Sunday, September 8, 2013

To Paris

August 27th our plan was to head from Leuvan to Paris (via Brussels), overnighting in Paris before heading into Belgium to meet family. Upon arrival at the train station we discovered that the mandatory reservation for the high speed THALY (French) line costs *30* EUR. In our world a 30 EUR mandatory reservation is basically just a sneaky way to charge for a ticket that is supposed to be included by the pass. We later learned experienced Eurail'ists seem to avoid THALY trains for this reason. It was a nice, fast, train but being forced to pay for a train that is supposedly included in the (expensive) Eurail pass is still quite irritating. German trains are fare better in this regard. The pass works properly and if you want (or need) to reserve a specific seat it is cheap (typically 4 EUR).

We also discovered a new Tintin is coming out while at the train station.

Slightly surprisingly we also had the best waffle of the trip so far. Just the right crunchy exterior and moist interior, baked on the spot, and with cream, raspberries and chocolate. This came immediately after a train station lunch of small buns with giant schnitzel - the bun works sort of like a handle - and was very filling so by the time we entrained we were very sleepy.

A few short hours later we arrived at Gard de Nord, Paris. Our hotel was hopefully literally across the street. From our balcony (yay balcony!) we got a nice view of the train station - impressive in its own right - and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Sacré-Cœur Basilica) off behind it.

We figured we'd walk north to the Sacred Heart Basilica, then south-west towards the Arc de Triomphe, then east along Avenue des Champs-Élysées to see the exterior of the Louvre in the dark.

We rapidly learned that compared to many of the cities we had been visiting Paris is *huge*. And that means just the part where attractions are clustered. No tiny stare mesto (old town) with all the good stuff here!

Paris is also not overly gridlike in street layout and many of the smaller (but still quite large!) streets didn't show up on the map, meaning navigating was fun. In Belgium old towns one often accidentally walks too far. In Paris we repeatedly thought we'd be have made more progress than we actually did. Scale ... it's a tricky bugger.

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart turns out to have a lovely lounging area in front.

The area is also infested with pushy salespeople. Snappying "nyet" at them seemed to generally work far better than "no" or "no thanks".

There really are quite a lot of stairs.

And then ... you are there! And you can go inside! But you can't take pictures. As is often the case many people inside are in fact busy taking pictures while a small staff of the stern wanders about chastising them. Bonus points are awarded to those who "sneakily" take pictures with flash on.

As the basilica is on a hill you can see it from many places in town, and see many places in town from it. Unless it is hazy, in which case you mostly just see the haze.

Next we headed a little south and mostly east to hit the Arc de Triomphe. To our surprise we found ourself on the sex shop mile. A big city can of course keep a sex shop in business but to be able to keep dozens in the same relatively small area is impressive.

Moulin Rouge was there too.

Not exactly shortly thereafter, more of a surprisingly long thereafter really, we arrived at the Arc. If Paris could traffic calm the Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées they would have an AMAZING section of city between the Arc and the Louvre along Champs-Élysées. Instead they have a big, busy, street and a giant traffic circle that I would like to drive around several times one day.

The Arc, however, would be impressive pretty much anywhere. Underwater with seaweed and fish and bad visibility even. But I digress.

It is rather bigger than you might imagine from pictures. This is particularly apparent when ascending it; you feel like the stairs should be over but they aren't. A major benefit of the unexpected verticality is that the view from on top is even better than expected. It also helps that Paris has forbidden highrises in the core so it's a low city of lovely old buildings instead of a hideous concrete, steel, and glass jungle.

From the top, despite the haze, you can clearly see the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

You can see the Louvre but not really as easily.

And numerous other monuments (Notre Dame, etc) include some spiky thing.

The approaches to the Arc are generally rich in trees.

We arrived at Arc top in the early evening so we decided to wait the sun out to see Eiffel by night. A watched sun never sinks. Finally peoples windows started to come on and the gray haze got deeper. After what seemed an eternity the lights on the tower went on. And then little bright lights started flickering on and off, giving the tower a very cool effect.

After a short time the bright lights flickering ended and we were left with just this.

Also visible from the Arc de Triomphe, in opposite direction as the Louvre is the new La Grande Arche de la Defense.

And then it was time to bid farewell to the top of the Arc and Eiffel.

We walked down Champs-Élysées toward the Louvre, stopping at various things that looked purty.

To get to the Louvre one must pass the Obelisque.

The Obelisque is flanked by not entirely unimpressive fountains.

Note Eiffel in the background :)

For reasons unknown (maintenance?) one fountain was lit and running vigorously while the other was less so. Both very impressive regardless.

The Louvre is hard to fit into a picture. This is one wing.

The Louvre Pyramid (main entrance) is kind of cool as well.

Amusingly the area was full of kids smoking, drinking, and listening to whatever the modern version of a ghetto blaster is.

At this point we headed roughly north to get back to Gard de Nord and our hotel. We bumped into the Paris Opera house.

For dinner we enjoyed a bait and switch where the owner claimed the menu outside was lunchtime and foisted a more expensive menu off on us, then asked if we wanted water and helpfully charged us something like 5 EUR for it. Tired and hungry we went for it anyway. It was at least quite good.

By the time we reached the hotel again we'd resolved to use the metro the next day due to the scale of Paris and related issues of tired feet. It seems that day after day of walking on pavement or cobblestones makes them a bit tender in a way walking dirt trails just doesn't. Worth it though; you get more of a feel for the city if you walk in our humble opinion.

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