The London Eye was built as a celebration for the millennium, to round out the other constructions such as the Tate Modern Museum and the millennium bridge (pedestrian only) that crosses the Thames. Stan and I found this amusing, as in America our biggest feat at the millennium was ensuring the nations’ computers did not crash with Y2K bugs. Meanwhile, London was looking forward. City planners had only intended the Eye to be there during the millennium celebrations but as plans were made to remove it, Londoners protested. Keep the Eye! Today it is sponsored by British Airways, and the operation is smooth and so very 21st century.
With a tip from the concierge to be there before the Eye opened, Stan and I walked the block to ride the Eye. This was after a late, late night of working online and calling students from my cell phone (the 5 hour difference means I can get a day of sightseeing in and still call students late into the night). We arrive at the Eye before it opens and the line was nothing, which was marvelous, considering the lines we saw the afternoon before. It pays to go early. Thirty pods take visitors around the loop in a quiet, 30 minute, 21st century ride. I don’t know what it is about seeing a city from the air, but seeing London’s sites from above was a wonderful way to take in the House of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the Thames, the Gherkin, and Buckingham Palace.
After we disembark, I wander around for about 15 minutes looking for a restroom, and see a sign that says “Private Rides on the London Eye — £440.00”. I guess that is one way to impress, although I think going early works pretty well, too. Speaking of restrooms, I noticed upon our arrival in the UK that ‘restroom’ is not the term used. I asked for a restroom and got blank stares. It’s a ‘toilet‘. I have a very hard time with this. I don’t even like to say ‘bathroom’ when I’m referring to a public ‘toilet’. So, I got into the ridiculous habit of affecting an English accent and asking ‘Excuse me, where is the ladies’?’ No blank stares for that one.
Following our ride on the Eye, Stan and I have a lunch date with a researcher that I interviewed for one of my classes. She works in development for an NGO and did her Master’s thesis on the Burmese refugees in Thailand. This may, in fact, be the topic for my doctoral dissertation, so I wanted to meet her face to face. We decide on a meeting place; I provide a description of what we look like by telling her what Stan will be wearing (blue shirt and khaki pants — the same combo he’s been wearing every day on the trip, with slight variations in the color of blue shirt he wears each day. For some reason my husband decided that packing light meant three outfits of the same color. After 20 years of marriage, you just don’t argue about certain things.) We meet up, grab some take out sushi, and head for a local park for a picnic. It’s a gorgeous day, and we sit on the ground talking about relief work, the role of education for refugees, and if international organizations are really doing any good.
We leave our friend after an hour and head to the Tower of London for a tour with a Beefeater who explains that there are 20 towers in the tower of London, and that there is an apartment at the ready (with a guard in place) for the Queen should she ever decide to live in the Tower. I’m guessing she won’t be making the move anytime soon. The torture room was particularly gruesome. We make our way back to our hotel via the Thames to pick up our luggage. Transportation in London has been 21st century as well. The ‘Oyster’ card is a one stop shop for all types of public transportation in the city including the Underground, buses, bikes for rent on curbs, the boat cruises on the Thames, and some trains. It definitely makes our trek across London go faster as we jump on the Tube one last time to go to the train station to pick up the Eurostar.
On our way to Paris…
Riding the Eurostar is like taking off or landing in an airplane speed wise, but smoother, with fewer security annoyances, and larger windows. Stan brings along the Garmin to see how fast we are going and we laugh at how many times the Garmin is ‘recalculating’ our route as we fly across fields and bodies of water. We end up going 187 miles an hour and arrive in Paris in two hours.
Our first introduction to Paris is the Eiffel Tower beautifully lighted as we walk to our hotel from the metro station. We have booked ourselves into the Hotel Duquesne Eiffel in Paris’ 7th arrondissement near the Eiffel Tower. We check in and are directed to the elevator to the 5th floor. This is the smallest elevator I’ve ever seen. With my backpack/suitcase, I can fit in there. But not Stan. We laugh at the sign that says ‘4 persons’. Ha! The room is a delight…our balcony is just wide enough to pull a small chair out there and allows us an incredible view of the Eiffel Tower.
The elevator is a wonderful example of why Americans have to choose non-brand name hotels when they travel abroad. I love that it is small and cozy. The hotel has been renovated with a bigger elevator, which is great. Another feature that Stan adores about this hotel and one (of many) reasons while we will stay there again, is that it has a quaint bar area in the lobby, with a tin bar top. My husband has been talking about this bar top for three years, and swears that when we are in Paris again, he will find one and figure out how to ship it home. I personally find the balcony looking out on the Eiffel Tower to be my favorite aspect of this hotel.
After settling in, we walk to the Eiffel Tower, and once again walk right on to another country’s top attraction. It is 11:00 pm, and not having to wait in line is such a blessing. We get to the second level in time for the Eiffel Tower’s light display – a magnificent sparkle that lights up the tower for about 5 minutes. In the distance, we see the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides (Napolean’s tomb), and the other lights of the city. Stan and I are struck by the fact that we had been on the 21st century London Eye in the morning, and the 19th Century Eiffel tower that evening. Bliss.
The next morning we stumble down the block to La Boulangerie, our neighborhood bakery and café. Delectable pastries are tempting; Stan opts for the salami (and this is some serious salami) sandwich on this amazing crusty French loaf. We order our espresso from the French-only speaking woman behind the counter who was very patient with our attempts at her language. I wish I had paid more attention in Mrs. Stratton’s class at Pine View.
