DM and MM's Italy/France 2012 Diary

Day 17 - Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe

Monday, 14 May, 2012

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Observations on everyday life in Paris:

  1. People actually do walk around with baguettes. And they pull small pieces off them and eat them as they walk down the street. We saw lots of people doing this, including an old woman.
  2. Crossing streets is very different to either Sydney or Rome. In Sydney, it's very orderly. Traffic goes when the lights are green and stops when they're red. You know exactly when you can cross and exactly when you shouldn't cross. In Rome, it's utter chaos, but it works. Traffic just goes all the time, and you can cross the road equally at any time, completely confident that, although the traffic won't stop, it will calmly swerve around you and you'll be perfectly safe. Here, it's in that muddy, indeterminate world in between. There do appear to be traffic lights at some intersections, but they are tiny and you can't easily see them. And then other intersections, where the pedestrian crossing are marked in exactly the same way as where there are traffic lights, actually have no lights at all. Traffic sort of goes and stops in unpredictable spurts, and you're never quite sure if it's going to stop for you as you step out into the street. There doesn't seem to be any pattern to it at all that we've been able to detect so far.
  3. Again, a stark difference to Rome. Rome has oodles of tiny, narrow, bendy streets. You can almost never see past the building in front of you. It's enclosed and almost claustrophobic. You turn corners and unexpectedly come across amazing sights like huge churches or spectacular palazzi. Venice is even more like this. Paris, on the other hand, has really really long, really really wide streets, that stretch off for kilometres into the distance, ending with landmark sites that can be seen from miles around, all over the city. And when you reach an intersection with another street, you look sideways and there, another five kilometres down that street, is another huge monumental building.

Line of Sight
Long line of sight, down the Champs-Élysées

Our day started with a late-ish wake up. We went downstairs and out to the street to Claus again for breakfast. The guy there recognised us and this time we got a table upstairs next to the window. I ordered le Hugo again like yesterday, and M. had the muesli, which turned out to be soaked Bircher style. She declared it very good.

The only other people in the place were two guys who were working on something together on a laptop and sharing a set of earbuds plugged into it. Then two more guys came in and sat at a table together. Then I noticed the magazines spread out on the window sill next our table: GQ, and a bunch of other titles with tag lines like "for today's cosmopolitan man" and "fashion and looks for men". Add to this the fact that two well-dressed guys chatting to each other in French over cups of coffee and pots of yoghurt doesn't exactly exude traditional masculinity, and we started to get a certain vibe about this place. Then a man and a woman came in together, but they were obviously tourists like us.

First view
Approaching the Eiffel Tower

Leaving Claus, we hopped on the Metro to the stop at Bir-Hakeim, which is the stop closest to the Eiffel Tower that was easiest for us to get to. From there, we walked towards the Tower, gaining our first close up view through a break in some plane trees, over the tops of some apartment buildings. Our approach was from the west, along the Seine, so we first saw the Tower with the sun behind it. We actually walked along the river bank a bit to get our first good look at the river as well. The sun was hot, so we tried to stay in the shade as much as possible, which became easy once we crossed the road and got into the shade of the Tower itself.

The whole tower
The shade of the Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is an object with which we are all familiar, having seen it so many times in movies, on TV, and in books. But as with all such familiar yet foreign objects, the truth is always something vastly different. For example, the Eiffel Tower is brown. A dark yellow mustardy brown. I was expecting the grey of iron, or of rustproofing paint similar to that on the Sydney Harbour Bridge at home, the grey colour that the Tower seems in the distance, (such as yesterday from Sacré Coeur), or in memories of every time I've ever seen it in pictures. But no, it's brown. And it has filigree and curlicues and decorative non-structural bits of ironwork on it. And - I knew this but it had never really sunk in before - it has the names of significant French people - scientists, artists, authors, philosophers, and so on - written around the sides in large letters, too big to miss. These are details you never see in any representation except the real thing standing there in front of your eyes.

Eiffel Tower: detail
The Eiffel Tower is brown, and filigreed

It's huge. And the queue of people waiting to go up to the observation decks on the Tower was huge too. It snaked all the way across the space underneath the Tower, from the west pier, undulating across the space towards the east pier, some hundred metres or more away, where it entered a series of roped off queuing corrals that zig-zagged back and forth before curling around the east pier and eventually into the ticket office. There were about two to three thousand people in the queue, I would estimate, and it wasn't moving very quickly either. I guessed if we joined it would have been about a three hour wait. At least. The north and west piers were also equipped with lifts, but a sign indicated that for mechanical reasons only one lift was operating today. All things considered, we decided the experience and view from up the Tower weren't worth queuing quite that long, and gave up plans to do so. The south pier was open for people to climb the stairs, 1664 of them, over five times the amount we'd climbed at Sacré Coeur, and the queue here was shorter, though still a good twenty minutes wait perhaps. But we weren't feeling quite that energetic and decided to skip it.

