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Paris

Country:
France
Dates:
Thursday December 3rd, 1998 to Monday January 4th, 1999
Author:
noah
A disembodied church tower, Paris, France

After checking in to a hostel on my first night in Paris, I decided to head out to have a look at the Eiffel Tower, just to convince myself that I was really there. I had already walked for many hours that day, though, and if I'd known that it would take me another 3hrs to get to the tower and back, I might have put it off.

The following day, after a quinessentially French breakfast of baguettes and coffee, I checked out of the hostel and headed up to Gare du Nord, where I'd be meeting Hannah the next morning. I was doing everything in my power to save money, and I reasoned that, since Hannah would be tired and jetlagged when she arrived, I might as well save a few bucks by spending the night prior to her arrival wandering around (getting tired myself) rather than paying for a hostel. I rented a locker at the train station for my pack, and spent the following 24hrs having a quick look around Paris. I knew that I'd be there for a month, and that anything that I visited by myself I'd be returning to later with Hannah, so instead of focussing on any specific site I just sort of walked aimlessly; despite my aimlessness, however, I could hardly help being impressed.

Ancient church walls in Paris, France

After wandering all night I headed back to Gare du Nord to meet Hannah. Of course, we'd made plans to meet without either of us ever having seen the building (or been to Paris, for that matter), so I was a little sceptical about us finding one another. Eventually she appeared, however, and after I watched her wander confusedly by a few times (on the other side of the turnstiles, where I couldn't go without a ticket), she finally emerged. We retrieved my pack from the lockers (which Hannah described as being "guarded like an Israeli Prime Minister on a walking tour of Gaza"), and then headed out for the hotel at which we had reservations.

After dropping our packs off at the somewhat dingy, but not altogether unpleasant, little hotel, we spent the day hanging around the park behind the Cathèdral Notre Dame, observing the droves of pigeons and Japanese tourists (we were both pretty tired, and not up to much walking). In the evening we got some North African food in a part of Paris that is apparently affectionately known as "bacteria alley."

Hannah's first full day in Paris was the first Sunday of the month, and hence was free day at the Louvre. We stood in line for a couple of hours with all the other skinflints, and then spent the balance of the day meandering around the world's most famous museum looking at some of the world's greatest pieces of art, including the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Michelangelo's Dying Slave, Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa, and, of course, the most famous of all, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. It was nice to have Hannah around to help me to see the works in their various historical and aesthetic perspectives; it was also nice to see that the roughly $40,000 she had spent on an art history degree was not entirely wasted. The highlight of the day being shoved out from in front of a painting by a woman intent on getting the perfect handy cam shot (presumably she was going to visit the Louvre, in all it's wobbly, washed-out glory, at home on her television set).

The facade of the Cathèdral St. Dénis, Paris, France

We had previously decided that the only way we could really afford to spend a month in Paris was to find an apartment that we could rent on a short-term basis; this would provide us with a place to sleep, but more importantly (from a money-saving point of view) it would allow us to prepare our own food. With that in mind we set out for the local short-term rental agency, where the comrades set up a meeting for that afternoon with a Mr. Vacher, owner of a tiny apartment near the Bastille. We exchanged some money (so that we'd have enough for the deposit on the apartment), and headed up to the Bastille. The apartment turned out to be exactly what we were looking for (one room plus kitchen and bathroom, with a small loft for sleeping), and we were soon moving in.

Our apartment was located on the eastern edge of central Paris; although this made for some long walks to sites on or near the other side of the centre (the Eiffel Tower, for example, and the Musée d'Orsay), we were very close to a much less touristed part of Paris, near the Cimitière Père Lachaise. The neighbourhood to the east of us was largely North African, and a very large, very lively street market provided us with much of our food (when we finally began to drag ourselves out of bed in time to arrive before it closed). The market is only there on Tuesdays and Fridays during the winter, apparently because the vendors spend the rest of the week driving back and forth from southern Spain and southern Italy, where they get their produce. Near the market we found a tiny shop that sold only rice, couscous, and spices, which the owner scooped out of large sacs.

Once we were settled in the apartment, we fell into a routine of sleeping late, eating a huge meal, and then spending the afternoon and evening wandering Paris (the exceptions were days that we went to musea — intent on getting our money's worth, we tried to arrive as early as possible and usually stayed until closing). Among the many churches we visited were:

The rose window, St. Dénis, Paris, France

We returned to the Louvre one day (even after 2 days we didn't see anything close to all there is to see there), and spent 2 days at the Musée d'Orsay, a converted railway station that houses works of art created between 1848 and 1914 (older works are in the Louvre, newer in the Musée National d'Art Moderne); this period encapsulates Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and Art Nouveau, and the setting is quite spectacular (sculptures are mostly in the huge open hall, and thus are visible from many angles and distances), so we would have been happy to return a few more times, if our schedule had allowed it. Among the works we saw there were Monet's Impression, soleil levant (from which the Impressionist movement got its name), Dégas's Petite danseuse de quatorze ans and L'absinthe, van Gogh's La chambre de van Gogh à Arles, Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. We actually caught a break one day and got in the Musée d'Orsay for free because the ticket-takers were on strike. The only other museum we visited was one that had been recommended to us by several people, the Musée Rodin, which displays a wide assortment of the turn of the 20th century sculptor's works, both inside the 18th century building and in the garden behind it; it is a very nice, very relaxing place, and the sculptures (Rodin's most famous work is The Thinker) are extremely cool.

