213 miles on a plane, 1246 miles on foot, 14 historical monuments, 2 tall buildings, 500,000 displaced bones, 13 public toilets and coffee, oh yes, we had a lot of coffee….
03.11.2008 - 05.11.2008 14 °C
The SatNav failed us once again, this time dearest beloved sister Corinne, had programmed it to take us to Luton airport…runway. Hmm, I know my car is an estate and it does carry an awful lot, but even with the addition of wings, I don’t think it could disguise itself as a cargo plane, and I am sure runway parking is terribly expensive, so we resorted to my sense of direction to get us to the to the long term car park which thankfully, did not fail us.
Paris is described by the Travellerspoint ‘Wiki’ as ‘the city of love’. Well, we are not lovers we told the hotel guy and being sisters we were not even close friends, so we will have twin beds please if you don’t mind nice Mr Hotelman. But he cocked up the booking. ‘Um Coreen’ he called in his lovely French accent as we were heading for the lift, ‘I zeem to have made un error, I geev you anozzer room’. A beautiful room it was too and obviously an upgrade. We had TV, mini bar, headed notepaper and envelopes ( because you write a lot of letters when you’re on holiday don’t you), an ashtray you could not use but a large window out of which one could stick ones head and secretly pollute the fresh Parisian air. Oh, and a kettle.
The kettle is particularly relevant. As we were doing last minute packing checks Corinne asks ‘Do you have the kettle?’ ‘No, thought you had it’, ‘I thought you had it’,’ Must be in the loft.’ ‘But they don’t have a kettle in the hotel and we neeeeed one cos I must have my coffee in the morning.’ ‘Yeah, me too, I’ll go and get the ladders’. ‘But its 3am, you can’t go crashing around outside in the garage waking up the neighbours, we’ll buy a new one at the airport.’ ‘OK’ (relief).
At the airport I begrudgingly shell out 20 quid for a pathetic little kettle which came complete with cups so there was no need to lug around the two ancient ones we dug out from the back of the cupboard with the intention of dumping them in the hotel ‘poubelle’ when we left. ‘Poubelle’ a lovely word don’t you think? Poo-belle, a bit like pretty crap. The name actually derives from a Eugene Poubelle who, in 1884 declared that all apartments should have rubbish bins.
So there we are in our posh hotel room looking at this large kettle and lovely white china cups. Bugger. I decide I shall return the kettle to Boots and get my money back. It is still sitting in the back of my car. The ancient cups were instantly relegated to Eugene’s pretty crap bin.
I have just worked two 14 hour shifts, got up at 3am, driven the 2 hours to Luton via Gate 17’s non existent parking space, flown for an hour (in a plane), navigated the Paris RER system and got us safely ensconced in a comfortable room with a kettle. I would have happily curled up in front of French TV with a mug of coffee and a French stick. But we have a day and a half to ‘do’ Paris.
After refreshing ourselves with a coffee at a local café, we set off for our first port of call, the Eiffel Tower, via A&E to have our hearts defibbed after realising that two cups of mediocre caffeine had just set us back almost 8 quid! ‘So where is it?’ quips Corinne, ‘Erm, could be that large metal structure just behind you?’ We were there in less than fifteen minutes. One look at the queue helped us decide that it really wasn’t worth going up and Corinne didn’t have her inhaler with her anyway.
The weather was glorious, so we strolled along the banks of the Seine towards the Louvre. Well, it started out as a stroll, but Corinne’s coffee decided it needed an emergency exit so we raced down Pont des Invalides, me desperately trying to take an imposing shot of the Grand Palais, we flew past Pont de la Concorde with its magnificent gilded horses perched upon giant towers guarding the way to the impressive Assemblee National, Corinne is now 500 metres ahead of me, I am trying to take photos and exclaiming ‘oooh, look at that!’ to no one in particular before racing after her looking like a thief who has just nicked some unsuspecting tourist’s prized Canon.
The pace slows momentarily as we go through the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre with its promise of spotlessly clean and art adorned lavs is in sight. We ponder at the ponds, one is full of terns, the other, ducks. Obviously some sort of segregation going on here. I wonder what the ducks would do should a tern inadvertently land in their midst? A flock call of ‘En coulet, sal tern’ probably. In English, that means ‘go away’ nicely, but don’t say it to your mother. I have probably got the French wrong too, but I am sure someone will put me right.
Pristine toilet in sight, a young lady stops us, she is holding a gold wedding band. She says she just found it on the ground. ‘Oh my goodness, it looks brand new, someone must have lost it’ we respond in unison. ‘Its no good to me, doesn’t fit, here, you have it’ she replies. Now we are in a quandary, what do we do? Where is the nearest police station? Do we look for a gentleman (for indeed it is a gentleman’s ring) sobbing into his new brides shoulder having lost his blessed wedding band on their honeymoon? Oh my, too much pressure! But then the young lady returns ‘Good luck for you! How about a little something for me?’ Ah ha! A scam! I quickly return the ring to her, and relief rushes over me. Corinne is already relieving herself in the Louvre loos which were so clean they stunk of bleach and there was not so much as a Monet in sight.
