Europe, Day 8 (Paris and Versailles)

This was probably the lamest day of our trip. It started out well, though. Of course we stopped by the Fête du Pain as we did every morning. We ate all our deliciousness on our way to Sainte-Chapelle, the little jewel-box of a church on the same island as Notre Dame. There was a security line that wound around the sidewalk that we had to wait in to get our bags peered into. Thanks to our Museum Passes, though, we walked right into the church after going through security, bypassing the hundreds of people waiting in line to buy tickets. Chumps!

Sainte Chapelle is an interesting church. It’s quite small and is built on two levels. The bottom level is where you enter. It’s pretty but nothing fancy. That’s where the servants and lesser mortals worshipped. Up a tiny winding staircase you’ll find the upper chapel with its gorgeous riot of stained glass. This, as you might have guessed, is where the Kings of France and the noble classes went to church.

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The stained glass windows are in the process of being restored. Some are finished and look bright and beautiful; some have scaffolding and you can’t see much at all and some still have restoration left to go. It’s quite interesting to see the differences.

It’s not a terribly large church, so it doesn’t take much time to visit. But it’s so lovely that it’s certainly worth a trip.

I split up from the rest of the family afterwards for the afternoon. I wanted to do a little shopping for some beauty products at City Pharma (the best and cheapest drugstore in town). French drugstores sell the most wonderful beauty products. None of them are particularly cheap but the quality is superb. Unfortunately a major wrench was thrown into the plans: my period started.  Normally this wouldn’t be worth a mention but it brings up a very important issue. There are no public bathrooms in France. Theoretically there are, but they are so few and far between that I have to believe that French people have bladders the size of watermelons. No store we visited had a public bathroom. Not even Monoprix which is a giant department store. I made sure to ask after I’d spent quite a bit of money there so they wouldn’t think I was just in the store to use the bathroom. Still the clerks claimed there were no toilets. You might, as I do, hate McDonalds. But when you’re in Europe your heart will leap at the idea of a bathroom, a cold drink and free wifi.

Where do people pee in France? It’s a question I still can’t answer. Every museum has a bathroom with lines a mile long. It’s really the only choice for tourists, of which there are a jillion. Occasionally we’d come across one of those automatic public toilets that sits in the middle of the sidewalk. Only once was one of the working; the rest of the time we’d get our hopes up only to waddle away, praying to find another alternative soon.

Of course I had no tampons or anything with me. So instead of shopping for beauty supplies I spent almost two hours shopping for lady supplies. I visited three pharmacies, all of which had entire aisles devoted to weight loss aids, but no tampons (seriously. No tampons. I walked up and down every aisle.) Finally I struck gold at Monoprix (which is very similar to Target). Because there was no bathroom there, I spent another twenty minutes trying to find a toilet. Any toilet. I didn’t care how smelly or dirty. Eventually I stumbled upon a modern-type shopping mall and was so happy to find a public bathroom that I almost started to cry. Naturally I had to pay 1€ to use it, but at that point I would have paid 10.

In my frantic wanderings I came across this charming beehive built into the corner of a building. You know I have such a fondness for beehives. You didn’t know? Well, how do you think I came up with the name for this blog?

Beehive Paris

I also passed by a realtor with the same name as me! (The spelling is a bit different, alas.)  If I hadn’t been doing the potty dance I might have stopped in to introduce myself.

Hilde Realtor Paris

And look at this jaunty little car! It has silhouettes of all the most famous French sites on it. I wonder if they have one in a minivan version.

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While I was have menstrual-related anxiety, Mister took the kids on a ride in a bateau-mouche on the Seine. They had a wonderful time and I am so glad they didn’t have to get dragged on my drug store and toilet wanderings around Paris.

When we finally met up, it was time to go to Versailles. When Mister and I went to Versailles the first time about twenty years ago, we thought it was kind of lame. Don’t get me wrong, Versailles is very grand and impressive and everything you would imagine it to be. But it just really lacked something. A heart, maybe.  It was built to be fancy and ostentatious and that’s pretty much the vibe you get.  But I thought maybe I had the wrong impression when I went last time. Maybe I would like it better since I’m so much older and more mature. And it’s May and wouldn’t the gardens look so mud better now than when we went last time and it was still winter-y and cold?

Here’s what I think about Versailles: it’s good to check off of your bucket list. Is it beautiful? Well, in a very grandiose impersonal way. It’s tremendously big and gaudy. It’s not my style at all. Foreigners, especially all the Chinese we saw there, were absolutely blown away by it. They could not get enough. York was pretty impressed too. It’s cool to see a place like that at least once. I mean, there were up to 10,000 people staying there at the same time. Do you realize how big of a building that is?  And yes, the gardens are amazing. But they’re very formal with miles of hedges and topiaries. It’s not about flowers, it’s about subduing nature. The entire experience of Versailles was built to impress everyone with how the King of France was boss of everything: not just his subjects but nature too.  There aren’t big flowery fields and rolling hills and things that we find so attractive nowadays; Nope, it’s just perfectly manicured trees and bushes that could just as easily be made of plastic and wouldn’t look all that different. Everything is about order and formality. So mostly we went because the kids should see it, but Mister and I swore never to go back.

