A long-standing wrong has at last been righted! I finally managed to take my wife to Paris for a weekend of sightseeing, dining and shopping and in so doing silenced some tut-tutting in our immediate entourage.
I had, in fact, been to Paris quite a lot myself in the last 10 years. First with my son - to see a "Nu-Metal" band we particular liked, Slipknot, at the Zenith and once at the Parc de Prince - and then several times in the last 4 years "in Transit" with my wife from the Gare de Lyon to the Orly, Charles de Gaulle airport, on our way to Kyrgyzstan.
I have to say I don't really count these "Transit" trips as visits to Paris because they occurred solely because the French SNCF rail workers decided to strike, leaving my wife, myself and millions of others fuming but obliged to adapt, and adapt we did but with an ever-growing resentment at the petit-minded, short-sightedness of small fraction with one of the most advantageous social protection structures in France. That they want more is understandable but not to the expense of the rest who don't have any choice!
So be it! My wife and I stoically battled our way across Paris by metro and RER, up stairs and down escalator in a brave effort to get to the airport before our flight check-in closed,the glimpses of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica as we trundled past in the crowded RER train serving only to whet my wife's wish to come to Paris and finally - for the first time since we've been married and at a more sedate pace - actually get to see all the monuments she had only ever seen in films and magazines.
As for me, well I said I had been quite a lot in the last 10 years but this was to be my first real stay in Paris since I was about 14 when I visited my brother working then, at the time, in the Hotel Westminster, Rue de la Paris. Tempus fugit! I have spent approximately 30 years in France and never once had it occurred to me - or motivated me sufficiently as it has done just recently - to visit Paris again for a "visit of the monuments" holiday. To be honest, that's not strictly true but as I like to say, paraphrasing John Lennon, "Life is what you are living while you are busy making plans", so I promised myself .and my wife, to make a "Wishlist" of things to do and do them.
...But there we were, one minute taking our place aboard the double-decker TGV in Grenoble station and then, a little more than 3 hours later, alighting at Paris, Gare de Lyon station.
Once off the TGV train, and into the depths of the Paris metro system, we made our way North, North West to Montmartre, the Rue Jules Joffrin and our hotel, which we had chosen for its proximity to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica at the top of the Montmartre hill with its Place de Tertre and vineyards.
The Hotel, and Hotels in General
As I said we chose the hotel,the Jardin de Paris Montmartre, for its proximity to Montmartre, and globally we were happy with the choice, but it was a toss of the coin choice between there and another hotel I fancied, Place d'Italie, south of the river Seine and near the Notre Dame Cathedral. I had spent a fair bit of time looking through the travel site I booked the trip and hotel through, but won't name, for a suitable hotel within easy or quite easy reach of Paris' more famous monuments, i.e. 20-30 minutes by metro.
To be honest, the hotel was correct, a two star without restaurant and little pretension, other than to serve as a respectable camp base for sleeping and breakfasting with not much else expected of it, except for a bathroom of normal dimensions. If I have something negative to say about the hotel its to say that the bathroom was even smaller than some I had seen in Japan. OK those who know me would say "lose 10 lb and try again" but it was so small that even my wife, who is small, had difficulty moving around in it. Also, we got twin beds instead of the double bed I asked for, but... but apart from that the room was clean, bath towels were changed and there was ample toilet paper.
At this point, I have to explain that I spent over 20 years in the hotel trade, in four European countries, and in spite of time, some reflexes never really die and I still find myself idly looking in corners and under shelves for small signs about the quality of the hotel that might not be apparent to other guests. Small signs such as the chambermaids leaving laundry baskets in the middle of narrow corridors or noting the time it took the breakfast waitress to refill the 10€/pers breakfast buffet. Incidentally, the breakfast buffet was only copious because I filled the plates several times, to get the most for 10€ and to eat enough to see us through until lunch. But like I said the hotel has little pretension other than to fill a niche in the Parisian hotel market, that of offering low-budget rate rooms, ±100€ the night without breakfast, for weekend visitors such as my wife and I. As far as we were concerned, this was exactly what we wanted and what we got. A room for the weekend, no frills, for ±100€.
