Tuesday 20th December – Paris, Le Magnifique

Alarm went off at 7am and I was ready to get up. I’d been up in fits and starts all night because the room was way too warm so my throat was now completely dry. The Irishman’s remedy didn’t work. After coughing my guts up in the shower and dropping the key card to my room in the toilet and fishing it back out, I went down for breakfast. I beat the crowds and blogged away while I ate and tried to determine whether to do museums today or tomorrow. I decided on tomorrow since a lot of museums are closed on Tuesdays. That meant today was just about exploring!

Ever since seeing bikes for hire on the streets, where you self-take and self-return and multiple stations around the city, I was keen to do it. I’ve done a lot of walking on my travels but I am a rider! Excited that there was a station right outside the hostel, that was my first stop, but there were no bikes available. No worries, there was another station around the corner. This one had a few bikes there! Before tackling that, I went into a nearby pharmacy for a box of tissues to get me through the day. By the time I’d come out, all the bikes were gone. Boo. Off to the next station! At the third station, there were two bikes. Now I was in business! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to buy a day pass at the machine, so a little disheartened, I wandered around the corner until I stumbled on some free Wifi and stood there on the corner with my credit card to pay the EUR1.70 for the day. That problem solved, I returned to the machine. I changed the language to English, which is great, except everything turns back to French once you’ve selected one option. I must have been here for at least twenty minutes trying to figure it all out. When I tried using Google Translate on the screen, I got Error Code 50 from the app. What? I was just guessing at what to do, trying to get the two bikes, walking between the screen and the bikes, using some force to no avail. Pissed off and defeated not being able to get either of the two bikes, I walked off, deflated. Walking it would be. And I’d had such imaginations of the wind running through my hair!

I was a bit disoriented having gone from bike station to bike station, but I eventually made it back to Rue Lafayette and unintentionally went full circle back to the hostel. There, at the bike station, was a single bike. I would try again! At the machine, it was the same story as last time with the French thing, but this time the words were different. What I had missed at the previous station was the red lights accompanying the two bikes there, which meant they were due for maintenance and could not be taken. At this station, it was all green. It only took me two attempts to figure our what buttons to push and I had a bike! I was elated! If I kept each trip to less than half an hour, I wouldn’t have to pay more than the EUR1.70, so I was excited about the day’s prospects!

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My sweet ride (one of them anyway)

I rode south towards the city, along the Saint-Martin canal. The bike did surprisingly well on the rugged cobblestones that lead down to it. I was stoked to be riding. It was another gloomy day, but there was promise of some sunshine lurking amongst the clouds. The canal was nice and quiet to ride along and even when I made it onto the street, I managed ok. Without a helmet I was super cautious but I also tried to do as the locals do and be aggressive and fearless. At Place de la Bastille, the timer I’d set on my phone told me my half hour was almost up so I found a station and parked the bike. I sat on a bench near the Bastille roundabout to watch the chaos for a bit while I had morning tea of yoghurt and peach puree, stolen from the hostel breakfast. I munched on an apple as I continued on foot towards the remnants of the city wall from the 10th century.

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Thanks to the detailed hand-drawn map from Eva, I found it without too much hassle. Hidden amongst the alleyways of St Paul’s village, it now stands next to a sports court with basketball and football playing fields. The children playing there was a nice contrast to the history that stood around them. I can imagine exactly the same activities happening almost 1,000 years ago. I continued wandering the streets of St Paul’s village and looked inside the church which was stunning with beautiful big red doors marking the entrance.

Next I continued south to Notre Dame. Walking along the river towards it, the sun came out and the sky was blue. It made the whole place seem so much happier. When I approached the grand cathedral, I tried to recall the childhood story of the ghost/goblin/troll of Notre Dam, but couldn’t quite grasp it. I approached it from the back where I sat in the park for a little while just people watching and admiring the architecture.After watching an Asian couple get scammed into signing something by two random ladies, I got out of there.

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Around the front, I saw my first queue. Probably two hundred people deep, it was for entrance into the cathedral, which is free. Not quite ready for queuing, I went around the side to see what the queue for the tower looked like. This you had to pay EUR15 for, or it was included in the museum pass I was considering buying. This also had a queue, but it was only about fifty people deep. When I asked the two people standing in front how long they’d waited, they said an hour. Hmmm, I would have to put some planning into this! I left, feeling for the sorry suckers in the queue, but also aware that I may have to face the same.

