Paris, October 2010.
Monday 25th October
Southampton to Paris Orly takes about and hour and a quarter. Clearing immigration, collecting luggage and getting into the city by bus and then catching the Metro 4 and 7 and walking to the hotel took quite a bit longer. We are at the Hotel de Canal on the Avenue de Flandre in the 19th arrondissement, north east of the city centre. This is a cosmopolitan area in an unfashionable part of Paris, but like the rest of the city, there are pubs, cafes, bistros and eateries galore, together with Tabacs and overpriced supermarkets.
After settling into the somewhat cramped room (yes madam, this is the ‘superior’ room) we got ready to go out. It was a lovely sunny day, but cool as one might expect at the end of October, so we ensured that we dressed warmly. Our first port of call was the Bassin de la Villette just behind the hotel.We stopped in at the mk2 cafe for a drink, then headed off westwards along the Boulevard de la Chapelle towards Sacre Coeur, the brilliant white 1870’s Byzantine styled catholic church which overlooks Paris from the Montmartre hill.
The Boulevard de la Chapelle, and the area to the north of it, might have been smart once upon the time but is rather seedy now. Many of the shops were selling African clothing, food and other goods, a reminder of France’s former days as a colonial power and perhaps its current days as a neo-colonial one. The basilica could be seen from time to time, but remained mostly hidden behind buildings. We wound our way upwards and around, heading in the general direction of Sacre Coeur until suddenly it appeared high on the hill which we had to negotiate via a steep set of steps.
The site was extremely busy with tourists and touts, the latter selling hideous lit-up models of the Eiffel and other tourist tat.
The history of Sacre Coeur is an interesting one, but it is difficult to divide myth from reality with respect to the decision to build it. The Third Republic which replaced the monarchy after the defeat of France in the Franco Prussian war (1870) was not popular with all and it took less than a year before the first uprising of the Commune in Montemarte in April 1871. 58000 were killed in the uprising. Some claim that the basilica was built to honour them, others that it was built to expiate their crimes. Parisian politics is never simple. The foundations stone was laid in 1875.
Sacre Coeur is impressive, not only because of the design but also because of the travertine stone used in its construction. Travertine exudes calcite, so the basilica remains white in spite of pollution and weathering.
There is not a great deal of space to move, which made photographing the building quite difficult. The hill provides a commanding view of Paris to the south, although much of the view is obscured by trees.
We headed back towards Boulevard de la Chapelle, stopping in at a local library for coffee and then an area on Boulevard de Rochechouart featuring a large number of shops selling textiles of every sort. We got back to the hotel at about 17h30.
After a short rest, we headed off to a nearby Jewish restaurant where Shirl had Kafta and I had lamb and beef kebabs. The food was excellent. We completed the evening by walking along the canal and calling in at a Tabac and a supermarket.
The TV did not work (no bother) and the shower was lukewarm. We made a mental note to query this.
Tuesday 26 October.
La Defense lies to the west of Paris and is named for the area where the army and volunteers attempted the defense of Paris in 1870. This is a very modern area of steel, concrete and glass and Mitterand’s Grand Arche, which I especially wanted to see. Getting there involved catching Line 7 to Opera and then crossing over to the RER at Auber. What I had forgotten was that passage on the RER is limited to central Paris, so we had difficulty getting through the turnstiles at La Defense. We were helped by a friendly local who tried to explain the intricacies of the Parisian public transport system. There are two services (no, I don’t know why) consisting of the Metro (Lines 1-14) and the RER (Lines A-E). Unlike London, trips (10 carnets cost €12) on the Metro costs the same, no matter the length of the journey. It would be good if the same approach was used on the London Underground.
La Defense is quite stunning, especially in the sunlight with the glass fronted buildings reflecting their respective images. Attractive high rises, expansive shopping malls and broad open spaces dominate. Le Arche, my main reason for visiting, is a massive hollowed-out cube built as a modern day version of the Arc de Triomphe and dominates the plaza. The plan for this monument was initiated by Francois Mitterand and was completed in 1989, with the inauguration taking place with much pomp and ceremony in July to mark the bicentennial of the French Revolution.
The structure a little confusing to begin with, given that it is does not face the square directly, being turned somewhat to the right. Apparently, this was the only way to provide effective foundations, given that the metro, RER and a motorway pass beneath it. However, the exact 6.33 degree turn serves also to provide a secondary axis with the two tallest structures in Paris – the Tour Montparnasse and the Eiffel. The first axis is the one formed by the Arche, the Arc de Triomphe, the Needle (Place de la Concorde) and the Louvre Palace. The structure is massive – Notre Dame would fit comfortably beneath it.
