The Chunnel And Paris
by Bill Monson
Of all the ways we traveled on our six-week trip across Europe, the Chunnel Train ranked as about the best. Quick, effective security. Three hours from London's Waterloo Station to Gare du Nord in Paris. A first-class car, comfortable seats, plenty of leg room, and a lunch of wine, salad, and poached salmon with a delightful tart for dessert -- served by attractive female, French attendants.
The trip under the English Channel actually takes up only 20 minutes of the trip and is anything but a scary proposition. The tunnel has lights, the tracks are smooth, and you travel about 45 to 60 miles per hour.
Outside, you rocket across the English and French countrysides at 80 to 90 miles per hour behind an electric engine. No crossings. The roads go over or under this main line. There is some swaying but nothing like you experience elsewhere on EuRail (or AmTrak in the States).
In mid-September, the weather was still warm; but most of the fields were being harvested or had already been so. August rains had kept pastures green for sheep and cattle; but the fall hay was already cut and rolled into plastic-wrapped bundles for winter.
Except for Calais, the Chunnel Train runs through no big towns -- so Calais is the only stop. You see lots of villages in the distance, however, connected with each other by poplar-lined lanes. Each has its own church.
A McDonald's restaurant indicated the first outer suburb of Paris; and graffiti showed on every trackside wall right into the heart of the city. Everyone rushes from the train at Gare du Nord. As Polly and I followed, we found out why: you have to stand in line for a taxi. Still, we got one in about 15 minutes; and despite four o'clock traffic, our driver got us to our hotel on Rue de Innocents inside 12 Euros. (The Euro is about the same as the U.S. dollar.)
We had a small room overooking the Innocents Fountain, but were dismayed to learn that skateboarders dominated the square. Their noise would go from mid-afternoon until 9 o'clock every night. Further, we were just a block from Les Halles Mall, built under a lovely park but every bit as ugly as any U.S. mall. The mall had also drawn to our square such American franchises as McDonald's, Pizza Hut, KFC, and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream as well as those ?#$%&*@ skateboarders and half the teens of Paris.
Polly and I decided to do the standard tourist stops -- the top of the Eiffel Tower for one. Gauche maybe, but the top of the Tower is still a breathtaking experience. An even more breathtaking experience --literally -- was climbing to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. I didn't even know you could do it -- but you can. Over 300 steep, winding stairs take you up the inside of one leg of the Arch and leave you gasping for air when you reach the top. All around the Arch, the major streets of Paris meet; and if watching accidents is your passion, you can see all you want as drivers try to negotiate their way around the traffic circle. You can only reach the Arch by going through underground tunnels; you'd never survive otherwise.
The French Metro is better than the London underground; but it's not so well-marked. It's also cleaner. I didn't see any rats in Paris like you can in London; but I'll bet they're there. One rainy morning, we took the Metro two stops from our hotel to the Louvre and came right up into the famous museum. Unlike some people, I find the new glass pyramid attractive though it is out of step with the older buildings. Polly and I spent most of a day in the Louvre (and only saw about one third) and of course took in many of its more famous works like the Winged Victory and the Mona Lisa. The latter has signs leading to it from every quarter of the compass; and under every sign was a group of Japanese tourists debating what it meant. The old gal herself was 20-deep in people and so endangered by the constant lightning of camera flashes (and/or vandals) that it is covered with a screen of see-through plastic which darkens the painting into mediocrity. Polly and I found the works of classic painters we saw elsewhere much more satisfying.
My biggest memory of the Louvre? A dish of peach sorbet in a little cafe in the former stables in the Egyptian section. It was the best I ever ate!
We didn't find the food in Paris all that great except for a meal at a side street French restaurant off the tourist track called La Tour de Monthery. Great boeuf, Bordeaux, and a raspberry sorbet in vodka! Ooo la la! Afterward, we stag -- ah, walked around St. Eustache Church under a full moon -- feeling the magic of being alive in Paris.
Our last day saw us do Notre Dame Cathedral and prowl the Left Bank. The Cathedral is spectacular but overcrowded (their votary candles are offered at four Euros). We walked along the Seine in the late afternoon sunlight, shopping the many vendors.
I bought a little plaster gargoyle who squats taunting me now as I type this column.
Polly and I enjoyed the Left Bank and wished we'd left time for more exploration. We did locate the oldest church in Paris, and I stuck my head into Shakespeare and Company -- the famous bookshop haunted since the 1920s by American expatriots. The Latin Quarter is mostly for tourists, but I got a bowl of good French onion soup and an omelet for my last dinner in Paris. Then it was back up the slope from the Seine to the Fountain of Innocents, hand in hand with Polly under a full moon dancing through big white clouds.