Danny Yee >> Travelogues >> England and France 1997

A Week in Paris - Diary

Tuesday (13th May)

The TGV from Toulouse was a bit disappointing. It didn't feel all that different to any other train - only the scenery went past more rapidly and the cars on the autoroutes seemed to be standing still.

I arrived at Montparnasse station just after 1pm, caught the metro to Chatelet, and walked east along the Rue du Rivoli to my hotel (booked by phone) which was on the Rue du Roi de Sicili, not 100m from the Hotel de Ville (town hall). It was a run-down place managed by friendly Moroccans: 150 francs a night got me a tiny room and, after two weeks in Toulouse living on the 4th floor, I was now to spend a week in Paris on the 5th floor - there was no lift, of course, and the shower was on the 1st floor! Who needs mountains, anyway?

Having unpacked I wandered off, turning the wrong way on leaving the hotel [note for possible use bushwalking - I tend to turn right when I'm just wandering]. This took me through the Jewish quarter, and I stumbled over the Hotel de Sully, a nice example of Renaissance architecture. Then it was over to the Ile St Louis, a quick visit to the (relatively boring) church there, and across to the Left Bank, where I sat for a while in what I eventually decided was my favourite place in Paris - on the edge of the Seine, looking straight down the channel between the two islands.

Having spent all that time just wandering, I thought I should start on the tourism, so I went to Notre Dame. This is sublime even with the milling crowds of tourists, but unfortunately the towers were closed so I didn't get to see the gargoyles close up. Then I crossed to the right bank, visited another cathedral whose name I can't remember - you know you've been seeing too many churches when you can't even remember the cathedrals! - and had a quick wander through the Forum des Halles before returing to the hotel.

That evening I walked to the Place de la Bastille in the rain, fearing it would rain all week and that I wouldn't be able to go back and sit on the Seine again. One the way back I stumbled over the Place des Vosges, again quite by accident.

Wednesday (14th May)

The Louvre. I looked at the 50m queue (it was a misty, overcast morning), remembered what Jenny had said about there being no point going in unless one wanted to see something specific - only the wall of Japanese tourists around the Mona Lisa seemed like a really tempting sight - and decided it would be cheaper to turn my mind into mash using the British Museum and the National Gallery when I returned to London. I rather liked the glass pyramid in the middle of the courtyard which is the main entrance to the museum.

Then I wandered through the Jardin des Tuleries (far too formal for my liking, the Jardin de Luxembourg is much nicer) to the Place de la Concorde - with all those automobiles hooning around, a most inappropriate name. Then, spurning the Champs-Elysees (it didn't have enough trees to make up for all the cars), I crossed the Seine. I was about to fork out my money to see Paris' largest tourist attraction - no, not the Eiffel Tower, which I never went to at all, but the Paris Sewers! This is a sight that may not be to everyone's taste, or perhaps that should be sense of smell. A section of the sewers has been cleaned up a bit and turned into a kind of museum. It's still a fully functional part of the system, however, and you can watch (and smell) the sewage going by. (In Paris they have separate supplies for drinkable and non-drinkable water, but they don't separate rain-water and sewage - in Sydney there's one water supply and two disposal systems.)

At about this point the mist cleared, and almost the rest of my stay in Paris was clear, dry, and sunny. At one point I was wandering around in t-shirt and shorts. Oddly enough, Parisian men don't appear to wear shorts, ever. The women can wear shorts or short skirts, but there must be a taboo on men doing it, as it was almost a sure method of picking tourists. (Oddly enough, people kept mistaking me - when wearing trousers - for a local. I lost count of the number of times people came up to me and started asking me for directions or help with something. Rather embarassing, though I was pleased that I managed to answer one reasonably obscure navigational question with my few words of French!)

Then it was up to Les Invalides, where I visited the Army Museum and Napoleon's Tomb. The latter is quite over the top: the massive casket (the outermost of six, made of different materials) sits raised up in the crypt, so you can walk around the dome and look down/across at it. The design was supposed not to overshadow the altar, but failed miserably at that!

The Rodin museum was nearby, so I went there next. Beautiful art in a lovely house in a very pleasant garden - this is definitely worth a visit if you are at all into sculpture. Using the metro map to decide where to go next, I ended up in Montparnasse, where climbing the tower seemed like the most exciting thing to do. Excellent views, but probably not worth the steep fee unless you are a real fan of 1 to 1 scale models.

Thursday (15th May)

After breakfast - which was typically a pastry or a croissant while I was in Paris - I crossed to the Ile de Cite, where I visited the shrine to the Unknown Deportee. Then to the medieval museum at Cluny (which was interesting, but I thought not terribly well put together, certainly not as good as the British Museum) and along the Rue des Ecoles to the Jardin des Plantes. I passed the university my sister had studied in - she thought it had been designed (after '68) so it couldn't be barricaded and so people would fall over when hit by watercannon, but I wasn't sure how that fitted in with the anti-tank ditch around it!

I wandered around the Jardin des Plantes, then sat and read for a quarter of an hour - I did this in all the parks I visited, testing them out, as it were.

The Pantheon is a church converted to a secular shrine. It is where France honours its leading figures with burial: Voltaire faces Rousseau across the central aisle of the crypt, while in the spacious dome above them a Foucault's Pendulum swings. It made an interesting comparison with Napoleon's tomb and with Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral, where the British bury their famous dead.

