In 2013 I took a two-week vacation to France with two friends, Carolyn and Sarah. The first leg of the trip we spent in Bayeux in the Normandy area of France. It didn't take me long to fall in love with this charming city. It is a blend of history and architectural styles from many different centuries; wandering around you never knew what you might see around the next corner or in it's many nooks and crannies. One morning, for example, I went out for a walk to the botanical garden. While wandering through the gardens I came upon an amazing tree. It was a 150-year-old weeping beech that was designated a natural monument in 1932. The canopy of the tree was massive and you could walk underneath it's old gnarled branches. Oh the stories I bet this tree could tell!
By a happy accident we were visiting during the anniversary of D-Day. We didn't plan the visit for this event, but I was thrilled we just happened to choose this time to go. Bayeux was the first city to be liberated. The entire time we were there the city was playing music from the forties through the streets; there were men dressed in military uniforms (some current and some from back in the day); and there were military jeeps, motorcycles, and tanks from that period being driven around. It felt as though we were reliving a small bit of history. We spent a day touring some of the beaches of Normandy: Arromanches, the German Battery, Omaha Beach, and Pointe du Hoc. It was a living history lesson. It takes on a whole new meaning when you see these places up close and personal, it becomes very real. To see the beaches and the cliffs that were scaled, the impacts of the shells and damage done to the land and structures, as well as the extent of the areas involved really hits home. These places are beautiful but will be forever scarred and filled with the ghosts of that era.
As we were planning the trip and sketching out an itinerary, Carolyn's wish was to visit Cherbourg. One of her favorite movies is Parapluies de Cherbourg and she wanted to see the city it was filmed in. While walking through Bayeux one evening we happened past a poster advertising the 50th anniversary of the movie and it was being commemorated with walking tours of the sites highlighted in the film - another happy accident! Cherbourg is a coastal city in northern France. One of the things that struck me as so odd and out of the ordinary was that there were palm trees - this wasn't something I ever expected to see in Northern France. The site that I found the most memorable was the Basilique Sainte Trinte, it was beautiful inside and out and had charming seaside touches (the font for holy water was a seashell). It was a completely different experience and I'm so glad we worked this into our plans.
We took two additional day trips while staying in Bayeux, we visited Rouen and Mont Saint Michel. Rouen is another city filled with beautiful architecture and rich history. The sites throughout that most intrigued me were those related to Joan of Arc, from the tower in which she was imprisoned to the church built in her honor on the location where she was burned at the stake. It was another instance of historical stories merging with reality. Mont Saint Michel is an utterly unique experience. It is a walled city that at high tide is an island and at low tide is surrounded by sandy plains. At the very top of the island is a medieval monastery. There is a winding road you can walk up to the abbey lined with shops and restaurants on either side. There are also stairs along the wall you can climb to get up or down as well. You get a sense that time has forgotten this place as you wander around - it looks very much like it did when built centuries ago. It is a truly spectacular site.
The second leg of our vacation we spent in Paris. I enjoyed every bit of the time I spent here. We did most of the very touristy sites: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc d'Triomphe, Notre Dame, Tuilieries, the Louvre, Sacre Coeur, and so on. One site is as amazing and beautiful as the next. One of the things that always strike me when I visit sites that date back centuries is the grandeur of the size and fine detail in the architecture. When you think back to the tools that were available to build these structures and to see the scale and ornate design it doesn't seem possible. It amazes me!
The Louvre is astounding. We spent a day there and still didn't see everything. I think you could spend an entire week in there. Among my favorites were the sculptures; the attention to detail and intricacy of some of the carving is extraordinary. There was a particular statue of a man feeding a baby in his arms with a dog underneath his legs licking the baby's foot; it charmed me. One of the surprises for me was the size of the Mona Lisa. You imagine she is going to be a pretty large portrait and you walk into the room and she's by herself on the wall and she is quite small. (The painting is about 30" x 21"). I really enjoyed seeing in person the sculptures and paintings that I have only seen in books. There is so much of it in just this one place it is almost overwhelming. The amazing talent of the artists on display leaves you awestruck.
