Travelling

FOUR DAYS IN PARIS

01/08/2017


The day after school closed its doors for the Summer of 2017, my 7-year-old and myself are ready for another urban adventure. Our destination this time is – Paris, the capital of art, fashion, macaroons and Macron (and a modern style of European politics!). I still find it fascinating that two of the most stylish and unique cities in Europe are joined by a simple 2 hour 20 minute train journey! The Eurostar deals were also impossible to turn down: 29 pounds for adult one-way ticket and 28 pounds for a child ticket. Peu cher!
The train departs St. Pancras International at 8.31 a.m. but with all the security warnings about increased checks – as well as our bursting enthusiasm – we reach the station as early as 7 a.m. And of course, we are though the checks in no time and my almost-Year3 pupil’s politeness even gets us fast-tracked to the Business line passport control, which leaves us with an hour wait before departure.
As the train speeds through the British countryside towards the Channel Tunnel, I cannot help feeling the Brexit Blues. And I hope that the Brexiteers’ plans for an UK outside the EU – whatever they might be – do not disturb this physical link between London and Paris; or that intangible connection with subtle competition that has been linking Londoners and Parisians for centuries…
The two of us are sleepy but restless, excited but impatient; simply unable to concentrate on any of the various forms of entertainment we took with us. Eventually, as my 7-year old gets engrossed in yet another story of the series The Diary of the Wimpy Kid, I have just enough time to watch Julie Delpy’s movie Lolo on the train entertainment network. I am a big fun of Delpy’s cinematographic work and can often recognise my own views, dreams and opinions captured in her stories (it all started with the Before trilogy). Delpy plays a neurotic woman of 45 years of age (funnily enough) who is successful at work but not so successful on the love front. This light and entertaining black comedy has elements of Le dîner de cons and the main character occasionally reminded me of Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous. And – yes, it made me laugh out loud!

Le Louvre
Le Louvre


Our hotel is a twenty-minute walk from Gare du Nord and we slowly roll our suitcase down the busy and noisy Rue de la Fayette, taking in our first impressions of the city. Cars and motorbikes are coming from all directions and honking at all times and the traffic fumes are thick and visible. Midday has just gone and café’s, bistros and restaurants are filling with hungry regulars while the smells of various cuisines are spreading to the streets – from pizzas and crêpes to curries and noodles. We walk past three large philatelist’s shops with dusty yellowy stamp albums in the windows, as though frozen in some other time.
The Hotel Icône is a cosy and charming place within walking distance of the major landmarks yet in a peaceful side street off Rue de Richelieu. Somewhere between me typing the info and printing the booking confirmation via a well-known not-worth-mentioning-here website, the information that for three out of four nights, the room will be occupied by two adults and one child got lost and the booking has to be amended. Pas de problème, madame! A child bed will be squeezed into the room and €45 per day added to our bill…
After munching on snacks bought in Marks and Spencer’s at St. Pancras, attempting and failing to have a siesta and a marathon flick through TV channels, we head to the Musée du Louvre. On the way we pass another two or three stamp collectors’ shops and even a numismatic store. No fear of extinction for old-fashioned hobbies in the French capital!
Our online-bought tickets are for 4pm and – to my big surprise – we do not need to queue either for tickets or the security check and in no time are inside the Pyramid foyer. It’s a mesmerising place; bright and spacious with light descending in showers.

The Pyramid
The Pyramid


It all gets a bit annoying and frustrating when we ask for the audio-guide. First, we have to go to the ticket office to buy the coupon and then return to the desk despatching audio-guides. We must leave a form of ID as a guarantee. This crucial piece of information is not mentioned either on their website, or when buying the audio-guide coupon. And if you are like me and do not like to be separated from your passport or credit card, you would take with you an ID of relatively minor importance (one that can be replaced more quickly and without consequences, like a student card or driving license, in case of an unexpected event). Eventually – and very unwillingly – I leave my passport in exchange of the audio-guide, hoping it will produce enough entertainment for my 7-year old through a marathon immersion into the artistic corpus of one of the largest museums in the world. My little explorer assures me that after her recent visit to the Vatican Museums, she is well prepared for Le Louvre! But – nothing prepares you for the Louvre and the mile-long corridors adorned with paintings and sculptures of various historical and geographic origins. We start with the sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome, and then quickly stroll through galleries galore of religious paintings looking for the Mona Lisa. We just about manage to take a glance at the most famous painting in the world and her mysterious smiling/non-smiling lips behind a thick wall of photo and video-taking visitors.
The highlight of our visit to the Louvre are Napoleon’s private apartments: with their shiny glamour, extravagant chandeliers and excessive furnishings. My almost-Year3 pupil entertains herself by counting the chairs at Napoleon’s dinner table – 41 + Napoleon!
Imagine cooking for so many people, mummy! Don’t think so…
The Louvre is open until 9 on Wednesday nights and although we have plenty of time left, our levels of energy and enthusiasm are plummeting. After a rather quick stroll through the galleries of British and American art and the paintings of Northern Europe, we head to the gallery shop. You cannot leave the Louvre without a souvenir! Of course – it’s notebooks and pens for both!

