Published: May 3rd 2012July 20th 2009
Beacon in the night
The Eiffel Tower in all it's glory
So picking up from where I left off in my last update - as I was arriving in Paris with not a single euro cent in my possession, with which to pay for my accommodation for the week...
Much to my relief, the receptionist at my hostel in Paris (which unfortunately was in the suburb of Clichy - at least an hours' walk from the centre of Paris) was prepared to let me check-in that evening (friday 10th July) and then pay for my bed the following morning.
So my first order of business on saturday morning was collecting my desperately-needed emergency cash advance from the nearest Western Union office - after tucking into the complimentary buffet breakfast provided by the hostel, that is! Thankfully things went according to plan for a change, and no sooner had I paid for my accommodation for the week than I was taking a metro into the city centre to take my first, long-anticipated look at Paris - the one city I had been looking forward to seeing more than any other in Europe ever since I had conceived my idea to come to Europe two years ago. And thankfully, despite the overcast
weather, I was not disappointed. The first thing I noticed was how expansive everything in Paris is compared to most other European cities - from the wide boulevards to the large, open squares and, of course, towering above everything else, the Eiffel Tower.
Starting at the Seine River, I headed directly south past the immense Hotel des Invalides with it's magnificent gilded dome - underneath which the body of one Napolean Bonaparte lies buried - before heading west across the Champ de Mars to check out the Eiffel Tower up close. From there I crossed back over the river and made my way to the Place de Charles de Gaulle, where the Arc de Triomphe sits in the middle of a roundabout surrounded by twelve of Paris' grandest boulevards. From there it was only natural to head straight down the grandest boulevard of them all - the Champs-Elyses, which connects the Arc de Triomphe with another, smaller victory arch that sits directly in front of the Palais de Louvre, which was formerly the official residence of the French royal family, before being converted into the world-famous Musee de Louvre.
After taking a break and heading back to the
Heart and soul of Paris
Cathédrale de Notre-Dame
hostel for a late lunch, I was soon back in the centre of Paris (having wisely invested in an unlimited metro card valid for five days) following the banks of the Seine to the Ille de la Cite; an island in the centre of the river which is regarded as the symbolic centre of Paris, and is home to the heart-and-soul of the city - the Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Paris (meaning 'Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris') - which to my surprise was still open to the public. With the thick layer of clouds and the fact that it was already about nine o'clock in the evening, the Cathedral was eerily dark inside; especially when compared to the cathedral I had visited in Blois only two days earlier.
Then just as I was about to leave, a recorded message came over the public announcement system in French, which I assumed was informing everyone that visiting hours were about to end for the day - until the English translation announced that not only was the Cathedral staying open for another hour, but that a movie about the history of Notre Dame was about to be shown inside the
Entertaining the crowds
Street musician in front of the Basilica de Sacre Coeur
Cathedral! So most unexpectedly I ended up spending the next thirty minutes sitting in stunned silence watching a film describing the history, construction, architecture and symbolism of one of the most famous churches anywhere in the world, from inside the church itself - not a bad end to my first full day in Paris!
Sunday brought further exploration of Paris, including a visit to the Basilica de Sacre Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) perched high atop the Montmartre Butte, a hill to the north of the city which affords stunning views of Paris. And in yet another moment of European musical magic, there was a musician entertaining the throngs of people gathered on the steps in front of the church with his acoustic repertoire of 'feelgood' classics - featuring everything from 'It's A Wonderful World' to 'Don't Worry, Be Happy'!
One thing that has constantly amazed me over the past two months is the contrast between the different methods that people use to make money from tourists in Europe. At every major tourist attraction you will find countless beggars either asking for money directly, or asking if you speak English before handing you a piece of paper
Sunset in Paris
View from the top of the Arc de Triomphe
asking you for money; as well as a dozen or so black men flogging either worthless trinkets or stolen handbags - always laid out on a white blanket, so that at the first sign of a police presence they can simply grab all four corners of the blanket, throw the whole load over their shoulder and wing it down the nearest side-street - yet you also find talented street performers (whether they be musicians, comedians, acrobats, or anything else you can think of) who genuinely put their heart and soul into each performance and actually entertain the people they are asking for money from; and who thoroughly deserve every euro they make.
Heading back into the centre of Paris, I managed to get to the top of the Arc de Triomphe just in time to see the sun setting behind the modern city centre to the west; while marvelling at the sight of the twelve grand boulevards radiating out from the roundabout encircling the Arc - which with no lane markings whatsoever makes for an entertaining spectacle as all sorts of cars, bikes and buses try to manoeuvre their way from the inner 'lanes' to their desired exit point!
And funnily enough, the view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe straight down the Champs-Elyses towards the Musee de Louvre reminded me so much of the view from the top of the Siegesalle victory column down the Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin last year!
On monday I paid my first visit to the Pantheon, which despite only being built less than three hundred years ago (as opposed to the Pantheon in Rome which was built almost two thousand years ago) has had a fascinating history typical of the French. Originally designed as a church in the mid-eighteenth century, by the time it was completed thirty years later the Revolution had taken place, and the building was therefore dedicated as the national Pantheon (which is basically a non-religious monument designed to house the tombs of great men from that country as a way of honouring their contribution to society).
