(Or… 101 facons de sauter la file d’attente)
Paris, the City of Light. Or, in our case, during the week of New Year’s Eve, the City of Queues! Vibrant but very busy, Paris was filled with hordes of Europeans visiting for this week of holiday. Every major attraction, seemed to have an endless queue to buy tickets and enter:
Louvre, 3hrs. Eiffel Tower, 2 hours. Montparnasse Tower, 2 hours. Catacombs, 2 hours.
Our experiences in Paris celebrated both light and queues, leaving us with memories of the joy of evening walks and the fun of the challenge to skip the queue.
We journeyed to Paris by Eurostar. Our first train journey was a pleasure after the joys of EasyJet and budget airlines. The 2 hours from St Pancras to Gare du Nord was very civilized.
Upon disembarking at Gare du Nord, we were accosted by multitudes of taxi spruikers, beggars and mostly unreadable signs. Looking at the line for the taxi, together with the small size of the taxis, Spike decided to take advantage of the spruikers, securing a ride to our St Germain apartment. However after being led away from the taxis, around a corner, across the boulevard and down a street, the rest of the family started to show signs of uneasiness (read panic). After being assured by Spike it was all good, Will made sure the “taxi” vehicle had a legitimate taxi rego sticker, then everyone relented and agreed to get into the taxi. We had a great ride across the city, with Kate and Will exercising their French linguistic skills to converse with the driver and find out about Paris life.
Anne, the friendly owner of the apartment, met us at check in. We got the neighbourhood low down, including when the local markets were open, the good places to eat and which house across the street Gerard Depardieu lived in. With cafés, patisseries, fromageries, and many bistros, all around the corner, we were set for the week in Paris.
With blue skies and chilly temps on Monday, we set out to join a Fat Tire Bike Tour of Paris. Led by Rick, a hip New Yorker, who studied and lived in Paris for 10 years, we were taken on a tour across the city. Discovering all sorts of lesser known facts and places of interest along the way, we also began to discover the curse of the queue at the major attractions. However, “Where there is a queue,” said Rick, “there is always a way to skip the queue.”
Being on a bike in Paris, leads to only one desire for me…. to round the Place de la Concorde and sprint up the Champs Elysees to victory. My dreams have been realized, albeit on a fat tired cruiser clothed in black rather than in yellow, although I didn’t get far up the Champs Elysee owing to the Christmas markets blocking the way.
Tuesday was market day on Rue de Cherche Midi in the 6e (arrondissement). We set off in the morning to break the language barrier and buy our supplies for the week at the markets. Wonderfully fresh produce of all-sorts-French was available and we stocked up on fruit, veges, meat, salmon, oysters, olives and of course, stinky cheese. Whilst French was not Will’s favourite subject this last year, he showed that he had actually learnt something and proved to be a true proficient at making purchases, often leading the way to buy our produce. Our supplies provided wonderful home cooked meals for the week and at least a tiny sense of local Paris living.
Given the sunshine, we headed down to Montparnasse to head up the tower to view Paris. According to Rick, it has better views than the Eiffel tower and hardly any wait. When we arrived however, we found the queue outside to be enormous with about a 2 hours wait, so instead we headed off for lunch. On return, we happened upon another entrance to the tower without any queues. Wandering straight in and joining the small line at the ticket booth we soon discovered the previously mentioned queue outside the other doors behind us. As the official in attendance deemed our presence to be valid, we were up the tower in ten minutes. So, first strategy for dealing with queues applied…. Push in. Needless to say the views across Paris were pretty good.
Also down near Montparnasse, are the Paris Catacombs, where over 6 million Parisiens are buried in tunnels underground. We headed down to check it out, as it was reported to be brilliant. It still remains “reported to be brilliant” as we enacted our second queue strategy…. Avoid. It was late and the queue was too long so we went home to enjoy our fresh market produce instead. Paris, City of Queues.
With another cracking but cold day on Wednesday, NYE, we headed out of Paris to Versailles to tackle our first ‘must do’ of Paris. The Palace was huge, the grounds were huge, and yes, the queue was huge. We headed over to the information place just outside the train station to find out about tickets. A very helpful man pointed out that the queues were already 2-3 hours long however you can pay a bit extra and join a “skip the line” tour that gets you into the palace and then leaves you to your own devices. We booked for 11:45, then wandered up to stroll the amazing gardens until it was time to head into the palace. Fifteen minutes later we were inside and taking in the opulence of the various Kings Louis’. Third queue strategy adopted…. Pay Extra for a Skip the Line Tour.
