Early Bird Visitors Beat the Rush in Paris

I hate to wait. And I hate crowds. And I particularly hate waiting in crowds. Marilynn knows this, and she did a phenomenal job guiding us to the sights in Paris we wanted to see with a minimum of waiting. Sure, it took a couple of before 7 a.m. wake-up calls, but beating the rush is worth the sacrifice.

Notre-Dame cathedral opens at 7:45, and we were among the first 10 in line when one of the giant entry doors swung open. Without a doubt, it stands as the prime example of Gothic architecture.

More than 850 years in the making, the cathedral got its start in the 1160s before getting its Gothic makeover in the 14th century. It’s got everything you expect in a Gothic cathedral—massive rose windows, vaulted ceiling linked by capstones, massive pipe organ, stained glass aplenty and gargoyles that, fortunately for us, weren’t spitting water. At 8 a.m., a prayer service began, filling the cathedral with sweet singing, a perfect accompaniment to the early morning light filtering into the worship space.

Admission is free, but the crowds that had gathered by the time we walked by the cathedral two hours later were hundreds deep. Heh, heh, heh.

After the cathedral, we nipped into a patisserie for croissants while we waited for Sainte-Chapelle to open at 9. The chapel was built in the 13th century as a reliquary (i.e. a place to store religious relics). Sainte-Chapelle stored what was thought to be the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. However, the artifact moved to Notre-Dame in 1804, where it is venerated the first Friday of every month.

Beautiful, upper-floor stained glass windows are the main attraction at Sainte-Chapelle. About 70 percent of the glass is original, covering nearly 7,000 square feet and depicting 1,113 scenes from the Bible. A rose window is “new,” installed in the 15th century.

Again, we were among the first in line, making a beeline for the upper floor after gaining entry. The early morning sun was still weak but strong enough to dazzle the senses through the windows. After gaping at the windows, the eye naturally travels to the painted walls, which still retain considerable color and character, and then to the floor and its highly decorative tiles.

So by 10 o’clock, we’d knocked out the planned activities for the day, leaving plenty of time for unplanned sightseeing.

Same drill, different destination

We were able to sleep slightly later the next day, because the Musée D’Orsay doesn’t open until 9:30. We had our tickets (bought online) already, but all lines at the Impressionist museum get deep even before opening time. Declan took our place in line just after 9, while Marilynn and I finished our croissant and bread breakfast on stone benches outside the museum.

As before, we cleared security and headed straight for the most popular destination, the Impressionist painters’ permanent exhibition. I’m a huge fan of Impressionist art, especially of landscapes, and the Musée D’Orsay didn’t disappoint. Monet is my current favorite, although I also like Pissaro and Cezanne, and Renoir to a lesser extent. There were plenty of Van Gogh’s paintings, although I’d had my fill the week before in Amsterdam. The museum also has several Degas sculptures and a few Rodins.

We were able to peruse that gallery with few other visitors. As we worked our way down the museum, the crowds got thicker and thicker until they were nearly overwhelming in the temporary exhibit, on the mystical concerns of Impressionist artists.

We emerged after three hours into a plaza full of people in snaking lines, both ticketholders and those needing tickets. One of the lines curved in upon itself, then down the plaza steps to wrap around it by half a block. Again, a great choice to buy ahead and enter early.

Not all of our efforts were successful, however. The line to climb the tower at Notre-Dame stretched more than half a cathedral block when we joined it at about 10:15, or 15 minutes after it opened. We stood in line for about 20 minutes when we decided to do something else. And we weren’t able to score tickets for the Paris catacombs, which Declan decided late that he wanted to visit.

But there’s no doubt the early bird beats the rush to popular attractions.

All the Sights to See, and Then Some

With only two days and a bit in Paris, there was no time to lose. So after checking into our hotel and enjoying a great meal at the French restaurant one door down, we set off for a nighttime boat tour of Paris.

Marilynn thought it would be a great way to get the lay of the land and see many of the famous sights, especially the Eiffel Tower at night. The temperature was brisk, yet tolerable, so we chose seats at the back of the boat with operable windows. Although other families were seated in a single row, the family in front of us was taking up three rows, with dad and daughter in one row, mom in second and son on the back.

Down in front

I thought nothing of it until we reached the Eiffel Tower, when mom proceeded to stand up in front of us to take pictures. Bear in mind, the windows were wide and open, and no one else was standing. You’d have thought she was recording an historic event, the fervor with which she was taking pictures (and blocking our view).

