Published: September 7th 2009September 7th 2009
Then there was Paris. I had already seen and experienced much while travelling through Central Europe and the Balkans, but I had to finish my summer trip in the city of Paris. I had been before, twice, but I wanted to re-visit as a more seasoned traveller. Paris was, after all, my first destination on my first big summer trip five years ago, so how would my trip this time be different? There was much left to see and do in this great metropolis, things I had not really done on my first two trips. I wanted to get to know the neighbourhoods, the streets, the buses, more than just the big tourist venues and museums. I got to Paris in one gigantic leap in one day from Innsbruck in central Austria. First a train to Zurich, and then the TGV, high speed train, to Paris. I got to Zurich in the late morning after a wonderful trip through the valleys of the Alps and we even slipped through Lichtenstein, but this only took a couple of minutes. We followed the rivers between mountains, and then followed Lake Zurich right into the city. Here I got off and walked to the
ticket office to buy my onward ticket to Paris. This station is incredibly busy with trains coming and going every few seconds; the departures and arrivals board only has enough room for about 45 minutes worth of trains. More trains leave and arrive here in Zurich each hour than leave and arrive in my own city of Vancouver in a fortnight. The next train to Paris, however, was fully booked, so I had to wait until an even later train at 6pm. I bought my ticket knowing full well I wouldn't arrive in Paris until after 10 pm without a place to stay. I had the afternoon to spend in Zurich, so I took out 50 Swiss Francs from an ATM, about $50 Canadian dollars and spent it all, it wasn't difficult. I bought lunch, afternoon tea, and a late afternoon snack, a locker for my luggage and a couple of trips to the toilet and I spent all my money in this expensive country. I bought a guidebook for Paris using a credit card as I didn't have enough cash. At 6pm the train arrived to pick us up and what a disappointment, it wasn't the TGV, but an
old replacement train because our train had been late. But they did have a replacement. We raced off to Basel in northern Switzerland and switched to our TGV train that was waiting for us. This train really rockets through the countryside at nearly 300 km/h, but the fastest stretch of track occured while it was dark outside so I wasn't able to observe the blurred fields. We got to Paris at 10:30pm, and I walked out of the Gare de l'Est and straight to the Hotel Ibis. They had a single room which I booked for two nights.
The first full day in Paris was spent getting my bearings, riding the Metro and finding cheaper digs. I walked to St Christopher's Inn, a hostel in the northern 19th Arrondissement. If you look on a map you will see that this was a long distance to walk, don't ask me why I didn't take the Metro. I booked six nights at this fabulous, but expensive hostel. I went from here to the historic heart of Paris in search of a bookstore stocking a Rick Steves book for Paris: I came up empty. I looked for another hostel to comparison shop
and I found a likely contender but my first choice of Christopher's Inn was the better choice so I moved on. My only real complaint about St Christopher's Inn was the location, about 20 minutes north by Metro. I wanted to do some different things on this trip to Paris, what I hadn't seen or done before. My second full day in Paris, Sunday, I went to the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Odd to visit a cemetery on one's holiday, but here lies some very famous people. It is quite large, 43 hectares, about 50 football pitches, and with a hill in the centre means you cannot see the other side. There are hundreds of thousands of tombs, many modeled, I think, on tiny Greek temples. Often there is along row of these tombs standing like a block of houses, once moved in but never to leave. Thousands of tourists flock here each year and on the day I walked the cemetary there were hundreds. The place isn't at all creepy or goulish, in fact quite remarkable and striking in its archecture. I bought a map, because without which finding individual graves would be as difficult as the proverbial needle in
a hay stack. Chopin's grave is beautiful with a statue of a muse on top, freshly cut flowers adorn the grave. Jim Morrison's grave has been cleaned up, a railing placed in front and a guard nearby to ensure no more graffiti or offerings of pot. Possibly the most unusual grave is that of Oscar Wilde, a large tomb capped by a winged messenger and the tomb is covered in lip kisses. I also found the graves of Sarah Bernhardt, Bizet, Paul Dukas, Stephane Grappelli, Rossini, Ingres, and Proust. There were more to visit and you could spend many more hours there exploring. The cemetery is beautifully lined with trees, people tending the graves of loved ones because while there are famous people, there are actually far more non-famous people, but still important to someone.
Each evening I went out to photograph for Paris is awash with lights after dark; The City of Lights. The best time to photograph the lights is after sunset but only soon after while there is still is a little light left in the sky. But since I cannot be at all the different places at this same magic hour, I had to choose
a different location each night. Sunday night I went to the Eiffel Tower. On the hour for a couple of minutes the tower is set ablaze with sparkling lights from top to bottom. The best place to see this is across the river at the Trocadero. Monday night I wandered along the Champs Elysee all the way to the Arc du Triomphe. I finished that evening's photographic adventure with a glass of wine at a cafe on the Champs Elysee, just a mere 7 euros, $10. Tuesday evening I ventured up to the Montmartre to see the Sacre Coeur. More evening photos and an expensive meal in one of the tourist cafes in the square. Wednesday evening I saw the lights but no photos were taken because I took a cruise on the Seine. Thursday night I went to the Notre Dame to photograph. Each night there was something to do and see and photograph. I had carried my small tripod around with me all over Europe for use only in the last week of my trip.
