Tuesday, February 8, 2011

First Tango in Paris

Ok, so I didn't really tango, but it was my first trip to Paris, and I did dance my @$$ off.

Yes, somehow I have been living in France for almost 5 months, less than 2 hours from Paris, and still hadn't managed to visit until this last weekend. Now I wish I could go back every weekend. I will be going back at least once with my parents though, so that's good.

We left on Friday afternoon and got into Paris around 4:30. My first view coming out of the metro was of Notre Dame, right in front of me. Pretty freaking spectacular. The group consisted of me and my friends David, Shelby, and Joey, and some meet-ups with other friends Allison and Emily, who also live in Valenciennes but traveled separately from us and stayed in different hotels. After navigating our way to our hotel, which was in the Quartier Latin (home of many famous artists and writers during the early 1900's), close to Notre Dame and the Sorbonne, we got all settled in, and then went for dinner at a Tibetan restaurant called Lhassa. None of us had ever really eaten Tibetan food before, so it was an interesting experience for all. I had a chicken curry with some Tibetan bread, and we shared an appetizer of roasted barley flour balls with yak cheese. I normally pride myself on being an adventurous eater, but I think I can probably go the rest of my life without ever eating yak cheese again. But at least I tried it, right?

The rest of Friday night was pretty uneventful. We pre-gamed at the hotel, and then were supposed to go to some bars that Emily's Parisian boyfriend, Felix, knew about. Unfortunately, Felix (who is a pretty awesome guy in general) slightly overestimated his own navigation skills, and we ended up spending most of the night just wandering around the city. We did pop into a couple of good bars though, so the night was by no means a total loss. We went back to the hotel relatively early (about 3am), and tried to get some sleep before a couple of jam-packed days of sightseeing.

Saturday and Sunday both were primarily spent "monument walking," as in, we walked to a lot of the popular sights in Paris and took pictures, but didn't always go in or thoroughly explore them. Since everyone else had been to Paris before, and I knew from the get-go that I would be coming back (with parents who pay for things like museum admission), we really just wanted to do a general tour of the city's main attractions. So we set out from our hotel on Saturday morning and walked across Ile de la Cite, which is the big island in the Seine and the very center of the city. We saw Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle from the outside, and walked back things like Palais de Justice and the flower market. Then we walked over to Centre Georges Pompidou, which is a gargantuan modern building that houses a library and an impressive modern art collection, among other things. Centre Pompidou is best known for its "inside-out" design, with all manner of pipes and wires in a rainbow of colors covering the outside of the building. Here is a picture:

After that, we headed over to Les Halles. Les Halles was the main marketplace area in Paris until 1969, and is notable for its beautiful glass and steel arcades and extensive gardens. Unfortunately, most of the outside structure was under construction, so we couldn't really explore it or take many good photos. Les Halles has struggled to find and maintain an identity since the demise of its open-air markets, and currently it houses a cavernous underground shopping mall, though I understand that there are renovation plans currently in the works. So we explored the mall for a little while, before having lunch at a cafe and creperie nearby. We opted to dine outside, despite the fact that it was a little chilly and more than a little bit windy. But even with teeth chattering I was a very happy camper, because dining outside in a cafe in Paris was definitely on my bucket list. It should be on yours too.

After lunch we took the metro to the North side of the city to see Montmartre, the neighborhood famous for the Moulin Rouge, which itself is a nonevent. Really. Go, take a picture outside, and then proceed directly to Sacre Coeur, because that is what you really need to see, trust me. Sacre Coeur (French for sacred heart), is a beautiful, snowy-white basilica atop the highest hill in Paris. It is relatively new in comparison to many of Paris' churches (built in the 1860's I think), but it is truly breathtaking. It has sort of an Arabian/Middle Eastern feel to it, though it is a Catholic church. It's free to go inside, but strict codes of silence and no photography are in place and are enforced, which lends an incredible sense of reverence to the place. But outside the church is a different story. You see, Sacre Coeur and Montmartre hill are the absolute best places to view the city, being atop the highest hill and being at the Northern end. You have to work for it, though. There is a tram that goes from the bottom of the hill to the top, but you have to pay to take it, and therefore most people take the stairs. And there are a LOT of stairs. But the view from the top is 100% worth it, once you catch your breath and the burning in your thighs subsides. There are street performers and vendors and hawkers of all kinds, and the whole city is spread out before you like a map, with landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Centre Pompidou, and Notre Dame easy and fun to spot. My comrades got caught up in a street show, and I took the opportunity to grab a seat on the wide main stairs in front of the church, buy a beer from a vendor, and just relax and take in the city. It was one of the most wonderful and incredible moments of the trip, and I think also a memory that I will cherish forever. Not to mention another thing crossed off my bucket list!

Me with my beer, completely and utterly content with my life.

After Montmartre, we headed back to the hotel for much needed showers and downtime, as we had big plans for Saturday evening. Sunday was Joey's 24th birthday, and he requested Mexican food and dancing to celebrate. So we had a fabulous Mexican dinner near Les Halles (Mexican food being almost impossible to find in France, let alone good Mexican food), and then went to a couple of clubs in the neighborhood "Le Marais," which was a wonderfully good time, and finally stumbled back to our hotel sometime near 6am on Sunday morning. Happy Birthday, Joey!

After about 3 hours of sleep, we were back up and at 'em for our last day in Paris. Since it was the first Sunday of the month, all of the national museums were free. So Joey and Shelby headed to check out the modern art at Centre Pompidou, but I wanted to be outside enjoying the sunshine and gloriously warm weather that had suddenly appeared on Sunday morning, so David and I decided to do some more monument walking. We started at Nortre Dame, and arrived just as mass was starting. I'm not a particularly religious person these days, but nonetheless it was a pretty incredible and moving experience. After that, we walked down the Seine to the Louvre, through the outdoor Louvre complex (which is unbelievably huge, btw), through Jardin des Tuileries, a massive garden/park adjacent to the Louvre, through Place de la Concorde, the centerpiece of which is a giant ancient Egyptian obelisk, and straight down the Champs-Elysees, Paris' most famous grand boulevard. We saw Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Sephora's flagship store, and, of course, two McDonald's. We had lunch in a cafe down a side street, and finally ended at l'Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon's grand monument to himself. It was another one of my favorite sights of the trip. For one, it is phenomenally huge-- much bigger than it looks in pictures, and two, it was just... well...cool. We didn't climb to the top, as we were thoroughly exhausted by this time, but it still made for a really excellent way to top off the weekend. I'm excited to take my parents there when they visit.

Tired and happy at l'Arc de Triomphe

After that we met the others back at the hotel, collected our belongings, and caught our train home. We arrived completement epuisees (completely exhausted), and I am still not sure I've fully recovered, but it was absolutely worth it for the amazing experience. The others reconvened later that night at Shelby's to watch the Super Bowl, but as it started at midnight, French time, and I had to work at 8am, I opted for bed.

So, in sum, Paris was an amazing experience-- even cooler than I could have imagined. If you ever have the chance to go, please, please do. It will rock your world. 

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