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Paris, Our Favourite City

Paris, Versailles

DAY 37 WED Paris, France, here we come! Driving to Paris was not as traumatic an experience as we had feared. The girl in the tourist office in Sens had told us that if we followed the signs to Lille we would be able to negotiate the complicated ring road system around Paris and find the airport with little difficulty. This was almost true, though we did get a little tense during the final stages when we were within kilometres of Aérogare 1 and had to stop at a service station and join a queue of worried-looking tourists all seeking the same advice. We reached our goal but missed the entry to the correct level. We couldn’t work out how one drove back down the spiral road and were forced to park the car where we could. Fortunately the Peugot people were very understanding and processed our documents without any fuss.

It was in the tourist office of Charles de Gaulle Airport that we encountered our first rude French person. The lady in the office seemed annoyed that Margaret would want a map of Paris and its attractions and treated her as if she was wasting her valuable rest period. I didn’t witness the exchange as I was minding our luggage outside and can therefore truthfully claim never to have met a rude frog.

It was a real pleasure to sit in comfort in a taxi and be driven in to the city. I had reached the stage in our travels where I was becoming jaded and when Margaret exclaimed excitedly “Mike, we’re in Paris!” I answered with a grunt. My interest was rekindled when the taxi dropped us outside the Hôtel des Mines on the Boulevard San Michel in the Latin Quarter. Boulevard San Michel; the words roll off the tongue like ... er, I dunno, but it sounds a lot more sensuous and romantic than Castlereagh Street and requires more movement of the mouth muscles.

The hotel was small and its lift, like that in La Giarda back in Rome, barely large enough for two people. As we left it for our room we encountered a young couple who had taken the stairs. By coincidence they were newly arrived Australians also, residents of Newtown. “See you around”, I said to the girl. We never saw them again.

We immediately set about exploring Paris. One block down, on the other side of the Boulevard San Michel, was the Jardin du Luxembourg which we were to visit a few days later. Two blocks towards the Seine we found the Panthéon, a building much larger than its namesake in Rome and also much newer. It was built in 1789 as an abbey church and then, two years later, turned into a mausoleum for the famous when the Revolution briefly killed God. The great space inside is broken up by towering white colonnades and from the centre of the dome hangs a long cord from which a large brass globe swings. Foucalt’s Pendulum. The crypt beneath the Panthéon contains the remains of many famous and once famous Frenchmen including both Curies, Rousseau, Voltaire, Braille, Zola and the hero of my youth, Victor Hugo.

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The Sorbonne, which we did not visit, was in the next block and, at the end of the street, across the Seine, the magnificent bulk of Notre Dame called to me like a siren. “Come climb my graceful towers” (“Viens, ascendez mes belles tours”). Oh, false temptress! Her well-shaped limbs of stone were cruelly closed for renovation and I could only gaze with impotent longing at those cloud-floating gargoyles and intricate curlicues .

It had been my ambition to visit Notre Dame since reading Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” back in 1963 ( I had also dreamt of wading through the sewers of Paris after reading “Les Miserables” the same year , but Margaret was cool to the idea). We made do with wandering about inside admiring the minor asymmetrical elements introduced, in accordance with Gothic practices, to avoid monotony (thanks, Lonely Planet) and gazing in awe at the three huge rose windows. From Square Jean XXIII, a pretty little park at the back of the cathedral, we had a splendid view of the flying buttresses which support the walls of the chancel. We could only remember seeing pictures of Notre Dame from the front and were taken by surprise by the beauty of its rear view.

