Sunday, August 13, 2017

Paris, July 4

Tuesday, July 4, 2017
Paris, France

We left from O’Hare Airport at about 8:30 PM yesterday (after a 2 hour delay!) and arrived in Paris today about noon local time. More... Of course, because of the 7-hour time difference, our bodies thought it was 4:30 AM. We’ve found the best way to deal with jet lag is not to give in to the temptation to take a nap, but to soldier on until darkness falls wherever we happen to be. However, since Paris is farther north than most of the United States, sunset here is much later than in the Chicago area – about 10 PM. So it felt like we went without sleep for about 18 hours.

Fortunately, Paris is as beautiful a city as everyone says it is, so it was worth it after all!

We met up with our friends, John and Yvonne, at the apartment that Yvonne had rented for us all on Rue Charlot, in the Marais district. It’s one of the older sections of Paris (more pre-Revolutionary structures and streets than any other area in Paris), so of course the buildings are also older. Our apartment is in a 500-year-old building that has been renovated with modern amenities – sort of. I say sort of because the renovations did not include air conditioning or elevators, which is not unusual in Europe. The older the building, the less likely it is to have air conditioning.

Unfortunately, the apartment is on the top (fourth) floor, and Paris is currently going through a heat wave of close to 90 degrees (F). Luckily, the apartment has really thick stone walls and came with plenty of electric fans!

We all went out for an exploratory walk around the historic Île de la Cité section. Some of the sights included the Sainte-Chappelle, the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), and Notre Dame Cathedral (my first look at flying buttresses!).

South side of Notre Dame Cathedral. Note the flying buttresses! And the statue of John Paul II.

Then we went back to the apartment to meet up with Yvonne’s friends, Tim and Peggy, who are renting the apartment across from ours and will be going on the VBT cycling trip with us. Their friend Bernard, who was married to a French woman, is staying in their spare bedroom for a few days so he can see one of his daughters perform in a music recital at the conservatory she attends.

The five of us went out to dinner at some local restaurant that I was too tired to remember the name of, although I do remember the duck salad with goat cheese, which was delish.

Paris, July 5

Wednesday, July 5
Paris, France

Busy day today. First Gary and I wandered down to a little bistro on the corner called Café Charlot and split the most delicious ham and cheese omelet I’ve ever tasted in my life. More... You could tell it had been cooked in plenty of real butter. And of course it came with crusty bread and creamy café au lait.

Then we met John and Yvonne back at the apartment and the four of us took the Metro to the Musée d’Orsay (Orsay Museum). It’s a former train station which was constructed in the Beaux-Arts style for an early French railway company and finished in time for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. During World War II it became a mailing center, and in the 1960s it was used as a set for several movies, including Orson Wells’ “The Trial.” It was scheduled to be demolished in 1970, but the French government instead decided to convert it into an art museum that would bridge the gap between the Louvre and the Museum of Contemporary Arts. It reopened as the Musée d’Orsay in 1986. And yes, the huge clock in the main alley still works.

Here, I finally saw in person the masterpieces of the Impressionist artists such as Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh. (And also one of the most famous works of art by an American artist outside of the United States – “Whistler’s Mother.”)

Water Lily Pond (Blue) - Claude Monet

Bal du moulin de la Galette - Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Starry Night Over the Rhone Arles - Vincent Van Gogh

Arrangement in Gray and Black #1 (Whistler's Mother) - James McNeill Whistler

After several hours at the museum, we walked down to Paris’ oldest bridge, the Pont Neuf (which ironically means “new bridge”), to take a one-hour scenic cruise up and down the River Seine on an excursion boat.

After the boat cruise, we made our way over to the Eiffel Tower on Champs de Mars. This, of course, is the 1,066-foot wrought iron lattice tower that was built by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 World Fair and has since become an iconic symbol of France.

The obligatory Eiffel Tower picture -- just to prove we really were in Paris

We didn’t climb all 704 steps to the top of the tower. (The uneven stairways to our apartment already give us a good work-out every day.) We took the elevator to the second floor, which is open to the public, then we used the tickets we had purchased several weeks before to take another elevator up to the very top. We met up with Tim and Peggy here and spent several hours taking pictures of the panoramic views.

