Paris and the South of France Tour

Day 1 Friday May 1, 2009

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Life is good in business class.

I almost slept through breakfast. The flight attendants served orange juice, hot beverages, mango, pineapple, watermelon, yogurt, and croissants. All in all, it was pretty good. I was glad that I woke up.

After breakfast the flight attendants brought us the hot wet wash cloths again.

A little later I went into the bathroom to wash up and brush my teeth. I left my kit behind, but I noticed the loss in time to recover it.

Waiting for luggage at CDG.

We arrived at Charles De Gaulle Airport, which is about thirty minutes northeast of Paris, a little after eight o’clock, a bit ahead of schedule. The captain announced that the weather was nine degrees centigrade and sunny. May 1 was a big holiday in most of Europe, and France was definitely no exception. We were expecting to arrive much later, and our intent had been to spend the afternoon just trying to adjust to the time change. Now fortune had actually given us an extra day of vacation, or at least an extra half of a day.

We negotiated our way through the airport to baggage claim. We had to wait there in our jet-lagged state for quite a while. Fortunately, there was a place for Sue to sit while I stood with the throng alongside the belt. Eventually all of our luggage came, and we gathered everything together to go through the inevitable ordeal of dealing with the customs officials. I did at least see a sign for customs. I had to deduce that in France such matters are optional. Were the French unaware that a war was on? Maybe they figured that since all the passengers had already been forced to take off their shoes by the TSA security, no further humiliation was required.

The Arc de Triomphe from the rear window of our taxi.

I needed to obtain some euros. Bank of America had informed me that ATM’s operated by BNP Paribas incurred no fees. A few days earlier, I had tried to locate BNP Paribas ATM’s on the Internet, but I was unsuccessful in navigating the website.

Sue asked the airport’s information desk where we could find an ATM. They pointed us to one for HSBC. I withdrew 90€ from it so that I would have enough for the cab ride and whatever incidental expenses came up before I could locate a BNP Paribas ATM.

Afterwards I spotted some seats by the window. We sat down, and I carefully put all of our money and credit cards away in the money belt. I have never been suspicious by nature, but several people in the vicinity seemed to be acting like neither confused tourists nor impatient business travelers.

We found the taxi stand, and the attendant quickly assigned us to a cab. Being careful not to pronounce the “h” in hotel, we told our driver where we wanted to go. I showed him the paper with the hotel’s address so that he would be sure of the destination. The cab ride, which primarily entailed a nondescript portion of Paris or rather Parisian suburbs, cost a little less than 50€. When we got near the hotel, it was pretty exciting to see the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower for the first time.

Sue tested out the bed.

From the cab’s window I noticed quite a few joggers in the busiest section of the city. This surprised me more than a little.

The bathroom was designed for business, not pleasure.

The driver found the hotel without much difficulty. Sue spotted it before he did, but she actually made things worse when she said “droite” when she meant the left (“gauche”). The driver must have been accustomed to dealing with ignorant Americans; he ignored her and pulled right in front of the Hotel Duquesne Eiffel.

I sat outside with the luggage while Sue went in to see if our room was ready and to inquire about our traveling companions, Patti and Tom Corcoran. They were scheduled to arrive on Thursday, but we had not communicated with them since they left the Land of Steady Habits early to avoid the outbreak of Swine Flu that had allegedly occurred in their town of Wethersfield. While I was seated, a lady came out of the hotel and poured a bucket of ice on some potted plants that were situated near the chairs that were just outside of the hotel.

I set up my gear on the desk.

Sue came out with a big grin on her face. To my surprise, our room was ready, and the Corcorans were not only there, but they had slept in, would be ready for lunch in a little while, and had plans for the afternoon in which we were welcome to partake.

The view from our window was not exactly inspirational.

I was surprised to hear the lady at the desk speaking Italian with other customers. Five minute earlier she had been conversing with Sue in perfect English. We were in room #10. The Corcorans were in room #12. Both rooms were on the first floor, which put them on the floor immediately above the ground floor. The elevator was very small. Sue and I both managed to get in, but there was not an inch to spare. I resolved to take the stairs thereafter.

Welcome back to European showers.

I wanted to take a shave and then a nap. Near the sink was something from the hotel called “Hair and body shampoo.” Could that be a Frenchism for “soap”? Sue and I were experienced enough at European bathing customs to know that we had to bring our own wash cloths. Sue had given me one and made it clear that it was my responsibility not to lose it. I kept it in my shaving kit.