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I went off to find another bike and head to the south side of the city. I found a bike easy enough and had everything sorted on the first go this time! As I rode I got the impression there was a big event happening in Paris today, because there were police everywhere! Not just uniformed officers either, proper military men with riot shield and automatic weapons. Eek! At the Luxembourg gardens, a man called out, “Madame! Madame!” and blew a whistle in my direction. He indicated I should not ride my bike so I got off and walked it. I was glad he wasn’t one of the cops with heavy machinery, just a whistle. The gardens were gorgeous, but I didn’t stay long because I wanted to cover more ground before my half hour was up.

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I rode back up north and was stopped in my tracks by the St Sulpice Cathedral. It came out of nowhere and it huge compared to the buildings around it! I wanted to have a look inside so I found a bike station nearby and aimed for it. Once there, I discovered it was full. When I went to the next one nearby, it was the same. Oh dear! My timer was about to go off and I still hadn’t found a spot for the bike. On the third try, I found a station that had only one slot left. Phew! I didn’t have to walk very far to get back to the cathedral. I wandered through the markets of St Germain on my way.

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The cathedral was impressive inside, with huge paintings of different scenes from the bible and the organ nested perfectly near the roof took my by surprise. It’s good to learn that even after all the churches I’ve seen, I’m not quite sick of them!

Taking advantage of the nearby full bike stations, I got another set of wheels and rode over to the Hotel de Invalides where I basically rode around the perimeter. The dome of the main building is huge and covered in gold which looked brilliant against the puffy blue sky.

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Back over the bridge to the north side of the city, I ditched the bike and walked towards The Palais. Another queue! Eva had told me this was free to get into so it made sense, but something told me this wasn’t a normal queue. Some people were holding tickets and there was barriers up everywhere, with security guarding VIP entrances. I walked the queue to suss out waiting times and to find out what was going on, but after asking three different people if they spoke English and getting nothing, I gave up. No Palais for me.

It was past 2pm and not only was I hungry, I badly needed a bathroom, but I’d been holding it because I didn’t want to pay. Eventually I had to give in. I used the bathroom behind the Christmas markets and paid 80c for the privilege. They didn’t even have paper towels. I should have demanded my money back!

Police were directing traffic at the intersection by the Palais so I found a spot to sit on a concrete block on a corner, got out my ham and cheese sandwich (stolen from the hostel breakfast) followed by an orange, sat back and watched the chaos unfold. I even got to see a huge police escort and government vehicles come through, much to the distaste of the French traffic, who blatantly honked their horns at the cops for stopping them so long.

After lunch, I thought I’d mix things up by walking. I walked to Place De La Concorde where an Egyptian tower sits, stolen by Napoleon and returned to Paris as a gift for the people as Eva had explained. Behind it was the La Grande Rou (ferris wheel), which also had a queue.

I walked beyond those two through the Jardin (garden) des Tuileries which is full of wide open spaces and a large pond until I came through an archway and upon the Louvre. As I got there, there was a man entertaining the passersby with his pigeon-whispering. He had crumbs in his hand, but the birds were clearly used to him and comfortable doing what he predicted. He had a young boy in fits of happiness to have birds sitting on his head and arms. He was the only entertainment as the museum was closed for the day so the crowds were low. I can only imagine what the queues are going to be like when I return.

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I walked outside of the courtyard to the shopping centre to try and find a vendor for the museum pass, but since the museum was closed, the vendor was also closed. I would have to try another spot. I explored the Palais Royale (again on Eva’s recommendation) which had a famous art installation within and another nice courtyard-style garden. People were trying to throw pennies on top of one of the black and white towers for luck, with most of them falling into the low flowing water below.

Itching to get riding again, I wanted to ride through the arches either side of the Louvre and follow the cars in their chaos as they drove across the courtyard. I found another full bike station and was off again. I was more comfortable with the practice I’d had, so I started weaving in and out of traffic like a pro. It felt weird to be doing so with a basket on the front of my bike. Once through the Louvre, I crossed the river and took a ramp down to the bank at water level. I really enjoyed this riding. There was only pedestrians to avoid and it was great to see the city from such a low angle. I was heading for the main event, the Eiffel Tower.

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I parked my bike near the tower and stopped in at the Branly museum to buy a museum pass, which worked out fine, except my debit card didn’t work (turns out I’d run out of money already) so I used cash. I had a sneaky bathroom break in the museum café (hooray for a free pee!) then the light installation in the gardens turned on as I walked out, making me glow.

