Frankreich – Paris – Paläste

Today in Paris I opted to venture out largely on my own. Most of my fellow travelers had early flights back, and the few who did not decided they’d rather sleep in than join me for a full day of sightseeing. But Paris has a lot to see, so I decided to wake up early. Today I planned to hit two of the big sights in Paris – Versailles and the Louvre.

With no companions to travel with, I opted to take the shuttle provided by our hostel to get to Versailles. There may have been a slightly cheaper way to travel there, but given the convenience of the service I was fine with paying the small fee, especially considering that my EU-residency and age get me into the palace for free. We rode for about an hour in near silence – I took the time to listen to some audioguides for the sights I had seen over the past two days. We got to the palace and our driver explained the pickup time to us, and insisted on taking the following awkward picture of us:

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The three strangers I rode in a van with. That was the happiest the girl next to me looked in any of them.

We ran to the relatively short entry line and before long we were inside the palace. The grounds are massive, and without my audioguide I could see how easy it would be to get lost. Once you are inside the route is pretty well marked and restricted, but finding where to start took me a little while.

The Versailles Palace is the definition of luxury and opulence. Louis XIV wanted to consolidate power by showing his great wealth and status, attempting to elevate himself to godlike status. He branded himself the Sun-King, and the theme echoes throughout the decoration all around the Palace. The clock shown here is decorated like the sun, as are the gilded gates. I have to be choosy with what I show you here, lest this blog post go on forever. The palace was beautiful – I recommend it if you have a chance to visit Paris.

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The center of the palace was an old hunting lodge, later expanded with the wings shown here.
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The Palace chapel, where Louis sat in the balcony lording over his nobility.
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Louis fancied himself as a Roman emperor

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A bust of the king
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Me with all my friends in my future home 😀

I had to be pretty careful when taking pictures, as the walk-able areas were packed with tourists. Not to stereotype here, but I noticed a majority of the palace’s visitors were Asian. I found it curious that they made up the bulk of the visitors, but then again none of my American friends wanted to come with me to the palace, so maybe that says something.

Gold leaf seemed to line every nook and cranny, Fine art pieces laid out a theme for each room, usually with mythical or classical symbolism. War, diplomacy, plenty; each room had a purpose and a carefully crafted theme designed to send a clear message to anyone Louis was hosting.

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One of the “madam’s chambers” for a lady of the court. Someone liked music.
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The world-famous hall of mirrors.

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I ended up taking two “laps” of the main visitor route. I used the first one to listen to my audio-guide, and spent a little more time appreciating details the second time around. When I stepped outside back into the courtyard for the second time I noticed the entry line was at least 3-4x as long, which made me glad I had decided to aim for morning. Satisfied with the decadent interior, I turned towards the vast expanse of gardens behind the palace and went for a stroll. Louis used these gardens much like his palace, as a show of wealth and abundance as he entertained guests.

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The view of the palace from a large gathering area. The Hall of Mirrors lies centered on the second floor.
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The vast gardens seem to stretch forever
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The Colonnade is reminiscent of Roman structures

The garden’s centerpiece was a large fountain of Apollo. It’s fitting that the king chose the sun god as his depiction of himself, consistent with the rest of the imagery in the palace. Unfortunately, none of the fountains were running, and most of the plants were not in bloom, but nonetheless I was able to get a sense of what it must have been like as a hopeful noble, jockeying for favor in court and trading gossip. The gardens featured lots of carefully crafted Roman imitations – I suppose the king wanted to draw on the glory of Rome. After some exploration I made my way back to meet my ride, and around lunchtime I was headed back towards the hostel.

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The Fountain of Apollo, at the base of the hill, faces the palace

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At the hostel, I quickly assessed how much time I had before my train and decided a trip to the Louvre would not be a waste. Conveniently, I was near a metro stop on one line (7) that would take me to both the Louvre and to my train station when it was time for me to leave.

The Louvre was also a former palace, and was converted to a museum due to the French revolution. I had heard it was one of the largest art museums in the world, but seeing the wings of the palace sprawled before me was impressive, even if I had just come from Versailles. The Louvre is set up as 3 distinct wings, each of which could take me more time than I had. So without skipping a beat I set out for the Denon wing.

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The entrances to the wings of the museum are underground, lit by sunlight
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The crown jewels of France – pictured here, the Regent Diamond, at 140 Karats it is worth approximately $60,000,000
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Arguably the most famous classical Greek statue, the “Venus de Milo”

I was hurried, but managed to stop and appreciate some of the museum’s most famous works. I started with a tour of classical Greek sculpture, worked my way through Italian Renaissance, and also got a sampling of important French pieces. I won’t include all of the pictures here, most of the famous art has been photographed far better than I’d be able to capture.

