25th June. If you want to go to Paris, the first thing you have to do is get there. After dropping off the car, which has given good service around England, and taken the hour long ride from Heathrow airport in the underground we now find ourselves sitting in the smartly adorned St Pancras station in central London, the starting point of the Eurostar.
We are very early. We allowed for all those little things which might delay us but none of them actually happened! We have set up camp at a cafe and are managing to make our meal last for the couple of hours we need, including space to wander a bit.
Then it’s into the inevitable security check; a quick stamp of the passports by an entirely disinterested passport stamper; another short wait in the departure lounge, watched by the man with the sub machine gun at the ready as he strolled around, and here we are getting on the train. Exciting really. We wanted train journeys and here is a train journey. Inevitably (there must be some law of nature involved here), our seat is at the far end of the very long train, but having deposited our heavy suitcases in the baggage compartment we are sitting in our comfortable seats and the train is moving slowly out of the station.
It is quiet and as we gather speed and pass out into the countryside of Kent, the only discomforts are the changes in air pressure as we go through tunnels. My ears alternately pop and go quiet. There are a number of tunnels on the route and as we chatter away, one of them seems a bit longer than the others. Before we know it, here we are in France. All so matter of fact … I think I was expecting neon signs saying “CHANNEL TUNNEL AHEAD – WATCH FOR LEAKS”, but I think it is already taken for granted. The only change is that the announcements are now first in english-accented french and then in english.
France is flat and the familiar hedges of England are gone. Crops stretch into the distance; barley, wheat, maize and the yellow blankets of canola that we know from Australia. No. Wait a minute … not canola but sunflowers! How beautiful. I haven’t seen sunflowers like this since travelling through Spain in the seventies. They stand in ranks all facing the sun, row after row after row as we speed past.
The train sings. Gone are the familiar clickety clacks of the old trains, but each long section of rail has it’s own note as we speed onwards. I image that someone with a musical ear would be saying … ah … a b flat, or there’s a d sharp.
There are windmills in numbers, sometimes individual and sometimes in rows of a dozen or more. I love the windmills and what they represent, although the nay-sayers always come back with “the electricity they produce is too expensive”. But, I respond, electricity should be expensive, and would be more expensive if the large coal miners and power stations didn’t get their mates’ subsidies and weren’t allowed to pollute the air we breath. And then they say “that’s why we should go nuclear” and I say, ‘remember Three Mile Island, Chernobil and Fukushima!’ Hey ho …hot topic that one. Fiddling while Rome burns maybe!
After two hours or so we are entering the outskirts of Paris and it is not long before we find out the advantages of being in the last coach on the train … it is the first coach into the Gare du Nord. Before we know it we are on the streets of Paris with our heavy suitcases trailing behind us clickedy clacking over the cobble stones.
This part of “the grand plan” has worked and just across the street the New Hotel, Gare du Nord, proclaims itself with a large sign. The man at the reception is young, good looking and very friendly. He speaks fluent english but with a smile, humours me in my first attempts at french. The lift stops and opens half way between floors leaving some stairs still to climb; a strange arrangement; a sort of afterthought somehow. Our room is small and expensive, but I guess that’s Paris for you. As we are to discover, it is in an ideal position for sightseeing and is surrounded by relatively cheap cafes. It is in one of these that we sit waiting for our first meal in France and contemplate the fact of being here. A glass of red wine for Jacqui and a glass of San Peregrino mineral water for me and the sound of french being spoken all around us.
We have pre-purchased a two day Paris Museum Pass. This is not really so that we can go to every museum on the list, but more so that we don’t have to stand in the queues which we are told are long. Our first stop was to have been the Louvre but on arriving at the appropriate metro station, we find it is closed for repairs and so instead, emerge from Pont Neuf station into the sunshine. Before us the river Seine shines and the bridge across to the Ile de la Cite, home of the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, is just here. So that is where we start.
Well …except for a small glitch. We are at the Consiegerie, just round the corner from Notre Dame and decide to pop in to this museum since it’s on our list. I reach in my pocket for my pass and … it’s not there! It’s back to the hotel for me. An hour later I am back with the waiting Jacqui with a red face. It was in the other pocket all the time. A senior’s moment methinks!
On to the magnificent Cathedral. As with most Cathedrals, the moment one enters, one’s eyes are drawn upwards to the magnificent vaulted arches and stained glass windows. It is crowded inside but hushed. There is a service going on. We wander for an hour before returning to the sunshine of the large square outside.
We have our first Croque-Monsieur (cheese toasty by another name) in a small cafe off the Place du Chatalet where the Goddess Victory looks down upon Boizot’s figures of Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Strength.
There are beggars in Paris. If you are on the front row in a cafe, people walk straight up to you and ask for money. They sit on the stairs of the metro, paper cups held out, or on the street. There are also scams. While sitting waiting for me, Jacqui was distracted by a young girl, clipboard in hand, asking for support for deaf people. It is a ruse to distract you while someone else picks your pocket. In this case Jacqui was rescued by four tall black women, who made life uncomfortable for the girl as she scurried away.
From there we walk the short distance to the amazing Centre Pompidou. I think it was really daring of the french to put this ultra modern building in the middle of traditional Paris architecture. The giant plastic tube that climbs the outside of the six story building proclaims it as modern for modern art. It was built as the result of a competition back in 1971 and although it received lots of criticism while it was being built, it soon became a standout success and has remained so ever since.
Once again, we have skipped the queue with our pass, and have set our sights on Matisse on the fifth floor. Of course we can’t resist going to the top to admire the incredible view across Paris. The rooftops of Paris are unhindered by newer buildings and are obviously lived in with their rooftop gardens and balconies full of flowers.