NB. I’ll spare any serious criticism for more pretentious hotels, such as some three star hotels I know where you pay for name of the chain and not much else. This isn't just the ex-hotel employee speaking but also the person who, barring some of the more exotic palace hotels, has had the relative good luck and chance to see a fair choice of hotels around the world.
Yes, globally we were satisfied with the hotel. It was nothing exceptional, nothing to write more about but then you get what you pay for and for a weekend in Paris and in my opinion the hotel was correct.
But on to the reason for us being in Paris. During my previous stay in Paris, when I was 14, my brother took me to see the major monuments: the Sacré-Cœur, Notre Dame, The Arc de Triomphe, up the Eiffel Tour and down the Champs Elysee and around the Louvre...I also got to see the ladies of Little Virtue, on the corner of the Rue de la Paix and the Rue Danou, famous for its "Harry's New York Bar", but only from the window of my brother's room! I can't remember exactly when my previous trip to Paris actually took place and its funny how certain memories stick in your mind, like the working ladies of the Rue Danou, the almost still freshly painted "CRS = SS" slogans on the walls, the "oeufs au plat" I had for breakfast and most importantly, learning to play darts in the 10 Gallons bar near the Olympia Theatre. Having missed taking any photos of my cruise on the SS Uganda I decided that I would start taking photos of all my trips, starting with Paris then my school trips to Austria in 1971 and Switzerland in 1972. Alas, little remain of these trips and none of my trip to Paris so this time I was determined to take photos of the monuments and this time keep them for posterity.
On a Riverboat
Talking of boats one thing I didn't do on my previous trip to Paris was to go for a ride on a riverboat on the Seine so when I booked our trip I included a trip on the river, but more than a simple trip it was a dinner trip, which upon booking I realized was for the Friday evening 6.30PM and we were traveling Friday Lunchtime. So, being more anxious than conscientious I double checked the train time to get to Paris in time, cross Paris, get to the hotel, check in, unpack, freshen up, leave the hotel and catch a metro, which three changes later was to bring us to the Quay of the River Seine and the awaiting boat.
I pride myself on my management skills and sense of organization but as soon as we stepped out of the hotel, that Friday evening, I knew we had made a mistake. It was raining slightly and while we had packed an umbrella, we had left it at the hotel and in view of the time decided not to go back for it, a mistake we were to pay for later. We got to the metro station Bir Hakeim no trouble and stepped out... into a downpour of rain. Again we played down the stress and the discomfort by telling ourselves that the riverboat was on the riverside, just across from the metro. Mistake! It wasn't, so delving into my Crombie overcoat I fished out the papers explaining the programme, hoping to find directions, a map, orientation, anything that would tell us where the boat was, but nothing. Looking at my wife, her splendid blond hair starting to sag in the rain I knew time was running out, not only before the boat was due to move off, but before my wife's patience ran out!
Off we set along the riverside working our way along the quay, boat by boat, here "Maxim's", there another restaurant boat and still no sign of our's so finally after sheltering under a bridge an instant we stoically moved off,running to the first likely point of information, finally to find our host boat, which, refusing to see any ill-omen, was the last in the line! So, after about 2 kilometres of slip-sliding in our chic shoes and clothes, hastily glancing up at the Eiffel tower looming over us as we made our way, there we were at our boat and after suitably presenting our boarding passes and shedding our rain-soaked coats,looking like shaggy dogs we finally embarked on what was very definitely an evening to remember.
The meal, wine and coffee included in the price of the trip was actually quite nice and a good bargain for ± 50€ a head and soon we found ourselves relaxing and enjoying the food and the scenery as the river boat chugged its way between the Place de la Concorde and the Palais de Luxembourg, past the "Samaritain" - the archetypal "Grand magasin par excellence"- and Notre Dame before turning around to navigate down river to the miniature version of the Statue of Liberty before turning again and returning to berth.
