Disclaimer: This post is long.
Monday was another fiesta; there have been comparatively few this term by Spanish standards, so it was particularly important to make good use of this one. My friend and I decided to go to Paris, as we both had friends spending their years abroad there and it seemed like a good excuse to visit the city. This was my first time in Paris (unless you count a trip to Disneyland when I was 4, the standout feature of which was me somehow managing to get myself lost and wander around the park whilst my family were manically looking for me) and I – naturally – had pretty high expectations.
When I went to Rome, the flight was first thing on a Friday morning, which meant we were able to get out and explore the city as soon as we arrived. For Paris, my friend and I caught an evening flight, travelling straight from a day at work to the airport. This made a noticeable difference to my first impressions of the city; when we landed it was cold, dark and drizzling and we were struggling to work out the French metro system through our tiredness (luckily we were staying with a friend of mine, who had given me clear instructions on how to get to her uni halls from the airport). When the train finally turned up, we were a little…concerned. The Parisian metro system is not unlike London’s, in that it too is an elderly institution that now looks a little worse for wear, but the dingy, filthy, rattling RER B train we got on from the airport was enough to dissuade me from using French public transport, particularly as it was full of unsavoury looking characters, made more threatening by the fact that any French words I knew at one point seemed to have completely fallen out of my head. I’ll admit that condemning the entire metro system on the basis of one train (although we later learnt that this wasn’t a one-off occurrence) may sound a little snobbish. I suppose I’ve been spoilt by the Madrid metros, which, with their roomy, relatively clean carriages and regular stock of commuters, are positively luxurious by comparison.
Despite my complaining, the metro served its purpose and we successfully arrived at Cité Universitaire, the home of the enormous halls for international students in Paris. It was there that we found my friend – and our French-speaking tour guide, who allowed us to dump our bags before whisking us off in search of dinner. She had found the name of pizza place online, but when we arrived only to find it was closed. Luckily, it was on a street brimming with crowded and enticing looking restaurants, and we ended up eating only a few doors down, at a place that specialised in Raclette. Sipping on wine and melting enormous pieces of ham and cheese in mini pans on the table, I finally started to feel like this might be the start of a flourishing relationship with Paris.
After a refreshing night’s sleep (surprising, considering that I spent it sharing a single bed with my friend and trying not to fall out), we hit up a boulangerie for some breakfast and strolled towards the metro whilst demolishing the most beautiful golden, crumbly pastries. The plan for Friday was to bash out the touristy spots (if one can use the phrase ‘bash out’ when referring to the Eiffel tower et al). First stop: Saint Michel Notre Dame. This year happens to mark the 850th anniversary of the cathedral, and the poster boards covering the street outside the building suggested that the Parisians are already preparing to celebrate. Now, I know there is already a disproportionate amount of Disney sneaking into this post, but as a lifelong fan of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, I took enormous pleasure in gazing upwards at the gargoyles and humming the epic title song. And yes, a part of me was disappointed that there was no Quasimodo to swing down from the roof and whisk away a random dancing gypsy woman (if you haven’t seen the movie, this will make absolutely no sense to you, but Esmeralda the cartoon gypsy was my childhood icon).
Upon entering the cathedral, however, there was no need for my childish imagination – it is not only that the architecture is unbelievably beautiful, with sweeping arches and intricate stained glass, but also that a calming sense of timeless constancy echoes around the great stonewalls. I suddenly felt convinced that I would move further into the cathedral to find myself in the middle of a 16th century mass.
When we had finished admiring Notre Dame, we met another friend for lunch in a restaurant buzzing with chic Parisians clearly on their lunch breaks. I, naturally, got very excited over the menu and devoured my warm goats cheese salad (the French culinary scene was definitely living up to its reputation). After lunch it was a stroll up to L’Arc de Triomphe, via a patisserie, whose gorgeous and colourful macaron-filled window display stopped me in my tracks. We each chose a macaron (after insisting that the saleswoman told us every flavour available) and sat on a bench by the L’Arc de Triomphe to enjoy them. Macarons finished, my Madrid friend and I braved the many steep steps up to the top of the arch. If you can stomach the winding staircase it is a wonderful experience; as my local friend pointed out, the Eiffel tower may give the greatest height, but if you are admiring the view of Paris from the top of the Eiffel tower you miss out on seeing the defining feature of the Paris skyline – the tower itself. The arch gives a spectacular panorama, down the sweeping streets around and including the Champs-Elysées on one side and across to the towers of the business district on the other. Seeing the crowds swarming down the Champs-Elysées gave us an appetite for it and we joined the thronging crowd, clutching our bags close to our bodies and avoiding the clusters of people gazing at street performers. I enjoyed the people watching but for me the Champs-Elysées was quickly eclipsed by another, slightly quieter street. As we started winding our way towards the Eiffel Tower (pausing to gaze at the tributes to Princess Diana, scrawled across the edge of the bridge over the tunnel where she died), we turned onto Avenue Montaigne, a street lined with trees and brimming with money. I felt a little like Audrey Hepburn (although admittedly less elegant and more strictly limited to window shopping) as I floated down the road, hungrily devouring the Valentino and Dior and Chanel with my eyes. Rather than finding it depressing to gaze on such inaccessible luxury, the beautiful fabrics and glittering jewellery had a soothing, nourishing effect on me, much like a hot bath.
Needless to say, I was in a pretty good mood when we reached the Eiffel Tower. Nonetheless, I can’t say I was hugely overwhelmed by it. The main thing that stands out about it for me is the sheer enormity of the structure – when you have only ever seen it as a distant feature in a romantic shot, suddenly having it looming above you is slightly shocking. I actually think I’d prefer to keep it in the background at all times – as an unobtrusive yet reassuring presence that reminds you that you are still in Paris.
