Monday, March 2, 2009

Trip to Paris, Reims Champagne and Versailles - September 2006

After retirement from the service by end of August 2006, I had planned for a short foreign trip. My wife who is passionate about historical and heritage places, suggested Paris and Versailles and I readily agreed. I had visited these places in December 1996 but it was more of side visits than a full-pledged trip. On 9th of September 2006, we boarded the morning Air India flight and reached Paris on schedule time (16.00 hours). we were pleasantly surprised to see a person holding placard of my name as we came out from the aerobridge. He introduced himself as an employee of Air India in Paris. I asked him whether he was sure that I was the person he was to receive as I had not requested anybody from Air India to receive me at the airport. He said that he was asked to receive Mr & Mrs Kamath. Any way, because of him, my immigration was done out of turn and my checked-in baggages were retrieved early. I was out of the airport in less than 30 minutes. Till today, it is a mystery to me as to who made this arrangement.

We got into one of the waiting taxis outside the airport for our hotel at Opera. Normally it should have taken not more than an hour's time to reach the hotel. However, a long procession on the main road resulted in diversion of traffic through many side roads and streets. It took about 2 hours to reach the hotel. After checking in the hotel and freshening up, we went for a stroll towards Opera. We noticed that the starting point for 'hop-in hop 0ff' Paris tour buses was with in the walkable distance from our hotel. We decided to try this out the next day.

Day-1 : Paris sight-seeing on L'Open Tour Bus ( 2 hours). Afternoon at Mussee de Louvre and Place de la Concorde

After the breakfast, we walked down to Auber and bought two-day passes for L' Open tour bus for Paris Grand Tour. The two hours bus ride took us to prominent tourist spots via Opera, Medeliene Church, Musee de Louvre, Concorde, Champs-Elysees , Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Trocadero and Invalides. The double decker open bus was having the audio facility giving the details of the tourist places. Our idea of doing this bus tour was to get a broad idea of which of these places to be visited. We also got to know that Opera de Paris, Medeliene Church, Musee de Louvre and Concorde was within the walking distance from our hotel.

Footballer Zidane's poster at one of the buildings near Opera

As our bus entered Champs de Elysees from the Concorde end, We could see Arc de Triomphe which was about one km ahead. Champs de Elysees is a very popular place for tourists and the Parisians alike. The wide road is skirted by equally wide avenues and pavement full of cafes, shops and theaters. There are many grand heritage buildings on both sides of the road. We felt that it would have been better if we had walked through the Champs Elysees from Concorde to Arc de Triomphe to get a better vibe of the place.

Champs Elysees with Arc De Triomphe in the background

One of the ' hop-on-hop off' open tour buses

We alighted from the tour bus at Arc de Triomphe. The arch was erected by Napoleon to commemorate french victories in 1805. The walls of the arch bear the names of the famous personalities who contributed to the history of France. There is an entry fee for visits to museum and the roof top from where one can have panoramic view of Paris. We skipped the visit to roof top as there was a long queue for tickets.

Boats in Seine river. Grand Palais in the background

After return from the Paris Grand Tour, we visited Opera de Paris ( which is also called Palais Opera or Opera Garnier). The leaflet mentioned that the Opera was designed by Charles Garnier for Napoleon III and presently, it is being used mainly for ballet performance. It is one of the largest theaters in the world having a seating capacity of around 2200. The building is very impressive with front of the main entrance to the Opera adorned by some beautifully sculpted statues. We did not go inside the Opera but from the entry point, we could see a grand marble staircase, the balconies and some frescoes on the ceiling.

Opera de Paris
Palais Opera facade decorated with sculptures

From Opera, we leisurely walked towards Madeleine Church. The church had an interesting history. What was conceived as a Roman type temple in honour of the Napoleon's Army was consecrated as a church. There are 52 tall columns which surround the church.

Madeleine Church

Inside the church, there is a big hall leading to a high marble altar where a statue of St. Mary Magdalene being carried to the haven by two angels stands. Apart from religious activities, the hall is also used for concerts.

Marble altar inside of Medeleine Church

One of the chapels inside Madeleine church

A short walk from Madeleine Church took us to Concorde Square. This was the biggest square I ever had seen in my life. The most prominent parts of the square was a tall pillar, probably made of a single stone and two fountains adorned by metal statues painted in olive green and gold colours. The Concorde Square is a centre point in Paris, located on an intersection of wide roads - one from Musee de Louvre to Jardin de Tuileries and further to Champs Elysees to Arc de Triomphe and the other from Madeleine Church to National Assembly. Being Sunday, there was not much of the traffic and we could stand at the centre of the Square to see all these places mentioned above without any distraction.

