Paris: First Impressions (Day Eight)

Trip Start Aug 16, 2012
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Trip End Oct 01, 2012


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Flag of France  , Ile-de-France,
Friday, August 24, 2012

Today, I got up early eager to start exploring Paris! I didn't get a very good impression of the city yesterday, but I'm hoping my feelings will change. On the walk to the hostel last night, I passed beggars and homeless people sleeping on mattresses on the street. Some had small children with them, bundled up, and sleeping in the cold night. In Paris, the social problems are blatantly present, yet nobody seems to be paying attention. It is a side of the city that you don't hear about - and will surprise you if you're not expecting it.

First stop for me was the Louvre Museum. I didn't plan on going in, but just wanted to admire the building itself which was once a royal palace. It looked very grand from the courtyard with the famous glass pyramid in the middle. There was already a line forming this earlly in the morning, waiting to descend into one of the world's great museums.

I walked around the adjacent Tuileries gardens with it's statues, fountains, and tree-lined paths. I eventually made it to Place de la Concorde, a huge square and roundabout with a giant Egyptian obelisk at its centre. For some reason, this was a major sightseeing stop for tour buses as there were loads of tourists around, most of them from China. Most were taking pictures and posing with the fountains, the obelisk, and the Champs Elysees, which connects the square with the Arc de Triomphe.

I crossed the square and starting walking south towards the river Seine. I passed probably a dozen tour buses on my way there. Drivers were standing outside in the shade of the many trees that line the streets of Paris. It's still August but the leaves are already changing colour and falling off after every gust of wind.

I eventually made it to the river and it was quite a sight. It was still about mid-morning and the lighting was perfect. The bridges of Paris were glowing in the warm sunlight and there was a nice breeze coming off the Seine. I walked along the path overlooking the river and occassionally went down the stairs to the bank where houseboats docked.

As I was making my way towards Ile de la Cite, I came across a large group of kids running around with clipboards and asking people to sign it. I immediately remembered what I read about some of the scams that are common near touristy areas. The children were young, had tan skin, but very light eyes. They were likely Roma kids who are notorious for scamming unsuspecting tourists.

I tried to walk past as quickly as possible, but they were all running around confronting people. First, two girls approached me and asked me to sign their clipboards (something about an ambulance?). They were aggressive and got really close, so I grabbed hold of my belongings, said no, and got away quickly. A short while later, a young boy tried to do the same, but I managed to dodge him as well.

From what I read, this is how the scam is supposed to work: if you sign the clipboard, the kids will force you to pay them (calling it a donation). If they can get close enough, they'll try to pick your pockets as well while you're distracted. Good thing I read about these scams beforehand because I've heard they're quite successful at tricking people.

I managed to make my way to the Ile de la Cite, the site of the first settlement in the area. I crossed the Pont Neuf and walked a bit before finally arriving at Notre Dame Cathedral on the east end of the island. It's imposing Gothic facade greets you, rising high above the square below. Inside, it was very dark (in contrast to the bright interior of St. Paul's in London) but beautiful nonetheless.

From there, I strolled through the neighbouring Ile St. Louis and crosssed another bridge to get to the Latin Quarter. Here was traditionally where the universities of Paris were located at a time when Latin was the language of higher learning. It started to drizzle as I made my way up the hill towards the gleaming dome of the Pantheon.

Many famous French historical figures, such as Victor Hugo, are buried inside the Pantheon (similarly to London's Westminster Abbey). I didn't go inside, but sat out front on a column to wait until the rain stopped. Once the weather cleared up, it walked around a bit more and then headed back to the hostel to rest before going to the Louvre in the evening.

On my way back, I grabbed some Indian food at a place near the hostel. The owner was very nice and we chatted a little. He asked where I was from and said that he had family in Quebec that he visited recently. He made sure I got enough food to eat: chicken curry, lentils, rice and naan bread. Parisiens in general are not friendly, but I've met some very nice people so far. It takes more effort to talk with people, but I think it has to do more with the language barrier than personality.

I arrived back again at the Louvre at around 5:30pm. After six on Fridays, people under 26 are able to get into the museum for free. You just need to show some I.D. instead of a ticket. I got inside as it was starting to rain again and looked at the map to see where the Mona Lisa was located. There are at least three wings in the Louvre with exhibits ranging from Greek scupltures to Egyptian artifacts to medieval art. The museum is enormous with many rooms, but there are signs that help you find the star attractions.

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is located in the Italian paintings section. It's in the centre of a bright room that holds lots of other paintings, but the Mona Lisa was the only one behind glass. It was also roped off a few feet around, but I was surprised how close you can actually get too it. Of course, there is always a crowd taking pictures but it was easy to make my way to the front of the pack. It was larger than I imagined and it was very cool to see the world's most famous painting. After accomplishing that, I was free to explore the rest of the museum!

I probably spent a total of two hours walking through the rooms and hallways of the Louvre, admiring all of their contents. Some of the rooms themselves were as stunning as the art they held. For some reason, there was not many people in the medieval tapestry exhibit, but I really enjoyed the enormous pieces of woven art that once decorated the interior of castles and cathedrals during the Middle Ages. Some were even hung above the thrones of past kings.

I'm currently sitting on a bench in a park behind Notre Dame Cathedral. I was planning on visiting the Eiffel Tower tonight but accidentally took the wrong metro line and ended up exiting at St. Michel, just south of Ile de la Cite. I grabbed a ham and cheese crepe and ate it by the river.

I can see why Paris is considered a romantic city. There are wide tree-lined walkways, spacious parks and gardens, and the river Seine, which glimmers at night from all the lighted-up buildings and bridges. The half moon is shining bright in the night sky and violin music is playing from a nearby restaurant. Notre Dame is illuminated, like all the other famous sites in Paris. Couples are everywhere: now I know how French-kissing got it's name!

UPDATE: Of course, like most other things in Paris, things close, including the park I was sitting in. An officer was going around, blowing his whistle and ushering people out the park gates. I left and walked along the Seine, which at night can only be described as magical. There's a reason why Paris is called the "City of Lights."
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