France: day 11, 12, 13 & 14

DAY 11

So much for sleeping in. The alarm went off at 6:45, and a room-service breakfast later we were picking up RER train tickets at Musee D’Orsay. About half an hour later we’d reached the Chateau de Versailles.

The teeming throng leading up to the palace should have been a warning. It was…well, a bit much. Spectacular, to be sure, but almost too big and too ornate and most certainly too crowded. At points I was wading through crowds of Japanese tourists to get anywhere.

The Hall of Mirrors was of particular interest to us, given the historical importance, but this was among the only shots we could get before being overrun by tour groups. We continued on in the loop around the inside of the building, but despite a few quiet moments to admire the palace’s art, it just didn’t live up to the expectations we had.

After fleeing the building we explored the gardens, or at least part of them.

They were truly enormous, and despite walking for over and hour we covered only a corner of the grounds. Had we known before we started that you could rent Segways to get around the ground, despite what it cost, we might’ve gone that route. Funnily enough, though, after we walked five minutes from the Chateau itself into the gardens, we were completely alone. I guess people only care to take picture of each other standing in front of Marie Antoinette’s dresser.

I can understand why people say Versailles is a must-see, but I can see now why Parisiens try to dissuade visitors from going there. The friend we met at Les Blotteries suggested we try Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte instead, as it’s like a more condensed version with smaller crowds. Anyway, back to the RER train we went, and had some charcuterie for lunch. By the way, at this point I was drinking coffee at the end of every meal. In the previous week I’d drunk as much coffee as I’d consumed in the entire previous 34 years.

We got back to the hotel for some much needed relaxation and recuperation (I’d hurt my shin somehow, and Nellie was nursing various blisters), and got a surprise. Presumably to make up for the earlier mishaps our hotel’s front desk had sent up a bottle of champagne and two glasses. We hastily throw the whole thing down our necks and proceed to the Louvre. Drunk art woo!!

Two years ago when we visited the Louvre we only had an hour or so, so we sped through to the vital locations: the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. This time we had no such time constraints and took a more leisurely pace. Sneaking in through the Lion’s Gate entrance was a great idea, and we soon landed in the great halls of Spanish and Italian painters, far less crowded than the narrow spaces of the Musee D’Orsay.

As usual, there were great heaping crowds of gawkers at the Mona Lisa. I all but hurried past it to reach The Raft of the Medusa in the next room. We saw the rest of the paintings in that wing, and then went upstairs to see the Dutch, Flemish, German and French works.

By the time we finished our feet were killing us, and the pain in my shin (felt almost like shin splints) had become almost unbearable, so we limped home and relaxed for a few hours. We didn’t want to go far for dinner, so the bistrot around the corner seemed ideal. It was a great meal too: I had smoked salmon and dorado with a bottle of white. Nellie had a duo of chevre and a steak. My molten chocolate dessert was very good, as was Nellie’s trio of creme brulee. It was all in a nice relaxed atmosphere too, as evidenced by the local couple who arrived just before 10:00 with their Jack Russell in tow, who sat under the table while they ate. Coffee or not, neither of us could stay awake for long and we dragged our tired bones home and into bed.

DAY 12

We now decided to enter the relaxation portion of the trip. We slept in, at least as much as possible given the noisy street outside. We ordered another room-service breakfast, lay about reading and kept off our feet for a while. By late morning we thought we’d take a quick, casual stroll over toward the shopping area on Rue St-Peres, stopping in at the Paris installation of M0851, then walked a little further. Suddenly we realized how close we were to the Jardins du Luxembourg and decided to just go there.

After sitting in the sun in front of the pool for a little while, we also realized we were close to a lunch place recommended by a colleague at work: Cuisine de Bar. A few minutes later we were eating tartines (like an open-faced sandwich) in a tiny little spot. Cool little find that I simply would not have known about but for that recommendation, and highly recommended if you’re looking for a good, fast, inexpensive lunch in Paris.

We walked (sloooowly) back to the hotel and chilled for a bit, then went out to do a little more shopping and had a few drinks on the patio at the hotel’s bar. No sense running all over Paris; we’d seen most of the sights, and we were determined to squeeze in a little R&R. And anyway, I’m on the limp.

For dinner we ended up returning to the Cafe des Lettres, where we ate Monday night, because we’d liked it so much. Same great food, same lovely patio, same attractive servers. Just as good the second time!

DAY 13

Our various tweaks and injuries didn’t stop us from taking one last swing around the city and exploring a new neighbourhood. We took the metro down to Montparnasse, gawked at the tower and then strolled through the cemetery.Serge Gainsbourg’s grave was covered in shlock.

We tried to visit the catacombs, but they were closed because of vandalism. Boo. In light of this defeat we opted to console ourselves with food and, more importantly, beer. We walked up the street to a place recommended on BeerAdvocate called Academie de la Biere. I had an Erdinger, Nellie had a Westmalle Brune and then we shared a bottle of French beer called La Goudale.

We kept walking up, passing again through the Jardin du Luxembourg and into the Latin Quarter. We tried to make a reservation at Fish for a return visit, but they were all booked up for the night. We ran some last-minute errands, had a dessert and coffee, did an Air Canada web check-in, started packing and relaxed in the room for a while. There was nothing left to do but eat dinner, finish packing, fill out the room service menu and set the alarm. Dinner was a quick, quiet affair at a little spot around the corner. Nothing fancy, nothing remarkable, just a decent meal in a neighbourhood spot.

DAY 14

We woke up far too early for our liking and got our stuff into a cab. And what a cab! There’s something unsettling about riding in a minibus on the peripherique highway around Paris listening to Boney M, especially when you’re doing 150 and weaving through traffic like a lunatic. On the plus side, it’s nice to be the world record holder for the fastest trip ever recorded from Saint-Germain to Charles de Gaulle airport. Turns out all the speed was for naught as our flight was delayed by over an hour, but we eventually got on our flight and started the long flight west.

On the flight home moments and memories from the previous two weeks flashed through my now-numb brain. The beauty of the Loire Valley. The wonderful hosts we’d met at tiny inns and B&Bs around the country. The cathedrals book-ending our drive, at Chartres and Reims. The remnants of war in Normandy, Vimy and the Somme valley. The perfect weekend in Champagne, especially as it was spent with my brother. Even lunch at the brasserie in Chartres on our first day, which seemed a distant memory, which I remembered in the same fond way I remember the first day of university or starting a new job: the beginning of a new adventure.

I think it will be some time before I can see it all clearly, and recognize what an amazing trip it was. Upon returning to Toronto we dove straight back into work and attempted to get our lives back in game shape, going through the mechanics of recovering from a two-week vacation. As such, it doesn’t feel yet as if we had an adventure…just that we were away. But later, once all the chaotic brush strokes of this trip have been laid out on a single canvas in my mind, I’ll have a work of art to return to, to admire, for the rest of my life.

And that’s why we go.

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