We did take the stairs down from the second floor, which is a lot easier but with just as spectacular a view. It was a really distinctive experience of being inside and outside at the same time.

It was after 10 PM when we left the tower, and sunset was finally falling. As we walked away from the tower in search of a restaurant, the nightly light show started. A really beautiful sight!

Paris, July 6

Thursday, July 6
Paris, France

Today we took the Metro to the west side of the city for another sight that we just had to see on our first trip to Paris: the Arc de Triomphe. More... Another very recognizable symbol of Paris, this monument honors the victories of Napoleon Bonaparte, as well as all soldiers who fought and died for France during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I lies directly underneath the main arch, although it now represents the dead who were never identified from both world wars.

The arch has been the site of many famous victory marches, parades and ceremonies:

  • Napoleon’s posthumous homecoming in 1840, before his remains were permanently entombed in the Invalides
  • the Germans in 1871 (Franco-Prussian War)
  • the French in 1919 (World War I)
  • the Germans again in 1940 (World War II)
  • the French and the Allies in 1944 (the Liberation of Paris, World War II).
The arch is also the focal point of the annual Bastille Day Military Parade and (on a lighter note) the culmination of the annual Tour de France cycling event.

Ever since the interment of the Unknown Soldier in 1919, however, these parades and marches have avoided going directly through the main arch, out of respect for the tomb and what it represents. Instead, they usually march up to the arch and then around its sides. Even Hitler honored this custom in 1940.

You can also go to the top of the arch (for an extra fee, of course). It supposedly has a great view of the “historical axis.” This is the perfect alignment of the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysées, the Obelisk on Place de la Concorde, the Louvre, and more recently, the Grand Arche de la Défense in the far distance. We already had a birds’-eye view of Paris yesterday from the Eiffel Tower, though, so we passed.

Traffic on the giant 8-lane circle around the arch is as crazy as it looks on TV. Supposedly, it’s the only place in Paris where traffic accidents are not judged; insurance companies routinely split the costs 50-50, no matter what the circumstances. (If you decide to rent a car in Paris, you are offered a special insurance package to cover any accidents on the Arc de Triomphe roundabout.) Cars entering the circle are supposed to have the right-of-way; those inside the circle are supposed to yield. Traffic cops are stationed at each entrance to try to control the madness – but it still looks pretty chaotic to the uninitiated. Thank God there are underpasses that pedestrians can use so they don’t have to risk their lives getting to the arch.

Then we took a long walk down the Champs-Elysées (French for “Elysian Fields,” which was the paradise for dead heroes in ancient Greek mythology). It’s one of the most famous streets in the world for upscale retail shopping. Of course, all of the famous French luxury boutiques, such as Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Lacoste, and Guerlain, are here. (Lots of bling in the windows, but nothing we could afford.) But we also saw lots of global chain stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Benetton, the Disney Store, The Gap, Nike, Sephora, and Zara. We almost thought we were back home again!

Our next stop of the day was the Louvre, which used to be a fortress and then later a residence for the French kings. In 1793, after the French Revolution, it opened to the public as a museum and has been one ever since, making it one of the oldest museums in the world. It’s also one of the most visited museums in the world, as well as the largest one. (I can vouch for that, since Gary and I got lost in it several times.)

We were really only interested in seeing a few pieces of the Louvre’s collection, mostly from the Renaissance era, which included the Mona Lisa, of course.

Now known as the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa was painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci from approximately 1503 through 1506 to celebrate the birth of a son to the patron who commissioned it, according to most experts. Leonardo, however, never finished the portrait to his satisfaction (a frequent problem with him), so it was never delivered to the client. He brought it with him to France when he was invited to live and work there by King Francis I in 1516. King Francis acquired it after Leonardo’s death three years later, and it has remained the property of France ever since (except for a brief spell in Italy. It was stolen in 1911 by an Italian patriot who believed that the painting rightly belonged in an Italian museum).

