Paris, day 2
Our first full day in Paris together started early, as we hoped to beat some of the Easter crowds at the attractions across the city. We opted to see Musée du Louvre first, figuring the later in the day it was, the busier the museum would be. This again turned out to be a great decision, as we were able to stroll through the Louvre without much problem.
The day began by hopping on the Métro right outside the hotel and getting off at the Louvre stop. We arrived prior to museum opening, and thought a quick bite to eat for breakfast would be wise, considering the busy day ahead. A quick stroll down the streets surrounding the museum led us to a café with a breakfast special, including a croissant with marmalade and a cup of coffee or chocolat chaud (hot chocolate). This was hands-down the best breakfast I've had in years. The buttery croissant combined with the sweet, slightly cool marmalade, combined with a rich, milky chocolate drink...I debated just going home right after eating, as it would be hard for the day to get any better. As you may have guessed, it DID get better.
It was nearing time for the museum to open, so we walked back to the square enclosed by the Louvre Palace. It was a sunny day with a few scattered, streaking clouds, and a bit of a wind every so often. After a short wait, we entered the Lourve through the relatively newly-designed glass pyramid entrance. Personally, I find the entrance stunning; such a stark contrast to the surrounding palace, both perfect in their own right. At the same time, it's quite easy to see why there was such an uproar after it was erected.
Our guidebook recommended making a beeline for La Joconda, better known as da Vinci's Mona Lisa. There were only a few other people there, considering the museum had just opened, so we were able to get an amazing view. I had heard prior to visiting that this work was much less impressive than the hype surrounding it; again I can see why one would believe this, however I found it quite impressive. In particular, the contrasts in the masterpiece were captivating -- darks on lights, hard textures juxtaposed next to her soft skin. I suppose, though, the never-ending talk surrounding this work likely contributed to special feeling one feels upon viewing it.
From there, we proceeded back to the main entrance and began the audio tour. This was an excellent way to ensure we saw all the important works while still having enough energy for the rest of the day ahead of us. Exhibits that stood out to me include Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, Michaelangelo's Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (or Nike of Samothrace), among many, many other very impressive works. The sheer size of the museum is enough to completely overwhelm you; it was hard to leave without seeing everything, but this simply is not possible in a half-day visit.
After such an intense tour of one of the world's greatest museums, we had earned ourselves a delicious lunch. The Musée du Louvre borders the Tuileries Garden, which was an ideal spot for a picnic. We stopped at a sidewalk cafe and picked up a couple sandwiches and a salad to share; I must admit it was hard to keep myself from devouring the food on the way to the gardens -- even though they were a 5 minute walk away (between both hunger as well as how delicious the food looked!). Fortunately, I held back until we found a nice spot next to a secluded pond. This was a great spot; it was a bit windy outside and the trees provided some protection. The sun peeked behind the partly cloudy sky every so often, offering a warmth that I had not felt since last Fall. Incredible.
Recharged, it was time to see Notre Dame, this time including the interior. When we arrived, there was quite long queue outside. We expected this, and even so it moved relatively quickly. Only once we reached the doors did we find out why there were so many people there: the Crown of Thorns was on display for visitors to kiss as they are blessed. This was a complete coincidence, as this ceremony is held only during Easter and once a month at other times during the year. The entire experience was very special, to say the least, and provided for some wonderful photographic displays.
We initially planned to ascend the stairs to the outdoor balcony at Notre Dame, but the line barely budged after 15 minutes of waiting. Instead, we took the short path to La Saint-Chapelle -- the Holy Chapel located entirely within the Île de la Cité complex. Hands-down, this was the absolute most stunning site I have seen to this day. The incredible intricate stained glass windows surround you as you enter the chapel, and we were fortunate to be visiting on a sunny day. The entire upper chapel came alive with color before our eyes; I could have easily spent the rest of the day here.
The weather had cooperated with us until this point, when it began to rain. We sought shelter in a few sidewalk shops, as well as in a nearby garden beneath a canopy. Luckily, the rain quickly subsided and we were on our way once again. I couldn't wait to get going, as the next stop was le Avenue des Champs-Élysées, filled with shops, theaters, and restaurants, and the most expensive strip of real estate in all of Europe.
We entered from the south end, winding our way through the masses of people both walking and standing amongst the trees and street vendors. The ultimate goal was to first make it to Arc de Triomphe (simply to see it at this point...we ended up visiting it again--twice more--later in the trip), and secondly to find a place for dinner. The weather was still rather poor by this time, and so the visit to the Arc was relatively quick, and we had a restaurant in mind since we passed quite a few on our way to the monument.
Both of us were a little weary about the restaurants directly ON the Avenue, figuring they were likely catering to tourists and would likely provide somewhat bland, mass-produced food. However, the hunger pangs were too strong at this point to explore the maze of side streets, so we settled on a French restaurant near the western end of the Avenue. We sat at a table on the sidewalk, beneath a covered tent, the perfect place to both dine and people-watch as the masses passed. The food was almost exactly what we had guessed it might be, but was still very satisfying -- and quite tasty.
After a couple more pictures of Arc de Triomphe (now floodlit amidst the nighttime sky), we headed back to the hotel, full of food, wine, and new memories in our new favorite city. Our walk home brought us directly beneath the Eiffel Tower another time, a sight I simply could never become accustomed to -- it is so enchanting, particularly when lit at night. An exciting trip to Versailles awaited us in the morning!