European Extravaganza: French Edition

First of all, I must apologize for the delay between this post and my introductory story. Secondly, whereas my last post was very narrative in fashion, I have decided to make my next couple of posts "listicles", or a combination of a list and an article. Hopefully we'll cover more ground with fewer words. So without further ado, to Paris!


Paris (A)

Ah, Paris, such a famous city! Easily mentioned in the same breath as London or New York, a must-go destination for all travelers. Hot-spot of culture, fashion, food, ad nauseum.

Sort of.

In actuality, Paris is a surprisingly dirty, not desperately-pretty, unnavigable maze of pick-pockets, sprinkled with the occasional cultural landmark. The Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower are great, but Notre Dame and the Louvre spectacularly failed to live up to my expectations. London has a far better selection of cathedrals and museums with the added benefit of not having to fend off thieves on every block. There are little gems like Sainte Chapelle, but I really can't see how people would want to spend more than a few days there.

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The stained glass in St. Chapelle is absolutely extraordinary. 
However, Paris did play host to what I believe is the greatest-ever loss of the Olin Challenge when my family and I bumped into Scott Thomson and his family. On the top of the Eiffel Tower. At 11 pm at night. As you do. And whilst it was lovely chatting with them, I admit I was slightly alarmed by the distinct movement of the Tower. Between the wind and the constant movement of several hundred people, the top must sway back and forth by several feet. Which is nice. If you like heights. Which I don't.
View of Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe
Chateau Gontier (B)
Luckily, if you don't like the distinctly urban nature of Paris and are in search of something a little more provincial, a few hours drive south will land you in Chateau Gontier, which is famous for absolutely nothing at all. Just look at its Wikipedia entry. This gives it the distinct pleasure of being rustic rather than glitzy, sleepy rather than insane, and not covered in pick-pockets. It's also home to one of the quirkiest hotels I've ever stayed in (an 18th century style chateau with an interior painted in bright primary colors adorned with modern artwork) and one of the best restaurants I've ever been to (a Pizzeria started by a couple who also happen to be cinephiles, resulting in a happy combination of old movie posters and gourmet pizza).

I felt that Paris was trying too hard to be like the stereotypical city we all hear about in Disney films. As a result, everything is sort of caricatured and fake. Chateau Gontier on the other hand has no such pretensions, so a crumbly old chateau on the side of a river in a town where nothing is open after 6 pm is genuinely a crumbly old chateau on the side of a river where nothing is open after 6 pm. Fabulous!

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On a slightly less cultured note, at one point we were forced to eat at McDonalds (on account of the fact it was the only place open for food at 10 pm). However, it allowed for two important discoveries. First, McDonalds in Europe are much, much fancier than in the United States. The food is no better, but at least the decor tries to mask the fact. They even have these amazing computer kiosks where you can order and pay, which is great if you don't speak the language; less great if your credit card is not European. The second discovery wasn't so much a discovery as a confirmation. Anyone who's watched Pulp Fiction will know that Vincent Vega claims that the metric system is responsible for McDonalds not selling a quarter-pounder with cheese. Instead, it's a Royale with Cheese. AND HE'S RIGHT:
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Le Mans (C)
I'm not going to say anything about Le Mans besides a) I went there for my second time and b) if you don't know about the 24 Hours, you should. I took a bunch of photos and videos and will soon(ish) be posting a lengthy post about it on my personal blog.

Amboise (E)
Unfortunately we didn't have a chance to spend much time in Amboise as we left Chateau Gontier on our way to Troyes. Even still, we managed to squeak in a flying visit to the Clos de Luce, where Leonardo da Vinci lived the last three years of his life. Thus, it is also home to the da Vinci Museum and garden, which is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and tasteful museums you can ever go to. Engineers will be especially interested in the working scale models of various da Vinci sketches, from bilge pumps to wooden tanks to helicopters.
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One of the few non-functional exhibits.
Now this place was a surprise. It's a normal, ever-day French town set in some amazingly preserved gothic architecture. Everything is beautiful and the Cathedral is unbelievable. Okay, it might not be the most impressive cathedral ever built in history, but it seems so unnecessarily grand in the context of the surrounding city. What's more, it's not packed like Notre Dame or other "must see" venues in France. 
I also sampled my first Nutella crepe in Troyes. I am a fan.
Speaking of anonymity, allow me to promote a tiny little restaurant in Troyes. It's called the Bon Vivant and it ranks somewhere in the top three places we ate at in Europe. It's very small, no more than a dozen tables. The inside is thick, exposed beams with lots of mirrors and chalk boards and odds-and-ends. The couple who run it speak no English, despite the fact that everything on the radio was modern American music. But the food - both in quality, preparation, presentation, variety, and even price - was amazing. Staggering. Utterly fabulous. 
The menu said something about salmon. That's all I understood. It was delicious though.
There were more Pulp Fiction references in Troyes, too. Apparently, someone loved the movie so much they made a restaurant  based on it:
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Epernay (G)

Our final stop before crossing the border was Epernay, famous for one thing and one thing only: champagne. So we went on a tour of the de Castellane factory and were amazed at just how much there is to know about Bubbly. The bottles need to be turned during the fermentation, a process that was only mechanized in the mid-1970s. There are actually many different kinds of champagne, meaning there's no reason why you can't pair it with food and drink it with your meal like wine. It also doesn't get better with age so now we all have the perfect excuse to drink it instead of saving it for special occasions! We left Epernay feeling a little snobby from the experience, since de Castellane is not sold in the United States. Unfortunately, our suitcases were already quite full, so there was no room to bring back a liquid souvenir. 
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And that's half of the trip already done! But the best bits are yet to come. Get ready for Germany...
Posted in: Class of 2014