If Marlene Dietrich was going through my head in Berlin, then Edith Piaf singing, "Sous le Ciel de Paris", was the theme song in Paris. Both of us had been here before: Mico last when he was 12, and I 18 years ago, in the low season in October. I fell in love immediately with the city then and felt just as enamoured this time around. The weather was certainly better this time of year, hot and sunny, but if I were to choose, I would aim again for the low or shoulder season to beat the crowds. Though I walked my feet off last time, literally wearing a hole through the sole of one shoe, I walked then amongst mostly Parisians, with barely a wait to get into any attractions. Though I knew it would not be the same now nothing could prepare me for the amount of line ups - literally hundreds of people snaking around in queues for everything - lining up first for tickets, then the entrance and, once inside, facing the food line-ups and (of course) the ladies bathrooms. Several hours of the day were lost to this and on an already limited time schedule it was valuable time.
With at least the Louvre and Musée D'Orsay it is possible to skirt the ticket line-up by, in the case of the Louvre, going through the ticket machines at the Carousel Entrance, which saved us an estimated 2 - 3 hours (apparently few people are aware of this as there was virtually no-one there). With Musée D'Orsay you can save yourself time by booking online, but we did not have Internet access in the preceding days so queued along with everyone else - on a bright sunny day vendors made profit out of selling little "umbrella hats", while many found other more ingenious ways to protect their heads, such as making "boat" hats out of their tourist maps - we met our neighbours and chatted away the hour and a half or so it took to get in. Once inside a superb Manet exhibit rewarded our efforts, and we were treated to the artist's greatest masterpieces ("Olympia", "Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe", etc.). This was certainly one of the highlights of the trip for us!
Paris' greatest art museum, The Louvre, is on a grander scale than one can ever be prepared for, even if you've been through it before. Housing some 35 000 works of art, it is daunting! With only a scant few hours or so, the best you can do is pick a wing and focus on specific pieces. We chose the Denon wing, which houses Michaelangelo's Dying and Rebellious Slave sculptures, as well as Italian, Spanish, and French 19th century paintings (Delacroix, "Liberty Leading the People", and Ingres, "La Odalisque" in its misty blue hues, the subtleties of which cannot be conveyed in pictures, were amongst favourites). La Giaconda (Mona Lisa) is in this wing too. I recall from my last visit being miffed at the crowd of about 10 or so around me obscuring somewhat the view of this painting, which stood at the time modestly segregated off from its companions by a small roping. It has since been moved to a different room, named in its honour, and now has a substantially bigger roping, as well as several museum guards and, at the time we were there, a countless throng of people (one can only guess in the hundreds) filling the room waiting for their opportunity to work their way forward for their photo op.
Ah well - the Louvre is thrilling, no matter what, and tourists or no tourists, how can anyone not love Paris? There really is something there for everyone. Among firsts, we made it this time, both of us, to the top of the Eiffel Tower- last time I had only climbed my way to the second level. Mico too had only made it that far before, though it is high enough already - he recalled how back then you could see through the platform all the dizzying way to the bottom, causing him to revert to crawling off on all fours...you don't mind me sharing this, right Mico? He says he doesn't and that he still felt vertigo being up top.
A walk up to the hilltop of Montmartre and Sacre Coeur was another first for both of us and had us wandering in thoughts to how it must have been at the time Picasso, Van Gogh, and so many famous artists called it home - although times have changed it still retains a nice village ambience that separates it from the busy city below. My imagination ran away briefly as I had a "what if we could have more than one home in the world?" moment while gazing up at the surrounding apartments, picturing myself baguette in arm walking out of the local boulangerie.
We shuffled also amongst the tourists through Notre Dame and atop the towers where one can have a close encounter with the fantastic gargoyles. St. Chapelle with its astounding second floor of stained glass windows, constructed to give the sense of being bathed in heavenly light, was also new to both of us. Lovely as it was, however, the intended spiritual feeling was dampened by the volume of other tourists around. In the low season one would undoubtedly have quite a different and more introspective experience.
On another kind of "spiritual" experience, we were fortunate to stumble immediately upon arrival, on Paul's bakery, where I met in life with the pain au chocolat and flakey, buttery, croissants that float in my dreams. These and delicious cappuccinos - this is the right way to start a day, 'non'?
Other experiences included picnicking on the Isle St. Louis, and walking at night around our surrounding neighbourhood of Notre Dame, where the city took on a new life in the dark, with musicians and various street performers showcasing everything from break-dancing, to skateboard stunts, and flaming torch acts. Cafés were packed, and lovers kissed along the Seine, just as in the movies.
For an extra bit of excitement, on leaving our GPS decided to direct us right through the heart of the downtown streets, adding an hour to our time, while taking perhaps a couple of years off my life. Mico impressed me, however, by suddenly switching nationalities and driving like a French man through this lawless wild west of cars and mopeds. It really was the only way to get us out in one piece. As I sat there quietly stunned I imagined he had a beret and a little moustache curled at the tips and might at any time be inspired to shout "sacre bleu" out the window. I did my part by operating my imaginary brake pedal, relieved I was not the one doing the real driving.
Our feet tired and swollen in spite of nightly cold foot baths, we left, however, with shoes intact as well as a lot of wonderful memories - telling each other we would return one day, perhaps for our 10 year anniversary.
Next excerpt: Brussels, Gent, Bruges