The KLM flight finally took off as I tiredly lay back for my sojourn to the French land, for the nth time I mentally checked on the important documents- hotel booking, connecting flights, Eurorail passes & Euros and hoping that the recommendations on tripadvisor.com won’t let us down. The journey till Amsterdam was uneventful, with the wife & me sleeping all the way till the landing rudely woke us up. As the doors opened, we were greeted with the chilly November breeze and a temperature of 1o C (a not-so-gentle hint on what lay ahead in France!).
The Amsterdam Airport (Schipol) is more of a shopping plaza with a mueseum thrown in, and hold your breath… its own mortuary where deceased people can be handled and kept before departure or after arrival!
People can also get married at Schiphol and go on honeymoon directly! Phew! Does Capgemini have a GDC here? Maybe I can apply!
Anyways, there is also the side attraction of flights landing & taking off from Schipol. So after dragging wife away from hordes of shops selling perfumes, shoes & tulips; we walked for 30 mins to reach our terminal for departure to Charles de Gaulle International Airport, also know as Roissy by the French.
The Air France flight to Paris was a short but worrisome journey, as I lay back thinking of the 2 day old French rail strike, which could spoil our 10 day holiday. As expected, the strike was its peak, and we had to wait at the bus terminus for over two hours for the city bus, and when it did come it was already full to the brim with people! Exhausted and with little patience left, we dragged our luggage to the taxi stand & promptly got a nice mini van driven by a senior-citizen lady driver who took us to our hotel for all of 50 Euros, racing through the busy Paris roads at a reckless speed, cigarette in hand! We are greeted with “Bon Jour!” at the Best Western Hotel at Bastille, I respond with Merci; the only French word I know, only to launch the lady at the reception into a long monologue in French, at the end of which we say in our best French accent “Engleesh”!
Oui, and the lady turns to a mixture of French & English and we are able to decipher that the French rail strike is going strong, but luckily the major Paris attractions are at a stone’s thrown away from here. And to our relief, the only running rail track, Line 1, is runs right from our hotel to most of the tourist spots!
The next morning after a hearty breakfast of croissant au beurre, eggs & juice; we head out to the Musee du Louvre. The Da Vinci Code is in my mind, but will I find the Holy Grail, is the question! Describing the Louvre is difficult. The most visited art museum in the world, it holds within its magnificent boundaries, a kaleidoscopic view of the whole world starting from the beginning of days, possibly covering all cultures, religions and art forms.
My most interesting memory of the Louvre trip was watching this artist standing in front of his favorite painting and drawing an exact replica of it!
After 5 hours of walking inside Louvre and covering different eras, historical scenes, mythology and meeting famous kings & emperors, I was confident that I had seen probably 10% of this wonder, and promised myself a return trip sometime in the future.
The next stop for us was the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, the most prestigious and the biggest avenue in Paris. With its cinemas, cafés, and luxury specialty shops, the Champs-Élysées is one of the most famous streets in the world. It remains the 2nd most expensive strip of real estate in the world after New York City’s Fifth Avenue. We visited the Swatch showroom here which is spread over 3 floors and has some mind boggling collection of watches. We also hopped into the world’s largest Adidas store, sneaked a peek at the famous Lido Bar and finally had a late lunch at McDonalds rounding off with the famous (and delicious) French banana & chocolate crêpe. Champs-Élysées is flanked by Arc de Triomphe on the western end and Place de la Concorde on the east. Arc de Triomphe is perhaps one of the most maginficient structures in Paris, and has a striking resemblance to our very own India Gate, at the base of the structure is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War, which reminds you of our Amar Jawan Jyoti. The monument was commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon I at the peak of his fortunes. The Place de la Concorde is one of the major squares in Paris, right across the banks of river Seine. One can see the Eiffel Tower from this square.
The next day we had the Eiffel Tower & Notre Dame on our agenda, it was a cold -2o C when we stepped out & started our journey to Eiffel. After waiting for an hour in freezing weather at the base of the Eiffel, we started our ascent to the second floor. The coffee shop was doing roaring business providing hot liquid to frostbitten tourists at a steep price! We had to ward off some rather hungry & vociferous birds from snatching our sandwiches & coffee
View from Eiffel: notice the frozen Lake in the center of the garden.
Remember The Hunchback of Notre Dame? An 1831 French novel written by Victor Hugo, it is set in 1482 in Paris, in and around the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, and that’s where we were headed next. The name Notre Dame means “Our Lady” in French and it is one of the most spectacular monument I have come across. It was built in Gothic times and the row of gargoyles all over this church gives you the creeps! As you step inside, however, you get a warm & soothing feeling looking at the beautiful, awe-inspiring stained glass windows all over & lots of candles glowing.