One of my favorite buildings visited was the Opera Palais Garnier. It was gorgeous. This is the site that inspired the story Phantom of the Opera, a favorite of mine. Every space in this building is stunning in it's detail and ornate decor, from the Chagall ceiling to the grand halls and stairways. It is a feast for the eyes and senses and I couldn't get enough of it. I even found some bronze statues of mice on one of the staircases. As luck would have it, there were some ballet costumes on display on one of the floors - as an avid fan of the ballet this was a treat. The only thing that could have made this visit better was to be able to see a ballet here.
You expect the main attractions in Paris to be incredible and they do not disappoint in any way. But one of the things I enjoyed the most was just wandering around and happening upon small nuances that I found to be captivating. Whether it's a street lamp, a sign outside a store, or a fountain in a small park, everything has a flair of the artistry and ambiance of the city. It was these wanderings that kept me from getting to some of the museums and sites I initially wanted to see - but these enchanting distractions were well worth it.
People watching in Paris is a treat as well. One sunny afternoon we sat in the grassy park by the Eiffel Tower just relaxing and taking it all in. It was a lazy day, a break from all the sightseeing we were doing. There were people from all walks of life milling about. This woman caught my eye, she was with a small group of people - they looked a bit gypsy-like in dress and mannerisms. She was wearing a long, billowy skirt. I watched as they walked across the park where we were lounging. The next thing I know I see this woman suddenly cop a squat, then get up, shake her leg, and keep going. When it dawned on me what she had just done I laughed. She was so nonchalant about the whole thing. My next thought however is "What in the heck could I be sitting on?"
On another one of my wanderings I found myself strolling through the garden of Tuilieries. I was taking pictures of the garden plots and I happened upon a sheep tethered along side one of them. No one was with the sheep - he had a little shelter he could retreat to down this little embankment, no one bothered him and he didn't seem to be bothered by people wandering past. It seemed so random and out of place. Come to find out some areas in Paris use the sheep to keep the grass mown.
One of the most fun nights we had in Paris was attending a show at Moulin Rouge. There were several over the top, elaborate production numbers and in between smaller, more vaudevillian acts. The smaller acts ranged from jugglers, to acrobats, to a woman performing in a tank with giant snakes (I was really happy not to be close to the stage for that one!). In the larger numbers the costuming was beautiful and the sets colorful. The production numbers seemed to become more and more extravagant as the show progressed. The grand finale, as expected, was the most grandiose. It was during this performance when Carolyn leaned over to me and said, "What the f*%*, ponies?" I couldn't stop laughing; yes on stage a tiny little pony all decked out in feathers and beads escorted each dancer. After the show we had arranged for shuttle transportation back to our hotel, at least that was what we thought. While in the van, American music was playing, and I began to sing along with Alicia Keys, "This girl is on fire". We were in a good mood (admittedly I may have had a wee bit too much champagne) but the van stopped, rather abruptly, and we were told this was where we were being let out. We weren't at our hotel; we didn't know where we were. The driver claimed this was as far as he was permitted to take us because our hotel was outside the Paris city limits. I suspect perhaps it had more to do with the singing, although I really don't think I'm that bad! There was a metro entrance not far from where we were deposited but quickly discovered that it stops running at midnight. A taxi it was! Thankfully we had no trouble getting one. It was definitely an experience to remember.
The only day trip we took from Paris was to see Versailles. It's hard to believe this began as a simple hunting lodge! It is so opulent. We toured the palace and gardens and visited Le Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette's estate. The gardens are more vast than I ever imagined - you could spend the entire day wandering around in them. There is even a lake that you can rent boats to go rowing in. It was unfortunate that we visited on a day when the fountains were not on. That would be a sight to see. I found Marie Antoinette's home to be charming. I especially enjoyed the garden in the back with a gazebo and a swan. I could be quite content living on a "little" estate such as this out in the French countryside.
