September 2, 2013 – Sunny
Ile De La Cite, Pont Des Arts
Usually one of the first chapters in most Paris guidebooks, Ile de la cite was where Paris originated and thus it was full of historical must-visits. How did it take us so long to visit the heart of Paris? We simply fell in love with the Eiffel Tower (we just somehow kept on returning to those steel beams).
For some odd reason, even metro rides were fantastic experiences in Paris… every metro station seemed to have its own flavor and history. We arrived at metro station “Cité” via metro line 1 and we began our historic tour with a leisure walk around the petite island for some river Seine breezes.
As we walked counter-clock wise along the water we realized that we were in relative peace! For a buzzing metropolitan like Paris how were we so alone in the historic epicenter of Paris?… The tranquility lasted for approximately 10 minutes until we reached Pont Neuf (or “New Bridge”, which ironically was the oldest standing bridge across the river Seine). We quickly vacated the area because to be honest the bridge didn’t look that impressive up close (Pont Neuf did look impressive from a distance, try viewing it from Pont des Arts).
We reached our first destination “Conciergerie” which was a former royal palace as well as a prison. Like many structures around Paris, each landmark had served multiple purposes simply because of Paris’s rich history. The entrance to Conciergerie wasn’t well advertised with a very short queue line, and initially we did not plan to visit there until we were at the entrance (it was included in our museum pass, so why not?). The interior of Conciergerie was dim (fitting as a prison), but the grand hall was majestic none-the-less with a beautiful array of stone arches. The short self guided tour then led us through a few sample jail cells, one of which housed Marie Antoinette before her execution some 200 years ago.
A short distance down the street was Sainte-Chapelle and it came highly recommended by a co-worker as well as Tripadvisor. Entrance to the church was expedited by our Paris Museum Pass but the regular lineup was only ~50 visitors long. Upon entry we were directed into a tiny chapel dominated with a blue ceiling and petite stained glass windows. Needless to say we were extremely underwhelmed until we realized that we were only in the lower chapel! My less-than-ideal impression of Sainte-Chapelle quickly reversed as we ascended the narrow staircase which took us to the main chapel. The main chapel was surrounded by 12 gigantic stained glass windows and each window must’ve been 3-4 stories tall. Even though Sainte-Chapelle lacked the square footage in comparison to other famous chapels/churches found throughout France, it did not feel crammed because I was too busy admiring at the rainbow-colored artwork. I found the interior of most churches to be all-too-similar during our trip and I had a tough time differentiating one from another in my mind… except Sainte-Chapelle. The entire chapel basked in a surreal multi-colored cast from these stained glass “walls” and they created a truly unique experience. (At the time of visit 5 out of 12 windows were boarded up for renovations, but the view was still unforgettable… imagine the light from all 12 windows!).
By the time we emerged from Sainte-Chapelle it was well past lunch time. Our hunt for food took us off island to the opposite riverbank because most eateries on the island were either over-priced or blatant tourist traps. On the way back to Ile de la Cite a two-hour lunch later, we passed several curb-side kiosks iconic to Paris with Notre Dame as the backdrop.
Notre Dame was arguably the second most famous landmark that represented Paris (The Eiffel Tower = #1), and the amount of tourists was absolutely insane. The queue to Notre Dame was intimidating but the lineup moved swiftly and we were inside the church within minutes. The interior of Notre Dame was dominated by grey stones with an impressive stained glass rose window similar to the churches we had visited previously. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I wasn’t religious (no appreciation for religious paintings/artifacts), or maybe because we had just visited Sainte-Chapelle a couple hours before… Simply put, I did not think Notre Dame deserved its iconic status (but I shouldn’t complain since admission was free). Despite the free admission, I found Notre Dame to be over-commercialized with gift kiosks and souvenir dispensers (inside the church!) = an overall negative experience unfortunately.
As we exited Notre Dame we quickly jumped into a second queue for the bell tower on the left side of the church. Unlike the main church, entry to the bell tower cost $$$ but it was included in our pass so it wasn’t an issue (either way it was inexpensive… less than 10 euros). The queue itself was only 50-60 people long but we waited for approximately 1 hour. (FYI – The bell tower visit is NOT wheelchair friendly and may be difficult for elderly or obese visitors)
Upon admission we passed yet another gift shop (at least this one was empty since it was exclusive to the bell tower visit haha). We bypassed the gift shop and headed straight for the spiral staircase. The stairs probably took us 5 minutes to hike up and I heard several tourists struggling/complaining toward the latter portion of the trek. The view from the viewing “deck” was enjoyable (well worth the wait) as it offered a fantastic view of Paris flanked by the river on both sides. The viewing area was basically a one-person wide path along the edge of the bell tower and thus created a potential problem: I would be super frustrated if there were always visitors behind me pushing to get ahead. My solution? Stay behind everyone else (think like a photographer lol). The stone gargoyles along the roof-top were interesting, but the most intriguing part of the visit (aside from the view/photo ops) was to see the power of weather corrosion over hundreds of years.
I thought our bell tower visit concluded when we circumvented the bell tower. To my surprise there was another viewing deck at the top of the bell tower = MORE STAIRS! The staircase became narrower and the steps became child-sized as we ascended to the very top of the tower. There were two major differences between the 1st and 2nd level: 1) Everything looked tinier, 2) The top was very spacious VS the 1st level… otherwise everything else was similar. The descend down the stairs took approximately 5 minutes and it was somewhat hard on my knees. As we exited Notre Dame half dazed from the spiral staircase we saw a bride & a groom taking wedding photos at the square in front of Notre Dame! I felt bad for the groom because I was already sweating in a thin T-shirt, let alone a 3-piece tuxedo!
We had planned to visit the tiny island “Ile Saint-Louis” directly adjacent to Ile de la Cite, and apparently my wife had been fueled by my promise of “best gelato/sorbet in Paris”. We (by we I meant me) decided against sweet Italian treats in favor of thirst quenching golden bubbles so we postponed our gelato plans for a later date and instead we parked ourselves at a local pub… a few 1664s later we were off to our last destination of the day – Pont des Arts.
As we approached Pont des Arts the bridge sparkled silver and gold as the setting sun reflected off a sea of locks left behind by lovers across the globe. A Parisian co-worker informed me of this tradition and I came prepared with a combination lock. (the original tradition: Write your names on the lock; secure the lock on the bridge; and throw the key into the river… I didn’t want to pollute the river so I decided to bring a combination lock instead. There were copious amount of street vendors selling pad locks so don’t worry if you’re not prepared). 100000 brownie points with this romantic gesture later the beers kicked in and we were off in search of washrooms.
According to Google Maps we were near the back of Louvre and since we had museum passes we could use the washrooms at the Louvre! When we arrived we were shocked to see the main courtyard of the Louvre so empty… something was odd… Of course it was Tuesday which meant the Louvre was closed! (however the lobby remained open = washrooms were available = happy wife). We took full advantage of the relatively empty square in front of the Louvre for some fantastic photos in the setting sun. We then metro-ed back to our apartment to rest our exhausted feet and turned in early.
(Aside: It was hilarious how attractions and restaurants in France would close on random days… Usually some day between Saturday-Tuesday. Please do your research in advance because there were numerous occasions where we arrived at an attraction/restaurant only to find that they were not open for business that day. Going out for food/ supermarket on Sundays? If you are away from tourist areas don’t even bother lol).