For me, seeing the Mona Lisa painting in person was strangely anticlimactic, one of the few times that’s happened to me while traveling. It’s surprisingly small (30” x 21”). That was considered a large portrait for the time, but I had always imagined it as much more sizable than it actually is. Probably all of the hype I had heard about it made it seem as if it should be “larger than life” in actual size as well as reputation.

Also, because of the past theft and several more recent acts of vandalism, the painting is walled off behind a bullet-proof sheet of glass and a railing. This makes it impossible to get close enough to it to examine the painting’s detail and the model’s supposedly enigmatic smile.

Dinner tonight was at a place back in our neighborhood called Le Bougnat on Rue de Saintonge, which seemed to be popular with the locals. I don’t blame them – great home cooking!

Versailles, July 7

Friday, July 7 Versailles Our busiest day yet. Today the four of us took an early train out to the Palace of Versailles. More... This is the building that King Louis XIV transformed from a small hunting lodge into a vast palace with silver furniture, 700 rooms, more than 2,000 windows, 1,250 fireplaces, 67 staircases, and 357 mirrors in the famous Hall of Mirrors alone. This is also where Louis moved the royal court and the seat of government in 1682 (along with much of the nobility, as a form of political control).

The French royal family continued to live at Versailles until 1789, when King Louis XVI and his family were forced to return to Paris (and their eventual deaths) during the French Revolution. The palace is therefore famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of absolute monarchy and its downfall.

The day we left for Paris (July 3), the new French President, Emmanuel Macron, used Versailles as the venue for a U.S.-style “state of the nation” speech in which he laid out his plans for his upcoming term. Because he chose to give this speech at Versailles, his political opponents immediately accused him of trying to “act like royalty.” That shows you how potent a symbol this palace still is!

The King’s Chapel at Versailles

The King's Bed in his Bedchamber

The Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces). Mirrors were considered a great luxury, so the King had over 350 in this one room alone, to demonstrate his wealth and power. Many ceremonial functions have been held here over the centuries. The current government of France, the Fifth Republic, still uses it for state receptions

It took several hours to tour the inside rooms of the palace. And we were nowhere near finished. After that, we still had the gardens (which cover 800 hectares or about 1,976 acres of land) and some of the subsidiary structures on the estate to see.

Back view of Versailles overlooking the gardens, showing the Fountain of Latona and the Grand Canal.

None of Versailles' 50 fountains were running the day we were there. Supplying enough water for them was -- and still is -- a big challenge. The royal gardeners would turn them on as the King walked by, then turn them off after he had passed.

The gardens feature 200,000 trees, and 210,000 flowers are planted annually.

One of the cottages in "The Queen's Hamlet." This is where Marie Antoinette used to pretend she was a simple country girl.

What is truly amazing about Versailles is that all of it was built for only a select group of people – the King and his court – from the taxes of the peasantry. It’s not surprising that they eventually rebelled and overthrew the monarchy. The whole place should act as a reminder of how out-of-hand an absolute monarchy can become.

I don’t know how many hours or how many miles we walked. The subsidiary buildings we visited were some distance away from the main palace. There were trolleys that could give you a lift to different areas of the estate (the King and his court used coaches, of course), but they charged a fee, so we walked everywhere.

It was pretty hot today. When we finally got back to Paris, we collapsed at an outdoor café – in the shade, of course -- for drinks. Here, we made a pact among ourselves that we will never visit Europe in the summer again, only in the spring or fall!

The evening was fun. We met up with Tim, Peggy, and Bernard again at a Thai restaurant called Madame Shawn on Rue Caffarelli. (Paris is a very popular destination for expats of many nationalities.) They had a great Asian duck salad there. Then we went back to the apartment, settled down in Tim and Peggy’s living room (theirs is larger than ours), and drank wine late into the night.

Paris, July 8

Saturday, July 8

Today was a “rest day.” We’ve seen everything that we considered essential on our first trip to Paris, so today the couples decided to split up and do their own thing. More... Gary and I had breakfast at our favorite bistro, did some laundry back at the apartment, then headed out to the Musée de l’Armée (Army Museum), the national museum dedicated to the military history of France.

