July 22, 2009

Scuba Lisa: Paris for heretics

I may catch some merde for this from tourists whose itineraries are ruled by generally accepted and rarely questioned must-see lists gleaned from all the guidebooks and articles and websites ever written about a place and who feel incomplete if they leave items unticked, but I suggest you skip the following Paris sights should you have but a few days to a week to spend in the City of Light in high season.

In my humble but well-traveled opinion, the return on time required to see these sights like the guidebooks say you ought is low.

Unless you're an early riser and can get on line at these places well before they open so you can get in and out before the rest of the world shows up, don't see:

1. Versailles -- First, there's an hour train ride. If you're not on one of the first out of Paris in the morning, you're already behind the eight ball. Second, those incredible gardens that all the guidebooks say are free? They're not. On top of the 20-odd bucks you pay to tour the palace you pay another 11-odd bucks to walk around the kings' old backyard. Third, the only thing in Versailles with eye-popping, knock-your-socks-off "wow!" factor is the Hall of Mirrors -- it's what you go for, right? After I spent five-plus hours of my life and precious Paris time to see its chandeliers and dusty, etched-with-graffiti mirrors (I kid you not) I found myself wishing I had those five hours back, to do something else with.

Better idea: Google it.

2. The Eiffel Tower -- I'm not suggesting you miss the Eiffel Tower; in fact, it's impossible to miss, towering as it does over the city. Do take the metro to the Trocadero stop, where, from the elevated steps of the Palais de Chaillot, you get a superb view of the tower from top to bottom. Walk across the Seine to the tower and stand under it, admiring its lacy, iron skeleton.

But don't get on the line to climb the tower. You'll be on that line for so many hours before you finally reach the ticket kiosk from where you buy a ticket that lets you stand on another line to either climb the stairs or wait for a crowded elevator that you'll wish you'd a) packed several meals and b) skipped that extra cup of coffee at breakfast.

Better idea: Go to the top of ugly Tour Montparnasse. The skyscraper is an eyesore, but the views from its observation floor are the best in the city -- and include a full-on view of the Eiffel Tower.

3. The Louvre: I know I'm treading on super-sacred ground here, but I've come this far, so I'm going all in. Forget the Louvre. The inside, anyway. As Dana and I watched the thousands who were spending almost an entire day to see three things -- the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory; nobody really comes for the Egyptian stuff, and Paris's best paintings are in the Musee d'Orsay, which we did visit -- we chuckled as we enjoyed sunshine, architecture and people-watching in the adjacent Tuileries garden, concluding that "the best way to see the Louvre is from the outside."

Better idea: When you're at home, spend a day marvelling at the great art that's no doubt housed at a major metropolitan museum close to where you live -- art you've maybe never seen. When you're in Paris, get your Da Vinci fix from the hundreds of Mona copies smiling coyly from t-shirts, posters, billboards, fancy art reproductions and the sides of buses and thank your stars that you haven't lost hours making your way into the Louvre to stand, likely at the back of a crowd that can get ten deep, to peer at a small, dark painting under Plexiglas and then leave wondering what the fuss is all about.

Dana and I found a plethora of fake Giacondas around the city. Our favorite was Scuba Lisa, smiling from the wall of a bridge over the Canal Saint Martin in a fantastic neighborhood we wouldn't have had time for had we spent the whole day in lines at the Louvre.