Riding the TGV and the Eiffel Tower – Europe 2012

This is part of a set of pages describing our trip in March 2012 to Europe.

Sunday, March 25

The contrast between this and the day before couldn’t have been more marked.  Where we just whiled away the time on Saturday, Sunday was a day with a mission.  We wanted to see the Eiffel Tower and had reserved tickets to go up.  That meant that we needed to be there are soon as possible to be able to drop off our bags and, hopefully, avoid any additional railway delays.

The railway continues to be my favorite method of getting around, in any country, for any purpose.  It is a continual disappointment living in North America, where train travel tends to have all of the defects of air travel – cost, delays, inflexibility – without any offsetting benefits.  Even my daily commuter train into Toronto is perpetually late.  Traveling by rail in Europe provides flexibility, was extraordinarily punctual in our experience, and connects you to a great many places.  Not everywhere by a long shot, but this trip was made possible largely because we could rely on trains to move us quickly and on time from point to point.

We had an early start and hit the shower next door at the hostel.  Unfortunately, we’d only just made it in before the other room with a key tried to use it too.  After that, they positioned themselves to tag team one another in and out of the room and so we were unable to use it any longer.  This was annoying but no big deal, since we still had access to the group washrooms down the hall.  However, if you are traveling with younger children and counting on the convenience of this sort of arrangement, beware that you may be better off foregoing any extra expense of having access to a single shared washroom among two rooms.

By now, our morning packing routine is down to a science.  All dirty clothes are bunged into a third bag that was brought along to separate them out from the remaining clean clothes.  We had access to laundry machines but relied the durability of jeans to cut down on our need to bring excess clothes.  We had also been extremely fortunate with the weather.  While our bags were packed with clothes that would allow us to layer – as we do when we go camping – we had yet to use our warmest layers.  The weather had just been too nice.

Travelling à Grand Vitesse

We took the funicular once last time and walked past the parliament again for some last photos.  Our eldest son loves the game Minecraft and was already imagining recreating some of the locations he’d visited inside the game.  We had not withdrawn any money in Switzerland – which uses the Swiss franc, not the euro – and had paid for everything with euros.  This had left us with a bit of Swiss change but it meant we hadn’t had to fool around with anything but euros the entire trip.

Today was going to be a highlight in many ways.  We took the Intercity to Basel, at the French-Swiss border and then climbed aboard the TGV.  This is one of the real pearls to a Eurail pass.  The high speed ride from Basel to Paris today was not only going to be the height of luxury with our 1st class Eurail pass, it would be the most expensive part.  If we had had to buy tickets, this one 3 hour ride would have cost the equivalent of half of our entire Eurail pass.  By only needing to purchase reservations, we got to experience one of the great railways of the world at fraction of the price.

Unfortunately, by now train travel is almost old hat.  We all settled in – we had bought sandwiches in advance – and had a bite to eat and watched as the train left Basel.  Soon a conductor came by to check our tickets and to warn us not to eat too much, as this train had meal service.  The boys still checked all of the switches in their seats – flicking on reading lights and sliding seats forward and back – and then watched as the scenery flew by.

And it flew by.  It was clearly moving far faster than any train we had been on so far.  At the end of each car was a small screen that showed how fast we were going.  I hadn’t really noticed it at first but then it was mesmerizing to see the speed slowly climb, as high as 315 km/h at one point, although I wasn’t fast enough to capture a picture of that.  We had a lovely lunch – including foie gras, cheese, lovely steak and asparagus – and were enjoying the countryside but very quickly started to slow down in our approach to Paris.

Just as with our arrival in Munich from the airport, it was a noticeable change from the vast countryside, full of farms and vineyards, to the suburban sprawl of Paris.  We pulled into the eastern train station – the Gare de Lyon – and made our way immediately for the subway.  We would take the subway to our hotel and then off to the Eiffel Tower.

The Metro to Place Pigalle

We now entered our third metropolitan subway system and, without question, the most uneven of the three.  The first I noticed of this was when I attempted to purchase our transit passes.  The initial batch of self-serve kiosks were broken and many of others were single purpose – you could refill your commuter pass but not purchase anything.  I found a kiosk in the end, with a strange rolling bar for selecting a choice.  It spat out the 5 visitor passes that I purchased.  But when I went to the ticket booth to collect the 5 pass wallets and visitors maps, the seller shrugged his shoulders at my request, like it was news to  him.  As we were to learn before the night was over, the wallets were important so I was glad I nagged him for 5 of them at this point.

We took the 14 metro north and then changed to a second line to go to Pigalle.  Our hotel was just off the Place Pigalle and we were going to drop off our bags and settle in a bit before heading out for dinner and the Eiffel tower.

The hotel was one recommended by the Sleeps5 site, the Hotel Migny Opera Montmartre.  It looks a bit swank on their Web site but it had a very Western feel to it.  The room for 5 was smaller than the room we had in the youth hostel but the furnishings were updated.  There were some unusual European quirks.  If you left your window open for fresh air, you might get the smoke from the smoking patio below coming in.  Although it is eco-friendly, your room only had power while the key was in the room, so you couldn’t charge devices while you were away from the hotel.  These were minor things to which to adapt but it was interesting that we were coming across a whole new set of experiences that we hadn’t come across in the previous week.

