Paris, Paris…I hate Paris (Bennet Dunne, 2000)
Paris, the city of lights, love and more history than your brain can absorb in one visit. From Notre-Dame to the Eiffel Tower and Montmarte to the River Seine, this city has some of the best landmarks and it retains its romance and elegance…regardless of how many times you visit her or for how long you are there.
So, let’s start with the easy stuff – what did we see. As we were in Paris on the first Sunday of the month, a free visit to the Musee d’Orsay was on offer. This former railway station is a wonderful art gallery on the banks of the Seine and has a superb impressionists collection. In fact, I go so far as to say that the building is as impressive as its art collection. The magnificent old façade has been retained and its internal space enhanced with an array of sculptures. We strolled through the gallery to see the usual suspects – Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec…and admire their iconic masterpieces such as the lillies, starry night and the dancers from Moulin Rouge.
Yes, we stepped up into the Eiffel Tower, literally step by step, as we walked the staircase to the second level of the Tower, a total of around 160m. A drink on level one was had to celebrate our arrival, without heart palpitations or seizures…here we enjoyed some splendid views of the city, not too high to reduce detail of the surrounds but certainly enough to behold the vistas before us. And we approached the Tower along the Trocadero, which provides a monumental vista from the terrace across the Seine and through to the gardens of the Champ-de-Mars on the other side to the Ecole Militaire.
Notre-Dame was an early morning viewing to avoid the 100m queues…but the towers were not on the visit list. As we walked past the line for the towers, the sign stated that only 20 people will be allowed through the gates every 10 minutes…the line was over 100m long…a quick calculation would have us twiddling our thumbs for between 2 to 3 hours…too many cafes and bistros to enjoy to waste time looking at street side vendors. Anyway, the internal visit was fascinating, especially with the rose windows illuminated from the sun.
We also walked through Sainte-Chapelle, a small but elegant gothic church, built as a shrine by King Louis (not sure which one, but early 13th century) for his holy relics. The church as around a dozen or so beautiful stained glass windows, which soar to the vaulted roof. It is airy and the amount of light streaming into the church through the stained glass windows is breathtaking. The church also has wonderful apostle statues, all 12 standing on pillars along the walls. I recall that only one statue is in its original state as others had been restored following damage during the revolution.
You get a beautiful view and perspective of the Champs-Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe…and watch with interest the cars manoeuvring and jostling for position on the roundabout. The view of Paris is actually quite lovely and you get a sense of the arch’s dominant position in the city. Interestingly, the arch was positioned in such a way that the setting sun behind the Arc and Champs creates a halo effect around the building – such was Napoleon’s ego as it was to celebrate his victory at Austerlitz, which is depicted on the frieze on the arch. The Arc forms part of an axis from la Defense through to the glass pyramid at the Louvre.
The Pantheon is a beautiful building, just around the corner from the street used in Midnight in Paris, where the character played by Owen Wilson gets picked up by the 1923 Peugeot “time machine”…and yes, I did stand on those steps. The pantheon is the final resting place for France’s greatest contributors and figures. The crypt is impressive and here lie the tombs and memorials to worthy French citizens, including Victor Hugo, Braille, Voltaire and the Curies…Marie Curie is the only female and non-French national (she was born in Poland but worked in France) to be interred in the Pantheon.
So, how much walking did we do, I hear you ask? let’s say that we usually caught just one metro a day in the early part of our daily excursions and walked our way back to the Latin Quarter, often returning at around 10pm. On one occasion, after staying on the Arc til sunset, we walked home along the Champs through Saint Germain and into the Latin Quarter, returning home some 2 hours later. This was not, however, an isolated instance, as we had many walking adventures after dinner.
Yes, we put a lock on the bridge too…
A stroll along the Canal St Martin was quite nice as well.
We also had some wonderful walks through Paris…Montmarte, we walked the steep streets of the Butte, enjoying a guided tour from a local Parisian. She pointed out many significant points of interest, where and how artists lived and describing the local vibe when this district was a true Bohemian outpost. We walked past many iconic Montmarte landmarks, the vineyard (the only remaining vineyard in Paris), Moulin de la Galette (one of only two windmills still standing in this area, which once had over 30) and of course, Sacre-Coeur, with its self cleaning stone.
The Marais, or reclaimed swamp, was another guided walk, which was great fun as we walked through streets lined with contemporary fashions and interesting objects d’art. This district had some beautiful mansions and medieval lanes. The Place des Voges was a wonderful old square with its symmetrical landscaping.
We enjoyed walks through the Luxembourg gardens, Jardin des Plantes and the Jardin des Tuileries, each with its own charm. The jardin des Plantes is a historic botanical garden and less crowded. It has beautiful tree lined avenues to walk through, colourful flower beds and expanses of lawn to escape from the manic parisien crowds (and those bloody tourists!).
Of course, a trip to Paris is not complete without a walk along the Champs-Elysees, the most famous street in Paris, displaying its wealth for all to see. This area is the home to the president, fashion houses, five star hotels and tourists. It is the triumphal way for the Bastille day parade and the final stage of the Tour de France.
One of our favourite walks was along the market street of Rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest street markets in Paris, which winds downhill through the Latin Quarter, not far from our humble Parisien abode. While it is touristic, it retains some of the charm, with its cobbled streets, fresh produce and food stalls. scattered along the street and at the end, are quaint restaurants and bistros, all seats facing the street.
A walk around Ile de la Cite and Ile St Louis is quintessentially French – small cobbled streets connected to Paris on both sides by bridges. This is the point from which Paris grew (and the archaeological crypt near Notre-Dame contains fascinating remnants of early Paris dating back to Roman times) and the Ile St Louis still retains some of its village feel. It is a wonderful place to stroll. The Ile de la Cite is far busier as it contains the landmark buildings of Notre-Dame, Justice Palace and Sainte-Chapelle.
By far the most traversed area within Paris was the St-Germain and Latin quarters. It is along the streets of these quarters that we returned from a day in Paris, finding a restaurant in which to imbibe in French culinary fair and drink to a fine day’s sightseeing, somewhat wearily on most occasions. While we did walk the main streets, we also explored some of the fine back streets, which revealed lovely old houses, plastered with fine stonework. this area is also the scholastic centre of Paris, as it is where the Sorbonne is located. We walked the length of the two main boulevards, St-Germain and St-Michel, past les Deux Magots, a frequent haunt of the likes of Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, the church of St Germain des Pres and enjoyed some of the cafes taking in the wide Haussmann inspired architecture.
After spending 9 days in Paris and walking many, many streets, we would go back again but maybe find another area in which to stay to experience a different side to this beautiful city. But next time, not in July – too many tourists!!