I did go see the Mona Lisa, though I was more interested in the massive crowd of visitors around it than the piece itself. I feel like sometimes when something becomes sufficiently famous people want to go see it regardless of whether they appreciate it much. Seeing the painting, it was clearly a good work, but I’m not convinced it deserves all of the hype it gets.

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Her eyes follow you. Not pictured – hundreds of confused tourists
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“Lady Liberty” raises the French flag in this depiction of the Revolution.
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The oldest piece at the Louvre – estimated to be 9000 years old!

With that mentality, I left Denon and headed over to see some near-eastern art. It was far less crowded, and it was refreshing to see such an extensive collection of non-European pieces. By this point though, I was pretty tired, so I left a bit earlier than I needed to to wait for my train at the station, where I caught my high-speed return to Stuttgart and some needed rest.

Until next time – best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Frankreich – Paris – Kunst und Wahrzeichen

On Saturday, most folks had gotten a little more sleep and so we were up early enough to take advantage of the cheap continental breakfast available at our hostel. We ate a mixture of ham, cheese, and baguettes before hopping back on the metro back towards downtown. Today, our first stop was Musée d’Orsay.

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The central hall of the museum

Musée d’Orsay was converted from an old train station. The main gallery opens up with a sweeping arched roof like you’d expect from a train station nowadays. Currently, the main hall exhibits lots of beautiful sculptures, influenced primarily from the classic Greco-roman style. Musée d’Orsay is known for hosting more contemporary pieces, and here we observed Monet, Van Gogh, lots of impressionism, and other lesser-known artists. I enjoy seeing art depicting more everyday subjects – it gets a bit similar seeing just rulers and religious figures in many of the museums. Here there were depictions of everyday scenes, portraits, landscapes, and abstract subjects. I didn’t take a ton of pictures but opted just to snap some mementos of notable favorites of mine.

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We left the museum in search of a late lunch. Someone had researched a well-reviewed place on the way towards our next destination, so we walked there. Unfortunately by the time we arrived the kitchen was closed, so we searched the area looking to improvise. We settled on a pizza place and were delighted to discover a little old Italian woman was there to advise us and prepare authentic Italian pizza for us. We watched as she tossed the dough and went through the whole baking process. The restaurant also had an adorable little dog at the entrance, ready to greet customers. A few times during our meal, someone would stop in seemingly just to say hello to the dog – I suspect he has a lot of local friends.

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Our travel group in the Paris metro

We paid and left the restaurant, full, warm, and happy. We continued our journey towards the Eiffel Tower, our next destination. We arrived at the far end of the park with a view of the tower and slowly made our way towards it, grabbing pictures and doing some people-watching as we went. By the time we got to the tower base, military-looking people were clearing crowds away from the tower. I suspect there was some sort of terror threat. We circled the tower, being sure to steer away from the crowds. Due to the heavy guard presence we decided not to linger at the Eiffel Tower, though it was cool to see up-close. As we were leaving one guy decided he wanted to bet 50EUR against a street gambler, but we pulled him away before he could get scammed.

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Our group at the Eiffel Tower

(We later found out there  was rioting in Paris over the alleged police mistreatment of a black man).

We slid into a cafe nearby to warm up. I had some tasty hot chocolate – it was nice to get out of the cold for a few minutes. The weather forecast had said Paris would be around 45 deg F this weekend, but it had been hovering closer to 30. Nonetheless, we pressed on as we had one more sight we wanted to see, the Arc de Triomf. I hadn’t realized the landmark stood in the middle of a wide traffic circle, so when we arrived I was a little confused as to how we would get there. We stumbled upon the tunnel to go below the wide street and made for the entrance. We saw the entry fee was 12 Euros and opted not to go up, so we continued around the other side for more views. We got lucky and shortly after we emerged on the other side, we were treated to a view of the Eiffel Tower lit up and glistening in the background. We took in our fill of arch views, then made for the hostel as everyone was getting tired again – we had done a lot more walking today than yesterday.  

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The Arc de Triomf
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The Tower’s light show

We arrived at the hostel around 8:30PM. Everyone wanted a quiet night inside but I was not yet ready to call it a night, so I took a bit to recharge and headed back out around 9PM on my own to visit Sacré-Cœur. After another short metro ride I arrived at the hill where the basilica stands. There is a funicular available to go up the hill but I opted to take the ~250 steps uphill instead, and while I did rush the stairs I’m sorry to report I was a little winded upon reaching the top. I took a minute to catch my breath and take in the view from the hilltop, seeing Paris sprawled out before me.

