[The story so far: Our Heroes have secured snug transport, scary and delicious food, and comfortable lodgings at Novotel in the La Défense section on the outskirts of Paris.]
Monday morning Ron and I got up early (6:30 AM local time) and walked through sector 1 of La Défense, basically walking to the Grande Arche and back. Explored the storefronts, most of which were still closed, of course, and bought some items from one of the many bakeries that were opening up. I swear, we only walked about 1 kilometer as the crow flies, and we hit three bakeries, all packed with Parisians. Everything that I tried was wonderful — hot and fresh and delicious.
After our walk, the four of us regrouped at the hotel for the buffet-style breakfast, which I didn’t really need after the bakery goods, but which I bravely enjoyed nevertheless. Apart from the bacon and soft-boiled eggs that were available as a nod to the English and Americans, it also featured an assortment of pastry, an assortment of bread and jam, and an assortment of cheese, as well as orange juice, grapefruit juice, Danone yogurt (our “Dannon” yogurt is their subsidiary), and something called fromage blanc (“white cheese”). And, of course, plenty of Café au lait.
To my surprise and delight, the toaster that was set out for our use was a Dualit! I’ve always had a secret lust for this toaster, but at $459 for quantity one, it remains firmly outside my reach, unless I can snag a used one for a reduced price on eBay. You can see the Williams-Sonoma catalog listing here.
So, imagine my joy at seeing it awaiting my every command. Sadly, my first command was apparently, Brulée le pain! (“Convert the bread into ash.”) While the bread didn’t actually catch on fire, it was an incredible simulation — certainly good enough to suit everyone present.
We’d paid good money for a extraordinarily large motorcar, and thought we’d better get the use of it and drive ourselves to Versailles. The results were mixed, although not actually tragic. Later we found that we could have gone straight there by taking one of the R.E.R. outskirts trains — there was even an R.E.R. station at the Grande Arche.
Still, it was fun, even exciting, to drive. Most exciting of all were the roundabouts (the traffic circles). I’m sure that you’ve heard about them, perhaps you’ve seen them in Boston or London. I can’t remember what they were like in those other places, but the ones in France have no lanes; you simply head in (people who are heading in have a tiny bit more right-of-way than people who are already in) and then you move forward, edging people out and being edged out in turn. The tiny cars were a clear advantage here. A coworker later told us a story about taking a taxi in Paris and watching in terror as the taxi driver drove straight into the roundabout (actually perpendicular to the other traffic) until reaching the innermost border, then following that border around the circle, then heading straight out again, again completely perpendicular to the rest of the traffic in the roundabout.
At any rate, Versailles is only 15 to 25 miles away from Paris, so it wasn’t long before we arrived at the town. Yes, Versailles is an entire town — at one point, during the height of the palace construction effort about 300 years ago, there were over 15,000 workers who were employed to create the palace and its grounds. The palace is easy to find, however – once in the town, you simply follow signs that point to the “Chateau”.
We found a large self-park parking lot, with a sign that we (or indeed, anyone) could almost entirely translate: “Parking reserved exclusively for «autocars».” Now, “automobile” in French is la voiture, and “bus” is l’autobus — this autocar business was, seemingly, some other way of saying the same thing. There is quite a bit of this in French, especially where an English or American word has crept into common use, even though the Académie Française does not approve. We looked at one another and said, “Surely we are in an ‘auto car’?” and drove into the (entirely empty) automated self-park. As we were getting out of our car, we noticed several other cars parked in a different lot, further away. Hm.
Versailles, it turned out, was closed — they’re always closed on Mondays. We had, at a conservative count, maybe ten guidebooks to Paris between us, and no one had thought to check. Well, we could perhaps still examine the grounds, which are unbelievably lush and enormous. Alas, it was not to be — the grounds were closed for repairs due to damage from the recent storm. We took a few photos and walked back to the car.
When Ron went to the parking lot’s vending machine to get a ticket that would open the gate and let us out, he was horrified to see a sign demanding 180 French Francs – that’s $30! I found out later that an autocar is exactly the same as an autobus (they even use the same vehicles for both), except that an autobus takes you around within a town, and an autocar takes you to another town.
Woof, thirty dollars for thirty minutes of parking! Plus, the machine was being truculent about accepting paper money. Have you ever tried to come up with $30 in coins while far from home? Take my word for it, it’s a challenge. We were darn lucky that all of us had exchanged a bunch of dollars for francs only the day before — we were able to pay the ransom and make good our escape. For the rest of the day, Ron was driving in the bus-only lanes, figuring that he’d paid his dues. (Well, just the one time, actually, and it happened by mistake, and he only drove in the lane for the one block that he was trapped in it, but that’s how we like to tell the story.)
You can see some photos of Versailles (the one tiny part of it that we could see) by clicking here.
[Next:: “Cherchez Les Truffes!”]