We take the Metro to the Louvre, which, while crowded has incredible crowd control. The design of the space underneath the I.M. Pei-designed Pyramid has really facilitated the world visitors that arrive here daily. The space, which used to be the parking lot for the Ministry of Finance, is actually beautiful. It is open and brings in golden morning light through the pyramid above.
The French do take tremendous pride in their culture as evidenced by the everything-in-French descriptions next to the artwork. There are no audio guides left in English (blast!) and I’ve forgotten to download the Rick Steve’s audio guide to the Louvre on my iPhone, so we’re at the mercy of the signs and descriptions to describe what we see. We find the Renaissance wing and admire painting after painting after painting after painting…whew!…after painting of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Stan and I begin to wonder if this was all that they painted. Well, apparently not. The Dutch liked to paint very plain black and white pictures of politicians. We find the Mona Lisa, more out of an obligation to be able to say that we saw it, but I have no emotion on seeing it. There are about 50 people standing there pushing and shoving their way to the front to see the tiny painting, which apparently was the face of an acquaintance of Leonardo da Vinci. I’m actually much more keen to see his painting of the Last Supper, but a guide informs me that this is in Milan, not at the Louvre.
Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men?
We make our way into a room of paintings depicting the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. At last! Pictures of ships, and canons, and other things besides the baby Jesus painted as if He were born on the Italian Riviera. My favorite painting, for which I would brave the crowds at the Louvre again just to see, was the painting of Liberty Leading the People depicting the July Revolution of 1830, the one famous for its use of barricades, and the one that inspired (as legend goes) Victor Hugo to write Les Miserables. It’s an enormous piece of art painted in hues of blue and red to mimic the flag. Lady Liberty is a robust goddess, who has only a scarf across her chest, while holding a French flag in one hand and a musket in the other. I comment to Stan that of course the people are following her – especially the men and boys – who wouldn’t follow a topless woman?
The Louvre is immense, and after seeing a few more hallways of paintings with descriptions that we cannot understand, we depart for the café below to rejuvenate before journeying outside. The plaza above, where the Pyramid rests, is alive with tourists taking pictures and wandering around admiring the immense building that is the Louvre. We see tourists standing on small concrete pedestals in front of the pyramid and can’t figure it out. One look through our lens though, and it is apparent that this affords the picture taker an excellent opportunity to take some trick shots. Stan steps up, and with me directing the placement of his arm, poses for a picture that makes him look like a giant pushing down on the pyramid. Yes, it was touristy, but it was fun!
We walk toward Place de la Concorde, the plaza that hosted the guillotine in the days after the Revolution, and location of the execution of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and other French monarchs. Apparently, the French also exported their efficient execution machine to the countryside so that commoners could take care of those pesky local nobles as well. In one month in 1794, 1300 people were executed giving rise to the era known as “The Reign of Terror”. Thankfully, the plaza and the gardens that lead up to it are much more peaceful today. A large fountain has model sailboats floating in it with children pushing them around the fountain with long sticks. At another fountain, adults are resting on the lounge chairs provided. The Ferris wheel and playground round out the scene. Parisians know how to enjoy their city.
We return to our hotel in the late afternoon, after stopping at our boulangerie again for a quick bite. We have a bike tour scheduled for the evening and a few minutes of rest are needed.
The Fat Tire Bicycle Tour is a US-based company offering 4-hour bike tours for Americans and other English-speaking tourists. Run by 20-something expats, the tour takes visitors around the city in a crazy traffic-filled adventure.
We meet our group at the Eiffel Tower in the early evening and head off into the streets of Paris. What a blast! We travel with about 25 others, and operate on the pack mentality – allow NO cars or trucks into the pack! We cross busy streets where traffic has to stop or travel very slowly behind us. Our guide advises us to blow kisses and tell them merci! He tells us that their car honks are just their way of saying “Thank you for coming to our city and financing our social system of health care and five weeks of paid vacation!” Our guide, Andrew, is hilarious, and makes the whole thing a crazy fun time. We go to so many different parts of Paris that it is hard to recall their names or where they were, but it didn’t matter. We arrive back at the courtyard of the Louvre just in time to see the sun set over the pyramid, and I am spell bound.
We end our bike tour with an hour cruise on the Seine, and Andrew brings *14* bottles of red wine on board, even though it’s not allowed. We gather on the top deck, break out the plastic Dixie cups, and toast our success just as the Eiffel Towers starts its 10 p.m. twinkle show. After drinking about a half bottle of wine on my own, the bike trip back to the tour headquarters is rather funny. I feel a sense of confidence I should in no way have, but the pack makes it back and we don’t lose anyone on the way.
The following morning we head back to our boulangerie, order about 4 sandwiches, some croissants, and coffee and get a taxi to the airport to pick up our rental car. We arrive in the Loire Valley about 4 hours later for a drive that, without traffic, would have taken two. My advice to anyone considering a side trip from Paris to anywhere is to take the train! We check in to our B&B in Amboise, and have a late dinner at an outdoor café with some English-speaking tourists from the UK and Australia.
Next up: the Loire Valley (wonderful) and Barcelona, wherein pickpockets ruin my day.