Paris and Rouen!! (3/31-4/5)

on Thursday, April 22, 2010

I was very very excited for my trip to France because after New York it has to be one of the most iconic cities in the world. We all grow up seeing the Eiffel Tower and the streets of Paris in paintings, magazines, advertisements, etc. and it is definitely a "must see" city.

My trip began here in Milan with a very early trip to the bus terminal to take a shuttle to the airport. My flight was at 7am so I woke up at 3am (the shuttle left at 4:30am) since it takes an hour to get to the airport on the shuttle. Once I got there going through security was relatively painless and surprisingly fast so I was glad I didn't have to rush to catch the plane. I flew on EasyJet, a low cost airline, and had a good flight to Paris Charles De Gaulle (the main airport for international flights). The most interesting part was that there were no assigned seats and people boarded the plane from the back and the front, so that was new for me. The flight was an hour and 30 minutes long and I slept for the last hour. The first 30 minutes I spent glued to the window because the Alps looked so beautiful in the early morning. I normally can't ever sleep while on a plane but I must have been super tired from the early morning.

Once I arrived in Paris I walked to the train station at the airport to head into the city. During my trip I stayed with one of my mom's childhood friends and her family so it was very nice to stay with someone I knew. The low-cost carrier terminal at the airport was really far from the train so on the walk through what seemed like the entire airport I stopped and bought a croissant for breakfast and it was really good. Maybe one of the best croissants I had ever had, although Sam's Club surprisingly brings stiff competition. Once I finally got to the train and figured out how to buy tickets (it must have taken me like 10 minutes to figure it out) I took the RER into the heart of Paris. The RER is basically the train that goes to the suburbs of Paris. After a 30 minute ride I had to transfer onto a subway and then another before I finally arrived to my final subway stop- Marcel Sembat. My mom's friend, Adriana, lives with her husband and son in a suburb to the SW of Paris called Boulogne-Billancourt. It was funny because that is located directly adjacent to St. Cloud, another suburb of Paris, which is the same name of the city where my mom lives and where I went to High School.

Once I got out of the station I headed to Adriana's apartment to drop off my bags but i stopped at a nice little chocolate shop and bought her a gift for her hospitality. Once I arrived she was waiting for me with her 6 year old son Tom. Tom's school only meets on Monday's, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays so that is why he was home on a Wednesday morning. After sharing stories about our families and getting something to drink I headed back to the subway to see the city. Even more-so than in Italy, there are small bakeries on almost every corner so I stopped an got another 2 croissants for like 1Euro each. I followed Adriana's instructions and got off at the stop called Trocadero so that I could see the Eiffel Tower. This was by far the thing I wanted to see first the most. As soon as I came up to the street level I scanned the skies around me for the Eiffel Tower and when I noticed the top of the tower above a nearby building, I immediately felt a rush of excitement come over me. I know I wrote the same thing when I was in the Vatican, but this was another one of those moments that I will never forget. I guess I have had a lot of "those" moments here this semester but that is the reason why I wanted to study abroad! I headed to the Eiffel Tower with the intention of going up to the top but the weather proved to not be on my side. Walking around the Tower in the Parc du Champ de Mars alone would have made my trip to Paris amazing. I took around 700 pictures in Paris and I am guessing that nearly half of them are of the Eiffel Tower. I guess that gives you a good idea of how much I liked it.

After I walked around the Tower and park I was getting hungry and figured I could stop somewhere and eat on the way to my next destination, the Champs-Élysées. This magnificent avenue is the most expensive piece of real estate in Europe and I knew it most from watching Lance Armstrong ride down the grand avenue during his Tour de France victories. It started to rain while I was walking so I quickly found a restaurant that looked good and stopped in for lunch. It was a Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant and I figured it would be a nice break from the rain. After I was done eating I headed back outside and headed in the general direction of  Champs-Élysées. On the way I enjoyed looking at all of the old buildings and was surprised when I walked past the Venezuelan and Argentian consulates and a statue of George Washington, or Giorgio Washington as the Italians like to refer to him. Once I saw the Arc de Triomphe I knew I was headed in the right direction and continued walking toward the historic avenue. Once I got to the large Arc I was surprised by how big it was! I have seen many pictures of it in which you can see cars which look tiny driving around it, but it was much larger than any of the arcs I have seen here in Italy, even the one in Rome near the Colosseum, which I believe is the largest one here. According to Wikipedia, the arc was built by Napoleon to commemorate his many victories and is so big that a plane flew through it during a celebration. 