And then 9 o’clock struck, and the monument started pulsating like a spastic disco ball. The mom went wild, snapping photo after photo. For a moment there, I thought she was going to start talking to the monument, telling it to smile and look sexy for the camera.

At least we could check the Eiffel Tower off our list, knowing we didn’t have to get any closer to the monument or anywhere near that family again.

Early in the morning

The next morning, we visited Notre-Dame and Sainte-Chapelle as they opened before returning to the area around our hotel. Grabbing takeaway at a patisserie and having a picnic is how the French have lunch, so we followed the crowd to the ancient Roman arena behind our hotel. A dozen children were either playing football or running around under the watchful eyes of their parents. We spent the rest of the day at the natural history museum and walking through the adjacent botanical garden, Jardin des Plantes.

Our final day also started early with a visit to the Musee D’Orsay. We had no firm plans for the rest of our day, but no one seemed enthused by the prospect of a bus tour. However, I did want to glimpse the Arc de Triomphe, so we walked down the Champs-Élysées far enough to see it. Declan was keen to visit La Chapelle, better known as the Sri Lankan part of town, so we found a Metro station and headed there.

We visited several ethnic grocery stores,  guessing what certain food items were and taking in the sumptuous smells and seeing the sights. Did you know there are Hell’s Angels in France? We didn’t either, but they have a clubhouse in that part of town. We had a snack in an Indian restaurant, where Marilynn and I split a half-bottle of wine because it was nearly as cheap as tea.

For dinner, we returned to the same restaurant we visited the first night, owned by a friendly, gracious man who also serves as waiter. The restaurant only seats two dozen, and it features a limited menu at a set price. Declan wanted to try escargot, so he ordered them as his starter, but we all tried them. Declan said they tasted like mussels, and he’s not wrong. I wondered how much of the taste was sauce and how much was snail.

Our final night in Paris also ended early, because an 11-hour train and bus journey to Prague awaits us. But I wake up confident that obtrusive photo mom will be nowhere in sight.

Finally, in the City of Light

Bonjour Madame Guthrie. Après 30 ans, je suis à Paris.

God, I hope that’s right, because I finally put my pidgin French to use, following two years of high school French with Mrs. Guthrie and a French minor at college. I’ve forgotten more French than I probably learned over the years, although idiomatic expressions (zut alors!) still stick in my mind.

As best I recollect, it was the fall of 1980 when John Hill and I became the only male students in French class. I distinctly remember one student (I recall who but will never tell) who said that day, in her best Southern accent, “Par-lay voose, fran-says.”

So while looking forward to my first foray to the City of Light, I also was trepidated by my lack of language skills. In Spain, I pushed Marilynn to the front when buying groceries or negotiating train stations because she and Declan knew some Spanish. Here, they would be relying on me, and I’d heard that French people were kinda mean to those who mangle their language.

Use it or lose it

I shouldn’t have worried. First, everyone we dealt with was extremely nice, and even with those who didn’t speak French were amenable to gestures and half phrases on both sides. And in truth, the overwhelming majority of people we ran into spoke better English than I did French.

Still, it was reassuring to request our room key (vingt-huit) and actually get the right one. And to order a huge tea at Starbucks (thé chaud). But, of course (bien sûr), the barista said, “Green tea or black,” and I responded in English without thinking. D-oh!

But it does leave me bemoaning the knowledge I have let go fallow. One of the clerks at the hotel where we stayed was Turkish, we believe, and spoke that language along with English, French, German and Italian. Our friend Béné speaks at least four languages (and as many as six) and also can read hieroglyphs.

Upon our return to the States, I hope to hook up with some conversational French language group to improve my skills. Marilynn and I are encouraging Declan to use the Spanish he’s learned since kindergarten as often as possible. I keep telling him I should either drop him outside any Home Depot in the Atlanta area or help him get a job at Plaza Fiesta, the Latin mall in Atlanta. He wants to work at one of the football jersey shops.

You certainly don’t need to be fluent in the language of the country you’re visiting (I still can’t understand most Scottish people, and they supposedly speak English). But I think Americans, in general, could do a better job at being global citizens by learning a foreign language—present company included.

Writer’s note: I did use Google Translate to get the accent marks right, but I actually do remember more French than I think I do.

Good Friends Make for Great Sightseeing

Marilynn keeps up with everyone. We had at least two of her childhood friends from Kansas at our wedding, along with one of her Harvard roommates, other friends from college and a handful from grad school.

