Happy New Year my friends from the City of Love, from the City of Lights, the City of Superlatives. Yes, Paris, France.
When trying to come up with plans for New Years, Paris came up time and again as the place to be, the place where all the people are. And I admit bringing in the New Year with a few hundred thousand people partying all across the Champs Élysées seemed like a capitol idea.
Now having not been to Paris, we were on the fence about how to book the trip. The USO here had a package put together that would carry you from place to place, take care of your hotel accommodations and restaurant reservations. All things that we heard were a challenge in Paris in New years. Also, there was Paris itself, with all of its sights and sounds. It reminded me a lot of Rome, where even if you picked the highest of the highlights, you couldn’t fit them on one hand. Outside Paris and Rome, I can’t even think of two other cities in the world that offered so many *must-do* activities. If you can, feel free to share it with me. In Paris alone, we *had* too see on an inaugural trip
o Eiffel Tower
o Notre Dame Cathedral
o Champs Élysées
o Arch De Triumph
o The Palace of Versailles
o The Louvre (the Mona Lisa and Venus De Milo)
The idea of trying to drive to all of these places, plus find parking and sorting out admission/hours seemed like too much. As much as we like having our own itinerary and freedom to follow any adventure we want, in an unknown town and only one weekend to work with, so much could go awry.
The plus side to group trips is letting them handle all of the logistics, and you had someone always there to handle any glitches that came up. And in a high-octane weekend like Paris over New Years, glitches were bound to come up. Promising ourselves that when we came back to Paris again (keep in mind it’s only 2 hours away for us) we’d do the solo thing, we caved and went the group trip route. We traded out frustration and stress for peace of mind and, well, being part of the cattle heard.
But off we went in our tour bus Friday morning, the 31st of December. Next step Paris, right? Well, no. The other downside to packaged trips is forced side trips. Little surprises in your itinerary that really serve no other purpose than to force feed the local economy. In Beijing it was forced stops at silk factories and jade merchants. In Hawaii it was side visits to Macadamia nut factories and sugar cane fields. And here it was unplanned stops at a Champagne vineyard and the perennial tourist trap, the Hard Rock Café. Hard sells aside, the kickbacks the tour companies get from these merchants keep the tour costs down, and some of them aren’t so bad. The Champagne Vineyard actually seemed pretty cool.
And cool it was. Champagne is the World’s most expensive juice. Which it is, I guess, …fermented grape juice. So, what’s up with Champagne? Why do people pay hundred of dollars a bottle for this juice? Well, There are two major things that make Champagne unique from any other wine. One, the name “Champagne” is actually copyrighted, it can only come from Champagne, France. If is not made in the Champagne region of France it legally can’t be called Champagne (only referred to as *Sparking* wine). Believe me, folks have tried, and international courts have held up the rights to the name. And two, it is the only wine that goes through a second fermentation process. That’s what gives Champagne its effervescent tendencies.
First, a regular batch of wine is brewed and then it is bottled. To this mix a variety of grapes from the various villages in Champagne are added. Each village makes its own grape, and each year different ones are chosen by the different Champagne families to go into their brew.
“…As no perfume can be made from a single flower, no Champagne can come from a single vine.”
Poetic, I guess. Once the new batch of grapes are added to the wine, more sugar and yeast are combined, and the bottle is re-corked to go through a 2nd fermentation process. This is why Champagne is so gaseous, and why corks explode out of them. Pressure inside these bottles can build up to quite a considerable amount. Each unique bottle, after all, is a stand alone wine brew. Every bottle is slightly different from one another due to this. The fizz also gives Champagne its pungency. Because of the organic carbonation, the alcohol hits the blood vessels immediately, and you begin to feel the effects in your very first sip. An instant head rush and buzz.
You can thank the monk who first invented this technique for all this. Brother Dom Pierre Pѐrignon. Yes, that name should sound familiar. Dom Pѐrignon Champagne is the world’s premier, or at least most expensive, Champagne. When the Dom first uncorked his new concoction and gave it a try he is said to have yelled up to his monks, “Brothers come quick,… I’ve just tasted the stars”
As part of our trip, we were given a tour by the Taittinger (pronounced tah-tin-shay) family, who proudly toured us through their various “champagne rooms” (insert stripper club joke here). The Taittinger family is known world round for their custom painted champagne bottles and spectacular Vintage bottles. Vintage bottles are only made every few years when the wine from the grapes is particularly exceptional. Vintage bottles can only come from one type of grape due to this, and their 2nd fermentation process must last at least 5 years. No wonder they can fetch $1000 a bottle. That’s expensive juice!
Our Champagne tour complete, our next stop was Paris, right? …Again no.
There are strict union rules in Europe about how many hours a bus driver can drive in a row, and because we were taking the long way to Paris (by bus versus the 180 mph ICE train), our driver was required to take a 30 minute break just on the outskirts of Paris. However, considering many folks on board our bus had brought bottles of Champagne with them, and had decided to start New Years early, the rest break was well received. And, wow, what a beautiful area for a rest stop. Only in Europe do gas stations lookout over acres of farm land and sprawling country side.
Once back on the road, I began to take notice of some bizarre geometrical shapes that kept appearing on the side of the road as we continued driving. Odd collections of spheres and triangles and squares and the like. After asking our tour guide it turned out all of those shape had a functional purpose, …to prevent something called “road hypnosis.”