All in all and given the circumstances, plus the rain, so far it was a nice night but as we stepped off the boat, mellowed by the good food and a nice bottle of Chardonnay, the night transformed into a night we will never forget. When we finally stepped off the boat and stared up at the Eiffel Tower the emotion flowed over us, my wife almost in tears marveling at the fairy spectacle of the lights flickering up and down the sides of the Eiffel tower, as if they were chasing each other, and the searchlight beam on top of the tower piercing the low hanging rain clouds with each rotation.
Watch your Purses!
And so it was, after having immortalized the moment and with the rain still pouring down, my wife now sheltering herself under a souvenir bag we had been given, we headed back to the Bir Hakeim metro station where, along the way and thanks to her sharp wits, she avoided getting robbed. In the rain we were huddling together when all of a sudden she let out a shrill and shouted "Look, there's a hand!" and so there was, spinning round we saw 3 young Albanians or whatever they were, almost as shocked as my wife was, stepping back and looking like they wanted to run away as fast as they could. I'm not sure if it was my wife's cry or the sight of me spinning round to face and charge them they made off into the night to try their luck else elsewhere along the mass packed, rain-soaked pavement.
And us? With the adrenaline kicking in we laughed off the incident resolved that nothing could now spoil an enchanting evening or weekend.
We also laughed at the irony. When in Kyrgyzstan my wife is forever saying "Mind your pockets", and indeed I have had some close encounters and in return, a little mockingly as if to say "Anything you can do, I can do better", I tell her the same happens in France. This night proved me right.
Still mellow from the nice meal and enchanted by the sight of the lights of the Eiffel tower from so close up, we shrugged off the incident and stepped into the souvenir shop near the metro station where you can buy the same souvenirs as at the Eiffel tower for less the price.
Having bought a much-wanted silver souvenir spoon of Paris (we collect them) we caught the metro back to the hotel where some 30 minutes later we collapsed into bed mulling over the evening and deciding that really this family never does anything the way it normally should be done. Something always happens to make our trips to remember and while most of the experiences don't/won't find their way into this Albatross133 site I felt this one should.
Saturday morning dawned and after a fitful night, then a restoring breakfast amid a small crowd of young Russian school girls on a cultural trip, off we set on a marathon of a day that was to take up us the hill to the Sacre Coeur, then across town to the Arc de Triomphe, lunch and some window shopping on the Champs Elysee, then over to Notre Dame, followed by the Eiffel tower, before heading back to the hotel early evening then dinner out in an Italian restaurant for a lovely meal rounded off with an Amaretto offered by the patron. A tiring, fast paced but memorable day, something to look back on with the help of quite a few photos.
"The Sacré-Cœur Basilica"
As previously mentioned, we never do anything the way it should be done! So, proud of my navigational talents - based on the ancient philosophy that if you turn, left, left, left, then left again you get back to where you started - we left the hotel and set off, on the first leg of our marathon tour, in the direction I supposed was right, ie. south and "up" to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica until we realized that we were, in fact, going down and north, away from our destination! So after turning around and labouring up the hill, past the vineyards, we finally arrived at the "Place du Tertre", at 09.30 to find it still relatively empty of tourists and the leach-like artists scamming tourists into paying for outrageously expensive portraits of little worth. After a brief halt to get our breath back we crossed the "Place" and went on to the basilica.
We'd often seen the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, through the window of the RER train on our way to Paris airport and actually visiting lived up to all our expectations. It was packed with tourists, gesticulating and speaking all kinds of imaginable languages but also for the exceptional atmosphere inside the basilica, on a par with Notre Dame - but then again, different.
After lighting the ritual candle* my wife and I set about a rapid tour inside the basilica - mixing in with the crowd all moving in the same clockwise direction, as if following some invisible current or on some invisible carousel - and then very short while later, and with the same effect of jumping off a carousel in motion, we left the Sacré-Cœur and descended the steps and headed for the metro and across town to the Arc de Triomphe.
* In every church or temple, in every country I visit - from Brentor to Bishkek, from Lourdes to Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto-Japan, I always light a candle or an incense stick... a fleeting, ephemeral thought for my father, gone long ago.)
