All Together Now: Paris and Versailles

DSC_0434Monday 6th June
4 years ago during London 2012 my mate John and I had discussed seeing a football tournament abroad. We’d discussed Rio in 2014 and whilst he visited South America when the tournament was on I stayed at home having only recently returned from my 5 month “walkabout”. Euro 2016 in France was much more doable and whilst we both applied for two sets of tickets in different cities we were ultimately only successful with one selection in Bordeaux however we decided to start our journey in Paris.

My flight from Gatwick wasn’t until lunch time so I cannot use the excuse I was tired once I reached the airport. Perhaps the early starts I usually put myself through force me to focus more because at security I forgot to take my belt off. The flight was scheduled to take 85 minutes however the actual time spent in the air was only about 40 minutes and the majority of the ‘flight’ was therefore spent on the runway at Gatwick during which time I had a peaceful nap.

Once I’d arrived at Charles de Gaulle I made my way on the bus to the city centre. The journey took a lot longer than the 50 minutes advertised and seemed to spend ages on the approach to the Stade de France. It did however mean that I got a good view of the stadium that was to be used in the opening ceremony for the 2016 European Championship.

I met John at the Grand Hotel opposite the same shopping centre I’d said goodbye to Victoria only 6 days earlier. The weather couldn’t have been any more of a contrast, where as a week before I’d been cold and soaked on this occasion I was overheating. Luckily John had a beer waiting for me and it was very pleasant sitting outside the bar with a nice view of the Opera House.

Eventually we made way to the hotel which was simple enough to find, hung our Euro 2016 flag up (just as a bit of fun), unpacked, freshened up and finally made our way back out to get dinner. We eventually set upon a restaurant called The Crêperie Framboise Champs Elysées which offered a deal which included a main crepe, dessert crepe and a drink.

Some may have relaxed at a local bar whereas we went straight in to exploration mode. We made the most of our location and walked up the Champs Elysées to the famous Arc de Triomphe. The queue to get in was long, no doubt because it was the first sunny evening since the previous Saturday but we persevered. We made it to the top just in time for the wonderful pink sunset and then in the distance John noticed a thunderstorm with flashes of lightning which looked quite spectacular. We stayed until it was dark and security started to clear people off.

Once we were back on ground level we decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower. Due to its size and the beam of light we knew what direction to head in and it was a fairly simple journey. We arrived at the same bridge Victoria and I had passed under a week before when we had desperately tried to catch our cruise. The path we had walked along was still quite a few feet under water due to the recent floods and the river was running incredibly fast.

We watched a bit of the famous light display which was impressive and although vendors tried to sell us some beers we politely declined. It seemed everyone else in the park had taken up the option and there was a good relaxed vibe, although a lot of litter. Eventually we decided to go home and opted for a taxi rather than public transport. We’d certainly made the most of our first evening and once we were back in the hotel we both fell asleep almost as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Tuesday 7th June
The next morning I was up first and once we were both ready we went down to breakfast. We were in good time when we left the hotel to get the train to Versailles which was good because the mainline station was on 2 levels and there was no central departure board showing which level or platform we needed. The usual, more simple route recommended for tourists was suspended due to the floods and due to a national strike there were less trains on the route we intended to use which meant the train was also particularly busy.

We arrived in Versailles and without seeing any signs made our way in the direction which seemed most direct however it meant we accidentally bypassed the main street through the town which would probably have been a more interesting walk. Once we arrived John got a photo with his Yorkshire flag however it hadn’t escaped the attention of the security team who promptly removed it from him as soon as his bag was searched.

The queue to get in to the palace was quite long however moved fairly quickly. We were given a free audio guide which provided an interesting commentry of the different room. I had expected the rooms to look grand however I was utterly stunned by the decoration of some, particularly the Room of Mirrors. I’ve been fortunate to have visited Buckingham Palace, the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra however I think the decorations and luxury of the rooms in the Palace of Versailles beats all three.

After we left the Palace rooms we looked down on to the Gardens before making our way to the the Grand Trianon. The gardens at the Alhambra had been impressive and Hampton Court has its maze but the fountains and scale of Versailles knocked both out of the park. It was utterly staggering and seemed to grow in grandeur once we picked our way through past the different fountains as classical music gently played in the background.

Eventually we took the main path down the centre, past numerous statues towards the huge 3km man made canal the start of which was marked by a modern man made waterfall dominating the skyline. We took the wrong path to the Grand Trianon but we weren’t in a hurry and had explored an area we might not have done otherwise.

The Grand Trianon was built as the private retreat for Louis XIV, later the residence of Napoleon and still used to host foreign officials. It didn’t appear quite as grand as the main Palace but it still had some interesting rooms and lavish furnishings. We walked around the house relatively quickly before walking around the gardens and then towards the Petit Trianon via the

The Petit Trianon was Marie Antoinette’s private residence. History has given her a reputation for spending money and whilst there were hints of heavy spending many of the decorations had been sold after the revolution to raise funds. It is likely our senses had been spoilt by the main Palace and perhaps we were also feeling a bit tired because the rooms didn’t quite have the same impact as those we had seen earlier. After leaving the Petit Trianon we briefly rested under the Temple de L’Armour Pavilion before we continued to a historical “Village”, Hameau de la Reine.

The village was built around a lake and was meant to represent how rural France appeared on the eve of the revolution. When we arrived it seemed a bit too neat, almost resembling a historic Disneyland and I therefore assumed it was a modern creation. It wasnt, it had actually been commissioned by Marie Antoinette in 1783. The money that was clearly spent on such a folly when most of the population was in poverty was staggering. It was however good for the modern tourist and it was a very pleasant and pretty place to stroll around.

