Sunday, June 28, 2009

Paris and Bern

My travels and research continue here in Switzerland. Since I last posted, I have spent a wonderful week in Paris and a day in Bern. So without further ado, let's head to Paris!

Paris is quite an amazing city, and is very helpful in terms of understanding French Switzerland. Switzerland is such a diverse place that the particular French culture can be at times difficult to pull out, but in France it's impossible to miss. The life of busy Paris and its endless metro system stands in stark contrast to the relaxed atmosphere of its many cafes and patisseries on every street corner. People just hang out in parks, enjoy the sun, take coffee after every meal, and often stop for crepes while on the road. The bread is fantastic, they don't even bother serving it with butter as that would ruin the experience. The the many pastries in the patisseries are enough to send you to the moon and back, and are perfect for breakfast on the go, as that is certainly required to see most of Paris in a week!

First of all, if you are in Europe, the thing to do is take the TGV for the convenience and the experience. It's a high speed train that goes between many of the major cities, going around 279.4 km/h! The trip from Lausanne is only 4 hours and is a fantastic display of scenery; especially memorable is going through a mountain to get over the border. Once you arrive in Paris, the first thing to do is take a cruise along the river Seine, from which you can see most of the major sights and get a chance to enjoy and plan your trip!

The first picture is of course of the famous Eiffel Tower, built as a temporary attraction for the World's Fair and just never taken down. I went up at night, where you can get a first-hand glimpse at why Paris is called "the city of lights". The second picture is of the Tuilleries, a garden built right in front of the Louvre, from which you can see all the way down the shopping haven of the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe (3rd picture). The Louvre was a palace inhabited by French kings since the 12th century. If you can find it, there's still a part of this famous museum that remains from those early days.

Even though the Louvre (4th picture) is large and grand, spanning many blocks and a couple metro stops, the French monarchy turned an old hunting palace into their main residence at Versailles. The palace also has two other large houses on the grounds that they would retreat to. Napoleon lived in one of those because he balked at the expense of repairing the main palace after the French Revolution. Versailles also has some beautiful gardens (5th picture) and a canal; in fact, from the palace to the end of the canal is a 45 minute walk! A part of the gardens is public, and it's definitely a spot for locals to come and let the kids play in the park.

The cathedrals and basilicas of Paris are also quite a sight! The grand 12th century Notre Dame (6th picture) towers over the Ile de la Cite, and is the setting for the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which sparked a desire to return the beautiful church to its original glory. Then there is the Basilica of Sacre Coeur, positioned on the top of a hill called Montmartre. It is a quiet place where prayer for the world never ceases, making it a much more serene atmosphere than the bustling Notre Dame with all its visitors. Finally, the Basilica of Saint Denis is the burial grounds for 3 saints and most of the French Kings from the 12th century forward. It's a great way to wrap up a trip and recall the history you have learned over your time in Paris.

And there's so much more, too. Les Invalides has an army museum and Napoleons' tomb. The Luxembourg Gardens were a gift to a queen, Catherine of Medici, and are just a beautiful place to spend time. And it doesn't end there, but I think you get the picture. In Paris, I learned to just enjoy. It's not awkward here to spend time at a cafe by yourself, just reading, soaking in the atmosphere, with a coffee or a meal. I've taken that back to Lausanne with me, and I went out to dinner and ordered something I didn't even understand. It was a delicious meal, and so relaxing to just sit and enjoy that part of the city.

So then comes my discussion of Bern, the diverse and beautiful capital of Switzerland. It is a short 1 hour ride from Lausanne, but it feels like a world away as the culture and language change over that short ride (German is the language in Bern). Bern is one of the few city-states of Switzerland, as it and Geneva are both cities and cantons (it would be like New York or Boston being a state). Old town Bern is basically 3 streets, so it's very easy to walk everywhere. Fountains are every block or two along the main road, which is open only to pedestrians and the trams.

The major sight to see is the Zytglogge, an old 12th century clocktower that once served as the center of city life. But also in the center of it all is the Einsteinhaus, Einsten's apartment from 1903-1905 and the place where he developed his theory of relativity. An old cathedral, the Munster, stands on one of the streets overlooking the Aare River. The river cuts right through the city, dividing old from new areas, and is just so blue! The tower of the Munster is a great view of the city (all cathedral towers here in Europe seem to be the best way to get a panoramic) and is the highest in all of Switzerland at 100m tall. The city is much more touristy and prone to speaking English than Lausanne, but given its significance I shouldn't be surprised.

One of the neatest parts of this street is the setup of the buildings, which are the most efficient use of space I've ever seen. All shops are on the first floor (and if big enough, sometimes the 2nd or 3rd floors too) and have a cellar, with the double doors opening out from the ground (like in that scene from the Wizard of Oz). These cellars are either for storage or are separately owned as bars, shops, or cafes. Above all this are many apartments, like the Einsteinhaus, that are amazingly still inhabited (I think the Einsteinhaus is the only one that isn't). Across the river from all this is the Barengraben, a pit housing bears, the symbol of the city of Bern. A legend regarding the founder of the city and a bear have inspired this choice, possibly along with the name of the city (Bern may come from the High German word for bear). I finally also got to try Rosti, a Swiss specialty that's basically fried potatoes (kind of like hash browns) topped with whatever you want - egg, cheese, ham, onion, etc. I'm a fan, it's filling but perfect for all the walking you do!

The other great view of the city comes from the Rosengarten, situated on the top of a hill across from the old city. It is an incredibly well-maintained garden with roses of numerous varieties. This really is the jewel of the city, and a must-do for anyone who goes there, even though it is quite a trek up there. It can't be captured on camera, and it's much, much better than my picture would suggest. If you go, look for the Pink Panther and Scentimental roses, they're quite a sight!

That's all for now, but stay posted for my upcoming voyage to Milan, Italy!

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