I grew up hearing a lot about Paris. My father had stayed there for six months in the sixties, and he often talked about the grandeur of the city, its museums, its people, and its indefinable air of romance. Photographs were often brought out to accompany the telling, old-black and white photographs with well-dressed men and women, the Eiffel Tower at night, the narrow streets of cobbled stone, the lovely palace at Versailles. As you may imagine, to the child that I was, Paris was tinged with the sepia overtones of my father’s memories, an embodiment of what a city should be. Small wonder then, that I held on to those memories, and Paris headed the list of ‘places I should visit before I die’.
I grew up, went to work on my own, got married, and life pushed the thought of travel anywhere (except for work or to visit family) to the recesses of my mind. So, when the opportunity came many, many years later, childhood memories spruced themselves up, brushing off the cobwebs of the ages, and, looking none the worse for having been relegated to the background, presented themselves with enthusiasm. My brother-in-law had been residing in France for many years and we were going to visit him. Even the fact that Air France managed to blotch a simple request for a vegetarian meal did not spoil the trip. After all, a charming French steward did offer me his own lunch.
We landed in Paris and, probably because I was looking at the city through eyes dimmed by another’s perception, everything was beautiful. It is perhaps one of life’s little ironies that our first ‘sightseeing’ trip was to EuroDisney, Paris. My brother-in-law had, thoughtfully, arranged everything because he thought that my son, who was seven at the time, would enjoy it very much. As he drove us down to the resort in Marne-la-Vallée, a suburb of Paris, I chuckled as reality triumphed over childhood memories.
It is easy enough to get to the park even if you do not have access to a car, as there is a railway station at Marne-la-Vallee-Chessy, with connection to the suburban RER network. The high-speed rail network TGV is located between the theme parks and Disney Village. There are also daily services from London and Strasbourg.
If we did have to go to a theme park, though, I would have preferred to visit Parc Asterix, situated in Plailly in the county of Oise. Like many Indians, I had grown up on a steady diet of Asterix & Obelix comics, and Parc Asterix would have been fun to visit. From what I heard from my brother-in-law, the park is divided into themed zones, based on different countries, and offers Greek, Roman and Parisian zones, amongst others. It also has a replica of the famous Gaul village ‘that still holds out against the intruders’. If you had to visit a theme park in Paris, I would strongly urge you to choose Parc Asterix. The park is easily accessible by car, but there is a bus service from Roissy / Charles de Gaulle Airport.
I must say, though, that we all enjoyed EuroDisney, not having been to either of the Disney theme parks in the US. The trip there had taken the whole day, so we returned tired, but with a very happy son in tow. Our plans for the next day included cramming in as much sightseeing in Paris as we could, since we were leaving the day after to Nantes, the most important city in the province of Brittany.
We began the day with a visit to the Notre Dame Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Paris. A Gothic Cathedral, it is still used by the Roman Catholics. The cathedral is situated on Île de la Cité or City Island, one of two natural islands on the River Seine. The island is connected to both banks of the river by bridges, one of which is the Pont Neuf, or New Bridge, a fine example of Gallic humour, since it is the oldest standing bridge in Paris. It also has a Metro station, Cité. The RER station (Saint-Michel-Notre-Dame) has an exit in the square in front of the cathedral.
The cathedral’s main entrance faces west. Twin towers dominate the façade on this side. Apparently, you have to be fit to ascend the towers, since there are 386 steep steps that lead to the top. Unfortunately, the towers were closed for renovation and visitors were prohibited from ascending them. This was a major blow, since the South Tower houses the Emmanuel Bell – made famous by Victor Hugo in his gothic romance The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The cathedral is also famed for its Rose windows, which have been restored and replaced many times over the centuries. When we visited the cathedral, it was interesting to see the swirls and whorls of colour as the sun played hide and seek behind the stained glass. The cathedral houses excellent sculptures of the Holy Virgin, some 37 of them, some with baby Jesus on her hip. In spite of many tourists who were drawn to the cathedral because of its historical and literary associations, and the many believers who chose to come in to worship, there was a solemn quiet in that house of worship, that even your footfalls echoing on the stone floors seemed sacrilegious.
As we came out, my brother-in-law pointed out the three portals on the west façade. The Portal of Saint Anne, which is the oldest, is the right most portal. The Portal of the Virgin is the second oldest and the one on the left side. The central portal is the Portal of the Last Judgement. This last, the newest of the three portals is also the largest. It is difficult not to feel the faith that has been absorbed into its very stones. Religious or not, whether you belong to the faith or even the denomination, the Notre Dame Cathedral is definitely worth a visit.
An interesting point to note is that all road distances are calculated from Point Zero, inside Place du Parvis de Notre-Dame, the square facing the cathedral’s west end towers.