In Madrid on a trip a few years ago, we stayed with a woman Marilynn met once, a friend of a friend. Marilynn kept up with this woman as she married, changed jobs, had kids and watched them grow up. Marilynn sends the occasional letter or email, and we’re the rare family that still sends out Christmas cards, 120 last year—fewer than in years past because we left for Belfast a week after the holiday.

All of that to say we spent a wonderful weekend in Antwerp with Marilynn’s friend Béné, who opened her home and gave freely of her time to show us the city of her birth. Marilynn and Béné lived on the same staircase for a single year while both were attending Jesus College, Oxford nearly 30 years ago.

We didn’t visit any particular museum or cathedral but walked around the city as Béné showed us the sights and talked about Antwerp’s rich history. She’s a schoolteacher, but Béné could easily be the best tour guide an Antwerp visitor could ask for.

Fun facts about Antwerp

  • Declan enjoyed looking for the Mary and Child statues that many corner houses have for good luck. Béné says that homeowners also liked them because they came with a free light.
  • The golden age of Antwerp was in the 1560s, when Antwerp and Paris were the largest cities in Europe, with more than 100,000 people each.
  • Antwerp is the second-largest port in Europe (behind Rotterdam), thanks to a deep water port that Napoleon deepened and straightened. Unfortunately, the project forced the destruction of a fabled monastery.
  • The city’s other large industry is the diamond trade. Traditionally, Hasidic Jews dominated this, although Béné says Indians have taken on greater importance in recent years.
  • The story of Nello and Patrasche resonates in Japan and Korea much more than it does in Belgium, where the story originated. “A Dog of Flanders” is an 1872 tragedy written by Marie Louise de la Ramée under the pen name “Ouida” about a peasant boy and his dog. The book is required reading in Japan, where it’s become part of the country’s collective psyche, as evidenced by the reaction of Japanese tourists who stumble across the monument in front of Antwerp Cathedral. The new statue, unveiled in December, shows Nello and Patrasche snuggling together under cobblestones that seamlessly flow over the white marble fixtures. Several films have been made from the book, and not all of them relate the original story’s not-so-fairy-tale ending.
  • A statue depicts the popular legend of how Antwerp got its name. According to folklore, a giant collected a toll from passing boatmen, severing a hand off those who refused and throwing it in the river. A hero named Silvius Brabo cut off the giant’s hand and (what else?) threw it in the river. “To throw” in Dutch is werpen so throwing a hand is Antwerpen.
  • Dutch master painter Peter Paul Rubens lived and worked in Antwerp at Rubenshuis, which is now a museum. His work also can be seen in two local churches.
  • A begijnhof houses a community of single women who live communally like nuns (but aren’t) and serve those in need. These communities are dying out, with the housing passing into private ownership. Béné showed us the courtyard of a former begijnhof that is not on public display.
  • The St. Anna Tunnel connects the parts of Antwerp divided by the river Scheldt. A set of cool wooden escalators takes visitors more than 100 feet down, or visitors can take an elevator that holds 40. The pedestrian and bike tunnel is more than one-third of a mile long.

Sacrilegious Easter brunch

While wandering around town on Easter morning, amid the cacophony of church bells announcing Christ’s empty grave, we had a delightful brunch at probably the most irreverent restaurant you’ll find.

At Het Elfde Gebod (the Eleventh Commandment), you’ll find the place chock-full of saints, sinners, cherubs and other statuary on the walls and sitting on nearly every flat surface. Kitsch aside, the food was superb. I had a plate-filling omelet, and Marilynn had The Last Supper, reminiscent of a Ploughman’s lunch with tasty bread, brie, ham and olives. By the way, the 11th commandment is “to eat well, drink a lot of tasty beer and have lots of fun,” according to the restaurant.

Our thanks again to Béné and her family for the warm welcome and the chance to visit, relax and wash clothes.

Can’t Escape Amsterdam’s Seedy Side

While in a convenience store, I had to explain to Declan what cannabis was. We weren’t anywhere near the Red Light district—just in the mood for a mid-morning snack. But there was cannabis chocolate, cannabis tea, other edibles and cannabis energy drinks (isn’t that an oxymoron?) mixed in with regular junk food.

So we carefully (carefully!) picked up some Heinz ketchup flavoured Lays chips (tasty) and some Japanese party mix. We skirted the Red Light district on our first full day, catching a whiff of spliff every now and again, seeing an ad for the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum on the tram and glimpsing a few “coffee” houses with neon pot leaves on their signs.

