France Days 3-8. Three days in Paris

Man I was really enjoying my time in France – the amazing hospitality of Marta and her family (again, I couldn’t get over the fact that friends of overseas family [i.e. not even relatives!] were opening their home, their kitchen and their lives to show me a wonderful time in their country). Fortunately, my time wasn’t up yet: after having visited Versailles and driving almost right across the country to see the Normandy coast, there were still six days left. Six days of delicious wine, baguettes, meats (okay, I was growing addicted to the cuisine).

And three of those days were going to be spent in one of the world’s greatest cities – and probably the most famous tourist city of all – Paris: the city of lights. [The other three days were spent exploring the suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, where Marta lives, to rest from the jam-packed days in Paris].

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I will start my summary of Paris by saying, simply, that it’s a city I’d visit again and again – but never live in. It’s heaven for tourists, but it’s obvious that it’s not the nicest/cleanest/safest of cities. As is unfortunately the case of so many places that are great for tourists: visitors get a nice shiny impression (or those who can afford the $$$ to live in the posh parts of the city), but beneath the surface there’s a city that’s really not all that hospitable.

On the list of negatives: the traffic is utter chaos. Check out some of my pictures of the Parisian streets and see if you’d be able to navigate through the mayhem (and yes, most of the cars had dents). There’s also lots of graffiti and vandalism, and apparently crime and gang activity. You’ve probably heard of the riots that have taken place in Paris. Driving in and out of the city, it was clear that the neighbourhoods beyond the tourist core were rough. But, I suppose, that’s a part of what Paris is all about: historically it’s always been known as a beautiful city with rough edges (think back to Les Mis for obvious parallels).

Despite all this, as a tourist it was perfect. Paris found a unique way to preserve all of the beautiful historical areas from its illustrious past. Unlike most major cities where modern progress has overshadowed the architectural past with tall buildings and commerce – Paris separated the two. The core of downtown Paris is the historic part, and there’s not a skyscraper to be seen. Beyond downtown is the modern La Defence business district with all the tall offices (in fact, it’s Europe’s largest business district). The separation works very well, and makes the visit to the historic heart of the city that much more amazing: it’s all original streetscapes with all the atmosphere that goes with it.

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On our first day as tourists in Paris, my cousin Anna and I were fortunate to have two experienced guides: Marta’s daughter Karolina and her boyfriend Jean Baptiste. I’ve ranted about how I don’t think Paris would be a good place to live, but Jean Baptiste rents a cool apartment in a nice part of the historic city. And when I say historic… well, his apartment just happens to be the same building where Mozart and his mother lived in Paris, and where Mozart’s mother passed away. The depth of background in every European city never ceased to surprise me.

Karolina and Jean Baptiste took us throughout the main historic district that radiates from Place de la Concorde (the traffic circle that is the very centre of the city and the start of Les Champs-Elysees leading to the Arc de Triomphe). We meandered through the streets and along the many picturesque bridges across La Seine. The traditional architecture was quickly interrupted, though, by one of Paris’ most curious landmarks: the Centre George Pompidou. No building has created more controversy (and even anger) than this modern art museum: built inside-out with all the infrastructure like pipes and elevators on the outside in a way that makes it look like a colourful oil refinery. It’s dramatically different than anything surrounding it. But, I rather liked it: I thought it didn’t look too ugly and I really liked that 30 years after being built, it still made people discuss it: like landmark architecture should, I think.

From one extreme to the other: we followed-up the Centre Pompidou with a tour of Notre Dame. On the outside it looks a little smaller than you might expect from pictures or the story of the Hunchback. Inside, though, the vaulted ceilings and towering rose windows are massive and very majestic. It was a fairly overcast day in Paris, and yet the stained glass windows were radiant – truly great works of art. My descriptions really cannot do justice to the photos themselves.

The other famous landmarks we visited were the university of La Sorbonne (including an awesome statue of Victor Hugo), the Paris Opera House (including the staircase made famous by the Phantom of the Opera), the Arc de Triomphe at the end of Les Champs-Elysees (in the centre of the insane traffic circle where 12 avenues meet… Karolina simply parked her car right on the Arc de Trimphe so that I could get out and take photos. Anything goes in Parisian traffic, I guess), and the beautiful Basilica of Sacre Coeur (with its stunning hilltop view of the City of Lights). I could write whole blog entries about any one of these world-class sites: together they read like a list of the greatest tourist destinations in the world. And yet we saw this all in one afternoon… all in one city. That tells you why Paris is such a great place to visit.

