I’m feeling a little nervous writing this story. It’s about my holiday to France back in 2011. I didn’t really go to a lot of places in France but I spent a significant amount time in Paris and a few days in the French Riviera only. You must be wondering why I should feel nervous. Well, maybe it’s because there have been countless and numerous publicity about Paris ranging from books, art, museums, fashion, photography, films, you name it, and I wonder if my stories would give justice to some of the beautiful (and not so beautiful) sights of the city. So here’s my tribute to Pah-ree!
You got to admit that there is a lot of hype about everything that is Paris. But one thing I realize, nobody talks about Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport. That’s because it’s the ugliest airport I have ever seen in Western Europe! I have not travelled much in this region but I assume the international airports would be pretty high up in modern architectural standards. CDG is simply old, grey and dull. The airports in Asia are way much brighter and modern looking. ‘Nuff said. I just wanted to highlight the first impression a first-timer gets when arriving in Paris at the airport.
We stayed outside of Paris, a 3-star hotel called Park & Suites Elegance Maisons-Laffitte. Maisons-Laffitte is served by the Maisons-Laffitte station on Paris RER Line A and the metro station is only ten minutes’ walk to our hotel. The surrounding area has a suburban feel to it – there are shops, supermarket, butcher, cafes and restaurants – very few tourists but locals only. Maisons-Laffitte is known for its horse racing track and the Chateau de Maisons-Laffitte. How often do you come across a suburb which has a chateau just a stone’s throw away?
Once we have checked into the hotel and freshened up, we headed straight to the city centre. We didn’t do much sightseeing on our first day because we wanted to get our bearings right, trying to decide what we wanted to see for the next couple of days. Instead we walked around some of the main landmarks such as Champs Elysees, Louvre Museum, Tuileries Garden, Eiffel Tower and along the River Seine. Despite the exhaust fumes from traffic and the grimy pathways littered with cigarette butts (Hollywood doesn’t show all this in the movies!), it is fairly easy to navigate around these main landmarks. Just ensure that you’re not carrying a heavy backpack and do wear a good pair of shoes because you’re gonna wish for a foot massage at the end of all that walking!
Nah, I don’t feel the romance
First stop is Eiffel Tower, the most distinctive symbol of Paris. Some facts about Eiffel Tower: it was the world’s tallest building from 1889 until it was surpassed by New York’s Chrysler Building in 1930; and its construction is so sound that the tower never sways more than seven centimetres in strong winds.
We saw the long queues at the base of Eiffel Tower the day before, hence we set off early from Maison-Lafitte. While queuing for entrance tickets, we saw fleets of tour buses arriving, the queues became longer and street vendors came around to sell tacky Eiffel Tower key chains for 1 euro each. We queued for about an hour and a half to buy the tickets, then another couple of minutes to queue to get into the hydraulic lift, and finally at the Viewing Gallery. I hate to disappoint you but it is very crowded up there! People craned their necks and pushed through their way around to see the aerial view of Paris or squeezed through the crowd to take a picture. What happened to the romantic feeling of being at the Eiffel Tower where there were declarations of love and marriage proposals?? Nada…that’s just Hollywood.
Ok enough of cynical remarks from me, I should not shatter your dreams about the Eiffel Tower 🙂 However, if you take a deep breath and patiently wait for your turn (unless your tour bus is anxiously waiting for you to return), you will be able to appreciate the panoramic views of Paris such as the River Seine, Arc de Triomphe and Champ de Mars.
Apart from the bird’s eye view from the top, another good place, day or night, to see the full view of Eiffel Tower against the skyline is from the Trocadero, a terrace across the Seine.
Not too far away from Eiffel Tower is another famous Parisian landmark: Arc de Triomphe. This Triumphal Arch stands in the centre of Place Charles de Gaulle at the western end of Champs-Elysees, a famous avenue in Paris lined with cafes, restaurants, high-end boutiques, luxury shops, and not to mention, one of the most expensive strips of real estate in the world.
Arc de Triomphe honours those who fought and died for France in the French revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Names of victories and generals are engraved inside the Arc, and beneath the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. The Arc was also an assembling point for French troops parading after successful military campaigns in the past and for the annual Bastille Day military parade.
The terrasse of the Arc de Triomphe is also another place to enjoy the panoramic views of Paris. We climbed up the 200-odd steps, stopped halfway at a small museum-cum-gift shop which houses the large models of the Arc, and finally climbed the remaining steps to reach to the terrasse or viewing platform. One of the great views I liked was Champs-Elysees seen from the top of Arc. The weather that morning was perfect – sunny blue skies, slight breeze – made me want to sing La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) or do something revolutionary! 🙂
Having ticked two renowned tourist spots off the list, we had lunch at a café on Champs-Elysees and later walked along the avenue, probably wishing we had the moolah to shop and splurge. Whilst the first half of the day was admiring wonders of engineering and revolution, the second half was immersing in art. I shan’t mention the time spent at art museums here as I will have a separate post dedicated to them. However, what is worth the mention now is our evening spent at Montmartre, a hill in north of Paris.
Many tourists go to Montmartre mainly for its white-domed Basilica of the Sacre Coeur located on the hill summit which is also the highest point in the city. They also gather at the steps of the Sacre Coeur for beautiful views of the Paris skyline at sunset. To get to the Basilica, you can either take the funicular train which ascends the hill or climb up the stairs. Oh yes, prior to that, you would alight at Abbesses metro station which brings you to the heart of Montmartre, and you have a choice of either climbing up a 200-odd spiral staircase or take the elevator to exit the station.
Montmartre is also called the bohemian capital of Paris and THE place for art lovers. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Montmartre district was the artistic centre and it was notable for many artists having lived or worked around the community such as Dali, Modigliani, Picasso, Monet and the like. Artist associations and bohemian rendezvous were formed. However, in the twenty-first century, different kind of artists are now living amongst the area’s art galleries and chic bars – they are the film directors, writers, producers, models – seems bourgeois-y. Interestingly, Montmartre still maintains its bohemian-like atmosphere with its cobbled streets, quaint cafes and shops. As such it’s now called the bohemian-bourgeois (bobo) centre of Paris.
People-watch and night lights
Apart from the customary visits to the main sights of Paris during the day, there are two things which one must do in Paris.
Firstly, it’s people-watching. It’s something about the French, cafes and people-watching. They sit at a café with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, face the front walkway and watch the world goes by. If you’re a solo traveller, forget about reading a book while having your beverage. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about being alone – just enjoy the moment of being in a French café and people-watch. I have also seen a group of friends at a café – they don’t sit in a circle and talk to each other – instead they sit in a row facing the front and people-watch! And it’s amazing how only the French can make the art of people-watching so chic!
Secondly, it’s seeing Paris at night. We went to Trocadero to view the Eiffel Tower decked in shimmering lights, and the Arc de Triomphe and the Napoleon Courtyard of the Louvre Palace glowed in the dark.
While I was being cynical earlier about some of the realities of Paris, I began to appreciate why people fall in love with this city. In two days, I was already in love with the art, sculptures, palaces, museums, garden. Heck, I also people-watched at a café, trying to be chic but sadly looking oh-so-touristy 🙂
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