Through The Chunnel

019Today we took the Eurostar train from Paris to London, going through the Chunnel. Our rail journey lasted about two and a half hours, and it was a simple and pleasant trip. The Chunnel — the tunnel that runs underneath the English Channel — makes traveling between these two popular tourist destinations so much easier!

The train leaves from the Gare du Nord station in Paris, where you fill out your entry form, present your passport, and clear customs into Great Britain. You wait in a reasonably nice waiting lounge, where duty-free shops line one side and you can get ridiculously good and reasonably priced food — particularly for a place that is serving only captive customers who don’t have any other dining options.

018When boarding time comes you file down the station ramp to your rail car, board, find your assigned seat number, then place your luggage and coats on the shelves above and settle in for the ride. The seats are comfortable, the swaying of the train is soothing, the ride is virtually noiseless, and most of the passengers spend the trip sleeping as the train zips along. The rolling French countryside is pretty, and there are a number of quaint little towns and churches along the way, but the temptation to nod off for at least part of the trip is irresistible.

023Not surprisingly, the weather turned dark and rainy as we approached the English Channel, then we flashed by a “Euro Tunnel” sign and we were in the tunnel itself. It’s a dark tunnel like any other, except that it extends, amazingly, for more than 20 miles. The passage through the tunnel takes about 20 minutes, and when we emerged on the other side it was sunny and bright. Within a very short period we were pulling in to St. Pancras station on the outskirts of London and Scrambling to grab our bags, catch a cab, and head to our apartment in Great Britain’s capital city.

I can’t speak to the Chunnel as a technical engineering accomplishment, aside from recognizing that digging a tunnel that is more than 20 miles long, under a stormy body of water, is a monumental achievement. I also can’t adequately capture the Chunnel’s geopolitical significance, either, other than noting that it links two countries that were at war constantly during the centuries from 1300 to 1800 and ties that Sceptr’d Isle to the European mainland. But I can say that, as a traveler, I deeply appreciate the convenience of traveling from France to England by train, without taking a ferry and worrying about the notoriously bad Channel weather.002

Musee National du Moyen Age

048We’ve had a number of special experiences during our trip to Paris, but one of my favorites was a visit to the Musee National du Moyen Age — the National Museum of the Middle Ages. Formerly known as the Cluny, this Left Bank museum is a wonderful find for the history buff and the art lover.

The museum is located in an actual medieval building, so the very act of entering and wandering around helps to give an idea of life in the middle ages — at least, for the aristocracy and the clergy. You enter the the museum through a walled, cobblestoned courtyard, past the remains of the Latin motto of the place when it was the town house of the abbots of Cluny, and then move through cavernous stone rooms and cellars where various items and exhibits are found.

055The rooms are filled with a rich trove of the art and handcraft of the Middle Ages. If you are a fan of stained glass windows, this is a must-see visit, because the many exquisite examples of glassworker craftsmanship are displayed at eye level, where they can be carefully studied and fully appreciated. It’s great to see the stained glass at St. Chapelle, where the full effect of entire windows is felt, but there is an advantage to examining individual panes, too. The vivid colors and staging of the scenes are spectacular, and the expressions on the people depicted, and the familiar attributes of Biblical personalities, like St. Peter and his ever-present key, come to life when the stained glass is examined up close.

052Another evocative exhibit featured the formerly lost heads of the kings of Judah. When the mob attacked the Notre Dame cathedral during the French Revolution and tried to turn it into a secular temple, they knocked the heads off the kings of Judah who stand in line above the front doors. The heads were replaced in the middle of the 19th century, but the original heads were thought to be lost forever. That is, until 21 of them were unearthed during the 1970s. They now are on display in the Musee National du Moyen Age, still looking somewhat startled that they were removed from their former stone bodies.

There’s lots to see in this museum, such as the mysterious, obviously symbolic series of tapestries featuring a woman, her servant, a unicorn, and other creatures, marvelous wood altarpieces and stone statuary, and many religious items. I particularly liked the flow and pace of the museum, which was in sharp contrast to the jam-packed crowd scenes at the Louvre. There was plenty of room, and time, to enjoy the exhibits and appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the life and craftsmanship of the Middle Ages.047

On Trusting The Travel Writer

Kish did a lot of research before we took this trip to Paris. Among other things, she read and printed out a number of “3 Days in Paris”-type articles from various newspapers, and we’ve used them, productively, as helpful guides during our visit.

One neighborhoods described in one of the articles was Belleville. It was depicted as a charming, off-the-beaten path, upcoming area of new art galleries and friendly wine bars that loved drop-in clientele, so we thought it would be a good spot for a stroll and a glass.

When we emerged from the Belleville Metro stop, however, we found a place that was radically different than the travel writer’s depiction. Rather than charm, we found a gritty place of worn and uninspired modern buildings. We couldn’t find the places mentioned in the article because Belleville is so off the beaten path that its streets aren’t even shown on the map we have carried around the city — and when we tried to leave the main streets to find the charm, we found desolate side streets that made me feel physically insecure for the first time on our visit to Paris. So, after having lunch at a Vietnamese bistro and then wandering around for a while among shops that offered cheap discount clothing, lots of Asian-lettered businesses, and panel trucks covered with graffiti, we retreated back to the center of the old city.

Kish and I both agreed that the visit to Belleville was interesting, because it showed that Paris is not just a fairyland of medieval churches and fountains and beautiful apartment buildings. Belleville clearly is a place where recent blue-collar immigrants to the city go to find affordable places to live. We also wondered whether it showed the challenge of the modern travel writer who must try to find something new to say about a city as oft-visited as Paris. No doubt there are nicer parts of Belleville than what we found, but we wondered whether the travel writer’s overarching quest for the new produced a bit of exaggeration. Next time, we’ll do a Google search, too, before we venture off to a new place.