Last night we decided to go to the Eiffel Tower to get a good look at the famous structure up close and illuminated. It’s a corny tourist move, no doubt, and we ate in a classic “tourist trap” restaurant that survives not because of the quality of its food but because of its close proximity to the Tower. Lots of other tourists were milling around the Tower, also unable to resist the temptation to revel in its glowing, spidery, nighttime beauty. When you are around the Eiffel Tower in the evening, it’s a magnetic object, and it’s almost impossible to tear your eyes away.
Today we celebrated Christmas by taking a long walk up the Champs Elysees, then veering over to the Eiffel Tower. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as it has been during past visits, but the place was still packed — and the vendors still hawked rings of Eiffel Tower figurines, large and small. If the Eiffel Tower had not been created by Gustave Eiffel way back when, it would have to have been invented by souvenir peddlers.
The Eiffel Tower is beautiful at night, all lit up. This holiday season, a Ferris Wheel has been placed next to the Place de la Concorde, and there were throngs of people waiting to take a ride. The combination of the illuminated arc of the wheel and the graceful lines of one of the world’s most famous structures was irresistible.
After Dad left, Roland and I lugged our stuff to the other side of Paris, where we had a reservation at the Peace & Love hostel for two nights. Unfortunately, Roland’s first hostel happened to be the worst one I’ve stayed at so far. The room was crowded and dirty, with three beds in each bunk, leaving you too little room to sit on your bed and increasing your chance of being awoken in the middle of the night by your bedmate climbing the ladder. The only common area was a bar that doubled as the reception desk, where people partied all hours of the day. There was no kitchen, and the bathroom was dirty. The staff seemed more interested in pouring shots for the partiers than making your stay comfortable.
Alas, we were stuck with the hostel – we had pre-booked it not only for those two nights, but for another after returning from Rouen three days later to fly out of Paris the next day.
I decided to devote my last day in Paris to seeing Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. However, the train going to Poissy, the Parisian suburb where the building is located, was shut down – something I discovered only after a lot of frustrated waiting and wandering. By the time I found an employee of the Metro system who spoke enough English to explain to me that I had to take a different route to get there, it was early afternoon and I was too tired to go. Instead, I checked out Paris’s strangely peaceful central business district (where I happened to be when my plans were sidetracked). It wasn’t very charming, as you can see, but I liked La Grande Arche, a modern counterpart to the Arc de Triomphe.
I spent most of the day reading next to a beautiful pond at the Bois de Boulogne park on the outskirts of the city. Like the Villa Borghese park in Rome, it was bereft of tourists.
The next morning, Roland and I took a train to Rouen. There are no hostels in northern France, for some reason, so we were forced to stay in a hotel. Going without the social atmosphere of a hostel would have been a big problem if Roland hadn’t been with me. We ended up really liking the hotel – the Hotel d’Angleterre – thanks to its location next to the river, its friendly staff, and the fact that it costs only slightly more than the average hostel.
Rouen was a big change for me after staying in Paris for ten days. It was less crowded and noisy and fast-paced. We seemed to be some of the only tourists in the city. The people were less beautiful and stylishly dressed, which isn’t a complaint, because it means they were also more approachable. I was surprised to see so much Norman architecture there.
Rouen has three wonderful Gothic cathedrals – the Notre Dame, the Saint Maclou, and the Saint Ouen. The Notre Dame is well-known as the subject of a series of paintings by Monet, who tried to capture its colors at different times of the day.
That evening, with the help of our hotel’s receptionist, Roland and I devised a brilliant plan to rent a car the next morning and use it to see Mont Sant-Michel and Saint-Malo in one day. We walked to the car rental store the next morning with optimistic smiles, having already fixed our lunches for the trip, only to have our spirits crushed by the employee who informed us that no cars were available that day.