We find the Matisse collection and and admire the simple beauty of his work and then wander around the galleries on that floor among the paintings and sculptures before returning down the plastic tube to the huge open area outside, le Place Beaubourg, where a few artisans are showing their wares in the warm afternoon sun. This square is used for all sorts of cultural events and, with it’s slope, provides a natural amphitheatre.
Paris appears to be for the people. People live here; they eat here in the many cafes; they walk along the wide pavements, wide enough to include a cycleway in many cases; they rest or chat on the numerous benches shaded by street trees; they admire the street art and sculptures that abound. Even the traffic, while plentiful, is not accompanied by the constant blowing horns (contrary to some reports). Large motor scooters are very popular and easy to park. Pedestrians cross the road whether the little man is green or red and the motorists accommodate. We like it here!
Another day and time for the Louvre. More confident this time, we set off and are now looking at the back of the magnificent building that is the Palais Royal Musee du Louvre. Through the centre archway we enter the first huge courtyard; fountain playing in it’s centre; groups of school children gathered around their teachers. Through the next archway is a glimpse of the other modern addition to old Paris, La Pyramide, recently the star of the Dan Brown novel (and movie) the De Vinci Code. The lines of sculptured figures look down from the palace at the two glass pyramids that have crystalised in their midst. Interestingly the top line of statues, the highest, are nearly all women; the men don’t get a look in until the second or third row. The very highest women have wings as if to fly away into the perfect clouds above. Many of the sculptures are lightly clothed, a theme that runs through numerous artworks in this great museum.
The queue was very long, and there was a small sense of satisfaction in walking past it and straight down the steps inside the glass pyramid. The buzzing sound of voices from the crowds of people greeted us. The queue for the ticket office was longer than the queue to get in, so once again we are happy to go straight into the galleries. We start towards the Mona Lisa, one of the stars of this show, following the small images pointing the way. The first gallery is full of amazing sculpture mainly from Rome and Greece. Jacqui’s eyes soon glaze over in delight as she wanders around, camera in hand; a smile on her face. We agree that neither of us should leave a gallery without the other, thus we are free to wander as we will. Finding each other if parted could be a nightmare. The following pictures speak for themselves.
The next gallery starts with a Bottichelli or two and goes on from there. The galleries are very crowded as we move towards the Mona Lisa and when we turn into the actual gallery we can see the Mona Lisa on the far wall, just visible over the heads of the excited gathering.
We shuffle our way forwards until we stand before this surprisingly small masterpiece. She smiles as a greeting and seems to nod contentedly while surveying her admiring audience.
It has taken us more than an hour to get this far and so we agree to simply retrace our steps. There are lots of things to see on the way back and after another hour we are outside in the sunshine once more. It would take weeks to explore the Louvre thoroughly … what an amazing place!
From where we stand, we can see the Arc de Triumph in the distance. The column of the Obélisque de Louxor, standing in the centre of the Place de la Concorde stands directly in line with it. Shall we walk or take the Metro? Will Jacqui’s back stand up after our time in the Louvre? As we talk we begin to walk and so that seems to be what’s happening; we are strolling through the Jardin des Tuilleries with lots of others, walking or sitting in one of the many green chairs, who are admiring the gardens and sculptures, as we are.
Around the small lake and on to the Place de la Concorde where cranes are in place setting up the stands for the presentation to the winner of this years Tour de France. As we enter the very grand Avenue du Champs Elysees, I look at the road and once again wonder at the competitors in Le Tour. 3500 km and three weeks peddling and then they go up and down this famous avenue on cobble stones of all things!
Finally we reach the top end of the Avenue and having window shopped our way past some of the the most expensive real estate in the world, stand before the Arc de Triumph. Under the roadway, past another long ticket queue (getting smug now) and into the small dark entrance. A steep, narrow spiral staircase confronts us. Other people enter behind and so there is no way to turn back. It is dark and very enclosed, with few places to rest and has caught us by surprise. 284 steps later we arrive at the top panting and hot. A few more steps and then we are literally on top of Paris. The three hundred and sixty degree view is amazing and all the landmarks are there. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur,the Louvre and so on.
The modern layout of Paris began with Napoleon III and his appointed architect, Georges-Eugène Haussmann who, beginning in 1854, completely remodelled the centre of Paris with not only symmetrical avenues and buildings, but with extensive new water supplies and sewerage systems. Medieval Paris, rife with disease, was finally gone. The influence of his designs spread to many cities throughout Europe.
We had started the day with the idea that we should go out in the morning, back to the hotel for a mid-day rest, and then go out again in the afternoon. It is already late afternoon as we climb the stairs to our room. No mid-day rest for us. Out once again for our last destination, the Basilique de Sacre-Coeur located at the highest point of the city in Montmartre. We climb the steps accompanied by spots of rain and walk into the Basilica and past the “No Photographs” sign.
There is a single attendant whose only interest is in stamping out this modern practice. He has no hope. As he hurries from one side of the church to the other, tapping on people’s shoulders and tut-tuting, on the opposite side shutters click away, including my own. I light a two euro candle for my sin, and hope that I will be forgiven.
Emerging once more the sun has come out and the rooftops of Paris glow before us. In the narrow streets of Montmartre we sit in a cafe, eat a savoury gallette (french pancake) while digesting our experience of Paris.
We have really enjoyed our visit here and maybe one day will return. As we wearily climb the steps of the hotel to our room after two busy tourist days, we contemplate tomorrow and a train journey across France to La Rochelle in the pride of their fleet, the TGV.
But that is for another day.
PS For Jacqui’s latest thoughts go HERE