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Paris Series: Thaly Train to Brussels

I learned another French word, Gare du Nord. That’s French for North Station. :-) I took the train from this station which is known to be one of the busiest train station in the world. The Gare du Nord even have an airport-like departure/arrival schedule board.

[Note: About a week after I left Paris, there was a major riot in this station where a few hundred people battled the police for roughly handling an African immigrant who did not have proper papers. When I was in the station, there was a large presence of police and military armed to the teeth. I can feel the tension.]

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My plan for the day is simple. Get an early train ride into Brussels and then spend a part of the evening exploring the city. Well, I did not count on needing to book a seat — I thought that it’s just to show up at the station and then you’ll get on the next available train. For that I had to wait two hours to get on the next available train.

I thought it was just an ordinary train from Paris to Brussels but it turned out to be a TGV variant called the Thalys. They run on dedicated high-speed rail track and on certain section on the same track that EuroStar uses.

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Although I had myself a first class ticket which just costs a bit more from second class, I did not expect the comfort at all. I thought it was just only wider, more comfortable seats. For one, there were free newspapers given out by the stewardess (yeah, they had stewardess on trains!). After so many days of French, I was glad to see an English newspaper.

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They came by with some disposable wet towels. Nice touch …

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They even served food on board. This is included as part of the ticket price. I was told that there will be snacks on board but I did not expect this.

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I remember there was a choice of two. After all these weeks, I can’t remember what was offered. I think the sandwich below is fish sandwich. It was cold but tasted fresh.

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Some oranges …

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… chocolate mousse …

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… and my favourite drink, tomato juice. Gosh, they even gave me a small pack of Celery Salt to go with it — just how I always had it at home. Fancy that.

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They came by the second time round and asked me if I wanted second helpings too … and they asked in English. :-)

There are several different seating configurations on every train. This certainly is more comfortable than the Eurostar to me.

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Before we arrive at Brussels, they even came by with a small bar of chocolates. Service was excellent. They came by also asking if I needed a taxi at the station so that I can have a taxi waiting for me the moment I step off the train.

I’ll give them 11 out of 10 points.

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The entire journey took just under 1.5 hours. The train zipped along at 300 km/hr. I was thinking this is three times the highway speed in Canada and I hardly feel that it traveled that fast.

The Brussels Midi/Zuid station is a much brighter and modern facility than the Paris Gare du Nord. Already, I feel more at home already as most people spoke perfect English although the official languages in Belgium is Flemish, French and German. That explains why this station is called both Midi and Zuid. There are no gypsies, no police armed with machine guns, nobody wanting to loop coloured strings around my fingers …

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I’ll officially start the next series of my travel within the Low Countries. Brussels is the de facto capital of Europe. This clean and beautiful city houses the headquarters of NATO and the European Parliment. It is also where the most powerful of the European Union institutions are located.

The picture below is the Atomium which is perhaps the most iconic image of Brussels. Later … I’ll be blogging about this amazing structure.

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OK, most importantly, there more more food related entries in this series. I think you will like this coming series. I enjoyed Brussels … the people are very friendly and helpful and the streets felt safer. Later …

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Paris Series: Breakfast at Paul

Ooops. I said that yesterday’s blog entry was my last on Paris. Well, I found a few more photos I missed and this means you gotta bear with another Paris blog today.

Never much of bread fan, I found myself falling in love with Parisian bread. Everywhere I go in Paris, I inevitably come across the chain of bakeries called Paul. They seem to be as prevalent in Paris as McDonalds and Starbucks in North America.

They have bakeries of every size. They have small counters at train stations and there are some full fledge bakeries. They are always busy and filled with a lot of people. There was one Paul bakery that had lines that snaked out the door. Their bread and pastry looked so tasty — the variety is bewildering.

The morning I left Paris, I stopped by the Paul at the Gare du Nord station. The one thing that I remember was that there were a lot of young gypsy girls asking me if I speak English. i always sternly tell me “No, I don’t speak English”. :-) Does anyone know what they really want? Are they just asking for money?

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This Paul outlet is just a small counter which is more than good enough for me. The board list a bunch of stuff they sell. I can’t tell what is what except for the Pains — that’s bread for French. See? I did learn some French here. :-) BTW, Paul was founded 120 years ago, believe it or not.

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My fav? The baguette. There are so much I learn about the humble baguette. Did you know why baguettes are shaped the way they are? Well, apparently there is a law in France that prohibits bakeries from working before 4am. This makes it impossible to make enough bread in time for breakfasts. The long slender baguette bakes faster than the rounder bread and thus it became what it is today. Does this story sound credible?

