Nick Jenkins . Pictures . Words . Travel

Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

<<< More 'Opinionated Traveller' stories

Le Ville Lumiere

Everyone knows Paris is a city of romance. You should visit Prais in spring, with a beautiful lover. You can walk arm in arm through the streets and celebrate life the way the Parisians do.

But for all the clichés, Paris is a city of romance. It's a beautiful, stately city inhabited by people who understand how to live well. The food is good, the coffee is great, the architecture is fabulous, the place abounds with art and fashion and you can pass a whole Sunday afternoon in a café and watch the world go by.

My own adventure started with a first-class ride on that modern miracle, Eurostar. Whisking you efficiently from downtown London to the middle of Paris, it is a most civilised way to travel. We started off from Waterloo at 8am and rolled into Gare du Nord just before lunch, sated on coffee, orange juice and a stout yeoman's sausage and egg.

How easy travelling has become! I left home with a shoulder bag and a handful of change. Three hours later, I rolled into a foreign country with not a single franc to my name. In the station, I walked about fifty yards from the door of my train to the first 'point d'argent' (ATM for Aussies, cashpoint for Brits) and extracted 'un mille francs' from the Banque du Populaire. Nothing could be easier.

Not far from the Gare Du Nord runs the Rue de Petite Ecuries or, as a Francophone friend informed me, the Street of Small Stables. Amongst the clutter of the 10th arrondissment, was our modest three star hotel, the Aulivia Opera. My philosophy on hotels is simple : they all consist essentially of four walls and a roof and after the necessity of a good bed and a hot shower, I find them all but indistinguishable.

The first stop in any decent tour a of a city is an orientation session with the more notable landmarks. In this case we chose the Louvre. Strolling down to the Boulevard de Strasbourg, we ducked down into the metro at Chateau d'Eau and hitched a ride into the main station at Chatelat. The metro in Paris is fantastic - much better even than the London tube. It is easy to use, covers almost all of Paris and is, for the most part, safe and quick. If you're staying less than a week, buy a carnet of ten tickets, with a single ticket taking you between any two stops for a bit less than 5 francs (about 50p/65c US).

We wandered a hundred metres from Chatelet down the road to the courtyard of the Louvre, near the famous and much disputed Pyramid. The Louvre is a sprawling nest of ornate buildings that house the best known art works in the world. In August, the queue outside is also huge and sprawling and we declined to join it.

The glass pyramid in the Cour Napoleon which hides the subterranean entrance to the Louvre was designed by American architect I.M. Pei. It caused a generous amount of uproar when it was unveiled. The stark geometrical lines of the pyramid were considered to be completely out of place against the baroque architecture of the Louvre but most people now agree that it complements the building and, more importantly, could have been much, much worse.

From the Louvre we strolled through the Jardin des Tuilleries, stopping to brush off some touts, and arrived at Cleopatra's needle in the Place de la Concorde. There the French had set up, in what I had heard to be a bout of Anglo-Gallic rivalry, their own millennium ferris-wheel (an imitation or a parody?).

We struggled up the Champs Elysees, which was pleasant enough but has lost whatever romance it once held under a thundering hoard of tourists and a chain of global shopping emporiums. At the top of the avnue though is the Arc de Triomphe, sited in the middle of one of those uniquely European round-abouts, the Etoile. Here vehicles from no less than thirteen different roads do battle and provide a decent enough spectacle for tourists.

Across the river is the Eiffel tower, a spectacular if impractical structure. Unlike a solid skyscraper, the construction of the tower means that you can walk amongst the soaring arches of its base and gaze straight up into its tangled heart. Like the Sydney Harbour or Golden Gate bridges, the tower lacks grace but is a vivid expression of raw mechanical engineering.

Exhausted by so much raw, sensuous architecture we trudged back to our hotel for a siesta.