I sat and drank coffee in front of the Sorbonne (I didn't spend much time in the bookshops there) and then wandered around the Jardin de Luxembourg, followed by dinner and a visit to the famous Shakespeare bookshop. Exactly as Jenny had mentioned, the aging (80+) owner was giving literary flattery and board to a group of blonde 20 year old girls - in exchange for work in the bookshop and I'm not sure what else...

Friday (16th May)

I suddenly realised that I had only one more weekday left, so I quickly checked the guidebook (Lonely Planet) for things I wanted to see that were only open on weekdays. Saint-Chapelle it was. This is an exquisite gothic chapel, not as imposing as the larger cathedrals, but almost unearthly in its beauty. In the same complex (the modern courts) is the Concierge, the old royal palace which was used as a prison during the revolution and the nineteenth century.

From heaven to hell via prison - my next stop was the catacoombs, where one walks 1.6km through underground passages including an ossuary in which the bones of 5 million Parisians are piled up. Above each wall of bones was a plaque, telling which church graveyard they had been taken from and when. Interspersed with these were epigraphs and poems about death - Lamartine, Horace, etc. A good few of these were in Latin; there were even some in Italian, German, and even Greek. [Totally useless fact: my ability to construe Latin doesn't improve 20m underground.] It's not claustrophobic - the corridors are quite large, but the lighting was dim and I was glad I had a flashlight on me - it was also useful for reading unlit inscriptions. The side corridors were barred off, so it wasn't actually possible to get lost, but I wondered how long it would have been before peopled started screaming if the lights had failed...

Next I caught the metro out to the Arc de Triomphe, France's tribute to the conquest of the planet by the automobile. Under it is buried an unknown wrecked car; around it circle all of Paris' cars in homage - 12 boulevards converge symmetrically on what must be the world's busiest roundabout. (It might be possible to reach the Arch without using the underground tunnel - if you can afford a helicopter.)

On the way back to the hotel I visited the archaeological site under the square in front of Notre Dame - you can walk around looking at a complex history of building, with houses and roads built and rebuilt on Roman foundations. Then a visit to the laundrette, ate more of my money than it ought to have, since the instructions on how much to put in and what coins were accepted appeared to have suffered several centuries of decay and vandalism.

I ended the day with a concert in Saint-Chapelle. Not the world's most original program by any means - it contained "The Four Seasons" and "A Little Night Music"! - but it was a reasonable orchestra and it was worth the 120FF just for a chance to sit in Saint-Chapelle for two hours, even though the stained glass faded to grey as night fell.

Saturday (17th May)

I started Saturday morning with a quick look at the facade of the Institute of the Arab World; I decided against visiting, fearing that the exhibits would have descriptions and commentary in French, which would have slowed me down so I wouldn't have had time to see much. I then did a bit of shopping, buying a Hermes scarf as a present for a friend - spending a week in Paris without doing any shopping is probably a criminal offence of some kind :-).

Having been handed a pamphlet about it on Thursday, I now joined in a "manifestation" - no, I hadn't taken up spiritualism, in French a manifestation is what we call a demonstration. The most notable thing was how much it was like similar events in Australia - a mass of single-interest groups (Guyanan independence instead of East Timor, support for Tunisian political prisoners, etc., though no or few green groups) marching under a program so generic ("We are the Left") that the only thing they really seemed to agree on was that they didn't like Le Pen. I had hoped for something more substantial, but perhaps that only happens when the unions or the organised (communist or Trotskyist) left come out. Not that I really wanted to be on the receiving end of Police Nationale water cannon! We marched from Gare de l'Est down to Place Republique; there I left them to their speeches and walked back to Gare de l'Est along the Saint Martin canal.

That evening I had a look at the Centre Pompidou (a very odd building, built inside-out, with the plumbing, power, air-conditioning, etc. all on the outside!), where I checked my email briefly. Leaving that, I discovered a free concert (Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Elgar, Beethoven) being performed by a Breton orchestra and choir in the church of Saint Merry.

Sunday (18th May)

Approaching Montmartre from the north it seemed a peaceful, green, and hilly suburb, with more free-standing houses than anywhere I'd seen yet. Then I hit the tourist areas and it seemed much less appealing. The Basilica Sacre Coeur is a dark and gloomy neo-Byzantine nineteenth century church - the view from the dome is great, but I don't know why this is such a popular tourist destination (the Lonely Planet guide ranks it among the ten most popular). It is so popular that the tourists were allowed to continue circulating around the aisle and apse while a ceremony was being carried out, which even I found disturbing.

St Denis, a little further to the north, was almost free of visitors. Here there's far more to look at: the tombs of most of the French royalty, the building that really started Gothic architecture, some archaeological excavations (Merovingian tombs and foundations), etc. The nearby Museum of History and Art also had some interesting material; I was particularly taken by a display of cartoons and posters from the period of the Paris Commune (1871). On leaving the museum I was caught in a sudden rainstorm, but that cleared quickly and the rest of my stay in Paris was cooler but not wet.

Looking at my map, I realised the 6th Arondissment was one area I hadn't seen at all, so I wandered that way and visited St Germain and St Sulpice. For my final dinner in Paris I just bought a sandwich and sat in my favourite spot on the Seine until night fell.

Monday (19th May)

I caught the train to Charles de Gaulle airport, where British Airways was refusing to check luggage due to security concerns over Air Algeria. Eventually they did their own security check and I made it on board just in time.

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