Wanderings in History in Paris and Versailles, Then Stalled in Traffic

Posted By Mike Padgett

June 19, 2011

PARIS – Erase this escapade from your mind, I keep telling myself. Erase it. Forget it. Focus on the positives. The Eiffel Tower. Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral. Luxembourg Gardens. An evening cruise on the Seine River. Walking in a summer rain and reading a soggy map in a phone booth in Paris.

One of the main attractions in Paris is Tour Eiffel, or Eiffel Tower as it is known to Americans. This icon of France was built in 1889 for the Universal Exhibition (World Fair) by Gustave-Alexandre Eiffel. It is 1,040 feet high. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Don’t let missing the Eurostar ruin your visit to two of Europe’s major cities, I say to myself. A Paris-to-London adventure doesn’t come along too often.

From the back seat of our taxi, I look past the driver at the bumper-to-bumper traffic ahead of us. He hits his steering wheel. He is agitated. We are anxious. If I could understand his mumbling French, I might learn some colorful words. The string of trapped vehicles ahead of us on this narrow side street includes one of those lumbering leviathan tour buses. I look behind us. Both lanes jammed with bumpers and windshields around the bend.

The couple with an elderly blind man in the taxi in front of us get out and pay their driver. Leaving our taxi isn’t an option for us, because of our luggage and not knowing the location of the train station.

We had given ourselves plenty of time to get to the station, only to get trapped in traffic. A special event today, a Sunday, requires barricades on major streets. No hotel to return to, and a train beyond our reach.

My Best Friend and I look at each other. Do we have a plan B?

If I had a crystal ball, I thought, would I want to learn whether we would soon be on the Eurostar speeding under the English Channel headed for London’s St. Pancras International Station, or sitting on our luggage in the Eurostar Paris Gare du Nord train station, remembering our visit to Notre Dame Cathedral and other historic sites?

Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the world’s iconic cathedrals, is an architectural masterpiece. It was founded in 1160. Napoleon crowned himself emperor here in 1804. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Looking out the taxi window, I wish I’d found this two-lane street earlier. These old buildings look interesting, like a part of Paris off the tourist map. Tiny shops of all kinds selling produce and local goods. Small restaurants along the narrow sidewalk. Bakeries and their wonderful aromas. Alleys that lead who knows where.

Reality returns. I imagine myself out in the street, waving my arms and urging drivers on this Paris side street to start leaning on their horns. The collective sound of hundreds of blaring horns would get someone’s attention. And then maybe the barricades would be removed.

Honking stalled caravan

Someone must have had the same idea. A driver begins some serious honking. Then another. A few more join the honking protest. You could tell by their long toots they were unhappy.

Traffic police, if that’s what they’re called, soon respond by dropping the yellow barricade tape. Maybe they weren’t supposed to, but they let motorists through. We begin moving. Our driver drives like he has one foot on the gas pedal and the other on the brake.

I saw one officer holding the untied end of the tape with one hand and with the other giving motorists a secretive waist-high wave that says, “Hurry, before someone sees me letting you through.” He looks around, like he’s trying to be invisible, but waving cars by. Our driver accelerates over the barricade tape.

Thank you, officer whoever-you-are. The 20-minute ride from our hotel to the train station lasts 90 minutes. The taxi fare is 40 Euro, more than the usual 15. A visit to the ATM will be sooner than planned.

At the train station, we have 10 minutes to get our London tickets printed and find our gate in a busy, foreign train station. We find a kiosk and type in our name. Nothing. A typo. We erase and type our name again. Success. Two tickets. Now what? The instructions are in stilted English, like the instructions you receive with the overpriced gimmick you order from an airline magazine.

We ask the man in the glass booth nearby for help. Go upstairs, he said. I glance at my watch. We’re running out of time. We get to the customs booth and discover we have to fill out forms. Scribble fast.

Traveling together? Then both of you need to approach the guard booth. No smiles from this guy. Your business in Paris was what. And what are your plans in London. He pauses, looking at our passports. This is taking too long. Finally, he stamps our passports. Move along. People skills, he needs.

Right away we do the luggage-through-the-metal-detectors routine. My Best Friend walks through the metal detector and sets it off with her slender necklace. I walk through the other machine. I’m wearing metal-rimmed glasses, a watch, a large metal belt buckle, and the metal detector remains silent. The machines must have been designed for TSA in the USA.

That was the last hurdle. The train gates are down the hall. See all those people standing with their luggage? We get in line a few minutes before boarding the Eurostar for the ride to London. We’re the last in line at the end of a 12-car train. Our seats are in the first car.

Week in Paris

We find our seats. On the way to London, I reflect on our week in Paris. The cabdriver who picked us up at the Charles de Gaulle Airport a week ago wore beach shorts, a casual shirt and flip-flops.

We arrived early at our hotel. Our room wasn’t ready, so hotel staff gave us access to the executive lounge to catch our breath from our long flight from Arizona. And sadly, one of the first news items we see on CNN news is about the wildfires in northeastern Arizona.

Later, after unpacking, we take turns connecting our laptops to the Internet. We then enjoy a late lunch of burgers and fries in the hotel restaurant. Since we didn’t sleep much during the flight, and because our lunch was late, we treat ourselves to a late afternoon nap. Two hours later, we take a walk around the neighborhood.

At a crosswalk, a man approaches us and begins talking in French. When I say, “English,” he replies, “No English,” with disappointment on his face. “Sorry,” I say as he walked away.

We stop at a neighborhood grocer for a few things. We skip dinner today because lunch had been late and substantial.

Our excursions in Paris take us to several of the city’s major attractions. There is the sunny afternoon in Luxembourg Gardens, a popular public park that includes the buildings occupied by the French Senate.

