France 2007 Day 9: Around Paris
Paris. It’s a beautiful city as far as I’m concerned. Wonderful architecture all around, and a cosy looking river floating its way through the city. So much of it is just timeless design – even the Metro station signs have that attractive look about them.
For me, a city’s metro sign has the tendency to sum up that city in one statement. London’s roundels are brilliantly bold and dramatic – especially when brightly illuminated on a dark evening. They shout out at you – look! Here I am! Come to me! Which is London through and through. Come! Look! See!
St Petersburg on the other hand. Little blue M logos – almost unnoticeable amongst the rest of the street paraphernalia. Yet you go in to find a huge prize – elaborately decorated stations with huge chandeliers. Giant engravings on the wall. So much like that Russian city itself. You can wander around its scruffy, unnoticeable buildings, and then all of a sudden, find yourself presented with a giant gold fountain.
And Paris. Oh Paris. A city where the Metro signs are so beautiful. So attractive. The greatest piece of public art know to man, yet they also masquerade as useful devices for all.
Of course we rarely used the Metro. Just passed a lot of its signs as we walked on by. For in Paris, the way to see, is to get on your two feet. Pound the streets. See it with your eyes. Just don’t do the Segway tour – that’s just not really playing the game…
We set off from our hotel, crossing the river at Place St Michel, onto the Ile de la Cité in the middle of the Seine, and poking our nose into little squares which just screamed “PARIS” at you.
It being early-ish on a Sunday morning, the streets were relatively quiet – even as we approached that tourist magnet of the Louvre. We decided not to go in, and instead walked through the grounds of the nearby Palais Royal which featured Daniel Buren’s "Les Deux Plateaux" – more commonly known as "Colonnes de Buren" (Buren’s Columns). Little black and white striped columns, of differing heights all set about the courtyard.
By now the rather dull weather had decided to opt for rain, so we sheltered under an avenue of trees in the palace gardens, before dashing over to a colonnade at the end.
And then everything turns black and white before your eyes – into a 1950s French film with accordion music and a husky voiced woman speaking a narration. English subtitles randomly appear at intermittent intervals, and everything abruptly ends with a giant caption with three letters. FIN.
It’s almost impossible to visit Paris without approaching some part of the city that makes you think totally in black and white – in fact I’d go as far as to say, it can’t be done. This is the heart of Paris and no mistake and it’s the heart of black and white land. Where Paris is everything you imagine it to be.
The rain easing, we strolled on through the damp streets – past the stock exchange, and through a series of covered shopping arcades – almost deserted at this time of day.
And then, almost as soon as it had arrived, black and white Paris was gone. We were back into busy, bustling streets, full of cars and garish billboards. Slightly scruffy roads lined with cafes and the odd tabac.
It was here that I realised that the tabacs were so few and far between. When I was a kid on holiday in France, the red, cigar shaped signs – proclaiming that here was a purveyor of tobacco based products – seemed to be everywhere, along with the big, illuminated green signs of the pharmacy. But here in Paris, they seemed to be strangely missing.
We were heading up hill – to the North of Paris – for our first proper destination. And as we passed by Pigalle Metro Station, everything changed. Everything that was nice and beautiful about Paris was suddenly gone. The quietness, the tranquilness, the attractiveness – all shattered as we suddenly found ourselves in a street of extraordinary tat. It was like every single tacky tourist shop – selling garish Eiffel Tower models, and bad prints of the Parisian skyline – had been dumped in one street. Huge numbers of tourists were milling around, seemingly enjoying this utter monstrosity. Several Americans were exclaiming with glee. It was frankly horrible and we upped our pace – myself making sure my wallet was touched as tight as possible, just knowing that this place would be a field day for any pickpocket.
The reason for all this tat and all this people, was abundantly clear in front of us. The mighty Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. Up on its mound in Montmatre – about the only hill in a very flat city. But first we had to get there – running a gauntlet of more tat stalls and groups of middle aged eastern European men trying to grab women’s hands so they could make a friendship band on their wrist. One made an attempt to grab Catherine’s wrist – clearly not what you want, but a technique which presumably had worked for others. It was almost impossible to understand why so many women had fallen for this strange activity, but given how many men there were making them, and how many tourists were standing there letting it happen, they were obviously in demand.
It was a shame, because it was a lovely little park – with a large staircase taking you up to the entrance to Sacré-Cœur. Yet it was plagued with tourist tat everywhere. Fake designer carrier bags, lined up next to even more Eiffel Tower statuettes. Made you want to go straight up to the town hall and demand that council clean up their city of the pan-handlers and purveyors of rubbish.
The busiest place was the level just below Sacré-Cœur itself – offering perhaps the best view. And clearly many people didn’t make it up to Sacré-Cœur itself given how few people progressed up the 30 or so extra steps it took you to get to the true top.
Unfortunately though it was time for more rain. With it being a Sunday morning, the church itself was busy so we didn’t go in, but even if we’d wanted to, the entrance was so blocked with sheltering tourists that we wouldn’t have found it easy anyway. Instead we walked on through the damp streets of Montmatre – the attractive, arty, villagey feeling area of Paris. Nice, attractive, but very full of tourists.
By now the rain was seriously coming down and having come out without coats, we sheltered in a bus stop and assessed the situation. As the rain failed to ease, we assessed some more. For about twenty minutes of so at least. When it did break, we had a plan – to go back down towards the centre and get some lunch. And we set off – only for yet more rain to appear resulting in us sheltering under a bakery awning for some minutes.
