Day 1 - Sunday December 30, 2007
Our first stop upon arriving in Paris was to check out the Ile St. Louis, a tiny little island in the heart of Paris. It's a quaint, almost "village-within-a-city" away from the crowds and chaos of the main parts of the city. Actually, it made sense to go out there, seeing as how I had booked a hotel in the area. Only problem is, it turns out those crazy Parisians are as good (or as bad, depending on how you look at it) marketers as any US company. And although I had booked a hotel called Hotel Saint Louis, in fact, it was the Hotel Saint Louis in Vincennes (on the outskirts of Paris) and not the Hotel Saint Louis on the Ile. Saint Louis. Lesson learned: Check the address more carefully. But at least we got to check out the Brasserie Isle St. Louis, a very cool little restaurant set amid a lot of cool little stores and restaurants on the Isle.
We then headed over to our REAL hotel in Vincennes (about a 30 minute subway ride from the heart of downtown). To its credit, the hotel was fairly nice, though a bit small. However, in the grand scheme of European hotel sizes, the place was actually fairly roomy. Having expended all of our energy the first day, just traveling, we decided to collapse on our bed and take a fresh look at Paris the next day...
Day 2 - Monday December 31, 2007
Waking up early, my girlfriend and I decided to make our obligatory first stop at the one and only Eiffel Tower. After all, why go to Paris if you're not going to see this semi-phallic tourist magnet. To be perfectly honest, in spite of my cynicism for tourist traps such as this, the Eiffel Tower truly is breathtaking. Rising magnificently over the rest of the city, the tower...err...towers over the surrounding structures in the area. Although Paris does in fact have other large buildings in the city, it's as if Paris decided to created a "no skyscraper zone" within a square mile of this beautiful structure. And that's what makes it truly stand out. I can't help but think that if the Eiffel Tower were in some US city like NYC, it would be nestled in between the Citibank/TD Ameritrade Tower and the GE/Walmart/ExxonMobil Building.
There are plenty of great picture taking spots, both from far away, as well as directly underneath the tower. And if you can fight through the throngs of people trying to sell you Eiffel Tower knick-knacks, you can walk from a vantage point almost a half-mile away, all the way to the tower itself. The line to go up the tower was quite ridiculous, so we availed ourselves with taking pics underneath the main structure and headed to our next location, the Tomb of Napoleon.
Now this was definitely a highlight of the trip. Especially for me, given my fascination with a man who somehow conquered nearly all of Europe in spite of being barely over 5 feet tall, and even had a complex named after him. The building that houses the tomb itself is quite ornate, with a gilded gold dome room that screams excess. Of course, if you can somehow restore a country's national pride and faith in its military within the span of a few decades, I figure you're allowed to be a bit extravagant in final resting places. The inside of the tomb feels more like a museum than anything else, and there is a helpful audio walking tour in a variety of different languages to choose from. The first level consists of many of Napoleon's relatives, as well as some of his more famous military advisors. But the main event is the giant sarcophagus in the middle of the ground floor, that houses the famous leader. It is apparently a coffin within a coffin within a coffin X 5. At least, that's what the audio tour said. And the outer coffin is an enormous marble coffin that had to be at least 20 feet by 10 feet in size. Another ostentacious design touch? Perhaps. But the man surely deserved it.
Day 3 - Tuesday January 1, 2008
Notre Dame Cathedral might be the most amazing structure in all of Paris. Not simply because of its sheer size given the period in which it was built. But more for the level of detail of the relief carvings in its exterior, the immense stained glass windows, and the eerie gothic architecture that permeates the place. It is also the first cathedral I've ever been to with a line snaking out the door and around the corner. No kidding, it took almost 15 minutes of waiting in line just to walk in. But the wait is well worth it. The place is just an incredible, incredible artifact of the past. When I enter really old buildings, I sometimes like to imagine what it was like to actually be in that structure back when it was new. Sometimes, it doesn't work out so well. Like the time I stayed at a hotel in San Francisco that was built way back in 1910. But when I did this in the Cathedral, it literally gave me chills. The sense of history and permanence that emanates through the walls is palpable and it really made me realize just how old these cities are. Compared to Europe, the US is practically a baby.
We followed our visit to Notre Dame by heading over to the Arc de Triomphe. Another "postcard landmark" of Paris, to be sure. But yet another place that was well worth visiting. The Arc sits in the center of where seven or eight different streets converge into the mother of all traffic roundabouts. If there was any doubt about the competency/craziness of Parisian drivers, one look at how they navigate this circular deathtrap should clear up any confusion. The view from the top of the Arc is quite good. Not only do you get to see the Eiffel Tower in the distance (on a clear day), but seeing the 8 different streets all end right at the Arc almost makes it feel like you're right in the center of the city.
Day 4 - Wednesday January 2, 2008
Given that we were in among the most romantic and historic of European cities, we decided to cap off our trip in style. By going to...Disneyland Paris. Yes, it's true. But in spite of my initial reservations to spending a day by seeing Mickey, Goofy, and the gang, I had quite a fun time. And I learned a few things as well.
1) Space Mountain in Paris has loops!
2) A Haunted Mansion is apparently called a Phantom Manor in France.
3) Donald Duck going nuts in French = Hilarity x 10
Luckily, the park wasn't too crowded, though that was likely in part due to the somewhat chilly weather conditions of the day. And we did get there right as the park opened. All in all, the theme park was a fun diversion for the day, and it was nice to see all the familiar faces that I grew up with, albeit with unfamiliar voices. And we did get to take a picture with French Santa Claus!
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