By now we had seen all the main sites but decided to explore the gardens and the water fountains in greater depth as we made our way back to the Palace and exit. The gardens were quite simply unreal and the more we walked the larger the area appeared to become. We watched a display at the Mirror Pool which was in time to classical music before we continued to the modern Theatre Grove. Along the way we saw other grand fountains including Apollo’s Bath Grove

We retrieved John’s Yorkshire flag on our exit and decided to have dinner in Versailles rather than trying to find somewhere in Paris. We found a nice looking bar/Café on the main street and it was nice to relax outside in the sun. I had a croque Monsieur which was really good and we stayed for a couple of wines before making our way to the station.

Finding the train back to Paris was easier and whilst it was initially busy by the next station we were each able to find a seat and eventually I dosed off. We made our back to the hotel and both perhaps relaxed slightly longer than we should have which meant we were in a slight rush to get ready.

We arrived at the iconic Moulin Rouge, shown to our seats which weren’t the best, and were presented with a complimentary bottle of champagne. Even so it was more about the experience and the show was stunning. A particular highlight was two dancers on roller skates who performed a number of moves which looked impossible and The Can Can which predictably got the crowd going. The set and costumes were spectacular and it was definitely an unforgettable experience. After the show we decided to have a drink at the café across the road whilst we pondered our next move. We didn’t have to be up early the next day and perhaps because of the adrenaline from the show we weren’t quite ready to head home. As a happy compromise we found a nice bar near the hotel where, because we’d developed a taste for it, decided to continue with a couple of glasses of Champagne and stayed out for a further hour or so.

Wednesday 8th June
The next morning we both woke up tired, dehydrated and mildly hungover. We were both in need of a fry up but the only offering at the hotel was the standard continental breakfast. John and I were doing separate sightseeing days but prior to going our own ways we decided to take our flag to the Stade de France.

We walked to the metro station via the Grand Palace in a park just off from the Champs-Élysées. We arrived at the stadium and got a couple of pictures but it didn’t have the vibe of somewhere that would be full of colour and noise in 2 days time. The graffiti on the giant Euro 2016 sign was also a reminder that parts of the Saint Denis area of Paris are still a bit edgy and a football tournament will not gloss over that fact.

John and I then headed off in separate directions though my simple looking journey to the Catacombs involved more walking than anticipated because the route around the stadium was fenced off (understandably) for security reasons. I’d known since being in Paris with Victoria that I wanted to visit the catacombs but it hadn’t occurred to me that I should book tickets. I was therefore somewhat horrified when I arrived and saw the length of the queue. I must have spent well over an hour and 15 minutes in the line and whilst I patiently waited I read a very moving article about how it is hoped football can unite the divided French society following the recent terrorist attacks.

Just walking down in to the catacombs felt errie, even more so than the ones I’d visited in Rome which these were named after. Whilst I looked at some of the information boards I preferred to rely on the audio guide as I slowly made my way through the different tunnels. Originally a mine system, the tunnels fell in to a state of disrepair and some collapsed in the 18th century. The solution was to reinforce the walls and to turn them in to a mass burial site because the main cemetery was also full. Overtime they then became a tourist attraction and the chambers even hosted classical music concerts.

I spent longer than planned and still had a lot I wanted to see before meeting back up with John. As I made my way to the Père Lachaise Cemetery, arguably the most visited Cemetery in the world I suddenly remembered that my friend Emily had recommended I visit the Sainte Chapelle. I just happened to be at the nearest station when I remembered so I quickly jumped off the train just as the doors were closing. It was a great recommendation. Recently I’d felt a bit blasé about visiting churches and Cathedral’s but the stained glass windows at the Sainte Chapelle had even me gasping at their magnificence.

I looked around for a bit, hunting for the “Rose Line” thinking it was the church from the Da Vinci code but eventually after looking on different tourist websites, some which said it was at Sainte Chapelle realised it was elsewhere. Rather than going directly to the cemetery I went on another detour to the Republic Square which was very moving because it had been turned in to a makeshift memorial to those that were killed on 13th November 2015.

Having had quite a macabre day I felt quite sombre when I did eventually turn up at the cemetery. I only had an hour to look around before it closed but I felt that was all I needed. It was quite sobering, and despite being in the city, very quiet. I started by visiting the Communards’ Wall a memorial to 147 victims of the revolution. I then continued on to Oscar Wilde’s grave before reaching the one for the Lizard King Jim Morrison which had friendship bracelets attached to the barricade.

Security were keen to ensure everyone left on time so I and a group of Americans were hurried out just before the official closing time. Due to a particularly loud barking dog I had no intention of disobeying the orders. I then walked down to the site where the Infamous Bastille had stood. Now a column commemorating the July Revolution of 1830.

It was slightly later than I planned when after catching the metro and train I finally arrived at the Invalids Hotel. Effectively I’d done the revolution backwards because they’d broken in to the Invalids Hotel to collect weapons before storming the Bastille and blowing it up. It now housed a military museum but my intention had just been to see the famous building from the outside.

I made it back to the hotel slightly later than planned and as we had both had a busy exploring the streets of Paris decided to go for a meal and drink locally. We opted for Le president where we sat on the seats outside with a couple of drinks and I finally had French onion soup followed by a salad. We planned to go in another bar on the way back to the hotel but it was shut so we won’t straight home.

Thursday 9th June
We had packed the night before so once we had showered we went down for breakfast and after checking out made our way to Paris Montparnasse. This was the same station we’d used to get to Versailles so we were familiar with the layout. We arrived shortly before the platform was announced and found out seats on the famous TGV without any difficulties. Our next stop was Bordeaux.

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