I will start this post off admitting that this entry isn’t going to achieve any where near the impact or significance of my last entry summarizing my experiences during the Paris Attacks. This blog is primarily my personal catalog of bibliophilia with an occasional tangent into travel diary entries in the form of criticisms of the utility or disfunction of my selected guide books. In return to normal form this entry will focus on our most recent trip to France without mention of the terrible incidents that occurred in Paris on November 13th, 2015 in Paris. For mention of that, you need only refer to my previous post.
In planning this trip, we knew that our travels would be unique since the trip was half work and half play. This was because the primary reason for heading to France was my wife’s work-focused conference in Paris November 11-14 (the last day of which was cancelled due to the attacks). While in Paris, we knew that I’d primarily be on my own while she was busy with work obligations. I had never been to France before but my wife had visited Paris and Nice some 10 years prior shortly after her undergraduate education and she didn’t mind missing out on the Paris focused part of the trip. In planning the days before the Paris leg of the trip we agreed that we’d explore parts of the country that she had not seen before to make the most of her brief pre-work vacation.
Figuring out exactly where that would be would would quickly become an overwhelming challenge. In an attempt to figure out the best places to go we asked a few friends who had been to France prior and found that the recommendations were all over the map: head South to Nice, go to Strasbourg to see the Christmas Markets, head to Normandy and explore the coast, see the Bordeaux wine region and the coast. At least the varied recommendations were consistent with an excitement for the country but in planning our trip they were completely inconsistent in helping us choose the best location to visit. In an attempt to better plan the trip according to our interests we scoped out several France guidebooks and decided on the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to France as our starting point since DK Eyewitness was helpful for our trip last year in France’s neighbor, Belgium.
Although DK Eyewitness was exceptional for a small country like Belgium, we quickly learned that it was overwhelming to use this book to prioritize sights in a much larger country like France. Many guide books such as Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, and Frommer’s give assistance to the naive traveler by listing the “top ten” or “must see” sights in a country: DK Eyewittness is a much more straightforward type of book and makes no attempt to prioritize the best or must-see sights. France is a large country with an exceptional history spanning back 20,000 years and understandably has a multitude of sights to see. The book did divide the country up into several regions with each regional section giving a brief summary of the history, food, and top-sites that were particular to that region, but the majority of the book’s focus was on Paris with a total of 110 pages of the 670 page book dedicated to the capital city. The book does include several helpful two-page sections with detailed “maps” highlighting many of the city centers, but it is obvious that these maps are really bird’s-eye drawings best used for general reference and not very helpful for navigating when on the ground.
With only 10 days in our itinerary and half of those days dedicated to Paris we realized that our options were limited. Reading through the DK Eyewitness I became overly excited at the possibility of seeing the pre-historic cave paintings in the Southwest region but as we mapped out the trip the possibility to get there from our initial flight into Paris with only 5 days to work with didn’t seem feasible. I then became excited to see the Abbey of Mont-St-Michel primarily because this coastal castle-village was the inspiration for Peter Jackson’s depiction of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings Movies, but there wasn’t much else near the Mont-St-Michel region that warranted a trip toward the far west of Normandy during what would likely be a cold and blustery region in November so we nixed that idea. My wife was really excited to see the medieval citadel of Carcassonne in the south of France but this also seemed too far away to see during our short trip.
Although it would have been helpful to have “must see” list to choose from, DK Eyewitness was helpful in presenting the many regional highlights of France and ultimately we opted for Lyon as our base outside of Paris. Lyon, France’s second city, seemed to offer it all and it helped that it was only a 2 hour train or 4 hour drive from Paris. Lyon is close to the Alps, is picturesque as it is situated at the merging of two rivers, the Saône and the Rhône, it has Renaissance era palaces, medieval cobblestone alleys, and many Roman ruins since Lyon was the Roman capital of the region during the Roman empire. Lyon is additionally near Vienne, a city that had a major concentration of intact Roman ruins. Of course Lyon is also recognized as the foodie capital of France, which suited our gastronomical delights and helped us make our decision to explore a city that wasn’t recommended to us by any of our friends.
