Well, I said only one more story before the last so clearly I’m either a liar or a blowhard: I’ll let you decide. The last full day before returning home feels a bit like a funeral: you’ll never see many of these people again, but at least there are going to be sandwiches. The only definite thing on our agenda for Monday was getting to our new hotel at the airport which, despite it’s relative affordability, had all the typical airport hotel characteristics: style and class befitting of a rat scurrying through the Paris Metro. But who needs to hear about that, we still had a full day of exploring which starting with a walk down Montparnasse. The host at Hotel Max said this was the crêpe district and we could not leave France without having a good crêpe.
We eventually ducked into a crêpe restaurant at a busy intersection and indulged, then noticed that behind us was Paris’ only skyscraper, a tall black building that looked as out of place as if I were standing at the Ironman starting line. What makes Paris truly unique is that for a city of some ten million, there are no buildings taller than the Eiffel Tower, in fact, the majority of buildings are a standard five stories tall, which gives the city a relatively flat appearance and almost freakish uniformity. Veer off any main street and you get a definite feeling that you are in Paris. Montparnasse had a lot of restaurants on the main strip, but as was increasingly the case, we walked endlessly not entirely sure what to eat. After two weeks of eating out, I longed for my own kitchen and my home cooked food. I always try to return from travels with a “signature” dish, like jerk from Jamaica, barbequed chicken from Thailand, pizza from Italy and pinto from Costa Rica, but I didn’t really have a French or Belgian favourite. Perhaps “frites” will be my take-away; but as we didn’t eat that much true French food, I could not say I had a favourite.
After brunch we headed back to the Metro and emerged on Île de la Cité, home to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. At one time, when Jesus was still just an average carpenter in flip flops working for “Kitchens and Baths by Jesus,” Île de la Cité was Paris, a small community nestled in the middle of the Seine River. In the early 12th century, work started on Notre Dame as Christianity came to the region.
The Cathedral went through many stages over the next four centuries, but the general building style remained the same: “holy” and “imposing.” You have to admire the Catholic Church for sparing no expense to maximize curb appeal. The Church itself looked a little odd, though, in that the steeples, to me, didn’t look finished. They’re flat and boxy, unlike other steeples that are pointy and have that “arrow to God” look.
Outside Notre Dame was a statue of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor who has unfortunately become the model for Game of Thrones’ White Walkers, the army of the dead. His actual likeness looks nothing like the statue, but then again, I’ve never been too impressed with Madame Tussaud’s wax figures either. Real people look much more “real.”
We walked to the front of Notre Dame with little intention of going in until we saw the admission rate. Free! No person from Winnipeg has ever turned down a freebie, which is yet another statement to add to our motto:
“Winnipeg: home of huge amounts of food for a cheap price and where we love free stuff.”
We gleefully lined up and walked in while I once again hoped I wouldn’t burst into flames. You could almost feel God’s presence walking into this place, unless of course it was my shampoo laden underwear starting to froth. We were struck by how dark it was inside but this only accentuated the intricate stained glass that adorned the walls all around us in circles, semi-circles and ovals perched in elaborate stone archways.
As holiness goes, this building was at least a nine out of ten and for five Euro, anyone could light a candle and pray in front of any number of saints, each featured in their own little room off the main area of worship. Joan of Arc got her own private area as well as the patron saints of both China and the Philippines. The latter had enough flickering prayer candles to grill wieners.
On our way out we stopped to admire the incredible bas-reliefs on the exterior doors then continued our stroll through Île de la Cité which, despite being literally in the heart of Paris, was relatively quiet and more upscale than other parts of the city. We stopped for ice cream then worked our way back to Hotel Max and the long Metro, train and bus ride to our airport hotel. The trip was drawing to a close and it was time to reflect upon what we had experienced.
For those of you who haven’t been to Paris: Ha! I beat you to it, therefore I now have the travel credibility that you don’t. I’m so much more awesome! Actually, while we enjoyed Paris, it’s really not our kind of tourism. I’ll never forget being warned about getting “templed out” during our trip to Angkor in Cambodia. What a preposterous idea I thought at the time, surely four days of temple visits wouldn’t find us “templed out.” Two days later we welcomed the sanctity of our hotel and the grudging realization that we had two more days of temple visits. Ugh, it was true and the same can be said for Paris. After a couple days we were “monumented out.” I imagine it would also be pretty easy to get “museumed out” even by an afternoon visit to the gargantuan Louvre. This traditional form of sightseeing, to us, is too fatiguing, even stressful: where shall we go now? What do we see? What do we not see? How much time do we have? How much does it cost? Fish or cut bait? Fish or cut bait. Aaaaarrrrgh! Were we to return to France, we’d skip Paris altogether and head for the countryside, get a good slice of rural life, park ourselves in a vacation rental then drink wine and eat cheese to our hearts’ content. I can’t say I’ve ever been either wined out or cheesed out, but I’m up for the challenge.
Our one disappointment was not being able to get to Reims and visit the Champagne houses, so that remains on the bucket list. Overall, though, the trip was a roaring success. I’m glad we spent two full days in Ypres and visited most of the Ypres Salient, rather than doing the simple day tour. It was truly a special adventure–ass aside–and one that would be immensely rewarding for children with a penchant for history. Brugge is also a fantastic place to spend a few days and best of all, you don’t really need to visit the monuments or historical sites because you’re surrounded by them. Like Matera in Italy, Brugge is a living museum that invites leisure. And of course there’s the beer. Any beer aficionados worth their hops must spend some time in Belgium; it’s like maple syrup to Canadians and coupons to Manitobans.
Paris has its charms and despite it’s reputation of being cold and aloof, we encountered many friendly and helpful people. Even when we struggled with French, the local shop employees smiled and helped or happily switched to English. Ultimately, you leave with a good or bad feeling about a place based on the people you meet and we had very few negative encounters in France and Belgium. Monuments are nice for some, but we usually remember the personal encounters.