The park at the back of Notre Dame Cathedral is a favorite area for quiet lunches and walks. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

There is the visit to Notre Dame Cathedral. From there, we walk to the Louvre Museum, which was closed for the day. We couldn’t tell if it was the regular day for closure, or if there was a special event.

The Louvre Museum’s entrance is a glass pyramid. The Louvre, one of the world’s largest museums, occupies what once was the world’s largest palace. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

We turn around from the Louvre’s entrance – the one at the glass pyramid in the plaza – and spot the Arc de Triomphe in the distance. I imagine the armies that marched on the cobblestones here. I think about the dictators and revolutions and spilled blood.

Walking in the rain

We head back for our hotel and find ourselves walking in the summer rain in the heart of Paris. We stop at a restaurant where we believe English is spoken. But from the behavior of the hostess, we discover English wasn’t on her menu du jour. Although there were several empty tables, we leave. We can spend our euros elsewhere.

When the rain increases, we dash into a phone booth to check our map, which was getting soggy. I usually have a good sense of direction. But the meandering streets of Paris, and not seeing the sun for several days, keep my compass spinning. Finally, we find the commuter rail station, the Paris Metropolitain, and wait for our train. We pick up lunch back at our hotel.

The next day, I board the Metro for a visit to the Eiffel Tower. I arrive to find French police and military casually patrolling the plaza under the tower. The soldiers, one with tattoos on his biceps, cradle their automatic weapons.

I see hours-long lines to ride elevators to the top of the tower. Incredible views from the top, but I don’t wait in lines that long. I’ll shoot photos from the ground up. I find a spot under the center of the tower and shoot straight up. The color of the tower reminds me of light chocolate.

An eye-catching photo from under the center of the Eiffel Tower shows an intricate steel framework. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

After a few minutes of shooting vertical photos, my neck complains. I hear someone talking in French nearby. I don’t understand French. But the friendly voice continues. I look around and see a young woman sitting on her bicycle speaking to me.

She’s handing her camera to me and speaking in French. English, I say. She switches to English. “Would you take my picture?”

Silly monolingual American, I think of myself. I position her with the massive tower overhead, shoot a few frames of her sitting on her bike, and hand the camera back to her.

Look at the photos and tell me if those are what you want, I say. Fantastic, she says. These are great. Thank you. She rides away. I continue shooting the tower from different angles.

I walk back to the Metro station, which isn’t far. The Metro, with a network of 16 mostly underground lines, carries more than 4 million passengers daily. It is said to be Europe’s second-busiest metro system, after Moscow’s.

One stop after I board the Metro, a wiry man with a guitar and a harmonica steps aboard. He stays in the space by the doors. Once we were moving, he adjusts his guitar and begins to play the folk classic, “Blowing in the Wind,” adding his personal flourishes with the harmonica in the neck holder. At each Metro station, he stops to let riders maneuver around him.

This Metro car is about half full. I see a commuter focused on his computer. Others are carrying briefcases or groceries. A few departing riders give change to the musician. He thanks them.

Judging from his relaxed body language and his polish with his guitar, this street musician has performed his routine many times. It’s part of his day. He enjoys performing. As he plays, he sometimes closes his eyes. He has patience. He believes in himself. I glance at the Metro map over the doors. My stop is approaching.

A few days later, my Best Friend and I take the 30-minute ride by train to Versailles. I thought the Eiffel Tower was impressive. And it is, in its own category.

But then we visit Versailles. Or rather, we experience Versailles. The opulence and extravagance are breathtaking. So are the paintings covering the ceilings. And the chandeliers and thrones and the overall construction. And the fountains in the gardens that seemingly extend to the horizon.

The immense Versailles estate, started in the 1600s, was expanded over the next two centuries by France’s rulers. According to its visitor’s guide, Versailles has 700 rooms, 67 staircases, 2,153 windows and 200,000 trees on 800 hectares, or about 2,000 acres. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The gardens of flowers and hedges and fountains are magnificent. The Grand Canal is large enough for people to use rowboats. There is the history of Versailles, its majesty, and its role in France’s past and its present. But I wonder, what was the price of this extravagance in terms of human starvation and death?

Walking the first set of stone stairs at Versailles, we were struck by how worn the steps are on the right side, next to the bannister. Who walked here before us? What were their positions in government or the upper class?

The 233-foot-long Hall of Mirrors, completed in 1686, often was used for celebrations, such as grand balls or meetings with other heads of state. The treaty ending World War I was signed in the Hall of Mirrors. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

On our way back to our hotel, first on the train and then on the Metro, I thought about the financial role Versailles plays in the local French economy. It must be substantial. I suspect that the world economy has a little more sparkle than the grim portrayal by pundits. In line to enter Versailles, we – along with a few thousand others who travel here from around the world – paid 25 Euro each for one ticket.

Each visitor to Versailles, especially those from other nations, likely paid substantially for travel, lodging and meals. We heard many languages during our visit.

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Jun 19th, 2011

3 Comments to 'Wanderings in History in Paris and Versailles, Then Stalled in Traffic'

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  1. Helen said,

    This is really well done, Mike. You’ve captured some of the most significant places to see in Paris and you’ve also provided a human touch with your personal reflections and your capturing of people you encountered in your travels. You’ve provided your readers a unique insight into a beautiful, historical city and its multicultural people.

    You are blessed with a unique talent as a storyteller who can share his experiences with the world. Congratulations!

  2. Carol Romley said,

    Thoroughly enjoyed another trip with you, also the photos are outstanding.
    Thank you.
    Carol Romley

  3. Gary O'Brien said,

    Mike, this is a very enjoyable travelogue. And I love your photos, especially the one looking up into the Eiffel Tower.


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