The walk back to the hotel exhausted us but it was our first day in Paris and we had to keep going. We caught the Paris Métro for the first time from the Luxembourg Station nearby and reached the Champ de Mars without difficulty, despite the complexity of the Paris subway system. Margaret pronounced the Eiffel Tower ugly and I had to concede that it looked rather like a giant oil derrick. Although she was initially reluctant to climb the tower she didn’t take much persuading and we were soon rising slowly to the top level. The girders around us seemed awfully flimsy and I couldn’t help but wonder how often they were checked for rust. We disembarked carefully at the highest platform (276 metres) and clung to the handrail as we gazed over the city. The wind was quite powerful at this height and several small children were blown to oblivion by unexpected gusts. We joined the other elderly tourists in tut-tutting about the carelessness of their parents. In the enclosed viewing area we were excited to see that, according to the legend on the wall, we were 16,492 kilometres from Canberra.

It was very late by the time we returned to the hotel and even the constant rumbling of the trains in the subway beneath us couldn’t keep us awake.

DAY 38 THU This morning we took a minibus tour of the city which allowed us, in the words of the brochure, to “discover the monuments which have made Paris famous throughout the world”. Our companions were a not terribly friendly American family from North Carolina and a newly married couple from New York. Our driver, François, had his work cut out manoeuvring through the peak hour traffic whilst pointing out such points of interest as the Louvre, Place de Concorde, Arc de Triomphe, Invalides, etc. We stopped for half an hour at Sacré Coeur, on the hill above Montmartre and walked quickly around the Place du Tertre (once the main square of the village of Montmartre) looking at the cafés and indigent artists. We had already explored the insides of Notre Dame, so while the others wandered about the cathedral we took the opportunity to imbibe over-priced coffee in a little restaurant nearby.

We returned to our hotel at midday. Margaret had booked a haircut (une coupe) at Atelier Jean Launay down the road for 2pm, so to fill in time we decided to find one of the oldest streets in Paris, Rue Mouffetard. It was supposed to behind the Panthéon but we couldn’t find it using the map and walked several kilometres in the wrong direction before stumbling upon it by accident. Rue Mouffetard was a very narrow but lively street full of the sort of shops real Parisians visit. We bought a couple of typically French rolls at a small shop and strolled to the end of the street which, as it turned out, brought us to the back side of the Panthéon.

With time to spare we sat at a sidewalk café and sipped beer while watching life pass us by. We were snapped out of our reverie by a raucous cacophony of whistles and toots generated by a quartet of snazzily dressed motorcycle police. Pedestrians scattered as a cavalcade of dark-windowed limousines and sinister black vans full of men wearing sunglasses rolled down the road. With great excitement we realized that we had just witnessed President Clinton on his way to a meeting of world importance.

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At a quarter to two we parted, Margaret for her hair appointment with destiny and me for a tour of music shops. Marg had rather naively guessed that a hairdo in a Paris studio would take a mere hour and a half, so I strode at lighting speed through the streets with the intention of cruising as many shops as possible in the short time available. After ninety minutes I returned to the hotel expecting Margaret to be waiting in our room. She wasn’t. I wrote yesterday’s adventures in the diary, had a brief lie down then returned to the streets in search of peppermints. On my way back I noticed Margaret sitting inside the barber’s looking rather bedraggled. She told me that she would be at least another hour so I went looking for more music shops.

Five and a half hours after the first snip of the scissors a totally new, even more glamorous than usual Margaret emerged from the atelier. At first I took her for a sophisticated Parisienne, but after thirty years of marriage I couldn’t be fooled for long. She was extremely fortunate that the experiment turned out so successfully as she couldn’t speak French and Jean Launay didn’t speak a word of English.

As I write: Margaret has just discovered my book purchase, “1000 Record Covers”, which I had hoped she wouldn’t notice till we got home.

A very satisfying dinner at La Brasserie Luxembourg put us in the right mood for a romantic night on the Seine. We walked hand in hand along the banks of that rivière d’amour, sharing the evening with young lovers, pickpockets, destitutes asleep in their own urine and the occasional Japanese tourist. Rounding a bend in the river we were just in time to see the last boat of the day draw away from the wharf. “Nom d’une pipe!” we exclaimed in unison.

