We had a very early wake-up call on Monday, since our itinerary called for us to drive by motorcoach to Dover, board a ferry to cross the English Channel, and arrive in Paris mid-afternoon.
So, we were up at 3:30 a.m. and on the road by 4:30. Since some of our fellow travelers were staying at another hotel, we had to pick them up before we got on the road. The English countryside is very pretty, but we were tired and dozed part of the drive to Dover.
The white cliffs of Dover are as advertised, and Denise told us that they almost glow in the moonlight. She also told us that there are tunnels and caves inside the cliffs that were used during WWII, and that the cliffs themselves were a welcome beacon to the British pilots returning home from bombing missions.
After arriving in Calais, our first stop in France was at Vimy Ridge, where 11,000 Canadian soldiers died defending the French during WWII. The land at Vimy Ridge was given to Canada as a thank-you for the sacrifice of their nation. The memorial is beautiful and very peaceful, and all of the names of those who died are engraved around the perimeter. The men and women who staff the Memorial are all Canadian. Much of the site is off-limits since there is an unknown number of unexploded bombs and shells still in the ground. There’s also a network of caves and tunnels here that were used for communications. The grass grows thick and tall, but the devastation to the ground is still evident – huge gouges out of the landscape everywhere you look.
We loved the beauty of the French countryside as we continued our way toward Paris. Many of the houses are really old, and even the newer houses have those distinctive rooflines that always make me think of thatched roofs and French farmhouses of centuries past.
On arrival in Paris, we had our first view of the Eiffel Tower and we were both amazed at how enormous it is! Once again, something we thought we were familiar with surprised us! Our hotel was only about four blocks from the Tower, so we were fortunate to see it many times during our stay.
Our hotel was – well, different. The room was VERY small, the twin beds were tiny, and there were no amenities such as coffee, hot water, tea, etc. Denise, our guide, was very careful to explain the elevator system to us: Before you get in the elevator, you select your floor from the buttons outside the elevators, then you are told which elevator to board, A, B, or C. There are no buttons on the inside of the elevator, so if you enter the wrong one, you just have to wait until it stops, then you get off and once again make your selection. Okay, it was different, but not impossible. However, when we entered our room none of the lights worked and we couldn’t turn the television on! So I called the front desk and the young woman on duty managed to make clear to me that we had to put our room key into the slot just inside the door, thus activating the power in the room! Every time we left, we had to remove the card and all the power was interrupted.
We weren’t as fortunate with our hotel bar in Paris as we had been in London; the bartender was rude and ill-tempered so we didn’t return. Instead we found the bar in the hotel next door and ended each of our days in Paris having wine and sharing a crème brulée while looking out the window at a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower! It was spectacular.
On Tuesday, our first full day in Paris, we had a tour of the Eiffel Tower, taking the elevator to the second floor and enjoying a bird’s eye view of that beautiful city. In the afternoon, we boarded a bus for an impressive tour of the Palace of Versailles. Wow! We were awestruck! The Palace is huge, and the grounds go on as far as you can see. It was easy to understand why the citizens of Paris rebelled against the monarchy and stormed the Palace, leading to the eventual beheading of the King and Queen. We saw the private compartments of the king and queen, including the original bedchamber of Marie Antoinette and many of the fabrics – bed canopy, bedspread, wall hangings – that were there when she was alive. In the photos that I’ll post you’ll see lots and lots of gold accents on gates, fences, ornaments of all kinds; it’s not gold paint, but is all gold leaf! Paris still spends enormous amounts of money maintaining and restoring the gold leaf. Although it does last a long time, it’s very expensive when it does have to be replaced.
On Wednesday, a driving tour of the City was followed by a trip to Montmarte to see the beautiful Cathedral of Sacre Couer and a light lunch in the art colony before heading back to Paris and the true highlight of our trip: a tour of the Louvre!
As with so many buildings in Paris, the Louvre started life as a palace and it covers an enormous amount of real estate. We did see the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and other incredible works of art for which the Louvre is renowned.
We ended our day with a boat ride on the Seine River, followed by dinner (Jim had escargot; they arrive in the shell in Paris, not in a neat little plate floating in butter!), and then our wine and crème brulée in our last night in Paris.
Although Paris is an incredibly clean city – the streets are all swept, garbage is picked up, and sidewalks are all washed every single day! – it was filled with pickpockets, gypsies, and beggars of every description. We were warned at every stop to watch out for them. Gypsies work in teams: one to distract, the other to pick, and often use children as part of the ruse. That in itself made Paris unpleasant to us, but overall it was our least favorite city for a variety of reasons.
Thursday was the day we had most anticipated: our much touted trip to Rome via train! We had the morning free (didn’t have to leave for the train station till 4:00 p.m.) so we took a cab to Notre Dame Cathedral. Jim was very tolerant of my church-visiting, and Notre Dame is quite impressive. I confess I liked Westminster Abbey better, however, and not just because of denominational preference! I did get a ticket to visit “The Treasury,” where all the old, ornate holy hardware is housed, and there were some impressive sights. There were also a number of relics on display, as is the Roman Catholic custom.
After our tour, we decided to have a cup of coffee at the sidewalk café outside the Cathedral to complete our “Paris experience.” The “experience” came with a price tag of € 11,40, which translates to about $15.85! Expensive coffee, no? And the only good coffee we had the whole trip was from McDonald’s!
We returned to our hotel where we spent about an hour-and-a-half visiting with our fellow tourers prior to heading for the train. This is the part of the story where the music becomes discordant, the skies cloud over, and ominous strangers appear in the background.
We had paid extra – quite a bit extra, in fact – for upgraded accommodations throughout the trip. We were in very nice hotels, in excellent locations, and were to have a two-person sleeper car on the train. Our tour guide very apologetically advised us that there had been an overbooking of the train and we would not be getting our sleeper compartments. Instead, we would be sleeping in “couchettes” – a small (about 5’ wide) compartment, with sleeping arrangements for SIX PEOPLE. However, they thought perhaps they could work it so we had ONLY four people to a compartment, and as compensation, we would get a free dinner in Rome.
This was not good. Neither of us sleeps well at night and were not only upset (as everyone was) that we would have to share, but also concerned that our erratic sleeping habits would be disturbing to others in the cabin. So I spoke privately to our guide and she assured me that she would try to get us a cabin for just the two of us. And, in fact, she did. But it was awful. Not only did we spend 14 hours in a tiny compartment while young people on holiday (the reason the train was overbooked) ran up and down the halls, but the “beds” were barely the width of our bodies, AND we had to keep our luggage with us “for security reasons.”
To add insult to injury, at about 3:00 a.m., at the France/Italy border crossing, we were awakened by a rattling of the door and a loud, officious knocking. Jim opened the door, and a stern-looking Italian policeman began barking at us in Italian! We were startled and a little frightened (this was a foreign country, remember), but managed to convey that we only speak English. He then demanded our passports and tickets, asked if all of the luggage was ours, where we were from, where we were going, were we traveling alone or with a group. We answered all of his questions, he slammed the door shut, and went on. A short time later we saw several police officers herding a couple of young men across the boarding platform. Needless to say, our sleep was even more fitful the remainder of the night!
When we spoke to our touring friends, we learned that none of the others had gotten the third degree, only Jim and I. We assume that they were looking for two people, and when they found two people they questioned them. The others were assumed to all be traveling together. We also assume that the miscreants were freeloaders, illegal entrants, or criminals of some sort. But we’ll never know!