One weird thing. When I got the baguette, I asked the staff to cut it up. The staff asked me how many pieces I wanted it … and I said five or six. She responded, “huh? you want two or three?”. “No,” I said, “I want five pieces”. She sounded very surprised. Is it abnormal to have baguettes cut into so many smaller pieces?

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I also bought this tasty looking piece of pastry. I am sure there’s a nice sounding name to it but I just don’t care to learn the name. It was nice … all pastries in France is nice.

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I got myself a “coffee with milk” to wash it down. It was such a small cup. I recall someone telling me that “coffee” does not come in cup sizes like what we’re used to in Canada.

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My recommendation … when in Paris, get some bread from Paul’s. You must absolutely try it or else you can’t say you’ve really been to Paris. It’s like an European visiting the US without having stop by Starbucks or grab a Big Mac from Mickey D. :-)

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Paris Series: Climbing the Eiffel and Gyros Dinner

After all these days in Paris, I had not climbed the Eiffel. I was at the base of the Eiffel a couple of night before but did not climb it because I was so dead tired. This time, I timed myself to start the climb before sun sets.

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There are three platforms on the Tower. The first two floors can be reached by stairs or by lifts. Taking the elevator to the 2nd floor costs 7.80 Euros while stairs costs 4.00 Euros with double the fun.

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Climbing up Eiffel is not easy. There are signs on the tower’s trivia after couple of landing. It was interesting reading and also a good chance to catch a breather.

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The first floor has the largest platform. There is quite a few displays and exhibitions of past and recent history here. There is also a post office on this level. Weird … is there a story behind this post office?

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The view from the second floor towards the Champs de Mars Park looked so beautiful. As much as I wanted to walk all the way to the end to take a picture of the Eiffel Tower from that end, I balked at walking all the way to the end. It must have been at least 3/4 of a mile end to end.

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This is the view to the top from the 2nd floor. The public can only get to the top through the elevator. I saw there there is a spiral staircase one can take to the top.

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The ride from the 2nd floor to the top costs about 3.70 euros, I think.

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There are two levels of platform at the top. The bottom platform is entirely indoor. It was pretty crowded.

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And then it started to rain … shucks … I can’t take any decent shot from here. Anyway, you can’t get much of a shot out a window.

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I went up to the top platform which is open air. Saw a faint rainbow. That little rainbow got a lot of people excited and were jostling to take a picture of it.

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It’s kind of hard locating the Paris replica of the Statue of Liberty below. The replica is presented as a gift from the Americans as appreciation for the Status of Liberty given by the French to New York. BTW, did you know that the engineer that built the Statue of Liberty in New York is also Gustave Eiffel?

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It was very cold up the tower. The rain came down in hail. Freezing!

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The view from the top is beautiful especially at night.

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Another night shot from the top platform …

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After the trip to Eiffel, I took the Metro to Little Athens, or at least I think that was the place I went to. The train is a double decker.

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I went to this Gyros place for dinner — it’s (relatively) cheap and has two big juicy gyros on the rotisserie. To me the Greek Gyros is similar to the Turkish Doner and the Arabic Sharwarma — same thing but just different name.

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This place is like a fast food of sorts — just a little more disorderly.

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I had “the works” because I wanted to have a bit of everything. This costs 6.50 Euros. Frankly, this does not taste great but does look very good no doubt. There was not much of meat in there.

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The pita is very disappointing … it was hard, dry and tastes like a piece of cardboard.

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On the way back to the hotel, I stopped by an Indian restaurant to get myself a piece of chicken. I bought this tandoori chicken for just 3 euros. I missed having big chunky meat the past few days. It was pretty good.

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The man at the counter asked me where I was from. When I told him that I was from Canada, I could detect a disappointment in his face … well, I don’t blame him … my Asian face does not look anything like a typical Canadian. He said he likes Canada and tried to speak to me in French … well, although French is a national language in Canada, people in the western part of the country do not use it. Anyway, he gave me a piece of … something … he said a gift from France to Canada. I took it … it was good. What is it anyway?

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This is my last post on Paris. From tomorrow I’ll start my way to Brussels — there will be lots of food blog in Brussels.

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Paris Series: The Palace of Versailles

Did you know that the city of Versailles was virtually the unofficial capital of France in the past? It is in his royal city that the seat of government was located although the official capital is Paris and the official palace was the Louvre. Versailles is extremely rich in history. It is located about 10 miles west of Paris and can easily be reached via RER trains.

Versailles is best known for the Chateau de Versailles (the Versailles Palace). I spent a good part of a day at Versailles. I have heard a lot of this place and its grandeur but had never knew much about it. When I reached the entrance, I was practically awe-stricken. I knew it was grand but I have never imagined how huge it was until I saw it with my eyes.