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My view from the hilltop
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The Basilica stands tall over the city

Above me, the basilica loomed high with lofty domes. I entered the church to learn that a worship service has been going on there continuously for over 125 years, so I didn’t linger long or gawk. I stood in the ambiance to admire the interior while singing took place, and found some quiet serenity in taking it all in. After a short pause, I left the church and returned to the entrance, where a few street performers were playing music and lots of people hung out drinking. I didn’t stay too long before I made my way down the steps again, and returned home to the hostel for an early bedtime. Tomorrow I had an even earlier wake-up planned. Despite an early evening train to catch I was determined to fit as much in as possible in my last day in Paris. More on that later. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

 Ben

Frankreich – Paris – Knochen und Kirche

Bonjour! Today I am writing aboard the French high-speed train, the TGV. This past weekend I joined a large group bound for Paris. The group traveled there for an EDM concert I was not interested in, but I decided it was fitting that I venture to the city of love right around Valentine’s day.

We picked a short list of the top sights we wanted to see and went about tackling them. The group went to their concert on Thursday night when we arrived. Consequently, we got off to a later start than I’d have liked on Friday. Around 10:30AM, the guys were trying to recover from the night before with lots of coffee at a local cafe. We hopped on the Metro and rode it downtown towards our first destination – the Catacombs of Paris. First however, people wanted to get a little food in them, so we dropped into a place near the entrance. I ordered a nicely toasted flatbread featuring ham, cheese, and egg. Naturally people tried the crepes, and several ordered even more coffee. One of the guys said he knew a little French, but consequently failed to be able to order much of anything when he said he’d keep the French menu. The waiter had a good laugh and we all poked fun, but we were mindful that none of us could do any better.

We left the restaurant and made for the catacombs, or rather, the line to enter the catacombs. They control how many visitors are allowed down at once, and the result is a long line to get in. It wasn’t so terribly long in winter but I could imagine a much more lengthy wait in the summer time. We stood in line for about 2 hours, laughing and joking about silly things. About 1.5 hours into our wait we learned there was an American right behind us who worked at Disney in Orlando and had just been to Disneyland Paris. Someone in our group got pretty chatty with her and her French friend, only to later learn they were 19 and 17. Ouch. We gave him a lot of crap for that one.

Eventually our cold wait came to an end and we were welcomed to step down below the streets of Paris into the catacombs. A long spiral descent brought us to a well-lit introductory series of rooms which had some plaques providing geological and historical context, but nothing interesting on display. These rooms led off into a dark tunnel. As soon as we stepped through that tunnel the atmosphere and mood seemed to change. We were led into dimly lit corridors made of carved stone, a dramatic contrast to the brightly lit whitewashed rooms we had exited. A few more plaques described the methods of construction and the tunnels’ original purpose. While the underground labyrinth was neat, the network of tunnels was not what brought us here. We snaked our way through them until we reached the first of the exciting rooms – one of the mass graves.

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With love, from Paris

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The catacombs were re-purposed as land around Paris became scarce. With an ever-increasing demand for burials, cemeteries around the city were filling up, and the space was badly needed for further development. Initially, graves were dug up and bones were just strewn carelessly underground in the network of tunnels. As the underground burial sites became increasingly popular for visitors, efforts were made to clean up the remains and create displays with them. We walked through hundreds of years’ of remains, dotted with the occasional sign commemorating events where people had died – battles, pandemics (epidemics?), or other disasters. Someone in the group mentioned that 6,000,000 were buried in the catacombs altogether, although only a portion of the tunnel network is open to visitors. Some people in our group did not react well to seeing all the remains up-close. One guy almost had to be escorted outside (and had someone there comforting him after he’d gotten upset), and a trainee’s girlfriend who had just flown over from the US was silent and wouldn’t say much of anything until she bought some sage to burn to “ward off evil spirits”. I did not get a bad vibe at all from the catacombs. Maybe it’s just because I am not very superstitious but I dd not feel disturbed or upset at seeing the remains at all. These people had died over the course of hundreds of years due to all sorts of different causes – death in these cases is unfortunate but I took it more as a sign of our inevitable mortality. I felt very differently than I had at Auschwitz just a week before.

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Religious patterns can be found everywhere
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The piles stretch a ways back, as you can see from above here
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A typical hallway in the catacombs

We finished winding through the chambers and returned to street level. Some folks dipped into the gift shop and we planned a route to the next destination – Notre Dame cathedral. After another short subway ride, we emerged on a small island right in the heart of Paris, in the middle of the Seine. Notre Dame stands where an old Roman pagan temple once stood – and it is an instantly recongizable church. With twin towers, large stained glass windows, flying buttresses, gargoyles, and high pointed arches, Notre Dame may be the best example of Gothic architecture I have seen yet. We took a little time to admire the front fascade, then hopped in a short line to enter the cathedral.

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Notre Dame’s front facade
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“Our Lady” Stands sentinel over the church

Inside, we were greeted by a cavernous space – a huge nave bathed in colored lights from the windows high up on the sides of the church. The church was a masterwork of art and engineering – being one of the earliest Gothic churches that was this ambitious. The building took over 200 years to erect. We made our way around the perimeter of the cross-shaped building, taking in the sights and ambiance of the structure. After a long leisurely walk through the cathedral, we stepped outside and circled the structure to admire all of the details. Gargoyles doubling as rain-spouts look down on you as you walk by, and pointed spires stand sentinel over Paris. Notre Dame is an icon of the city, and one I was very glad to see.