Basilique du Sacré Coeur, Montmartre, Paris, France

On another day we travelled out to La Défense, a very modernist conglomeration of skyscrapers, sculptures, and the Grande Arche, an enormous hollow cube. Although utterly unlike historical central Paris, La Défense is quintessentially European, and hardly less impressive than many of the city's much older sites. After spending a few hours walking around the windy, open, barren, concrete area we headed home along the Grande Axe. The Grande Arche is almost perfectly aligned with, and is visible from, the equally impressive Arche de Triomphe; the Grand Axe is an absolutely straight route that stretches from the Grande Arche through the Arche de Triomphe, along the ultra upscale-touristy Champs-Elysées, past the Egyptian monolith at Place de la Concorde, through the elegant Jardin de Tuileries, to the Louvre.

We made a valiant attempt to soak up some of the city's famous bohemian culture; we wandered through the Latin Quarter, and visited a number of cafés, where a shot-glass sized cup of very strong coffee generally costs in the neighbourhood of $5. We also spent a couple of evenings at Shakespeare & Co., the city's famous English language bookshop, apparently a favourite haunt of the Beat poets in the 50s.

Mausolea in La Cimetière du Père Lachaise, Paris, France

The Cimitière Père Lachaise is the city's largest graveyard, and is one of the world's modern pilgrimage destinations, as it contains the last mortal remains of Jim Morrison. Other, arguably more illustrious, residents include Oscar Wilde, Jacques-Louis David, Théodore Gericault, Eugène Delacroix, Fréderic Chopin, Amedeo Modigliani, Honoré de Balzac, and Camille Pissarro. Created in 1804 by Napoleon, the cemetery's winding paths, huge trees, and centuries old crumbling graves of various degrees of ostentatiousness place it firmly in the category of the phantasmagorical. We wandered among the tombs for several hours in drizzling rain before the sun set, at which point, despite our best attempts to be rational, things got a little spooky; our fears weren't entirely unfounded, as the cemetery apparently has a history of necrophilism, prostitution, and black masses.

On another day we took a train to the celebrated palace of Versailles, a short distance outside of Paris; the story is that Louis XIV moved 6000 nobles to Versailles to force them to spend all their time being sycophantic rather than getting involved in anything meaningful, and that he made the place incredibly luxurious so that they wouldn't want to leave. We were too cheap to pay to see the inside, but we spent the day wandering around the expansive gardens. A highlight of the gardens is Marie Antoinette's faux peasant village, where she ate cake and generally experienced the hardships of the peasants by playing milkmaid. It was relaxing day, if somewhat chilly, but I could hardly argue with a friend who described Versailles as a "soulless" place

Christmas in Paris, France

Christmas eventually rolled around. We had procured a tiny tree (large trees are very expensive in Paris), and Hannah did her utmost to turn it into a legitimate Christmas tree, manufacturing decorations out of cardboard covered with shiny wrapping paper. We had discovered that it cost 30 francs to tour the famous Opéra Garnier, but only 40 francs to actually attend a ballet there, so we elected to spend Christmas Eve seeing Don Quixote in one of the world's most famous opera houses, in a feeble attempt to console ourselves about the fact that we wouldn't be home with our families.

The Opéra Garnier is an incredibly ornate and luxurious place; the ceiling of the theatre is decorated with an immense fresco painted by Marc Chagall, and the lobby and entrance hall are full of intricately carved columns and large winding staircases. We were there more for the building than for the ballet, and we spent the intermissions exploring, but the performance itself was also enjoyable. We were sharing a loge(?) with an American couple and a very drunk, fur clad, old French woman who showed up late and stumbled over our feet to her seat, uttering loud apologies the whole time.

An ancient Roman amphitheatre, Paris, France

After the ballet we walked to Notre Dame for midnight mass, singing Christmas carols as we made our way through the courtyard of the Louvre. Notre Dame was, of course, packed to the gills, and after we had waited outside for over an hour, we were frisked by security on our way in to the church; it felt more like a concert than church service, except that the crowd was a little nastier and pushier than your average Lollapalooza crowd. We couldn't actually see most of the altar during the service, but fortunately there were closed circuit televisions set up for those of us relegated to the side aisles, behind the pillars. Following mass we headed back to our apartment to make expensive phone calls to various relatives. We didn't do a whole lot (actually, we did nothing) on Christmas day; since we didn't have an oven, pan fried chicken and boiled potatoes substituted for turkey dinner.

To celebrate the New Year, we checked out the Eiffel Tower (which we decided not to climb due to the immense line and the fact that the top level was closed anyway). We headed to the Champs-Elysées for the actual changing of the year; although we didn't do anything except stand around with thousands of drunk Parisians, the mere fact that we were in the Champs-Elysées made it a memorable experience.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

On Hannah's last day in town we attempted to climb the Eiffel Tower; unfortunately our plans were foiled by our landlord (by this point commonly referred to not as Mr. Vacher, but as le gros vache). He was supposed to meet us to give back our deposit; he arrived an hour early, however, when we weren't around. He went into the apartment, and then left, locking a lock on the door for which we didn't have a key. We hung around outside the apartment for two hours before managing to get in using a key we got from the superintendent; we were able to go out for a decent, authentic French dinner (a Christmas gift from my mom), but our opportunity to climb the Eiffel Tower was lost. The following morning we got our deposit back and Hannah caught a train to the airport and then a plane to Bangkok.

The day that Hannah left was the first Sunday of the month, so the Louvre was free again. After seeing her off at the subway, I spent the day trying to see the parts of the museum that we had missed on our 2 previous trips, then headed back to the hostel I had stayed at my first night in town to plan my trip out of Paris the following day. I figured that it would be useless to try to walk out of Paris, and the inflated holiday train prices had ended the previous day, so I bought a ticket to Chartres.

You might wish to look at the Paris photos in the photo album.

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