A few decades later it was then re-dedicated as a church - the purpose for which it had originally been intended - only to then be converted back to a Pantheon again! Later still it became a dual-purpose monument, with a new entrance built
at the back of the building leading directly from street level to the subterranean crypt, so as to allow non-Catholics to visit the crypt without having to enter the main body of the building (which by now was being used as a church once again); before finally being converted back to a strictly secular National Pantheon again in the late-nineteenth century! But that's the French for you - they just love a good political upheaval to keep things interesting!
After checking out the view form the top of the Pantheon's massive dome, I headed down the street to the Jardins de Luxembourg, where a beautiful garden is laid out around a central pond, overlooked by the grand old Palais de Luxembourg; before heading back to Montmartre to the north of the city to check out the Basilica de Sacre Coeur and it's magnificent interior lit up at night (not only is entrance to the Basilica free, as with the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, but it is open from seven o'clock in the morning until eleven o'clock at night).
Tuesday (14th July) had been a date around which I had organized my entire trip, as it happened to be
Symbol of Parisian patriotism
Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day
Bastille Day - France's national day of celebration in recognition of the storming of the Bastille prison, which kickstarted the French revolution on July 14, 1789. Unfortunately though, having only gotten back to my hostel at two o'clock the night before - after having missed the last metro back to Clichy and therefore had to wait around for a night bus instead - I ended up sleeping in on the morning of the 14th, and by the time I made it into town workmen were already starting to dismantle the temporary grandstands that had been erected for the grand parade that day!
Nevertheless I followed the Champs-Elyses all the way to the Arc de Triomphe - which as with the Colosseum in Rome on Italy's national day six weeks earlier was sporting a massive national flag - where I went up to the top of the Arc for a second time to appreciate the view in daylight this time; before pausing to take in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the eternal flame at the base of the Arc.
With people everywhere but nothing much actually going on, I retired to my hostel for a couple of
View of the Champs-Élysées from atop the Arc de Triomphe
hours, before re-emerging just after dusk in time to catch the fireworks display in front of (and on top of) the Eiffel Tower. With the streets and bridges all blocked off for about a kilometre in every direction around the tower, I ended up in the middle of a sea of people at an intersection beside the river, waiting for the clock to tick over to 10:45pm so the fireworks would start. Finally the show got under way, with smaller fireworks being set off on the tower itself, while the larger fireworks exploded on either side of the tower.
But though the half-hour show was impressive - and the tower was certainly the perfect location for it, as it provided the perfect vantage point from which to watch the event all the way along the north bank of the Seine - I have to admit it couldn't compete with the twenty-minute fireworks spectacular that I saw in front of the Palais Royal in Brussels last year for Belgium's national day, which had been accompanied by the most evocative classical music blaring from road-side speakers right up until the grand finale!
And of course, once the show was over
Keeping the crowds happy
Bastille Day fireworks at the Eiffel Tower
there was the slight problem of having to take the metro home - along with the 800,000 or so other spectators who had been expected to turn up for the fireworks display! In fact the scene at the underground station on the Champs-Elyses was nothing less than hilarious, as each train that pulled into the station (which were no more than five minutes apart) was even more cramped than the one before - and that was before the doors had opened to let more people on!
And so, having waited at the front of the platform for about half-an-hour without being able to board any of the trains that had come and gone, I eventually came up with the ingenious solution of going over to the platform on the other side of the tracks and first taking an empty train back in towards the city and out the other side - since there was noone else heading into the city by this time - before then turning around and taking another metro straight back the way I had just come, through the city and all the way out to my hostel in Clichy! And sure enough, by the time
Chateau de Versailles
I passed the station from which I had started out, the same people I had been standing next to on the platform were still unable to squeeze their way onto the train!
Having spent the past four days exploring the inner city of Paris, I changed tactics on wednesday morning and headed out to the nearby town of Versailles, where the world-famous Chateau de Versailles - one of the largest and most magnificent royal palaces in the world - is located. Comparable in size and grandeur to both the Bourbon royal palace at Caserta in southern Italy and the Habsburg royal palace on the outskirts of Vienna in Austria, the palace and grounds were certainly a sight to behold - though having first taken a tour of the Chateau's interior before then exploring the surrounding gardens and groves, I would have to admit I found Schloss Schonbrunn (the Habsburg's former residence) to be more impressive - not to mention far less crowded - when I visited Vienna last year.
Having spent five or six hours at the Chateau in Versailles, I then took a train back to Paris and headed straight to another former royal palace - though
this time it was the astonishing collection of artwork at the Musee de Louvre that I was interested in. Making the most of the Louvre's extended opening hours on wednesday's (closing time being ten o'clock), I embarked on a slightly hurried tour of the bottom two floors - housing mostly antique sculptures and artifacts - before arriving at the aptly-named Grand Gallery, which stretches for over a hundred metres and is lined with sixteenth-to-eighteenth century Italian masterpieces.
