2013: Paris

Eiffel Tower

Apr. 25


I hadn't slept too well; it wasn't so much jet lag as that our host's bed was hard as a rock. Regardless, I was ready to get going. Our first full day in Paris was going to be good weather again, so we decided to head immediately for the big kahuna -- the Eiffel Tower. First, though, we enjoyed cups of tea with fresh croissants Mike fetched from a bakery right downstairs. Heaven!

The transportation system in Paris is a dizzying combination of buses, subways, and trains that overlap in a seemingly nonsensical patchwork. The area around Notre Dame has multiple subway and train stops, so all we had to do was figure out which line(s) and which stop(s). Fortunately our first target only required us to take a single RER line (the local train) directly to our destination. Mike had the foresight to prepare us for ticket-buying; from our internet research, we knew that (a) most stations have no manned ticket booths, and (b) ticket machines only take chip-and-pin credit cards or euro coins. So last night Mike made sure to get plenty of coins in change from our local market when we did our grocery shopping. And we're not talking small change here -- they use one- and two-euro coins instead of paper bills like the USA. More durable and cheaper for the government, but a bit saggy in the pockets.

We struggled through the underground maze, the unfamiliar place-names and symbols and currency, and boarded a train (we hoped) going in the right direction. One hurdle down. Or so we thought. One stop later, a voice came over the train intercom, speaking French, of course. Some people in our car got up and started to leave. Another passenger saw our puzzled expressions and took pity on us, explaining in English that there might be a problem with the train and we may need to exit, but first to wait a minute, as sometimes it's a false alarm. About two minutes later, the voice spoke again, and our benefactor told us, yes, this time they mean it, we must all get off the train. Up with the hurdle!

We waited dumbly on the platform, rubes who had no idea how long we might be there. Fortunately they fixed the problem in about ten minutes, and we were able to reboard the train and complete our trip. Our trip of only ONE MORE STOP. <eyeroll>

First look. Construction. Line up to go up.

When we surfaced, we were disoriented; but fortunately the Seine was nearby as a directional anchor point. A right turn at the river, and whoa! There it was, in our faces! Even though you know exactly what to expect, it's still quite the experience to round a corner and suddenly see that familiar silhouette looming over you.

We were there early, and it looked as if we should have no trouble getting in. We waited in line about an hour before they opened. That gave us plenty of time to watch the construction and refurbishment effort going on, with massive cables and steel beams moving up and down in the tower's center. This construction theme would follow us around to multiple landmarks.

The Eiffel Tower has two different sets of elevators. There are bottom-level elevators located in two of the legs that support the tower; these move upward diagonally, following the angle of the legs, and get you up to the first viewing deck about two stories up. We were still in line underneath a leg when the first carload went up, so we were able to see the elevator's track. I was reminded of the "inclinators" on the interior of the pyramid-shaped Las Vegas Luxor hotel. Of course, these elevators are much older, and therefore a more impressive engineering feat for their time.

Soon it was our turn, and we packed in with 48 other tourists. There were signs everywhere warning of pickpockets. I kept one hand firmly on my camera strap and the other clutching my inside-the-waistband money belt. Mike seemed unconcerned and confident that his velcro pockets would be secure. When we got to the first level, we beelined directly for the high-speed elevators to the second level; this is where the traffic jam occurs. Plenty of time later to take in the view from the first level. Sure enough, it wasn't yet very crowded, so we had no trouble boarding.

Trocadéro and Palais de Chaillot. Champ de Mars.

We walked the circumference of the tower and took in the impressive view, unfortunately undermined by the thick haze in the air. To the north, the nearby Seine and the Jardins du Trocadéro across the river were clear enough, but the distant La Défense (Paris' downtown skyscraper district) was brownish and fuzzy. Looking south, even the far edges of the Champ de Mars (the greenspace at the very feet of the tower) were indistinct.

The smoggy east. Arc de Triomphe.

To the east the smog was even worse because of sun reflection. Just like in New York City, if you're going up high for the view, better go the day after a good rain. At least we could see the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées fairly well, although my lens wasn't powerful enough to bring it in very close. I was struck by how flat and spread-out Paris is; afterwards I would learn that it's due to long-standing height restrictions on the buildings (except in the Défense area).

We were treated to one fairly special sight, and I almost didn't notice it. The early morning sun was casting a giant shadow of the tower diagonally across the Seine far below us, and once I saw it I snapped uncontrollably. I even stopped other tourists with cameras to point it out to them, which involved much grunting and gesturing to surmount the language barriers!

Also special, and totally worth the trip, were the many glorious views of the Seine below. Even the haze couldn't ruin THAT.

An hour or so later, the top level started to get crowded and we'd shot enough photos for a ten-pound coffee-table book, so we headed back to the elevators and went down to the first level. A few more snaps and a little exploring later, we were ready to say goodbye to the classic French symbol.

Lots and lotsa tourists. Smoggy Défense in the distance. Neckache! Paris at your feet. Mangles was here.

After coming back down to earth, we crossed the bridge to the Trocadéro and looked around. Unfortunately the fountains weren't running, so it wasn't very photogenic. The Palais de Chaillot there contains a couple of museums, but I was tired and hungry so we started looking for food, which seemed in short supply nearby. We ended up walking back toward our train stop where there was more civilization, and we landed at an outdoor cafe that served pizza. The pizza was so-so, but sitting outdoors (or just sitting anywhere) was much appreciated. Here I had my first encounter with a French public toilet. The downstairs bathroom had two free stalls -- for which there was a line -- and one pay stall, which was empty. (I had to be educated on this by one of the other women standing in line, after I'd already been waiting a few minutes and was getting fidgety.) Screw it, I paid the freight. My time and my bladder are worth half a euro.

After lunch, we saw a bank just up the street and went in search of an ATM to get more cash; bathroom breaks might start to add up. While doing that we lucked into an important find: a manned Métro station with one of the rare machines that would take paper bills and dispense the 10-ticket books called carnets. We stocked up on 40 tickets (20 rides for each of us). Looks like we might just succeed at stumbling our way through Paris!

We took a final slow stroll along the Seine to a pleasant park strip across the way from the tower. Naturally we had to take just a FEW more pictures while I rested on the grass. I got my selection for this page down to four. I don't care if they all look alike, I couldn't choose.

One attraction a day was probably going to be it for me. We found our way home on the train and I took a nice rest for the afternoon.

After I had recharged somewhat, I considered the next day's activity. It seemed prudent to hit another biggee, the Louvre, first thing tomorrow morning. I decided to book a guided tour through a service with good internet reviews. I'm usually not a fan of tours, but I hoped in this case it would help us hit the highlights of the giant museum without too much wasted energy.

That evening we perused the outdoor menus of several restaurants within two blocks of our apartment. I wanted to be really conservative about food to limit the risk to my picky digestive system. We finally chose a nearby place, where I ordered a safe-sounding chicken dish. The meal turned out to be not only safe but quite delicious. The café was cozy and informal, and the servers were pleasant and not at all rude -- French stereotypes to the contrary. I had read on the internet that attempting to speak a little French, even badly, would go a long way to soften the "ugly American" image, and it seemed to work. I'm glad I studied!