"The Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysee"
We exited the metro system at "Etoile" - the idea was to surprise my wife with a close-up and clear view of the Arch some 100 metres away from the metro - and started the 02nd leg of our Marathon tour... The Champs Elysée! I think everyone must know or have seen the Champs Elysée, either on TV or in a film! I see it almost every year at the end of the "Tour de France" but to actually walk down the avenue on foot is a long and unsuspectingly exhausting exercise. Firstly, the avenue is long, very long but contrary to other major shopping avenues, e.g. Oxford Circus/Regent Street in London, a long walk as well, especially if you add a detour through Selfridges, etc. you can actually see the Champs Elysée from one end to the other.
From Etoile to the Place de la Concorde the view is unbroken, whereas with Oxford Street and Regent Street in London it's impossible to see the end of it. So off we set on our tour, down the sunny side of the avenue, where all the prestigious shops are: Virgin, H&M, Gap, Promod, Peugeot... Fortunately, there are some really nice shops and I made a point of taking my wife into Guerlain. How to explain the inside of the Guerlain shop? A sensorial overload for delicate olfactive systems! My senses overloaded very quickly after smelling Shalimar and Guerlain for men in all their shapes and forms and I felt fine pearls of perspiration budding on my forehead as I looked at the prices, I thought Airport Duty-free shops were expensive. I kid! Soon after, in one rather stylish Arcade, it was the turn of my wife to be amazed on seeing a pair of shoes at 1000€ and another, on sale, for just 600€, a real bargain.
Lunchtime saw us enjoying a well-earned, nice-ish lunch in a relatively well-known Franchise chain restaurant of Roman, as in Italian, orientation. Restored we set off to tackle the 02nd half of the avenue before calling a halt in front of the Franklin Roosevelt metro station, where we sat a moment, as much to rest aching calf muscles as to contemplate the, now slightly nearer, Obelisk of the Place de La Concorde. We decided that would have to be for another day and headed down into the metro for the 03rd leg of our Marathon tour: "Notre Dame.
Exiting the metro at the station "Cité" brings you out in front of the Prefecture de Police and if you follow the signposts, faithfully, you will end up in front of Notre Dame. We, however, took a detour, ok a wrong turn, and visited the Tour St Jacques, which I later learnt is the starting point of the Catholic "Way of St James" pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (St Jacques de Compestelle as it is known in French, hence the tower to St Jacques),in Spain*. But the clock was ticking and we still one important rendezvous afterwards so off we headed, back across the Pont Notre Dame to the Parvis and into the crowds lining up to end the Cathedral.
* Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the Northwestern Spanish region of Galicia
Once inside the Cathedral, and contrary to the Basilica Sacré-Cœur, the flow of the visitors went anti-clockwise ...I wonder who decided that? Do they alternate the circulation?Gyrating from left around to the right, admiring statues here and crucifixes there, the mass of tourists advance and when the mass in front of you stops you simply have to stop as well or elbow past, which, ordinarily plain rude, in a place of worship is inappropriate and irreverent, in other words... pure bad manners and a total lack of respect for the surroundings - "Philistines in the temple" is the term that comes to mind.
There was no lack of elbowing and shoving among the rotating multi-lingual mass of tourists in front, behind and beside us and I think it was a growing feeling of claustrophobia and lassitude of the rotating mass that made me opt out and sit down in an aisle an instant and contemplate a painting high above us on the ceiling. It allowed my wife and myself, as well as a decent score of other apparently like-minded people, to really absorb the true atmosphere of the place, to respire something long gone but still lingering to those looking for something a little more meaningful, above and beyond the superficiality of a 15 minute tour of the cathedral with a stop in the souvenir shop before leaving.
And so, with our spiritual batteries recharged we left Notre Dame and headed to the metro and made our way across town to the Trocadero metro station.
