Part 2 of a three-part series
The advice was solid: You can’t see it all in a week. But I could damn sure try.
During a week in and around London, The Washington Times was graciously granted press tours thanks to Viator, a TripAdvisor tour-brokering firm that creates ambitious-yet-satisfying day trips as well as multiple-day excursions in Europe and around the world. For my purposes, I would take three day trips from my home base away from home in London.
After tackling Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge in my first outing, my second excursion, run by the extremely professional folks at Premium Tours, was not even in Britannia itself. Rather, I boarded a train in London and headed south … south … south through England and then underneath the English Channel and into neighboring France for the Luxury Paris Day Trip package.
Getting abroad from London via rail requires departing from St Pancras International Station, accessible from nearly all points in London via the Tube, taxi or Uber. I was advised to make sure I was at St Pancras by 6 a.m. As always, leaving early is a good idea. And, as always when crossing international borders, don’t forget your passport.
In a switch from other international voyages I have made so far in my days, at St Pancras I actually go through French customs before ever leaving English soil. This is standard procedure, so again, don’t be surprised when you’re interrogated by French authorities inside London before you even board the train.
European train travel continues to impress me. I take a seat on the Eurostar, which will rocket passengers from the capital of England to the capital of France, a distance of 214 miles, in just over two hours. The service, the speed — up to 186 mph — and the efficiency of this journey across England, France and underneath the English Channel through the Chunnel puts all American train service woefully to shame.
To make myself and my fellow travelers feel at ease, our guide Charlotte goes from car to car, locating all of her charges for the day, and explaining the particulars of the excursion. A native Parisian, Charlotte is bilingual, friendly and open to any questions. I feel in good hands. (Reminder: It is customary to tip your guides at day’s end.)
Arriving at Paris‘ Gare Du Nord, I disembark and go for a quick snack and morning iced tea. With my (extremely) limited French I am able to conduct a transaction with a shopkeep, but it will be the only time all day that anyone does not automatically switch to English with me.
Charlotte motions us to exit Gare du Nord on foot and head but a few blocks away from this lovely structure to where our coach awaits.
It’s a beautiful, impossibly sunny August day, with temperatures topping 90 degrees and not a cloud to be seen. It is as welcoming a first impression of the French capital as one could possibly hope for.
Our coach heads due west from Gare du Nord. Every street, every corner offers a meeting of Old World charm and 21st century capitalism. Cobblestone alleys sit next to boutique clothiers; ancient churches stand in counterpoint to sex shops and the infamous Moulin Rouge, whose cabaret shows have entertained patrons from the Belle Epoque right up until the present day (and yes, also inspired “that movie”).
Cafes and patisseries are everywhere. But as with the Rouge, most of these I can only appreciate from the bus today given our ambitious schedule.
Heading into the center of the city, we see the magnificent Place Vendome Column, erected in honor of Napoleon by Balzac.
Charlotte gives us a history and cartography primer as we head into the magnificent Place de la Concorde, the largest public square in all of the city. It was here, during the French Revolution, that the statue of Louis XV was torn down and the area renamed Place de la Revolution. However the square went back to its original moniker in 1795 when cooler heads prevailed.
As our coach makes a circular swing through this open-air plaza, we can see the famous fountains, including the Fountain of River Commerce and Navigation; the Obelisk of Luxor, donated by the Egyptians in the 19th century; and the 70-meter-high Big Wheel, the world’s largest ferris wheel.
Around another bend, the Arc de Triomphe comes blazingly into view. This magnificent structure, erected between 1806 and 1836, honors those French who fought in the Napoleonic Wars. A tomb of the unknown soldier also memorializes those unknown who gave their lives in the First World War. A huge tri-color French flag hands from the middle of the arch, and today it sways hauntingly in the breeze. The coach makes a circuit around the stone marker to allow us to appreciate it from all angles.
The coach drops us not far from the Eiffel Tower, where we are hustled into a docked vessel for a river cruise up the Seine. Our boat crosses beneath overpasses decorated with ornate sculptures, and we also cruise past the Louvre. On either bank of the Seine, I see people sunbathing, as if it were the most natural thing in the world — which it is.
And from this river-riding vantage point, the unmistakable Gothic columns of Notre Dame claw toward the flawless Parisian skies. Taking in this marvel of medieval architecture, I am reminded once again how absolutely everything in America, by comparison, is so incredibly “new.” Alas, the boat will not stop and allow me to get up close to — or inside — the magnifique cathedral, so it will have to wait for another time.
Disembarking from the vessel, the sun is perfectly situated behind the tip-top of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a site to behold, however, the lighting makes absolute mockery of anything in the foreground of my photos. Filmmakers, take note!