After walking under the arc I headed down the avenue toward the Louvre Museum which is located at the very end. The avenue is lined with cafes and shops and there were people everywhere. I even saw a man wearing a St. Cloud River Runners jacket so I talked to him and I couldn't believe I actually ran into someone else from St. Cloud, Minnesota. The avenue is less than 2 miles long, but I spent several hours stopping at the various shops and I also decided to have lunch (apparently all the traveling and walking makes me really hungry). For the sake of saving money I decided to try a place called Quick which I knew from talking to Marine (my roommate) was France's answer to McDonald's. Although I am a MUCH bigger fan of Burger King than McDonald's, I must say that Quick was not as good as the golden arches. Burger King has zero locations in France, so I now understand why so many French people seem upset all of the time. I can't imagine not being able to run and get a Whopper. After eating I was still not even half way down the avenue to I continued to walk and the highlights were probably the show-floors for Mercedes and Renault. I did not even make it all the way down when I was really tired from walking and decided that going to a movie was a good idea. I "watched' Shutter Island, but I feel asleep before the movie started and woke up as it was ending-ooops! After the movie it was getting late so I headed back toward the subway stop at Trocadero since Adriana said she would make dinner so I could try authentic French food. After the ride back to Boulogne it was nice to finally be back for the night and I was able to meet Dominique, Adriana's husband. He was born and raised in France but he moved to Bogota, Colombia for a year with Adriana so I was able to speak to him in Spanish and like his wife, he was also extremely nice. For dinner Adriana made a delicious spinach quiche and we followed it up with different cheeses and wines for dessert. I think my mom would have really loved the quiche. After an exhausting day I was ready to go to bed! They set up a small bed on the floor in the corner of Dominque's 'den' area and it was perfect.

The next morning I had to get up early because I had signed up for a bike tour of the city. This was the day I probably saw the most beautiful things and unfortunately it was the only day I forgot my camera! I found out about the tour while Google-ing  things to do in Paris and it had hundreds of positive reviews. The company doing the tour is called Bike about Tours and I can honestly say that it was the highlight of my trip. On their website I found a review from another customer who summed up what I saw pretty well- He took us all over the place, from the Marais, to the Place de Vosges, the Latin Quarter, The Louvre, The Bastille, and more -- from small, 'secret' alleys and back streets with once-a-month weekend antique markets to crowded plazas with street performers. We stopped at a really good boulangerie/restaurant in the Latin Quarter where he suggested take-out sandwiches. Christian was my tour guide and he was an American who moved to Paris for college and fell in love with the city and never left. He was really informative and took us to his favorite places and seemed to know the history behind everything he showed us, and even the random places I would ask him about. For lunch I had a typical french sandwich on a baguette called something like jean bon beurre. I am not sure how to spell it, but that's how I think it was pronounced! It was just ham, cheese, and butter but it was pretty good and everyone told me I had to have one while in Paris. Unfortunately I found that eating sandwiches on baguettes make the roof of my mouth sore from biting down on the hard bread. The tour lasted five hours and we only stopped for lunch for like 25 minutes so we really covered a lot of ground. The city is divided by different districts or neighborhoods called arrondissements and I think we went through 5 or 6 of them! The best part of the tour was that I saw some extremely beautiful parts of the city that I would have never seen otherwise. I am extremely glad that I went on the tour and already booked another tour with them for when I visit Paris with Francisco for the French Open at the end of May. 

After the tour, it was already the afternoon and I walked around new parts of the city. You can imagine how tired I was after biking all day so I headed back to Adriana's for dinner. She said she was going to make crêpes for dinner so I was very excited. When I got back she was already making Tom his crêpes because he eats earlier but he only wanted desert crêpes. I think he had Japanese food for dinner earlier in the evening because he was too hungry to wait. I wanted to see how she made the crêpes so I talked to her in the kitchen while she cooked and it was fun watch her make them. For me she made them with ham and cheese and it was very very similar to a quesadilla except a crêpe is made with batter and not a flour tortilla. They were really good and was really excited when she made me a sugar crêpes and a nutella crêpe for dessert. The sugar crêpe only had sugar and butter in it, but it is extremely popular and common in France and it is surprisingly full of flavor even though the ingredients are so simple. The next morning I didn't have to be anywhere early so I was able to sleep in a little bit later and then headed out for a full day of sight-seeing. 

