A few top tips for travelling fun, acquired on my way to and through Paris, before getting to any landmarks or interesting things (11:30pm 23rd May to 9:30am 25th May)
1. DON’T take an overnight bus from London to Paris, especially on a Friday. You have to check in at least 90 minutes early, the bus will be sold out (so every seat will be full), it’s a lucky dip whether you’ll get wifi or even powerpoints, you won’t sleep well anyway since you’re travelling on a bus and then you’ll get woken up for passport control at Dover and then put on the brightly lit ferry across to Calais for several hours which will almost certainly be filled with screaming kids and have nowhere to lie down because everyone not screaming or drinking is sleeping, and you’ll arrive dog tired. On the plus side – bus drivers making hilarious jokes, getting to see the White Cliffs of Dover, chatting to an Indian couple about the just-resolved election which has been a month coming.
2. If you can find one that’s open before noon, DO sit in a backstreet café in Paris for three hours waiting for the previous guests in your apartment to leave so that you can move in, delicately sipping at your single chocolate-chaud (with four sugars, for the energy) so that you don’t have to spend more money, and plan the next few days while various elderly men come through and do crosswords with the owner. Possibly get overcharged €0.30 – worth it.
3. If there is one of you, DO stay in a micro-apartment on the fifth floor of a Paris bâtiment – the careful design and breathtaking efficiency of the broom-closet sized apartment will wow even the most ardent IKEA mini-apartment aficionado. Our one actually has so many little cabinets and pockets, as well as including a TV, shower, microwave and toilet. Would have swapped the bed that folds into the wall for a futon, but you can’t have everything. Also might have put in a sink, but using the shower on ‘stream’ rather than ‘spray’ works okay.
4. DON’T try to visit the Jewish museum on the Sabbath. Surprise – it’ll be closed.
5. DO take the metro, it’s only €1.70 a trip, or €1.37 if you get a ten-trip pass (or more accurately, get ten single-use tickets in one transaction), which feels so much cheaper than London without any loss of convenience, regularity or speed.
Paris – Vignt-Quatre Mai
I kind of like writing in this way, might do it a little more!
1. DO take advantage of the Sandeman’s New Europe tour company – they run no-fee tours across 18 cities in Europe and Israel (London, Edinburgh, Paris, Copenhagen, Prague, Dublin and Jerusalem to name a few), and in the three I’ve so far experienced the tour guides are very knowledgeable and interesting, taking you around the most typical city sights and making good recommendations for other places to see. Because of this, we are now going to the annual Belleville open doors event, where hundreds of art schools and studios open their doors to the public over the weekend and you can have a sneaky squiz at the real Paris art scene for free. Below: first looks at some Paris landmarks.
2. DO go to the Musée D’Orsay, because it is filled with thousands of works from the 1840s to the 1920s, which doesn’t sound like much but encompasses a vast array of different styles and works from some extremely eminent artists – Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Monet, Manet, Gaugin – inside a exceedingly well-renovated train station (built in the grandest style for the World’s Fair that also produced the Eiffel Tower), and best of all it’s still small enough to cover in an afternoon. Some of my personal highlights – Le Lit by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Execution sans judgement sous les elis maures de Granade by Henri Regnault (‘Execution without judgement under the Moors of Granada’ – partly because I’m going to Granada soon, and partly because it was a shocking image of a beheading in a room of pleasant images), all the bronzes of Antoine-Louis Barye but particularly La Paix and La Guerre (‘Peace’ and ‘War’), Les Celebritiés du Juste Milieu by Honoré Daumier (hilarious sculpted caricatures), the enormous white sculptures of Francois Pompon, all of the Neoimpressionists. My personal favourite was Gustave Courbet – his landscapes are awesome. As for what I didn’t really like, the Nabi movement kind of annoyed me and Art Nouveau was more interesting for the presentation of its furnishings in situ than for the furnishings themselves. Don’t miss Le Salle des Fêtes – the celebration or function rooms – they’re a bit hidden away but definitely worth a look at for the fanciness value. Also Whistler’s Mother is in there – any Mr Bean’s Ultimate Disaster Movie fans out there?
3. DO cross the road from the Musée D’Orsay, and visit the small, free Musée de Legion D’Honneur, where you can have a look at hundreds of different medals from all different countries of the world, in the process seeing the differences in their manner of celebration and decoration and also learning the French names for countries, which is both enjoyable and oh so useful.