We sauntered back to the hotel via the tourist-infested streets around Place Saint Michel, pausing to watch a street artist do nothing much to great applause. Back at the hotel we treated ourselves to an over-priced tonic water (I specifically asked for a lemon drink) before returning to our tiny room. Tiny? The bathroom was so small that, unless a guest was less than five feet two he had to perform amazing contortions to use the water closet as anything other than a pissoir. At least the beds were comfortable.

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DAY 39 FRI For the first time in Europe we ordered breakfast in bed. What luxury! Fortified by luke warm coffee we took the tiny lift to the lobby and joined the colourful, exhilarating world that is the Latin Quarter. Thank God I didn’t have to lug around that cursed backpack as I had in Rome!

The morning was warm and sunny and we ambled through the terraces of the Jardin du Luxembourg amidst young lovers and old layabouts who rested beneath the chestnut trees and children who sailed their boats on the Grand Bassin under the imposing facade of the Palais du Luxembourg. Emerging on the other side of the park we found ourselves in the Place Saint Sulpice where a poetry fair was being held. A poetry fair! Numerous stalls manned by young beatniks sold books of verse to Parisians of all ages. I couldn’t imagine such a fair being held in any other city on earth, let alone it being patronised by throngs of people. Margaret sensibly pointed out that this was the Latin Quarter, once the haunt of Ernest Hemmingway, Henry Miller and Harold Robbins. The Sorbonne was only a block away and the Boulevard Saint Michel was lined with book and art shops. Nerd heaven!

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We made a rapid circuit of the insides of St Sulpice and were not particularly impressed. Perhaps we had visited too many églises over the last five weeks. A walk down Rue Buonoparte, named after a famous French leader, took us to the Seine. On the other side stood the Louvre, a large building containing lots of paintings. The “courtyard” was enormous and marred, in my opinion, by the large glass pyramid which should be dismantled and transported to Glastonbury immediately. We vowed to come back and examine every inch of the art gallery (in another life) and set off on our quest to reach the Arc de Triomphe.

We had walked all the way through the Tuileries before I realised that we had walked through the Jardin des Tuileries. Despite the warmth of the morning sun my blood ran cold when I remembered that six hundred of the King Louis’ Swiss Guards had been massacred in these very gardens only two hundred years ago . Margaret led me to a café under the trees where, shaken by the horrors of republican violence and stirred by the bravery of my countrymen years ago, I shared a large bread roll stuffed with crisp lettuce and juicy tomatoes with ma femme.
At the end of the Tuileries lay the broad, circular expanse of the Place de la Concorde. Crossing to the other side was a life-threatening experience. The traffic was fast and plentiful and we were not surprised to learn that many people, including Marie Antoinette and her husband, had lost their lives here. A little further on I called in at Paris’ cheapest belle époque attraction; the public toilet on the east side of Place de la Madeleine. This was a unisex convenience in the old style and I was forced to use urinals separated from the female attendants only by a waste-high wall. This arrangement had the advantage of permitting me to admire the ladies waiting for a cubicle while I did my business.

At long last we reached the beginning of the two kilometre long Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The first stretch of the avenue was that broad, tree-lined section you see in old newsreels. The remainder was lined with hotels, shops and restaurants. Not since Rome had we seen so many tourists in the one place at the same time. The Arc de Triomphe, which we could see in the centre of the horizon at the end of the Élysées from the time we left the Place de la Concorde, grew rapidly larger. I was afraid that it would prove to be smaller than I had anticipated (like the Colosseum and St Peters) but the pictures hadn’t lied.

Crossing the world’s largest roundabout to reach the monument required us to take the pedestrian subway. No-one in her right mind would have attempted to traverse the Place Charles de Gaulle above ground, though Hitler did in 1940. We climbed the 284 steps round and round the spiral staircase then almost collapsed at the top. The panoramic view from the pinnacle was even better than from the top of the Eiffel Tower and the sight of twelve long avenues converging at the roundabout far beneath us made me feel as though I was at the very centre of the world.