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I signed up for a guided tour and knew it was well worth every Euro. It indeed was. The guide assigned to us was not just any guide but a curator of the Versailles Palace. Man, she sure knew her stuff and amazed us with the answers that we threw at her. Because there were so many people around, we were given listening devices so that we can hear everything she was saying even though we are not within earshot. People who signs up for the tours gets to a different route and different places that is not opened to the general public.

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For three generations, from Louis XIV to Louis XVI had ruled France from this grand palace. As in the Louvre the opulence from that era shows. There were precious paintings still remaining in the Versailles but most of them had been sold by the government after the French Revolution. The Versailles is trying to restore this palace to it original but it will take a lot of money and a long time, if at all possible.

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The Versailles Palace is currently undergoing extensive renovations and refurbishments. The balcony in the centre is where an angry mob forced Louis XVI (and Marie Antionette) to faced them. They were taken forcibly from the Versailles to Paris where within the next few years, they were guillotined in Paris for treason. I was in that room that looks out the small courtyard. The guide explained it so vividly I can almost imagine the morning the crowd broke through the gates to confront the King.

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King Louis XV ordered an opera to be built in the palace. While it is not huge but this being a private theatre, it is extravagant and sports some of the finest decorations of its time. This theatre was not used often because it was expensive to run it. It requires about 3000 candles alone to light up the place and the type of candles used costs a week’s wages … EACH! I can imagine how difficult it must have been just to light 3000 candles.

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The king also built his own private chapel.

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The Hall of Mirrors is most well known as the place where the lopsided Versailles Treaty was forced upon Germany after World War I. At the time the Hall of Mirrors were built, mirrors were very expensive and luxurious. The king had an entire hall of mirrors built … imagine that …

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The refurbishments are going along well and does make a big difference. The side on the left were completed. Compare that to the untouched facade on the right …

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If I think the building were large, I was somewhat awed by the size of the gardens.

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A walk from the Palace to the end of the canal and back takes 1 hour! Going outwards is easy as it slopes down. The kicker is when I tried to walk back.

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It was darn tiring already walking all over the palace but it’s a waste not walking thru the gardens. Frankly, not many people bothered to walk beyond the first stage of the gardens. I can understand why not.

I just can’t begin to describe how huge Versailles is … check this map here.

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I really enjoyed this entire trip and came away so amazed how rich and influential France was. If not for the rise of England’s naval power, perhaps today this blog is in French.

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So much had been said how expensive and luxurious the Versailles Palace is. It was estimated once that it takes one quarter of the entire income of France to maintain this palace. This is a must visit place if you are in Paris. I spent about 6-7 hours in all, including travelling time.

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Paris Series: The Paris Metro and the Sacre Coeur

Getting around Paris is primarily using the Metro. The Metro in Paris (does any French people use the word Metropolitan or just Metro?) is one of the largest system in the world. I find it very bewildering reading the maps (yeah, not map but maps) of the system. London’s Tube while equally large is so easy to read because there is only 1 map and the station names are short. In Paris, there are three maps and I spend a lot of time reading it trying to get to where I wanted to go. And the pocket map they issue, they are practically useless to me because the prints are so small — it is printed in something like 3 points.

The Art Nouveau entrance to the Metro blends very well with the general architecture in Paris. It does not shout in loud bright colour “here is the the subway”. Problem is sometimes I walk past a station entrance because it was so well camouflaged!

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I had heaps of problem using the Metro. One tip … never, ever try to take the Metro during rush hours. I mean, I know that any subway system is packed during rush hours but in Paris, you’ll be lucky if you could squeeze into a train. There was once I tried to get on like a Vancouverite, I could not get on for three stops. That was when I decided I act like a Parisian, push and shove my way past everyone, ladies and old men included. If you think it was OK once I got on … no … the train was so packed that I swear that it’s worse than trains in 3rd world countries. I am not exaggerating … it was a lifting experience … my legs were practically not touching the floor!

The network uses all kinds of trains in the system — there are double deckers and trains of all shapes and sizes. Oh yeah, one quirky feature of the trains here. The doors does not automatically open, you had to pull an old fashion handle to open the doors.

One thing about the Metro though, there are a lot of stops. This makes it easy for me to get to where I want because it practically stops at the doorstep to the places I wanted to visit.

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Today’s post is primarily about the lesser known church in Paris, the Sacre Coeur. Getting to the Sacre Coeur requires a climb up a steep hill. There is a funicular railway operating on that hill. I find it amusing that this short railway is actually part of the Metro system. This must have been the shortest Metro line in the world.