We tried to make brief visits to all of the collections it contained, but we spent the most time in the Modern Department (which contains artifacts from Louis XIV to Napoleon III, 1643 to 1870) and the Contemporary Department (1875 through the two World Wars). There’s also a whole section devoted to Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French Forces during World War II and the founder of the Fifth Republic.

After the museum, we headed over to the Dôme des Invalides behind the museum to see the tomb of Napoleon. Actually, the church containing the tomb is only a small part of a whole complex of buildings known as the Hotel National des Invalides (the National Residence of the Invalids). It was founded by King Louis XIV in 1670 as a hospital and retirement home for wounded and elderly soldiers. Over the years it has expanded to include various monuments and museums, including the Musée de l’Armée.

Napoleon died in exile on the island of St. Helena in 1821 and was initially buried there, but King Louis-Phillipe arranged for his remains to be brought back to France in 1840. They were first buried in the Chapelle Saint-Jerome in the Invalides, then moved to the church in 1861 in a permanent sarcophagus of red quartzite on a green granite base.

Dinner was steak leftovers back at the apartment. When the others got back, we all sat in the kitchen until late drinking wine and filling each other in on what we had done that day. (John and Yvonne had visited the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris, which they said was not worth it – unless you consider an exhibit of nails a work of art.)

So now we’ve done all of the “touristy” things of Paris and can check it off our bucket list. The next time we visit, we can just relax and try to live like real Parisians.

Tomorrow we start on our cycling trip. . .

Bayeux, July 9

Sunday, July 9
Bayeux, France

We got up early today to pack and Uber over to a hotel on southeast side of Paris to meet up with our VBT cycling group. More... We have 5 couples in our group and one family of four (with two young adult boys), for a total of 14 riders. We piled into two private buses for the 3½ hour ride to Bayeux, a town on the Aure River in the Normandy region of northwestern France, 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the English Channel coast. Here, we met our VBT tour directors for the trip: Sophie (French, from Brittany) and Adel (a British girl who says she has now lived in France longer than in her own country).

The first thing we noticed about the town was all of the American flags displayed, along with those of Britain, Canada, and France. Adel told us that this is very common in the area, in gratitude for what they call “The Liberation.” The beaches of the Normandy region, of course, are where the Allied forces landed on D-Day to begin the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation in World War II.

Bayeux (pronounced “by-you”) was the first French town to be liberated after D-Day, and was proclaimed as the capital of Free France by Charles de Gaulle after his return to his native country. The town was not bombed by either side during the war. According to legend, this was because the local bishop appealed to both sides to preserve the town’s cathedral, built around 1077. It was probably also because the Allies were too busy trying to take Caen from the Germans.

Bayeux is also the home of the Bayeux Tapestry, a medieval hand-embroidered cloth that depicts the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

After finding our way around the town, we checked into our local hotel, Le Lion d’Or or “The Golden Lion” (for some reason on these trips, Gary and I always seem to end up on the top floor of old hotels with no elevators). We changed into cycling gear and met our group in the parking lot for a safety and bike-fitting session. Then we headed out for a short (about 7½ mile) warm-up ride into the Norman countryside.

This is the first year VBT has used GPS-generated route notes, which we had downloaded onto our smart phones beforehand. It was so much more convenient to have turn-by-turn voice navigation. On our cycling trip in Tuscany a couple of years ago, we had to keep glancing down at paper notes attached to the handlebars while we were trying to ride at the same time.

Back at the hotel, we all met in the dining room for a three-course group dinner. We were able to choose which items we wanted for each course at this meal. I had savory pork-stuffed pastry; pheasant with gravy, mushrooms, and polenta; and chocolate ladyfingers with raspberry mousse. There’s no such thing as a bad meal in France!

After dinner, Gary and I tried to walk off some of the calories with a stroll on the riverwalk, then stopped for a nightcap at the Irish bar next to our hotel, which had the very un-Irish name of La Gitane or Gypsy. (Every tourist country in the world now has an “Irish bar”). Here we tried a glass of the local specialty – Calvados, an apple brandy made from the famous Normandy cider – before turning in for the night.

