The Royal Walking Tour and the Champs Elysees – Europe 2012

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

Monday, March 26th

Only two days until we fly home and still so much to do.  The news has been dominated by the murders in Toulouse and lots of interesting discussions about who is or isn’t French.  There is nothing noticeable on the streets of Paris as we made an early start on Monday morning.

The hotel’s breakfast is noticeably different from every other one we have had so far this trip.  While there is a bit of cheese and salami – our staples for breakfast by now – the lion’s share of food is bread, including what look like danish (pastries) and croissants.  There is also yogurt and a coffee cake that delights our youngest one’s palate!  It feels much more like the quickie continental breakfast travellers in North America experience at lower budget hotels.  There is a German student group here with adult chaperones, as well as plenty of regular tourists.  Unlike the youth hostels, which had cafeterias built for large groups, it is a challenge to seat 5 in the nook and cranny lounges of the hotel.  Similarly, the food runs out quickly so there is more of a run-on-the-bank feeling to filling a plate and moving on.

We are near to Montmartre, as the hotel’s name suggests, so we are starting there this morning.  We walk up the hill, heading first east and then north until we are at the foot of the hill on which the Basilique du Sacre Coeur sits.  It’s a lovely white building – built of travertine, a self-bleaching limestone – that towers over you once you are in front of it.

There is also a funicular railway, so we line up for that.  It is another funny experience.  There are a limited number of spots on the rail car, only one of which is working today.  There are three gates to allow passengers to validate their tickets.  It becomes a race to get in and one couple is split, as one gets through but the last seat is taken by a passenger validating through a different booth.  We are near the front of the line, so I prepare our five passes and, when our turn comes, shoot each one through as one of the kids and then Leila walks through the gate.

The ride is brief but worth it.  In the next hour we will be walking 300 steps up to the dome of the Basilica, so eliminating another 200 up to the foot of the building helps us out.  The Basilica is beautiful and it’s a gorgeous morning to see it.  The view from the front steps is also lovely, and we can now see Les Invalides and the Eiffel Tower in day light for the first time.  We tour the interior and then pay to head down to the crypt and then to climb to the dome.  It is worth it to see the view from the dome, although my favorite element was the statue of what looks like St. George killing a crocodile.  There is a mosaic or painting of this inside the basilica, but you can also see a verdigris-covered statute on the roof when you look down from the dome, facing north.

We headed down and rode the metro from Les Abbesses to the Arc de Triomphe.  We would start our walking tour here.

The Arch of Triumph and the Royal Tour

The Arc de Triomphe was another “I’ve seen that” attraction.  It is common in pictures of both France’s defeat to the Germans and its liberation by the Allies in World War II.  Almost as mesmerizing, though, was the traffic as it flew around the Place Charles de Gaulle with no apparent rules other than custom and practice of those driving.  It was confirmation for me, at least, that trains were a far better choice for our travel than engaging in city traffic with unknown conventions.

We walked down the Champs Elysees towards the Louvre.  We were not going to visit the museum but there was much to see and enjoy on the way there.  There was plenty of opportunity to shop on the first third, although it was a mixture of both luxury brands and far more common than I would have expected to see.  By the time we reached the French President’s house, things had become much more somber and old-fashioned.   Vienna strikes me as a far more gilded city, although we were now coming to an area of Paris that probably would give it a run for its money.  Massive statues loomed from buildings, and gold was lavished on some of them.

The Place de la Concorde was our next destination, due to both the obelisque (after its namesake, Obelix) as well as the phenomenal traffic circle within which it lives.  We took it all in and then moved into les Tuileries, the gardens where the former palace had stood.  It was busy with tourists on this hot day and we strolled along in the shade of the trees on one side.  By this time we had worked up an appetite and stopped at one of the outdoor restaurants in the gardens for lunch.

It was terribly dusty, with a breeze blowing grit around the trees.  There were hordes of tourists, something we hadn’t seen much on the trip so far. The waiters at the restaurant literally run with the orders to each table.

Ours was a rather taciturn fellow who made the motions of writing down our order and then balled it up and threw it on the ground.  Perhaps it was part of his method of remembering what he has written down.  In any event, we picked it up – our anti-littering North American sentiments aroused – and stuffed it into a safe place on the table so that it could be tidied away later.  He returned with some lovely salads and sandwiches shortly, as well as plenty of  water.  After he had placed all the dishes in front of us and wished us bon appetit, he grabbed the paper again and as he sped off, dashed it onto the ground again!  We had a good laugh about wandering over, picking it up, and putting it back on the table!

Feeling refreshed, we made our way through the rest of the gardens and into the courtyard of the Louvre museum.  I have had the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa in the museum and was unimpressed.  This feeling was compounded by a book I read recently on common sense which only confirmed in me that there was no need to drag the kids into the museum to look at any of the works inside.  We looked at the pyramids in front of the museum, and triangular pools and fountains, and then continued on our way.  Our eldest was pleased to have so many opportunities to film water, while the rest of us enjoyed a bit of a rest.

Louvre Pyramid and Fountain by Gillian Whelan

We continued along, past the Pont Neuf, to the Ile de la Cite, where we took in the Cathedrale of Notre Dame.  Again, we looked at the outside and this was probably our most rushed moment.  Our middle child was in need of a toilet and there was none to be found.  It is only when you are looking for one that you realize that there aren’t any to be found.

I walked up to a magazine stand and asked – in my best French – for the nearest WC and received directions that took us to the foot of the cathedral.  But the bathrooms were out of order and there was no way to know where the next nearest ones might be.  We ended up taking photographs of the windows and flying buttresses from the outside and then moving on to our next stop, the Luxembourg Gardens.  Of all the things that we saw on the trip. our eldest noted that the inside of Notre Dame is one of the things that she will look forward to seeing in the future.

We took the metro to the Jardins du Luxembourg and immediately found a washroom!  We also found a water fountain for drinking, so we refilled our water bottles and had a nice stroll through the gardens.  It was funny to see so many people in the gardens but none of them on the lawns.  There were chairs everywhere you looked, with people reading or snoozing, but only on the dirt paths.

As we headed across the gardens towards the collection of statues and the palace, where the Senat sits, the park become more and more of a dust bowl.  It was a bit of a swiz as a garden, providing far less green grass for people to enjoy nor yet as many flowers as you might expect in a garden, although that may be down to the season.  But its facilities saved our son and bought us a bit more time as we wandered out and down the street to Sainte Sulpice, which was on a lovely square.

Walking Tour - "Royal Tour" - along the Champs Elysee, from Arc de Triomphe to Louvre

We didn’t stop but instead headed back to the hotel.  The kids had walked over 3 miles just on the Champs Elysees and everyone was dragging a bit.  We hunted around the hotel for a restaurant but saw nothing convincing, so we grabbed some sandwiches at a Subway restaurant, succumbing to tourist blight.  We redeemed ourselves by stopping at a bakery on Rue des Martyrs, which sold (appropriately enough) Opera cake, as well as other delicious desserts.  As we stood choosing from the selection, a stream of people lined up for their evening baguette in a ritual we had never seen before.  We were the only people in the shop buying anything other than the single loaf of quintessentially French bread.

Back at the hotel, we enjoyed our dessert and went to bed.  One more day of touring to go, and it would be another long one.  We would be taking the train to Caen, then renting a car for the drive up to the Normandy beaches.

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