Despite spending a week in Paris, there is still more I would love to see and do there - I'll just have to make it a point to go back someday!
Paris is known for being one of the most romantic cities in the world. I was thrilled I would be visiting it for the first time with someone I loved. I have to admit my expectations were high. I had visions of walking hand in hand along the Seine, climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and a romantic dinner with a view. Boy, was I ever wrong!
The trouble really started two days before. The master plan was to travel up the coast of Italy and ride the gondola up over the mountains into Chamonix, France. This route promised a breathtaking view of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn; we were both really looking forward to it. Getting to the base of the lift was a bit more challenging than we had worked out. We took a train up to Aosta and then a two-hour bus ride up to the base only to arrive 10 minutes too late - the gondola had closed for the day. We were stuck. We found a place to spend the night and tried to make the best of it. At the crack of dawn we were back up at the gondola - ready to be the first ones on! Mother Nature however had other plans. It was too windy to safely run. We waited several hours hoping that the winds would ease up and we could get over but they decided to close the gondola for the day - the weather was just too bad. To say we were disappointed would be an under statement. Grumpiness was starting to set in. Our only option, take the two-hour bus ride back to Aosta and get on a train to France. As luck would have it, there was some issue with the train while traveling through Switzerland; we had to take a bus from one train station to another. On the bright side, this did allow us to experience a bit of the local culture, the bus had to stop at one point as a herd of sheep was shepherded down the street. This is not something you see every day! Well, if you live in whatever town we were in you probably do, but for this American tourist it was a first. It at least lightened the mood ever so slightly. We finally arrived at the train station and just barely made it on the last train to Paris for the day. We lost two days of site sightseeing, we were spending the night on the train; we were tired, hungry, and cranky.
We finally arrive in Paris around mid-day. The train station was hopping - there were all sorts of soccer fans wearing team colors and cheering and chanting. It's hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm and energy - I started to perk up and get excited. As is typical of this trip, the first thing we needed to do was find a place to stay for the night. This is where I need to tell you that my boyfriend worked for Marriott hotels. He could get an employee discount at any Marriott property. On this trip we wanted to get the full European experience and stay at locations off the beaten trail and up to this point it was great. However, given the difficulty in getting to Paris in the first place and that it was the middle of the day, I wanted to just find the Marriott and be done with it and enjoy the rest of the day. He refused to do that. I was not happy! So we are walking down the streets of Paris looking for a hotel and I realize we are walking past the Louvre. The Louvre is blocks long - and I want to be inside looking at the artwork not walking past it. With every step as we walk along beside the building I grew angrier and angrier.
We finally find a hotel in an old historic building - had I been in another frame of mind I would have been charmed by the architecture and ornate detail. The aesthetic was where the charm ended - you needed to say a Hail Mary while riding the elevator, the room was well worn, as were all the amenities such as towels and linens. But it was just over night and now that we had found a place we could go out and explore. However, we weren't on the same page about what we wanted to see. We ended up wandering aimlessly, we went by Notre Dame, Moulin Rouge, and we walked along the street above the Seine. It was not romantic; there was nothing remotely romantic about any of it. We didn't have time to take in any museums. We didn't venture anywhere near the Pont des Arts - probably a very good thing, since there likely would have been something going over the bridge and it wouldn't have been a set of keys - there would be no Locks of Love on this visit. We found someplace to eat that wasn't even memorable and by that time the sun had set - I wanted to go to the Eiffel Tower. He however decided that Paris was too dangerous to walk around in at night. It's the City of Lights - are you kidding me! At this point we were no longer on speaking terms. We went back to the hotel in silence where I just got into the bed, which consisted of a mattress on the floor and pillows that were sewn, yes sewn, to the bedding. We left the next morning.
My first trip to Paris - a total disaster!
I love to travel. For me it is an escape, sometimes a reawakening, often enlightening and inspiring. I hope you enjoy the stories of "my adventures." If I inspire you to have some of your own - all the better. Bon voyage!
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