Saturday, March 28, 2015

Paris: the City of Hazy Lights

Ah, Paris. A city I love completely. When you love something or someone completely, you love the good things and the bad things. In the case of Paris, the good things are everywhere: wonderful architecture, history around every corner and in graveyards, great style, delicious food, cheap and tasty wine, brilliant shows! The bad things include constant crowds of tourists in places where you wish you could be alone, an utterly baffling metro system, and abysmal table service in restaurants. On this trip, I found a new addition to the 'bad' list that I wasn't expecting: really bad air quality.

It seems, dear readers, that the beautiful City of Lights has an air pollution problem. Paris sits in a topographical basin, and it seems like usually there is enough of a prevailing wind to take the fumes and exhaust from the millions of vehicles away from the city. Lately, for whatever reason, the wind hasn't been prevailing, so the pollution has been hanging over Paris. The mayor has taken steps like instituting restrictions on when vehicles can be used - even numbered license plates one day, odd numbered plates the next - to try to curb the problem.

An important tip for tourists of the current day: the mayor also, with permission from the government, makes public transit free for everyone for a few days at a time, to encourage people to take transit instead of driving cars. On my most recent trip, transit was free on three out of four days, and my friend and I roamed around the city hopping on and off of buses as much as we pleased. It was a real money-saver, for certain. Though complicated, the transit system in Paris is excellent; metro stations are all over the place, and bus service is fast and frequent. I encourage visitors to take advantage of the system, and to watch out for days when you might be able to use it free of charge.

On this trip, I also visited Versailles for the first time. As a big fan of history, art, architecture, and the story of Marie Antoinette, I was really excited to go. Though Versailles is one of those places that is busy all year 'round, and when you want to be alone in a room to really take in the size and grandeur you will inevitably be smacked on the back of the head with a selfie stick, this great palace does not disappoint.

The Hall of Mirrors - where height is an advantage
It was amazing to walk around the grounds and see all the meticulous work that was put into the landscape architecture. No one really does that anymore, on such an enormous scale. I really liked walking through the royal apartments and the different halls as well. I would love to be allowed to roam free around Versailles, though I know that's not possible. I just want to see the kitchen, and the closets. I mean, at the time of Louis XIV - possibly France's wisest and most insane king - there were around 1000 people living at Versailles at any given time. Louis XIV required the court to be moved to Versailles and for all the nobility and various courtesans (and, therefore, their serving men and women) to live at the palace on a full-time basis. He even made the palace bigger in order to accommodate this. So I really had to wonder when walking around the limited area that tourists are allowed into, 'where did they cook for everyone? did they eat in shifts? where are the closets?' Those puffy dresses that the ladies wore at the time, with the big pannier things on the hips must have taken up some serious real estate, storage-wise. It would have been a fascinating place to be anytime during the reign of Louis XIV or XV, and maybe for the first half of XVI.

Looking over the Grand Canal from
the rear courtyard, Versailles
Versailles takes about 30 minutes to get to on a train from Paris. Even if a visitor doesn't feel like dealing with crowds and selfie sticks in the Hall of Mirrors, the grounds are worth the trip. On a nice day, one can walk around the lakes and through the woods, take a row boat out on the Grand Canal, and have coffee in little cafes that were once out-buildings. Outstandingly beautiful, all of it, and even worth paying for the transit ride.

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