The afternoon shocker in Luxembourg had us worried that we wouldn't make it to Paris that day. Fortunately we found another train route that wasn't as direct but had us arrive in Paris nevertheless.
We arrived late at the Gare de l'Est train station, one of several major train stations scattered throughout the mega-city. We quickly realized that Paris was much bigger than expected. Although we've traveled to many cities in the 10+ million population category, Paris was the first of such a size during our European adventures.
Taking a taxi was not in the budget, nor was it wise with Parisian traffic, so we ventured our way to the Paris Metro. Little did we know that it was one of the most extensive metro networks in the world. I'm not sure why this was a surprise with Paris being the size that it is, but it was. Aside from the beat up trains and typical European graffiti, the system was quite easy to navigate and wasn't too expensive (although Tokyo still gets the crown as the world's best metro system).
Paris is one of the planet's greatest and most iconic cities. It has glamour, it has grace. It has an ardent and romantic spirit about it. It means a million different things to a million different people, but for us it was simply a few days of sightseeing paired with organic café lattes, delicious aged cheese and bold red wines.
We checked into our overpriced hotel room situated on the outskirts of the city centre and called it an early night. We had big plans for the following day. Paris has some of the world's most well known landmarks and we intended to visit as many as we could during our brief stay.
The morning's first order of business was to arrange transportation from Paris to Bourg St Maurice in the French Alps. Our main objective for visiting France was to meet our Kiwi friends Matt and Emma in the French Alps for a white Christmas. Fortunately this required a visit to the renowned French capital.
The weather had turned for the better with temperatures rising to 8 degrees - a drastic change from the minus 20 degree weather we experienced in Germany only two days prior. We assumed that the terrible weather was behind us and that transportation would be back to normal.
Assuming is a dangerous thing, especially in foreign countries with strict timelines.
The snow storms had caused a serious train derailment, cancelling several departures. Travel south to Lyon had come to a standstill. A 45-minute wait put us in front of an overwhelmed ticket agent. He had bad news. The system could not book reservations for our intended departure date. We'd have to cross our fingers and hope that things would correct themselves in a day.
Of all the times for a derailment! I know, I know. The world doesn't revolve around our itinerary - but we still felt the need to complain and voice our displeasure.
The agent tried his best to select other routes but everything was booked solid. He gave us two options - take your chances that there would be a seat available and plead with the train conductor OR pay 300 Euros each for a new set of tickets with guaranteed travel.
We were confused. How could they guarantee us a seat if the system was down? It didn't matter. We couldn't afford the premium seats anyways.
We were flustered. This curveball surprised us and had us panicked. Who would have guessed that travel during the Christmas holidays would be hectic? It's funny. We laugh at this now, but after being on the road for so long we really hadn't pieced together that we'd be traveling during Europe's busiest time of the year.
After much discussion, and the realization that we weren't leaving without a solution, the agent promised us seats on the 6:45am train on Dec 22. We were satisfied but skeptical - our Christmas holiday in the French Alps was dependant on the word of a SNCF ticket agent.
Now back to beautiful Paris.
We left the Gare d'Lyon train station and traveled west along the famed Seine River. The breathtaking Notre Dame de Paris was next on the agenda. It's one of Europe's greatest and most recognized churches and lands in our Top-3 most spectacular, along with St Vitus Cathedral in Prague and the Kolner Dom in Cologne.
There was still enough time in the day to visit the world famous Louvre Museum, a place high on Cameron's list. As luck would have it, the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays. Being a Tuesday, this meant that we'd have to skip the Louvre and continue on.
We had more time in Paris on our return back from the Alps so we figured we would re-visit the legendary museum then. Unfortunately we later realized that the only day that we'd be able to visit the Louvre would also be a Tuesday. Next time I guess!
As we circled the Louvre a gypsy women tried to pull a scam on us.
It's quite a simple scam. Basically she pretends to pick up a gold ring beside you, acting as if you dropped it. Obviously you didn't so you politely say, "I'm sorry that's not mine". She wants you to take it because it's not hers. Most people would decline, but if you do take the ring she says something like, "why don't you pay me a small fee for finding it".
I don't know who falls for this stuff but apparently people do, otherwise there wouldn't be a warning in our guide book. Cameron had read about the scam already so when the women tried it on us he literally started laughing at her. It wasn't the result she was looking for but she smiled in that awkward "Oops, I'm busted" manner and carried on.
We later watched her try the same trick on another couple, unsuccessful once again. It was like watching a car accident - we couldn't look away.
We continued on down the prestigious Champs-Elysees to the celebrated Arc de Triomphe, a monument built by Napolean to honour those that fought for France. The Champs-Elysees, labeled as the 'most beautiful avenue in the world', was converted into a massive Christmas Market selling everything from hot wine to grilled salmon sandwiches to last minute Christmas crafts. Sadly, it was to be our final Christmas market of the season.
Fast forward to the Eiffel Tower. How could we visit Paris without a stop to the world's most famous iron lattice tower?
The Eiffel Tower gets mixed reviews. Some people love it, some people hate it. Nicole had already felt the presence of the Eiffel Tower from a previous visit, so the excitement and novelty was lost on her. Cameron, on the other hand, had a much different experience.
At first, he didn't see what the big deal was. But after spending time walking around it, and later viewing the landmark from across the river, it started to grow on him. By night it was a clear Parisian highlight. There's something magical and captivating about the illuminated Eiffel Tower at night. It's one of those things that you have to experience firsthand to fully appreciate.
The Eiffel Tower is also the location of the death of our beloved Canon G10 camera. We don't know what happened, it just died on us. The camera lens would no longer focus or close properly. We popped into a few camera repair shops and received the same diagnosis - not good.
Luckily we had our back-up underwater camera to get us through our final few weeks. At least it had the decency to crap out at the end of the global adventure!
Our evening concluded with a bottle of French red wine and a platter of fresh cheese and cured meats. Although it had some tense moments, it was a very memorable day.
Paris is a very cool city. The hype is warranted.
The next morning we were up at 5:00am and at the metro station by 6:00am. We made our way to the Gare de Lyon train station and stood first in line at the ticket window. We saw our friend from the day before. He had promised to get us to Bourg St Maurice and we were banking on him coming through for us.
The next five minutes would dictate the fate of our 'Christmas in the French Alps' plan.
December 22nd, 2009