Back at the bottom we joined the throng of visitors around the eternal flambé. Margaret begged me to take a picture of her with her arm around one of the husky young soldiers on guard duty. “Margaret,” I scolded, “remember you’re English!” “Baisez-vous!” she replied crudely.

At the America Express office nearby Margaret changed some of her travellers’ cheques into cash. We were lucky we weren’t relying on them as the lady behind the counter told us that they had been signed in the wrong place. She was kind enough to change them anyway. By the time we found the metro Charles de Gaulle-Étoile we realised that we would never reach the Musée d’Orsay before it closed.

The Paris rail system is much more complicated than any other we have used. To get from the Arc de Triomphe to our station, Luxembourg, we had to catch the metro to Châtelet, change to another metro line, catch another metro to Saint Michel, walk down a long passage to a platform on Saint Michel-Notre Dame and catch an RER train to get to Luxembourg. At Châtelet we became hopelessly confused. Margaret approached an immaculately-uniformed policeman for directions. The good policier, a model of formality, actually threw her a parade ground salute before leading us to the correct platform.

Back at the Hotel des Mines we lay on our bed drinking beer and watching Melrose Place in French. What more could life offer?

More beer at La Brasserie Luxembourg, this time an expensive black Belgian brew boasting 9% alcohol content followed by escargot for me and something less adventurous for Margaret. As we ate and drank we watched the people of Paris pass by. Boulevard Saint Michel is a very busy street, but the in-line skaters and cyclists sped down the middle of the road as though it were deserted. In Sydney motorists would have been outraged. We are not terribly tolerant of cyclists travelling on the edge of the road, let alone in the middle! A pretty girl on a motor scooter stopped at the traffic lights. A police car drew up along side her and the young cops leaned out the windows and chatted to her until the lights changed. The police seem much more laid back than they do in any other country we have visited. Rather than being seen as powerful authority figures they appear to be regarded as ordinary people who happen to be policemen.

Having consumed rather a lot of bière during the day I was anxiously searching for a WC by the time we reached the Seine. The walk along the banks of the river was trés romantique if one ignored the derelicts and their pools of urine. We boarded one of the last cruise ships of the night just before it cast off and sailed smoothly down the centre of the river. A guide described the sights in French and fractured English as we passed them by. Each time we sailed under a bridge all the children would shout with delight and many of us waved happily at other boats as they passed. By the time we began the return journey the sky was dark and the city lit up. The Eiffel Tower looked grand in its nightgown of golden lights but we lacked the energy to pay a return visit.

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As is her custom, Margaret struck up a short-term friendship with a pair of elderly couples sitting next to us and, by the time we parted, had solved most of their marital problems and learned all there was to know about Carbondale, Illinois and Vancouver, Canada. They were on a coach tour of Europe and Paris was their thirteenth and last city in twenty six days. No wonder they described their vacation as a blur.

At the Place Saint Michel we drank expresso and watched the throngs of people of all ages milling about. It was 11pm but for many the night was just beginning.

DAY 40 SAT An early morning train took us to the Musée d’Orsay, a huge railway station which had been converted into an art gallery thirteen years ago. We started at the top with the impressionists and post-impressionists: Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro and their ilk. I have to admit to being something of a philistine where art is concerned. While I liked Sisley and Pissaro and some of Renoir’s stuff, most of the pictures left me fidgeting. We moved rather rapidly through the rest of the gallery though I did insist on spending five minutes looking at the Revolutionary Art section with its dramatic paintings of heroic revolutionaries.
Before leaving I attempted to ring Gulf Air to confirm our tickets to Bahrain, only to find that its offices were closed till 9am on Monday which just happened to bet the time at which our plane was due to leave. This failure to confirm was to cause me increasing stress over the next couple of days.

