Dusk at Le Louvre

Dusk at Le Louvre

Well, I can already see that this is going to be a somewhat sporadic record of my trip.  I’m realizing that I’ve set too ambitious a set of journalistic tasks to keep up with everything.  I’ve got a video journal, photographs, this written journal, Facebook, Picasa, and e-mails.  Catching the sights while switching between a relatively beefy SLR and video camera is almost enough hassle.  Finding out spots where I can snag some free WiFi to get online has proven to be a time-consuming pursuit.  Once I do get online, it takes a fair amount of time to upload photos to both Picasa and Facebook, trying to annotate the photos with something reasonably intelligent.  Last night I stayed at a café til about 1 am trying to catch up with all that.  Oh, and I’m supposed to be enjoying my trip too!  I need to come up with a better strategy.

Anyway, to catch up from my last written record… I do not get to add to my chronicles of travel misadventure with any stories about a bag that took a trip to Singapore and back.  In fact, my bag was about the fourth to emerge along the baggage claim belt.  I breezed through customs without so much as a stamp in my passport, grabbed the RER train to Gare du Nord, and walked to my hostel a few blocks away.

I was mostly glad to have found a place to stay for the night; something better than a cozy corner underneath Pont Neuf, anyway.  In the end, I’m not sure which would have been more comfortable.  I stayed my first night in the Friends Hostel on Rue de la Chapelle, just on the border of the northernmost arrondisment in Paris.  Well, I might as well have been in Kenya.  I’m not just saying that there were lots of black people around, I’m saying there were lots of Africans around–dressed in their full village garb.  Rue de la Chapelle is split into a sort of boulevard with a raised metro track running down the middle.  The hostel is on the north side of this street, and I found so is the beginning of this lively section of town.  Vendors were hawking all sorts of things, but mostly, improbably, audio cassette tapes!  I didn’t even know these still existed!  Others were selling what looked like smoked corn on the cob, which they had hanging in tin buckets on stolen grocery carts.  Swarms of people crowded the street, more than a few of them fully drunk at this early hour.  Mostly, everyone was talking very loudly, almost yelling.

The hostel itself had only about 6 feet of street frontage, with a very narrow and dismal reception.  The place only accepted cash, so I had to toss my backpack in a communal luggage room and take my chances with the natives once again, hoping they wouldn’t follow me to the ATM machine 2 blocks away.  I was assigned room 10, and I thankfully found an open bottom bunk and just enough room to lean my backpack against the open window.  My view out the window was of the hostel’s sign, the streets of Nairobi below, and the eye-level metro across the street.  There was an almost constant sound of European sirens in the background.  I decided not to eat that first night.  Instead, I took a shower in the comically-tiny shower and then settled down to do a little research on my travels.  I found a weak WiFi signal that allowed me to pay a few Euros for a day of Internet access.  I uploaded some photos, did some e-mailing, and then went to bed.  To my surprise, it was already 1 am.  I guess my biological clock was still a few hours behind.

I was awakened the next morning by a guy who told me I needed to get out of the room so he could clean it.  I realized I had been sleeping through a cacophony of noise and it was already after 11.  I already knew the hostel was booked for tonight, so my first order of business was to find lodging for the night.  The man at the reception desk was in an extended argument with another guy who was trying to get back the money he had already paid for the next 3 nights.  He apparently didn’t like the hostel very much.  I asked if his departure meant there would be room for me, but they couldn’t promise me anything until after 3.  So, I left my backpack in the communal luggage room again, grabbed my laptop and trotted a few blocks away to a café where I grabbed an Omlette and some free WiFi.  I made a few phone calls and was quite pleased to hear that the Hotel Mije now had an opening for the night.  I had tried already to reserve a spot with them before I left Connecticut, but they claimed that they were fully booked.  Pretty soon it was nearly 4 pm, so I went back to the Friend’s Hostel to collect my bag and head for more cheerful surrounds.  When I returned the man at the reception told me that he had a nice room for me with a shower.  It was room 10, where I had spent the previous night.  No thanks, au revoir.

With my rather over-packed backpack riding high above my head, I crossed the street to the metro station.  Paris’ Metropolitan is about as extensive and complicated as New York’s subway.  I needed to consult my map, so I paused where it looked safest on the landing of some stairs next to four police officers.  During the three minutes that I stood there, the officers arrested one of the passing Kenyans.  I couldn’t get out of there soon enough!

I took the metro to Bastille where I transferred for two more hops to the St. Paul stop.  Hotel Mije has three locations, but mine was just around the corner at 6 Rue de Fourcy.  As I emerged from the subway, I was greeted with a carousel, happy families, and street-side shops selling crepes.  On a quiet side street, the hotel had blue doors that served more as a gate to a lovely courtyard.  I was staying in one of the large dorm suites one the second floor (which would be the third floor in America).  The first of only 4 people to arrive in the 9-bed suite, I picked a small room with two large windows that opened out over the courtyard below.