Monday saw Paris under completely clear skies, the first time I had ever seen this phenomenom, but it wasn't to last. I
chose this day for the first of two day trips out of Paris. This day I travelled by regional train south to Fountainbleau Chateau. I wanted to visit one of the other chateaux that isn't Versailles, and I thought this would be a good choice. I had some diffuculty getting to the chateau, because I couldn't figure out which train to take. In the end I took the wrong train, not going on the wrong direction, but the slowest train. It turns out there is a more direct train that takes only a couple of stops, the train I took made every stop. I also spent one hour at the Gare de Lyon trying to find a cash machine, find the ticket office and find which trains to take. In total when I finally got to Fountainbleau it was three hours after I had left the hostel. Now some people would say that this is why they prefer tours because all these difficulties are taken care of, all you need to do is sit back and enjoy the view, and spend your money. But I like the challenge of doing it myself, and the sense of accomplishment when I have
done it myself. I also have a week a Paris to make mistakes and have a few struggles. The chateau is rather gorgeous set next to a small lake and with the beautifully kept garden. I went inside and walked through the chateau into many 18th Century Rococo decorated rooms. Fountainbleau has the only existing French royal throne, the last to use it was Napolean; not a royal but liked to call himself emperor. The palace isn't Versailles, and I wouldn't even chose one over the other. I had been to Versailles twice before so it was time to go someplace new, but on your first trip to Paris you should see Versailles. But Fountainbleau has the royal throne and something Versailles doesn't have: space between the tourists. Few tourists were there, it just wasn't crowded and loud and that was lovely, worth the time and expense to get there.
And then there was the rain. It would come in under the umbrella in a fine mist. I had planned a late summer trip to Paris because this usually coincides with good weather. But it rained the last four days of my seven total days in Paris. On Tuesday
Church at Auvers-sur-Oise
Post impressionist Vincent Van Gogh
I took another day trip, this trip to Chartres, that famous Gothic church about 70 km south west of Paris. I only took two hours to get there, that is one hour from the hostel to the train station and another hour by train out of Paris. Remember, the hostel is in the 19th arrondissement far to the north of the centre of Paris. Chartres has the largest collection of medieval stained glass anywhere, I really enjoy looking at the stained glass, to see the bible stories. I have to admit that I cannot really read these pictoral stories, many of which of full of symbolism and I just don't know most stories and thse I do I only know sparingly. The church is dimly lit and difficult to photograph, but the window are a treat to photograph. The church was completed in the early 1200's, but the pulpit and centre alter are currently being resotored so it is covered in scaffolding and wrapped in curtains, like much of the ancient monuments in Europe. I walked about the church for a while as it is quite large, then went to the obligatory gift shop. I bought a large lunch across
the street for half the price I would have spent in the centre of Paris.
Wednesday saw me complete my first re-visit. The Musee d"Orsay was the one museum I just had to see again, it's the Impressionist painters who impress me the most. While the Louvre has a larger collection of paintings and the most famous painting of them all, I have to say that I prefer strolling through the Orsay Museum and could do often. I learned a lot about painting from the Impressionists, but I am not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. I wandered around for nearly three hours admiring the paintings of Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Sisley and Renoir. The most crowded couple of rooms are upstairs where Monet and Renoir hang; their paintings that is. Why do the impressionists hold such a special place among the painters? The use of colour, brush work, setting, and subject. If you stand up close to an impressionist painting it looses detail as you can no longer see what you are looking at, all you see are brushes of colour but as you back away, the form appears and only now can you see what
Once the ancient Roman road
you are supposed to see. For a change of pace, quite literally, I went on a walking tour in the afternoon: The two islands walking tour. There are two islands in the Seine: Ile de la Cite and Ile St Louis and both connected by a small bridge, now a foot bridge but it used to hold traffic. The Ile de la Cite is the historic centre and site of the earliest Parisan settlements over 2000 years ago. Ile de St Louis in the 17th Century was developed as a district for the wealthiest families and they built their luxurious houses. By the late 18th Century the rich had moved away, blame the revolution, and the island and its houses fell into disrepair. For the longest time up until the 1970's it remained a run down area, but the new rich are moving back and Ile de St Louis now is one of the most fashionable and most expensive places in Paris. They have re-occupied those 300 year old houses and remoldled the interiors. I like these walking tours because we walk along narrow streets where no tourist bus could ever get, and we hear stories of individuals and the
details of the development of the city. The walking tour lasted two hours and we walked for most of it weaving in and out of tiny streets, small courtyards and squares.
