Published: March 22nd 2010December 16th 2009
My plane journey from Joburg to Paris coincidentally involves a change in Cairo, meaning that I cover the same ground in reverse by air in 8 hours as it has taken me just over 10 months to cover on predominantly terrestrial transport. Small wonder that plane travel can bring on a false sense of the world shrinking - my own trip has shown me such a multitude of countries and diverse people within those countries that a homogenous planet seems many generations distant, whatever flight times might suggest.
I arrive in Paris still wearing flip-flops - it's taken nearly 4 decades for me to learn that long plane trips in hiking boots are to be avoided, but I've gotten there in the end. My sister C meets me at Charles de Gaulle, an airport that represents the only part of Paris I've previously visited. It's great to see her, not least because her fluent French is going to make communication with the locals much easier than using my Rwanda/Burundi/Madagascar-honed blathering. We speed into the centre of Paris on a train that is comfortable, on time, and only lightly passengered - ah, the memories.
C has already taken up residence
Ferris wheel detail
Place de la Concorde
in a hotel in the Marais district, named after a long-disappeared marsh but, to me, still Martian in its total dissimilarity to anything I've seen in the last 10 months. The area is buzzing with boutique shops and bicycles, the cold of a Parisian winter not preventing the outdoor cafe tables from receiving custom. We're not far from the Seine and a brisk trot past the Hotel de Ville (now the City Hall) brings us to the river's slowly-flowing waters, bracketed by umpteen bridges to east and west. The history of Paris spans many hundreds of years and has occasionally run parallel with the history of the whole continent, and I'm left speechless by the glimpses of that heritage that I can see merely by pausing on the Pont d'Arcole - the Louvre (old palace and now the most visited museum/art gallery in the world), Notre Dame (site of ABBA's tourist jam), and off to the west the unmistakable silhouette of the most famous example of Victorian Structural Expressionism, the Eiffel Tower. France's influence is waning in the world (the francophone community of Africa decreased by one country in November with Rwanda's joining of the Commonwealth) but it's preserving its
C and I are in Paris to celebrate her milestone %$th birthday. She has visited the city many times with her job, but has never been able to explore it without a crocodile of overactive pensioners trailing behind her - breaking limbs, losing limbs, losing lives. So this is her chance to experience Paris on her terms. With eating and drinking featuring prominently in her to-do list, and no friends able to get away from work to accompany her, it was inevitable that her unemployed glutton of a brother would get the call. South of the river from where we are staying is the fabled Left Bank, erstwhile stamping ground of the city's intellectuals and also the name of my mother's favourite perfume. It is there, in the cafe-heavy neighbourhoods of St Germain and the Latin Quarter, that C and I will spend most of our eating and drinking time.
The subsequent seven days are a true holiday, the greatest hardship being the twice-(occasionally thrice-)daily choice of where to eat - closely followed by what to eat, then by the glass or by the bottle? Paris has too many interesting things to see in such a
short time, and in fact you could easily spend an entire week in the Louvre (though our visit there is more of a Greatest Hits sprint, taking in about a dozen of the highlights - how can the Mona Lisa get more attention than the Winged Victory of Samothrace (lack of a head notwithstanding)? And why is the lighting so dismal for pieces like the Venus de Milo?). It being Christmas, the Champs Elysees at night is lined with stalls selling warming gluhwein, and food ranging from crepes to tortillas. In the Place de la Concorde, with the obelisk, the Ferris wheel (possibly the only thing the city has in common with Middlesbrough), and views towards the Louvre, the atmosphere tempts out some Japanese newly-weds to pose, goose-pimpled, for photos in a place half a world away from home.
Paris shows itself to be, at the very least, a peer of London's by being a city where you can't avoid history. Any walk of more than fifty metres reveals something with historical significance or the building where some luminary lived/worked/died or the site where some important event occurred, dating predominantly from the last millennium (though the city has been
in existence since before Christ and certainly before London). Even a modest tourist itinerary encompasses the 14th century buttresses of Notre Dame, the 15th century tapestry series "The Lady and the Unicorn", the 16th century Jardin des Tuileries, the 17th century Pont Neuf, the 18th century Place de la Concorde, the 19th century Eiffel Tower, and the 20th century Pompidou Centre, with 21st century euros being spent along the way. Though I have seen many of these places and objects on TV or in magazines, their impact in situ is still astounding - in particular the Eiffel Tower looms in a way I'd never imagined (despite me having seen Tokyo Tower, for which it was the template), though the Louvre Pyramid is decidedly underwhelming.