Paris is much more than just famous sites, of course… we also took time to soak up the atmosphere of the French culture. This, naturally, included the cafe culture and some Parisian cuisine. Sidewalk cafes were more plentiful than I even imagined they could be, and the coffee was nice and strong. It’s really relaxing to sit on the sidewalk and watch everything go by while you slowly sip and chat. Later, we had dinner (French onion soup and crepes) in the famous bohemian art district of Montmartre near the Basilica of Sacre Coeur: this area was filled with street artists, included the interesting Moulin Rouge [French for Red Light] and had tonnes of nice restaurants. 

Over the course of my time exploring Parisian culture, I learned a neat trick. Out of politeness and probably pride for their language, the French immediately switched to English as soon as I tried speaking to them in French. My English accent was a dead give-away, certainly, but I was trying and truly wanted to speak what little French I could muster. So… whenever they switched to English, I stared confusedly and said that I didn’t understand!

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I realize that this blog entry is getting awfully long (should have split Paris into multiple entries)… so I’ll speed up my descriptions of the final two days in Paris.

Day 2 in Paris: Anna and I ventured on our own. First stop, Le Louvre – the most-visited museum in the world. It certainly was busy (Anna didn’t enjoy the crowds). But man, what a beautiful museum – it evolved out of a grand French Palace that was inhabited by numerous kings including Louis XIV. There’s a neat section in the lower level where they’ve exposed excavations of the original medieval palace foundation. The most famous item in the collection, of course, is the Mona Lisa… and the experience of viewing the painting is almost as noteworthy as the painting itself. For security, it’s covered with plexiglass that casts a faint reflection: so while you’re viewing the masterpiece you have an overlay where you see reflected the faces of the massive crowd looking with you. There’s a hundred people all gathered around, snapping photos and trying to pose with the painting. It was all very weird actually: I had to take a photo myself, pondering about what justice a photograph of a masterpiece can do.

We took a stole along La Seine (and walked by Les Invalides, where Napoleon is buried) on our way to the Eiffel Tower. Though it’s not the tallest tower by any stretch, I’d venture to say that the iron mechano set-like structure of the Eiffel Tower is one of the most distinctive towers of all. Anna and I decided to save money and walked all the stairs to the top (enviously looking at the elevators going by). And this is where I can really get away with being lazy: nothing I write could describe the awesome view.

But, I will write about a disappointment – one view I really wanted to see was sadly not available to me. The most idealistic spot to view and photograph the Eiffel Tower is from across La Seine among the fountains of The Trocadero. I went there expecting to take a perfect photo… but no, the fountains were shut off and the whole vantage point was obstructed by a giant portable concert stage. Seriously, did they need to have a concert there? And again – why were so many things I wanted to see in Europe under construction or covered up with scaffolding!

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Day 3 in Paris: Towards the end of my stay in France, I was hit with a strong desire to spend a day alone. As outstanding company as my hosts were, something inside me just clicked and I desired some alone time to just head out and do some urban exploring without any plan. Maybe it was my mind wrestling with that big compromise I had made: shifting my original plan to backpack Europe on my own and have that freedom and adventure… in favour of accepting the gracious hospitality of family who would show me around their countries. Ultimately, I’m so grateful to my hosts for opening their homes and hearts to me, and for showing me such a good time (including showing me many things I never would have seen if I was on my own). But… I needed one day: and my hosts were very generous to let me off the hook for a day in Paris.

But yes, they were worried about me – and reminding them that I had safely made it all the way around the world did nothing to calm their concerns.

Basically, I spent the day wandering the streets of Paris: popping into some of the shops along Les Champs-Elysees (including the ultra-cool Renault showroom), visiting a couple cafes, walking through some of the parks and just taking in the sight of Parisians going about their lives. I was simply enjoying a day to reflect by myself.

The two main landmarks I visited were La Grand Palais (a huge glass-domed exhibition hall built in 1900 that houses large public art installations) and La Defense (the modern business district with all the skyscrapers). At La Defense, I saw the neat-looking Grand Arche: a modern interpretation of the Arc de Triomphe. There’s an impressive sight-line there… standing at La Grand Arche you look straight down an avenue to the ancient Arc de Triomphe and beyond to Les Champs-Elysees – instantly connecting the modern part of Paris to the historic core.

And with that parting shot of Paris, I returned to more baguettes, wine and good-byes at Marta’s house. All too soon, our amazing visit in France was wrapped up – and Anna and I were off to Poland.

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