I am not sure if it is from being raised in the small cities/towns of Kissimmee and St. Cloud, but I really really like tall buildings and big cities. You can see it from the places I have decided to go after high school, once I was able to make these decisions on my own. From moving to Philadelphia for college, working in New York City and Minneapolis, and studying Abroad in Milano, I have constantly been in big cities. For this reason, I was looking forward to visiting La Défense which is a major business district in NW Paris and it is home the a concentration of sky skyscrapers, though it should be noted that the object which actually comes closest to scraping the sky is the Eiffel Tower which is the 2nd tallest structure in the entire country after a bridge. In the heart of La Défense is a huge Arch from which you can look down the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Something funny that happened was that in French Tours means Towers but I didn't know that so I followed a sign that said Tours Societe General because I thought you could take a tour of a bank and I didn't realize it until I got there and asked someone that there actually wasn't a tour. There is also a huge shopping center and I spent a fair bit of time inside walking around. 

After a few hours in this busy district I headed to The Louvre. I had seen the outside of this giant museum (the largest and most visited in the world) on the bike tour and it is really mind-blowing. It used to be a Royal Palace but the Aristocrats had to leave it during the Revolution. Friday's the museum is open late (until 9pm) and it is less expensive so it was a really nice time to be there. Before I went inside I walked around the grounds and admired the beautiful facility. The pyramid at the main entrance, which was built in the late 80s, has now become a symbol for the museum and it was really cool to finally see it. It almost felt like I was in the Da Vinci Code. After I made my way inside and got tickets I headed straight to the famous Mona Lisa. I had heard from many friends that the painting itself was very small so I was actually surprised by how normal sized it was. I think that people get the impression that the painting is very small because it is surrounded by huge mural-size paintings on both sides and it is in the middle of a room with extremely high ceilings. I was expecting to see a tiny picture but if the Mona Lisa were hanging in someone's house it would be a pretty good sized painting. After the Mona Lisa I walked around the other exhibits and everything was kind of pale in comparison but something else that was really cool were the Napoleon's apartments. A large area of the museum was restored the way it was when royalty lived there and it was really impressive to see how grand and opulent their lifestyle was. After I was satisfied with what I had seen at the museum I looked at my watch and noticed that the time was 8:40pm. I had been informed that the Eiffel Tower flashes every hour and I really wanted to see it so I rushed out to the subway so I could go to the tower to see it. I had only seen this on TV on new years so I didn't realize it was a daily event. I got out of the metro at 8:55 and literally ran as fast as I could so I wouldn't miss it. My timing was perfect because 10 seconds after I turned the corner and saw the massive tower it started to sparkle and shimmer with what looked like strobe lights all the way from the top to the bottom of it. I am not sure whose idea it was for the tower to do that every hour, but bless their soul because they bring a lot of joy and happiness to a lot of people. It was a really amazing sight. The tower continued to flash for 5 minutes but after it was done I headed home, but not before I stopped at a cart on the street for a nutella and banana crêpe.

The next day I headed straight to Montmartre and the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Adrian recommended seeing the hill and basilica to me and I am really glad she did because it would have been a shame to miss it. The church was extremely beautiful inside and out, but the whole surrounding neighborhood was really nice as well. I spent nearly 3 hours just walking around the area and stopping at small shops. I had pizza for lunch and met a man from Oregon and his son and we had a nice chat. After lunch I met up with my friend Laëtitia who goes to school here with me in Italy but her home university is HEC Paris. Since she was raised in the suburbs of Paris she was a great tour guide and took me to some really cool places. We began by going to the Sorbonne, the famous French University and it was situated in an awesome neighborhood. There were tons of young people and during the bike tour we were told that the night life in the area was amongst the best in the city. Afterwards we headed to the Jardin du Luxembourg which was a really nice park and she said her favorite place to go to in the city when the weather is nice. In the middle there was a little pond where children would rent small wooden sailboats and lunch them into the water and watch them. The Pantheon was located like a block from the park, but it was closed to we only got to see it from the outside. Unfortunately it was raining but we were hungry so we headed into a nearby cafe to seek shelter. I had a smoothie called "Jungle Juice" and a brownie and they were really good. Once the weather cleared up a bit we headed toward Les Invalides which is a complex of buildings and museums about France's military history and is where Napoleon Bonaparte is buried. It was already the early evening so everything was closed but it was a nice walk nonetheless. We proceeded toward the Seine River because Laëtitia thought going on a  boat tour would be fun for me to see. The boat tour was a lot of fun and it was interesting to see the city and its major landmarks like the Eiffel Tower from the water. The tour ended at Notre Dame and then it was time for us to go home. I made a quick stop at a nearby McDonald's to get a drink and use the bathroom but then excitedly hurried home because I remembered that Dominique promised to make a VERY typical French meal for dinner. I was excited to see what he would make, because he had been raving about it for days. He said that it was a typical meal from the mountains so I was curious to see what he meant. It was Raclette and you cook it at the table using a small appliance where you put different cheeses on a tray and melt them until it is soft and then you put the cheese on pieces of potatoes and different meats. I wasn't sure what I was going to think of the different cheeses but Dominique and Adriana really outdid themselves with that meal because I couldn't get enough!

