This World – Home and Away, Part II

This is the second of a two-part series on the author’s recent jaunt to two of the most enduring cities on travellers? lists: London, England and Paris, France.

The majesty of Windsor Castle and the mysteries of Stonehenge can be hard to leave behind. But what better way to depart than with the lure of Paris ahead?
It was the next stop on our itinerary and, with London souvenirs packed, we headed for the coast.

The most obvious choice was the Channel Tunnel, the 50-kilometre undersea tunnel that links the UK and France. Quick and efficient, yes. But scenic? Hardly.

And That’s why we found ourselves at the White Cliffs of Dover, boarding a ferry to Calais. After all, if You’re going to one of the most romantic cities in the world, a more leisurely mode of transport is the perfect way to arrive. A short train ride, an even shorter cab ride, and suddenly we were there: the City of Light.

At nearly 644,000 square kilometres (including territories) and just over 65 million people, France isn’t as densely populated as the UK. But at the height of tourist season the streets of Paris still rival London’s for crowds, and that can actually be a blessing in disguise.

To escape the clamour, we opted to wander along the many narrow side streets. Little did we know that It’s also a great way to encounter the fascinating artwork that fills the city?a bonus we might not have discovered by sticking to the tourist hot spots!

One we stumbled across was the Fontaine Molière, a striking bronze and marble monument to the comedic playwright. In parks, on government buildings, in public spaces: there are enough sculptures to keep you busy without ever setting foot in one of the city’s famed museums.

Still, a trip to Paris wouldn’t be complete with seeing the Louvre. So we dutifully headed up Rue Vivienne to make our way there?and found another unexpected treasure waiting. The Palais-Royal (originally the Palais-Cardinal) was once the home of Cardinal Richelieu. And while the building itself holds a fascinating history, the gardens were the real treat. Rows of carefully groomed trees flanked flower beds and fountains, and we momentarily forgot the Louvre as we lingered in the romantic little oasis (the shops and restaurants lining the garden definitely added to the appeal!).

The Louvre, though, was worth the wait. Originally built in the 12th century, this famous edifice has been everything from a fortress (complete with moats), to the palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV, to one of the most famous tourist spots in the world. The massive building houses 35,000 works of art, a collection that would take months, or even years, to see in its entirety. Definitely not something you’d achieve in a day trip!

From the Venus de Milo to ancient temple walls, every corner you turn seems to present an impossible array of art. But none holds a candle to La Gioconda?better known as the Mona Lisa.

Painted in Florence between 1503 and 1506, It’s perhaps the most recognizable image on earth. Most people are so familiar with her that It’s easy to assume that viewing the real portrait would be no different than seeing the Mona Lisa on a postcard or your computer screen. But the reality is far different. Somehow, whether It’s her enigmatic smile, or the mystery surrounding the portraIt’s past, a certain magic captures the viewer from inside the frame. If you’ve stood in front of La Gioconda, you’ll know what I mean. If not, your first encounter will be one to remember.

Outside the museum, we were surprised by some other Parisian sights?ones not quite as enchanting as Leonardo’s painting. Whether wandering the streets or strolling through the Jardin des Tuileries, we were repeatedly approached for money. Some people held cardboard signs asking for donations, while others simply walked up and asked for cash. Wearing practical clothes, and not even carrying a purse, we hardly looked like rich tourists. But it seemed that everyone was fair game for the insistent demands, something that, by contrast, we didn’t see once during our walking, bus, and subway travels through London.

Another striking difference between the two cities? Smoke. And I mean lots of it. That cliché about the French loving their cigarettes holds a lot of truth. A Time article quoted one source in 2006, noting that as many as ?40% of 12-to-25-year-olds? smoke. Things improved when the French government introduced a public smoking ban in 2007, but smokers are increasingly flouting the rule and lighting up in offices, restaurants, and subways. As well, sidewalks are still fair game and you won’t go more than a few feet without passing the glowing end of a Gauloises.

So what does this mean for visitors used to a relatively smoke-free environment? Imagine a charming little French café, a sidewalk table?and a steady stream of smokers passing just feet away from your chair, or stopping to wait for a green light. That delectable croissant and espresso lose a little something in the haze of second hand smoke, so be prepared to find a spot inside.

It’s a small price to pay, though, for the stunning architecture, sense of history, and world-class sights the city offers. And perhaps nothing represents the true Paris sightseeing experience like the Eiffel Tower.

Much like the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower has become so familiar that we may not appreciate how striking it can be in person. For our first glimpse of this icon we approached on foot, strolling along the banks of the Seine.

From a distance the Tower looks just like it does on T-shirts and postcards. But up close It’s surprisingly massive, with a solidity that belies its lace-like appearance. If You’re planning a visit, the best advice is to buy your tickets online in advance (you can find details at the official Eiffel Tower site). And make sure you devote plenty of time for the trip. With a champagne bar, restaurants, shops, and even its own post office, the Tower could easily keep you busy for the day!

Before we knew it, our time in Europe had drawn to a close and it was time to enjoy one last café au lait before heading for Charles de Gaulle airport. The London Tower, the Mona Lisa, Stonehenge: we’d seen them all and then some, and made memories we’ll enjoy for a lifetime. But as we tucked our euros and pounds away and pulled out familiar Canadian dollars, we smiled as our car pulled onto the Trans-Canada Highway. Because without saying a word, we agreed that there truly is no place like home.

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