Le Diner avec Napoleon
Le Diner avec Napoleon



DAY 2

Against the odds and the weather forecast – both boasting a week of sun and heat – Thursday morning surprises us with an unpleasant wind and sporadic rain. In our good-for-the beach attire we are highly inappropriately dressed for the conditions on the streets of Paris and can feel the goose pimples breaking out on our arms. Our first stop for the day is a visit to the Opéra de Paris, featured in my daughter’s favourite movie of the moment, Ballerina, a heart-warming animated story about an orphaned girl who follows her dreams and joins the ballet of the Opéra. The movie is – of course – on the loop in the Souvenir shop and my own little ballerina can’t resist showing off her own arabesques, pliés, jetés and more… We escape the rain by jumping into a bistro overlooking the Opéra, for a late breakfast of croissants, coffee and water.

Alexander III Bridge
Alexander III Bridge


Our next and last stop for the day is – the Eiffel tower. It’s miles away from the Opéra but we have our matching walking boots on and are up for a leisurely flânerie around the streets of Paris. Expensive, branded shops are already selling winter coats, jumpers etc and although it’s only July, I could be tempted to buy a cardigan to cover my cold shoulders… We walk past the traffic madness of Place de la Concorde, glance at the Champs-Élysées lined with chairs in preparations for Sunday’s finale of the Tour de France 2017, and then find our way to the riverbank. The wind is stronger by the river and we keep warm by jumping on the gigantic geometric shapes painted on the promenade. A few joggers pass us by. And a young girl rushing to her job in a brasserie by the river. Not the best weather for a promenade by the Seine…
Our – bought online and in advance – tickets for the Eiffel Tower have the time stamp of 3.30 and we have plenty of time to sit and relax in the green area of the Champ de Mars, taking in the fascinating view of the Eiffel Tower. Temperature-wise it’s not very pleasant, and the sand from the sandy patches around the green keeps turning into clouds and flying into our eyes. There are also scores of migrant sellers who keep approaching us on the loop with an array of €1 souvenirs. Eventually we buy two scarves with designs of Paris landmarks; not as souvenirs but as an attempt to cover our necks and shoulders. The scarves are in fact so bad and unusable that we just squeeze them into the rucksack…

Eiffel Tower
Eiffel Tower


Two security checks and a ticket control later we are finally in the lift to level 2 of one of the most iconic building structures in the world. We could not get tickets for the summit, but level 2 also offers breath-taking views of Paris – from the hill of Montmartre and the impressive basilica of Sacré-Coeur to the Arc du Triomphe, the high rising buildings of La Défense and the river Seine. The wind is messing with our hair and our photographs and it is quite chilly. But – the flawlessly shaped and very chocolatey macaroons seem to taste particularly delicious at this altitude…

Just around the corner from the hotel, in the Café Zéphyr on the Boulevard Montmartre, we get our dinner; of lamb casserole (that does not look like casserole at all) and penne carbonara for my little companion. It’s a typical French bistro with patrons sitting outside and watching life go by. The food is tasty, the place pleasant and the waiter friendly. We spend what feels like hours digesting our food, relaxing, chatting and waiting for the lights of the night to come on.
Just before midnight, the third member of our travelling crew finally manages to join us.

Le Cafe' Zephyr
Le Cafe' Zephyr



DAY 3

I have wanted to visit Le Château de Versailles since high school and the intense history lessons both on the extravagant reign of Louis XIV and the treaty that ended World War I, but somehow it always slipped from my list on previous visits to Paris. I booked the tickets in advance and they are not the cheapest; €27 both for adults and children (no discount rates on Fridays and Saturday). Versailles is a wealthy Parisian suburb with excellent transport links to the capital city. The train journey from Gare St. Lazare (€17 return for 3 tickets, very reasonable) to Versailles Rive Droite takes only half an hour.
We reach the Château gone eleven, just around the time the sun is reaching its zenith and the temperature is at seasonal record heights. The queue is snaking around the long courtyard four or at some points even five times and of course everyone had the same idea as me: buying tickets in advance to avoid the queues… Yeah right – it takes us over one hour to get in.