As mentioned earlier, the Paris rail system is very complicated and we were very grateful to find a computer which, if you indicated the station to which you wished to travel, would print a detailed set of instructions on what trains you should catch and from what platforms they would depart. With our page of instructions in hand we set out for Boulevard Haussmann, home of such mighty department stores as Printemps, Galeries Lafayette and La Samaritaine and even Marks and Spencer.

This was to be a day of shopping frenzy (for Margaret, at least). I left her in Printemps and set off in search of presents for David and Tim and, with any luck, music for myself. What a terrible shopping area it was; no music shops and no gifts suitable for young men. Two hours later I met Margaret in front of Printemps. She was as demoralised as I was, having found little of interest either.

We returned to Place Saint Michel and lunched on salad and beer before visiting Sainte Chapelle which we found secreted inside the Palais de Justice. Sainte Chapelle was built in less than three years and consecrated in 1248, its purpose being to house Jesus’ crown of thorns which Louis IX had bought earlier in the thirteenth century. If St Louis were alive today I would attempt to sell him the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The small church must have been splendid in its heyday but on the day we visited it seemed faded and worn and any ambience it may have once possessed was submerged beneath the chatter of tourists and the strobic flickering of flashbulbs.

Venturing hesitantly into the subway system we braved the complexities of the Metro/RAR system and made our way to Montmartre. At the bottom of Montmartre’s south slope we boarded a funiculaire which would carry us up the steep hill to Sacré Coeur. A rude French lady attempted to insert herself and her child in front of us on the queue and would have succeeded in boarding the carriage before us had I not realised that we were on the wrong line. We quietly moved to the correct queue, leaving the pushy woman tapping her toes on a line to nowhere. The lesson for her, had she only known it, was that you don’t match wits with someone who catches the train at Parramatta every afternoon.

The plan for the evening called for us to explore Montmartre until Mass began at 10pm. We walked up and down the steep and winding cobbled streets before strolling through the Place du Tertre and examining the works of numerous artists, all of which were outrageously expensive. After a satisfying but pricey dinner in a very crowded outdoor restaurant we cruised the souvenir shops and bought several trashy gifts for the boys. Shortly before Mass we sat outside a café and drank the local tipple, a violet concoction which tasted like absinth and, according to a fat German sitting at the next table, had a kick to match.

Mass in Sacre Coeur was a bit of a let down as far as I was concerned, though Margaret found it inspiring. We left via the main door and found ourselves gazing down upon a breathtaking panorama of Paris by night. The sky was as violet as my drink had been, producing an unearthly effect the like of which we hadn’t experienced before. What could have been an atmosphere of great peace and beauty was transmogrified into one of revelry, dissolution and, in a couple of instances, debauchery by hundreds of young people who swigged wine, smoked strange substances and practiced for marriage on the steps in front of the church. Oh to be young again!

We picked our way carefully over the discarded bottles and intertwined couples and made our way back to the funiculaire, the metro and our hotel. Quel jour rempli!

DAY 41 SUN Our last full day in Paris. We rose late with the intention of having an undemanding day visiting Versailles followed by a long and expensive dinner at our favourite restaurant. We had almost reached the Luxembourg Metro before we realised that the weather was not as good as we were used to, in fact it was rather overcast and very cold. We decided against walking all the way back to the hotel for our umbrellas and jumpers which was a decision we would come to regret.

The RER map on the subway wall was not very clear but we eventually worked out the stations where we would need to change trains. It goes without saying that our map reading was faulty and we ended up reaching Versailles by the most circuitous route imaginable. The journey took around ninety minutes, including half an hour spent on a freezing platform at a large but obscure railway station out in the sticks.

We arrived at the wrong station (there were several) on the outskirts of Versailles around lunchtime and were forced to walk several kilometres to the palace. Along the way we stopped at a small pub and drank coffee standing at the bar (thereby saving a few francs). The hot, black brew momentarily warmed our freezing bodies and we enjoyed the company of real Frenchies as opposed to the usual mix of tourists we encountered in the cafés of Paris.