Queuing to go up
Queues at the Eiffel Tower

We walked south-east under the Tower and along the grassy area behind it, where we got the sunlight on the face of the Tower. This made for some good photos, so we spent some time getting some, including the obligatory photos of us taken by other tourists. Then as we were starting to walk away from the Tower back to Bir-Hakeim, a strangely familiar face appeared in front of us. He and I looked at each other for a second before mutual recognition occurred and we said hello. It was Jan from the Netherlands, who we'd planned to meet tomorrow morning at his hotel. He'd arrived from London today and also decided to go see the Eiffel Tower, and we just happened to almost run right into each other! We were both taken aback a little at this unexpected meeting and basically just said, "we're going this way, see you tomorrow", and then separated again. If we'd thought a bit more, we could probably have done some sightseeing together, but the whole incident happened too quickly.

By this time it was lunch time and we picked up some fruit and sandwiches on the way back to the Metro station. First we saw a supermarket with fresh fruit outside, so grabbed a Granny Smith apple for me, and a Williams pear for M. Then while eating those, we saw a boulangerie just a few doors down. So we got sandwiches from there and ate them as we walked slowly to the station, finishing as we arrived.

Arc de Triomphe

We took the train to Étoile, which is the stop by the Arc de Triomphe. Here we emerged into the street to see the famous monument and its encircling ring of traffic forming the hub for twelve spokes of boulevardes radiating outwards. (The étoile, or star, presumably.) The traffic seemed fairly light, but we could see that it could easily get chaotic and gridlocked with just a few more cars. We walked through the underground pedestrian tunnel to emerge in the centre of the giant roundabout, next to the Arc itself. There were several good photo opportunities here, but echoing the trouble at the Eiffel Tower a sign announced that the lift up the Arc to the viewing platform atop it wasn't working, so all visitors had to use the stairs. Given that and the queues and the fact that it didn't seem likely to be spectacular, we decided to simply walk around the Arc. One direction was the Champs-Élysées, which presented a staggeringly long view down a French-flag lined street to an obelisk and the Louvre building way beyond in the far distance. Despite the traffic, people were standing in the middle of this street taking photos down it as we watched in amazement. I took some photos with a variety of lenses to try to capture the amazing urban panorama all around us, and then we walked back through the tunnel to the Champs-Élysées.

The Phone Call
Crossing the Champs-Élysées, near the Arc de Triomphe

We walked down the entire length of this grand boulevarde, which is lined with fancy fashion shops and very expensive cafes, as well as a couple of prestige car dealers with tiny showrooms. One was Renault, showcasing their new Twizy micro-car, which looked cool, but weird. We stopped in Aigle, a French brand selling fashionable rubber boots as well as outdoor wear such as jackets. M. wanted to get me a replacement for my ageing jacket and so I tried on a few options before settling on one in a style I liked and a size that felt comfortable. While trying on jackets I showed the sales guy the ripped lining of my current jacket, to M.'s horror. She said afterwards that I shouldn't have shown off my old daggy jacket to a guy who works in fashion in Paris! So now in winter I can tell people I got my jacket on the Champs-Élysées.

We continued walking down the avenue, leaving the section with the fancy shops and emerging into a section lined with trees and grassy parks. Here there was a small toilet block and I needed to use it so went in. There was only one entrance and a cleaning lady waved me in past a queue of two or three women and pointed me to the far end of the corridor. I walked past the stalls with closed doors and found two urinals exposed right next to them. I guess the ladies simply weren't supposed to walk up that far.

Shopping on the Champs-Élysées
Shopping near the Champs-Élysées

Relieved, we continued walking down the Champs-Élysées towards the Place de la Concorde, a large open square with an Egyptian obelisk topped with gold in the middle. This is the Luxor Obelisk, apparently a gift from Egypt, rather than booty like the ones dotting Rome. We circled the obelisk and then headed north-east along Rue Royale towards the Paris Opera House. Along the way we came across an impressive building that looked like some sort of Greek temple, a great block with fluted columns all around. It turned out this was the Église de la Madeleine, a church built in this rather strange monumental neo-classical architectural style. We went inside to have a look and saw that it was much more traditionally baroque inside, with large panels of stained glass, something we didn't see much of in churches in Rome.

Église de la Madeleine
Église de la Madeleine

Emerging from the church, we waited to cross the road to continue walking towards the Opera House. Waiting on the other side to cross in or direction was a woman in a knee length black and white dress, who bent down to give her small dog a drink from a bottle of water. We watched and thought this was amusing, then M. said, "Look, look who it is!" The woman did look vaguely familiar, but then the lights changed and we crossed, the woman walking right by us. After passing by, M. continued, "It's that actress, you know the one! The Australian one! She lives in Paris now because she married that French guy! She was on Alias!" And then I knew instantly who she meant and the name Melissa George bubbled up from my memory. We totally would have said hello as we walked past, but by now the moment was over and she was gone with her dog around the church behind us. So not only did we bump into one person we know randomly while walking around Paris, now it was two people!

