Like New York City, or Rome, …Paris, France is just on of those cities where you can’t possible hope to accomplish everything in one trip. With the so many *must-sees*, these few and sacred preeminent international spots require travelers to make some tough decisions. You can either merely hop from photo op to photo op at a frantic pace, or concede the loss on seeing some things, and actually try to enjoy the city a bit.
Paris is certainly one of those places. You’ve got the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, the Mona Lisa, Napoleon’s Tomb, and the famed Champs Elysees. Any one of these landmarks can be a full day’s adventure and the crowning jewel of any other city. But not Paris, here they are a dime a dozen.
So last time through, on our New Years tour with the USO, Rachel and I did the tourist thing, visiting each key monument for an hour and then moved on. But we promised ourselves a chance to come back and just absorb some culture. And with our seven year anniversary this weekend, what a better opportunity. So with the amazing European ICE train system, and Paris only 2 ½ hours away, off we went again.
Paris is truly an amazing city, but a city is a city is a city, or so the saying goes. You have to move the past the tourist veneer of any town to find its real pulse, and that is what we were hoping to do this go around. Well, as much as can be down in 72 hours I guess. But those have always been Rachel and my favorite memories of any place we visited, the people we met and the real local flavors we were able to pick up. In Istanbul we saw a dozen awe-inspiring mosques, but it was the older couple at the huka lounge that we still laugh about. In Japan we toured every corner of every city, but it was Rachel’s chance meeting with a geisha that we’ll never forget.
Riding the train into Paris was like a momentary step back in time. The rhythm of the cars along the tracks, …the Eiffel Tower erupting in the distance, like it had for a hundred years. It could have easily been the eighteen hundreds. As we slowly lurched into the station, I stepped out and helped Rachel down onto the platform. Turning, a white glove conductor helped me with my bags “…votre bagage monsieur.”
Yes, this was Paris alright. Wandering around the train station, Rachel and I began following signs for a taxi stand to take us to our hotel. Rachel requested a sidetrip to the ladies room first, and I abided, carrying our sole piece of luggage and shoulder bag along behind. Gazing off at a movie poster in French (I always get a kick out of seeing American movie posters in foreign languages for some reason), I was suddenly aware Rachel had been gone for a good while.
Turning around I noticed the entrance to the oversized restroom complex (there was even a waiting room) had a larger problem. It was adjacent to a women’s clothes store, …a Parisian women’s clothes store. Sticking my beady eyes up the glass, yep …there she was. She already had two suits in hand and was heading to the dressing room. Now, Rachel isn’t a big shopper, and she hadn’t been looking for a few ladies suits to wear at our conference in Baltimore next week, …but Paris?!
Cautiously walking in, I saw Rachel triumphantly emerge from the back in, I must say, a spectacular woman’s suit with a sporty jacket. She then hit me with the game-set-match of any shopping debate “…Don’t I look great in this?”
By answering in the affirmative to this, or any number of cleverly related asides, you’re all but locked in to buying whatever the referenced item it, and its matching clutch. To not would either declare that ‘no’ she doesn’t look fabulous, regardless of the outfit, or that she isn’t worth looking fabulous. Both paths lead you down to heartbreak alley, and a room there will cost three times what a suit will, even one bought in Paris. Hearing this exchange the front desk lady already began ringing up the sale. But, she did look great. And she did need a suit, …or two, …and a dress, …and fashionably long shawl thing …in two colors.
C’est la vie. But seriously, it was literally the first store we had past in the entire city, and we had already tripled what we had paid for the hotel room. Which, by the way, we hadn’t even gotten to yet. I know this, because after all, I was still carrying our luggage. …And now also two giant Parisian shopping bags with excessive amounts of black and white tissue paper falling out all over the place, for now discernable reason, other than French clothes apparently require it. Alas, I wanted some real Paris culture, ..and I got some. Somewhere in the distance I could heard my checking account passing a kidney stone
Soon though, we were checked into our hotel and the bellhop Henri, aka “On-ree,” was begrudgingly lifting our bags up 3 flights of steps, ..black and white tissue paper trailing behind him. And off we went, destination unknown. There is something liberating about stepping outside your door in a new city, with absolutely no idea where you are headed.
Looking around, Rachel and I thought for a moment, ”we need cappuccinos or wine, …or both!”
Down the street we went, and turning the corner Rachel stopped short “Woh…”
Looking up, there she was the Eifel Tower in all her glory staring right back at us. It was a gorgeous day, the blue sky really silhouetted the stark tope framework of the tower perfectly. We felt pulled towards the Eiffel tower and all her majesty, and soon found ourselves, with hundreds of other young lovers, nestled in the grass fields looking up at her. We had already seen the Eiffel tower, and took the elevator to the top back in January, but it was foggy and snowy then. Today it was like a different world, like we were seeing the tower again for the first time.