Now ferociously hungry we stuck into French style hot dogs fresh from the microwave, marginally more expensive than a cup of coffee. We spot a large archway that we had not noticed walking through. Would this be the Arc de Triomph? No, surely not, isn’t that stuck in the middle of the road surrounded by horrendous traffic? Or would that be Marble Arch? I take a photo anyway, just in case. Later consultation with the map reveals that we were terribly wrong.
Being of limited time we decide not to enter the Louvre, experience has told me that it takes a week just to find the Mona Lisa and when you do get there she is encased in glass, surrounded by tourists and looking as miserable as Venus who is probably still in need of some arms so she can gesticulate at passers by peering at her nakedness.. Instead we decide to make our way to the Notre Dame.
We returned to the Seine and strolled along the Quai. Really strolled this time, ignoring the thirst we endured for fear of turning our trip into a tour of Paris’ 1452 (ish) public toilets. At the street market Corinne bought the least tacky fridge magnet she could find and I indulged in a comic picture of a camel smoking its namesake. Couldn’t help it, I still have a thing about camels.
We found our way without incident to the Notre Dame and sat outside watching a young girl being accosted by pigeons and a lovely old lady feeding her beloved sparrows. There was something wonderful about this crinkly old lady, hand outstretched to the tiny agile sparrows. They showed no fear of her and remarkably, the pigeons stayed away, perhaps they were also subjected to the steely gaze that I was afforded when I pointed my lens in her direction.
The Notre Dame is truly a magnificent building, the gothic towers, gargoyles more threatening than any old lady and so many knobbly bits. I am no architectural buff, but surely this is a remarkable feat of engineering for the 14th Century. Deciding once again, not to venture inside, Corinne not being particularly interested and me not wishing to relive memories of breaking her video camera on my last visit which just happened to be my honeymoon back in 1997 when I was married to the since departed Rob, departed to Moffat that is, although we still have fond memories of our exorbitant dinner at the Grand Hotel but that’s another story, we headed off in the direction of the Latin Quarter.
Le Quartier Latin is just lovely, quaint little streets lined with fabulous little restaurants displaying mouth wateringly seductive brochettes of giant prawns, chunks of salmon and other fishy delights.
Unfortunately we were not hungry so we settled for a happy hour half litre of beer at a street bar with a decidedly stroppy waiter and a unisex loo. We sat there and watched Paris walk by, a mixture of crazed drunks, trendy teenagers and typical exquisitely groomed Parisian ladies who were attending a beauty parlour next door. A saxophonist serenaded us then got the hump when we told him we had no money to give him, we had spent it on a 5 euro beer. Only 50 cents more than a cup of coffee, bargain!
Next on the agenda was my favourite. Getting lost in a major city. We were not disappointed. After zigzagging our way in what we thought was the general direction of the Eiffel tower, we were suddenly confronted with, the wrong tower. Namely the Montparnasse tower. ‘Is that not right?’ enquires Corinne, ‘No, it is most certainly very not alright. It is alright if you want to see where we are going tomorrow, but it is not alright if you had visions of soaking your weary legs in our sumptuous hotel room bath whilst I whisk up a couple of lattes using our lovely (and free) kettle within the next hour’. With us both being very close to 50, Corinne on the wrong side and me on the scary side, the old joints aren’t what they used to be and we were already aching and hobbling like a pair of geriatrics. We could have got the Metro back, but that would be too easy wouldn’t it! We may miss something special, like a signpost.
After resorting to consulting the map, which is not easy by closed shop light using a very small map of a very large city and having to scrabble for reading glasses, we get an idea of the general direction we should be headed and hobbled off. Sighting of the dome of the Invalides lit up like some monstrous gilded…thing, heartened us a little, but on first glimpsing the neon blue lights of the Eiffel tower and its beacon beckoning us in the direction of ‘home’, all pains were forgotten.
Seeing Paris’ most famous landmark lit up like this was something to behold, emblazoned with the European flag of 12 gold stars it took on an almost Disney like character. We rested for a short while in the blueness, people were still queuing to go to the top and once again we opted out. One single step in a vertical direction and we would both have been crippled for life. As we made our way on the last 15 minute leg of our journey we turned back, to see the whole bloody thing covered in glitter and flashing uncontrollably. It was so gaudy it was almost beautiful. Ok, so I admit to uttering ‘wow!’ and ‘oooh!’ a couple of times like a child at a fireworks display but really, what would Gustave have thought?
We made one further stop at a local supermarket to stock up with bread, cheese, ham and wine (we could have bought four bottles of wine for the price of one coffee!) then hobbled to the hotel opting for the lift to take us to our room on the first floor.
That bed felt sooo good, curled up with a glass of wine watching the US Presidential elections in French, stuffing our faces with bread and cheese.