Arromanches, July 10

Monday, July 10
Arromanches, France

Today we took off on a 36-mile round trip (23 miles for me) to Arromanches, a coastal town that played a vital role in the D-Day landings. More... We passed through some very picturesque countryside. It drizzled earlier this morning, but it had stopped by the time we got out on the roads. It made the pavement a little wet, but it also brought out the fragrance of the wheat, barley, linen, beet, and canola fields we passed in the rolling countryside. We also saw some Norman churches in the country villages, with their characteristic massively thick walls and towers.

Arromanches is one of two sites where the British built temporary artificial ports in June 1944, after the Allies successfully held the beachheads following D-Day, so they could unload the supplies and troops needed for the invasion. One, called Mulberry A, was farther west at Omaha Beach, but it was destroyed by a storm. The one on Gold Beach at Arromanches, called Mulberry B, was more protected and survived to see heavy use for the next 8 months. It was used to land over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of supplies. All that remains of the harbor today are some huge concrete blocks, which you can still see on the beach at low tide, with more farther out at sea.

Mulberry B in October 1944, also known as "Port Winston" because Winston Churchill originated the idea of building portable harbors in Normandy.

Part of the remains of the harbor today

After seeing the remains of the harbor, we bought tickets for the Arromanches 360 Cinema, which features 9 screens surrounding the audience in a 360-degree circle. Here, we saw a fascinating movie called “100 Days of Normandy,” which used both wartime footage and modern images to portray the Nazi invasion of France, the D-Day landings, the Battle of Normandy, and finally the liberation.

This film moved me to tears. It was horrifying to see footage of Nazis strutting down the Champs-Elysées while weeping French citizens watched, and soldiers’ bodies scattered on the sand as they fought to secure the beachheads. Standing in the theater surrounded on all sides by these images makes you feel you are right in the middle of it, experiencing it as it happens.

We also visited the D-Day Museum in Arromanches, which uses animated 3D scale models, photographs, and film archives to give you a detailed look into how the artificial harbors were constructed and how they worked.

Gary and I had lunch with Tim and Peggy at a bistro called the Brasserie D’en Face (“The Opposite Brewery”?), where we had the local specialty, mussels and fries (moules et frites). Then I caught a ride back to Bayeux in the van with Sophie while the rest of the group cycled back. I used the time waiting for Gary to wash out my cycling clothes in the hotel shower and hang them up to dry. We each brought three sets of cycling kits, so that we can have one to wear, one spare, and one in the wash.

After Gary got back, we went to see the Bayeux Tapestry. This is a 230-foot-long linen cloth embroidered in colorful wool thread with about 50 scenes depicting the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. This is when William the Conqueror invaded England, overthrew King Harold, and became the first Norman king of England. The tapestry is essentially a piece of medieval propaganda explaining why Normandy was justified in invading England, told in images to educate a mostly illiterate population.

The cloth is preserved and displayed in a circular glass case, so that you can walk around it and view it in its entirety. Our admission price included an excellent audio guide that explained each scene in the cloth as you approached it. The French legend is that the cloth was commissioned by King William’s wife, Queen Matilda. But most experts think it was actually commissioned by William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo, because it was found in the Bayeux Cathedral which he built. Since the cathedral was completed in 1077, that means the tapestry is probably more than 900 years old!

We also went by the Bayeux War Cemetery, which is the largest World War II cemetery of British Commonwealth soldiers in France. Most of those buried there were killed during the Battle of Normandy. It contains a total of 4,648 graves, including 3,935 British soldiers and 466 Germans. Sophie had explained to us earlier why there are soldiers from both sides interred here. She said it’s a tradition of Commonwealth nations, because they believe that once your enemy is dead, he is no longer your enemy.

Later on, the six of us had another great meal at Le Pommier (“The Apple Tree”), one of Bayeux’s best restaurants that Sophie and Adel recommended. I had foie gras with figs and bread; baked sea bass in ginger and caramel sauce with quinoa and rice; and chocolate profiteroles for dessert. I know I’m going to have to go on a diet as soon as I get home, but for now I can’t resist. What’s the point of going to France if you’re not going to enjoy the food, right?