19 September 2012

French Quarters, Pesto Snails and the Wall of Love…

I've been lucky in my travels in the five months since leaving Wellington. Going to Thailand, Turkey, Egypt, Scotland and now France. Having a friend living in Paris decided this trip. The last time we saw each other was in 2009! Timing was also a factor. Wanted to stay in London for the Olympics and started work after the August bank holiday. Left with a two week window of opportunity and after some organisation and fund arranging, Eurostar was booked for a 5 night holiday in the city of lights.

Confident that I had everything packed, a blonde moment intervened; "do we need passports?" The reply: "Lol you're leaving the country!" In my head catching a train to Paris was the same as catching a train to Scotland. Going into Scotland I thought my passport would get checked. After the blonde moment I realised Scotland is; still, United Kingdom. Passport went straight into the handbag.

Arriving at St Pancras International, the first order of business before buying Euros was buying DK Eyewitness Top Ten Paris guidebook. Quick stop in WH Smith; the task is completed. Spotted back in New Zealand and breaking away from the norm of Lonely Planet guides a collection began. I have London, Egypt and Turkey books.

Instead of the top ten for Paris we had a top eight. The two highlights missed for the top ten were Musee d'Orsay and Musee Georges Pompidou.

Tour de Eiffel: Waited the 50-minute Sunday morning queues to get to the top. Start at Esplanade du Trocadero, walk past a spectacular fountain (with water cannons) and cross the bridge to begin all viewpoints. If you prefer pictures with both the tower and the sights from above go to Montparnasse Tower observation deck or Galeries Lafayette department store roof top (has amazing strawberry and frozen yoghurt tubs). Parc du Champ de Mars was my favourite area. You can find great reading in the day and evening picnic for the light show spots.

Sacre-Coeur: Steep walk up on the hottest day EVER. That was tough. Nick-named the wedding-cake-church, the view from the steps leading to the entrance is impressive, and you can see why so many artists were inspired by living in Montmartre. Saw the best gargoyles too! Go around the back and follow the crowds to the Place du Tertre, but don't buy anything…the art is high priced.

Notre-Dame: Arriving mid-morning was well planned, quiet and lines for the bell towers only. Look out for the headless statue at the front and the green priests behind walking down from the tallest tower. Set in the cobblestones by the main entrance is the Bronze Star marking the exact location of point zero of French roads. Reading about the star waiting to board the train it was added to the list of things to see. Missed the star the first time, but found the second time.

Arc de Triomphe: After walking the entire length of Avenue des Champs-Elysees, and ducking down some Parisian side streets, we made it to the end. Arc de Triomphe is what you expect; the reliefs up close are amazing and there is an eternal flame marking the tomb of an unknown soldier. A walk around once and under and tick off the list.

Pantheon: Being on a tight budget I chose to skip this. My travel buddy on an EU passport had free entry everywhere. Off she went inside to take the token photos of famous tombs. I sat on the stairs taking photos of different angles of the huge Pantheon architecture. Luxembourg de Jardin down the street is littered with statues, flower beds, a pond with toy sailing boats and tanned Parisians. Spend an afternoon here relaxing and enjoying life. North of the garden is Saint Sulpice a pretty (free entry) church with a grand lion fountain in the front. All three of these places are close together to see in one afternoon.

Hotel des Invalides: The walk towards the hotel off Avenue des Champs-Elysees covers Le Grand Palais, Petite Palais and across Pont Alexander III to the final destination. At Les Invalides you can enter into a courtyard but beyond that are several museums and the tomb of Napoleon. We saw the courtyard and the impressive sun dial. Skipping these museums we made the journey back to Champs-Elysees.

Saint Chapelle: I skipped this church, instead sat in the leafy courtyard opposite for a coffee break. Concierge next door I did visit. Buy a ticket that gives entry into the St. Chapelle and the Concierge. Concierge hosts a reconstruction of Marie Antoinette's cell in the exact location before the, you know - the head chopping business. The jail cells are creepy and you learn a lot about the process of ferrying prisoners from the Justice courts next door to sentencing and death.

Musee du Louvre: The underground entrance is much faster. No one in sight. Saw Starbucks and grabbed a quick breakfast. Big mistake, in a split-second load of tourists appeared and the queuing began. We managed to walk the opposite way round from the crowd starting in Richelieu wing on Napoleon Hall floor. Go to Tuileries garden for a bite to eat.

You can see Paris in four days. Maximum of seven days could include the outer borders and a day trip to Versailles. A second trip is due to Versailles and Euro Disney; next spring maybe?

And, voila:

P is for parle-vous François? Not me. Best to travel with friends who can! French appreciate you knowing phrases, better yet knowing the correct pronunciation. If no luck there, say you're from New Zealand!

A is for amour: Or aroha. There is a small park in Montmartre with a concrete wall tiled known as the Wall of Love. "I love you" is written in different languages of the world. Took a while to find the words in English, trust me they are there. Yet didn't take as long to find the Maori phrase: Ke te aroha au I a koe.

R is for really cheap tour. The friend tour gives you handy tips from baguette prices, metro routes and exploring areas of Paris unknown to the masses. Shout them some wine and you are good to go. On one friend tour we explored the Jewish quarter of Marais, a short walk from St. Paul metro station, for the best Falafel Kebab ever. Ate the kebab in Place des Vosgues garden, next to Victor Hugo mansion, and soaked in the evening sunshine next to a fountain spraying a cool mist that just reached me. Walking the surrounding streets we spotted a Pandora shop. Popped into the shop to buy a silver suitcase charm was a lengthy wait, but worth it. One side displays a palm tree and DK (trawling the internet it's the international code for Denmark, the origins of Pandora). The side of interest was the word Paris and a teeny Eiffel Tower.

I is for I like snails! Surprised? I was too. Snails covered in a basil pesto sauce made the experience very pleasant. Dining in Paris is a foodie's haven, ranging from street stalls to Michelin Star restaurants. Searching for local spots away from the tourist traps failed. Walking down side streets away from tourist spots proved many restaurants do close for the summer. Try the Latin Quarter near St. Michel where there are a wide range of restaurants, some boasting 3 course meals for €13. Also went to McDonalds for a Royale with cheese. Fans of Pulp Fiction will understand!

S is for sun sun sun. Nothing could prepare me for the heat. Forecast showed 38 degrees. At the hottest part of the day temperatures reached well over 40 degrees. HOT! Best summer feature Paris has to offer is a beach. During August a stretch of road transforms into a beach, sand and all. Plenty of water stations, mist and sprinkler zones and massive beach chair hammocks. With entertainment, sand castles, ice creams and lots of people you will soak up the atmosphere and believe you were at the beach.