After a few passes, we began making our way East. In conversations we had heard that Jim Morrison is buried just down the road in Paris’ most famous cemetery, Père Lachaise. That seemed interesting enough. While in Seattle we had found Bruce Lee’s grave while actually looking for a cruise ship (long story), so why not.
With a new destination, Rachel and I set out alongside the Seine river. Passing over and under several bridges, taking in obligatory cappuccinos at cafes as we passed. Soon, however, we began to notice one particularly shimmery bridge in the distance. As was we approached it, the source of this shimmer became clear. This bridge was covered in …padlocks? What was all this about? Taking a closer look, we saw that each lock had a pair of names written on them. Turns out this was a lover’s tradition. Write your name across the front of a padlock, seal it to a bridge and ceremoniously throw the key into the river, locking yourselves together forever. How romantic.
River locks behind us (there is a pun there somewhere), we found the famed Père Lachaise cemetery. Entering the grounds was nothing short of astonishing. Everyone was buried in a mausoleum or some other self-indulgent obelisk memorial. This was definitely a graveyard from another time, when such extravagances were the norm. But wow, it was impressive to see so many self-monuments lined up one after another.
We even passed poor hapless Victor Noire’s final resting spot. Atop his grave is a bronze relief of him, looking just as he died. Truly creepy. Good for him though, urban legend has it that rubbing his, uhm member, is good for fertility. Well you know folks like a good urban legend, and from the fresh bronze surfacing it was clear Victor was long gone, but clearly not forgotten. His resting place was almost as cool as legendary Irish poet Oscar Wilde. The tradition at that site is to leave big red lipstick kisses on the memorial above him. Wow, I tell ya, forget flowers, the French know how to pay finally respects to someone.
Reaching Jim Morrison’s grave, I was relieved to see it was modest, …albeit covered in cigarettes and a whiskey bottle. He was one of the most famous lead rock signers of all time, though. Still I think Victor Noire won out on this one. Still, unlike Victor’s place, there were several people apparently meditating by Jim’s grave, clearly the Goth kind. I guess hanging out by the Lizard King is good for poetry or something gothy like that. Still we did get a good tip from them.
Apparently if you want to see the real show of Paris, you have to go underground …by ½ a mile. The hidden catacombs of Paris are the really underbelly of Paris, literally. Apparently, several hundred years ago all of the cemeteries of Paris were full. Plus a little thing called the bubonic plague was afoot and bodies were stacking up, …spreading diseases. So the people of Paris did what they had to. They took all of the unknown, unmarked, and unattended graves in and around Paris and moved the corpses into the Paris’ hidden city, …its underground Limestone tunnels. Dugout over hundreds of years, the long forget underworld of Paris was a perfect solution to Paris’ problem.
Initially, they just kinda tossed in them in there. But the living at the time soon took pity on these unknown bones and began arranging them in dramatic ornate fashion, and included macabre quotes along the way. The entrance to this several thousand acre crypt containing one of the more ominous ones “Arrete! C’est ici L’empire de la mort.“
Passing the small green building that stands as the current entrance to this underworld, you would never know its true purpose was as gatekeeper to this underground labyrinth, last home and resting place to some 6 million long deceased Parisians. Truly Amazing.
Walking the long corridors of this subterranean cemetery, passing row after row, column and after column of human bones was mind boggling. The bones were just laying there, you kick pick them up, toss them around, or even play drums with a few skulls if the mood hit you. For thousands upon thousands of yards, they were piled 5 feet high and an astonishing 80 feet deep. It appeared there was no end in sight. With few lights, and fewer tour guides around, you could get lost down there. At one point I tripped over an empty can of Amsterdam’s own magic mushrooms. Wow, someone out there was having the time, or nightmare, of their life. It was time to go.
Finding an exit, Rachel and I embraced the daylight like an old friend. Note to self: no more taking tour guide tips from Goth people writing poetry in cemeteries. On the way out of the catacombs we actually encountered one more spot of security. Amazingly they wanted to search our bags, …for stolen bones! Looking at the table, it appeared walking away with a souvenir was a pretty common occurrence. Unbelievable.
It was an unbelievable gorgeous day in Paris, the sky was so blue it looked photoshopped. With the Lizard King, and the catacombs in our rear view mirror, where else would the winds of fate blow us. Well, our sojourn through gay old Pari’ also took us to the mysterious and equally historic Moulin Rouge burlesque night club, as well as the apparent secret roof top stair case to the top of the Arc de Triomphe (fair warning, its 13 flights of tight winding stairs). But that is another set of stories for another day.
The hour is growing late back home here in Landstuhl, and I still have to pack my bag for an even more important trip in the morning. For tomorrow Rachel and I board a plane home.
Rachel’s first visit in over a year, and my first chance seeing my family in as long as well. Our Paris adventure was all we hoped it would be, and a powerful lesson to us both. If you just take the itinerary and throw it to the wind, who knows where you’ll end up. Just as long as we end up there together.[Return to Previous Page]