Stop! Here lies the empire of death.

On Thursday we made our way back to the catacombs. This time we were able to find the entrance without the help of a little old French lady. This time the catacombs were open, which meant that this time there was a line to get in. They limit the number of people inside at any given time to no more than 200, so the line doesn’t exactly move quickly. We should count ourselves lucky that this was the only really long line that we had to sit in during our six days in Paris, but it still took two hours to make it through. Advice for others though – if you’re going, go early. They stop letting people in at 4pm and they weren’t going around cutting off the line, so some people probably waited for an hour and didn’t get in.

We'd make it to that part of the line in an hour...

We’d make it to that part of the line in an hour…

Once you get inside, there’s a small ticket desk and then you immediately start descending a spiral staircase to get about 60ft below street level.

Yay stairs!

Yay stairs!

At the bottom of the stairs, you get some information on the geology of the area, which explains why these tunnels are where they are. They’ve basically been quarrying stone from beneath Paris for centuries, so tunnels such as these are leftover. The fact that the ground beneath the city is full of holes is supposedly one of the reasons there aren’t taller buildings in much of the city.

After you get through learning about rock layering, you pass through some long tunnels, before entering an area with some eerie carvings and archways.

Sorry - I'd have to translate a picture of the sign in French explaining exactly what this is.

Sorry – I’d have to translate a picture of the sign in French explaining exactly what this is.

Underground tunnels.

Underground tunnels.

Eventually, you arrive at a this.

Looks like a nice spot for a picnic.

Looks like a nice spot for a picnic.

A rather foreboding sign reads “ARRETE! C’EST ICI L’EMPIRE DE LA MORT” or “Stop! Here lies the empire of death”  Past this entryway, the catacombs begin.

The brief history – In the late 18th century, the cemeteries in Paris were causing some problems, i.e. they were full and posing health problems to the surrounding areas. They started by removing the remains from one cemetery to the empty quarry tunnels, and then moved others. After initially just tossing the remains into piles, some genius said “Hey, people are fascinated by dead things, let’s make these bodies look cool and charge people to see them.” (might not be the exact translation, but close enough). So they started organizing the remains in various patterns and shapes using the skulls and long leg bones (tossing the other bits behind the pretty skull/leg walls). Cemeteries, churches, and whoever else had a body surplus, moved them into the collection, eventually reaching around six million people.

The experience inside these dark, winding tunnels, lined on both sides with row after row of bones, is sort of surreal. You have to stop and remind yourself that these were once living, breathing people, that had lives on the streets of Paris. When you first walk in, you’ll say “holy crap, there are bones in here!” By the end of the walk, you’ll just be dumbfounded by the sheer number of bones packed into the tunnels. It’s morbid, but there’s nothing quite like it.

Without further jabbering, here are some pictures.

Paris620130620082027

At two bones per person, somebody count how many people are in this one picture.

At two bones per person, somebody count how many people are in this one picture.

Paris620130620083233

Paris620130620083145

Paris620130620082918-2

Paris620130620082655

The skulls won't eat me, the skulls won't eat me.

The skulls won’t eat me, the skulls won’t eat me.

Paris620130620082309-2

Ghost Jenny.

Ghost Jenny.

Years and years worth of visitors carving things into the wall at the end.

Years and years worth of visitors carving things into the wall at the end.

The tunnel out.

The tunnel out.

A day in Versaille

Versaille is another one of those super-touristy things that you kind of need to see when you visit Paris. Words and pictures don’t really do it justice. The scale and lavishness of the palace and gardens really must been witnessed in person to be fully appreciated. We made our pilgrimage outside of Paris on Wednesday to see things for ourselves.

Gold, gold everywhere.

Gold, gold everywhere.

A quaint chapel for the palace.

A quaint chapel for the palace.

Enormous paintings covered this room (appropriately called the Hercules room)

Enormous paintings covered this room (appropriately called the Hercules room)

No simple window latches for Louis XIV.

No simple window latches for Louis XIV.

A class of kids at Versaille. Jenny - "Our class went to Cosi once..."

A class of kids at Versaille. Jenny – “Our class went to Cosi once…”

Us making the palace classy.

Us making the palace classy.

The hall of mirrors.