Having turned out of the Grand Gallery into a neighbouring exhibition room, I would have to admit I really didn't see what was so impressive about Leonardo da Vinci's 'La Joconde' - better known by it's English title 'Mona Lisa' - which was not only housed in a glass cabinet, cordoned off by a railing, and surrounded by a scrum of people all trying to get a decent photo of it; but also surprisingly small - standing no more than three feet high and two feet wide! In fact I found it quite amusing that directly opposite the Mona Lisa was the massive and incredibly detailed 'Last Supper' - which despite being big enough for everyone to get a good look at,
Island in the heart of Paris
Cathédrale de Notre-Dame on the Île de la Cité
barely seemed to attract any onlookers at all!
For my final day in Paris I had hoped to catch up with a friend of mine named Antoine whom I met in Perth and who lives in the outer suburbs of Paris; but unfortunately after waiting around at my hostel for almost an hour for Antoine to arrive, I then checked my e-mail and discovered that he had been called in to work and would be unable to make it. Undeterred, I went ahead with my plan to hire a pushbike and ride around Paris at my leisure for the rest of the day, only to arrive at the Fat Tyre bike shop and find out that they had just given out every one of their bikes to a guided tour group that had just left! After then spending the next couple of hours unsuccessfully trying to track down another shop from which I could hire a bicycle, I ended up admitting defeat and heading instead to the Cathedrale de Notre Dame to take a better look around the interior of the church.
From there I took a metro out to the Bois de Vincennes - a large forested
Eiffel Tower at night
park on the outskirts of the city - where I took a leisurely stroll from one end of the reserve to the other; before hopping on another metro out to the Bois de Boulogne on the opposite side of the city (which I only discovered later - after reading 'The Da Vinci Code' - has earnt the nickname 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' amongst Parisians, due to it's rather shady reputation for being a red-light district of sorts!). With a couple of hours of daylight left and nothing much else left on my 'list of things to do in Paris', I headed to the Champ de Mars for what is undoubtedly the most popular (and arguably the most frustrating) pasttime in Paris - taking the lift to the top of the Eiffel Tower!
And so after waiting in line for just under an hour, I eventually made it onto one of the lifts that whisk people up to the second floor (approximately halfway up the tower) before then waiting another half-an-hour for another lift to take me up to the very top of the tower - three hundred metres above the ground! And in one of those classic 'it
River of lights
View of the River Seine from the Eiffel Tower
could only happen to me' moments, I had no sooner made it up to the top than a severe thunderstorm fuelled by gale-force winds hit the tower - causing the viewing platform I was standing on to literally sway in the breeze; and in doing so causing me to dead-set shit my pants! And to make matters even worse, despite the assurances of the staff that everything was under control and that the movement of the platform was perfectly normal, they had stopped running the lift back down to the second floor because it was considered 'unsafe' until the winds died down! So there we were - a couple of hundred helpless tourists, stuck on a three-hundred-metre-high steel antenna, in the middle of a freaking thunderstorm! Unbelievable!
Worse was yet to come when I then missed the last metro of the night back to Clichy - for the third time in six days - and ended up having to run barefoot (my flip-flops having become too slippery to wear) through the pouring rain in nothing but shorts and singlet, until I finally made it to the night-bus stop for my ride home! Not exactly the way I had pictured
Pont Alexandre III over the River Seine
my holiday coming to an end! Then again, how many people could say they have been in Paris for the Bastille Day fireworks in front of the Eiffel Tower; seen a movie about the Cathedral at Notre Dame inside the cathedral itself; been entertained by a street musician on the steps of the Basilica de Sacre Coeur; seen the sunset from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and been caught in a thunderstorm on top of the Eiffel Tower...?!?
And so with my time in Paris having come to an end (friday 17th July), there was only one stop left on my itinerary before my flight back to Australia - Old Harlow Town north of London, where my mates from Munich, Dan and Frank, were awaiting my arrival! So after a painstakingly-slow bus trip from Paris to London (via French customs, English customs, and finally the Channel Tunnel); an underground tube ride from Victoria Street station to Liverpool Street station; and an express train to Harlow; I finally arrived in the Promised Land, where Dan's old man Mick was kind enough to pick me up from the station, before I got completely soaked for the second
Heaven is a weekend in Harlow
Enjoying a pint down the pub in Olde England
time in twenty-four hours!
The rest of the weekend was spent exactly as I had planned, with no attempt whatsoever being made to see any of the local sights (of which there are none, unless you count the pub) as Dan, Frank and I did what we do best - that is, to sit at a bar drinking beer; amusing only ourselves with our dim-witted banter about nothing in particular; while glancing over at the television every now and then to see if anything interesting had happened in the cricket! And of course, I just had to coincide my arrival in England with the one-and-only weekend in recorded history where the Poms were actually giving the Aussies a touch-up in the Ashes! Oh, the humiliation...!
There are more photos below