Thursday I was determined to visit a region of Paris I hadn't seen, and while the weather wasn't great I set off anyway to the Marais district and the Bastille, on the right bank of the Seine. The infamous prison isn't there anymore, one of the great non-tourist-sites. I sat at a cafe drinking tea to warm me up and watched the traffic whirl about the Place de Bastille, and somehow as loud and crazy as it seems, it all works. Buses make their way across several lanes, motorcycles dart about, cars and more cars make noise where the horn is attached to both the brake and accelerator, delivery trucks stop wherever they need to and cyclists meander through the meyhem oblivous to the danger. I took the bus around town this day, because I prefer taking buses. I like this because I get to see where I am going. While the Metro is faster, it is underground and you pop up in a new location without any
real sense of travel. I walked from the Place de la Bastille to the Place de Vosges, a beautiful square enclosed on all sides by red bricked 17th Century houses and lined with trees. From here into the free Carnavalet Museum, history of Paris museum. With my puny travelling umbrella I pressed on to the Notre Dame and went inside. Everyone enters on the right side of the church, when looking from the front, under the frieze depicting temptation and everyone exits the left side under the frieze depicting good and salvation. After a 20 minute entry through the church, everyone can be saved. I would never claim to be religious, or even spritual, yet I like going to churches to see the medieval architecture, the stained glass and the art. Churches are full of history, our history. After the Notre Dame as if I hadn't yet got enough religion for one day I walked the block west to the Sainte Chapelle church. Because this church is within the Justice Ministry, you have to go through a thorough screening and X-ray machine and this creates a half hour queue. This church is much smaller, but possibly more impressive. The stained
glass is without equal, possibly even more impressive than Chartres because it is closer. Oddly, the church has two floors, the second floor raises you toward the glass, it is almost close enough to touch, and easily observed and studied. On each supporting pillar is a statue of an apostle, painted and looking down upon us, or is it that we have to look up to them? Churches were originally painted; the entire facade of the Notre Dame was covered in multi-coloured paint and gold, it's all since worn off. The interior of the Sainte Chapelle Church still has the original paint, and looks much like it did 800 years ago.
We have come to Friday, my last full day in Paris and again, another full day of walking. I first attended another Paris Walks tour. This time through another district I knew nothing about, the Latin Quarter on the left bank. The tour retraced the steps of Hemingway and his time in Paris as a young writer in the 1920's. As preparation, the previous day I had bought myself a copy of his autobiographical account of those days in his book A Moveable Feast, and I bought this book in the most famous of bookshops, Shakespeare and Company, the very shop where all the English speaking expats of the 1920's used to hang out. The actual location of the shop has changed. Before the war, Shakespeare and Company was further south near the Luxembourg Gardens. The owner closed the shop because she didn't want the Nazis getting their hands on the books and burning them, but once Paris was liberated the shop never opened. A few years later, someone else came along and offered to reopen the bookshop with the same name, but at a different location. It is now on the left bank of the Seine, overlooked by the Notre Dame Cathedral. On the tour, the guide showed us the last remains of the wall that encircled Paris built in the 13th Century to keep out the English, it didn't work because Paris is now overrun with 15 million tourists each year, many from England. We walked into a small courtyard and the guide told us where James Joyce finished Ulysses, he took us to the St Etienne Church and told us of St Genevieve, patron saint of Paris who helped Paris resist Attilla the Hun. We walked past the Pantheon and heard its story of completion before and during the revolution, and we walked along the route of the ancient Gallo Roman road that led out of ancient Paris and onto Lyon and beyond to Paris. And we got to see where Hemingway lived and where he worked. In Hemmingway, there are things to be believed and things not to be believed. The book, A Moveable Feast comes from a quote Hemingway made in 1950 as he was writing the book, many years after his time in Paris. "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you for Paris is moveable feast." I really like these walking tours because they take you into a hidden Paris, beneath the uppermost layer of the major and easily accessable tourist attractions. And this was the Paris I had come to see and to understand. I ended my last day with a flurry of picture taking to use up the last of the memory card and to take advantage of the break in the clouds.
I left Paris as I entered, by high speed train. France has some of the best trains anywhere in the world, they are fast and run on time. Paris and the rest of France have some of the best food and a wonderful cafe life. But I would like to know why they have not managed to combine the two, because the food on a French train is at best dissappinting. All that is available is a few day old sandwiches and stale croissants. I got to Frankfurt in the early afternoon and walked into a hotel, my last night in Europe. I stayed in and watched television. Now, I am sitting in front of my own computer in a modest flat in Western Canada writing a blog entry about Paris, that is called transplanting yourself, to write about Paris far from Paris, to create the city in my mind while I ponder my next move down to the local Safeway to buy my groceries and prepare for a return to work.