After a plane delay that caused us to miss our originally scheduled train, we made it into Lyon early evening on Friday, November 6th. We decided to walk the 15 minutes from the train station to our apartment to get a feel for the city and I was immediately charmed by the setting sun’s illumination of the Rhône river. We were staying in an Airbnb apartment in the heart of the city on the peninsula between the two rivers near the Opéra de Lyon. Our first night was spent enjoying a lovely three-course meal for only € 30 a person and then we stumbled upon a wonderful Belgian beer bar Les BerThoM to enjoy the Friday night festivities.
Saturday was a full day of sightseeing in the peninsula and the quaint older region of the city on the west bank of the Saône. Many of the sights on the west bank, such as Basilque Notre-Dame de Fourvière, the Roman Amphitheater, Vieux Lyon (the narrow cobbled street region) were all directed to us by our DK Eyewitness book, but the Miniature Museum was a special find I stumbled upon just by browsing the internet. Navigating the streets of Lyon with the DK Eyewitness book was not very helpful since the map was only of the west bank region and didn’t even include the area where we were staying. Thankfully our host had a copy of the Knopf Mapguide of Lyon in the apartment. Even though the book was in French, its many fold-out regional street maps and subway guide were our salvation since our DK Eyewitness book didn’t even make mention of the existence of a subway or the lifesaving tram that traveled up the steep hill to view Fourvière and the Roman ruins. For anyone who explores Lyon, I would highly recommend picking up a copy of the Knopf Mapguide, because it was a godsend to us.
Lyon was utterly charming and I loved every moment of our short time there. We stayed three nights total, but our second day, Sunday the 8th, was a day of exploring outside of Lyon as we rented a car and drove east for a day-trip to the Alps. We had set our destination toward the ski village of Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc and had planned to stop at the Chamonix visitor center to get some tips on hikes in the area. Unfortunately to our disappointment the visitor center was closed on Sundays. Although we were able to get on wifi outside the visitor center, all of the best recommended hikes we found were further up the road, which was currently closed. We were in the Alps in an odd offseason period between the summer hiking and winter skiing seasons. The lifts to the Mont Blanc peak were closed so we settled for a view of the glorious mountains and the mouth of the glacier on the mountain range’s slopes. I don’t know when I’ll return to the Alps in the future, but I’m certain that by that future date the glacier will have far receded from its current position.
From Chamonix we made our way back to Lyon with a plan to stop in the medieval lakeside city of Annecy for dinner. On the drive to Annecy I saw a unique looking bridge and decided to pull off the highway to view the Pont de la Caille suspension bridge. This beautiful bridge was built in 1839 to reduce the travel time from Annecy to Geneva over the Ussess Gorge and it captivated my attention as I literally saw the bridge off in the distance in the periphery of my vision: its charm magnetized me. It was a nice little diversion that wasn’t even mentioned in the DK Eyewitness book. Once in Annecy, I fell in love with the lakeside views of the Alps and the town’s quaint canals. Annecy is the “Vienna of the Alps” and although I’ve never been to Vienna, it definitely reminded me of another canal based city, Bruges, but on a smaller scale. Our guidebook only gave us a three paragraph description of Annecy, so we were left on our own to simply wander the narrow streets and take in the beauty of the city.
On Monday the 9th we were leaving Lyon, but not before we took a short diversion south to Vienne to view some of the most intact Roman ruins in the region. From Vienne we travelled north of Lyon to stay in Burgundy for a night at Château de Bagnols, a 13th century castle that has been converted into a luxury hotel. This was a special treat and since it was offseason we got a great deal on what would have been a night way over our normal budget. The grounds were beautiful and exploring the castle and the surrounding medieval village of Bagnols satisfied my desire to see “old” France. As I was driving around the next day I saw several castles off in the distance along the highway, but my giddy need to see an old castle was satisfied by the knowledge that not only did I see a castle, I slept in a castle!
The following day we left Bagnols to drive into Paris but we decided to split the drive up by stopping half way. Where that stop would be wasn’t decided yet and was up to our guidebooks. The DK Eyewitness book was quite helpful in this respect as I choose to stop at the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, a 15th century hospice that showcased some of the unique architecture of Burgundy. At the hospice we did an audio tour and learned that this hospice served the poor of the region from 1443 until surprisingly, 1984! Seeing the great halls lined with hospital beds and wandering the grounds satisfied my desire to learn a little about the roots of my profession and gave me a lot of respect for how much medicine has evolved. The audio tour was amusing and unique: rather than simply have a historian tell this and that about the grounds it was narrated by two actors portraying the hospice’s founder Nicolas Rolin and one of the nuns that worked in the hospice. It was an amusing way to learn about the history of the facility and the two were quite humorous as they recanted stories of old with tongue in cheek self awareness.