Paris – Vingt-six Mai
1. The Louvre
a. DO enter via the Porte de Lions entrance – there was a queue of about 10 people compared to something like 100 times that at the main entrance, and from there it is just five minutes to the Mona Lisa. It’s also quite fun to exit via the main entrance, and enjoy observing the chaos you will never have to endure. Also, you get to go through a little-known corner of the museum – an uncluttered and excellent exhibition of native american art, which I am now a massive fan of.
b. DO NOT plan to get through everything in one day, or even one week – the Louvre is literally the world’s largest museum with 35,000 pieces, so you could spend an enormous amount of time there. Instead, DO pick up a map on entering and make a plan of attack – it will show you the highlights of all the various collections (perhaps 30 in all) and you can decide what to see. If you’re a history nerd like me, the rule of thumb is to head downstairs, where you can see Roman, Greek and even Etruscan (pre-Roman Italians, about which very little is known) relics, ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform and the great beasts that guarded the gates of Assyrian cities. Personal highlights from these parts included the ancient law code of Hammurabi, 2000-year old Egyptian funerary paintings that looked as if they were painted just 100 years ago, and above all an enormous section on the near east, which included the Byzantine Empire with the whole mosaic floor of a basilica laid out, and a sprawling section on the Islamic empires with many bits of art but also interactive displays that you could use in English and that really tied their whole history together for me. Also, working your way around, you can actually go into the excavated area surrounding the original medieval tower keep that stood on the site of the Louvre, and stand in the moat! If you’re an art lover, head upstairs.
c. DO visit the apartments of Napoleon III – that’s the closest to the original Palace de Louvre you’re going to get, and it’s extremely fancy. Don’t be put off by the long walk around from the Porte des Lions, it’s worth it.
d. DON’T plan to have a special moment with the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo, there’s a constant crowd of people around them taking a bajillion photos. You can, with patience, work your way to the front and take a sneaky selfie, but you’d be better off just going to the Law Code of Hammurabi which is just way more impressive. I was hoping to have a moment with the Winged Victory of Samothrace – in my opinion the best piece of ancient statuary around (and depending on your point of view either properly honoured in pride of place or unfairly relegated to its position atop a grand staircase) – but, as many things were, it was being restored for the coming months of peak season (this was also the case at Versailles, in Saint Chapelles and on the Palais de Justice – the latter was being paid for by Apple, so they were allowed to emblazon it with an enormous iPhone 5C billboard which is ordinarily completely illegal in Paris, causing great note and our tour guide on the first day to dub it the Palais de iPhone).
2. DO, if you get a chance, head out to Belleville and sneak inside some art studios. We managed to get in on an open doors weekend, and it was the best coincidence. Belleville is like the 21st-century Montmartre (more about that in tomorrow’s entry) – a sort of poorer, scummier district of Paris that becomes full of artists producing awesome stuff but without much money (hence moving there). There was photography, painting, pastels, sculpture in a variety of mediums, from the most realistic and emotional to the most abstract and inscrutable. The artists all live tucked away in random little closes and wonky old buildings – according to the two old ladies in a studio (who spoke perfect French but when they detected we were bad at it one immediately revealed her English accent and perfect English and chatted to us for ages), when Paris was demolished and completely rebuilt in the 19th century to make it harder for the workers to build barricades across its narrow streets, the poorer people who were evacuated gathered up all the rubble they could carry and used it to build houses on the outskirts, which included Belleville. Apparently when the two of them bought the building in the 50s and tried to fix it up, they found all the rubble still making up the walls, behind a couple bits of plasterboard. Europe really is an extremely old and varied place.
3. DO try to find a restaurant where the hostess speaks no English, the menu changes by the day depending on what is fresh and for this reason is daily written out on a chalkboard and wheeled to the table, and the wine list is as thick as a short novel (even if, like me, you don’t drink wine). I found a nearby place with rave reviews on TripAdvisor called L’Estrelle, and it was marvellous. Despite having very little idea how to read the menu beyond catching words like poulet (chicken), pomme de terre (horse appl- I mean, potato), and salade (no prizes), I managed to order a very delicious three course meal – first, a small salad of fish and cherry tomatoes, then a couple of enormous bits of chicken drizzled in a tasty gravy over wild mushrooms and with a creamy brick of polenta to soak it up with, followed by a number of interesting cheeses (including one that seemed to be just white mouldy slop in a clay tub) and finally a sort of baked apple with a spiced creamy sauce inside. I can heartily recommend this establishment. The food was delicious, the atmosphere cosy and quiet, and the service was efficient (according to TripAdvisor there was an ongoing challenge to try to get the hostess to crack a smile, and I’m pretty sure I did – she was not dour but just very focused, and I’m quite sure that pays off). Point being – wherever you go, get yourself a good French meal.