Though we make only the shortest of inroads into everything that Paris has to offer, I still come away with some personal favourites, chief among them the gold, cherubic grandeur of the Pont d'Alexandre III and the laughably ostentatious Opera Garnier. We visit Montmartre on C's birthday, and the fairground carousel below Sacre-Coeur is playing the Amelie soundtrack, a connection to this arrondissement
that the nearby Cafe des Deux Moulins (Amelie's workplace in the film)
is still trading on. The film world has indeed been kind to Parisian tourism in the last decade (see also The Da Vinci Code) though, now that I think about it, perhaps it's just the considerable appeal of Audrey Tautou. Audrey doesn't put in an appearance, sadly, but we do achieve one celebrity spot in the Musee D'Orsay - William Petersen (aka CSI's Grissom), who I stalk mercilessly until I can pap him.
Americans in general are not in short supply, their accents leaping out at me from the dominant babble of fruity French, suggesting that Freedom Fries have reverted to their old name on the other side of the pond. In fact, tourists of all ilks abound, though winter is supposedly the low season. Whether on holiday or expats, incomers have created tremendous diversity in the population of Paris, including an extensive collection of Asian hookers in the Pigalle. I do like cities that reflect the planet on which they sit. Reaching beyond the world of humans, I also get to meet the resident (needy) cats in a surprising number of restaurants.
However a holiday needs a few low points in order to bring out the altitude
of the highs. My lowest is ignoring the entreaties of a deaf and dumb girl in the church of St Severin - I can't understand the pamphlet (written in French) that she tries to give to me, so brush her off, figuring she's trying to raise money for some religious organisation. C subsequently tells me of my mistake. The next lowest occurs in the famous Cafe Les Deux Magots - while absently picking at a healing mosquito bite on my ear, the scab comes free and blood starts flowing. Like any head cut, it won't stop. You've got to love the cramped seating in Parisian eateries.
The day we are due to leave Paris sees some proper snow falling, and I am loth to leave behind this new white look. Since our first day, there's been a bite to the air but the city has also bestowed upon me a lazy kiss that has grown steadily more French as the week has gone by. London has been my pottering venue of choice for so many years that it seems a betrayal to admit I've found somewhere new, but I can't deny the feelings that this rival suitor has aroused
It's an au revoir
to Paris, but definitely not an adieu
. Dull but possibly useful info
i. Flew on Egyptair, paying £263 for a one-way flight from Joburg to Paris via Cairo (4 hour layover). This was actually cheaper than my British Midland flight from London to Cairo at the beginning of the year, but the Egyptair plane had a similar entertainment system to that found on Flyer 1. I booked my ticket through Opodo but either they or Egyptair lost my seat specifications.
ii. Stayed at the Hotel France Louvre, paying an average of £92 per night for a snug but well-equipped twin room. The hotel has easily the narrowest entrance and lobby of any hotel I've ever stayed in, and the lift demonstrates the adage of "Two's company but three's a crowd", however the staff are helpful. The Marais is a great location for shopping, eating, drinking, and as a base for touristy stuff. Though the Metro system is extensive, Paris is definitely a walking (or cycling) city and you will see its charms better above the ground.
iii. The fixed price set menus are such good value that don't even think about ordering
a la carte unless you have money to burn. You should be able to get 3 courses all over the city for 10-15 euros per person, though note that the available dishes may not differ substantially from one place to the next. In particular if you have an aversion to onion soup then you're SOL. Many (most?) places seem to close for a period between lunch and dinner, and don't bank on being able to have much of a choice of dining options late at night (by even London standards, let alone Buenos Aires ones).
iv. Sainte-Chapelle is closed until 2013.
v. The Louvre entrance price is cheaper after 6PM on Wed and Fri (6 euros), and after 8PM or so you'll be able to see attractions such as the Mona Lisa without having to fight your way through a crowd.
vi. Cafe de l'Industrie in the Bastille area was one of the best cafes we ate in, but frankly we didn't have a bad meal anywhere.
There are more photos below