The latter, which is likely the most famous painting on earth, is constantly surrounded by an enormous crowd of people. It is safely protected by bullet-proof glass, as well as full-time security guards. And for good reason: the painting has been attacked on numerous occasions over the past century. The most recent attack came this summer, when a Russian woman threw a mug at the painting, apparently angry over her immigration status in France.
There's one drawback to visiting the Louvre in August. It is extremely crowded. It's truly amazing how many languages one overhears from the crowds: everything from German to Japanese to various flavors of English. But mostly, one hears French (which is not surprising, considering the French love to vacation in their own country---and who can blame them?)
But it's not just the Louvre that is crowded. Everywhere you go in Paris this time of year, you feel the crush of crowds.
The crowds were even worse during our visit to the Palace of Versailles, a 30-minute train ride from Paris. The dazzling 17th century, ornate architecture here simply must be seen to be believed. And nowhere is Versailles more impressive than at the magnificent Galerie des Glaces(the Hall of Mirrors) with its endless square yards of masterpiece paintings and ornate chandeliers. Photos don't do it justice.
The only drawback to Versailles was (once again) the stifling crowds. In many of the rooms we were packed in like sardines. And although photography is allowed, good luck in taking a photo of anything, without someone walking into your shot.
Which raises a question: haven't all these tourists heard the news: that there is a serious worldwide recession raging at the moment?
Indeed, in most of our travels throughout the Paris region, we saw little evidence of the current recession. To be sure, here and there, one will encounter a homeless person (although I saw fewer homeless people in Paris than I typically see in my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas).
Whatever the reason, there was little evidence of a recession in Paris, at least that I could see. And recession or not, there are still hordes of tourists, with cash to burn.
Speaking of which, Paris is not a city for those who want a budget vacation. Be prepared to spend quite a bit. The dollar currently only buys .67 of a Euro. So your dollar won't go far these days.
This was most evident in our hotel, the Villa Alessandra, a few blocks north of the gigantic Arc de Triomphe monument. Although our hotel billed itself as "Four Star," our room was tiny and not much bigger than a walk-in closet in a typical upper-middle-class suburban American McMansion. There wasn't much room for anything, outside of our bed. Plus the A/C wasn't working.
If there was any real disappointment in our Paris trip, our hotel was it. However, as any seasoned world traveler will tell you: it's always best to just shrug off disappointments and "go with the flow" and not allow setbacks to ruin one's trip.
And what our hotel lacked, the rest of Paris made up for it, in spades.
In fact, all we had to do to immediately lift our spirits was to simply step out of our hotel and walk down the street a short ways. There, we encountered a lovely, open-air Paris market that seemed like a throwback to the 19th century. Lots of tiny little, mom-and-pop shops, selling everything from fresh fruit, to seafood, to cheese, to chocolate.
We popped into a cheese shop and picked up various samples of the wares, which we ate with home-made French bread. I've never really been that big a cheese buff. But Paris definitely converted me. There is an incredible variety of cheese in France and it is, in many cases, vastly more delicious than any cheese I've ever had in the U.S.
Indeed, the most impressive meal I had in Paris was not at some swanky restaurant. Instead, it was simply a selection of cheese and a loaf of bread, washed down with some Bordeaux wine, that we leisurely ate at a sidewalk cafe table. (Curiously, even good quality wine is often a cheaper menu item than other drinks, like Coca-Cola). I guess it shouldn't really be surprising in France, where wine is much more than simply a drink---it's a crucial component of life.