A Travellerspoint blog

Paris and her museums

Exploring the city of lights

The orderly streets of Paris

The orderly streets of Paris

Paris is all about looking good. The Parisiens take pride in their appearance, and their city is no exception. Parks are beautifully manicured, streets are lined with neatly groomed trees, and buildings appear clean and tidy. Paris is a beauty to be admired. We arrived into Paris by train, pulling into Gare Staint Lazare in the early afternoon. After negotiating the metro (it's no London Underground, but it still works!), we arrived in the 7th arrondissement of Paris at the door of our rented apartment. Over time the French have perfected the “studio apartment”, and it seemed only fitting that we experienced Paris with some traditional French accommodation. After a quick run-down by the landlord, we were handed the keys and our Paris adventure could begin. As with London, we hit the jackpot with location, only 10 minutes walk from the Eiffel Tower and across the road from Les Invalides. Paris was ours for the taking.

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You can't really visit Paris without seeing at least one museum or art gallery, they're inescapable. Our first couple of days really paid homage to this fact. The first item crossed of our list was Les Invalides and Napolean's Tomb. Napolean Bonaparte has had one of the greatest impacts on modern France. In fact the school system, military order and many of it's architectural wonders are legacies of his rule. It's hard to visit France without hearing something about Napolean, so it was only appropriate that we paid him a visit. His tomb, constructed posthumously, is nothing short of spectacular, with a huge domed ceiling and gigantic quartzite tomb. It's interesting to consider that, despite all his achievements, he was basically a military dictator (if a fairly benevolent one). Not yet tired, we followed up our first museum with a full day of museum-y goodness. Starting at Musee Rodin, a beautiful garden haven within the bustle of Paris, we continued on to the Musee D'Orsay. The building housing the Musee D'Orsay is almost as impressive as the collection itself. Built as a train station for the 1901 World Fair (along with the Eiffel Tower), the huge curved roof of the museum is still amazing to this day. The collection itself is nothing short of immense, with Monet to Van Gough and everyone in between. I would be lying if I said we saw everything. We finished our day with probably the least assuming, but by far the most beautiful of Paris' museums, Musee de L'orangerie. The museum houses Claude Monet's massive waterlily paintings (the canvases are so large they cover a whole wall each). Walking into the museum with the waterlillies on every side, it feels like you are entering a tranquil garden. Monet designed the museum, and donated the paintings, following the First World War to provide a site for reflection and calm within the city. The pervasive silence that fills the two painting galleries is testament to his success. We arrived back home happy, but exhausted. We had certainly been museumed out.

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The following day we continued through our list of Paris sights. We started with churches, and although you would probably assume Notre Dame tops the lot, our favourite church was Sainte Chapelle. Located on Ile de la Cite and only a few minutes walk from Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle has managed to escape the hoards which descend upon Paris' best known cathedral each day. But Sainte Chapelle is no less impressive. The tiny, intimate chapel is home to a whopping 60m2 of stained glass windows, making for an amazing sight, and, I think, topping anything you can see in Notre Dame. Ironically, our second favourite church was a church to science (though what can you expect from two biologists?!). The Pantheon was originally constructed by Louis XIV to commemorate St. Genivive (and out class Rome's St. Peter's Basilica whilst it was at it!), but following the French Revolution, and the official seperation of church and state, the church was converted into a shrine for great thinkers of the enlightenment. Despite a few changes over the years, the Pantheon today still serves its original purpose, housing the bodies of visionaries including Voltaire, Rousseau, Alexander Dumas and Marie and Pierre Curie. The use of a religious building for such a secular and irreligious purpose speaks volumes to influence that French Revolutionary ideals have had on modern France.

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Of course a visit to Paris would not be complete without an obligatory visit to the Eiffel Tower. The view from the top is impressive, and really gives you a glimpse into the fine, ordered nature of central Paris, though the awe was tapered slightly by the chilly weather! We took advantage of the nice clear skies and also fitted in a visit to Monte Martre (massive tourist trap, but still beautiful), and the Arc de Triomphe (great view if you're okay with stairs!) to round off a day of Paris panoramas. The next day, with our museum tolerance recharged we headed to Musee Louvre. There's not much you can say about the Louvre that would do it justice. Like the British Museum, it houses a piece from just about every location and time period concievable. Navigating through the collection is akin to navigating a maze, but one where each turn sends you spiraling to another point in time. The Egyptian section and Hammurabi's Code of Laws were highlights, whilst the Mona Lisa, and the unwavering swarm of people 3 feet deep around her, could easily have been skipped. To escape from the tourist rush for a bit, we spent the rest of the day wandering Pere Lachaise cemetery. The cemetery has been operating since 1804, and has grown to be one of the more exclusive in Paris. Restrictions ensure that those interred there must have lived or died in the French capital, but this hasn't prevented a number of famous non-Parisiens from ending up among the cemeteries many streets, including Oscar Wilde, Chopin and Jim Morrison. With beautiful old trees, and crumbling old tombs, Pere Lachaise has a beauty about it that many austere modern cemeteries lack. It is a place for quiet reflection on life.