"Le Trocadero and the Eiffel Tower"
I think one of the most renowned, but infamous, images of the Eiffel tower seen from the Trocadero is that of Hitler with his minions, June 1940, admiring the scenery and ever since the sense of controversy and provocation resides. In is current form, rebuilt in 1937 for the International expo, the Palais de Chaillot - or Trocadero as it is more commonly known - is the stage for manifestations and demonstrations of all kinds and the day we were there was no exception, hosting a rally in protest against the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The Trocadero also has its lot of peddlers and pickpockets, dancers, acrobats and artists all trying to get your attention or your money, one way or another.
The path to the stairs leading down the small hill through the gardens, past the basins and the fountains, to the river, is a real assault course, dodging the Senegalese and Bangla Deshi vying to sell their imitation statues of the Eiffel tower or fake Hermes scarves (and umbrellas, if it's raining) and side stepping the skateboarders and cyclists, honing your senses for the ultimate test, that of crossing the Avenue de New York, connecting with 2 other major arteries, and then the Quai Branly to get to the Eiffel Tower.
When reaching the Eiffel tower one final ordeal faces the intrepid tourist, that of waiting 1 hour to buy the tickets, then cram into the lifts that will shoot you up the ±115 metres to the 02nd level, then for the stoic willing to wait a further 45 minutes it may take before the lifts then elevate the hardy tourist up to the top-level, a further ±130 metres higher up. On the day we went the top of the tower was shrouded in cloud so it wasn't through lack stoicism or hardiness that we decided not go all the way up to the top, but pure common sense and zero wish to wait 45 minutes for nothing! Contenting ourselves to some photos for the Album, and a pause-pipi, some thirty minutes later found us gliding down the side of the North Pillar to the ground.
Out of the lift and out from under the skirts of the "Grande Dame" we'd had enough...yet another sensorial overload: Too many people, too impatient to go up, too impatient to go into the souvenir shop and then impatient to go down and get out, why the stress? As for us we took a look in the souvenir shop up the tower and were honestly disappointed by the choice, variety, quantity and above all the price of the goods for sale in 2 shops in the tower and opted for a 02nd visit to the souvenir shop by the Bir Hakeim metro station, stopping on the way in the Japanese Cultural centre on Quai Branly for a minute of Zen, remember I said we never do the expected? But I must say the 5 minutes of Zen in the Japanese Cultural centre's shop was a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the Eiffel Tower.
And so ended our marathon tour of Paris and Sacré-Cœur, L' Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysee, Notre Dame, the Trocadéro and the Eiffel Tower... but the day still had a little to offer that included a nice meal in a small Italian Restaurant near our Hotel.
Sunday dawned somewhat later than Saturday, firstly because the effort of the Saturday had left its mark, notably in our legs, then because of a nice Italian meal accompanied by a nice Italian white wine and followed by an excellent Amaretto, offered by the patron, but mostly because Sunday's agenda was exclusively given over to a visit to the Louvre (on the tracks of Robert Langdon) following which we would leisurely head over to the Gare de Lyon for our trip back to Grenoble.
But first breakfast. Following in the wake of the Russian school kids who, judging by the state of the breakfast buffet, had just preceded us, breakfast was more a question of quantity than variety, amply washed down with several glasses of fruit juices and lots of steaming hot black coffee.
By 9.30am we had checked out of the Hotel and were in the metro heading for the Gare de Lyon where we planned to leave out bags in the left luggage office and head over to the Louvre. Consternation!
Arriving at the station, we learnt that due to technical problems the Station's one and only left luggage office was closed and the conscientious agent sitting behind the counter peacefully reading his newspaper, looking like he was vainly hoping that the technical problem would be resolved so he could continue diligently serving the travelers in need! OK, that's slightly sarcastic but it illustrates again another ironical example of how a country can proclaim to be a leader in Europe and neglect the simplest of essentials, such having alternatives just in case their Hi-Tech solutions breakdown, in this case, left luggage lockers. I mean it can't be a question of space, not in a station. Whatever! Plan B was to go over to the Louvre museum and pray that they had a left luggage office, which upon arrival we found to be the case.