That evening we were knackered after all the walking, so had takeaway pizzas in my friend’s room, before taking full advantage of happy hour at a great student-y bar called Le Crocodile, where my friend was on friendly terms with the bar staff and the extensive cocktail menu takes about 15 minutes to read. After 3 of those, we were ready for bed.
On Saturday morning, we went to Père Lachaise cemetery, on my request. I have a strange fascination with old cemeteries (and indeed with all things gothic) – I love the peace and the sense of history, and have spent many hours gazing at crumbling tombstones, trying to make out the engravings and imagine the stories of the people who lie there. My friends didn’t quite share my romantic sensibility, but good-naturedly indulged me (for which I should probably publicly thank them). Paris has many famous cemeteries, but I was drawn to Père Lachaise for the grave of Oscar Wilde (of whom I am a great fan). The cemetery is enormous, filled with mini chapels and towering monuments, as well as more traditional, smaller graves. This makes it very difficult to navigate – in fact, we had to spend a good ten minutes studying a map, and even took a photo of it so that we didn’t get stuck in the middle of the cemetery. After much searching, we found the graves of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. Wilde’s was quite surprising; a monument had been erected in his honour, a great pale stone block with a modernist-style angel carved into it. I’m not sure what I was expecting (maybe something older looking or crumblier) but that certainly wasn’t it. I’m not sure how I feel about it even now.
We had a delicious falafel-pitta bread lunch in the Marais – an area that I loved for its eclectic mixture of shops and winding streets – before gazing at the Louvre Triangles and wandering around the Tuileries, where we sat by a pond covered in birds, and nervously ate some cakes we’d purchased earlier (nervously because we had just witnessed the birds attack a poor woman who was just trying to get through her sandwich). We also had a quick look in the Musée de l’Orangerie at the incredible Monet Water Lillies, which are displayed in two consecutive oval rooms, apparently at Monet’s request. I was blown away by the paintings – the use of colour, the sense of tranquillity… We then took a stroll back towards the centre of town, stopping to pick up some of the best hot chocolate in Paris from the world famous Angelica’s.
As some of you may know, there were some pretty important Six Nations rugby matches on last weekend. As my friend is from Scotland (she was getting quite excited by the amount of kilts on display in Paris that weekend) and the rest of us are obviously English, we had quite a lot invested in both matches (England vs. Wales, Scotland vs. France) so decided to go to a pub to watch them. The pub was a little slice of Britain in the centre of Paris, from the fact that they served Bulmers, right down to the beams in the ceiling and the Irish bartender. We had such fun bantering with other Brits and winding up the French that ventured in to watch the later game that we stayed until 11pm. That afternoon was one of the few times since I’ve been away that I’ve felt a real, strong affection for the UK and been excited to come back home.
Sunday was our last day in Paris, but we wanted to fit in as much as possible, so my friend took us to Montmartre. We had brunch in this gorgeous café with yellow walls, called Coquelicot. The breakfast menu was typically French, offering various pastries and pieces of baguette to dip into a bowl of coffee, tea or hot chocolate, along with fresh butter and homemade jams. I started with café au lait and brioche, followed by a boiled egg and soldiers (incidentally, the best egg and soldiers I have ever tasted; just divine). The café was relatively innocuous looking from the outside – certainly we would never have found it without my friend’s inside knowledge. Places like that definitely illustrate the difference between following tourist tracks and seeing a city through the eyes of a local.
After brunch, we went to the famous Place du Tertre in the heart of Montmartre, renowned as the last of the old Paris, when it belonged to the artists. The square is thronging with easels and artists at work, and although it is clearly a tourist trap, a little of the old magic still lingers (particularly as some of the paintings are actually of a very high quality). Just around the corner from Place du Tertre is the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur, with the stunning views over (a, sadly cloud-covered) Paris. We had a look around the Basilica itself, which is very beautiful (although, in my opinion, overshadowed by Notre Dame), but the views are the crowd-pleaser. And rightfully so – we spent a long time gazing out over the city, and I’m sure would have spent even longer there had it been sunny.
The final sight we wanted to tick off our list was the Moulin Rouge – something, like so much in Paris, which I felt I had to see at least once. It turns out that the Moulin Rouge is not quite how I imagined it. To get there we had to walk through the sex district of Paris, down a long street, which, at times, had us wondering if we had accidentally strolled across into Amsterdam. The Moulin Rouge itself sort of emerges out of nowhere, squashed in between two ambiguous buildings. Like the Eiffel Tower I was surprised by its size – it was a lot smaller than I had envisaged – and its lack of romance. I am sure that my mental picture of the place had been heavily influenced by the Baz Luhrmann movie (although even I wasn’t expecting Ewan McGregor to be swinging from the windmill singing ‘Come What May’), but there wasn’t even much sense of an interesting story to the place. There was a queue of smartly dressed OAPs waiting in line for the matinee show, and not much else going on. I didn’t feel disappointed exactly – just a little disillusioned.
And so, that was it! After the Moulin Rouge, we had a quick coffee, went back to pick up our suitcases and headed to the airport.
I suppose it must be quite difficult to be Paris; I, like so many others, arrived brimming with romantic ideals; with images of Audrey Hepburn learning how to bake the perfect soufflé, of Audrey Tatou plunging her hand into bags of grain in a busy French market, of Nicole Kidman defying her glamorous 19th century tuberculosis in a sparkly pink frock. What I discovered was a city with filthy trains and glittering monuments, with gourmet McDonalds and 30 types of macaron, with high-end boutiques and lowbrow entertainment, swimming with crime and generous with its inheritance. A city with character. And, on reflection, perhaps that’s the Paris I prefer.