Sunday, August 9, 2009

Paris Day 2: Versailles and Eiffel Tower

I wanted to visit either Chartres or Versailles outside Paris, those destinations are not popular with Indians. I balked at joining a group bus tours because I had a child and aging parents who cannot keep up with the tempo of such group tours. I called Marriott ahead and checked out the options. Also thanks to the net, West Windsor library and Barnes & Noble I could plan it out in detail complete with which trains to take etc. Most commentators on the net suggested buying tickets to the palace ahead of time because that alone would take several hours. Also thankfully I checked the musem timings. Internet is a great blessing. Travel agents are an anachronism these days for the motivated traveller. We were scheduled to be in Paris on Monday and Tuesday. Louvre is closed on Tuesdays and Versailles is closed on Mondays. So my agenda was cut out.

Versailles is easily accessible by train. From Carrefour Pleyel, near hotel, we took a train to 'Invalides', changed to another train towards 'Versailles Rive Gauche'. The palace is walkable distance from the station. Bus tours typically take you close to the gates. Travelling by train, for 5, saved 100 euros. More importantly no tour operator to keep pushing us. I shall not dwell on the history of Versailles which can be found at . If Windsor Castle was grand Versailles was opulent. Each room had benches to rest our feet. The biggest draw was the 'hall of mirrors'. A very large room with its walls lined with mirrors facing the sun with grand chandeliers, gilded statues is a sight to behold. Whether its Versailles or Windsor Castle or Eiffel tower photos are no substitute to savoring in person. Photos are impersonal. What you feel when you stand looking at such spectacular sights is irreplaceable. You take back a memory that is a confluence of your own personal tastes, idiosyncrasies etc. While its easy to be awed by such palaces we should bear in mind the squalid state of the populace and the wars behind such expenses. The 'Versailles treaty' which ended world War I was signed in the hall of mirrors, that treaty sowed the seeds for Hitler and World War II.

Napoleon's presence looms at Versailles. A wall long portrait capturing his coronation, crowning Josephine is popular. Napoleon crowned himself 'emperor' disgusting Beethoven who was about to dedicate his 3rd symphony tore out the title page and later called it 'Eroica'.

The gardens of Versailles spans several hundred acres dotted by rest areas and good speakers that play classical music. Better to hire a battery car if one wants to see the gardens in full. I just took a small stroll. Feeling hungry we stepped into a cafe on our way out. We had the best fruit tart and creme brulee. The yogurt was its creamy best, delicious. We then headed to the hotel for a much needed rest.

In the evening I, Preeth and Rowena went out to go to the top of Eiffel tower. I wanted to have dinner Paris style in a bistro. So off we went to Champs Elysees and found a bistro serving Italian cuisine. Pizzerias and Italian cuisine dominates Paris. After dinner we headed to Eiffel tower.

The queue at one of the pillars was short enough. Engraved on the Eiffel tower are names of Mathematicians and scientists. Nice to see science being honored. Many have seen photos of Eiffel but it is indeed an experience to such a geometrical structure. The cable cars, 2 storied, climbing on a curve inside the pillars counterweighed with massive pistons is amazing design. We went right up to the top. On a clear night it was fantastic. Having been on the top of Empire state building it was kind of anti climactic. We spent barely 10 mins atop the tower. Totally it took 2.5 hours but it looked like 5 hours thanks to the many queues we had to stand in.
I learnt an important lesson. Better book a hotel in the heart of the city. The money spent extra is worthwhile. Its better to stay, say near Champs Elysees. What we saved on the hotel room by staying on the outskirts I had to instead spend on transport, eating much expensive hotel breakfast to save time when we left early for Versailles. Food is expensive in Europe. Even water, tap water at that, is charged almost close to a glass of wine. But almost every place, non-Indian restaurants, use nice silver ware, coffee is served with a dark chocolate. Yet again Mc Donalds was pretty swanky and pricey. McD has a more ubiquitous presence than its competitors.
We did not stay long enough or venture outside Paris too much we could not really savor France. Paris city is truly fashionable and much cleaner than the slum lined way to St.Denis. English was more than enough to get along. It does not take a genius to figure out 'office de tourismus' is 'office of tourism'. People were pretty helpful. Cabbies do not cheat. I think, cabbies cheating, is a disease unique to Tamil Nadu, not even in Mumbai or Delhi its as bad. Anyone whom I inquired answered pretty easily in English. Not sure if that would be the case outside Paris city.
On August 5th we had to leave for Zurich by train from Paris. I missed many a sight in Paris. The Musee D' Orsay, Invalides (Napoleon's tomb), the Pantheon (houses Foucoult's Pendulum), Notre Dame inside, watch a show at Lido etc.
We left for Zurich about France's high speed TGV from Gare De Est. Gare De Est unlike Gare Du Nord was squeky clean. Though we were crossing from one country to another (Zurich) there was no immigration check. Pretty scary in a post 9/11 world. Unlike Eurostar food was not free aboard TGV. Having been used to styrofoam cups for coffee in US it was nice being served in designer quality dishes, nice solid clean spoons. The Europeans do love leisure and the US is, after all home to Dewey's Pragmatism. Au Revoir France.

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