The Palace and Gardens are incredible and justifiably a UNESCO World heritage site. It also shines light on the egos of the Kings from Louis XIII to Louis XVI and possibly why the French revolted and cut off everyone’s head. Louis XIV made Versailles the home of French Government and the town surrounds sprang up accordingly. The gardens were so amazing, even in winter, showing why most formal gardens around the world are influenced by those at Versailles.
Wandering through the Palace becomes a blur after a while, with every room being overly opulent. The Hall of Mirrors was pretty special and a few other rooms stood out. However the overall vibe was slightly diminished by the swarms of tourists like us streaming through the place, with the forest of extended arms taking selfies (exceeded only in the Mona Lisa Gallery). Paris, City of Queues.
Back in Paris for NYE, we headed down to the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame for an evening walk though the city. On a clear NYE night, we enjoyed a stroll along the Seine past Notre Dame and around the Ile, with the sunset and the city shining bright. Paris, City of Light.
Almost freezing after dark we did not brave the Champs Elysee for the NYE celebrations, instead enjoying cards, Champagne, our market oysters and stinky cheese back at our apartment.
For our capital C Culture fix, we chose the Musee D’Orsay. Far more manageable than the Louvre, it is able to be taken in within a few hours. Being such party goers the night before, we were able to be out by 10am, whilst the city was still quiet. Arriving at the Musee D’Orsay, we discovered it was FREE on NY day and even better, we had arrived before the crowds! Fourth queue strategy ticked off….. Beat the Crowds. But only just, as they all arrived and formed the queue an hour later.
Focussing on mainly Impressionist art, the Musee D’Orsay is housed in a fabulous old railway station – very grand. In fact, New York’s Grand Central Station is modelled on the Musee D’Orsay building. We enjoyed lots of Monet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Manet, Gaugin, Pissaro and Cezanne along side others. Highlights of the 4wheatleys include Degas’ Petite Danseuse de 14 Ans sculpture (Ele), Renoir’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (Kate), Van Gogh’s Starry Night (Will), Monet’s The Magpie (Kate & Spike) & Van Gogh’s Self Portrait (Spike). Culture fix done and only the Mona Lisa to be conquered.
That afternoon we thought we had a “skip the line” tour of the Eiffel tower booked, but it turned out to be for the following day. Seizing the free afternoon we headed back to Pont Alexandre III to the Grand Palais for some ice skating action. Macquarie Centre Ice rink it is NOT. Built in the late 1890’s, the Grand Palais is a huge Beaux arts exhibition hall, and during winter it is converted to the largest ice skating rink in France. With blue skies, on this New Year’s Day afternoon, the sun streamed in through the glass roof and we had a few magical hours ice skating and drinking hot chocolates.
Afterwards, we strolled up the Champs Elysees, still closed to traffic for New Year’s Day, to the Arc de Triomphe. Thousands were still out, but the sun was setting and the lights came on as we strolled up the pave of the Champs, walking in the paths (tyre prints) of many Le Tour champions. Paris, City of Light.
Friday, last day. The two Paris biggies remained to be conquered. Could we do both the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower in one day? We felt that one could not go to Paris and not pay our respects to Mona. The trouble was that during this holiday week, there had been 2 hour queues to get into the Louvre. However, thanks to Rick, who gave us the tip about the sneaky side entrance to the Louvre, we conquered Louvre in 37 minutes from arrival outside, queuing, through security, ticket purchase, battling crowds to get to and at the Mona Lisa, checking out IM Pei’s pyramid and exiting out to the still waiting hordes. Fifth queue strategy…. Sneaky Side Entrance. Check!
How was Mona? We got to within about 5m of the painting, barred from closer viewing due to the crush of tourists. We managed to catch a glimpse amidst the good ole’ forest of raised arms holding phones, cameras, iPads, videos etc. With Mona hung behind a glass screen, it appeared no different to a framed print. Maybe it was just that we didn’t get close enough. It was a stark contrast to the intimacy of the the Musee D’Orsay where you can literally put your face right up to a Renoir, Monet or Van Gogh masterpiece and truly take in those paintings. Paris, City of Queues.
We spent our last afternoon in Paris on the Eiffel Tower. The sky cleared for the afternoon, leaving us with a couple of hours visiting each level from the top down. We caught the lifts to the “sommet”, took in the views and headed down to levels two and one. We enjoyed the views from the lower levels the most as they are closer to the Paris buildings and streets.
Apart from restaurants, cafes’ and souvenir shops, the Tower hosts an ice skating rink. So what better way to spend the evening than to ice skate on the Eiffel Tower? Whilst we waited for the operators to do the afternoon ice refresh (the wait was literally watching water freeze) we caught the glow of the sun as it set and then watched as the lights came on over the Tower and Paris. The kids finally got their skates on and glided around on a bright and sparkling Eiffel Tower.
Paris, City of Light.