Me at the square of Place de la Concorde

We at the fountains at Concorde

After finishing lunch at one of the restaurants around Opera and relaxing for sometime in our hotel room, we headed for Musee de Louvre by 'hop-in hop off' bus. It took about 15 minutes to get the museum tickets. In peak tourist season , one may have to stand in the queue for a longer time to get the museum tickets. After security checks, we entered the pyramid shape hall. There are three wings of the museum - the Denon, the Sully and the Richelieu. Each wing has separate entrances where the museum tickets need to be presented before moving inside these wings.

Pyramid entrance of Musee de Louvre

The Sully Wing on the first floor displays Egyptian collections while the Denon Wing on the same floor had many paintings, the prominent one being the smiling Mona Lisa. The photography in the paintings section of Denon Wing on the first floor was banned. The largest crowd was predictably in the Denon Wing while Richielieu Wing comprising of Middle Age decoratives and arts had the least crowd.

Egyptian sculptures in Mussee de Louvre

Paintings in one of the corridors of Mussee de Louvre
Painting in Musee de Louvre

One more painting...

Painting corridor - Mona Lisa painting inside right entrance

One more view from inside the Museum

We spent about 4 hours in the museum when the closing bell was heard. In any case, we were too exhausted to continue the round to the remaining portion of the museum. There was so much to see in the museum that one would require at least one day each to see all the three wings in their entirety.
Marble sculpture of 'Cupid's Kiss'

One of the many marble sculpture

Day-2 : Visits to Notre Dame Cathedral, Eiffel Tower & Invalides

We got into one of the morning L'Open's tour buses and our first stop was the Notre Dame Cathedral. Two towers of the cathedral were visible from the bus stop itself. Along with Eiffel Tower, Norte Dame Cathedral is most known monuments as well as the most visited place in Paris. As we walked up to the towers, they looked imposing adorned with sculptures of biblical saints. The facade has three arch type entrances with portals depicting (from left to right), the Coronation of Virgin, the Last Judgement and, Madonna and Child.

West front of the Notre Dame Cathedral

Each side of the cathedral gave different perspectives with beautiful sculptures and carvings adorning the side facades. There was a long queue for climbing on the rooftop but we did not venture for it.
West front's main portal depicting the Last Judgement
One of the many stained glass windows inside Notre Dame

After completing the visit to Notre Dame, we boarded L' Open's tour bus for Eiffel Tower. As there was already a long queue, it took us about 45 minutes to get the tickets to go up in the Eiffel Tower. We were told later that in the peak season, it takes as long as 3 hours to procure the tickets. There is an option of using the staircase to reach up to Level-II of the Tower but one has to climb about 700 steps. We took lift for reaching up to Level-III of the Tower. On the Levels-I and II, there are cafeterias and souvenir shops which are very expensive. We had the 360 degree breathtaking views of Paris from Level-III. Although there is a telescope to see the panoramic view of Paris, it was not necessary as it was a haze-free day.

Eiffel Tower

At the III Level of Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower is a spectacular tourist spot and it is synonymous with Paris. There is a saying here that to leave Paris without visiting Eiffel Tower is like visiting Musee de Louvre without seeing the smiling Mona Lisa painting. My guess is that Eiffel Tower is the only sight which can be seen from anywhere in Paris city.

View from Level-III of Eiffel Tower - Torcadero and La Defense side
View from Level-III of Eiffel Tower - Invalides side
View from III Level of Eiffel Tower - Notre Dame side
View from Level-III of Eiffel Tower - Ecole Militaire side
View from Level-III of Eiffel Tower - Siene river

Our next stop was La Invalides - a complex consisting of Musee de Armee (Army Museum), Hotel des Invalides and the Dome Church. The Army Museum has a good collections of weapons, army uniforms and equipements and paintings from the Middle Age to contemporary ones. Some portion of the museum was, however, closed for renovation. There is a big building complex in the backyard of the Museum which was used for housing the invalid army soldiers. Now it houses some other museums.