The hall of mirrors.

They have a bunch of these, probably won't care if I just take one home, right?

They have a bunch of these, probably won’t care if I just take one home, right?

The royal family ate in front of an audience.

The royal family ate in front of an audience.

Restoration project taking place - being funded by an American "friends of Versaille" group.

Restoration project taking place – being funded by an American “friends of Versaille” group.

Hall of statues

Hall of statues

The gardens of Versaille are one of its most impressive features. A huge space filled with statues, fountains, and well manicured plants, you could spend hours walking around. Unfortunately for us, they’re doing a major renovation project on the main fountains, and apparently had to shut the water off to the whole fountain system. None of them were on. :(

Fountains... without water.

Fountains… without water.

Massive, huge, ginormous gardens.

Massive, huge, ginormous gardens.

Nice day for a row.

Nice day for a row.

Sorbet!

Sorbet!

A happy peasant dinner after a day at the palace.

A happy peasant dinner after a day at the palace.

Ferme, Train Stations, and The Eiffel Tower

On Tuesday we roughly planned to see the catacombs in the morning, go to the train station to make about eight train reservations, and then go out to the Eiffel Tower in the evening. It would be a nice, full day taking us from 60 ft below to 376 feet above Paris.

We hopped on the metro to go to the catacombs, got out of the station, and proceeded to do loop around a small park, trying to make sense of street signs, and not seeing anything pointing to catacombs. Finally a little old lady comes up to us with a smile and said something in French to which I (Steve) could only respond “Les Catacombs?” She spoke no English and I speak about 10 phrases of French, which the little old lady pretty much exhausted during a “conversation” as she guided us to the entrance to the catacombs. We had missed it because the entrance is just a couple of green doors with minimal signage. We also came to understand what this word “ferme” was that the lady said a few times. “Catacombs – Ferme” – closed – for three days for some renovation. C’est la vie. We’ll come back to the catacombs later.

We headed up to Gare du Nord, one of the main train stations in Paris, where there was supposed to be a Eurail aid office that we could use to make our train reservations. Now to me, an “office” is a room, usually with a marked entryway (e.g. a door) and signage to indicate who or what is located there. After wandering to one end of the station, we asked a lady at the information desk where the Eurail office was and she just pointed and said “straight and left.” I guess technically, she was right, but “straight and left” meant going all the way to the other end of the station, past one ticket counter after another, until Jenny finally spotted a queue with a piece of paper referring to Eurail passes. We finally got some help making some of our reservations. We couldn’t do everything we wanted, but that’s a story for another post.

In the evening we took the metro back out to the Eiffel tower. We can understand why Parisians wanted to tear the thing down at one point – because it’s basically a big, brown, cast iron bridge into the sky. There’s a lot of construction going on in the center to install a glass observation area on the first level, so a lot of the space looked like a construction zone. The north tower has the massive lines for the elevators up. Psssh. Who wants to wait in line for two hours and take an elevator up? We got in line at the south tower for the stairs and were making our way up to the first level in about 15 minutes.

They also have a post office in the pillar...

They also have a post office in the pillar…

Part of the line for the elevator up the north tower.

Part of the line for the elevator up the north tower.

There are a bunch of signs with history of the tower breaking up the climb to the first level, so it goes quickly. Of course there’s a small bar serving drinks and a full restaurant on this level. For now, we went to the steps and started climbing toward the second level. After 674 steps, we arrived and did a lap around for some great views of the city.

View of Montmarte from the tower.

View of Montmarte from the tower.

If you've got good eyes or a telephoto lens, you can spot Paris' copy of the Statue of Liberty.

If you’ve got good eyes or a telephoto lens, you can spot Paris’ copy of the Statue of Liberty.

View from the tower.

View from the tower.

From the second level you can take an elevator (not stairs) up to the top, but the waits were around 45 minutes and you have to pay more… so we headed back down to level one. Sucking up the big city stadium prices for drinks, we sat and enjoyed a beer while looking over the city. We stayed until after 9pm before heading back down.

Paris420130618133518

Beer is bon.

Beer is bon.

Some random couple.

Some random couple.

Jenny loves the stairs.

Jenny loves the stairs.

