This past weekend we did a quick weekend getaway to Paris with the main item on the agenda being to attend the French Open. A trip of this type would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity if traveling from the States, but this was just an easy weekend getaway for us. We really love taking advantage of the travel opportunities while being over here in the UK, and this time we tried out one mode of transportation that we haven’t used yet: the Eurostar. If you are not familiar, the Eurostar is a train that takes you under the English channel, directly from St. Pancras in London to Gare du Nord in Paris. You are from city centre to city centre in 2 hours. Doug and I have now tried out all the practical ways of crossing the English channel. We flew over when we went to Paris last year, we ferried over when traveling to Normandy, and we drove under when headed to Belgium. Now, we’ve taken the train, and I can honestly say that it is the best way to go. It was fast, comfortable, and relatively inexpensive. We found return tickets for £64/person and that barely cost more than our train from Derby to London! Unlike the airport, you don’t have to get there crazy early, you just have to check in 30 minutes before your departure. Additionally, although you have to go through security checks, they don’t force you to take your laptop out of your bag, take your shoes off, or even throw away your liquids. Much easier and more civilized than going through airport security. Finally, you don’t have to contend with the RyanAir or EasyJet bag checkers who are looking to shame you with their cardboard boxes that must fit over your one allowed piece of carry-on luggage. Instead, you can bring whatever luggage you like, and don’t have to cram your purse inside your other luggage. Imagine the luxury!
The train was very comfortable and spacious, and we could store our bags right above our heads without having to fight for overhead bin space. There were seat back pockets, large tray tables, foot rests, and plugs. All of these things made it far better than a RyanAir flight. Additionally, the ride was very smooth, even though we were traveling very fast at speeds up to 186 mph. The only time I felt some discomfort was in my ears when we went through tunnels because of the pressure change. No matter, I used my scuba diving clearing techniques to equalize.
One more great thing about the Eurostar is that you go through passport control and effectively cross the French Border (or UK border if going the other way) before you even board the train. That way, once you arrive in Paris (or London), you can just get off the train and be on your way. No waiting in lines to go through passport control or anything like that. Super easy and convenient. Doug and I both agree that the Eurostar is the easiest, most stress-free way to traverse the English channel.
Anyway, enough about the Eurostar. Let’s talk about Roland Garros. As most of you probably know, Roland Garros is where the French Open is played, which is one of the four major Grand Slams of tennis. Last year I was lucky enough to attend Wimbledon, arguably the most prestigious of all the Grand Slams. The French Open is played on clay courts, while Wimbledon is played on grass. The other two Grand Slams, the US Open and the Australian Open, are both played on hard court, even though the two surfaces have slight differences.
Doug and I were able to buy tickets to the French Open directly online by signing onto the website the day the tickets went on sale. Although we waited in an online queue for multiple hours, we were able to get tickets to the women’s singles finals and the men’s doubles finals, both events taking place on Saturday, June 8th. Obviously at the time of the purchase we had no idea who would be playing in the finals, but it didn’t matter to us (me). We(I) just wanted to experience Roland Garros!
After arriving in Paris, we had to take a couple metro lines to reach the flat we were staying at because it was slightly outside the city, just two blocks away from the Roland Garros stadium. Wow, the metro line was packed. Completely opposite to our peaceful Eurostar journey.
We found the flat on a website called Airbnb, which is where people can rent out their houses, flats, rooms, or even couches. This was the first time we’ve used Airbnb and it turned out great. The flat was spacious, and the owner met us there on Friday night to hand over the keys and show us the place. It was nice to have our own full apartment with a bedroom, kitchen, dining room, and living room, instead of just a tiny hotel room. We even had a balcony that had a view of the Eiffel tower! I also liked that we were staying in a real, Parisian neighborhood, and not a touristy area. It felt like we were locals, at least until we tried to speak French to anyone. Although we studied French pretty hard for our last trip to the French Riviera and Provence, we haven’t kept up with the studying, so it was a struggle to remember what we used to know. We managed well enough, and at least people were more friendly with us when they could see that we were at least making the attempt to speak French. Most of the time after a few words, they would just switch to English. That evening we walked around the neighborhood and had some drinks and dinner at a local cafe with a nice patio.