Paris – Vingt-sept Mai
Back to a narrative style for now I think. So on this fine day, the plan was to visit the Catacombs of Paris. We knew it was underground and there would be skulls, but that was about it really. Turns out just about everyone in Paris decided that not only were the Catacombs the best thing since sliced bread, this particular day was the ideal time to go and a great way to enjoy them would be to form a queue that ran completely around the block and threatened doubling back because otherwise they would be overtaking the people at the front of the queue. And so that’s what they did, and that’s what we did, for about three hours. It was our first real experience of Paris queues (France is the world’s most visited country, so naturally it is famed for its queues), having skipped the mega queue at the Louvre by slipping in the side entrance and going to the Orsay pretty much bang on a visit-time before closing (got there about 3pm when it closed at six, just a ten-minute wait, win). I’m pretty sad to say that after all that waiting, the Catacombs themselves were really not that great. They had some interesting displays on the origins of the tunnels (medieval through to early modern stone quarries) and the stone that surrounded us; and explained the origins of the catacombs (Paris was running out of cemetery space in the late 18th century, so they emptied them all into the tunnels – first just dumping, and later arraying them in a more reverential style – I actually thought it was older for some reason, thinking Roman Catacombs hiding the Christians in the first century); but beyond the initial thrill of tunnels filled with bones the actual arrangements of the bones weren’t that interesting – just endless stripes of skulls and femurs, with piles of broken bones between that initial bastion and the wall, interspersed with morbid quotations in French and little headstones saying which cemetery the bones had come from – while it was fun to see the stone marking the very first transfer from the Cemetery of the Innocents in 1793, there was only so much graveyard vibe you could deal with. I guess my problem was that I assumed it would be more like the Bone Church at Kutna Hora (which I’m going to later in my trip), with chandeliers made of femurs and walls of skulls – a little voyeuristic variety – when really it was more like a cemetery without graves. It straddled the boundary of reverent and touristy – touted as an attraction but with the atmosphere of loss – in a way that somehow left both lacking. I felt kind of wrong being down there.
The upshot of all this is that by the time we finished with the Catacombs, there wasn’t enough time to visit the Pantheon (unintentionally also a fairly modern creation filled with graves) – instead we had to hasten up to Montmartre for a tour we had heard about from the same company that did our free one earlier in the week. I hadn’t paid for a walking tour in my travels so far, so this was a new experience, but I figured that going up to Montmartre (or any sort of district, as opposed to a museum or landmark) without some sort of guide or at least an idea what was going on was a recipe for tourist trappery or simply aimless wandering. Now, Montmartre used to be the red-light district, but it is also famous for the artists that lived there, most notably Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso. Turns out it still kind of is red-lightish (pink-light?) – the main street we met on was liberally peppered with sex shops, strip shows and the famous Moulin Rouge (our tour guide informed us that there was a seven-floor sex supermarket further down, and that the Moulin Rouge has a reputation now for being extremely expensive and no longer shocking or scandalous but just peculiar). But this was just a convenient staging point to ascend the hill (Montmartre = Mount of Martyrs) and we quickly left the main street far behind. First up was an explanation of the origin of the name Montmartre – from memory I believe it relates to a massacre of the Parisii tribe atop it during the Roman invasion. We had pointed out the house Van Gogh lived in and his favourite restaurant; the house in which Picasso had an artists’ colony; the plaza where they would sell their arts and Toulouse-Lautrec would solicit prostitutes to paint; all interspersed with lively anecdotes about their lives and works. It wasn’t all artists, either – Montmartre is also a quite unique area of Paris – it’s just outside the old city walls, which means that it is fairly close to the city centre and still accessible by the Metro, but unlike most of Paris it’s never been transformed into high-rise housing, either in the 19th century (in the aforementioned major redevelopment of Paris) or since. What there is instead is the no more than four-storey buildings that existed back when it was a village and those that were built by those poor artists (many of whom came from rich homes but followed the fashion to live as struggling aesthetes), giving it a fair more villagey