Trains, Champagne and some sights

Sooooooo to continue with our France trip. That Tuesday, we woke up early to catch our train at 7:20. We got to the train station with plenty of time, but when I looked to find my ticket in my bag I couldn’t find it, which was quite worrisome because on the ticket itself it said you had to have your ticket printed otherwise you wouldn’t get on the train. Soooo I proceeded to enter freak out mode. We went to the information desk and the guy there proceeded to tell us he couldn’t print my ticket and that we needed to print it ahead of time. We went to another desk and that guy told us to go to the first desk that wouldn’t help us. So in an act of desperation I brought up the ticket on my phone, which also had the scanner code on it, and luckily the ticket taker was able to just scan the pass on my phone. Oh and we went to the wrong end of the train platform so we had to run (suitcases in hand) all the way to the other end, all the while praying the train wouldn’t leave. Luckily we made it to the train (and with a few minutes to spare, not because we were early or on time, but because the train left a bit late). But the moral of that story is, be on time to trains and don’t lose your ticket, because most trains in Europe leave the minute they say they will, or are only one or two minutes off of that.

Anyways, so our five our train ride to Paris was quite nice. I essentially slept the entire way. It was wonderful. Basically on all plane rides and train rides I try to sleep the whole time. I justify all this sleeping/napping by how much I travel, because basically going all out on tourism every weekend gets pretty tiresome. But I’m sure that’s more than you want to know about my sleep schedule. We got into the Paris train station and one lady exiting made some comment about how everyone was in a hurry to get off, oh, and she made this comment in French. So apparently I look Parisian enough for someone to speak to me in French. I was wearing a scarf, which is what I attribute this language encounter to, though I did feel like I was blending in, so that was cool.

Anyways, we got off the train and went to the metro under the train station to get to our hostel. The Paris metro is intense. It not only is massive (just google Paris metro if you get curious, it puts DC’s six metro lines to shame), but it is super efficient. You never end up waiting more than 8 minutes (typically only 2-4 minutes), which compared to the DC metro, when you have to wait up to 20 minutes or more sometimes, is great. We got our tickets and got to our hostel (all thanks to Greta’s navigational skills, because there is no-way I could have figured out the Paris metro…not that I really tried, but hey, the point is Greta managed to navigate for us and that made things a lot easier on me). After dropping our stuff off at our hostel, we got some chocolate croissants, and then hoped back on the metro to go to the Musée d’Orsay. The Musée d’Orsay is a museum in Paris with a bunch of Van Gogh’s, Monet’s, Renoir’s, Degas’s and Manet’s. It is an absolutely incredible Museum. Now I beelined straight for the Vincent Van Gogh wing, because he is my favorite painter. Not only did they have his painting of the Church at Auvers (which features prominently in a Doctor Who episode), but they also have some of his self-portraits. All in all, I had a great time there, mainly because of the Van Gogh paintings, but also because of the countless other precious art pieces that were there.

Here is a photo from inside the museum.

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And here is a photo of me on a bridge with the museum in the background.

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After seeing some amazing art we walked to the end of the Champs-Élysées, one of the main roads in Paris. On one end of the Champs you have the Arc de Triomphe, and on the other end you have the gardens before the Louvre, as well as the obelisk with a golden point. Now, this Obelisk is always seen in the final stage of the Tour de France, as the riders race up and down the Champs, doing ten laps on the Champs before finishing (so passing the Obelisk many times), so walking up to this after seeing it so many times on TV was absolutely unreal.

Here is a photo of the Obelisk with the Arc in the way back.

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We didn’t really do to much more, we just walked around the end of the champs. We saw the Paris Opera house while walking around, but other than that we didn’t see too many more main things. We did however find Greta’s favorite restaurant in Paris, Le Soufflé, and we ended up eating there that night. I went big and had a three course meal of Soufflé’s (and considering I had never had Soufflé’s before, this was also a bold decision, cause if I didn’t like the first one I had two more coming my way), the first one was a cheese Soufflé with caramelized apples, the second was another cheese one with fish, and the last one was a chocolate Soufflé with chocolate drizzled over it. All were amazing, though the chocolate one was particularly amazing.

Here is a photo of me with our dessert Soufflé.

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After our dinner, we headed back to our hostel to wake up early the next day to go Champagne tasting in the champagne region of France. Now, it is important to understand how wines are named in France. The wines themselves are named after the region they came from. So, wines from Champagne are called Champagne, which means that any wine you get in the states that is called champagne, is most likely just sparkling wine. In order for it to actually be called Champagne it must be from the Champagne region of France. I’m fairly sure the Champagne region of France only produces Champagne, no Reds or Whites, though don’t hold me to that. I hope this all makes sense.