Saturday was dedicated to the French Open. Although the finals matches didn’t start until 3 o’clock, the gates opened at 10:30am. We contemplated trying to see other Paris sites that morning, but figured by the time we took the metro into town, we would be fighting the crowds to get back out to Roland Garros. It would be better to capitalize on our awesome location just two blocks away from the stadium and not fight the crowds that would be on the public transportation. So we had a leisurely morning where we got to sleep in, and then go to the local supermarket and butcher. We picked up some ingredients for a nice breakfast, and also some picnic ingredients for lunch so that we wouldn’t be subjected to the high food prices that were bound to happen inside the stadium.
Roland Garros was even bigger than I imagined. The grounds and courts seemed to sprawl out everywhere. The main stadium court, Philippe-Chatrier, is impressive, but even the other courts have massive stadium seating as well. We spent the whole morning exploring all the grounds, that is, except for the places we couldn’t get in. There were all these exclusive-access, private clubs that were either in below ground-level terraces or hidden behind walls of shrubbery. Peaking in these exclusive clubs gave way to a world of luxury and free-flowing booze. Meanwhile, the hoi polloi were left to wait in an hour-long queue at the one stand that sold beer and cocktails. I don’t know what you have to do to get into one of those private clubs, but Doug and I were definitely envious. We were proud of ourselves for finding a hidden water fountain at the back of the grounds where we could frequently (and freely) refill our water bottles. We asked one of the security guards at the entrance to a private terrace how you got to go in there and he informed us that you needed a wrist band. Well, how do you get a wrist band? You have to be invited. Oh well, maybe some day!
They had some Perrier Legends trophy matches going on, including a doubles match that featured Martini Hingis and Lindsay Davenport versus Martini Navratilova and Elena Dementieva. Wow, I grew up watching these women (well minus Navratilova since she was before my time). I really enjoyed watching the women play, and they still seem to be in great shape. Could kick my butt any day. Davenport/Hingis ended up winning that match 6-4, 6-2 and winning that trophy.
They also had a museum on the grounds, so we had to check that out. I actually really enjoyed the museum and thought it was pretty interesting. They had a hall of fame wall with all the past French Open champions. A lot about the history of tennis, and how the game has evolved, which I liked. A little too much about French tennis history, but that is probably to be expected. And also some parts about the life of Roland Garros.
Fun fact: Roland Garros was a pioneer in aviation and was the first person to fly across the Mediterranean.
We also checked out another building full of tech stuff. They had black light tennis, tennis video games, and even an A380 flight simulator.
The grounds were starting to get pretty crowded as it was nearing the 3pm start time, so we headed to our seats, after some souvenir shopping.
As we made our way to our seats, we kept going up, and up, and up. We realized that we were literally in the last row of the stadium. Although this might seem bad, it actually turned out to be great. It was turning into a quite warm day, and the last row of the stadium actually got a nice breeze through the cutouts of the concrete wall behind us. Additionally, we could stand up and look over the concrete wall to get a view of the Eiffel tower! Finally, we could stand up as much as we liked throughout the match without blocking the view of anyone behind us. I actually think the last row was way better than say, being 5 rows from the last row.
And pretty soon the women’s finals match was off to a start!!
The match was really competitive and entertaining throughout. Even from the back row of the stadium, we could clearly hear Sharapova’s shrieks as she hit the ball. And we could also see how dominant Serena was. It seemed as if she could just take it up a notch whenever she felt the urge and just hit the crap out of the ball. Serena ended up winning the match 6-4, 6-4, and I don’t think anyone was surprised.