We found a spot on the grass to sit and wait until dark when they put on a light show. This is where the city earns it’s reputation for romance. All around are couples having small picnics, drinking wine, giggling in languages you can’t understand. If you pause long enough, you can’t help but be taken in by it. It would be perfect if not for the army of guys going around selling beer, wine, champagne. They were EVERYWHERE.

"Wine, champagne, cigarette" (read in a thick Borat-esque accent)

“Wine, champagne, cigarette” (read in a thick Borat-esque accent. Also notice his “Newyork” t-shirt.)

After several of these guys came by, I finally responded saying “How much?” The guy said 25 euro for a bottle of red wine, which is ridiculous because wine is about the only thing you can buy cheaply in Paris. I shook my head and told him that was way too much, not because I was negotiating, but because I literally only had 10 euros on me. So he says 20. I say I only have 10 (I didn’t really care if we bought wine or not). He says 15. I tell him that I’m not trying to negotiate, that really, I only have 10 euros. “12 euro, best offer.” You’re not understanding me my friend, I only have 10. “Ok, 10 euros.”

And I probably paid 10 euros for a 3 euro bottle of wine...

And I probably paid 10 euros for a 3 euro bottle of wine…

A little wine did seem appropriate to the experience. So we sat and drank, listened to the people, and watched as the tower lit up in a darkening sky.

I wanted to challenge this girl to a standing backflip contest, but... you know, I wasn't wearing the right pair of pants.

I wanted to challenge this girl to a standing backflip contest, but… you know, I wasn’t wearing the right pair of pants.

Paris420130618151045

The Louvre

On Monday our only plan was to hit the Louvre early. It was supposed to rain anyway, so we figured it would be a good museum day. In typical fashion, we didn’t exactly wake up with the sun to be the first in line. By the time we got there, the rain started coming down, making for a very cold and wet wait in line. Thankfully, we didn’t have to suffer through one of those three hour waits you hear horror stories about. 45 minutes, max, and we were inside.

We waited in line in this. And, yes, an hour after we got into the museum, it turned into a gorgeous day.

We waited in line in this. And, yes, an hour after we got into the museum, it turned into a gorgeous day.

The Louvre is simply too massive to write about in detail. We spent at least six hours there and still skipped a couple entire sections.  One can’t help be be awed by such a collection of art and history from all over the world. Of course the first thing people go to see when they get in is this.

Paris320130617044207

Ok, so that’s the mass of people all squeezing into a room to try to get within eight feet of this.

Paris320130617044202

 

The most famous painting in the world is this relatively small painting of a lady that you probably wouldn’t look twice at if there weren’t such a history around it. Sure, you have to see it while you’re there, but the experience will be more about fighting the crowds than really being able to appreciate the work in person. Sadly, 75% of the people that shot in to see the Mona Lisa probably skipped right over the other four Da Vinci paintings right down the hall.

Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks

Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks

Another highlight is the Venus de Milo. As with the Mona Lisa, mystery is part of the allure with this sculpture. They found the sculpture with its arms already missing and don’t know exactly what they were doing.

Paris320130617045946

There are some extensive Egyptian exhibits at the Louvre.

Paris320130617061633

2400 year old writing on papyrus

Paris320130617065142

Incredibly intricate hieroglyph text carved into stone.

Other bits and pieces –

One of many sculpture galleries.

One of many sculpture galleries.

Woman painting a painting.

Woman painting a painting.

Jenny admiring some work. ...or just resting her feet.

Jenny admiring some work. …or just resting her feet.

 

 

First full day in Paris

We took the Eurostar train from London to Paris on Friday and managed to hike our way from the train station to our apartment by the Louvre. After traveling and carrying heavy bags around all day, all we did after that was go grocery shopping which took way longer due to the whole “I can’t figure out what’s in this box unless there are pictures” issue.

The next morning, we did an introductory walk around the city. Walking straight from the Louvre, all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, then toward the Eiffel Tower, then finally walked back along the river, crossed at Pont Neuf, grabbed some food at a cafe, and headed home. It was a long walk with a million sights along the way (more than we would ever care to photograph or write about). Here are a few highlights.

The view from the Louvre goes all the way to the Arc de Triomphe.