We came out of the Palais Royal, Louvre museum metro station near the "Cour Constitutionnelle", guardian of the French constitution, guardian of French morals. Near to the Cour Constitutionnelle is the "Comedie Francaise", another pillar of French values. After briefly admiring both these institutions we decided for once to follow the signposts that let us through and archway, guarded by 2 Bangla Deshi selling bottles of water and roasted chestnuts, and into the courtyard of the Louvre with its famous pyramid of glass that so shocked the aficionados at the time of its construction.
Lining up in the serpentine queue before the entrance I was relieved to see that quite a few people actually had bags of the same size, shape and form as ours and after inquiring it transpired that the Louvre museum actually does have a left luggage office and this news revived my faith in the French civil service administration. Of course, the reason was pure commercial common sense - ie people with bags who get refused entry don't go in and spend money... so why doesn't the SNCF adopt the same attitude? Ah yes! they are a category apart in the French civil service, but I won't harp on about the French rail system here, I do it enough in my Book "Destination Bishkek". Suffice to say that I was relieved and happy that this last stage of our trip to Paris could continue without a hitch.
...And so some, after waiting a mere 10 minutes we were inside the glass Pyramid and descending the escalator to the atrium where we duly bought tickets and deposed bags. Freed of the bags and equipped with a map of the museum we, along with several hundred other people, made a beeline for the Mona Lisa. Stopping only to admire a throne of a Roman priest of Bacchus or a smile at people's growing confusion and surprise as they discovered a statue of Hermaphrodite ... "look mummy...", said the little girl "...the lady's got a ..." at which point a maternal hand lovingly covered the little girl's mouth.
Once again following the masses, the signposts were superfluous, we arrived at the room housing the famous painting and elbowing my way through the throng in front of the painting I made the most of my height to take a first photo of the Joconde. Profiting then from a free space dead centre in front of the famous lady I took a full frontal photo, several in fact - all but one proving to be fuzzy, they got deleted - before moving off and out of the room. The sensation on leaving the room could have been interpreted as one of anti-climax...all that for that and even if there were still quite a few people in front of the "Consecration of Napoleon" and several other paintings you got the impression that once people had seen the Mona Lisa most people left the Museum.
As for us, we went in search of some 19th-century impressionist paintings but apart from one or two paintings of personal interest, such as the "Temptation of Christ" by Ary Scheffer, we were quite disappointed to realize that the museum didn't display any Gauguins, Van Goghs, Cezannes or Monets. Perhaps they did but I'm afraid that 2 hours of searching among the glares and pained features of heroes, martyrs, saints, priests, nuns, mothers, gods and other beings of uncertain origin, an oppressive and claustrophobic feeling finally overcame us - another sensorial overload - so like deep sea divers breaking surface and gasping for fresh air we finally decided to cut short the visit, have lunch in the museum (expensive for a slice of Pizza and a glass of rose wine), retrieve our bags and leave.
Rue de Rivoli, Place Vendôme - Une conclusion... de luxe
Having left the Louvre Museum ahead of schedule we decided to make the most of what was turning out to be a nice sunny Sunday so heading out of the Louvre, we strolled through the Jardins des Tuileries coming out in front of the golden statue of Joan of Arc. We then strolled under the arcades of the rue de Rivoli, past palace hotels, notably the "Meurice", until we came to the corner of the Rue de Castiglione and caught sight of the column in the middle of the Place de Vendôme, standing out against a blue sky. The image of the column is one of the many sights of Paris that make it so unforgettable but the clock was ticking and feet were tiring so after a couple of photos and some window shopping we crossed back into the Jardins des Tuileries before heading out of the park at the corner with the Place de Concorde for a few last photos notably one looking back down the Rue de Rivoli to where we came from and beyond. Photos taken, we descended into the metro and headed back to the Gare de Lyon, so putting an end to our weekend in Paris.
So what to retain from the weekend? A sensorial overload? a marathon? a refresher for memories and lost photos? a crash course on how best to use to use the Paris metro system? (and why not Paris by bus next time?) A weekend for two, never to be forgotten? A foretaste of things to come? It was all that and more!
© N.Richards - 04/2011