Suit armours of a soldier in Army Museum

The Dome Church, among other things, has Napoleon's tomb which is made up of brown granite type stone. There are some sculptures placed in the circular gallary around the tomb. The best part of the tomb is the circular ceilings with paintings which are awesome. The Dome Church with lawns and the flowers garden in the foreground looks very impressive.
Dome Church, Invalides

Eglise du Dome - the altar inside Dome Church, Invalides

Ceiling paintings above Napolean's Tomb in Dome Church, Invalides

Day-3 : Trip to Reims Champagne Region

I was keen to make a visit to one of the French provinces for a day trip. The provinces under consideration were Champagne or Burgundy. I chose Champagne as I was interested in seeing vineyards and cellars. We booked in Cityrama's Coach Tour of Reims Champagne and boarded the bus from thier central office at Rue des Pyramides which was within the walking distance from our hotel. The bus took about 2 hours to reach Reims. Our first stop was the Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims ( Reims Cathedral in short). From a distance it looked Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was, more or less, a replica of Reims Cathedral. But the sculptures and carvings of its facade are different.

Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral was once the traditional coronation place for kings of France. Like Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Reims Cathedral has also three portals with sculptured arches. Inside the cathedral, it has also got a number of rosewood windows with stained glasses. Even though Reims Cathedral looked older than Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, I would rate the former better in terms of architectures, sculptures and the stained glasss work on the rosewood windows than the latter.

Interior of Reims Cathedral

Champagne Cellars Tours

Our next visit was at the Piper-Heidsieck (PH) Champagne cellars - one of the oldest champagne producers in Reims. We were taken on a guided tour of their cellars located in the underground caves by electrically driven five-seater car. We were told to put on jackets or pullover as the temperature inside the caves was very low. These caves, made of chalk-like substance run in to several kms. The representive of the PH explained the process of making of champagne from the time of picking of the ripen grapes - both green and red, the proper pressing of grapes into juice, fermentation of juice in two stages, once in the barrel and second time in bottles. After second fermentation, bottles are stored in wooden pupitres with their necks pointed slighly downwards in the caves. We noticed that necks of bottles were nearly frozen. It was explained that the ice crystal formed in the necks of the bottles trapped the sediment facilitating the creation of sparkles which was expelled by the natural pressure when the bottle was opened. In the final stage, champagne wine is tasted and graded. Some of them are blended to create a different quality of champagne wines. The graded and blended wines are bottled and corked. Thereafter they are stored for about 4 months before they are labelled and ready for sales.

Outside Piper Heidsieck Cellar

Taking a tour of the cellar caves on a remote controlled shuttle

Champagne bottles stored in the cave for maturing

At the end of the cellar tour, we were taken to PH's champagne tasting room and given complimentary drinks. It was our first champagne tasting ( and the last one so far). I liked the sparkling drink but my wife felt otherwise.

Champagne tasting at Piper Heidsieick

In the afternoon, we drove through the vast expanses of vineyard to Epernay, the champagne capital and visited the cellars of Moet & Chandon, the oldest champagne producers in the world. The company's hostess took us for one hour cellar tour explaining the process of champagne making and gave some insight of the topography of the vineyards in Champagne region. The unique climatic conditions in Champagne region - mild Atlantic breezes with continental rigours makes the grapes to mature slowly which gives a distinct aroma to champagne wines. The other important factors are the the deep chalk soils which retain the heat from the sun and the moisture from the rain. Also the wine matures well in the maze of natural caves of chalk like rocks.

Vineyards on way to Epernay

An old barrel kept as a show piece in the cellar of Moet & Chandon

Champagne tasting at Moet & Chandon

There was champagne tasting at the end of the cellar tour which we did not participate. Instead, we took a round of their showroom displaying the various champagne wine products. One of the vintage wine bottles of one litre was costing €785 !!. My immediate reaction was that if I had this many Euros, I would have extended my stay in France for a visit to Chamonix - Mont Blanc.

Reims Champagne trip provided a good diversion from our last two days' visits to tourist spots full of heritage monuments, arts, sculptures and paintings.