With this, our Paris trip was coming to end, and we visited some other popular tourist
destinations like EuroDisney, the Tuileries Garden and La Défense.
We also took a cruise on the river Seine. We missed out on the Versailles place as the strike was nowhere close to ending, and the night before we were about board our train for the French Riviera, we heard that the strike had been extended to inter-city trains as well and we got a regret mail from French rail expressing their inability to accommodate our travel! Panic ensued, and we started calling friends in US & India for advice, and finally managed to get hold of a train that was going from Paris to Nice! It’s a different matter that the train stopped moving for over an hour somewhere near Lyon, as the French rail workers had sabotaged the rail tracks! (It happens in first world countries also!)
Finally after a 7 hour train journey we crossed Cannes, and reached this beautiful place called Nice that forms the part of French Riviera and is situated in the south of France, a short distance from Italy. The first thing that hits you is the clear blue Mediterranean, sea as you drive along the Promenade des Anglais (“Walk of the English”). We explored the pebble beach on foot despite a light rainfall, and had the whole beach just to ourselves!
We walked a long distance along the beach, and found ourselves at the Nice Chateau. “Le Chateau” isn’t a chateau – the castle on top of this high rock hill overlooking Nice old town and the port has been gone since 1706, but it’s a great place to visit. There are cool walks in the shade of the trees, great views out over Nice and the Mediterranean, a large grassy park, playground, Roman ruins and a waterfall. Beautiful!
We then moved to the Cours Saleya Flower Market, which someone has aptly described as a “cornucopia of ripe produce, sidewalk cafés, souvenir shops and, yes, flowers simply bursting with colors”. We searched for souvenirs and finally found just the shop out there – a quaint little souvenir shop selling original Italian porcelain face masks! After looking at some 30 of them we finally picked two lovely ones. We were pleasantly surprised on reaching the end of this market – facing the Mediterranean Sea was a restaurant called “Kohinoor” with the Air India mascot “The Maharaja” painted on its front door and gracefully bowing and welcoming its guests! However, one look at the price list and we were off to the nearby McDonalds!
As the sunset approached we moved to one of the famous squares in Nice called the Place Garibaldi which has beautiful architecture and history attached to it. It is named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, hero of the Italian unification (born in Nice). The whole square that day was specially lit and had a festive look to it. On some probing, we figured out that the city of Nice was having test runs for its new local tramway; we were amazed to see this gentle giant quietly zoom past us in the centre of the city and carefully stopping alongside cyclists making way for pedestrians to cross. We were told that it features a fabulous hybrid driving system that runs on overhead lines for most of the route, but in some areas that are historic and culturally sensitive, the tram units switch to NiMH batteries and the locals view it as “an open air art muesum” winding through the city.
The next day we planned to visit Monaco or Monte Carlo which is a short 45 minutes bus journey from Nice in the hilly Mediterranean coast with just the lovely unspoiled sea to keep you company and the waves lashing onto the coast. We reached Monaco in the late morning & stepped into the rain washed city which looked pristine from its recent shower. Monaco is the world’s most densely populated country and second-smallest independent nation; with a population of just 32,410 and an area of 1.96 square kilometres (485 acres), Monaco is the world’s smallest French-speaking country. Since 1929, the Monaco Grand Prix has been held annually in the streets of Monaco.
One look at the city, and we realized why people call it the most expensive place in the world! Monaco is all about money – making it, spending it and flaunting it. A short stroll along the harbor, where some of the world’s most expensive and most luxurious yachts are moored had our eyes popping out of their sockets at the shameless, unadulterated wealth on display! I read somewhere that late iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s son also had there yatch here which is been now claimed by the Iraqi government besides properties in france.
We headed along the cost and reached the opera house, built at the end of the 19th century, and we immediately awed by the beauty and splendor of the place. Charles Garnier designed the magnificent and extravagantly decorated Salle Garnier in Monte Carlo which opened in 1879. As it seats only 524, it is often difficult to get tickets. The season is also a short one, running from mid-January to the end of March. From there, we walked down to the Casino Monte Carlo, and the first thing we noted there was ……
We walked the city, and were amused to see that the cheapest cars on the road were Mercs and BMWs, plying as taxis! The streets were lined with expensive showrooms – Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Cartier, Mont Blanc… Phew! We went back to Nice in the evening, and had a lovely time checking out the night life in city. Surprisingly, shops shut down at 6 in the evening! All you see at night is people sitting at tables at quaint little roadside cafes, eating sandwiches and pasta!
With this, our visit to France came to an end. We enjoyed every moment spent there, despite the train strike and the freezing Paris weather, and carry fond memories of this beautiful country! We’d love to go back there someday.