This whole tour was arranged for us by Greta’s parents, so I am very grateful to them for getting us this tour. The trip started early when our tour guide Troung, picked us up in a van from our hostel. He then picked up two other couples, one couple from French Canada (so they spoke French fluently), and one couple from Australia. We then drove to the Champagne region of France. The closest town was Reims. We started out by inspecting the grapes themselves, we learned all about how much work is put into the grapes, like how the exact number of branches bearing grapes are counted (I believe you can only have ten for each wickety thing) and how pheromones are put near the grapes to distract the male butterflies (from what I don’t exactly remember…) and even how all the grapes are picked by hand, because a machine picker would be too hard on them.

Here is a photo overlooking all the grape fields. These fields included the brands of Dom Perignon, as well as Bollinger (the favorite champagne of James Bond).

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After this we headed into the little village nearby to go to the Vignon champagne facilities, and when I say facilities I mean the Vignon’s house, which had their champagne making equipment in the cellar, as well as in the side building. Now, the Vignon family operates a small facility, they only make 2,000 bottles of champagne a year. Compared to larger companies, 2,000 bottles is a smaller operation. Our guide of the facilities was Stefan Vignon, who is currently in charge of the Vignon operation. However, it is a whole family affair. When we showed up Stefan’s dad was going out to go rabbit hunting. These rabbits where then cooked by Stefan’s mom, who made lunch for all of them, including Stefan’s daughter, who comes home from school each day to have lunch with her family, as do almost all of the children in the area (I’m not sure if this is true for France as a whole, but I think it is). The culture is just so different. The lunch break is two hours, allowing three generations of the Vignon’s to eat lunch together, every day; while in the states, I’m used to my half hour lunch break between classes where I almost always end up eating a sandwich on the run. It’s very different, but different in a good way, a way that I really liked, as it endorses families spending time together.

On our tour (and tour is a strong term, it was more like a casual informative walk) we saw all the champagne making machines, which were quite interesting, as most things were done/operated by hand there. Stefan and his few workers, still rotate the champagne bottles by hand during the storage phase (done to dislodge any sediment which is later removed when the syrup is added). Everything else is done with the help of machines. Everything from the adding of syrup, to the corking, to the top that keeps the cork on the bottle, is all done by hand operated machines, so even these still require the human element. Once we saw all the champagne making equipment, we went inside for a champagne tasting, and by inside, I mean into the foyer of Stefan’s house. It was a very cool experience to be welcomed into his house after just meeting him. We tried three champagnes, a Brut, a Pink champagne (which is sweeter, and colored pink, and according to Stefan, is lower in quality, but is higher in demand, so he can sell it for more money – apparently it’s very desired in the fashion world), and a Reserve. I personally preferred the first, the Brut. The second one was a bit too sweet for me, and the third one while really good as well, just wasn’t as good as the first.

Here is a photo from the tasting.

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After our tasting we left the Vignon residence to go have lunch in Reims. On the way out Stefan pointed out the bullet marks, which were from WWI,  on the wooden gates to their courtyard. Again, just another example of all the history in Europe. Our lunch was absolutely amazing. It was a three course meal, which is fairly common for a lunch in France, as it is their biggest meal of the day. I had an appetizer of puff pastry with goat cheese, and then an entree of duck with lentils, and for dessert creme brûlée. It was  definitely the best meal I had in France.

From there, we went to look at the Cathedral of Reims, which in my opinion was more impressive than Notre Dame. Even though the Cathedral was being restored (evidenced by the scaffolding), it was still incredibly impressive. No matter how many grand European cathedrals I see, they never stop being impressive. One of the reasons they were built so large and grand was so that people going inside would pail in comparison to the cathedral, and thus would hopefully, be left feeling small in comparison to God as well; and having been in this cathedral, I can tell you I definitely felt small in comparison to the immense space within the cathedral.

Here is a photo of the Cathedral.

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Next we went to go on a tour of the Pommery champagne cellar. I’m glad we went to both, but I’ll say right now I preferred going to the Vignon’s champagne facilities. It was definitely the small establishment, versus the mass-produced one. Anyways, the feel was entirely different, the Pommery cellars entrance is huge, and entirely over the top, there is a statue of an elephant balancing on its trunk in the entrance that cost 7 million euro, and an original BMW car, altogether very different from the homey feel of the Vignon’s. The descent into the cellar (or cave might even be more appropriate, because the cellar was a giant cave network), was incredibly long, I  want to say it was around one hundred and something steps, I don’t entirely remember now as this was a while ago. We walked around the cellars and learned essentially what we already had, except there were subtle differences. Obviously the Pommery facility has so many more bottles of champagne that they aren’t rotated by hand, but instead are rotated by robotic arms. Which according to our tour guide does not affect the taste, and it also speeds up the process, allowing the bottles to be sold sooner. One cool thing about the facility was that all their little inlets were named after cities, like Monaco, London etc. This was something started when Pommery first was established, each time a new city started getting shipments, that city’s name was added to an inlet in the cellars. Other than that the tour wasn’t entirely memorable, though after we walked out we were greeted by another glass of champagne. The Pommery champagne was good, but I would preferred any Vignon champagne to the Pommery glass. Oh and the last difference between the massive Pommery establishment and the Vignon family facilities? Obviously it was the massive and incredibly expensive gift shop that you could enter as you exited the Pommery building. At this point, our day in Reims and the Champagne region of France was over, and Troung drove everyone back to Paris and to their hotels and us to our hostel.

