Les Misérables

Trip Start Sep 07, 2010
Trip End Aug 21, 2011

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Flag of France  , Île-de-France,
Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The last stop on Amy's European venture was to Paris, The City of Lights. Neither of us had been there before so it was going to be a new experience all-round.  We arrived in early morning hours to St. Pancras International station so that the Eurostar could whisk us off to France for four days (however, we nearly missed the Eurostar).

The Eurostar was a cushy and quick ride through the channel tunnel straight to Paris.  Amy and I had read up about the rampant amount of thievery that takes place in Paris, especially against tourists, so we were prepared to keep everything well guarded and safe.  We were glad that we’d read up on the issue because, as soon as we arrived at Paris’ beautiful Gare du Nord station (built in the mid-1800s), someone tried to sell us fake Metro tickets.  When we walked outside the station, someone hassled us to buy some stupid magazine, and, when we said no, they wouldn’t leave us alone.  Little did we know that this was just the beginning of our troubles.  After about 10 minutes on French soil, Amy looks at me and flatly pleads, "Can we go back to London now?"

We walked straight to our hostel which was thankfully close to the Gare du Nord; however, we couldn’t check in until later in the day so they told us we could put our bags in their storage room.  Well, the storage room was overflowing with luggage and the door wouldn’t even shut.  Also, the storage room was mere steps from the main entrance, and, since the hostel doubled as a pub/restaurant, we weren’t going to take any chances with our belongings.  We decided we’d just haul our luggage around for a few hours, and then lock it all up when we could actually check in.

We purchased real Metro passes and rode the Paris Metro over to the Arc de Triomphe.  The Metro is a bit of a mess, to say the least.  Some trains have doors that open automatically, others have these strange handles that you pull up on that whips the spring-loaded doors open.  Either way, the whole place smelled like a poorly kept bathroom.  Not just some of the stations, all of them smelled like that.  We finally managed to get a breath of fresh air when we arrived at the Arc de Triomphe. 

The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned in 1808 by Napoleon and inaugurated in 1836 and has since been the site of many victory demonstrations since it’s construction such as after WWI and WWII.  Also, it’s located in the center of a massive roundabout where 12 roads converge.  Underneath the arc is a “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” along with a continuously burning eternal flame.  Of course, to reach the actual arc, some tourists attempted to dart across the extremely busy roundabout to the center where the arc lies.  However, there is a clearly labeled pedestrian tunnel that runs underneath the roundabout that allows fast and safe travel to the foot of the arc.  This was also the only time that Amy and I had a picture taken together while in Paris.  An elderly couple from California who had a camera just as nice as mine wanted their picture taken, and, in return, they offered to take our picture as well.

Since we were already located on the proper Metro line, we decided we’d wander around La Defense before heading back to the hostel.  La Defense is the most modern part of Paris and was built purposely as an economic center for Paris.  In fact, it is the largest of its kind in Europe.  The main area is lined with high-rises (including the tallest building in France) with the large Grande Arche at the end, a type of 20th century Arc de Triomphe.

Afterwards, we returned to the hostel and dropped our things off in a safely locked cage underneath the beds.  We then decided to venture out to “butte Montmartre,” the highest natural point of the city.  Adorning the top of this hill is the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, a large white church completed in 1919.  Amy and I, of course, weren’t very lucky in our excursion again.  As we were taking pictures of the basilica at the foot of the hill, a group of African men approached us (and everyone else there) and attempted to die some sort of colorful string to our fingers.  They did so forcefully, even grabbing at Amy’s hands.  We told them to leave us alone, and their reply, in a thick African accent, was “You came here.  If you want us to leave you alone, you should leave” which doesn’t make much sense any way you look at it.

We continued up the stairs to the top of the hill, but along the way we were hassled by people who wanted to sell dinky trinkets or bottles of water.  At the top of the hill we encountered my favorite group of scammers: the fake deaf Romanian gypsies.  There they were in all their glory, and it wouldn’t be the last time we’d see them either. We could never be that lucky.  We watched as they preyed on the helpless people leaving the church, taking advantage of people’s kindness.  They would pretend to be deaf and paw with puppy dog eyes at peoples’ hands and shoulders holding a clipboard.  I believe what you were supposed to do is sign the petition and donate some kind of money to them.  Either that or while your hands were busy holding a clipboard and signing they could take the opportunity to pickpocket you.  I will say that I saw one of the gypsies making the motion of swiping a credit card to one person who she’d stopped (you know, because they’re “deaf” and all).  Surely, no one gives credit card details to these people, but you never know.  Meanwhile, you can catch these gypsies chatting away amongst themselves and answering their cell phones with great ease. 

Still, the view from the top of butte Montmartre wasn’t spoiled by all the thieves present.  It was possible to see far and wide over Paris’s low-rise cityscape.  As we descended butte Montmartre, we had to deal with the African once again, but this time we just shoved our hands in our pockets and completely ignored them while they pawed at Amy again!  We think the trick here was to tie this string to your finger and then charge you somehow for it (kinda like those people who wash your windshield at stop lights when after being told not to do so).

After a long day, we made our last stop at Tour Maine-Montparnasse, formerly the tallest building in France (topping out at 59 floors) until it was overtaken by a building in La Defense just this year.  Furthermore, after its completely in 1972, the building of skyscrapers was banned in the center of the city, many people considering them out of place.  Since Tour Maine-Montparnasse is the only skyscraper in the city, it is most certainly out of place.  However, there is an observation deck on the top of it which means that the best views can be had from this hated building and at a price much cheaper than the Eiffel Tower.  We relaxed our feet at the top of the tower and watched the sun set over Paris before returning to our hostel for the night.

On our first day in Paris, we were less than impressed.  We much preferred London.  For some reason, I had always put London and Paris on the same level (even before I’d been to either), but, after being in Paris, it’s clear that London is significantly larger metropolis (and a safer one at that).  However, we still have much more to see in Paris in the coming days so maybe we will change our minds.

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