La Defense also boasts a number of large multi-level shopping malls which we explored. These got extremely busy as the morning progressed so I was more than happy to get into the sunshine and stroll along the boulevard checking out the architecture and the boules players. We headed back to the hotel in the early afternoon – getting mixed up yet again between the RER and the Metro lines and wasting two carnets.
We returned to the mk2 restaurant for dinner, sharing a half bottle of wine and Tapas (chicken pieces, ham, smoked salmon, salad) at a tiny table on the enclosed patio. Parisians likes to eat out, so there were plenty of people, notwithstanding the early hour. I took the first of a few night photographs and we ended up at yet another scruffy supermarket before heading home.
The shower was still lukewarm (due to be repaired by Thursday) and the TV still did not work.
Wednesday 27 October
The Parc de la Villette, a 35 acre green space housing fields and Paris’s Science Museum, was only a short walk from the hotel. We had intended to only look at Le Geode (a spherical i-Max theatre) , but on arrival saw that one of the feature movies was Hubble, which covers the launch and repair of the Hubble telescope plus some quite outstanding pictures collected from it.
For a few extra euros we got tickets to the museum as well. In spite of the fact that the Cite des Sciences & de L’industrie is the biggest science museum in Europe, I found the museum somewhat disappointing. The features were limited. A mathematics activity advertised outside was only set to start in mid November. Food and drink was extremely expensive and not particularly good and the place was crowded.
We walked back along the canal, enjoying the sun, on the way home.
Because it was our anniversary, we decided to visit Le Vauban, a well known restaurant behind Les Invalides. This involved journeys on Metro Line 7 to Opera and Line 8 to Les Invilides and a walk past Les Invilides to the restaurant. It was a pleasant evening and we enjoyed looking over the up-market apartments which are characteristic of this area. The restaurant was on Place Vauban. It is an attractive building, with plenty of warm wood, crisp linen and sparkling silverware and quiet, it being relatively early for eating out. We were presented with an impressive menu and settled for the main selection with the help of the friendly young waitress. The meal was quite outstanding. Shirl started with a mushroom dish and them had a main course made up of three different types of fish. I had pate de foie gras and beef, which was excellent. We followed with ice cream and coffee and went home via the Eiffel and the river, taking a few photographs. We were back at the hotel by 23h00. Lukewarm water.
Thursday 28th October.
We had coupons to visit the Tour Montparnasse and the Aquarium, but would not be able to do both, this being our last day. We decided on the Tour Montparnasse given that there was a shopping mall nearby. The trip involved three train journeys – Line 7 to Opera, Line 8 to Las Motte Picquet Grenelle and then line 6 to Montparnasse Bienvenue. The Tour Montparnasse is the tallest building in Paris – some 53 levels. The view from the very top (in excess of 200 metres above ground) provides splendid views of Paris in every direction. Unfortunately, the day was overcast and not very camera friendly. Nevertheless, I took quite a few shots in the hope that some would lend themselves to editing with Aperture. It was interesting to look along the Second Paris axis – Tour Montparnasse, Tour Eiffel and La Defense, although I could not quite make out Le Grande Arche. With hindsight, it would have been better to have done this visit on Tuesday when the weather was clearer, or perhaps of an evening.
There is also an excellent view of Gare Montparnesse, the new station which replaced the one which stood on the spot where the current tower and shopping precinct stands. For those who have read Frederick Forsythe’s Day of The Jackal, the site of the attempted hit on De Gaulle was the old station, just before it was to be pulled down. The new station serves the rail links to the south.
After the tour we did some shopping and had a light meal in the shopping centre, then returned to collect our baggage and head for Orly. This involved two trains, Line 7 and Line 4 to Denfert Rochereau, where we caught the OrlyBus. We were home by 18h45.
I have always been a little confused by the apparent historical ‘hostility’ between the French and the English. After two short trips to Paris, I can only say that I have found Parisians very friendly, in spite of my appalling French. All the people we dealt with were patient and helpful. Perhaps they recognised me as non-English. The French are a proud nation and very aware of their rights, be it to disagree volubly when arguing with one another or striking when the feel that their individual rights are being infringed. In the UK (and especially England) people are indoctrinated from an early age to be politically correct and to follow the diktats of the state, rather like our German cousins, which is why government gets away with taking us into illegal wars and steadily stripping us of our individual rights.
Paris is well known for fashion and it was interesting to see the care that people take with their dress, compared to England. Perhaps we should be more like the French.
Vive la France!