Once back at our hostel we met up with another one of our Georgetown friends who is studying in Dublin with us, and who decided to spend the next few days in Paris with us. We all headed out to the Eiffel Tower to see it lit up at night! We even arrived near the top of the hour, when the Tower has blinking lights all over it for about a minute, which was spectacular.

Here is a photo of me and the tower.

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We then headed back to our hostel for some much needed rest. The next morning, we woke up and caught the train out to Versailles, where the Palace of the French Kings is. At the palace we met up with more of our friends who are studying at Trinity with us in Dublin. Versailles itself was located just about 30 mins. by train outside of Paris, so not that far at all. Now the Palace wasn’t used by all the French Kings, only the last eight kings really used it, from Louis the eighth onwards. Originally Louis the eighth used it for a hunting lodge, but it soon grew way beyond out that. Now, it’s hard to really describe the opulence of the palace, so again I’m going to rely on photos.

Here is the entrance to the palace, notice the use of gold on the roof. There was a ton of gold all over the palace, as well as many different colors of marble.

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Here is a photo of inside the palace, notice all the different colors of marble.

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After going through the palace, which included seeing the door where Marie Antoinette would have escaped through when the palace was stormed by the market women of France, we headed out to the gardens. Again, sorry I’m not writing much on it, but the Palace’s visual opulence is something that’s hard to describe, but is easier to look at. The gardens were my favorite part of Versailles, I mean the Palace was cool, but just walking around the Gardens was not only calming, but beautiful. Everything was in perfect fall form, and was stunning, which definitely made up for a lot of the gardens being closed, ie the fountains were off, most of the statues were covered up, and no flowers were left (I mean obviously…it was November). Oh, and in our walk around the Gardens we discovered another smaller residence, the Trianon Palace, built by the French kings as a summer residence, located only about 15 minutes by foot from the castle…Kind of ridiculous but hey, the French kings could do whatever they wanted so I mean, why not. Though, in the end, it didn’t turn out for them, for both Marie Antoinette and Louis the Sixteenth were executed by the National Assembly during the French Revolution. And of course this was done by guillotine, otherwise known at the time as the “National Razor”.

Here is a photo of the gardens.

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We left the palace in the afternoon to head back to Paris, and on the train there were some German middle school students who thought we were British. We all got a laugh out of this since our accents are clearly not British, but I guess if you’ve never really heard an American or a British accent you could confuse them. Once back in Paris we went and got some macaroons, which were delicious. I had never had them before, so I figured Paris was a good spot to try them. From there, we headed again to the Champs, though this time we decided to see the Arc de Triomphe, which is located at the end opposite the one we were at when we saw the Obelisk. Now the Arc was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 after his victory at Austerlitz, but it wasn’t finished until 1836, well after Napoleon had been defeated (and at this point well after his death). Underneath the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War One. All over the Arc itself are inscriptions commemorating those who died in the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, as well as inscriptions for more recent wars located on the ground under the Arc. It is a massive monument, entirely covered in historical inscriptions. Sooooo we naturally climbed it! The view from the top was amazing, we could not only look out over the champs, but we could also see the Eiffel Tower, which is really cool, no matter how many times you see it.

Here are some photos. First is me with the arc in the background. The Next is a photo from the top of the Arc overlooking the Champs, and the last is a photo of the Eiffel Tower taken again from the top of the Arc.

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We didn’t really do much after all this. The one notable thing that happened to us, was while walking back, we crossed the champs (with a crossing light of course, because the traffic there is crazy). I stopped in the middle to take a picture of the Arc all lit up at night, and when I turned to start walking, the crossing light had changed, so I was stuck on a barrier in the middle of the Champs, with cars passing me on both sides. Now the barrier was large enough for a few pedestrians, so I was in no imminent danger. But I definitely felt foolish…

That’s all for now, I should be able to finish writing about the last few days of our French Trip soon! As well as get to the other trips I’ve had.

Au revoir!

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