The view from the Louvre goes all the way to the Arc de Triomphe.

There was some sort of bike event going on. Lots of people doing laps.

There was some sort of bike event going on. Lots of people doing laps.

I get the crepes, those are everywhere. But so are hot dogs. I don't want hot dogs in Paris. At least give them a fancy french name.

I get the crepes, those are everywhere. But so are hot dogs. I don’t want hot dogs in Paris. At least give them a fancy french name.

This city has a thing for rows of trees lining their paths.

This city has a thing for rows of trees lining their paths.

Very Bad Trip 3? Is there no translation for "hangover"?

Very Bad Trip 3? Is there no translation for “hangover”?

There was a crazy gypsy-punk like band playing outside the Virgin store on the Champs Elysees. Good stuff.

There was a crazy gypsy-punk like band playing outside the Virgin store on the Champs Elysees. Good stuff.

The city's lightning rod.

The city’s lightning rod.

The Eiffel Tower itself is... not pretty. Except for a few curves at the bottom, it's mainly a big hunk of intersecting metal beams painted brown...

The Eiffel Tower itself is… not pretty. Except for a few curves at the bottom, it’s mainly a big hunk of intersecting metal beams painted brown…

Looking across the Alexander Bridge with its gold statues.

Looking across the Alexander Bridge with its gold statues.

Book sellers line the river around the Notre Dame area.

Book sellers line the river around the Notre Dame area.

There are a couple of bridges that people have covered in love locks.

There are a couple of bridges that people have covered in love locks.

View across the Seine of the Louvre from Pont Neuf.

View across the Seine of the Louvre from Pont Neuf.

Dinner at a cafe. Simple food. Outrageously priced. Welcome to Paris.

Dinner at a cafe. Simple food. Outrageously priced. Welcome to Paris.

Our apartment is about 15 ft from a boulangerie patisserie, so our first order was a pair of eclairs.

Our apartment is about 15 ft from a boulangerie patisserie, so our first order was a pair of eclairs.

Walking in the sun for six hours takes it out of you...

Walking in the sun for six hours takes it out of you…

A little bit of London

We gave ourselves two nights in London at the beginning of this trip. One, we knew we’d be jetlagged and wouldn’t want to run around doing much, and two, starting in London is a good way of easing yourself into a different life. Things are different (traffic, getting around, money, etc.) but at least it’s still happening in a language we can understand. We’ll pass back through here for a few  more days at the end of the trip. Until then, here are a few things we saw during our brief wanderings there.

0613 BigBen

Big Ben

0613 EyeView

View of the Thames from the Lambeth Bridge

0613 Guard

A guard at his post.

0613 GuardChange

Marching after the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

0613 GuardSikh

Each guard was getting inspected. Our guess was that the taller the furry hat, the higher the rank.

0613 Police

We ran into several protests in London for a variety of things. The police were out in force, but were basically just watching.

0613 StJamesPark

London has a ton of park space. This is along the souther side of St. James Park.

0613 TreeShit

The downside to the park space – the “plane trees” on a bad day (which we encountered) drop these seeds into the air everywhere, which get in your eyes, nose, mouth, and everywhere.

A pair of acrobat street performers. One guy was from the U.S.

A pair of acrobat street performers. One guy was from the U.S.

Inside the great court at the British Museum.

Inside the great court at the British Museum.

Jenny smashing her finger on one of those coin flattening machines.

Jenny smashing her finger on one of those coin flattening machines.

The London Eye.

The London Eye.

Motorcycles. Motorcycles everywhere.

Motorcycles. Motorcycles everywhere.

Outside the national gallery in Trafalgar Square.

Outside the national gallery in Trafalgar Square.

Traditional red phone booths.

Traditional red phone booths.

The Rosetta Stone inside the British Museum. This museum was pretty amazing (and was free if you ignore the whole "suggested donation" thing.)

The Rosetta Stone inside the British Museum. This museum was pretty amazing (and was free if you ignore the whole “suggested donation” thing.)

Can't go to London without getting some fish and chips in a traditional pub.

Can’t go to London without getting some fish and chips in a traditional pub.

Skaters enjoying the skate park by the London Eye.

Skaters enjoying the skate park by the London Eye.