On the way down, we noticed the red brick build Saint Jean de Montmartre church and popped inside to admire its interesting architecture before heading off once more.
Lunch was becoming a priority as we found ourselves back near the Stock Exchange and National Library. I had a feeling there was an English style brew-pub in this area – a concept which intrigued me a little – but we didn’t spot it and soon ended up back in the very touristy area of the Louvre.
Just because a cafe is in a tourist area doesn’t mean it’s bad – there’s some great pubs and cafes near the British Museum for example – but you tend to be more wary of them so we passed on by and found ourselves near a small park which we didn’t know what it was, but was the Jardin des Halles. Everywhere seemed quiet and not too touristy, so we picked a cafe and had some lunch – washed down with a cold glass of beer. The sun was beginning to come out, so we sat on the street tables and watched the world go by as an efficient French waiter brought us our food, and more beer.
With a mighty and imposing building right in the middle of our view, we paid up and took a look – finding out that it was St Eustache Church, we we dutifully admired from the inside and out.
It was relatively quiet inside, but a lovely building featuring an impressive organ. As we were there, an afternoon event began. Apparently several students had come from across Europe for a week long masterclass with the church organist and today was the finale – a recital. We stayed and listened for a bit before leaving and walking through the Jardin des Halles towards the Pompidou Centre – that hugh collection of modern art.
Eschewing the main centre, we took in a free exhibition in a small nearby building, before wandering back south towards the river.
All was busy and bustling – the Tour de France was just finishing at the other end of the city, but you’d never know by how many people were out at this side – including the many enjoying Paris Plage – the man-made beach that arrives on the bank of the Seine every summer.
We took a stroll along, collecting a fantastic ice cream on the way, and had a rest on the sand whilst small kids made sand castles.
After walking through a strange pet market, we found ourselves next to our third religious place of the day – Notre-Dame – this time in daylight. The queue to get in to this giant building was huge, but was moving regularly so we joined up and waited our turn.
Inside it was as busy as the queue suggested – and depressingly inconsiderate. opportunity to admire the altar. Along with many other people. I was one of the few people who had taken heed of the sign asking not to use flash photography, and this giant building was awash with people talking away loudly alongside bright flashes of light – all this in the middle of a service. I guess it’s a bit of an occupational hazard if you worship here, but still, as a tourist in a cathedral like this, you should always be considerate of those who aren’t here just to admire the architecture. It’s really sad how few people are.
Back outside, we walked through the small park next to the Seine, to admire Notre-Dame’s amazing architecture – even more impressive from the rear of the building with its hugh flying buttresses arching around its circular end.
Most of our sightseeing was now done as we headed back to our hotel, to freshen up and then head out to eat. We’d decided to try out the Grenier de Notre-Dame, which is one of a very rare breed: a French vegetarian restaurant. Its description in our guide book was intriguing.
See for yourself: some veggies love this tiny place, which has been operating since 1978; others hate its posh candle-lit atmosphere, cramped tables and cheesy music
The Rough Guide to Paris, eighth edition
Well it had to be worth a try and we headed off early to make sure we got a table.
Tiny it certainly was – fitting a handful of tables (although it turned out there’s a larger room upstairs) in a snug interior. It did also have a slightly surreal place with the owner/manager/whatever he was, looking the spitting image of Mighty Boosh star, Julian Barratt, and who seemed to start every sentence with “c’est que vous désirez…”
The food was interesting – I happily ate my lasagne, although Catherine found the Seitan with her cous-cous a little hard going (and having tasted it, I wasn’t hugely surprised. It’s rather an acquired taste). My chocolate mouse was lovely, but Catherine did rather regret ordering a coffee along with a desert which basically consisted of huge amounts of cold coffee and ice cream. Slightly disappointing was the organic beer we chose to accompany our meal – rather sweet and bland. Certainly not any competition for a good glass of wine to wash down your food.
After paying off, we walked back towards the Latin Quarter. The sun was coming down, and a sunset was in full flow as we walked near Panthéon again.
Not quite sure what to do for the rest of the evening, we ended up adjourning to an establishment we’d passed nearby the previous day. The Bombardier might sound a strange name for something in France, and that’s because it is. It’s an English pub – note, not an English Theme Pub. This was a proper, bone-fide English pub, full of Charles Wells beers, including some lovely handpulled Bombardier itself. It was pretty full – a mixture of French people and English. The bar man – French but with an amazingly convincing English accent – quickly sussed me out as being non-French, and despite my best efforts, kept talking to me in French.
To be honest this is probably a good thing, as no one ever tells you how to order a pint of anything in French. (Of course it wasn’t technically a pint – the glasses were lined at 500ml – but such lined glasses are designed to hold 568ml for use in Britain anyway, and they didn’t seem to fussed about going over the line all the way to the top).
As we supped on some good old English ale – look, to be frank, I’ll try anything anywhere, but when it comes down to it, I love the taste of a good malty bitter when it comes to beer – another English couple whom arrived. They were noticeable as they’d sat opposite us in the restaurant. Suddenly it seemed slightly sad to be in France in an English pub, but a second pint sorted that out.
Besides, it was our last night in Paris. Our holiday was almost over. Monday morning would be full of sightseeing, but by Monday evening, we’d be back in Britain.
|Number of different cheeses eaten on day 10|
For more photographs of this holiday, have a look at my France 2007 photo set on Flickr