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Getting to Versailles requires you to take the RER which is the train out to the suburbs. It requires a different ticket than the métro does. Pretty much every person who goes to Versailles is doing so as a day-trip from Paris. Some are on tour busses but most people will be taking the RER. To save yourself a mountain of time, buy your outgoing and return ticket in Paris. There is the most outrageously long line at the  Versailles train station to buy return tickets back to Paris. Here’s the tricky thing, the ticket machines don’t have a return ticket listed. So you select the “Versailles Rive Gauche” station and then . . . what? There is no Versailles-returning-to-Paris option.  I was completely perplexed, especially after my sister-in-law told me that she hadn’t been able to figure it out either, the last time she was here. So I went straight to the ticket counter and asked for four tickets each way.  And here’s what I got: eight tickets that said “Paris – Versailles Rive Gauche”. And guess what! The same ticket works both ways. So just buy two tickets for Paris to Versailles. One will get you there and one will get you back. I know you’re feeling very skeptical of what I’m saying, but the man at the train station assured me that this is how it works. And it did indeed work on the way back from Versailles.

The French train system is quite fickle. Trains quit right in the middle of the route without previous notice. Make sure you find out if the train you want to take to Versailles is, in fact, going all the way out there.

As Versailles is fantastically crowded at all times, we decided to go at the end of the day when the crowds have died down quite a bit. I studied the Versailles website to make sure our plans would work out. I picked a Saturday because the fountains are turned on on Saturdays during the summer.  The largest fountain–the Apollo fountain–only turns on for a short time. Which we somehow missed. The smaller fountains stay on as long as the château is open. The website doesn’t mention this. It only says that the gardens are open two hours later than the château. The website also doesn’t state that the gardens are a separate cost than the palace. The palace admission is included in the Museum Pass. But the gardens and the Petit Trianon are not. If you wait until after the château is closed then you can get in the gardens for free. When all the fountains are shut off.  It’s all very confusing and ended up making me very angry and frustrated.

The thing at Versailles that we didn’t see last time–and I was dying to see–is the Petit Hameau. It’s the place where Marie Antoinette pretended to be a little country shepherdess. I am so entirely jealous.

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Here is the crazy thing: the Petit Hameau is a 45 minute walk from the château. It takes that long to walk through all the fancy gardens. Goodness gracious!  There are also bikes that you can rent. And golf carts. And there is a little baby “train” that goes back and forth. But to my great dismay the Petit Trianon (of which the Petit Hameau is a part) closed earlier than the chateau. Right about the time that we wanted to get in, of course. No amount of cajoling softened the hearts of the employees. Even asking if I could just stand outside and take pictures. Non madame! Ce n’est pas possible! I found most of the people working at Versailles to be smug, cross and utterly unhelpful.

We had to content ourselves with seeing only the palace itself. Which, as I stated before, was gaudy and overblown with eight hundred types of marble and gilt everything and statues and paintings of gods and goddesses everywhere. (OK, we get it Louis XIV, you’re rich and powerful! Jeez!) Despite the crowds having thinned out remarkably, the place was still packed. We literally had to wait at the door of each room for five minutes while the crowds funneled through into the next room. I was so put out and disgusted that I didn’t take a single picture. Even in the Hall of Mirrors. It happened to be wall-to-wall with Chinese people taking photos anyway. Nothing puts me in a foul mood like a huge crowd.

Around the side of Versailles are the apartments of Louis XV’s three old-maid daughters: Adelaide, Victoire and Sophie. These rooms are intimate and pretty and I liked them so much more. Here is Adelaide’s bedroom. I took a picture of it because I have a daughter named Adelaide and I thought she would find it interesting. Also interesting is the fact the the Royal daughters were called Madame, not Princesse. How strange.

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Here’s a sitting room. It had these tiny chairs which I found quite interesting. What were they for? Children? Midgets? (Don’t laugh. Louis XIV’s mother was enchanted by dwarves and had a whole coterie of them.) Dogs?  I don’t know. Maybe they were just foot rests.  (I absolutely need this rug for my family room, by the way.)

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I just loved the walls in one of the rooms. Blue and white is a great love of mine. It’s fresh and timeless.

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We were happy to leave Versailles. We stopped by the Monoprix there to stock up on more French goodies and to buy some baby gifts for my pregnant friends back home (again, no bathroom. Aaaaarrrgh!)

The trains from Versailles pretty much all go to Paris. You just look at the screen above each train platform to figure out which one is leaving next. Some of them just sit there for ages with the doors open for some inexplicable reason. Make sure you’re on a train that actually plans on leaving soon.

If you want to go to Versailles, knock yourself out. But don’t feel the least bit sorry if you omit a trip out there. It’s not a quick jaunt; It’s about an hour each way on the train and a minimum of two hours at the château if it’s empty and you don’t see the gardens or the Petit Trianon. Most people are there for six or eight hours.  I certainly won’t be going out there again, I don’t care how many triangles Rick Steves gives it.

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