La Tour Eiffel

It seems almost criminal not to go to see the Eiffel Tower if you are in Paris.  This was the most recognizable thing we were visiting, and would probably have done so even if our daughter hadn’t specifically designated it as a must-see sight.  You can reserve tickets online in advance and this lead to a misunderstanding on my part.  Since this was such an important point on our trip, I wanted to secure spots in advance of our visit.  But when I went to reserve space, nearly every slot for the days that we were going to be in Paris was booked.  It was incredible!  Eventually I made reservations for 9pm on the Sunday evening but it meant that we were even more determined to be there on time in order to use our reservations.

It was nice to have the reservations paid for and in hand when we went to the tower.  We rode the metro to the Bir Hakeim stop (named after the famous World War II battle in the North African desert)  and walked over to Rue Desaix, where we stopped at a mediocre Italian restaurant for dinner.  It wasn’t bad but nothing special.  The funniest thing was that every table near us was seated with American tourists!  That may say something about our choice or merely the proximity to the tower!

After dinner, we were ready to go to the tower and stand in line for awhile.  And it would be awhile.  Prior to leaving, the ticket reservation service e-mailed us to let us know that one of the two elevators was broken and would not be repaired by our arrival.  This meant that all the 9pm reservations that would normally use two elevators would now use just one!  We also found that reservations were just half of the attendees at the tower.  If you didn’t reserve a ticket, you could still queue up and they would let you through.  It seems as though the reservation helps them to manage the possible press of people by dispersing them across time slots.  In the end, however, you do not necessarily get on faster than someone who does not have a reservation.

The night flew by with plenty of interesting things to watch, whether it was children behaving badly, the armed soldiers patrolling the base of the tower, or the light show that suddenly flashed on as dusk turned to night.  Lots of oohs and aahs!  It was quite pretty to stand underneath the tower and see the elevators going up the lighted framework.

We slowly snaked through the lines and climbed into the elevator for the ride up.  This was the part I had been dreading.  I am not a fan of heights and it was all I could do to look out as we slowly climbed higher and higher.  We were, of course, going to the summit!  Then we stopped, for which I was thankful until I realized that was because we now had to switch to a GLASS high speed elevator that would take us the rest of the way!

It was far more enjoyable than I expected.  We all enjoyed looking out across the night sky at the lights across the city.  Boats floating down the Seine were clearly seen, as were buildings like Les Invalides and l’Arc de Triomphe.  It was getting quite chilly by this time but the first level at the summit is enclosed.  You can also go up to a second, external balcony, which we did for awhile, before finally coming back in and riding down to the bottom.

It was a good night but we were all now quite exhausted.  The lack of an elevator had meant that we had gone up around 10pm instead of 9pm.  Now we made our way with the crowds of other people – there were always crowds around the Eiffel Tower as far as I could see – to the subway station.  Then we had trouble.

None of our passes would work.  I had carefully written down the pass wallet number on each cardboard wafer, with the person’s name next to it, as much for my organization as for anything else.  Then I had placed all 5 wafers into one wallet and carried that.  We had passed them through on the way down but now they wouldn’t work.  Apparently I had demagnetized them, whether by having them in the same pocket as my cellphone or my camera, it wasn’t clear.

We waited as the ticket seller reissued all 5 passes and let me know that I should be more careful with them, and that they should each remain in their own wallet.  Lesson learned.  One might ask why such flimsy tickets are used, that are so easily demagnetized by proximity to one of the most common technology devices in history, but I refrained.  We clambered back onto the metro, retraced our steps to the Place Pigalle, and headed for the hotel.

It was only at night that I noticed some of the less wholesome businesses in the neighborhood.  I was carrying our youngest on my shoulders when he suddenly said, “Daddy, what is a Sex Shop” – his reading is coming along quite well, as you can see – as he looked at the two words in neon on a shop across the street.  I dodged that one as well as I could but I now noticed a number of other questionable establishments that we hadn’t really noticed on our walk down the street earlier in the day.  In fact, as we walked in the neighborhood in the next two days, it was clear that, street by street, you could veer wildly between red light district and typical tourist traps or everyday Parisian shops.

We all collapsed at the hotel, although we watched a bit of Tintin and the Blue Oranges on television before all finally going to sleep.  Since our two eldest are studying French in school, it was funny to see their reaction to French television.  Just as we had seen TV in Germany and Austria, this was a slightly different experience.  The advertisements continued to contain words that were slightly familiar or words that they understood from their classroom work.  As our daughter said, though, she had no idea how fast the language is spoken.  That was just one of many interesting observations they had over the holiday about language, both the ones they understood (English and some French) and the ones they didn’t (French and German).

We would be walking around Paris tomorrow but on our own schedule and at our own pace.

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