Day-4 : Trip to Chateau de Versailles & Seine River Night Cruise

In my visit to Versailles Castle in 1996, I had taken the day tour from Cityrama. However, due to the time limit, I could not visit gardens and parks located in the backyards of the castle. This time, we decided to visit Versailles of our own. We took a Metro ride from Auger to Invalides for catching RER (Line C) train to Versailles Rive Gauche. The train journey took about 35 minutes. A 10 minutes walk from the railway station took us to the main gate of the Versailles Castles.
No doubt, the castle is one of the largest in the world. The castle, originally conceived as a hunting chateau, became the official residence of kings of France. In 1837, it became the museum of french history. A long queue was already formed for entry tickets. We decided to first scout gardens and parks located on the backsides of the Castle.
In the Varsailles Castle park

The Orangerie - another Varsailles Castle garden
Most of the gardens and parks were laid by Andre-le Notre during 17th century. The main attractions of the gardens are the three important fountains - Latona, Apollo and Neptune located at three different directions and a number of marble and bronze statues lined up in various places.
One of the many sculptures in the garden
The Latona fountain with Grand Canal in the background

Well designed lawns with line ups of statues in the background
Grille de Neptune fountain

Mini train in the Castle's backyard for tired legs

As we finished our garden rounds, the queue for the museum passes had shorten. After buying museum passes we went through a gate leading to King's private apartments. After security checks, we entered a big hall adorned with marble statues with beautifully painted ceilings. As we reached the first floor, we could see from the balcony the Royal Chapel with painted ceilings on the ground floor. The chapel was used for daily mass for kings.

Inside the Versailles Palace

The Chapel Royal
On the first floor itself, there were royal rooms - kings and queen's chambers decorated with fine tapestries, full of fine paintings and other historical furnitures. The most crowded place was the Hall of Mirrors. As the name suggests, there are number of large mirrors adorn the hall. The ceiling has full of paintings many hanging glass chandliers. This hall was an important place in the history of Sun Kings as this was the hall which was used for both good and bad events. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in this hall ending the first World War.

An antique clock in one of the rooms in Private Apartments
One of the bedrooms of the Private Apartments

Hall of Mirrors
At the end of the Castle tour, one is simply stunned by the granduers of gardens, fountains, the grand canal, the marble and bronze statues, the richness of the royal apartments and lastly the Hall of Mirrors. Whether these have been the creation out of madness or love for luxurious living is a moot question.

After an interesting and awesome trip of Versailles, we were back in Paris by evening. Our next on the list was the night cruise in Seine river. The nearest jetty from our hotel to board the boat was at Pont de l'Alma.

We reached the place by Metro and we got tickets for boat cruise leaving at 20.00 hours. The boat was a bit longish with deck partly covered with fibre glass roof. It was an hour long cruise covering some of the historical monuments located near both banks of the Seine river. The illuminated monuments gave a different perspective and looked splendid. The drizzle during the cruise added some more excitement

Our most unforgettable memory of the boat cruise was the illuminated Eiffel Tower with intermittent sparkling lights which looked stunning. We were so engrossed in viewing the illuminated Eiffel Tower, waiting for the sparkling lights to come again that we did not realised that light rains had made the desk wet. One more feature of the cruise, as my wife pointed out to me, was that the boat was cruising under many historical bridges across Seine river. Each of these bridges were architecturally different. We were very happy that we did the night boat cruise.

Day-5 : Walking Trip to Jardin de Tuileries Park, Rue de Rivoli , Pyramides and Concorde

It was our last day in Paris as we were to leave for Mumbai by a morning flight the next day. The option was either to take a half-a-day conducted tour to Fontainbeleau and Barbizon or make a walking trip from hotel to nearby tourist places. Since my wife was interested in doing some shopping in Paris, we decided to revisit some of the tourist places by walk.

In the morning, we took a stroll in Jardin de Tuileries (park) which connects Mussee de Louvre with Place de la Concorde. Seine river and rue de Rivoli cover the other two sides of the park. The park has some fountains and marble and bronze statues.We liked the idea of provision of empty chairs near the fountains for the visitors to sit wherever they liked.
Jardine de Tuileries. Eiffel Tower and Concorde seen in the background
Rue de Rivoli runs parallel to Jardin de Tuileries and it is one of the prominent shopping places of Paris. Shops mostly sell boutiques, antique items, ready-made garments and leatherwares.

In the afternoon, we went for a walk around opera and continued till Concorde. As we were walking back to our hotel, we felt that we had a wonderful short trip to Paris and surrounding places. Apart from the important tourist spots which we visited, there were many heritage and architecturally aesthetic buildings in Paris which we sould have like to devote some time. Then there were couple of important museums in Paris which we could not visit. Finally, there are many tourist spots in the outskirt of Paris. In our assessment, one would require at least 10 days to cover these places.

Photos by the author


workhard said...

I am overwhelmed reading your post and the pictures are superb.


Sadanand Kamath said...