Up next was the men’s doubles finals between the Bryan brothers and two Frenchmen, Llodra and Mahut. I was surprised to see that probably half of the stadium left for this match. I really thought that since it was two French guys in the finals that the stadium would be packed, especially since there were no other French people in any of the finals. What was really disappointing was that the boxes and closer tiers of seats were the areas that were the most empty. The majority of the fans were the ones in the upper decks. Oh well, the people who stayed were true supporters, and there was a lot of cheering for the French going on. That meant that we had to cheer extra loud for the American Bryan brothers! And it was an epic match. The doubles action was so fast and there were tons of amazing shots. At the end, it went down to a 3rd set tie-breaker, so the match really could have gone either way. But the Bryan brothers came out victorious, with a final score of 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(4).
As the match ended, some dark storm clouds were rolling in. We hustled back to our flat and were really happy to not have to fight the crowds of people getting on the metro. We made it home just before the rain started.
On Sunday, we didn’t have tickets to the men’s final, and our train back to London was at 4:30pm. We decided to do some sightseeing that we had missed on our previous trip to Paris. The plan was to do a Rick Steves audio guide walking tour that hit Notre Dame and some other sites. It would be about a 3 mile walking tour, so we decided to drop our luggage at the train station before doing the tour. We didn’t want to leave it at our flat b/c it would take over an hour to journey back out that way to pick up our stuff before our train.
However, when we arrived at the luggage storage area of the train station, we were met with a really long queue. After waiting in the queue for 10 minutes and only moving forward one person, we realized that we would spend the majority of our day waiting in the queue and have no time to sightsee. Plus, we would have to wait in the queue again in order to retrieve our luggage. So we made the tough decision to carry our bags with us. Now this is when the luggage freedom of the Eurostar came back to bite us. We had definitely overpacked for a weekend trip, but mainly because we could. We actually had the option to bring whatever we wanted, so that’s what we had done. We had brought the laptop (normally just bring the iPad), and also bought some extra souvenirs at Roland Garros. And now we were going to have to carry everything on our tour through the city.
The Rick Steves walking tour had us starting at Notre Dame. I was excited to see this church b/c I felt like it was the one big touristy site that we hadn’t seen on our last trip. It was a very beautiful Gothic church, with free entry! Although the line to get in was very long, it moved super quick and we were inside in 10 minutes. The cathedral reminded me of the York Minster because of its Gothic style. It’s more famous than York, but that’s probably just because of the hunchback.
The next stop on our tour was the Deportation Memorial, which is a memorial to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps. If it weren’t for Rick Steves guiding us, we would have never found this place because it’s actually below ground level and we didn’t see any signs pointing the way to it. As you go below ground level, it’s almost as if you become a prisoner yourself, inside these concrete walls. There is a small passage way that takes you to a hallway with 200,000 crystal lights, each one representing a victim who got deported. It was a pretty interesting and free memorial, so I would recommend stopping in if you are already in the vicinity visiting Notre Dame.
The tour took us to the left bank of the river, which is more laid-back than the right bank, with smaller, medieval streets, and second-hand bookshops. In one of the little parks, I spotted a bride, even though it was a Sunday!
We walked through the Latin quarter, which had tons of ethnic restaurants, and then to St. Michel boulevard which had tons of cafes and felt very artsy.
The walk also took us by Saint-Chapelle church and the Conciergerie (where prisoners were held before going to the guillotine), but we didn’t have time to go inside as we needed to make our way back to the train station. Overall, it was a good day of sightseeing, despite having to carry our bags around. The weather was pretty dreary, but at least it didn’t do more than sprinkle on us.
We enjoyed the Eurostar ride back to England, complete with wine and a picnic dinner.
Well thanks for listening to all my tennis talk. I loved getting to go to the French Open and guess what?!? You’ll get some more tennis blog posts because I’ll be headed back to Wimbledon in a fortnight!