vibe than any other part of the city so far. Montmartre is also once contained many windmills, and just one remains, where a man fought to the death against Russians on their counterinvasion of Paris during the Napoleonic Wars (he was shot and hung from his windmill, but it was preserved as a monument to French fortitude by the Parisian community). I was surprised at how quiet it was – we saw almost no people once we left the main street, which was surprising since I knew Montmarte was a famous place, and very pretty to boot, and it was a nice day. The reason for this was revealed when we arrived at the peak, at the Basilica de Sacre-Coeur, built at the highest point in Paris as a call for sanctification during the destructive period of the Paris Commune. Turns out we’d come up the back way, winding through the little residential streets where all the interesting stuff goes completely unmarked, and arrived at tourist Montmartre, where the visitors and men selling little Eiffel Tower keyrings (5 for €1, 5 for €1 sir) abounded. I decided to have a quick look inside the Basilica, after appreciating the excellent view over Paris (no Eiffel Tower, unfortunately). It was my first go in a real landmark Catholic church, and I have to admit I was a little stunned by it. I had no notion that there would be dozens of little altars around the edge, or private chapels, or stands of candles with a ‘suggested donation’ of €2 to light and place by an altar. I didn’t think there would be souvenir medallion vending machines. Despite the constant reminders that this was a place of prayer and should be treated with reverence, it didn’t feel that way. I don’t want to suggest that Catholic churches are inherently more or less commercialised – I’ve only been in British and Australian landmark churches (though both Catholic and Protestant) so it’s possible that there’s a significant difference in the Britannic and Continental approaches to it – but this turned me off somewhat. After that, we walked down the front of Montmartre, through the tourist areas, and my suspicions about the benefits of the tour were confirmed – had I come up here without someone who knew what was going on, I would not have seen anything but a picturesque town square and a whole load of souvenir stalls. This way, though it cost me some money, I got to see more sides of Montmartre, and heard a bunch of interesting and amusing stories along the way (don’t worry, there’s a lot more than I have detailed here). So I can happily recommend taking this tour – it would have been nice to be a bit cheaper, but it was still good.
Paris – Vingt-huit Mai
Today was to be a little more relaxed – no serious museum visits, just hitting up a few landmarks and ticking them off. Notre Dame was first on the list, but upon getting off the train on Île de Cité, I noticed a sign for Saint Chappelle. I wasn’t sure what it was (beyond a church) but I had heard it was worth a visit, so we went for it. Also thought that we could get in for free as EU residents under 26 (the Louvre and Orsay both had) – turns out there is a group of monuments that are the exception to the general rule, and only allow EU citizens and French residents to come in for free. After having snuck in for free, it made an unwelcome but instructive change to pay the €5.50 it cost to get in. Looking at what appeared to be the chapel was somewhat underwhelming. Yes, it was reasonably sumptuous, and there was a fresco in the corner that was the oldest in Paris.
But then I went up the stairs. Arrayed around the towering upper chamber were 15 stained glass windows, each perhaps 20 metres tall and displaying in stunning colour 1,113 scenes from the Bible, from Genesis to the resurrection of Jesus, along with one sneaky sequence about the relics housed in the chapel itself. The windows, first created in the 1240s, are 70% original (some of the panes having been broken in storms and replaced). It is absolutely breaktaking, and a complete jolt compared to the rather dull exterior. Even with two of the windows blocked off for restoration. Saint Chappelle – worth the price and the queue.
Notre Dame was to have an English-language tour at 2pm, and expecting enormous queues after the Catacombs we arrived about 2½ hours earlier. Turns out when you don’t have to pay and it’s an enormous space the queues move very quickly, so we got inside with no trouble at all. Taking a self-guided walk around, I noticed the same things as in the Basilica, only much more so: private altars – even some completely closed to the public, big signs pointing to confession booths (some of which were clear glass boxes with a priest and a desk inside), various options of candles to buy and light, medal machines all over the place, and many a souvenir shop and bookshop around (it’s the 850th anniversary, so you can buy a model bell for just €850!) Obviously the cathedral was stately and grand, and it was nice to have lots of stuff in English on the signs, but it was too much. Give me undersold British cathedrals any day!
