes and stanchions. We would have access to rooms the public couldn’t enter.   
There was a large staircase. It looked more modern than the rest of the building. Herve explained that the original staircase, the Ambassador’s staircase, had been more grand. People traveled from all over the known world to see the staircase, but eventually it had become worn down. It was a burden to maintain. The staircase was replaced during renovations. There is a model of the original staircase.    
We entered the area with the King and Queen’s private rooms. Every room defied description. It was the epitome of opulence. The walls were gilded and held large mirrors. The furniture alone must have cost a fortune. The first salons were a place for courtiers and other political hopefuls to gather. Refreshments would be provided while they waited.   
There was another salon. Marie Antoinette loved to gamble, but it was forbidden at Versailles. The King allowed gambling on one occasion, a party for her birthday. He awoke the next morning and heard that the party was still going on in the salon. The Queen and a small group were still up gambling. The King protested. It was only supposed to be for one night! Marie said the night wasn’t over until they stopped. It was a logic I appreciated. 
A harp in the next room was a giveaway. This was the music room. Louis XIV’s daughters played music here daily. A young Mozart played here for the royal family. It was amazing to stand in the same room that the young prodigy had entertained royalty in.  
Louis XV had six daughters. Two of them never married and lived in the Mesdames’ Apartments until the Revolution. Herve said that they were very strict and bitter old maids. They ran a reign of terror of their own in the court. 
The King “went to bed” in public. When he retired for the day it was a daily public ritual with much ceremony. It was a great honor to be present. Courtiers jockeyed for position. It was an opportunity to gain favor with the King and to ask for favors. When the last courtier left, the King went to the “real” bedroom where he slept. 
Herve told us about Louis XVI’s ineptness in the bedroom. Producing an heir was a royal obligation. Louis XVI had led a sheltered, pious life. Marie Antoinette’s brother was visiting from Austria. He had to clue Louis in. These intimate details were preserved in a letter he wrote. The luxury of Versailles is stunning, but the royalty that lived here were still human. 
  We went into an area that looked more modern. There was another tour group inside The Opera House, so we would have to wait a bit. Herve told us about his first visit to Versailles. He was five years old and he fell in love with the palace. He was always drawn to the palace at Versailles. “Where is the King?” he innocently asked his mother. “We killed him,” was her unemotional reply.
In some of his commentary Herve defended the monarchy a bit. He said the kings were loved by the people, especially Louis XIV. The kings did great things for their people. This sounded too much like trickle down economics for me. Most people lived in miserable poverty. Maybe it’s a bit American and naive, but I don’t get monarchy. Eventually there was a Revolution. I wondered how many French shared Herve’s opinions today.   
What says being King more than having your own Opera House? We sat in seats in a loge area while Herve told us the history of this remarkable room. The Opera House was completed in time to be used for the marriage of a young Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette. 
It’s not as big as the public opera houses, but it is more richly decorated. On our left three men were cleaning one of the chandeliers that had been lowered from the ceiling. That was a unique sight. 
Versailles was built to impress the people and especially foreign dignitaries. Even the most jaded leaders of other countries had to be affected by The Opera House. It’s still used for opera and other events today. 
Herve told us that through the years many pieces of art had been taken from Versailles to the Louvre. Versailles and the Louvre battled for priceless pieces of art. Usually the Louvre won. It had more political clout. Some pieces have been returned to Versailles. Herve pointed out that the Louvre displays one tenth of the art they own. 
We stepped through a door and we were in the areas with public access. It was crowded, especially compared to the “Private Rooms.” People went from room to room, looking for the ultimate photo op. Herve talked to guards and other staff. Later he told us that the staff told him that attendance was down by at least a third. He told us several times that this was an opportune time to visit Versailles. I had to wonder what a “normal” day would be like here.
We walked through some more incredible rooms. The Salon d’ Apollon. In the Salon de Guerre there was a large stucco relief of Louis XIV. We entered the Hall of Mirrors. Herve explained that mirrors were a sign of luxury. The walls here were covered with them. It was meant to dazzle people.   