Stick it here.

The stopper in the sink did not work. The labeling of the knobs in France might also take some getting used to. C (chaude) meant hot; F (froide) meant cold. This was not much different from Italy.

Time out, ref. Where were they hiding the bidet? We had seen bidets in practically every hotel in Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. Now we were in Paris, and there was none to be found.

A few problems needed to be addressed. At first we had trouble with electrical outlets. The AA battery charger worked fine, but the only one of our converters that fit in the outlets was the surge suppressor from Radio Shack. We used it to recharge the little Eee PC and Sue’s camcorder. There seemed to be wireless networks available, but they all required passwords.

Waiting for the train at the École Militaire station.

I took a two-hour nap, but I was still pretty groggy when I woke up. I suspected that I could have slept for several more hours. Paris still had an other-worldly feel about it.

Our first view of the Sacré Coeur basilica and the crowds around it.

Tom was our designated expert on French language and customs, Paris, and the rest of France. He had taken more French than any of the rest of us, so he was elected expert more or less by default. I had never had any French, and I had already put in my time as expert on the Village Italy tour. Tom had already figured out the Métro system in Paris, and he was ready to put his knowledge to good use. He had ripped out various sections of the guidebook, and he kept them in some of his many pockets. Whenever we had a question, we could count on him for an answer, as long as he remembered which pocket contained which section.

Tom and I decided to climb up to the dome.

Tom and Patti wanted to go to Montmartre. They had climbed the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe on the previous day, so they were ready for a new adventure. Tom led the way to the École Militaire station, where we purchased Métro tickets for 1.60€ each. We took train #8 to the Madeleine stop, where we transferred to #12 toward Porte de la Chapelle. We got off at Pigalle to take #2 for one stop. Tom told me that the postwar GI’s called this area Pig Alley as a tribute to the quality of the prostitutes of the area.

A gargoyle from below.

After we got off the Métro, we had to walk up Rue Steinkerque, a very crowded pedestrians-only street that was jam-packed with tourists and stores that were eager to take their money in exchange for cheap souvenirs. More interesting to me were the guys in the middle of the street running three-card Monte and other scams. I tried to locate each operator’s stooge. If I was right, they were pretty obvious. This was our first encounter with the streets of Paris.[1] It is hard to imagine a more negative start.

A gargoyle’s view of Montmartre.

We got in line for the funicular up to the Sacré Coeur basilica at the top of the butte. The line was pretty long because one funicular car was out of service and, we must remember, May 1 was a holiday throughout Europe. The queue (French for “tail”) was orderly for most of its length. However, near the lower station where tourists entered the car, it became very crowded and confusing. One guy even jumped over the barrier.

The gargoyles were actually drain spouts.

When we reached the top, Tom and I decided to make a short investigation of the interior of the basilica and to climb to the dome. Sue and Patti had no interest in more climbing. We agreed to meet at 3:15.

As Tom and I approached the church, we saw a big crowd of people pressing to get inside. We decided to try the dome first.

Documentary evidence that even old fat people can climb to the basilica’s dome.

On the side of the basilica we found a very slow-moving line for the dome and the crypt. After we had stood in line for a few minutes wondering what the charge was, a lady in front of us walked around the side of the line and up near the front. She returned and informed her fellow travelers in Italian, “Cinque euro!” They replied with a disgusted sound and left. I have repeatedly observed that Italians exhibit little tolerance for standing in line.

The most challenging part of the climb was dealing with the ticket machine.

Tickets for the dome had to be purchased from the most bizarre such machine ever devised by man. It seemed to work equally well with either cash or credit cards. An attendant wearing a suit was stationed next to it. His function was simply to explain to people how to use it. I was short of cash, so I decided to use my MasterCard. Most machines in the U.S. require you to pull your card out immediately. Not so with this one. You had to wait for an almost inaudible tone before you removed the credit card. Fortunately, the gentleman was experienced at listening for it, and he told me when I could safely remove it. It took quite a while to print our two tickets and more than a minute to generate the receipt. So, an average of three or more minutes per transaction were required for the man and the machine working in harmony. The man alone could certainly have done it in thirty seconds, but that would have been old-fashioned.

As we entered the stairway to the dome, I noticed that the line had gotten shorter.

Views from the dome.