After a quick survey of my very appealing new digs, I thanked the Lord for His goodness and went off to do my first real exploration of the city.  The hotel was only about two blocks north of the Seine, so I made my way along the river, briefly regarding a crowd of people along the river’s edge where a summer festival was getting under way.  I crossed Pont Sully and then walked the northern edge of Ile Saint Louis, eventually crossing to the next island where I took in the gothic views of Notre Dame.  The late afternoon light was just reaching that “golden hour” as I crossed the river to the south side and walked beneath Pont Neuf, just to check out whether or not it would have been a better spot to sleep my first night.  I crossed back over the river on Pont des Arts, a wooden pedestrian bridge covered with people out picnicking.  Just on the other side of this bridge, I entered the eastern courtyard of the Louvre, turned left, and emerged in the main courtyard where the familiar glass pyramids greeted me.  Having only been here during the winter, the series of pools and fountains were new for me, and I enjoyed sitting at the water’s edge and watching the afternoon turn to dusk.  The mood was a bit like being in Central Park on a Saturday, and everyone seemed happy to be there and in no rush to leave.

Eventually, I made my way northeast through some gardens and on to the Georges Pompideau Center.  Along the way, I happened to pass Au Pied du Cochon, a popular restaurant where I had dined during my first visit to Paris over 5 years ago.  This is the place where I sat next to a bunch of fashion models who invited me to join the for drinks.  Who can forget a place like that?  For the record, I declined, making some lame excuse about having to get up early to leave in the morning.  She replied, “Well, OK, but your life could have possibly taken a whole new direction.  Now you’ll never know…”  I thought to myself, “You’re absolutely right, but that would most likely have been a bad direction.”

After passing the rather ugly Pompideau Center, I made it back to my room where I met my roommate who happened to be from Los Angeles.  I did a little work on my computer and went to bed, this time to the pleasant sound of rain falling outside my window.  And no sirens.

I awoke the next morning and had the very meager breakfast that is included with the stay at the Mije.  The restaurant is located in the crypt-like basement of the building, but it was very clean and well-lit, making for a pretty neat atmosphere.  I intended to grab a photo down there, but never got around to it.

I then walked a few blocks to the Bastille Monument where I took a sidewalk table at Café Francais and ordered an over-priced chocolat chaud so that I could sit there and use their WiFi for the next 1 ½ hours.  I trotted back to the hotel, exchanged my laptop for my daypack, and decided to walk the 2 kilometers to Gare de Lyon.  I ended up waiting in the wrong line for about half an hour before heading to the correct line to purchase my ticket to Fontainebleau.  The train ride only took about 45 minutes, and I arrived in town around 3:30.  I met a couple of students from Juliard while riding the bus to the chateau on the other end of town.  They were there to perform some Schubert and Mozart in a series of evening concerts at the chateau.  My admission to the chateau included an audio guide, where I learned that I had been pronouncing the name of the city incorrectly.  Regardless of its pronunciation, the chateau was not the least bit disappointing.  One thing that always gets me about the royal residences of France is how ridiculously oversized they all are.  The Louvre, perhaps the grandest building I’ve ever been in, used to be a palace.  I decided against going to the overcrowded Versailles, where I’ve heard lies an almost unsurpassed monument to excess, with 700 rooms, 2153 windows, 352 chimneys, 50 fountains, 6300 paintings, 2100 sculptures and statues, 15,000 engravings, etc…  Well, Fontainebleau has 1,900 rooms and plenty of grandeur.  Several of the Henrys lived here, as well as Napoleon.  I took lots of photos, but eventually stopped, realizing that even I would get bored with yet another photograph of yet another over-decorated room.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the throne room and the surrounding king’s apartments.  It was also neat to see the room and table where Napoleon signed his first abdication and the steps where he said his farewell before leaving for exile in Elba.

After visiting the inside of the chateau, I walked through some of the gardens and then along the 1.2 kilometer canal.  From here I walked for a ways through some lovely, tree-lined paths that jutted out diagonally in all directions.  I found my way through town and eventually found the edge of the foret de Fontainebleau.  This used to be the favorite hunting grounds for the kings and is now a huge recreational area with lots of hiking trails.  After walking a total of probably 6 or 7 miles, I made it back into town where I grabbed a bus and train back to Paris.

I spent the evening at a rather noisy café where I again made use of their WiFi.  Paris is Europe’s city which never sleeps, and even as I realized that it was 1 am, there were groups of people arriving for dinner.  In a courtyard across the street, a group of kids played soccer in the rain.  Realizing that I had to get up in only 5 ½ hours, I packed up and walked back to the hotel, enjoying the magical cobbled streets that come alive after a fresh rainfall.

Right now, I’m finishing up this catch-up entry in my journal while watching the French countryside blur past at well over 100 mph.  I’ve watched beautiful farmland change into increasingly rolling hills and now a drier, more rocky geography.  We recently made a stop in Avignon and are only about an hour away from Nice.  The Lord was good to me yet again this morning, as I woke up of my own accord around 6:20.  I thought about going back to sleep for another 10 minutes until my alarm went off, but decided to get up anyway.  I packed my remaining things and found myself at Gare de Lyon by 7:15.  About 10 minutes after the train departed, my alarm went off in my pocket.  A bit confused, I looked at it more closely and realized that today is Sunday, where I have my alarm set to 8:20.  I had set my weekday alarm to 6:30, so thank God I woke up by myself (after only just over 4 hours of sleep) or I would have certainly missed my train.

I haven’t eaten anything yet today, so I’m going to head up to the dining car.  I just got my first glimpse of the blue Mediterranean about two minutes ago.  According to my iPhone, we’re passing through Marseille.  Time to put my laptop away; we’ll see when I get it pulled back out again…

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