We left Paris feeling very cultured, but ready to take a break from museums! Although art musuems are fantastic collections of human expression through the ages, sometimes I can't help but feel that I'm missing something. Some people seem to be able to stand in front of a work of art, gesturing, discussing and postulating animatedly, for many minutes. I sometimes feel as though I'm looking at one of those magic eye pictures, where the real image is hidden until you look at it just right. Of course the paintings are beautiful, and the skill required to render such impressive works is truly astonishing, but I can't really find enough in them to have an animated discussion. Maybe I'm just not looking at them the right way. Perhaps when I've recharged my museum batteries I'll be able to find out!

Some observations from Paris:

1. Every second Parisien owns a dog.

2. You're dog may go anywhere you do, and you're under no obligation to clean up after it!

3. No attraction is too sacred to be exempt from a gift shop and souvenier coin machine (or two).

4. Whereever you go in downtown Paris, you'll probably still be able to see the Eiffel Tower.

Next stop....Fes

Posted by remoteman 14:25 Archived in France Comments (0)

A boat, a train, and a detour to Caen

Our time in rural France

The view from the Mont

The view from the Mont

Booking tickets online can be dangerous. You laugh, but it's true. Booking tickets online makes you complacent. You feel comfortable and assured that there is a designated seat waiting for you when you arrive. You let your guard down. Booking tickets online makes you weak and vulnerable. Then, just as you're daydreaming about which book you're going to read first, 'BAM' disaster. For us, disaster was the realisation that we had in fact booked our tickets for the wrong date! We arrived in Portsmouth on the night of March 24, intent on boarding the 8:15PM boat to St. Malo, from where we would take a train to Mont St. Michel. We probably should have known there was something wrong when our boat was not listed on the small departure board in the terminal. Maybe we should have noticed that we were the only people there. Instead, we noticed on our ticket (booked online many moons earlier), that we had arrived in Portsmouth a month too late for our scheduled departure. Not to worry! After an honest and open discussion with the check in staff, we were able to grab a seat on the boat leaving that night to Caen (but hey, at least we were heading to France?!).

The boat was uneventful, and we arrive on French soil early on March 25. With the next train out of Caen in 6 hours, we settled down in the Caen train station for the wait. Caen isn't exactly what I would call eventful, but we passed the time and boarded our train heading west. We arrived in Pontorson (the closest train station to Mont St. Michel) without hassle, and were warmly welcomed by Paul, our host for the next few nights. Paul and his wife Jane run Au Bon Accueil, a cosy B&B 13km from the Mont. A British couple, they told us how they had always loved France, and so they bought the B&B and moved out into the countryside, taking their 7 year old daughter with them. They were amazing hosts, always keen to provide insight or advice on the local area, or just stories about their previous guests. So, after a boat, a train and a detour in Caen, we slept soundly with the silence that only the countryside can bring.

Our morning view

Our morning view

The next morning we awoke ready to explore Mont St. Michel. We hired the bikes from Paul and Jane, and rode off through the onion fields. Traffic consisted of a few tractors, making for a pleasant ride. Mont St. Michel is a beautiful fortified abbey build on an island just off the Norman coast. The abbey itself is dedicated to St. Michael (St. Michel in French), and is perched at the very top of the island overlooking the English Channel. At high tide, the island is completely surrounded by water, and is inaccessible. Or at least it would be, if it weren't for the large causeway linking the island to the mainland. Standing in the abbey admiring the commanding view of the land and sea, you can understand why this walled fortress was able to resist repeated attacks over it's long history. After admiring the views, and dodging the many tourists, we headed back onto the mainland for a delicious galette (you don't eat at the Mont unless you have a spare arm and leg to pay with!), after which, with our stomachs full and our sightseeing quota filled, we hopped back on the bikes and headed home. The rest of the day was mostly spent relaxing, a nice change from our jam packed schedule in London. At night, however, we were told we had to head up to the local pub, The Oystercatcher, for a bite to eat. Run by Kevin, another Englishman (they're everywhere!), we were treated to some fantastic and warm pub service. Although the British may have invented the pub, we had to travel to France to get an authentic pub experience. The wonders of a global world.

