This trip came about due to a complete misunderstanding. That’s the elegant way of saying I screwed up. I always prefer the elegant way.
When Jeri and I visited Paris in mid-January of 2016 and were gawking at the Eiffel Tower, I got to thinking about how neat it might be to spend New Year’s Eve in Paris and watch all the fireworks shoot off the tower. You know the fireworks I mean, right? We’ve all seen them on TV and they look damn cool. Yeah, fireworks in Paris for New Year’s…..let’s do that. So as soon as the window of airline award ticket availability opened in February of 2016 I was able to snatch a couple award tickets in First and Business to and from Europe.
I set up the trip for us to fly from LAX to London to Madrid the day after Christmas (we’d never been to Spain). After two nights in Madrid we’d take the train to Barcelona for a night there, then a 6 hour high speed train to Paris for a final three nights, centered over New Year’s Eve, then fly home.
Now all this was well in place with rooms and tickets booked when I got around to Googling “best place to watch Eiffel Tower NYE fireworks”. Ummm ….Turns out there aren’t any. Mostly. Usually.
Oh there ARE tower fireworks on Bastille Day in July. And there are occasional NYE tower fireworks on special NYE dates like 2000. But as one Paris website aptly put it, NYE tower fireworks are the exception rather than the rule. And the tower’s official website said there would only be modified shows using the tower’s (rather spectacular) LED lighting. Well, crap. We’d already seen most of that.
It turns out what the French usually do is gather in a giant mass along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The street is closed off to traffic and usually around 600,000 fairly drunken Parisians show up and party more. Absent any significant tower fireworks, THAT might be interesting.
The journey to Madrid went fairly well and I managed to get a number of hours of sleep on the flight. Once at the friggin’ huge Madrid airport we took a Cercanías train into the city for our hotel near the train station. The desire to be near train stations for our onward travels sort of constrained our hotel choices, but we ended up with some good ones.
Since we got in after dark, we didn’t do much exploring until the next day. For reasons I don’t understand I got particularly slammed by jet lag and spent the morning in a slightly sick daze. This manifested itself in a complete loss of my sense of direction, even using Google maps. The spatial orientation part of my brain just shut down. Weird. This gave Jeri the opportunity to say “I told you so” several times. I’m here to entertain her.
The morning started eerily quiet with few people or cars. However later in the day we discovered what was going on. A good hunk of Madrid (and a lot of Europe in general) have the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s off. Every damn day was a holiday, and by nightfall the streets were jammed with people looking at decorations, hitting Christmas markets, partying and just getting out.
But despite my being direction challenged, we were able to see the Catedral de la Almundena, the outside of the Palacio Real (huge line to get in), Templo de Debod, Puerta del Sol, the Plaza Mayor, the botanic gardens, the Parque del Retiro and a couple of pretty good mercados. Later that evening we returned to the streets around the Puerta del Sol to look at the Christmas light displays and found the entire area just jammed with people.
On only our second morning in Spain we left Madrid on a high speed AVE train bound for Barcelona, a journey a little over two hours. Now we haven’t been on all the trains in Europe but this was far and away the nicest. New, spotless and extremely smooth. And by smooth I mean at 300 kilometers per hour (about 185 mph). We’ve been on the Eurostar between London and Paris a few times but it was so much more rougher than this ride. And shooting through fog at 300 kilometers per hour is an odd sensation. I recognize that California’s proposed high speed train between LA and San Francisco seems like a pretty stupid waste of tax dollars, until one rides on these European trains. It would be hard not to say, “Hell yes I want one of these and I don’t care what it costs!!”
We were only in Barcelona for essentially an afternoon and evening, but we really loved it, much more so than Madrid. We hopped their very fine underground metro straight to the harbor and walked through there and the old town. The number of mega yachts in the harbor makes Newport Harbor look like a white trash neighborhood. All that money can’t have come from anything good. The narrow streets and alleys of Barcelona’s old town were fantastic and we popped into a nice restaurant for dinner. Then back on the metro to our hotel for an end to our whirlwind visit to Barcelona. We definitely need to go back.