Unfortunately when I was there, the system was not working. Oh … climbing that hill is not easy.

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The name Sacre Coeur means Sacred Heart. It is located in Montmartre and on top of the highest point in Paris. Paris as you have seen in my earlier pictures is flat. Unlike a lot of other European churches, the design of this church has the Romano-Byzantine influence. Does resemble more like a mosque, doesn’t it?

One thing I did not like about the area around and outside the Sacre Coeur. There were a lot of touts and scam artists. For one, there was this group of people who wanted to draw me to their makeshift gambling table — I have seen these people at work before and they target innocent tourists. Also there were a lot of Africans who tried to stop me and wanted to loop some coloured strings on my fingers — I don’t know what the heck they actually wanted and I did not want to wait to find out. Does anyone know what’s this thing about them wanted to loop coloured strings on your fingers?

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My primary intention to visit this place is the dome. The dome is opened to the public.

Before I went up the dome, I entered the church. It was the most solemn and serious church I’ve been in so far. They are very serious about keeping complete silence and have people with suits and white gloves standing everywhere reminding people to be silent. The interior is dark and looked really interesting. I did not learn much about this church because most of the signs are in french.

Getting to the top requires climbing up steep winding steps and through narrow walkways. I was thinking that it’s almost impossible for someone slightly overweight to make it through.

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At the top of the dome, the place was just filled with graffiti. This reminds me a lot of the “broken window syndrome” — have you hard of this term? It is a strategy adopted by the City of Vancouver to deal with vandalism. The theory says that a neighborhood deteriorates starting with a single broken window. If a window is broken and is not repaired promptly, then it sends a sign that people do not care and this in turn will lead to another broken window until people starts to be indifferent and the entire neighborhood just turns into a slump. This theory applies to littering, graffiti and other vandalism in general. So, someone need to care enough to quickly clean up all the graffiti in this dome. It’s a shame because now people thinks it’s OK to deface since everyone is already doing it.

I digressed … sorry.

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The view was spectacular from the top of the dome. See how flat the entire city is? I took this picture to mimic Ken’s (my photography guru) shot he showed me. So, Ken, how does this compare to yours? He he he … I think this composition is better because I used the 70-200 zoom instead of the wide angle. The Eiffel looked closer here.

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I am glad to see how much foresight the city planners have to strictly regulate the height of buildings in the city core. The wide tree lined avenues is so pedestrian friendly. Paris is a beautiful city but I felt the people need to care to deal more aggressively with the littering and graffiti that is marring their own beautiful city.

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Paris Series: Escargot Appetizer and Lunch in Latin Quarters

Now … this blog entry is about food and only about food … how’s that sound to you?

I did not expect that there were so many eateries here along the narrow streets at the edge of the Latin Quarter. I don’t really know what the street is called or the restaurant I went into. It was so hard to choose because it appears that everyone of them had such great deals. What I like is that they are fixed price menus … all around the 12-18 Euros price range for three courses.

I already know what I wanted … something I had never seen before let alone tried but had heard so much of … snails, or in a better word escargots.

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Ordering the drink is a no brainer … Perrier, the carbonated spring water bottled somewhere in France. It’s French … that’s all it matters to me. Ordered a large bottle because I was so darn thirsty. This sure beats any pop drink when you’re thirsty. This bottle is 5.50 Euros … expensive right?

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It is in France I discovered what the baguette should taste like. I mean, we had baguette at home, sometimes bought from the supermarket, sometimes Suanne baked ready made ones. They are OK and had never understood the fuss about the french loaf.

But holly molly, the baguettes I had in Paris is like a million-trillion times better … no kidding. They are so good I could have just have a meal on them alone … no spread, no butter, nothing … just plain naked baguettes. The crust are so crusty that it splinters apart breaking it. The insides is so soft and airy. I fell in love with baguette and looked forward to them at every place I went in Paris and Brussels.

Back home, I learnt that there is actually a law in French that defines what a baguette is — and that it must contain ONLY water, flour, yeast and salt. Nothing else! If the baker is to put in a single raisin, then by law it is not a baguette. Can someone from France confirm this?

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Escargot is normally served as appetizers but to me this is the main meal. There are just six pieces of small snails. I expected the snails to be bigger. They came with snails tongs and fork. I was fumbling trying to figure out how to use that thingy until some guy came over and showed me how. That looked easy enough but after he walked away, I tried again … I got it all wrong again.

I put down the tong and used my fingers instead. That was easy.

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The snails looked very greenish and unappetizing. I would not say that it tastes great, not at all. They are somewhat rubbery and chewy. Would I order this again the next time I’m in a French restaurant? Probably not.