Roland decided to stay in Rouen to do sketches. I debated the pros and cons of the three nearby cities I could get to for free with my Eurail pass: Caen, Dieppe, and Le Havre. I chose Le Havre, even though everyone told me it was an ugly city that wasn’t worth visiting. I was attracted to it for a few reasons: because its downtown, rebuilt with reinforced concrete after being destroyed in the Battle of Normandy, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; because I had had enough of pretty French coastal cities after Nice and Marseilles; and because it was the underdog.
My day in Le Havre was one of the most interesting of my trip, but the buildings there are horribly ugly. It was sad walking into town from the train station; as you get closer to the city center, there are fewer old-style buildings and more post-war ones made of exposed concrete. Even the city’s cathedral was rebuilt in that style. It was a powerful reminder of the destructiveness of World War II, which I haven’t seen much evidence of in the other cities I’ve visited so far.
Although the post-war structures are ugly, their architects constructed them with modern materials so that they could rebuild Le Havre and provide comfortable housing to its citizens as quickly as possible.
Le Havre is clearly eager to make sure its few tourists have a good time. It’s tourist office was the best I’ve seen, with English-speaking employees who gave me a free map and suggestions for a walking tour. Everyone seemed to be happy that I was visiting the city. I felt like an honored guest when I was there.
After returning to Paris the next day, I had enough energy to make the many little train and bus trips necessary to get to the Villa Savoye in Poissy. It was a beautiful counterpart to Le Havre’s ugly modern buildings. Le Corbusier’s design looks clean, light and interesting. Thanks to windows that span almost the entire exterior walls, it was so sunny inside that I had to wear my sunglasses. There is a garden in the courtyard on the second floor and on the roof.
My trip to the Villa Savoye was also like the one to Le Havre in that afterwards I was glad I had strayed from the popular tourist spots and had a more personal experience as a result.
When Roland and I went to the Peace & Love hostel at 6 P.M. to check in, they told us they had given our beds away because we’d arrived more than three hours after the arrival time listed in our reservation – something that the other hostels I’ve stayed at haven’t paid attention to. We found a cheap room at a nearby hotel and tried to forget that the Peace & Love hostel existed.
We took one final walk through Paris to the Arc de Triomphe and the beautifully-lit Eiffel Tower, where we stayed until late at night drinking wine. Although I had spent ten nights in Paris, I wasn’t tired of it at all, like I was when I spent the same amount of time in Rome.
Today Richard and I walked over to the Pompidou Center, which is located a few blocks in from the right bank of the Seine.
The Pompidou Center is famous as the “inside-out” building, where all of the piping and wiring for the building is on the outside and is color-coded, with separate, bright colors for the pipes that deliver water, electricity, and so forth. The effect is quite striking, and makes the exterior of the Pompidou Center one of the most interesting buildings in Paris. The Pompidou Center also is home to an extensive collection of modern art, as well as a library, cinemas, and other areas dedicated to the visual arts.
Whether you appreciate the modern art or not — and I’m going to have to go with Russell one of these days, so that he can explain the ideas behind some of the pieces — you have to love the view from the top of the escalator on the outside of the building. It may be the best panoramic vantage point in Paris.
The escalator, like the piping and wiring, also is inside out. It runs up one side of the building overlooking a square. And when you reach the top, you get a commanding view of three of Paris’ most famous landmarks: Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sacre Coeur. The view alone is worth the price of admission.
The view also makes you realize that the older part of Paris really is like Washington, D.C. — lots of buildings of pretty much uniform height, and then some special landmarks that really dominate the skyline. It is probably one of the few famous cities in the world where church steeples and spires remain some of the highest points in the urban landscape.
Whether it was because I was traveling on a shoe string and not able to buy much beer, or because the beer was exceptionally good, I didn’t know. After that one beer 30 years ago, I never had it again. I could never find it in any other bar or restaurant.
Until today, that is. Richard and I stopped for lunch at a cafe near the Eiffel Tower, and there on the menu to my surprise was a Pelforth Brune. I had to get it, and I did. It was as excellent as I remembered — smooth and rich, yet light at the same time. And it comes in a pretty cool bottle, too.
It’s nice when reality matches your memories.