Our hotel was half a block from the subway station, so while the rest of the tour group was speed-walking through Versailles, we caught the subway to the station as directed by the concierge. It was still a good little hike from the station to the cathedral, and the streets were busy, but also well-guarded by policemen at each corner. They were very helpful in directing us toward Notre Dame. Along the way, we met an American couple who had just come from the Louvre and said not only was it open, but it was free. We instantly regretted having told Simone we would meet the group at the hotel at 12:30pm for the afternoon tour. Instead of being able to walk from Notre Dame to the Louvre, we would have to take the subway back to the hotel and meet them and let them know that we had a new plan.
As we were walking along the bank of the Seine River toward Notre Dame, several airplanes executed fly-bys with red, white, and blue smoke trailing behind them. It was quite a sight to turn around and see the Eiffel Tower in the distance with jets flying by overhead.
When we arrived at Notre Dame, there was no line to get in at all - most of the crowds were at the parade although there were still a significant number of people milling around outside and touring the beautiful cathedral.
When we arrived, the crowds there were fairly thick - it took us a while to find our way to the back of the line which seemed to stretch on forever. But the guard near the front had said about an hour wait, and we definitely thought it was worth standing in line for an hour. Fortunately, the gentleman behind us gave us lots of good advice for when we got inside. He showed us his dog-eared and falling-apart map of the museum and urged us to pick one up at the information desk as soon as we entered - without the map, he told us quite accurately, you could be lost inside for days. He was from Costa Rica, visiting a friend who was studying in Paris and this was his third day straight visiting the Louvre!
It turned out that the line moved very rapidly and it was only about 20 minutes until we said good-bye to our friend from the line and, map in hand, set out to see what we could see in a few short hours. We started with the Egyptian exhibits and tried to focus on a few of the highlighted pieces, as he had suggested, but there were just so many wonders to see. I like to read every placard, or at least most, when I visit a museum, but of course, these were in French, so we were mostly just pausing a few seconds at each case and quickly trying to absorb whatever we could of the ancient culture. It wasn't long before we were turned around and trying to figure out whether we had already seen that sarcophagus or not? We finally decided that we had seen all we could enjoy of Egyptian art and studied our map to try to find our way to the French Renaissance artwork. To get to that, we cut through the Greek displays - which are showcased in sections that were once the palatial home of the Kings of France. The rooms themselves, and the paintings on the ceilings, were much more interesting to me than the still impressive Greek statues.
The French Renaissance rooms were so overwhelming - canvases larger than most of the walls in my house boasted paintings with detail that even after hundreds of years, it seemed as if you could touch the skin of their faces. In fact, we were quite surprised that the artwork was generally not protected in any way from people touching it, although we didn't see anyone doing so. As we emerged from our final room, with only one thing left to see - the Mona Lisa - we were faced with a life-sized puzzle. We stood on one level with stairs going down to one side and to the other. One set led to a floor below, while the other was about half a flight, then a statue on display, then half a flight up on the other side. Across an open atrium we could see similar stairs on the other side, and saw based on the map that was where we needed to go to get out as it was nearly 5pm and we wanted to get to the subway ahead of the huge crowds. We stood at the top and looked at all the stairs, and looked at our map - it appeared that we would have to go down the equivalent of two flights of stairs and then immediately back up two flights in order to get out - it just seemed pointless and excruciating after having been on our feet about five hours between our trek to Notre Dame and our time at the museum. Finally, I figured out that if we went down the small flight by the statue and back up the other side, there was a room that would lead us to the other side of the atrium where we could exit. And would put us within a very short distance of the Mona Lisa - instead of standing in a long line that was waiting dutifully to stand before the small picture, we ducked into the room from the opposite direction, peeked around the wall and were able to get a pretty good view of her despite the crowd.
We took a few moments to find a seat and rest before beginning the walk back to the subway, but while we were resting we met some chaperones from the Mid-western United States who were with a large group of band students - the Mid-West Ambassadors of Music. Some 200+ band and choir students from all over the mid-west were touring London, Paris, Switzerland and several smaller countries performing. What a wonderful group and great idea for broadening kids' perspectives!
When we finally started trekking back to the subway station, I convinced Mom there was a closer station than the one we'd taken to get there. We got to the station and she was very worried that we wouldn't be able to find the right trains to get us back. We might have had trouble, too, since the woman in the glass booth was our first taste of the infamous French hospitality - I showed her my map and pointed on it to the Bercy station and she rattled off something in French that sounded suspiciously like, go take a flying leap off the Eiffel Tower, you stupid American. I can't be sure. We were blessed, though, when a young black man asked if he could help and I showed him the map. He didn't understand English either, but understood what it meant when I pointed to Bercy. He went to the window, spoke to the woman in French and then returned and pointed to the map and then pointed down the hall of the subway. Trusting our good Samaritan and hoping for the best, we followed the growing crowd of people into the subway.
With the parade over and the day winding down, the trains were getting much more crowded and we initially had to stand up on the train, but very shortly it stopped and some seats opened up. A group of about five young men, probably in their late teens or early 20s got on the train with one young woman. They were a pretty rough looking group, with piercings and unique haircuts, and expressions that scream of bottled up rage and frustration. When a seat opened up and one of the young men flopped into it, leaving the young woman standing up, clinging to the pole, Mom muttered with quiet sarcasm, "What a nice young man you are, won't even let the lady have the seat."
I have to say, this was the one and only time the entire trip when Mom and I almost got into a fight! I could just picture these hoodlums deciding they didn't appreciate Mom's tips on etiquette and beating us both to a pulp, but somehow Mom - the same Mom who has warned me all my life about how to avoid being a victim - didn't see anything wrong with taking this young man to task for his lack of chivalry. We did manage to escape unharmed, but I still think, based on the riots in London not long after we'd left, that a good tip for traveling in foreign countries is not to pick fights with young hoodlums. Just sayin'.
We arrived at the hotel and took some time to relax and freshen up before we were supposed to meet Lori and Rama for dinner, but then found out that Simone hadn't given them the message that we wouldn't be on the afternoon tour but would still meet them for dinner. Since they weren't in their room, we decided to go on without them, but ended up running into them in the shopping area and so we got to have dinner together after all.
By the time dinner was over, we were worn out and ready to put our feet up and relax, glad we had opted out of the optional excursion to Moulin Rouge and could get some rest before leaving for London in the morning.