Paris by more bikes and more feet

Here’s a hint if you want to climb the Eiffel Tower – get there early. The queues don’t really start building until around 9:30 and the one for the stairs, as opposed to the lift, is usually shorter. There is a lot to do once you get up there as well as admire the view, so allow a couple of hours.

I arrived at 8:50 and was on the bottom steps by a minute or two after 9:00. I must have spent an hour looking around the first stage and posting cards (with official Eiffel Tower postmark!) before clambering to the second and noticing that the stair count was off. On the west flight, the steps are numbered every ten as you climb up. Towards the end, they go 640…650…660…700. The east flight is numbered correctly, the total being 668. Still, it’s quite a few steps. And I’m a pedant.

Over the last year and a bit I’ve climbed some tall things – Auckland Tower, Sydney Tower, Kuala Lumpur Tower, Melbourne Observation Deck, Fansipan – but the view from the Eiffel Tower is definitely the best. It’s also the most interesting to climb as it’s covered with historical trivia, most likely as (aside from Fansipan) it’s by far the oldest of the lot.

Once I got back down to earth, I walked to the Arc de Triomphe and took some nice pictures down the Champs-Élysées. The Arc costs money to climb (EURO 8), but you can get onto it at ground level for free and it’s certainly worth a visit. A very impressive structure and the tomb of France’s “unknown soldier”. To get to the free area, don’t play Frogger in the traffic. Use the subway, approach the steps to the ticket office and turn right instead of left.

The traffic around the Arc isn’t as bad as I expected but it’s fun to watch the different traffic rules in action. In France, traffic on a roundabout has to give way to traffic entering. Strange.

I walked down the Champs-Élysées into another McD’s. Now I wasn’t starving they were everywhere. This one had free toilets and I availed myself of them and guzzled a McFlurry. Nearby was a cinema showing Shrek 3 in “version original” or “English”, but annoyingly only in the late evening when I would be doing my bike ride.

I strode on into the warm sun down to the Place de Concorde and took some photos of the beautiful Obelisk. The French say it was a gift from Egypt, the Egyptians say it was stolen. That’s going to kick off one of these days. The obelisk is placed where the guillotine used to be and, frankly, I think this is a good thing. But I like obelisks.

On into the park, and I bypassed two ridiculously expensive ice cream stands before chatting briefly to a Dutch couple walking the most beautiful Afghan hounds. A short stroll later and I was at a waterfall with ducklings swimming in it where I propped my feet up and read my book for a while. Almost reluctantly, I regained my feet a short time later and walked down to the Louvre.

I didn’t go in – architecture does it for me, art doesn’t – but here’s a hint for those who do want to visit and can’t get there for 9am to beat the queues. Go downstairs into the Carrouselle shopping precinct. Locate the Virgin Megastore and buy your ticket there. See the huge queues at the Louvre doors? They’re all for people without tickets so you can walk right past all of them and into the museum. Chumps. You should be able to do this with the multi-day, multi-museum pass as well.

I have no regrets about skipping the Mona Lisa. I’ve seen the thing a million times on postcards anyway and the Louvre building from outside is, in my opinion, far more awe-inspiring.

OK, bizarre things I’ve noticed number 76a – the little plaques used in Paris to identify house numbers are the exact same as the ones used in Hanoi. Blue with white digits surrounded with a white border and in the same font. It’s probably not surprising given all the colonial history, but still… I wouldn’t have expected the plaques to remain so long in Hanoi.

At around 4pm I reached the Notre Dame cathedral and got some nice pictures of the front. This was the last place on my major “to see” list within the city itself and was worth the walk. The queue to get inside (although free) was too long for me, and the queue for the tower climb (EURO 7.5) was even longer. You can use that museum pass for the tower climb, though, to save money. I assume it works like a theme park pass – you spend half your day queueing and walking between rides so you don’t save as much as you’d hoped.

I’m happy to leave the interiors to another time. Paris is cheap and easy enough to get to from “home” anyway.

OK, how’s this for ironic. I popped into another McDonald’s for a McWee. I then used their McInternet to McGoogle for the location of the nearest McKFC and strode off in the direction of the Place de la Republique to devour one. Which happened to be next door to another flipping McDonalds. I queued for twenty minutes as the heavy dinner time queue was served by two staff and bought the largest meal on the menu.

At 6:00, I started walking back to Fat Tire for the evening bike ride. I’d definitely made a good decision skipping the ride the night before as tonight’s weather was much, much better. The walk took me a little over an hour, but I made it in time to join Miles’ group – he reminded me far too much of Bill S. Preston, Esq (look it up if you don’t get the reference) – and we pedalled off into the wilds of Paris.

There was definitely more distance involved in the evening trip than the daytime one. We first stopped near Notre Dame after twenty minutes for some delicious overpriced ice cream (I had cherry). It was still pretty light, being only a few days from summer solstice, which was good for road safety (such as it is in Paris), but poor for seeing the monuments lit up. Mind, how many people would do a bike tour from 10pm to 2am?

We circled the Latin Quarter (Johnny Depp part-owns a restaurant in there somewhere) and stopped in a park where I discovered that Dietrich von Choltitz – the Nazi commander who was in charge of Paris for most of the duration of its occupation – actually refused to set off bombs set within the city so that it could not be recaptured by the Allies. He did this at the risk of his own execution, and that of his family.

As darkness finally fell, we boarded a boat on the Seine for a 30-minute trip up and down the river. The wine was opened and poured just as the lights flashed on the Eiffel Tower. Magnificent. Glowing a continual yellowy colour, with occasional bursts of many bright white lights as if the whole structure was an enormous glittery toy. Every time it did this, a “wow” could be heard from neighbouring boats who’d just come into view of the spectacle.

Over the free wine, I got talking to a nice couple from New Zealand and a lovely girl from Washington State on her way home from Cairo. Folks, I’m sorry I didn’t catch your names – please do email me!

After the boat ride ended, we returned to the office to drop off our bikes. I walked the three I had been chatting to to the nearest Metro station then returned to the Eiffel Tower to get some decent photographs of it blazing away in the darkness. The pictures I took from the boat were all motion-blurred (not a result of the wine, honest) and I wanted to good ones.

It’s great to see a city, like so many in SE Asia, with a buzzing nightlife. Midnight on a Monday and there were huge crowds on the Champ de Mars picnicking, playing guitars, playing football, hanging out… wonderful. I felt like some kind of lonely voyeur or a fly on the wall just capturing it all. Paris would be ideal with a group or a partner.

Unfortunately, the Metro stops running around 1am and walking back to my hostel would have taken over two hours. Stopping only to make sure three very drunk Americans got on the right train in the right direction for the right stop (I must be going soft), I headed back to the hostel and bed.

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