My brother-in-law should have been a tour guide. He was trying to show us as much as he could of the city he had, until recently, called home. From the Notre Dame, he took us to the structure that attracted a lot of criticism when it was first built – the Eiffel Tower. We waited in line and climbed up its many steps, scorning the elevator as ‘touristy’. When we reached the second level, we were told that it would be a two-hour wait to climb the rest of the way to the top. They allow only a certain number of people at a time to visit the top most level. My pragmatic husband suggested that waiting with a restive seven year old for two hours, on an iron structure crowded with thousands of other visitors, was an experience that he did not wish upon any one. My son on the other hand was squealing with happiness – he had spotted a football pitch, many hundreds of feet below him. Disappointed, we walked down again. If any traveller has ideas of climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower, I would suggest that you get an early start. The queues can be alarmingly long. In fact, they stop selling tickets after a point.
Cruises down the River Seine start from the Eiffel Tower. It would have been interesting to take a dinner cruise, as the city is illuminated at night. We took one in the middle of the afternoon.
Paris is not very friendly to vegetarians. Food choices can be awfully limited. Street vendors offer freshly made crepes, rolled with sugar, or different types of jams. Of course, if you do not mind living as I did on salads, fruits, bread and milk, then travel can be fun. Otherwise, I suggest you pack your own food.
After a light lunch, we walked toward Champs-Élysées, one of the most famous streets in the world. Flanked by straight rows of trees on both sides, the two-kilometre stretch of road leads to the Arc de Triomphe at its western end. Home to many famous luxury brands, designer showrooms, cinemas, and cafes, the Champs-Élysées is the most prestigious street in Paris.
The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Napoleon and stands sentinel in Place Charles de Gaulle. The names of people who fought and died for France in the Napoleonic Wars is inscribed inside. Beneath the arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, who died in the First World War. An eternal flame burns to honour the dead who were never identified.
Paris is a city that ensures you keep healthy. There are 284 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. From the top is a panoramic view of the city and the twelve avenues that lead to the monument. The monument is also accessible by RER and Metro rail. You have to get out at the Charles de Gaulle — Étoile stop.
From the Champs-Élysées, we walked to Montmartre, the artistic, bohemian quarter of Paris. A hill, it is home to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart or the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, situated on its summit, the highest point in the city. Built out of a kind of rock that exudes calcite even today, the Basilica remains white. Its dome is open to visitors and offers a spectacular view of the city of Paris. It is home to the largest mosaic of Christ in the world.
As we walked down the hill, we stopped to listen to a busker playing the accordion. Two little girls, dressed alike, who came along with their father started to dance in step with the music. The busker changed the plaintive lament he was playing until then to an old-fashioned country-dance tune. At the bottom of the hill, artists spread out easels to copy the white dome of the basilica against the skyline of Paris.
Montmartre is also the decadent quarter, known for its nightclubs, a gastronomical and cultural district with its own quaint charm. Lapin Agile is a famous nightclub in the area where once unknown painters and artists gathered. It is still open to the public. The once famous Moulin Rouge is situated very near Montmartre. The district has however fallen into disrepute and we decided against going there.
It was late evening and we had to sadly discount the possibility of visiting the Louvre. We decided to have dinner and shop for some Indian groceries for my brother-in-law. Nantes does not boast of an Indian store and he stocks up whenever he is in Paris. It is then that we saw the most curious sight – an entire street that made us feel we were walking down Chennai, down to the aluminium water pots arranged in stacks outside the shops to the saris that were hung artistically on awnings. Familiar smells of sambar and coffee assailed my nostrils and however delicious French baguettes, pastries and Brioche are, I suddenly yearned for a cup of hot Madras Coffee. Having seen the sights outside, I must admit I was not very surprised when the waiter spoke to me in Tamil.
Like many other European capitals, Paris is an expensive place to visit. When we travelled, a strong dollar ensured that we spent less than we had estimated. Today, a strong and stable Euro rules the market place.
Walking is perhaps the best way to ‘see’ the city. However, public transport via the metro, buses and commuter trains make getting around an affordable and adventurous option. Maps are freely available, and so are bicycle and rollerblade rentals. Crime seems to have increased since I visited, because there are signs now in the trains warning you to watch out for pickpockets.
Paris, often called ‘The City of Lights’ is one of the most vibrant and beautiful capital cities in the world. For a first time visitor, exploring Paris can be a little overwhelming. It can take a lifetime to experience all that this city has to offer.
Like my father before me, I had fallen in love with the city. Spending only two days there was not enough to do it justice. I consoled myself with the thought that this was only a preliminary outing – my husband and I would come back one day, and soak in the Parisian ambience – unhurried, without an itinerary, without a tour guide, without children - for as long as it takes.
© Anuradha Warrier
June 13 2008