They stood out to help break up the monotony of the drive and gave drivers something to focus on. Not a bad idea. The can certainly use some of those on the side of the road for the drive from Vegas back to LA.
Soon we were seeing signs of civilization again, and began to signs for Paris. And soon, just over the horizon, a single piece of architecture became clear. A raising sculpture made up of 7,300 tons of iron and engineering, …the Eiffel Tower.
The Eiffel Tower is visible from any point in Paris. Its ever-visible stature, though welcomed by locals now, was first considered a monstrosity when it was built for the 1851 World Fair. There is a funny quote by a then popular journalist, and avid Eiffel tower basher, regarding why, if he despised the tower so much, he chose to eat lunch there every day.
Well simply “…Because it’s the only place in Paris I don’t have to look at the damn thing.”
Of course, time embraces all change and now the Eiffel Tower is beloved by all of France. And even the world. Did you know Tokyo has its own Eiffel Tower as well? They even borrowed France’s own smaller version of the Statue of Liberty for a few years, which Rachel and I happened to see while we lived in Japan in 2006. Funny, the mini-Liberty has since been returned to France, and we got to see it again on our boat ride later that night (turns out there are over *100* Statue of Liberties around the world). Who knew we would be reminded so strongly of our days in Asia right here in the middle of France.
But the tower would have to wait until tomorrow. It was getting late and we still had a cruise and an exclusive French meal to look forward to, and all before midnight.
The cruise down the Seine River was truly magical. Seeing Paris lit up by river as the sun fell was one of the moments you could not describe, and I was so glad to be able to share it with Rachel. There laid out before us was a thousand years of history. As we floated out towards Notre Damn Cathedral, we passed by the Arch De Triumph, and up towards the famous Louvre Museum, home of the Mona Lisa and countless other works of art. Once we reached Notre Damn, we looped around and came back up the river towards the Eiffel.
At night, the tower has even more mysterious allure, particularly during fog. With its rotating spotlight, and the mist of clouds around it, it really gave off the allure of the “all seeing eye” from the Lord of the Rings.
Our French Dinner was certainly an experience. 5 courses of meals served over three hours, the French know everything it takes to satisfy a palate, and cleanse it for the next course. Now it didn’t hurt that is was close to 9:30pm and we were all starving. Hunger makes the best cook, they say. But if you had to be ready to eat anything, I’d say you could do worse off than be in Paris, France. I’ve heard that every French cook starts off a meal with a stick of butter and a mushroom, LOL. Kinda like how every Irish cook starts off with a boiling pot of water and a potato. Or how every American meal starts off with a cow and a shotgun, ha ha. The jokes just keep on coming.
Now, I’m by no means an expert on French cuisine, or any cuisine that can’t be superized for that matter, but I would say the meal was truly remarkable. Our options for our main course were goose liver or duck, so it did ask you to be a bit bolder than Rachel and I typically are. But when in Rome, …or France for that mater. We found a very fun group of folks to eat with, and let the wine pour. C’est la Vie!
As midnight closed in we all made our way towards the windows of the restaurant. The obligatory champagne was passed around, (but at least here I knew it was real), and we all gathered around to watch Father Time doing his thing.
At midnight the Eiffel Tower began to sparkle like a diamond. Fitted with some 10,000 strobe lights, the effect was enchanting. And these strobe lights not only went off at midnight, but every hour on the hour till dawn. We could see people celebrating in the streets, so, of course, Rachel and I went out to join them. Vive La France!
Though illegal in France, numerous people set off fireworks and sparklers. And these weren’t you’re run of the mill US fireworks, but real pyrotechnics, hurling sparks and exploding shells high into the air. Keep in mind that outside the United States, the 4th of July carries little value, so for most of the world, New Years is their day for fireworks. Villages have gatherings, called Silvesters, to set off fireworks in town squares. That is after drinking Glühwein all day. Needless to say, these functions are not often very safe. And of course, still illegal.
But arms around Rachel, I couldn’t help but get lost in the lights and sounds of the street festivities. It was odd not being able to call my friends and loved ones to wish them a happy New Year. Our German phones had no service here, and, after all, it was only 6pm on the East Cost at this point. Running across the streets, Rachel and stayed as clear as we could of any malfunctioning or misaligned fireworks as possible and took in all the sights we could. Nothing like the smell of fireworks to make you feel 8 years old again.
Soon I began to take notice of the elaborate building we were standing in front of. It had a most remarkable facade and was topped with a very dramatic golden roof. It was very elaborate and picturesque, even by Parisian standards. Curious as to what this building was, I asked someone in our group what was this place we had arrived at. After some translation, I understood that this building we were leaning against was a mausoleum of sorts. Finding a plaque attached to the wall, I soon learned it was not just any mausoleum, but the final resting place of one Napoleon Bonaparte.
Unbelievable what you can stumble across when you wonder outside your front door isn’t it?
Here Rachel and I were celebrating the New Year of 2011, swigging from a bottle of real Champagne on the streets of Paris while standing just a few feet from the body of Napoleon Bonaparte. The fireworks still glowing in the sky reflecting off the golden dome of his entombed resting place. Talk about the past meeting the present. Such is the wonders of the life you can find in Paris.
So Bonne Annee mes amis, …Happy New Years my friends. May the year 2011 be *your* year. No time like the present to take control of your future. Good advice, from my new friend here Napoleon. He also advises against Russia in the winter, ha ha.
Stay tuned next week for Part II of our Paris tour!