It’s been a day of amazing sights, and there’s still more to see. “A great palace has to have great gardens.” We go outside and walk to The Gardens. We stop at a terrace with a fantastic view. A long pool is laid out before us in the shape of a cross. Herve tells us that events are still held on the huge manmade lagoon. 
Versailles was quite an experience. We had been transported back into another era of history. Thanks to Herve for making history come alive!  
We got back on the train for the return trip. I got off at the Eiffel Metro Stop. I figured I can make my way back to Cambronne from here. The area around the Eiffel Tower was crowded with tourists and souvenir stands. Many of them were families with whiny kids who were melting down after a long day. 
It was a nice walk through the Champ De Mars. It’s the park that leads to the tower. Then I walked along the Avenue de Suffren. On that street I made my first stop at an ATM. It was a bit of a relief that it worked and I had some more cash.  
Across from the Ecole Militaire I stopped for a “Happy Hour” Chablis. I could get used to this cafe life. The legs were starting to go. I’d take my time and head back to the hotel. Across the street there was a street sign I was glad to see. It pointed to Cambronne.

Europe Tour 2016 Planning


Planning. 
When I first moved to San Francisco forty years ago I shared the infamous apartment at 1244 California. It was the tail end of the crash pad era. We put up visitors from Europe. There always seemed to be someone on the couch in that apartment in the Seventies. They were appreciative and wanted to return the hospitality. I had addresses to stay in Amsterdam, France, Italy and Germany. Every year I would say to myself this is it! I’m going this summer, but then things would start happening.  
I’ll admit I’m very bad at planning, especially travel planning. Another thing is that I have to admit I was having too much fun in San Francisco when I first moved out here. For some reason I always thought that I had to make the trip in the summer. The summer would blast by, and then I’d think it was “too late.” 
There was a golden opportunity to go when friends of mine worked at the stock options exchange in Amsterdam. They were there for a couple of years, but I never got it together to go over there.  
It was a big frustration of mine. I should have gone years ago. When people talked about their travels in Europe I would drift out of the conversation. When I saw Rick Steves’ shows on PBS I would wonder: Is this the closest I’ll ever get to going there? I did live in San Francisco, the most European of cities in America, but I was also told there was nothing like “the real thing.”
I did go on a great trip to Ireland in 1999, but I didn’t have much to do with the planning on that one. It was the trip of a lifetime, and I got to see my father’s home town in Kerry on the Dingle peninsula. Bally David. (Baile na n Gall in Gaelic.) I finally saw the places that I had heard so many stories about while growing up. I have done some traveling in the United States, especially California, but I was an inexperienced international traveler.  
The terrorist attacks in France got me thinking. The attack on the Bataclan night club was especially infuriating to me. A talking head on CNN said that the attacks would have a devastating effect on the European economy, especially tourism. How much would fear change people’s traveling plans? The odds of being in a terrorist attack were compared to being struck by lightning, but people are funny. It was predicted that many would stay away from Europe. I’ll admit it’s a bit opportunistic, but maybe now was the time to go. They’d be glad to see my tourist dollar. Soon I’d really be a senior. I was inspired by Iggy Pop: “It’s now or never!”     
My life coach, Charles Kiefer, presented me with a challenge. What is the one thing I really wanted to do? Forget about expenses and money, the timing and the other reasons and rationales that would prevent me from doing it. Just think of what that one thing would be, and start planning to do it.  
It was simple. Travel in Europe. That would be my top pick. Charles helped me start planning. What was my budget? Where would I go? Where would I stay? What were my musts?” I started looking at air fares. 
At first I tried to mastermind it. There’s no shortage of travel information on the Internet. Airfares looked cheaper than I thought they would be, but they weren’t dirt cheap. It was still a bit of a fantasy. What would I do once I got there? I imagined myself just walking around. Sure, I’d see some of the sights, but the idea of just being over there seemed enough to me. Should I stay in hostels? I read that they weren’t just for the young travelers of the world.      