Still having quite a long time before the tour, we went to try some serious macarons at a famous boutique, and enjoyed selecting from the fancy flavours and being fancy epicures in the very handsome Luxembourg Gardens (many more Parisians there than in other places, as far as I could see). It felt like a crime to break each one in half – messed up the texture quite a lot – but so delicious. Could take or leave rose flavour, but all the fruit flavours are amazing. Upon returning for the tour, it was nowhere to be found, so instead we repaired to the Metro once again, and headed up to the Arc de Triomphe.
What they don’t tell you in the guidebooks is that the Arc is in the centre of a wheel of major roads, and there is no way to get close to it except by paying to climb it. Apparently the same body that manages Saint Chapelle also owns the roundabout the Arc sits on, so you have to be content with examining it from a distance. Considering you can see it the whole way down the Champs Elysees, if you don’t want to climb, there’s no reason as far as I can see to go out there.
From the Arc we took a walk down to Paris’ most renowned landmark, the Eiffel Tower, poised to take the stairs and climb to the second floor. Some would say the elevator is better, but I say, save your money, get some exercise, and attain a real sense of accomplishment by pushing yourself up the Tower. Also, there are little bits of information about the building of the tower every few flights, so you barely notice the climb! (Actually that’s a huge lie, it’s a serious climb. But it is good!) The stairs were blissfully quiet after the crowds below and the crowds on each landing, but the views are obstructed by struts and things so you can’t see much until you reach the first or second floor. But it’s a great view and there is a certain camaraderie amongst those who have conquered the Eiffel stairs. (Can’t speak for the Aussie couple ahead of us in the queue who thought ‘escalier’ meant escalator and not stairs. They were not amused. We left them behind pretty fast.)
Versailles – Vingt-neuf Mai
Versailles time! For those who aren’t aware, Versailles was a small town outside Paris until King Louis XIII decided to build a hunting lodge there in 1624. The hunting lodge was expanded to a country chateau, and then his son Louis XIV began extensive renovations to make it the largest palace complex in the world. At its peak, the walls of the hunting grounds surrounding the great palace and the landscaped gardens were 43km long and enclosed several entire villages. From 1682 to 1789, it was the centre of royal power, its position only threatened when the royal family was forced to return to Paris in the French Revolution. During the Revolution, it was used as a repository for artworks seized from nobles and the church, which eventually formed the core of the museums of Paris. Napoleon Bonaparte lived in one of its satellite palaces, the Grand Trianon, and his successors in the revived Bourbon dynasty maintained it as an imperial palace though they did not live there. When the Bourbons were ousted in 1830, the kings of the House of Orléans again lived in the Grand Trianon, and Louis-Phillippe 1 created a vast museum inside the great palace. Since then, it has been used primarily as a monument to the great history of the French monarchy and nobility, and a testament to the changing state of the nation; as well as for state functions. The great hunting estate has been disbanded, but some 800 hectares of gardens remain – mostly as a public park, with landscaped and walled gardens around the various palaces housed within it.
My first impression of the palace was its enormous size. Coming around the corner from the train station, the palace sits at the peak of a gradually rising wide boulevard, so it dominates the skyline for a good 15 minutes before you reach the gates. I knew we were able to get in for free as a European resident under 26, so I skipped the ticket queue, but apparently noon is the wrong time to arrive, because there were approximately 40,000,000 people queued up after tickets to get through the security check (very common at palaces and other such locations in Europe, I have found). It was surprisingly orderly, despite the strange decision to wind it up and down like a zigzagging snake; eventually, we made it to the front. After a false start involving going to the wrong place and thinking that was the whole palace, we found the actual front desk and that the ticket included an English audioguide, and entered the Royal Apartments proper. Instead of telling you what I saw, let me show you.
It was a fortunate time to come, because on that particular day – one of almost none outside of June-August – the great fountains of the Versailles garden were running, and period music played out of the great hedges. It was extremely impressive – but you have to get into the groves and alleyways, the fountains out in the open are pretty boring. It did mean that instead of getting in for free, we had to pay €7, but for people paying for a full-price ticket anyway, it’s definitely worth the €2 extra. Once again, it’s better to see than to read.
Leaving the already appreciably hefty walled garden, we entered the public park area, which is a good 7 or 8 times the size – big enough that they have official bike hire and golf carts – and housed the smaller palaces of Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie Antoinette. These were not nearly as ostentatious as the main building, but because of this they seemed more realistic. They were luxurious but you could imagine people actually living in them.
Well, everybody, that’s about it! Thanks for coming with me on a journey through another European destination! Next stop: Madrid!