Background: I read Da Vinci Code when I was in Switzerland. This book is a piece of art and believe me, I read the last 300 pages in just one night and completed this book in morning around 4:30 am. The aftereffect of reading the book was that I started dreaming about Paris and Louvre. Irony of situation was that we were in Geneva (Switzerland), hardly 5 hrs away from Paris, but could not go there as we did not have a Schengen visa. I remember sharing this helplessness with Ankur (one of my colleagues) and he reminded me a line which I used to speak a lot, ‘Kismat se Zyada aur samay se pahle kuch nahi milta’ :-)
Anyway, our project was near completion and we came back to India in end of November 2004. We worked in Switzerland as consultants on an Anti Money Laundering product and at that time ABN Amro was starting their global implementation for the same. Existing team was divided for different places for the work and I was appointed to lead the team and go back to Switzerland’s Lugano Data center of ABN Amro. The same colleague (Ankur) with whom i shared my helplessness was appointed to go to Amsterdam. Amsterdam meant Schengen visa, i.e. he could go to Paris and visit Louvre. I wasn’t too excited about the Swiss visit as I’d already visited the place. So the same line crossed my mind again ‘Kismat se jyada aur samay se pahle kuch nahi milta’!
The Amsterdam implementation had to start earlier than the Swiss implementation and Ankur with another colleague had to leave in mid January. Meanwhile, I, along with the rest of team had to wait for Swiss visa. In January beginning, one fine day, my manager called me and asked if I would go along with Ankur to Amsterdam. It was because the other person was unable to go due to some health problems. For me it was like a dream come true. I still remember, just after nodding yes to my PM, i checked the train route from Amsterdam to Paris :-)
Well, starting of my trip to Amsterdam was not that pleasant as I along with friends met with a big accident (car hit by another embassy’s car) while i was coming back from Netherlands’ embassy. Thankfully we didn’t get hurt in the accident, but my friend’s car was completely damaged. After that incident, I lost interest in going to Netherlands. Although still shaken by the accident, because of business needs, I left for Amsterdam within a week.
Reaching Amsterdam: As I entered the flight and took my seat, I dropped off to sleep. Guess it was because i was in such a bad shape and had a very hectic week. My eyes opened just after the flight arrived Vienna about 8 hrs later. I changed my flight to Amsterdam and reached the airport around 10 am their time. Ankur was already there in Amsterdam by that time (as I was late for the project because of accident/visa and other formalities). We joined office and settled in the next few days. During this time, things related to the accident also got settled back home in India. I was almost back to normal in a few days. Initial some days were spent in Amsterdam only because of bad weather and initial hesitation to move out of the country. But we both knew that this time we are going to meet Monalisa.
Planning Paris: We planned Paris in mid of February 2005. By that time we were quite comfortable in Amsterdam and I was already through with an ‘out of country’ trip to Brussels(Two and half hour journey from Amsterdam). Being from India , it is really hard to believe that you can reach one country’s capital to another country’s capital in less than 3 hrs. Some times we spend more than that within Delhi to reach one place from another. Anyway, as we decided to go, we had to book our tickets. So we checked out the process to do that.
There are different types of trains to reach Paris, there are overnight buses as well. Flight was also not a bad option because fares are not that high. Finally we decided to go by a high speed train. Travelling is very comfortable in Europe. That’s mainly because, the train network is very strong all over Europe and secondly, one gets enough options to choose from. We decided to go by Thalys. I guess at the time Thalys was the 2nd fastest train in the world. Its maximum speed was 330km/hr. We were not sure about the availability but reached Amsterdam Central to get our reservation done for that few days before the journey.
Thalys: Reservation center was like a new ICICI customer care center.You get your serial number from a machine and then you wait for your turn. Person at window number 2 called our serial number and Ankur and I went closer. As we’d doubted, there was no availability in 2nd class. But as luck had it, we got a better deal! Because of lesser reservations in 1st class, prices were slashed and were little more expensive than the 2nd class. We said YES and got our First class ticket in Thalys :-). The person at window asked us if we were going first time in this type of train and also told us that real fun is to get the cabin seat (in driver’s cabin). He told us that he’d travelled in cabin twice but cabin seats are only allowed to staff. We were thrilled by the description given by him and waited eagerly for the day of departure.
On 12th of February 2005 morning, we left our hotel with little time margin because of Switzerland’s hangover as we thought that metro trains always run on time across Europe. But this time it didn’t work that way and we would’ve run short of time in reaching the station if we’d taken the metro. We were very much worried about missing our train because 1) We didn’t want to miss Paris on this weekend 2) We didn’t want to miss Thalys because we would not be able to buy expensive tickets again 3) 195 Euros (each) at stake. So we took a Taxi, Mercedes Benz :-), paid him 19 Euros and saved our 390.
We entered the train and picked a seat. We could take any seat because we were only 4 people in 1st class :-). This was my first time 1st class. In Switzerland we just used to see those coaches marked with big ‘1’ but this time i was actually traveling in it! In the first class coach there are only 3 seats in a row. Seats are really spacious and you get breakfast also during the journey. Breakfast was not of much value for me because there was no option of veg and non. veg. Being a vegetarian, I ended up with a muffin and canned juice.
