Thursday, July 17, 2008

Paris & Rennes: the French connection

"Ok, so there I was in Paris, France, see..." Why do people always have to mention that Paris is in France? How many times do people tell stories of going to Paris, Montana, or wherever another town is with the same name? It's like those action movies that pan back to show the Eiffel Tower and the city, and then the words appear on the screen: "17:00 hours: Paris, France". Gee, really? That big tower isn't in other cities as well?
Anyway, I WAS in Paris, and although I didn't go into any of the great galleries or museums this time, I had fun just wandering around. My hotel was just a block off the Champs de Mars, the grassy "Mall" in front of the Eiffel, so my first afternoon I went there and walked down to the tower. The lines were incredible, so I opted not to go up (been there, done that). I kept going across the river and got some great photos of it with the sun behind me. From there it's a rather long walk to the Louvre, but walk it I did, savoring the fact that I didn't have any itinerary to rush through this time and could just enjoy Paris like Parisians do. This was my fourth visit to this beautiful city and darn it, I was finally going to relax here!
The only place I really wanted to go inside was the Grand Palace, a huge edifice that looks like a giant greenhouse/old-time museum. i discovered that it was closed, but wasn't able to tell why as all the signs in front were, rudely enough, in French. You'd think they would have had the grace to know I was coming and put out something in English. Seriously, it's the same almost all over the world; countries seem fiercely determined to perpetuate their own languages, thus they refuse to use any others in notifying the traveling public (except the barest minimum) about basic information they might need to know. The U.S. is not much better at this, I rush to admit. But you'd think these small countries like, say, Hungary or France, where everyone who visits communicates in English (including all of Asia, India, Africa and, well, the rest of the world), would think that it might make it easier for visitors to get around instead of having to bother tired information clerks with the same questions over and over. Hello? Is it sinking in yet? Perhaps by my next visit.

Also, I didn't even think about it, but my full day there, by lucky coincidence, just happened to be July 14. Ring a bell? Yes, it was Bastille Day, the French version of Independence Day. There was a big military exhibition in front of the old Ecole Militaire (Army College), and the fireworks that night on the Mall were glorious, timed as they were to thundering classical music. I have a little video of some of it posted on YouTube if you're interested.
I 'also saw all the usual sights: the Louvre pyramids were as grand as ever, the Arc d'Triomph as imposing (and the traffic around it as frantic), the cafes just as pleasant and the shopping more materialistic than ever. Seriously, how many shoes are bought to pay the rents on all those expensive shoe stores on the Champs Elysees? Don't people have enough yet? Just looking at them all made my feet tired, and I was wearing my (only) pair of comfortable tennis shoes!
Speaking of dogs it's good to be in another country where the animals are taken care of and you don't see any street dogs; although there are some rather decrepit-looking people who do have them. I've seen some guys who hang around the steps of a square and always have several dogs sleeping with them. Poor things, one had a bandage on its face that was doing a poor job of covering an open wound. I asked them about it and they seemed to be managing it; the wound looked clean and the tissue healthy, so I let it go. It was hard to communicate with them but they were friendly enough and I think the dog had seen a vet already. If it had been neglect I would have reported it or something. Maybe done some kung-fu on the guys.
The last thing I did before boarding the train to leave was go up not the Eiffel Tower, but the Parnassus building, a skyscraper with a great view of the city, including the Eiffel. (pictured)
Next I wanted to see Mont St. Michel, that cool-looking cathedral on an island off of western France that I'm sure you've all seen pictures of, if not the actual thing. So I went to Rennes, a nice town west of Paris in the Bretagne (Brittany) area that isn't too far from St. Michel's. Most of the hotels were full but a nice receptionist called and found me a place; it wasn't the finest place on Earth but had a quiet room, which is always a gem beyond price. And the view from my window of a ramshackle assortment of buildings was, ah, interesting. (pictured) Even more interesting, people actually lived there; at night I could look across into their kitchens and smell the cooking.

The old section of town turned out to be prettier than I expected, with lots of cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses, creperies and the obligatory cafes. There was probably a museum or two somewhere in there as well, but I spent my time mostly wandering and investigating which cafe made the best hot chocolate.
I planned to find a way to St. Michel the next day, but couldn't sleep til past 3 a.m (probably due to having a late hot chocolate, which I always forget has caffeine too), and ironically enough was short on sleep from the noise in Paris, so I slept til noon and never made it to the abbey. But when a door closes a window opens somewhere else, and I discovered that Rennes was having some kind of festival-- I never found out what, even the locals I asked weren't sure-- with bizarre giant figures paraded around the streets. It reminded me of the Dinotopia books; there were even people wearing funny costumes handling the giant, dinosaur-like figures. I also tried some of the pub cider that's a local speciality in Brittany, and managed to not ony try some local wine, but found a couple of Irish pubs as well!
I tried to get an overnight train the second day to Spain, to meet some folks who run animal sanctuaries down there, but they were all booked for at least several days so I wound up staying two nights. The next day I lazily wandered back to the gare (train station), had a breakfast crepe outside in the square, and got the noon train for Lyon. It looks like Spain will have to wait.
Well, there's always more research to do on hot chocolate.

Next: Lyon and beyond

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