From Beaune we drove the rest of the way into Paris. I feel that I must mention a little about driving in France: it was surprisingly easy despite not being able to read the roadsigns. However, you should be warned that it is definitely an expensive way to travel. The roads are in great condition but that is because the highways are primarily all toll roads. In the Alps we drove through several tunnels that extended for several kilometers and our route to Paris was smooth as can be. The cost for the great roads definitely added up as tolls ranged anywhere from € 2 to just get on and off at the next exit to € 17 to go through a tunnel. It was worth it to see the countryside for a couple of days, but I can’t imagine driving through France for any extended period as being feasibly economical. The traffic on the highways was light (possibly due to cost of the tolls) but I had expected to hit traffic in Paris. Once we arrived in the periphery of the capital city the traffic exceeded my expectations and was laughably ridiculous. Driving in the city proper was absolutely crazy with pedestrians, mopeds, motorcycles, and even busses cutting me off and squeezing through narrow channels not imaginable to this American driver.
In Paris my wife and I really just had that Tuesday night together before she had to get to work. We enjoyed a decadent meal at La Maison de la Truffe and wandered around Église de la Madeleine before heading off to bed at our apartment. We had hoped to see the Eiffel tower lit up at night, but were very tired from the long day of driving. As I later became better aquatinted with the Paris geography I would regretably realize that a view of the tower was just around the corner from where we were that night and unfortunately circumstances would prevent us from sharing a romantic view of the iconic tower at night during this trip.
Wednesday the 11th, Armistice day, was my day for ambitious sightseeing. The DK Eyewitness book, with its extensive Paris section, was helpful in planning my day but I regretted lugging the heavy 670 page book around with me as I managed to walk nearly 13 miles (according to my iphone health app estimates). The much slimmer 27 page Knopf Mapguide Paris edition that I had borrowed from a friend quickly became my automatic reference for the rest of my Paris trip.
The Knopf guide split up Paris into 10 regions each with a fold out detailed map displaying all of the roads, streets, and alleys in each of the regions. It also had a quick reference to the subway system that I used constantly. Most helpful was that it was actually in English, unlike the Lyon version of the Mapguide we had used. The guide was very slim and not ideal for planning a trip, but it was essential for use on the ground when actually walking the streets and I quickly learned that all of the restaurant recommendations were spot-on delicious and budget conscious. This guide book that easily fit in my jacket pocket basically held my hand through my Paris trip.
It was only the first day that I made the mistake of carrying the DK Eyewitness around. On that very long day I explored all the key sights of Notre Dame, the Arc de Triumphe, and the Eiffel Tower. These of course are the big sites and are very cliche must-sees for any Parisian tourist. In addition to the big sites I did plenty of wandering to simply take in a feel for the city as well as a stroll along the Seine. In my walks I wandered west to see the miniature Statue of Liberty donated by the US on the centennial of the New York version and I wandered around Place du Concorde before heading into the Musée de l’Orangerie in the late afternoon. The “Orange” museum would never have been on my list of to-dos if not for the strong recommendation of a close friend of mine and I am forever grateful to her for the recommendation. After a long day on my feet in the hustle of Paris the two oval rooms dedicated to the massive Monet water lilly paintings was a welcome respite for my tired feet. After a few hours in the museum I exited to find the city gloriously lit up in the night and and I wandered over to Place de Bastille to see a new neighborhood and grab some dinner. It was quite the day, but just the first of my three jam-packed Paris adventures.
Thursday was my dedicated Louvre day, but knowing myself after having experienced the awe-inspiring British Museum I knew that once I entered the massive Louvre collection I would likely stay in the museum until it closed. Not wanting to dedicate the entire day to just the Louvre I decided to head east first and explore the Père Lachaise Cemetery, the resting place for many famous artists and musicians including Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Balzac, Chopin, and Jim Morrison. Seeing the graves of the famous was intriguing, but the cemetery itself is a treasure not to be missed. I arrived in the early morning and the eerie morning fog was enchanting. I had downloaded a map to help me find some of the famous graves, but just wandering the cemetery was fun in itself. Jim Morrison’s grave was actually the most low-key, simply a slab of granite with his picture on it, but it somehow had the largest draw of photographers.