Sustenance that night was supplied by the restaurant 'Lucien'. A silver-service seafood restaurant only two or three blocks from our hotel. The décor inside was impressive, vaulted ornamental ceilings and sea-scape murals, and the food was no less appealing. The menu was Anglo-phone unfriendly but the waiter wasn't so we experimented a little. I had langoustine and a baked fish, the name of which escapes me. Richard had foie-gras and a steak which seeemed succulent enough. It cost about five hundred francs, including a bottle of vin ordinaire.

The next morning we arose at a holiday hour and ventured out. The main objective for the day was to be the Musée Rodin and its gardens. We stopped somewhere in the city for a croissant and espresso in the sunshine and walked the rest of the way, passing through the fantastic forecourt of the Hotel des Invalides. One of the nicest things about Paris is it's open spaces. The French seem unashamed to devote large expanses of expensive real estate to the pleasures of outdoor living. More power to them.

The Musée Rodin used to be the August Rodin's personal residence and is set in a large and pleasant garden which also contains a great number of his works. Dominant amongst these are two of his best known, the Thinker and the Gates of Hell. The Thinker sits on a high plinth to the right of the main gate and has the golden domes of the Hotel Des Invalides as a backdrop. Around the garden are many of his 'lesser' works such as studies of friends and family and some mythical works.

Inside the house there are more sculptures accompanied by drawings, sketches and the odd painting. All of his work is memorable. A lone pair of hands clasped together, a young woman astride a horse, the detail so fine you can see the tracery of veins in her legs, a couple locked in an eternal embrace. Poetry in... inertia.

From the museum we walked east to the left bank and the church at St Germain des Pres. For a relative atheist even a small church like St Germain des Pres is moving in an aesthetic if not in a evangelical sense. The church is no bigger than my old high-school gym and is littered with glowing stained glass, frescoes and ornate icons, lit by the flickering candles of the faithful. The long strata of history is, as it is in so much of Paris, a palpable presence in the church.

From St Germain we ventured into the heart of the Rive Gauche. On the advice of a friend we avoided such tourist traps as les Deux Magots, the café where Satre used to drink coffee when he couldn't afford to heat his rooms, and headed into the maze of alleys behind the church.

We found ourselves back on the Seine and crossed it via the busker-strewn Pontes des Artes. We walked up and back across the Ponte Neuf onto the Isle de la Citie and across to Notre Dame. Notre Dame, while pretty, suffers a reputation out of all proportion to its importance thanks to its publicity agent, Victor Hugo. At the time we were visiting, in the height of summer, the crowds stretched around the square and down the block.

The other inhabited island in the Seine, the Isle St Louis, is also worth visiting. Through the years there have been a number of disputes between its inhabitants, who think it an independent state, and the rest of Paris who see it as just another arrondissment. On one occasion, so the story goes, firemen from the right bank of the river were refused access to a fire on the island because they had no passports. Whatever the truth of the stories, the Isle is an oasis in the midst of the storm of tourists and traffic. Standing on the cobbled streets and gazing up at the crooked buildings, you could almost stretch your imagination to see yourself in the Paris of Robespierre, Napolean or even Sartre.

Sadly however, it was getting late and we had to leave antique Paris behind. We crossed onto the right bank and walked up towards Paris' most famous non-existent monument, the Bastille, where we caught the every faithful metro back to Chateau L'Eau.

Dinner that night was another culinary triumph. By walking in the opposite direction from the previous night we came upon a small Italian restaurant called, inevitably, La Scala. We had bruschetta, penne al arrabiata or tagliatelle Siciliano and, of course, the a thick black espresso.

On our last day in Paris we checked out of our hotel and used our last metro ticket to reach the foot of Sacre Coeur. The climb is breathtaking and so is the view. From here you can see the Eiffel tower, the Arc de Triomphe and all of Paris other landmarks.

We were left with enough time to wander gently back down to the Gare Du Nord and our train to Waterloo. All in all, a very pleasant way to spend a weekend.

Sometime soon I hope to return to Paris. This time maybe I'll go in the company of a beautiful woman and together we can sit in the sunshine, in a cafe, and soak up the joie de vivre of Paris.