The first stop on my backpacking trip to Europe with my good friend Helen in 1998 was Paris. We had boarded the plane in St. Louis at 7 p.m. CST and landed in Paris at 3:30 a.m. CST. With the 7-hour time difference, it was 10:30 a.m. in Paris. We took a shuttle and then a train to Gare Nord station, within walking distance of our hotel, one of only two that we reserved before leaving home.
Our walk to our hotel took us up one of the lovely tree-lined streets that are so typical of Paris. We passed a red-light district, complete with peep shows, and the famous Moulin Rouge.
After checking into the hotel, we headed up the hill to the highest spot in Paris, an arts and entertainment area known as Montmartre, where we had our first view of the Eiffel Tower far below us. We watched sidewalk artists at work and had our first taste of French pastries. We visited the all-white Basilica of the Sacre Coeur, a beautiful Roman Catholic Church built around the turn of the 20th century. I took a photo of a street performer, and he let me know in no uncertain terms that he expected me to put money in his hat!
We took a subway to the Louvre, the famous art museum built as a palace for Phillip II in the 12th century, arriving 1 and ½ hours before closing. We somehow managed to zip through the museum and see its most famous pieces of art, the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo as well as dozens of other masterpieces.
Wanting to catch as many landmarks as possible, we headed to the Champs Elysees to see the Arc de Triomphe which honors the dead who fought in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The mile-long walk from the subway station was lined with lovely shops, restaurants, and beautiful landscaping.
Our next stop was the Eiffel Tower, surely the most famous landmark and symbol of Paris. It was built in the late 1800’s for the Paris World’s Fair of 1889. It is the tallest structure in Paris and the most visited (more than 7 million in 2011 alone) paid monument in the world. Night had fallen by the time we arrived. The view from the tower was breathtaking, and we quickly saw why Paris is also called the "City of Lights", although it was first called that because it was the intellectual center during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. All the lights made it easy to identify the common landmarks from the tower.
By then, we had mastered the subway system (or so we thought—we would find out the next day that we weren’t quite as smart as we thought we were!), so we headed back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner. We went back up the hill to a neat little restaurant, La Petite Galette, where we had dinner at 10:30 PM, exactly 12 hours and I don’t know how many miles after we arrived in Paris. We dined on duck and beef bourgignon with apple pie and boiled custard for dessert. We had already sampled quiche, croissants, and crepes as we wandered through the city. French cuisine is definitely not over rated. Could it be because they put real cream and butter in everything?
It was after midnight when we left the restaurant and walked back down the hill to our hotel. The room was small, even by European standards, and we even had to sit sideways on the toilet because the bathroom was so tiny. Totally exhausted, we fell asleep and didn’t wake up until 10:30 the next morning. We almost missed our first Continental breakfast, a delicious assortment of breads, cheeses, honey, jelly, and apple butter. It’s a good thing we didn’t because we had another busy day ahead of us.