The Brits have to be different. European power adapters don't work, and the UK adapter I found didn't accept grounding prongs. Solution - US to EU to UK combination. Safe, right?

The Brits have to be different. European power adapters don’t work, and the UK adapter I found didn’t accept grounding prongs. Solution – US to EU to UK combination. Safe, right?

Expectations

 

When starting new things it’s always fun to come up with expectations or predictions of what you think will happen. Then, when things are over, look back and see just how wrong you were about everything. We took a few minutes while waiting for our flight to list some of what we imagine will happen during this 11 week trip to foreign lands.

  • Both: Expect to be sore from carrying our heavy bags around. (Day one and this has already proven true)
  • Jenny: Expect London’s weather to be equally or more crappy than the food. (Day one, and this has also already proven true)
  • We both expect to get lost, more than once, in multiple cities.
  • We both expect this trip to be good training for our future run on the Amazing Race. It could happen, right?
  • Jenny expects to get tan. Steve expects to get freckled.
  • Other than our skydiving birthday, we expect these to be among our most memorable. Steve will be in Spain during his, Jenny will be in Nice, probably by a beach.
  • We expect to get sick of each other at some point. (Insert joke about being day one and this expectation already proving true).
  • Steve expects to get cranky at some point. (Yep, this happened in a crowded London bar that was too much for him to handle after running on 30+ hours with only an hour of plane sleep)
  • Jenny expects to get homesick, to cry, and apologized ahead of time. (Day one, and we both miss our cats already. They probably already forget who we are…)
  • Steve expects to spend way more money than we had planned.
  • Jenny expects to want to eat out way more than we should, and to get shot down by Steve (see above expectation)
  • Jenny expects to get hangry often (see above expectation)
  • We expect these 11 weeks to fly by.
  • We expect that we’ll want to do this again…
We expect this guy to not get whatever part he's practicing for...

We expect this guy to not get whatever part he’s practicing for… (Times Square, NYC)

 

Packing for the trip

Not too far down the list of questions we get about the trip is “What are you packing?”  In lieu of my normal “socks, underwear, and camera gear” answer, I figured I’d show you. Jenny and I both have Kelty backpacks (hers is a bit smaller than mine) that we’ll stuff with what we need to get by between trips to the laundry. Keeping in mind that I’ll be wearing the shoes and a set of clothes, and that we’ll pick up consumables like shampoo when we get there, here’s what I’m taking.

baggif3

And, no, the cat won’t be coming with us.

To Plan or Not to Plan?

WhiteBoard-1This is the age old question when going on long trips – How much do you plan and how much to you leave up to the Fates to determine where you go and what you do? We’ve wrestled with this since we first started thinking about the trip.  While our adventurous spirits would be largely open to leaving transportation unreserved and accommodations unbooked, our limited wallet and timeframe are not.

Cost: As the trip has gotten closer, the reality of traveling through Europe during the summer has set in. Prices for trains and rooms have already gone up since we started looking a few months ago.  During the busy travel season, waiting until the last minute when cheap rooms and hostels might be entirely unavailable could put some limits on other parts of our trip.

Schedule: We don’t want a death-march style itinerary, but we want to get around. There are some cities where you could just go and get lost for a while. Paris – with its endless array of cafes and museums, could occupy months of the unfocused traveler. The same goes for Rome and its mountains of history, and for the Mediteranean coast with stretches of beach and scenery.

The verdict: We’re planning more and more of the travel as we get closer. Steve has a spreadsheet (of course) that’s turning into a master trip organizer.  We don’t want to blow our budget by being forced into expensive hotel rooms or waste entire days on trains because we didn’t reserve overnight cabins in advance. Since it’s the direction we’re leaning, we’ll just assume that the maxim – the more you plan, the more freedom you’ll have – is right.

*For those asking “WTF is up with the drawing in that picture?!”*  One of the many weird things we enjoy doing is having one person start a drawing with a couple lines or a shape, then the other person adds some lines, then the other person goes, and so on. This gets fun when you notice a new addition on the white board after a few days and all you can do is shake your head and laugh at the other person’s craziness. We’ve got some long train rides ahead, so we’ll be sure to take some paper.

Cheers,

S&J