Sex, drugs and churches

But on a church tour Friday morning, the seamy side of Amsterdam could not be avoided. The churches we wanted to visit were on the edges of the Red Light district. While walking to the first church, I turned around at one point and saw a couple of scantily clad ladies on display in adjacent doorways. They were more Clermont Lounge than the Cheetah, if you’re familiar with the reputation of the ladies in the Atlanta strip club scene. Let’s just say I was thankful they were somewhat covered up, although I was wishing for full Muslim garb, if you get my drift. I quietly motioned to Marilynn to go have a look.

We first visited Museum Our Lord in the Attic, a secret church built in 1663 when Catholics lost the right to worship in the city. I was imagining a cramped space where 20 people huddled together under the eaves. It was nothing of the sort. A hundred could easily have fit in the space, which spanned at least two houses and featured pews, side lofts above the main worship area, a pipe organ, priest quarters, a baptismal font and a confessional. It was definitely worth a look.

Then we walked down the street to the Oude Kerk (Old Church), which had packages of hemp tea for sale in the entrance hall. Wacky tea aside, the church was a former Catholic church that was stripped of most of its religious artifacts when Catholicism was banned. It is used mainly for public events now. One misericord (discrete chair where clergy/choir would sit) worth a look shows a Dutchman pooping coins. It refers to a Dutch saying that translates roughly into, “You can’t poop money.”

Better left to the imagination

As the morning wore on, the sights and smells of the “other” Amsterdam grew. I regret not being able to take more pictures, for fear of drawing undue attention. I would have loved to say to Marilynn, “Hey, stop! I want to get a picture of that 10-inch bright red, anatomically correct, fully erect, circumsized dildo salt shaker with the symbol of Amsterdam (XXX) on it.” But I didn’t. I would have loved to get a picture of those “ladies” in the window, but not only did I not want to draw attention, I didn’t want to break my camera.

And once you knew what to look for, it did seem like reefer madness had swept that part of the city. A group of tourists was undoubtedly on a pot tour, judging by the look of the participants and the amount of colitas, rising up through the air. Hand-rolled “cigarettes” were everywhere, as were the accompanying smells.

We spent the rest of our final day in Amsterdam at the Artis Royal Zoo, where I hope no one was high. It’s one of the oldest zoos in Europe and features an aquarium, a planetarium and extensive artwork—none of which we saw because of time constraints. But what we did see was impressive.

The lemurs were shown in a wild setting fully accessible to visitors. They ran in front of us along the top of a fence, one of them slightly brushing Declan’s jacket as it passed. At one point, they all ran into the trees and started shrieking in unison to the point we thought something was wrong. We also saw two hornbills participating in what one could call a sing-off, one singing a few notes, then the other responding in kind. We could have spent an entire day there and not seen all there was to see.

And that sums up Amsterdam: we saw a lot but felt there was much more to hold our attention. The city, drug culture aside, gets an asterisk next to it, meaning we want to visit again.


A ‘crap’-tastic visit to Amsterdam

I wanted to call the stuff that looked like pigeon crap hanging from the undersides of many of Amsterdam’s bridges “shit-lactites.” But Declan had an even better word: “stalact-shites.” Declan is quickly becoming a better wordsmith than his dad.

In retrospect, they’re probably salt deposits or the byproduct of the rusting process, but I’m not going to stand in the way of a good lede.

A boat tour proved a fitting end to a fine first day in Amsterdam—so much better than the getting to Amsterdam from Berlin part. The train from Berlin almost made the border, when the conductor announced the train could go no further and was returning to Berlin. We were dumped out in the middle of nowhere, at a train station that was closed for renovation. It was cold and would be at least an hour until busses could be arranged to take us beyond the track difficulty, which apparently was someone getting hit on the tracks.

As we all stood in the cold and watched the train depart, Declan wondered aloud why we couldn’t just have waited on the warm train with the working toilets. Good point, son. But that delay meant we didn’t get into Amsterdam until after 5 p.m., so there was little left to do but find dinner and scrounge supplies for tomorrow’s breakfast. We only had 48 hours in Amsterdam, and we wanted to make the most of them.

A fitting building for masterworks

Our first stop was the Rijks Museum, the Dutch national museum of art and history. The museum is best-known for its Rembrandt paintings, in particular The Night Watch. The Dutch painting style is much more to my taste than earlier periods during which it was all large ladies, fuzzy details and painting after painting of Mary and baby Jesus. Rembrandt’s use of light to highlight certain details shows up best when you can see it in person. The museum also has an impressive collection of Vermeer, three Van Goghs and a ton of other items that easily could fill a day’s time.