Rick Steves’ “Europe Through the Back Door” was a big help. I was surprised that he suggested consulting with a travel agent, especially if it was your first trip. There was so much information on flights and hotels that it was confusing me. My e-mail was bombarded with special deals. I didn’t have to get the greatest deal in the world, but I would be working with a limited budget. 
Then I got an e-mail from Jerome. He was a friend from the North Beach days. He was living in Montenegro. If I was ever in his part of the world, he’d be glad to play host. This was intriguing. It would save me hotel money and give me a break from figuring out the traveling details for a part of the trip. I knew he would show me around. 
A Google search of: “Europe Cheap Travel” led me to “Europe on a Budget.” I had wanted a company with an office in San Francisco that I could go to with questions. I called and spoke to Leatta Perdue of Travel Central. She explained that the company had just moved to New Orleans. I figured it wouldn’t make that much difference. 
She asked what I was looking for. What were my “musts?” Where did I want to go? How long would I want to stay? I told her that I would stay in budget hotels or hostels. I just wanted a place to sleep. I wasn’t looking for a room with a view. I didn’t need a pool or a spa. My original plan was Amsterdam, Paris, Rome and Montenegro. The Montenegro leg threw her a bit. I had to explain that I knew someone there. She had some doubts about my budget, but said that she would take a look. 
  My sister Joan is an experienced world traveler. She should have been a travel agent. She advised me that Florence was a must, and that I should seriously consider going to Venice. She had other great advice about packing and traveling in Europe. 
About three days later Leatta called me back. She had put together an itinerary. It sounded too good to be true. Paris, Montenegro, Rome, Florence, Venice. I would be staying in hotels every night. She warned me that they would be “budget hotels.” She had arranged for me to go on twelve tours! Among them were Versailles, The Eiffel Tower, a special look at the Roman Forum, the Uffizi Museum and the Duomo in Florence. There would be day trips to Cinque Terre and “The Best of Tuscany.” 
Here’s a link to my itinerary. I’m not sure if it’s still active. https://axustravelapp.com/shared/itinerary/a98af77e-dd29-416c-92da-7389bffb05c5

It was very exciting and a bit mind boggling. I sucked it up and put down a deposit. There was really no turning back after that. 
Rick Steves’ book had some practical advice for inexperienced travelers. Make sure you have a passport! He says to take one bag. You’ll need half the things you think you’ll need, and you’ll be carrying your bag around more than you expect. I even bought the Rick Steves’ travel bag, and it was well worth the money! It was a conventional piece of luggage for air travel, and it could be converted to a backpack.  There were many little compartments. 
It seemed like a long time until the date arrived. I read up on where I was going. There was still a bit of fantasy around the trip. Turner Classic Movies showed a series of  Brigitte Bardot films. It was a painless way to brush up on French.

I got more guide books and tried to locate at least what area my hotels were in. Where were the “meeting points” for the tours I would be taking? It was exciting to read about the cities and sights I would be visiting.    
I would fly August 29 and land in Paris on August 30. The flight home would be more convoluted. I would fly from Venice to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Los Angeles and then Los Angeles to San Francisco. The layovers made the flight cheaper. I wasn’t too concerned about the flight back. 
A friend said that it sounded like “a great vacation.” I didn’t think about the trip that way. To me, it was more like a pilgrimage. I was going on my own twisted version of the Grand Tour!  
They say you learn more about yourself than anything else when you travel. I was anxious about that first flight. I kept imagining one last stumbling block. Would I forget the tickets? Miss the flight? Would there be some kind of disaster that would ruin the big trip I had finally planned for? What if there was a huge traffic jam on the way to the airport? What could go wrong? 
Nothing went wrong. I made it through security. There were no last minute disasters. I was on my way to Paris. 
I have a hard time flying. I’m not afraid of flying. I just hate being trapped inside of a tin can. A three hour flight seems to take forever. This was a ten hour flight on Delta. I was able to walk around the plane a bit. There was the excitement of being on my way. I kept going over my itinerary. Would I really be seeing all this?