The following day we felt remarkably recovered and with the promise of another sunny day, we decided to walk to the Catacombs. It was not a particularly interesting walk apart from running into the Statue of Liberty on Pont de Grenelle. She must have been on holiday too, but I didn’t see anything in the papers about it. We did a few zigzags to liven it up a bit and came across what must have been ‘food row’. A shop each for cheese, meat, poultry, fish, bread, cakes, coffee and chocolate. We slavered in windows and recoiled at the prices for chocolates. We were armed with home made ham and cheese baguettes and so resisted all temptation.
Finally we arrive at the inconspicuous Catacombs. Had there not been a queue forming we may have had trouble finding it. We took our place at the end and about an hour later we were at the entrance. Probably should have taken a look at the entrance first. There is sign stating that if you happen to be of a nervous disposition, suffer from claustrophobia or even the slightest bit frail, then this probably isn’t the best place for you. There are 132 steps down and 84 up. You have to walk 1.5kms underground in semi darkness. Corinne still remembers vividly the time we went to York and I had a claustrophobic panic attack in the museum, running up the wrong stairs pushing old ladies and small children out of my way shouting something unintelligible about needing to see the sky. This was a very, very long time ago and since then I have been in deep caves and even survived the walkway to hell in Ethiopia so I tried to reassure her that I would not be an embarrassment. The defibrillator inside the entrance was a little unnerving though.
We descended the tiny stone spiral staircase, counting each of the 132 steps, emerging 20 metres below ground into the narrow passages of the disused quarry. We followed the dim passage to the sculpture of the Port Mahon fortress of Minorca, carved out from memory by someone who was supposed to be working down there, I think they gave him the sack after he had finished it. Finally we came to an opening and a doorway. A sign above a doorway warned ‘Arrete! C’est ici l’empire de la mort’ translated ‘Halt! For this is the empire of death’. A chill ran down our backs.
In 1785 the Council of State, following complaints from the population about the nasty pong coming from the cemeteries, issued a decree authorising the transfer of old bones to the quarry. Initially these bones were thrown in a heap, but in 1810, some smart artistic type chap named Hericart de Thury came along and turned them into walls. Long bones arranged in neat rows with skulls laid on top, the other bones piled behind. He then got a bit clever and started arranging them a bit more artistically resulting in what is now seen to be a work of grotesque art. The bones kept coming until every cemetery in Paris had been cleared and continued to arrive until 1860. I don’t think anyone knows just how many souls are laid to rest there but it feels like the result of some ghastly holocaust. I was glad to get out and hurried up the 84 steps back to the land of the living.
As if we hadn’t seen enough death, we visited the Montparnasse Cemetery and marvelled at the ornateness of some of the tombs, all so beautifully kept. Bones hidden in sarcophagi, as they should be.
To cheer us up a little we decided to go to the top of Montparnasse tower and enjoy the 360 degree view from the terrace of the 59th floor. Voted in a poll by Virtualtourist recently, it has been deemed the second ugliest building in the world, exceeded in hideousness only by the Boston City Hall. Personally I did not think it was that bad but was sure the view from there was better looking at the Eiffel Tower than the other way around. We were lucky with the weather, even at 210 metres, the air was still and there was just a faint haze over the distant outreaches of Paris.
After all this upping and downing we had built up a thirst and so headed back the Latin Quarter to find our stroppy waiter and his 5 euro beers. This time we decided to take the Metro, but after walking a mile underground to the trains, realising we needed a ticket, walking the mile back and returning once more, we may just as well have gone on foot. Surprisingly, even though we had no idea exactly where it was, our noses took us straight to the bar and we took our places amongst the other unsuspecting tourists catching the sharp end of the little waiters tongue. If ever you are in Paris and come across this little bar with its benches and tiny stools outside, remember, never, ever sit next to each other. You must sit opposite if you want to avoid getting short shrift!
The lure of fish brochettes became too much and we found ourselves in a little Greek restaurant munching on a huge platter of fish, meat, moussaka and salad, washed down with a bottle of wine and followed by something decidedly chocolaty. Yum!
Not wanting a repeat performance of yesterday’s journey home, we took the double decker underground RER which involved just a little chopping and changing of stations as we tried to decide exactly which direction we were supposed to be heading. More wine and French TV soon lulled us into a blissfully peaceful sleep. That was it. Paris ‘done’.
The next morning greeted us with lashing rain and so we enquired about an airport transfer, advertised at 16 euro each. There was no vehicle available but the receptionist kindly arranged us a taxi. Luckily I enquired as to the cost. 50 euro!!!! I told him I would rather get wet and pay just 8 euro on the RER, so that’s what we did.
Orly airport is just horrid. There is no departure lounge as we know it, somewhere to while the time away in the lovely duty free shops. No, once you are through security (after the usual rigmarole of removing half your clothing, revealing holey socks and Asda knickers cos your trousers fall down without a belt) there is not so much as a working vending machine and we were forced to sit there, listening to some revolting Brit sniffing and snorting. We let him board first and sat at the other end of the plane.
We were home by mid afternoon and whilst unpacking what did we find in the wardrobe? The bloody kettle!