Paris: The cream of the crop in the City of Lights

The WYSU group at the Eiffel Tower
The WYSU group at the Eiffel Tower

If you want to get to Paris, from other points in France or Europe, the best and fastest way is high speed train. This is how the WYSU group arrives, sliding into one of the city’s five enormous train stations at 200 mph and jumping onto a tour bus with JJ. We pick up another Go Ahead Tour guide, Thierry. He will take us to the famous palace Versailles later in the week, but now he will narrate our first look at some of the city’s highlights. “Highlights” seems like an understatement.

Just a note -- we arrive on May 8 which is the holiday observing the end of WWII, so one of the highlights is catching part of the festivities – with soldiers in red atop decorated horses. We avoid any traffic tie ups due to the parade and continue with the tour. I have to say, for a city of 2 million-plus people, with narrow streets, tight corners and old traffic patterns, the traffic here is not as bad as you might expect. Thierry tells us that in the last 10 years, they have reduced the number of cars from 2 million in the city, to 700,000. Walking and the very efficient metro system help people to manage without a car, of course. But a newer idea is also working; thousands of city bikes are lined up on street corners all over Paris. They can be rented for a small price, and returned anywhere in the city.

If Paris is box of jewels, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, the Opera House, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and all the other treasured buildings and sites are the gems found inside. Much has been preserved since most of Paris escaped the devastating bombings of WWII. (That is a whole different tour!) Of course, the diamond in the jewel box is the Eiffel Tower. As the tallest structure it can be seen from many points on our tour around Paris, but we stop at the large park near the Hotel des Invalides (Napoleon’s tomb) that has the best unobstructed view. The open, sprawling terrace and gardens are large enough to accomodate the millions of people who stop here each year to take photos in front of one of the most famous backdrops in the world.

The site seems to inspire creativity and giddy emotion. Children are doing cartwheels (my daughter Lucia and her travel buddy Izzy are two of them!), people are photo bombing others (jumping into a stranger’s picture, just for the fun of it!) and amateur photographers are everywhere trying to find a new way to photograph this icon (on the hand, on the shoulders?). There are also some proposals happening, and we witness one. He has the ring, the flowers, the knee, AND the Eiffel Tower.  She says “Yes!” How could she say No?

Back on the bus Thierry narrates our trip to the hotel – pointing out the famous Shakespeare and Company – where Hemingway and his friends used to hang – and other cafés,clubs and hot spots. He reminds us that the drinking laws are freer here. The legal age is 18, but children can have wine if supervised by parents.  And in general, the attitude toward alcohol is more relaxed. “In France you can just drink when and where you like,” he says. “You don’t need to put the bottle in a brown paper bag to hide it if from police like in the U.S.A.! Cheers!”

Later at our first Paris dinner at Chez Justine - a chic, popular club in a hip neighborhood - I sit next to JJ and I ask if he likes his job. He says yes, but it takes a lot of patience, the right personality, and a huge love of people to do it well. It is not easy, but it has great rewards, he says, in that the people he meets, like the WYSU group, who really want to be here. “You are the ones who took the risk, and invested in the trip, and actually did it,” JJ says. “You are the cream of the crop that committed to travel - the best!" It is Paris! How could we say no?