Paris is for Amblers

Though we figured we’d beat the summer rush by coming to Paris in late May, we didn’t count on the French Open and the Cannes Film Festival and a religious holiday all converging to pack the streets and hotels of Paris. We realized what we were in for a few weeks ago when we struggled to find budget accommodations in Paris proper on the night we arrived. So, we found a decent place in nearby Versailles for a night before things loosened up a bit on Sunday night, when we were able to book two nights in a small place near the Eiffel Tower.

I had wanted to visit the Chateau at Versailles last year, but a strike by government workers limited me to seeing just the gardens, so we were planning to make the half-hour day trip out anyway. But going directly from the airport provided a few unforeseen benefits.

We breezed through security at Charles de Gaulle in Paris without so much as filling out a form, and we caught the RER B (suburban rail) to Saint Michel station in the city. The train was packed and it’s been a bit warm in Paris, so it was a bit of a slog for 45 minutes, but from there, it was easy (and free) to transfer to a much more comfortable RER C that took about 30 minutes to get to the Rive Gauche station in Versailles.

An aside here – the trip from the Paris city center to Versailles costs more than a regular ticket because you cross beyond the borders of the central zone. But our multi-zone ticket (to get from the airport) allowed us to transfer freely to the Versailles-bound train, saving us €8 or 9.

Also, because our plane arrived around noon, we arrived in Versailles in time to eat a late lunch, then visit the Chateau. Even on a Saturday, by late afternoon, the crowds had mostly moved onto the gardens, and I took about 2 hours (plenty of time for me) to wander through the castle with the provided, detailed audio guide. Anne-Claire has visited the palace in the past, so she opted for just a garden pass (complete with a student discount) and soaked up the sun tooling around the magnificent fountains. The chance to walk, especially in the sun, was a nice antidote to jet lag, allowing us to stay up until about 11 p.m. enjoying Versailles – in my opinion, an underrated and beautiful town. Though it’s not loaded with sights (except for the palace of course), you can imagine cottage industries springing up in the old buildings around the Chateau to support the thousands of courtiers and their entourages who came to live here during Louis the XIV’s reign and afterward. Without a specific place to see in a specific amount of time, we might have been tempted to let our heavy eyelids rest after arriving.

As it was, I waited for Anne-Claire outside the gates of the gardens around closing time. An Argentinian couple asked me to snap a photo of them in the courtyard. When told them I’d heard good things about their country, they told me first that they had the best “beefsteak” and only later that, yes, Argentina is a beautiful country.

The next morning, we decided to go back to the gardens and take in Les Grandes Eaux Musicales, during which the Chateau’s fountains dance to classical music throughout the day. Like many things in France, from a penchant for odd wardrobe combinations to the design of the Eiffel Tower, what might have been kitschy in American hands turned out to be a well executed sensory experience. I’ll let you be the judge:

In the afternoon, we met Anne-Claire’s friend Sophie at her apartment and had lunch with her parents. Quintessentially Parisian, her apartment is small but maximizes every inch of space and has a view we tourists pay hundreds of euros a night to have from our windows. It was a lovely afternoon, though I think the combination of wine, trying to keep pace with the French conversation, and a body clock that woke me up at 3:30 that morning caught up with me: my head snapped down a few times as I dozed mid-sentence on Sophie’s couch.

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What better for drowsiness than another walk, so we hit the streets from the residential 14th arrondisment and walked past the Eiffel Tower and along the Seine to the Latin Quarter. We spent much of the rest of our time in Paris just wandering winding alley ways and enjoying the world-class views around nearly every corner. As we were staying in a little place close to Paris’s most iconic landmark, we took the opportunity to head there at night. The Eiffel Tower turns the surrounding area – even the steps of the Esplanade du Trocodero across the Seine – into a nightly carnival, as people gather to watch the light show.

Not a bad town for a few city strolls.

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