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The tower was already lit by the time I arrived at its base. Even though everyone takes photos of it and I’m sure I’ve seen it from on hundred angles on film, it is still impressive. The colour is just spot on. When I got to the entrance, I was not surprised to see a queue. I hesitated for a minute, then decided that if I was going to see anything of Paris, I would just have to accept some queue time.

The first queue was for security. Frustratingly (like all security), the only signage they had was right at the entrance so some poor people were turned away after their time in the queue because they hadn’t known what was allowed and what wasn’t. As a matter of habit, I drank the remaining water in my bottle, even though it was not a banned substance. Once I was in, I was more confused by the multiple ticket booths and entry points. You can enter through any of the four legs of the tower. I picked the north tower at random after consulting a sign at the entrance that explained the prices for doing the stairs for the first bit or doing the elevator the whole way up. Obvioulsy I was keen for the stairs as it was the cheaper option.

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When I was halfway through the north tower queue, I realised that the LED sign above me was saying “elevator only” tickets, but I wasn’t sure. Shit. What do I do? I don’t want to leave the queue, but I also don’t want to wait until I’m at the front to be disappointed! I ummed and arred for a bit, then made a break. I left the queue and searched for a helper who spoke English. After a couple of tries, I talked to a very rude man who pointed in a direction and said it was closed at 6pm. Damn it! I’d left the queue for nothing! But then I looked at my watch and it was only 5:45pm. I looked in the direction the man had pointed and saw a sign that resembled stairs. As I got closer, I saw a guard closing the gates to the entrance. “Wait! Wait! Wait!” I yelled as I ran towards him. “One more?” I pleaded. He graciously let me through. I was the last one in. Many people came after me asking why they couldn’t get in. “Merci Beacoup!” I told him repeatedly. I paid my EUR7 for entry to the stairs and just after I started the accent, the tower lit up for 6pm. It shocked me at first, then it was just pretty.

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The stairs weren’t many. Up on the first level, it wasn’t just a view, it was a bit of a museum. They had a few different exhibits explaining the life of Mr. Eiffel, the people who have visited the tower, famous photos and artwork of the monument and of course all of the movies it has featured in. Not only that, there is an ice rink, a restaurant, café and the obvious souvenir shop. I spent a while here. It then took my ages to find my way up to the second level. After asking two different people, then following a group of guys who looked like they were in the same predicament, I found the quite obvious stairs in the corner leading upwards. On the second level, I queued some more to get in an elevator to the top. Twenty-two people at a time, we crammed into elevators that took us skyward, heightening the view as we went. At the second level, I’d wandered if it was worth the extra EUR6 to go to the top since the view was already pretty good, and it definitely was. You can see just how far Paris stretches. I love that it’s an old city and it’s been kept that way. The skyscrapers are all bunched together in the distance as if to keep the bureaucrats and money-makers out of the city.

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The tower had lit up a second time while I was up there and it did so again as I left the compound. After so many rounds of queuing and crowds, I was excited to get some food. I aimed for the Christmas markets we’d been to with Eva the previous night, already set on what I’d be having for dinner. In my haste to get food, I took a few wrong moves and got disoriented about where I was in the markets so frustratingly couldn’t find the food court, but eventually I got there and while EUR12 was way too much to pay for Poulet Basquiuse, it was warm hearty food and it was in my belly so I was happy. I wandered as I ate, in the direction of home. When my food was done, I walked another five minutes along streets beautifully lined with Christmas lights to a bike station. After picking a bike with a busted chain and returning it again, I rode off on my last faithful steed.

Night riding was a complex thing. I feel like the chaos of the day really comes out after night falls. I saw a guy hail a taxi in the middle of an intersection. The driver stopped and opened his boot right there, the guy putting his luggage in, all the while people are tooting their horns everywhere. Next, I was nearly taken out by a guy who decided he’d turn right from the very left lane. I only saw him coming because the guy he was cutting off was seriously pissed. I didn’t get lost and I survived all the way back to the hostel where there were plenty of free spots to put the bike. It was 9:30pm. I’d been out for twelve hours and I could feel it all over my body. The sickness wasn’t helping. I had Strava running all day to track my whereabouts and I discovered I’d travelled 40km. Woot!

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Before bed, I chatted with my bunk mate Anica before we both called it a night, me looking forward to what will hopefully be a solid sleep.

France Fact #2: The toilets in the Eiffel Tower are bright red.

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Because I’m a nerd, here’s my queue times:

  • 1st security checkpoint, 20min
  • North tower ticketing, 9min (before abandoning)
  • Stairs tower ticketing, 9min
  • Elevator to the top, 15min
  • Elevator back to ground, 8min

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