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On March 27 we had originally planned to head (back) to Caen to visit the D-Day beaches. However, following the excellent service we had received at Au Bon Accueil, and the rather lackluster impression we had of Caen from our first visit. We instead decided to head to St. Malo, only 15 minutes by train from our area. Like Mont St. Michel, St. Malo was once an island, but the walled city has long since been linked to the mainland. However, once you walk through the walls into the old city, it still feels as though you are out at sea. The city of St. Malo, birthplace of Jacques Cartier (the discoverer of Canada), has a proud history. It was, for a time, independent of France, and was also a well known base for French privateers (read state sanctioned pirates) heading into the English Channel. Apart from the beautiful sea views, and lovely beaches, St. Malo is appealing simply because it is less touristy. Despite the beauty of Mont St. Michel, tourists easily outnumber locals. While St. Malo still receives its fare share of tourism, it has an authentic feel. With some time to kill after exploring the city, we sat down for food before we had to leave for our train. We had been told, by our knowledgeable British 'locals' that the seafood in the area was excellent, so I tried a French favourite of Moules Frites (mussels and chips) with a glass of wine, whilst Elly had a very authentic Croque Monsieur. Both delicious, a fantastic end to the day.

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We left our B&B the next day well rested and refreshed, and ready again for the big smoke. Paul and Jane were quick to remind us that if we had stayed a few more days we would have had many more things to do, and I'm inclined to believe them. Who said the country is boring?!

A few observations from Northern France:

1. There are Brits everywhere!

2. The seafood is to die for.

3. They still have nice beaches, though you might need a wetsuit to get in.

Next stop.....Paris

Posted by remoteman 16:37 Archived in France Comments (0)

London Town

Our London adventures

Old Londinium at her finest

Old Londinium at her finest

Before I start, I should probably apologise for the extensive delay. I guess we've been a bit too busy to be able to sit down and write. But, I digress...

We arrived in London on March 15 after what could only be described as an epic day of travel. Our flight from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi had to detour to Colombo following a medical emergency onboard. Unsurprisingly, our eventual arrival into London was abit later than expected. We rolled into our hostel in King's Cross at around 9pm local time and went straight to sleep. But, I guess that comes with the territory!

Arriving in London from Melbourne is like travelling to a parallel universe. Although the two cities share a common heritage, London possesses a majesty and grandeur with which Melbourne cannot compete. The first thing that strikes you is the buildings. Every second building along the road is old and stately. Even the local bookie is housed in something which would probably qualify for heritage listing back in Australia. But beyond that grand appearance, there is a palpable feeling of history that eminates from the city. Visiting London now, you can still feel the power of what was once a great imperial hub. And speaking on the imperial subject, the eclectic content of Britain's world empire can be felt throughout her capital. Melbourne gives multi-culturalism a good try, but London really takes the cake. On the tube, every group of people seems to be speaking a different language. London truly feels like a global city.

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So, with pleasantries out of the way, we set our minds exploring. Our first morning, as is always the case when you've crossed 11 hours into the past, was used mainly for getting our bearings. After waking to a welcome (and free) hostel breakfast, we delved into the King's Cross area looking for free wi-fi (that's 21st century travelling for you). As luck would have it, we stumbled upon the British Library, only a few blocks down the street. However, instead of hooking up to the free wi-fi, we ended up looking through the library's amazing collection of rare documents. Everyone from Oscar Wilde to Da Vinci, the Magna Carta to maps of Britain was represented across the collection. The section dedicated to The Beatles was particularly engrossing, with original hand written lyrics for songs which later became international hits. An amazing collection, with barely a sign to distinguish it from the rest of the library. After taking a walk around Trafalgar square, we finished our first day in London on the London Eye. A fitting end to the day.

Kew Gardens in bloom

Kew Gardens in bloom

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Our next few days were punctuated by museums and monuments. One of our particular highlights was a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which was an oasis of calm from the bustle of the city. We were particularly lucky to visit in spring when many of the flowers were just beginning to bloom. It made the London weather a little more bearable. I also got a big thrill from the British Museum, and not just because it's free either! The collections are so extensive it would take more than a day to see everything. But I guess that's what happens when the British government goes around nicking precious artifacts from all over the world. On the food front, we had a fine bangers and mash at Mother Mash just off Oxford Circus (well worth a visit!), and we even splurged a bit on afternoon tea in Mayfair (although I hadn't really packed accordingly, and felt a tad under-dressed!). We also got some cheap as curry on Brick Lane, fitting as curry now seems to be a national British dish. To top it all off, we spent our last day sampling some of the local produce in the Borough Market, which is definitely worth a visit. Wild boar sausage for the win!

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We left London March 24 after a thoroughly enjoyable stay, thanks in no small part to my good friends in London and surrounds (you know who you are! It was great to catch up!). I felt as though I only got a slight taste of the city. I guess I'll have to be back.

A few observations from London:

1. Traffic is horrendous, but the tube is amazing!

2. 'Hiya' is a legitimate greeting.

3. Every second store is a chain! Pret-a-manger, Caffe Nero, Pizza Express, Costa Coffee...the list goes on.

4. Direct sunlight is almost as valuable as gold.

Next stop....Northern France

Posted by remoteman 17:15 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (1)

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