The Louvre failed to disappoint. I spent nearly 6 hours in the museum and only saw 1/3 of the collection. The scope of masterpieces on display is phenomenal. There a justifiable reason the place is crowded. Since I was on my own I opted for an audio tour and was glad to do so because it really enriched my appreciation for the artwork. Of course I had to see the Mona Lisa although it never was a bucket-list item of mine. The hall displaying the surprisingly small painting was laughably crowded with a mob of people taking photos like they were the paparazzi. I wasn’t immune to this affect but I did refrain from taking a ridiculous selfie. I managed to get up center and just stare at the painting for a good 7-8 minutes. Being in its presence was surprisingly satisfying. That smile is mysterious and seeing it in person, albeit 15 feet away, is quite seductive. However, when the Italian next to me stuck his tongue out in his selfie, I knew it was my time to leave the lady’s seductive presence.
There is much to see in the Louvre and it is a bit overwhelming. The collection of artwork is unlike any other I’ve seen, rivaling only the Vatican in its scope and beauty. I will say that I did enjoy the British Museum more than the Louvre because the ancient art in the British Museum is presented from more of an archaeological perspective whereas the Louvre is primarily an artistic museum. One aspect that is unique is that the Louvre’s architecture is an art-form in it itself with beautiful ceiling frescoes and magnificent stairwells that are jaw-dropping with their own significance. It is truly a special place.
After a full day in the Louvre I managed to head back to the apartment to rest up before dinner. By this time I had completely abandoned the DK Eyewitness book and began to fully trust the Knopf Mapguide’s suggestions for the Montmartre region as a good spot for the evening. I stopped to get a glimpse of the Moulin Rouge lit up at night and then wandered through the Passages of Montmartre before climbing the hill to seek out an excellent dinner.
Friday the 13th would prove to be an ambitious day. My plan was to see both the Musée d’Orsay and the Centre de Pompidou in one swoop, which in itself is admittedly a busy day, but I also had a goal to see the Palais Garnier, Opéra at the recommendation of my father who had visited Paris 20 or so years ago. I managed to do all of that and fit in a relaxing stroll along the Seine to see the Grand Palais and stumble upon the Christmas Markets along Avenue Des Champs-Elysées. It was a very full day, but I was nearing the end of the trip and wanted to fit in as much as I could. I succeeded beyond my imagination.
The Musée d’Orsay would prove itself to be a magical experience. I absolutely loved that museum and the period of artwork depicted in its halls spanning the years 1848 to 1914. The sculptures of Rodin and masterful paintings of Van Gough, Monet, and Manet among many, many others were captivating. If there is ever a museum I will visit again, it will be this one. Every corner I turned I was spellbound by masterpieces that I had only seen in books previously. As is expected of any French museum of art, the building is an icon of art in itself: formerly an abandoned train station, it is beautiful and open, letting in lots of light that illuminates the works on display.
I hadn’t intended to fit Centre de Pompidou into my schedule originally, but it was highly recommended by the same friend that recommended Musée de l’Orangerie and after I learned that it was open late (until 9:30) I realized that it was possible to fit in my busy day. I really enjoyed the museum’s design and the manner in which the main gallery transported the viewer through time, chronologically displaying the progression of Modern art from the late 19th century to the 21st. The collection is truly impressive, the best modern collection I’ve seen, but by the time I arrived into the 1960’s avant garde my brain was dead and exhausted from a grueling day. I had museum fatigue and couldn’t handle any more mind-expanding artistic experiments.
So, needing a good rest as I was settling into dinner near the Centre de Pompidou I allowed myself to take a break to reflect on the trip. I had really enjoyed this trip far more than I had expected. Before the opportunity arose through my wife’s work-conference, France had never really on my list of top must-see countries. I’ve always wanted to be in Paris on Bastille Day (my birthday), but felt that I could put France off for some other time. After a full week exploring the country and diving into the arts I realized that this is truly a beautiful place and don’t know why I hadn’t had much in interest in it prior. The people were great despite my inability to articulate a single word in French, and both the food and wine were delightful. As I was enjoying my final meal alone I decided to text a friend back home who has been a long-time Francophile to let her know that I had finally come to appreciate her love for this country. Later that night that same friend would be one of many friends and family members frantically texting me asking about my safety, but that is another story.
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