The next morning we caught another high speed train for our trip to Paris, ending at the Gare de Lyon station. At just over 6 hours it was a bit long but we could get up and walk around. And the scenery was great, including flocks of pink flamingos in some of the tidal marshes of the Mediterranean. Who knew flamingos?
By the time we got to Paris it was both disturbingly cold (mid 30s) and very dreary. After checking in at the hotel in the Opera area of Paris we headed off to the Champs-Élysées to see what things held for the following night, New Year’s Eve. The Christmas market was going strong selling food and trashy gifty things. As an American, used to Christmas just turning off after the 25th, it seems strange to have it drawn out so. But nice. However after a couple of hours the cold really started kicking our butts and we gave up for the day.
Seeing as how the next day, New Year’s Eve, was going to be in the low 30s at its highest, we needed a better plan to deal with the cold. And that plan was to wear pretty much all the clean clothes we had remaining. Not sure how many layers that worked out to be, but we definitely had the stuffed tick look going. But it worked and the cold was manageable. Barely.
Much of the day was spent over at the Jardin des Plantes (we had never been) visiting the assorted museums there and the park itself. It’s odd how fascinating a mineral exhibit in a warm building can be when it’s butt-cold outside.
With the recent terrorist attacks we knew that security this NYE in Paris was going to be an issue. The entire length of the Champs-Élysées was sealed off and access was through military checkpoints for coat and bag checks. Normally we would have walked right up from Place de Concorde but there was a huge backup there. So we snuck along the back of the Christmas Market until we came to a lightly used checkpoint and got in there. Not the usual TSA style security theater either…..these guys had serious weaponry.
Once in, it was sorta anticlimactic. Other than walking up and down the middle of the Champs-Élysées looking at French drunks, there wasn’t much to do. The Christmas Market was closed up, and with it the only bathrooms along the entire venue. No portapotties whatsoever. Now the French can be a quite competent group of people, but how they can enclose several hundred thousand fairly drunk revelers without means to get rid of all the wine and beer they had been consuming is beyond me.
We walked up to the Arc de Triomphe where what meager fireworks and light show were planned for midnight. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea so the crowd density got a bit claustrophobic for us. So we turned around and just after 10:30 bailed out on a side entry and walked over to the Seine. We were fairly close to the tower and could see its upper portion vanish into the freezing fog. After seeing one of the tower’s twinkle displays we were satisfied the visibility wasn’t worth hanging around for so we headed for the nearest metro station to get outta Dodge. I think we made it back to our hotel room by 11:30 and ironically watched the stroke of midnight via webcam. We do what we what, when we want, on our terms. That’s the story we’re sticking with anyway.
New Year’s Day was an odd day. Other than a handful of museums and restaurants, everything was closed. This limited our options, so we just did a whole lot of walking. And it was still nasty cold…at least by our standards.
It turned out the Christmas Market was now open, so we cruised though that eating cheese things. The Champs-Élysées was still closed to traffic, but the security checkpoints were gone, so we enjoyed walking up the middle of it. With a lot less people. A weird and wunnerful feeling. And by the time our energy ran down it was also time to get back to the hotel and start packing for the next morning’s return home.
We got up only a bit early the last morning, had a quick breakfast and caught a couple of RER trains to the airport. I didn’t feel like we were cutting it close, but by the time we got through all the airport stuff with the holiday travelers, we had only about 10 minutes in the lounge before it was time to board. But they got us off a few minutes ahead of schedule despite what I thought was marginal visibility and the start of snow flurries.
For it being the 2nd of January the return flights home, via JFK and on to LAX, were surprisingly drama free with a lot fewer crowds than I expected. But when one wakes up in Paris and goes to bed in SoCal it does make for one damn long day.
So despite a minor misunderstanding as to the existence of Eiffel Tower fireworks, it was an excellent trip. But while it may sound impressive to say we spent New Year’s Eve in Paris, probably an overnight visit to the Rose Parade was equally interesting. And easier. And less expensive. And closer to home. AND NO JET LAG!
Oh, and we discovered Barcelona. Need to go back there……