It appears that the snails are not cooked in their shells. They are removed from the shells, cooked and then put back inside again before serving. Hmmm … why bother putting them inside again I wondered?

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The main meal is the Duck Breast which came with a baked potato. The baked potato is good — much better than the normal ones we have in Canada.

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The duck breast is hard and appears to have been fried. There are just six slices of them. Served in Orange Sauce, it gives a certain tanginess. Plate looked good but taste wise, it’s so-so.

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For dessert, I opted for three types of cheese. I am not particularly fond of cheese myself but ordered this because this one sounded more frenchy. Arghhh … blue cheese again but this one is not too bad. Goes well as a spread on the baguette. Question … do the French spread these type of cheese on baguette?

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I had a window table and took my time enjoying my food and watching the tourists go by. I liked this meal … a lot.

“Eat snails” … checked!

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Paris Series: Quiche Breakfast and the Notre Dame

Just across the road from my hotel was a patisserie. Unlike in England, frankly, I really don’t know where to go for breakfast. I could have breakfast in the hotel but it costs 15 Euros — too expensive for me.

So, I just went across the street to get something from the patisserie. It was my first time and I can see what the fuss were about french bakery shop. The place smells so nice and there were so many types of bread alone that it’s bewildering.

I just got something familiar — Quiche, vegetable quiche.

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I walked over to the Metro station to get a seat to eat before I head to my destination. That’s all I had for breakfast … quiche and chocolate milk. The quiche is much better than any I’ve ever tasted before. The warm pastry was so soft that it flops down. The quiche and choc milk costs 3.80 Euros.

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This is a day I planned to visit the two most famous churches in Paris, the Notre Dame and the Sacre Coeur. The Notre Dame is located on a small island on the River Seine called the ?le de la Cit? (don’t ask me how to pronounce it). It is here where Paris was founded. Compared to London’s Thames, this river seem so idyllic whereas the Thames is so chaotic.

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The word Notre Dame in French means Our Lady (Virgin Mary). This is also a functioning church. I can’t help but compare the Notre Dame to the Westminster Abbey. The sad thing about this church is that most of its historical treasures had been stripped away and destroyed particularly during the French Revolution.

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Unlike some large cathedrals, the Notre Dame is brighter because of the large stained windows. The Notre Dame is one of the first buildings in the world that employs the use of flying buttress that enables load bearing walls to have windows instead of solid walls.

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The flying buttress looked spectacular from the outside.

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I spent sometime along the river Seine trying to take some shots. On an overcast day like this, everything looked so drab and dull. I heard that the best place to look for food is at the Latin Quarters just south of the River. I did not know how close it was … it was just down an alley and it opened up to rows of bistros and restaurants.

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Paris Series: The Eiffel Tower

It was a long day … I finally made it to the base of the Eiffel Tower just as sunset. Ken, my photography guru, told me to make sure I get to the Eiffel at about this time and boy, was I glad I took his advice. As I emerged from the subway station, my jaws literally dropped at the sight of the gold lighted tower.

The Eiffel Tower was the tallest building in the world when it was built 120 year ago. Back then it had just surpassed the Egyptian Pyramids in height. The tower held the world tallest title until it was surpassed many, many years later by the Chrysler Building in New York.

There are three levels. The first two levels are climbable by stairs with about 300 steps between each level. To get to the top level, one has to take a lift.

The Eiffel Tower

As much as I wanted to climb the tower, I was in no shape to do so. I had just spent 5 hrs at the Louvre, walked all the way to the Champs-Elysees and then climbed Arc de Troimphe. No siree … I am going to leave that to another day. But I had a great time taking pictures … it’s so beautiful.

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These are all HDR pictures — which is so perfect in a lighting condition like these. I think there are not many pictures of the Eiffel similar to these I took. Try googling Google Images (or following this link).

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is named after the designer, Gustave Eiffel, who is an engineer.

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower was supposed to be a temporary structure. It was built in just two short years in 1887 in time for the World Fair in Paris to mark the Centennial of the French Revolution. At the time it was built, many people complained that it was ugly and demanded that it be torn down. Although it was meant to be taken down after 20 years, that never happened. I guess it’s because people begin to see how beautiful and iconic the tower is to the city.

The Eiffel Tower

At that time, I wished Suanne was here. I know she would be absolutely delighted to see Eiffel at night.

The Eiffel Tower

I pulled my imaginary “Been There, Done That” notebook and made little check marks against some entries. Eiffel Tower … done. :-)

Sorry about not blogging about food again. I thought the past few places I blogged about deserve individual entries on their own. Tomorrow, I will have something on food.

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