When we arrived Friday, all trashed (I actually slept a few hours on the plane, which is unusual for me, but still of course it was not a full night), we decided to take a cruise on the Seine, because it would be calming and relaxing. This turned out to be a very interesting cruise, and very cheap (40 francs, which is about $6). They pointed out (in four languages: French, German, English, and Japanese) lots of interesting buildings and bridges, and when they had time between buildings (you don't have much when you are having to announce in that many languages) they would tell us a little about the history of the place. Did you know that there is a replica of the Statue of Liberty (about 20% size) on the Seine near the Eiffel Tower? There is no natural shoreline of the Seine -- it is all cement, at least in the city center.
We also went to the Arc d' Triomphe, and admired the intense traffic scene at the rotary around it. We couldn't actually admire the Arc close-up, because they were having a police emergency, because somebody was threatening to jump off! We got to see the guy grabbed by several policemen and rescued. Then we walked down the Champs Elysees, and I had a chocolate tart.
Saturday we went to the home of a former officemate of Ken's, who he had not seen for several years. His home was quite amazing, in that it was built into a cliff, which had originally been quarried, and so there was quite a lot of cavern space behind the house (in addition to the amount of the house that was already underground).
Sunday we went to the palace at Versailles, which turned out to be a large mistake. There were an infinite number of people there, and they were having some special thing at the gardens, and so while people were waiting for the special fountain show, of course they took the tour of the palace, and it was very crowded, very hot, and very hard to see anything. In the afternoon, we took the train back to Paris (train service is totally awesome), by which time it had started to rain, pretty hard. Valerie took off to see the Musee D'Orsay, and Ken and I stopped at the Eiffel Tower, where we took shelter under an overhang and waited for the rain to abate. Eventually we just dashed between the raindrops over to the Tower, and bought tickets for the elevator. I was surprised at how many people were there were considering the rain, but it just made me glad that I hadn't come when the weather was GOOD! Fortunately the clouds were high enough that we still got a reasonably good view of the city, although we did not get a good view of the observatory that Ken had earlier been at a conference at, and had been hoping to see from the tower (since he could see the tower from the observatory).
Monday we went to go see Notre Dame, and unfortunately there turned out to be a mass going on (I would've thought they would do that on Sunday, but I guess this church has too much business!) Anyway, we waited for the mass to be over and admired the stained-glass windows. We also admired the stained-glass windows of St. Chapelle, which was built in the 13th century. It was a much smaller church, and had about the same total quantity of glass, for a very impressive effect. We thought about climbing the tower (the guidebook said 387 steps), but there was a very long line, and after standing in it for about ten minutes we decided that lunch was the better part of valor.
A co-worker had suggested that a better buy than the Eiffel Tower would be a department store called the Samaritaine, which is a couple of stories higher then surrounding buildings, and has a little observatory ring (free!) and cafeteria at the top. Since it is a short walk from Notre Dame over the oldest bridge Pont Neuf, we decided to give this a go, and it was a quite nice thing, except that it had decided to pour again, and the umbrellas over the tables at the cafeteria were not exactly waterproof. But they had done a very nice job of having labeled diagrams of what you could see (once it stopped raining).
After lunch we decided to go to Montmartre and look at the Basilica Sacre Coeur. Being up on a hill, even though it didn't have 387 steps (we didn't count them all, but we estimated over 200), we got a really nice view of the city. We got to ride on the funicular, which is basically an elevator at 45 degrees up the side of the hill, and the ride is sufficiently short that it is completely silly, and we just did it for hack value.