Train wasn’t running that fast when it started and we were waiting for it to pick up speed but it continued at normal speed till Brussels, which is around 200 kms from Amsterdam. It already took 2 and half hours. 250 kms were remaining and estimated time to reach Paris from Brussels was slightly less than 1 and half hours. At this stop some crazy driver took over and covered next 250 kms. As we left Brussels, it seemed that some body pushed the accelerator with full force and instantly train was flying at 250km/hr.
The track is mostly straight so they keep good (dangerous) speed but some times it has to slow down a bit (around 120km/hr). The maximum speed of our journey was 300km/hr. There was a road along with the train track which was probably the freeway (highway) to Paris and we watched cars with their noses in the same direction but they seemed to be going back as if they were driving in the opposite direction.
Finally we reached Paris Nord safely despite the driver’s efforts to explode the engines :-)
Paris: We went to the tourist information desk and collected some maps and left the station. Our youth hostel was quite near the station and we’d chosen it mainly because of its location.
Let me tell you about Youth Hostels in Europe. You can compare it with Guest houses in India but on a smaller scale. Youth Hostels offer packages for night stay in twin (or more) sharing with clean bath-toilet equipped with hot-n-cold running water along with breakfast. We booked this one in 25 Euros for a night. It was a really small room and we could barely walk in the room. Well, we could walk in bathroom though :-). If you have visited Switzerland and seen their hostels, to get the same standards in rest of the Europe, you would have to book a hotel. Switzerland hostels are very well maintained small time hotels and rest of the Europe is very different.
The reason we booked our hostel near station was that we wanted to dump our bags there and head straight to Louvre. So we did as we’d planned. After leaving our hostel we decided to go to Louvre by Metro.
Each road is marked with its name on each side. If you’ve visited Pondichery and noticed road names marked in the French area, it is just like that. Using the road names and following the map we arrived at a metro station. We’d already done some research and knew that we had to take line number 7 to reach Louvre, but didn’t know the name of final station. Anyway we entered the station (I guess station’s name was Gare du I’Est), struggled with lady at counter to get tickets, and boarded on metro to Louvre. Just like Delhi metro there are maps inside Paris metro and you can see station names of that line. We found a familiar name ‘Pyramids’ and decided that to get off the metro there as we knew that Louvre’s entrance has like Pyramids (courtesy Da Vinci Code), but it was just a guess :-).
We left metro at ‘Pyramids’. Once we came out of station we were confused but a big banner of Monalisa helped us to find our way. We were wrong but not completely, Louvre’s main entrance was the next station (Palais Royal) and we entered from left side entrance of it.
Louvre: It was kind of unbelievable that we’d finally reached Louvre. The main courtyard of Museum is a big area with set of pyramids in the center and main entry is also through the a pyramid in the middle. We entered the gate and were surrounded by a big fortress. By that time we had not realized that the entire fortress was converted into the Mega sized Museum.
Let me give you some general information about Louvre.This museum consists of 35,000 works of art which belong to eight separate departments. Near Eastern Antiquities, Islamic Art, Paintings, Egyptian Antiquities, Sculptures, Prints and Drawings, Greek and Roman Antiquities and Decorative Arts.This building came into existence under the reign of Philip ||. The building was built as fortified royal palace to defend the western flank of the city. Many times building was modified by the rulers and finally converted into Museum in 1793.
The main entrance covers a big area. Its size is comparable to one of the biggest metro stations (Rajiv Chowk) in Delhi. I am sure hundreds of people were only at the entrance, may be because of weekend (Saturday). For entering Louvre, you first enter the basement and get your tickets and then come to the ground floor to start your tour inside the museum. We also took audio tour for the Museum and entered into the main lobby. Secretly our eyes were searching Monalisa and in the map we found that the painting is located on first floor and quite distant from where we were. We started seeing things around and were listening to the details from audio tour system. It is a huge collection of paintings, ornaments, statues and at every piece of art you need to spend considerable amount of time to understand the details.
This place consists some very known and famous works of art like Madonna of the Rocks, The Virgin and Child with St Anne by Leonardo da Vinci, Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David and many more.
After some time we realized that we had already spent around 2 hours and not moved much ahead from the entrance. As we had only limited time to spend in the Museum, we decided to go directly to our main motivation. We probably missed a lot but could not resist ourselves to stop by and see some other artifacts on our way to see Monalisa. While we approached the main turn of the hall where Monalisa was framed in a wall, the description given in Da Vinci Code crossed my mind. And here she was, but surrounded by at least 50 people.
We waited for some time assuming that the crowd will clear in a while but after sometime we also joined the crowd to see her and struggled to take some pictures. Finally, we got some of the pictures without disturbance but the actual excitement was ruined by the huge crowd. We kept patient and finally got a few moments to look at the master piece closely. Suddenly we realized that this is the ‘actual’ piece of work that Leonardo the Vinci painted and not a picture of it that we’d seen several times in magazines or Internet. It was mesmerizing is all I can say!
We moved on and saw few more art works there and after sometime decided to head towards Eiffel tower. We were quite hungry by that time as we’d not had any thing after goodies in the train. So we stepped out and started looking for some place to eat. Meeting with Mr. Eiffel in next part