We continued on to the Opera House, which was an impressive looking building covered with ornamentation and detail, with windows all around. On top was a large golden statue of a winged figure or something; it was hard to tell since it was at the front and we approached from the side. While it looked amazing, it didn't actually look like an opera house. It looked just like a normal sort of building, if fancily decorated.

We walked around the back of the building, heading to Galeries Lafayette, a place M. wanted to see. It is a big department store in an old building, with a rooftop terrace from which you are supposed to get great views of Paris. Like David Jones in Sydney, the store is split into two buildings separated by a street, but joined by a walkway bridge above. We went into the western building, which was the menswear side, planning to go upstairs and cross the bridge to the other, larger building with the terrace roof. But we stopped short on the first floor when we encountered the food hall. This was amazing; not as big as the one in Harrods in London, but compact and cosy, and packed with delicious looking stuff. There were bakery and deli sections, and a chocolate section where M. bought us a small treat each, chocolat fondant for her and chocolat l'orange fondant for me. We ate them right there, and the woman who sold them to us watched as we popped them straight into our mouths. Further around was a spice section, where large cones of colourful spices were laid out like in a Moroccan souk, exuding a head mixture of exotic aromas through the store. The same section also had teas, with mounds of leaves of different types and mixed with different things. There was even a mound of dried rose buds.

Ne Pas Toucher
Spices in Galeries Lafayette

Leaving the food section, we found the bridge to the other half of the store, stopping at a loo along the way. The first building we'd entered seemed fairly normal, but when we entered the larger building across the street, it was immediately obvious this was an older and grander affair. The shopping floors were arrayed vertically around a large circular cutout, lined by graceful wrought iron railings, and above which rose a spectacular dome of stained glass and gold. It was difficult to believe we were in a department store and not some sort of church or something. We rose up through the floors on the escalators, noting the descriptions of each floor, which were written in French and English: Contemporary Fashion, Leisure Fashion, Seduction Fashion... On several of the floors we noticed what looked like a special men's waiting area, where men were sitting on chairs, reading newspapers or whatever, while waiting for their female companion to finish shopping.

Galeries Lafayette
Galeries Lafayette interior

At the top, the escalators stopped and we had to climb stairs to the final, eighth floor, where a terrace was set up with strangely spongy green carpet, presumably to resemble grass. There was a cart set up selling coffee, and comfortable armchairs and sofas with plastic surfaces to sit on. Several people were up there enjoying the view, and others were lounging in the chairs having a break. The view was excellent, over the Opera House immediately south of the store and then across Paris to various landmarks we're starting to recognise. After a look around and some photos of us lounging with a panoramic view of Paris, we went back down into the store.

Paris Opera House
View of rear of the Opera House, from roof of Galeries Lafayette

We stopped to check out the handbags section and M. found one she really liked, not a mega-expensive fashion label just one with a nice design. So we bought that, and got a receipt to take with us to the non-EU citizen tax refund counter in the basement. We queued up in a line to see a cashier there, but only after a while noticed a sign saying the minimum limit to qualify for a refund was €175, which was more than we spent, so we didn't qualify to get our tax back.

We left the store and walked around the Opera House to head home to our apartment. From the front we were astonished to see that it had not one but two great gold statues on top; we could only ever see one of them from angles behind the building. On the way we passed a sweet-shop selling all sorts of goodies. We bought a tin of lollies for M.'s nephews as a gift, as well as some pieces of nougat and caramel for us to snack on when we needed a sugar hit. I got aniseed, lemon, and strawberry nougat pieces, and a cinnamon caramel, and M. got a chocolate caramel.

At home, we noticed the Lebanese/Moroccan restaurant across from our place was open today, so we dropped our stuff off and went straight over for dinner since it was after 19:00 by now. It was only now we realised that the name of the place was Chez Katy, not exactly a very Lebanese or Moroccan sounding name. The decor looked promisingly chintzy and mood setting, and the menu looked mouth watering. We chose some hoummos to start with. As Tony had said back in Venice after we'd told him about the hoummos we'd had at Nonna Betta's in Rome, hoummos is always good, it seems impossible to find a bad hoummos anywhere. It arrived with a basket of bread, which was a bit unusual in that the expected Lebanese bread was inside a plastic bag, and also there were some slices of baguette in the basket too! The bread was actually not as fresh as it could have been, but the hoummos was indeed fine and tasty.

Chicken, almond, prune tagine
Chicken, prune, almond tajine at Chez Katy

For our mains, we'd both ordered tajines, M. a vegetable one and me one with chicken, prunes, and almonds. The guy confirmed I wanted that, because he said it was "sweet", and I said yes, I expected that with the fruit in it. When the tajines arrived, they looked absolutely delicious, and they turned out to be so. However we'd expected them to come with some couscous on the side, which didn't look like happening, so I quickly ordered some. Thank goodness it is really quick to prepare, because it arrived a minute or so later and set off the sauce and contents of the tajines nicely. Despite the bread, the meal was very positive overall.

We didn't have dessert since we had so many sweet things to nibble on back in or apartment. We showered and stayed up a bit writing diary and reading books until falling asleep.

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