Queue at Versailles
Queue at Versailles


We start our tour of Versailles with the rooms depicting the history of the Château and its numerous building extensions through impressive models, contemporary paintings and movie footage. Next stop on our tour is the royal apartments and then we finally reach the shiny, luxurious and historically important Hall of Mirrors, the place where the Treaty of Versailles was signed. With its luxurious chandeliers, golden decorations, large windows running along one side and mirrors along the other, it’s with no doubt one of the most impressive places I’ve visited. The Château of Versailles shouts richness and dominance, abundance and flamboyance, and it’s not hard to imagine the extent of the power it represented in those days and why King Louis XIV was called the Sun King…

Hall of Mirrors
Hall of Mirrors


After a delayed lunch of sandwiches at the hot and non-air-conditioned Angelina restaurant inside the Château we finally reach the vast, immaculately landscaped grounds. The gardens have the real “wow” factor: with miles of tall maze-like hedges, fountains, sculptures, columns and colonnades. We stroll around followed by a soundtrack of smooth baroque music blasting from speakers hidden somewhere in the bushes…

The gardens
The gardens



For our dinner, we return to Paris and after glancing at a few places in close proximity of the hotel, we agree on Le Royal Cadet Brasserie in Rue Cadet. The city is turning on its night lights and we tuck in to our dinner of French sausage with runner beans, steak and chips and cheese omelette with a side of pommes frites. The place is vibrant: soft jazz music is playing in the background, extra tables and chairs are added to the outside terrace on the pavement and Friday night fever in the French capital is just getting started…

Sausages and beans
Sausages and beans



DAY 4


Following the established Parisian weather pattern of sun-rain-sun-rain, we are not surprised when we wake up on Saturday morning to the strong pitter-patter on the windows. The day is gloomy and grey and the rues and boulevards are damp and deserted. Parisians obviously do not like Saturday mornings. We grab a breakfast of overburnt croissants, coffees and freshly squeezed orange juice in the organic fast food Exki on the Boulevard des Italiens, just around the corner from the hotel. The complementary dark chocolate with the carrot extract is so delicious that I wish they sold it by the kilo.

The Pompidou
The Pompidou


Despite the stubborn rain, the three of us take a leisurely stroll to the Centre Georges Pompidou, breathing in more façades, monuments and smells of this amazing city (and including a little detour to the Kokai discount shop!) With its amazingly weird and unique architecture, the Pompidou Centre is the Tate Modern of Paris – the exposed pipes and tubes make it look like a power plant, an oil refinery or a futuristic city from a Japanese cartoon – and it is the perfect place for a sluggish Saturday morning, where you can get a fix of contemporary art, a coffee and a cutting edge souvenir or gift. We head straight to the top and the David Hockney retrospective – yep, the one we missed in London! It’s an amazing exhibition of Hockney’s life through art and his art through his life; from the well-known paintings like the one with the pool (A Bigger Splash) and the double portrait of his mother and father to the sketches and experimental films. Our 7-year old is completely besotted by the movie installation of the Four seasons. Four screens on four separate walls depict a narrow, country road probably somewhere in Yorkshire going through the changes of, well, four seasons. Falling leaves and thick snow, misty air and scorching sun; such a simple idea yet a masterpiece of modern art! And of course – we are not allowed to go to the next gallery until our little traveller has watched all four movies beginning to end…
Evidemment, we cannot leave Paris without a lunch of the famous crêpes! Luckily, just outside the Pompidou Centre there is a rather petite and unpretentious crêperie. Both the savoury (ham and cheese) and the sweet (lemon and sugar) crêpes are awfully flavoursome. And quite large and filling so we head back to the hotel for a bit of siesta…

Le Moulin Rouge
Le Moulin Rouge


For over two centuries, Montmartre has been synonymous with artists and writers. It’s easy to imagine how this village-looking area of Paris with steep and narrow cobbled streets, brothels and cabaret theatres, as well as breath-taking views of the city, became the centre of creativity and decadence. Writers roamed these streets writing their poems and painters creating their canvases, both capturing the mood of the moment. From Verlaine and Zola to Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir to Picasso, Modigliani, Van Gogh…just to mention a few.
The rain comes and goes, but that doesn’t diminish our impression of the place; cafés, brasseries and bistros are overcrowded, and so are the souvenir shops lining every corner and every street. Scores of tourists gather around the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur and take in the sights of the city - Notre Dame, Pompidou, Panthéon…

Sacre-Coeur
Sacre-Coeur


We head back to London early on Sunday, full of impressions and some sadness that the long awaited and dreamt-of city break in the French capital is disappearing into the distance behind our Eurostar train. There is something timeless, charmingly addictive and magnetically infatuating about this city. No time spent in Paris is long enough. I am still fantasising of spending a few months here, improving my French and just wandering the streets and boulevards and sipping wine in one of the many brasseries. Flânerie et reverie, parfait!