No matter, as within moments, Charlotte ushers us off the coach at the site of the Eiffel Tower itself. Unveiled for the 1889 World’s Fair as a celebration of the centennial of the French Revolution, it’s not only a shear feat of civil engineering but inarguably the most famous landmark in Paris and known the world over.
One thing to note for your visit: Be prepared to wait in line, especially if you didn’t book in advance. Lines are long, and in the post-9/11 world, you’ll be going through metal detectors and security that will remind you of the TSA. But trust me, it’s worth it.
Champagne lunch is part of this tour, and the site for such a grand meal is 58 Tour Eiffel. A fine meal is provided that includes starter, main course and a dessert. I wish I’d paid more attention to what was actually on the plates, but I was conscious of the time, and wanted to make the observation deck, so I actually skipped out on the dessert, which I assure you, is quite unlike me. (My tablemates asked if they could take one “to go” for me, to which they were laughed at — and rightfully so, I suppose.)
I proceed to climb story after story after story of stair flights to get to the next level of Eiffel. Again, prepare for a wait if you opt for the elevator, but I didn’t have the time, so I got in both my exercise and my adventure kick by hoofing it up to the second level of the tower. Signs along the way cheer on the climber, letting him know he is getting close(r).
Sweating and breathing heavily when I make the second level, a smile crosses my face as the cloudless skies offer stunning views all across the City of Lights. On one side is the Seine, on the other the Champs Elysses, plus Notre Dame, downtown and the Louvre. It’s a feast for the eyes, what with the unobstructed views and the scent of an entirely new world at the nose. I could spend all day here, and wish I had time to see this lit up by night.
The third floor is closed today, but I wouldn’t have had time to get up there anyway. Rather, it’s back to the stairwell and down, down, down to the base, passing patrons along the way speaking every language as I make sure to get back on the coach for the final stretch of the tour.
For an extra fee, I pay to join the guided tour of the Louvre, the most famous museum on Earth. Originally constructed as a fortress in the 12th century, the structure was converted in 1546 to be the main residence for French royalty. However, Louis XIV decided to make his primary residence the Palace of Versailles, leaving the Louvre basically as a warehouse for the regents’ massive art holdings. During the sweeping changes of the French Revolution, the new overseers of the Republic declared the Louvre would be a museum to be enjoyed by all, not just the gentry.
Somewhat to my surprise, Charlotte, who has shepherded us about Paris all day, is also our tour guide inside the museum, proving once again how thoroughly professional and knowledgable are the staff provided by the company. I’m incredibly impressed.
It would be as impossible to see the Louvre’s entire collection in an afternoon visit as it would be to get through the National Gallery in D.C. in, say, an hour, so Charlotte takes us to the big highlights. This certainly means a stop by Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” which commemorates the “Trois Glorieuses” (“three glorious days”) during July 1830 when Charles X was overthrown by Louis Philippe. Delacroix personified Liberty in the form of a woman leading the French people into the next phase of their history.
Venus de Milo, the renowned statue missing her arms, must also be seen in this whirlwind tour. Discovered on a Greek island in 1820, the classical statue dates to somewhere in the first three centuries B.C., and its image has even been appropriated by an episode of “The Simpsons.”
We also trip briskly through the Galerie d’Apollon, a room with vaulted ceilings adorned with incredible works, and a room that is a work of art in and of itself due to its golden hues.
In the spring of 2002, while working my first job as a journalist after USC, I took art history classes at night at Pasadena City College taught by Joseph L. Futtner, who implored us, if we ever got to the Louvre, to go into the Mona Lisa Room, but to not ignore all the other magnificent Renaissance works hung around her. As Prof. Futtner said would happen, there are in fact hundreds all gathered around for just a peek at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona and snapping away with their cellphones, but on the opposite wall from the tiny canvas (from it having been stolen so often) is another master work, “The Wedding Feast at Cana” by the Italian painter Paolo Veronese, that shows Jesus turning water into wine for the wedding celebration. (I remind myself to send Prof. Futtner an email thanking him for this foresight later.)
There’s too much to see, but it’s time to get back on the bus to head back to Gare du Nord for the train trip home. Despite what I have heard far too often — that’s how stereotypes begin — I have found the Parisians to be incredibly friendly, helpful and affable. While no doubt there are those less so, the same could be said about anywhere in America … and we certainly don’t wish to be judged as such, now do we?
Interestingly, on the return back to England you must go through customs twice — first for France and then for England — and do so within feet of one another at Gare du Nord.
The train ride out of Paris and across the northern countryside is as smooth and lovely as was the ride in, and before long the swift passing of France through to the Chunnel and back into England has soothed me into a nap.
It’s been a damn good day.
Eric Althoff is Travel Editor for The Washington Times.