I woke up the next morning (Easter Sunday) with excitement because I would be going on a day trip to Versailles. Dominique volunteered to drive me there so I wouldn't have to take the bus so we all got into their car for the short trip. They only live like 15 minutes from Versailles so it was really convenient since they practically live halfway between the palace and the center of Paris. Once I got to the palace I was immediately shocked by two things: how beautiful it was and how long the line to get tickets was. Unfortunately I had to wait in line for what seemed like at least an hour, but getting the chance to see the inside of the palace was well worth it. The King and Queen really knew how to live! They had rooms with paintings done by the likes of Raphael and other great artists and nothing but the nicest materials throughout the entire place. There really is no way to describe it because it was unlike anything I had ever seen. The grounds at the palace were insanely large with huge gardens and man made lakes. It was raining though so I decided to not pay to walk around in the rain. After I finished the tour of the palace I headed back to Adriana's on the bus and when I arrived Dominique asked me if I wanted to go see Roland Garros, which is where they hold the annual tennis grand slam, the French Open. I couldn't believe how close they lived to it! It was only like a 5 minute drive and he said you can get there walking in 15-20 minutes. Seeing the stadiums was really cool and I was also able to see one of the 2 large soccer stadiums in Paris, because it was on the way! The soccer stadium is the home of Paris St. Germain which is a really famous club where Ronaldinho used to play. After we got back to their apartment he said he was making a great dinner again and he was not mistaken. He had a large piece of beef and injected garlic into it and then put it in the over at a very high heat for like 2 minutes so the outside got cooked. After we cut it open the inside was still very raw but it was really really good. I hadn't had a good piece of beef in months and this was a perfect way to end that streak. 

The next day was my last full day in France and they invited me to Rouen, the capital of Normandy, for Tom's hockey tournament. They said I could go into the city and walk around during the games because the city was very nice. He had to be there at 8am and the drive there was an hour and a half so we had to get up really early. I had the same breakfast I had been having every morning in Paris, which was a brioche with coffee or a pain au chocolat with coffee and then we headed to the "country side". The drive was actually really nice and I got to see a part of France I wasn't expecting on seeing. When we got to the city I stayed and watched Tom play a game and it was cute because they could barely skate or pass (in the picture below notice that the goalie brought his teddy bear to the net during the game!). I then headed into the city and it seemed like a completely different country. For some reason I thought the buildings all looked like they could be in Belgium (I have never been to Belgium but that's what I pictured) and the architecture was much different than in Paris. It was still really nice though and the city had a really medieval feel to it. 

After his games we had another nice drive back to Boulogne and on the way into the city we could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance and it was really nice. We had some of the leftover meat from the night before for dinner and then I had to go to bed early because I had my flight to Madrid the next morning at 7am. Dominique volunteered to drive me to the airport before work and it was extremely nice of him. I had an incredible time in France and loved Paris and I can't wait to go back. I think Francisco will really enjoy the city as well. When he comes I would like to go to the top of Eiffel Tower since I didn't get the chance due to the weather and also go to the Musée d'Orsay which is supposed to be absolutely beautiful. I can't thank Adriana and Dominique enough for their hospitality and for being so kind to me during the whole week. 

Vive la France!!!



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