We climbed up three hundred stone stairs on a circular staircase with a uniformly low ceiling. I thought that I remembered reading that this church was built in nineteenth century, but it hardly seemed possible that they would have built such a kludgy staircase.

The views of the city from the dome were pretty good, but not spectacular. In fact, I would rate them a notch below the views we got from the tower in Štramberk in the Czech Republic two years ago. There were plenty of gargoyles. It was interesting to see how they functioned as rain spouts.

This statue of St. Denis greeted us in the crypt.

The descending staircase left us in the crypt. I remember very little about it. You could visit the crypt for free, and it was fairly priced. When we exited, I noticed that the line for the dome was a lot longer, and the gentleman was no longer providing coaching in the use of the ticket machine.

You would be smiling, too, if you found your patrimony in Paris, especially if you were tired and thirsty.

We had agreed to meet Sue and Patti at 3:15. Since it was already 3:30, we had no time to visit the interior of the basilica.

The ladies had been watching some street performers. They were particularly enamored of a juggler/acrobat who also rode a unicycle. Patti went on and on about him.

We walked back a completely different way. Only Tom had any idea where we were going. We were all tired and hungry. Imagine our surprise when we came across a place named Corcoran’s Irish Pub. How could we pass this up? We would have preferred to sit outside, but it was quite crowded. So, we found a table inside.

Alas, no hats for sale here.

I ordered a Guinness and a bowl of onion soup. The soup cost 8€, and it was pitiful. It consisted of broth with a few minuscule slices of onion plus some grated cheese on the side. I neglected to record what everyone else had. My recollection was that crepes were involved, and no one thought that Julia Child’s successor was lurking in the kitchen.

Still, we all had a good time goofing on the place. A sign there said, “Get Ahead Get A hat at Corcoran’s.” Unfortunately, the waitress informed Tom that they did not actually sell hats. We were unconvinced that they were even aware of the offer.

If this looks like fun to you, you would probably like Montmartre.

Tom then undertook to lead us back to the hotel. We walked past Picasso’s first studio and Van Gogh’s house. I cannot say that I was overly impressed.

Picasso painted here.

We encountered one of Paris’s distinctive bicycle rental stations. We also saw the Moulin Rouge and some much sleasier-looking places just down the street. I was totally at a loss to explain what the attraction of Montmartre was supposed to be. To me it just seemed crowded and dirty. Maybe both of those things could be explained by the fact that it was a holiday. Patti speculated that the overflowing trash cans might have contained two days of refuse.

One of the surviving windmills.

Parking in Montmartre can be challenging, ...

... but renting a bike is easy.

Van Gogh painted here.

The gargoyle saw this train.

Moulin Rouge. Check.

Sue went looking for something for her knee in this pharmacy.

She did not buy any “Magic S**t”, even with the creative spelling.

Proof that Tom finally brought Patti to Paris.

I did not expect a stylized chicken and Russian writing in the Paris undergound.

Le colonel?

Tom led us to the Abbesses Métro station. From there it was no challenge to get back to École Militaire.

When we got back to the hotel, Sue asked lady at the desk about the Wi-fi (which was pronounced “wee fee” in France). She gave us the password for the Leeloo network. Back up in the room I was able to log onto the Internet and receive e-mails, but I could not send them. I had often encountered this problem before. The solution had almost always been to reconfigure my e-mail client to use the network’s own SMTP server. This trick eliminated relaying, which was prohibited by many e-mail servers. I vowed to ask at the desk for the name of the network’s SMTP server.

Sue taking movies in the Place de Mars.

I found the shower passable. It had one of those hand-held nozzles that are commonly found in European hotels, and I had to adjust the level on the vertical pole from its previous Dwarf/Midget setting. There was a shampoo dispenser inside the stall, but I used my Selsun Blue. After I got out, I took another little nap.

A fountain in the park.

At about 7:15 the four of us set off toward the Eiffel Tower. Actually, our objective was the Seine because Patti wanted to see the river, but the closest route to the river took us past the tower. Sue and I just tagged along. We were too dazed to make decisions, and we had made no plans at all for the day.

We walked through the Place de Mars, which is a huge park. I was surprised to see so much vacant land. The last thing that I expected to find in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower was a large park. It looked like a good place to jog if I could summon up the time and energy to take advantage of it. It was flat, and the surface was excellent.

Eiffel Tower. Check.

Double check.