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The long, high nave roof

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A medley of color casts a glow on the church floor

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Massive stained glass ornaments the church walls
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Gargoyles loom over the streets

Leaving the cathedral, we crossed over the Seine and headed for the Latin district, named for the preferred language of intellectuals hundreds of years ago. Here, new ideas were always being challenged and revolutions were born. We found a spot for dinner right along the river and headed inside. The restaurant was perhaps a little touristy but I was able to have some delicious duck breast and we enjoyed joking around with our server. We ate early by French standards and so had the restaurant pretty much to ourselves until the end of the meal, when tables around us started to fill up.

By the time we finished dinner most of our group was pretty tired. Everyone was worn out from the wait at the catacombs, and not everyone had had a full night’s sleep like I had. We made our way back to the hostel and had a (relatively) calm night, with people engaging in moderate drinking and only a few people staying up past 1AM. I didn’t drink at all and got to sleep just after midnight, I figured we had a big day tomorrow and wanted to be ready for tomorrow’s adventure – more on that later. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Frankreich – Straßburg

We headed to France today, but only just. Strasbourg is a town right on the border between France and Germany, making it a perfect quick day-trip for a few of us to check out. We got off to a later start than I’d have liked, but thankfully the city is only about 1.5 hours from us so we arrived shortly before noon. We parked near the city center, just a short walk from the main cathedral, “Our Lady of Strasbourg”. The church was not yet open for visitors so we circled the building, grabbed some pictures, and went exploring through the city streets.

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Our first peek at the cathedral amid a busy street

Everything there is densely packed, but after getting lost in a few narrow alleyways we found a plaza housing some beautiful old-style buildings. Steep roofs and wooden frames with colorful paint give the town a fairy-tale feel. We found some neat art installations at the plaza, with children running around, playing and having fun in the open square. When you visit a place like this it’s easy to forget that people actually live here; seeing the children playing rather than staring at the beautiful scenery was a little surreal until I remembered that.

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The quiet plaza we briefly sunbathed in

 

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A “broken record” at the plaza

We stopped in for lunch at a place which served Flammkuchen, as we had been told to try it here. Flammkuchen is similar to pizza if it were served on very flat bread, with less sauce and some interesting toppings. We had some normal ingredients like bacon and mushroom, but also goat cheese, honey, and cucumbers. The food tasted great and the price was very reasonable. We ate our fill and thought we had finished the meal when the waitress brought out a second round of platters, explaining to us that we had only been served half of our food. Despite our claims that we were full just seconds prior, we had no trouble finishing the second round of Flammkuchen and left the restaurant warm and happy.

After lunch, we circled back towards the now-open cathedral and toured the inside. One of the guys with us had never seen a major church before and was blown away by the scale of it all. Beautiful stained glass bathed the main corridor in a medley of colors, and Gothic decorations lined the walls in an imposing fashion. We made our rounds through the church and stepped outside to wait in line to visit the roof. After a long narrow climb we were treated to awesome views overlooking the city. From our vantage point we could make out the sprawling expanse of religious, residential, and commercial buildings and the surrounding countryside.

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Our group dwarfed by the cathedral
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Intricate mason-work in high-Gothic style

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An astronomical clock inside the cathedral
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The main square from above
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Sun-soaked Strasburg on a cold day
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Climbing down from the roof

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We made our way down to ground level, then ducked into a small cafe to grab some Macaroons. I had never had the small pastries before and I was not disappointed. While they were a little expensive, the small treats tasted great, and featured a small gelato filling. The weather was cold for frozen treats, but we ignored the temperature as we enjoyed our dessert. I had vanilla, pistachio, and hazelnut. Surprisingly, the vanilla was my favorite; I thought the unusual flavors would appeal to me more, but the strong vanilla flavor couldn’t be beat.

After dessert, we wandered around some old streets for awhile before finding our car again. We drove along the river on a makeshift “river cruise”. We saw tons of bridges over the Rhine river, including a nicely decorated church sitting right in the middle of the river. We parked near some official-looking buildings and walked through some gardens. We didn’t spend a ton of time here – people wanted to head home in time to celebrate one other trainee’s birthday a few days early. Someone let slip that my birthday had happened on this past Thursday, so I was dragged out to join in on the celebrations in Stuttgart.

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I enjoyed my brief stint in France, and may add more towns to my wishlist for future trips. I realize that Strasburg has a very German feel to it; to experience more of France would require me to venture further past the border. Perhaps I’ll make that happen. Until then..

Best wishes and safe travels everyone!

– Ben