Equally impressive, especially when contrasted with our experience later in the Van Gogh Museum, was the scale of the building, constructed in the late 19th century and extensively renovated a few years ago. Despite the high season crowds (it’s tulip season in the Netherlands), everyone was spread out and you could stand in front of even the most popular masterpieces after a moment or so.

And then a building that didn’t work

After lunch, we visited the Van Gogh Museum, where our experience was quite different. The place was packed—and felt it. But I’m fond of Impressionist art, and this is the world’s largest collection of his work—200 paintings, 400 drawings and 700 letters, supplemented with works by such contemporaries as Gaugin and Rodin.

Like Rembrandt, Van Gogh needs to be seen in person to fully grasp the bold use of color, the layers of paint and the brushstrokes. His work while in an asylum was particularly good, I thought. What I didn’t think was particularly good were the maddening crowds, armed either with cell phones or multimedia guides walking around oblivious to everyone else. You don’t need to stand in front of a painting while you’re looking at a screen. We gave a quick pass to anything that wasn’t painted by Van Gogh so we could maximize our time and escape the crowds. Still worth it, but a more leisurely viewing experience would have improved the visit greatly.

We ended our day with that 90-minute boat tour, exploring several canals and learning more about the city’s rich history. I was happy to hear that printers once had their own canal where they plied their trade. Once it was pointed out, you couldn’t help but notice that the buildings are canted ever so slightly forward. The buildings are vertical, making it difficult to bring in large furniture, so most houses had hooks or pulleys installed over the eave. The forward cant was to stop furniture hitting the house on the way up.

Until more recently than you’d imagine, houses in Amsterdam didn’t have house numbers. Instead, they were identified by the gable tiles that often alluded to the origin or profession of the owner. And if what we saw under most bridges was consistent, you could also identify the canal you’re in from the stalact-shites.

Berlin Museums a World Apart

I’m a huge fan of museums. Art, science, animals (dead or alive), archaeology, geology, history, a man and his crap—you name it, and I’ll visit it. But I’ve discovered that there are few truly great museums. The British Museum qualifies, as do the Field Museum in Chicago and the Museum of Natural History in New York.

There are plenty of others I haven’t yet visited, but I can now scratch the Pergamonmuseum from that list. The Pergamon is part of Berlin’s Museum Island, a World Heritage Site since 1999. Even though the namesake Pergamon Altar and the north hall are currently closed for renovation, the remainder of the museum is quite impressive indeed.

The museum was built during a time when men dreamed big and then stole bodaciously. Elgin liberating the figures ringing the Parthenon, now on display at the British Museum, was bodacious. But taking the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, coupled with the processional way? One needs a new vocabulary to cope with taking on that scale.

The first Pergamon had to be demolished because the foundations weren’t up to the task of supporting the massive stone and brick facades that are the Pergamon’s stock in trade. In addition to the Pergamon Altar and Ishtar Gate, the Market Gate of Miletus dates from AD 100 and features two stories of columns and artwork. There’s even a room from Aleppo, which, given the fierce fighting in Syria recently, makes its acquisition seem prescient instead of possibly illegal. We also wanted to see the Alhambra Dome, taken from the palace we saw during our 2015 trip to Spain. Thinking back to the Alhambra, I don’t think that dome was missed.

Because of the renovation, entrance to the museum is limited. We hadn’t booked in advance, so we waited in line for about 30 minutes until a sufficient number of people left the building. But visiting the Pergamon was well worth the wait, and the scale of it means that even capacity crowds don’t feel that way.

Experiences of Egypt and beyond

Das Neues Museum (New Museum) is adjacent to the Pergamon. Built in the mid-19th century and  badly damaged during the Second World War, it was extensively refurbished during the 1990s. The New Museum features artifacts from the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, the Museum of Prehistory and Early History and the Collection of Classical Antiquities.

After waiting in line and taking in the Pergamon, I admit that we probably gave New Museum short shrift. But we did hit the highlights, including the extensive Egyptian artifacts that Declan likes. While the artifacts were impressive, I thought the lighting in the Egyptian section did the artifacts no justice. It was rather harsh and threw glare across the glass encasing many objects.

The curators did a much better job displaying two of its must-see pieces: the Golden Hat and the bust of Nefertiti. The Golden Hat, the use of which remains unknown, was in a darkly lit room with soft lighting making the hat shine. The bust of Nefertiti was in a room by itself, her glassy-eyed gaze still penetrating after so many centuries.

On a future trip, I’d make sure to see the Altes (old) Museum, with its collection of ancient Greek utensils and Etruscan art, and the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), with its collection of impressionist paintings, both of which are closed on Monday.

But those will need to wait for another visit.