The Château de Versailles was rather large, not surprising when you consider that Louis XIV built it to house his entire court of six thousand public servants and hangers-on. The enormous courtyard swarmed with tourists who tripped and slipped on the bumpy cobblestones as they hurried to join the various queues which snaked from the gate to the various buildings. After a really long wait, during which we shuffled in fits and starts while shivering violently with the cold, we finally reached the ticket office for the Grand Apartments tour.

Margaret and I decided (oh all right, I decided) that we should hire only one electronic guide, thereby saving thirty francs or $7.50 in real money. This was one instance where frugality didn’t pay. We walked through lots of brightly furnished rooms of great historical significance, each with a fascinating story to tell. That they were more interesting than they appeared I could ascertain from the enrapt expression on my wife’s face as she listened to the electronic device pressed to her ear. Whilst I would zip through a set of rooms at great speed and wait impatiently for her at the other end of the corridor, Margaret would spend ten minutes in each room. I did overhear snippets of history by pretending to be a part of various tour groups but the guides would eventually spot me as a non-paying parasite and flash me the evil eye.

The tour of the Grand apartments ended with a stroll through the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Ice Cream), a strangely-named ballroom lined on one side with seventeen huge mirrors and on the other with windows looking out on the gardens. Apparently the lords and ladies of the Sun King’s court liked to watch themselves cavorting in, and sometimes out of their flamboyant finery whilst watching the sun set over their debauchery.

Margaret finally gave me the electronic device so that I could listen to the commentary as I walked slowly through the Hall of Great Battle Pictures. Returning the device to its owner proved a little difficult as we couldn’t find the place where we had started the tour. I would have left it on the nearest window sill except that we had left my Visa card as a deposit. Somehow we swapped device for card and went to look for the fabled gardens of Versailles. We didn’t see much of the flowerbeds, tree-lined paths and fountains for which the gardens are justly renowned as I wasn’t willing to pay the exorbitant entry fee. The French were punished by God for their avarice a few months later when he sent a storm to destroy the entire garden.

I know we looked for a restaurant along the almost deserted main street of Versailles, but for the life of me I can’t remember whether we found one to our taste. We caught the train at Versailles-Gauche, one of the town’s three railway stations, and managed to travel all the way back to Luxembourg Metro with only one change of train.

The chilly wind forced us to don our jackets for the first time since Switzerland so that we could go for our last walk around the Latin Quarter. With tears in our eyes (metaphorically speaking) we ate our last and most expensive dinner at the Brasserie Luxembourg and left our friendly waitress weeping over her fabulous tip. I guess I’ll never again sip a Pelforth Brown Ale or even a 1664 or Chamiy while sitting at a table on the footpath watching life go by on the Boulevard Saint Michel.

Our plan for the evening was to walk once again down Rue Mouffetard and imbibe the sights and sounds of the real Paris. Just past the Panthéon we noticed a church we had somehow missed on our previous strolls. As our goal was to visit every church in Paris we slipped through the front doors of St Étienne du Mont and found ourselves quite unexpectedly right in the middle of ..... Mass! I am not a religious person (quite the reverse, thank God) but this Mass was more interesting than most. Half a dozen priests concelebrated and the wildest organist in town played avant-garde music which filled the old église with religious jazz. While I swayed to the music I could not help but admire the beautiful rood screen (more like a marble balcony than a screen) which separated the chancel from the nave. Unfortunately a rather severe call of nature forced me to leave Margaret to her prayers and race back to the hotel .

Despite our busy day we both found it hard to get to sleep. Insomnia wasn’t the problem this time, rather the sandman was kept from our door by an American woman on the floor below who spoke in an extremely loud voice for several hours with barely a pause to draw breath.

Posted by kafka001 18:39 Archived in France

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