As we got in sight of the tower, we saw a huge mob of people. I deduced that a concert or a demonstration or something must be going on, but as we got closer it became apparent that this crush of humanity was just in line to go up the tower. One of the four legs was closed. Patti and Tom had already done the tower, so we maneuvered through the crowd toward the river.

Patti was interest in taking the boat ride on the Seine. Since they offered dinner cruises for 50€, we thought that it seemed reasonable to kill two birds with one stone. We soon found, however, that it was too late to board the last one for the current evening, but we agreed among ourselves to take one on Sunday or Monday.

This is one of the boats that cruises the Seine at supper time.

By that point we were all tired and hungry. Tom, who was still playing the role of Natty Bumppo, led us through a maze of streets. Our goal was Chez Agnes, one of the restaurants recommended in Rick Steves’s guidebook. The ladies were exasperated by the fact that it seemed to take us forever to get there, but Tom did indeed locate the restaurant eventually. He went inside to see if we could get seated. Meanwhile, I wandered around the street looking in windows, and Sue and Patti waited outside.

After a few minutes something very strange happened. A lady came out of a laundromat across the street and started gesticulating and yelling something at Sue and Patti. She obviously did not want them to go into the restaurant, but none of us could understand why. Shortly thereafter Tom returned with the news that we probably could not get served there before dawn.

Tom: “I am pretty sure that the restaurant is just around that next corner.”

On our way to Chez Agnes we had passed the Café Constant. At that point it seemed like just another crowded restaurant. Now it seemed like our pis aller to avoid starvation. Tom’s affirmation that it was recommended in the guidebook was the clincher. Someone in the restaurant told Tom that there would be a ten-minute wait until the table would be ready. Since there were two chairs available outside, we opted to wait. Sue and Patti sat outside; I wandered around and took some photos; Tom had a beer at the bar. Ten minutes went by, twenty, thirty, a year, a century. Time lost all meaning.

We finally were seated at a table that was positioned at the base of the staircase that was in constant use by all of the waiters. We were given French menus. We asked if they had English ones. Our waiter brought over a chalkboard that translated the menu into English and propped it up near us.

If you are ever in Paris, give this place a pass.

Tom ordered some red wine, which he apparently judged to be suitable. The rest of us shared a bottle of white; we found it a little bitter, but drinkable. Our food order must have induced consternation for the waiter. Sue ordered two starters. One was asparagus with some other vegetables; the other was some kind of crab concoction. The waiter brought her asparagus with poached egg (not vegetables) and salmon tartare. She sent back the salmon, but she did not immediately realize that the other order was also wrong. Patti ordered ravioli as a starter, and she liked it well enough. Tom ordered a steak.

Patti and I ordered the chicken. She asked the waiter what it was, and he said that it was a breast. After about thirty or forty minutes the chicken arrived. However, what came was a leg and thigh. Patti complained to the waiter. He said that “they cut it in two.” At that point, our choice was to eat what they gave us or walk out. It was nearly midnight. Tom, believe it or not, still had received no food at all. Sue had been finished for about a decade. Patti and I decided to eat up. The chicken was mediocre, at best.

One of Sue’s erroneous entrées.

As Patti and I were finishing our suppers, Tom finally received some food. What do you suppose it was? None other than a breast of chicken delivered by a different waiter, or maybe the manager. This guy seemed stunned by the news that this was not what Tom had ordered, but he whisked it away. Tom said that he would eat it, but they insisted on making him wait for what he really ordered. Just a few minutes later a steak showed up. By then the restaurant was almost empty. Tom wolfed down his steak, and then we asked for the check.

Our waiter came over and apologized. He said that it was all his fault. He also removed the steak from the check. That was a nice thing to do, but we still left the restaurant with a really bad taste in our mouth, and not just from the food.

We made the long hike back to the hotel. Patti still loved Paris, but Sue and I had had a really horrible experience. We had to try to keep the big picture in mind. We had not expected to do anything at all on our first day in Paris. Our plan was just to pick up a bite to eat in the evening and to spend the rest of the day sleeping. Instead, we saw Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower, and the Seine. That would have been rational, but it was not what we were thinking. We could not just discard our impressions of a dirty, crowded city with long lines and mediocre sites. Our experiences with the cuisine included the worst dining experience of my life. I vowed to write up the Café Constant on the Rick Steves website and then went to bed.

[1]  I must have really been out of it. I did not take a single photo of Rue Steinkerque.