Done with religion for awhile, on Tuesday we took a road trip (but first, we took a train trip to Orleans, because I really wasn't very interested in driving in Paris, after admiring other people doing it for a few days), and visited a couple of the Chateaux on the river Loire, specifically Chambord and Blois. Chambord is enormous, and has an amazing number of spires on top, and it has a double helix spiral staircase, where you can go up one staircase while your friends go up the other and never meet them! I thought this was totally random. Chambord was located way out in the countryside, and had an enormous amount of acreage, including a moat. Blois was in the city center, built up on top of a hill of course. I found it somewhat less interesting, partly because of the way that the tour was arranged, and also the fact that you could get into less of it then you could at Chambord (and less than you ordinarily could, because they were taking up some of the space with an art exhibition that we had not purchased tickets for, so we could not see the architecture either, which I found annoying. This happened again in one of the cathedrals in Brussels). The town of Orleans was sort of suburban and sprawl, while Blois was more of a miniature Paris, complete with traffic jams. Then we drove back to Orleans, had dinner and took the train back to Paris. People drive very fast on the motorways! The speed limit was 130 (km/h -- about 80mph), and people were regularly driving 150. Despite usually being a speed demon myself, I was mostly driving the speed limit, in the slow lane.
Wednesday morning we found an Internet cafe, and I logged in! Wednesday afternoon Ken spent wandering around the shore of the Seine, while Valerie and I took a bus tour to Giverny, home of Monet, and site of the famous waterlily pond. Usually I hate organized tours, but this one was actually pretty good, because the house is so small that they can't take the group in and blither at you for 20 minutes about each thing, but you just go in and do the self-guided thing, so you can look at things that you are interested in and pass by others. They told us some basic information about the site and also about Monet's life while we were on the bus, so that those of us who are pretty much clue free (that would be me) would be less so. We got to look at the house, look at the enormous flower gardens (which were very nice), and the waterlily pond on our own. I was disappointed in the Japanese bridge, because it has obviously been rebuilt to deal with hundreds of tourists tromping on it, and so it really doesn't look anything special -- it looks like a sturdily built bridge with steel reinforcing. But the pond itself and the gardens around it were very nice.
Thursday we went to Brussels! Too bad it wasn't Tuesday, since it was Belgium. (I was hoping there was going to be some kind of T-shirt that said something about "it must be Tuesday", but I didn't see any references to that movie.) Brussels is nicer than Paris, even though it is smaller, because they keep the cars off of a lot of the streets in the city center, which makes it much more pleasant to sit in the outdoor sidewalk cafe (except that it was raining). Brussels has a public transit system, but it is much more like Boston's than like Paris -- less complicated, slower, and doesn't quite go everywhere you want to.
Brussels also has "the Eiffel Tower of Belgium", which is this thing called the Atomium, which was also built for a world's fair, in 1958. It is nine large spheres (the atoms) connected by steel tubes (the bonds). You can go up to the top one and to the usual view of the City thing, and then take stairs or an escalator down the slanted tubes to a middle atom. It was completely random! It is supposed to be a representation of iron in its crystal lattice (body centered cubic), which they called a molecule of iron, which I think isn't exactly correct. From the top, we can see down into this other tourist attraction, which is called mini Europe: it has 1/25 scale models of many of the famous buildings and historical artifacts of Europe. Since we could see it from the top of the Atomium, we didn't feel like we had to go and pay for an entrance ticket :-) Also, I had seen many of the actual attractions in person already, such as the Parthenon in Athens.
Then we came home. Interestingly, the Brussels airport has almost all of its signs and advertisements in English, even though English is not one of the official languages of Belgium.
I haven't talked about food yet. The food was great. Restaurants don't open until 7 p.m., and if you arrive at 7 p.m. they look like you like you are insane, and shouldn't you come back at 9 p.m. when normal people have dinner? Mostly we ate around 7:30. One thing did disappoint me, which is that although they expect you to eat dinner between nine and 10, there aren't dessert places open at 10:30. I think you're supposed to have your dessert with your dinner, and my preference for having a couple of hours gap between dinner and dessert just wasn't planned for. So I took to buying a chocolate tart and having it in the hotel room before bed.
Paris is in a completely stupid time zone. It didn't get dark until after 10:30. And it's not just because they are further north than us. I guess that's why they want to have dinner at 9.