“Parlez-vous anglais?” “Little” came the reply. “How much time for the next train?”, I asked. “20 to 40 minutes”, he said. The location: Aulnay-sous-Bois, a suburb in northeast Paris. No good reason to be there except that we had just been offloaded from our train and would now have to wait another 40 minutes for the next one to take us on to Gare du Nord in downtown Paris. I was tired, sleep deprived and irritable from my overnight flight, struggling with the few words of French that I knew, and frustrated that I was losing precious time in transit, on a trip that was short to begin with!
An hour or so later, I had checked in, showered and made my way to the deck of my hostel, which was by the Canal Saint-Martin – made famous in the film, Amélie. It was a glorious day outside, with the temperature flirting with the 20s (of the Celsius variety) – ‘tee-shirt weather’ as I like to call it! As I sipped on my Cafe Creme and awaited a Croque Madame, I watched as the 19th century lift bridge was raised, to allow a canal boat to pass, ever so often. Aulnay-sous-Bois suddenly seemed like a very distant dream. It was time to pinch myself awake – I was finally in Paris 😉
Joe DiMaggio once said that the two greatest backsides in the world were those of the Notre Dame and his wife – Marilyn Monroe at the time!! Now, having seen several pictures of Marilyn’s perfectly formed rear, and that of the Notre Dame, in person, I can see why good ‘ole Joe thought so! Suffice to say this 14th century structure is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, with its east facing rear definitely more impressive than its west facade.
A few minutes walk from the Notre Dame is Le Flore en L’ile, a charming cafe on Île Saint-Louis, the little island just east of the Île de la Cité. Not only does it offer great views of the Cathedral’s rear but also serves some fabulous ice cream or glaces. At 9€ for a double scoop (which just about equates to a single in the US!) it is steep for sure but worth every Euro you pay for it!
In every new city that I visit, sampling as many transit options as is physically possible, is a given! In Paris however, I was compelled to take this a step further, thanks, in no small measure, to the Train à Grande Vitesse or TGV – a.k.a the world’s fastest train! So with some deft research, I figured that I could make it to Le Mans and back in a little over 2 hours! On the morning of day 2, that’s precisely what I set out to do 😉
Cost of last minute return ticket: 84€; Distance covered: 416 km; Average speed: 231 km/h; Featured in photo below: readings of seconds taken to cover a km! ; Value of experience: PRICELESS!!
Leaving aside mass transit (not of the TGV variety), Paris is an extremely expensive city. It is expensive to the extent that it puts London to shame! A tall order that but Paris does so with a lot of élan! The city does, however, offer some things that are just superb value for money – museum entries for one! 5.50€ gets you into the Musée d’Orsay (a stunning museum built within a former rail terminal) and for the same price as that teeny scoop of ice cream I had, the Louvre is yours to explore for the day!
Truth be told though, even a week will not suffice for a museum the size of the Louvre – all 650,000 sq ft of it and 35000 exhibits no less! And I had a paltry 3 hrs to take it all in. A quick dash (read a mile’s worth of walking!) to the Mona Lisa followed and I was left rather disappointed! Instead, what I found more fascinating than the painting itself were the crowds lining up to see it!
While I can’t even claim to have seen an iota of Musée du Louvre, I can, however, say this – the building that houses the museum is itself a work of art – parts of it dating back to the 12th century!
If you’re short on time, like I was, I recommend picking only a couple of sections to see. One section that I chose (in the Richelieu Wing) was Napoleon’s Apartments – easily the highlight of my museum visit!
Paris is the kind of city one can easily spend weeks trying to see. There are dozens of great museums, gorgeous buildings, stunning monuments, beautiful parks, you name it! But it is also the kind of place completely conducive to just lounging around and doing nothing. Well, not really nothing – ‘watching the world go past’ kind of nothing!
The Parisian way of life is an eye opener, even for someone coming from the Big Apple! It is a lot more sophisticated and far more evolved than anything I have ever seen. And nothing epitomises this better than their public spaces. Plazas and squares abound in the city, cafes (with their chairs facing out to the street!) are a dime a dozen, and sidewalks are treated as meeting spaces rather than something transient. Parisians use their public spaces as they would their own – literally, an extension of their homes! In a city that has been designed around and for its people, traffic is only incidental – a refreshing change from what one is used to here in the US.
My better traveled friends tell me that this is true of most Western European cities! All I can do then is sit back and dream of my next trip.. while tucking into my Tartartan and watching the world go by..
What I do know about other Western European cities though, is that like Paris, a lot of them have a very strong biking (read cycling) culture – Copenhagen, Amsterdam & Barcelona to name a few. I’ll tell you this though – Paris actually got on to the bandwagon later on, but once it did, it revolutionised the way people perceive and use bikes in the city with their bike sharing program, Vélib’ (literally meaning bicycle freedom!). Today, the Vélib’ network offers Parisians – and visitors alike – 20,000 bikes across 1450 bike stations scattered across the city centre – you’d be hard-pressed NOT to find one!
And I’ll also say this – riding one for a couple of hours was by far THE most carefree, enjoyable, not to mention cheap, cycling experience I have had in a city environment, ever!
The city can be explored by foot, on a bicycle and of course through their extensive and excellent public transit network – I never had to wait more than 3 mins for a train (even on a Sunday!) and their bus stops come equipped with real time arrival status! Not to be outdone is another, albeit slower, way to see the city, the River Seine!
Dozens of bridges criss cross the river at regular intervals providing easy access to either bank. For 12€ you can ride the Batobus or ‘water bus’ (which serves all the important landmarks) all day long, hopping on and off as you wish. And then there are the promenades – miles and miles of them – which you could simply walk along, or better still, as the locals love doing, take along your favourite bottle of Chardonnay and sit by the river’s edge, all day long or till stocks last, whichever comes earlier! Unlike other cities in the world, where the waterfront can often be the reserve of the elite, the Seine is open to all. It is truly a public space and the Parisians treat it like their very own!
There are innumerable things that set Paris apart from other cities around the world. But as humans, wherever we go, we always tend to look for commonality in people, places and things. It is our way of connecting our experiences. So by the end of day 2, I was already seeing similarities between Paris and the other cities I had visited!
Every time I’d see a row of tiny hatchbacks parked bumper to bumper in an even tinnier alley, I would think London! Certain buildings would remind me of Buenos Aires (although the Porteños have no qualms in admitting their strong French influence!) and then there was this stretch of road (Esplanade des Invalides) between Les Invalides and the Grand Palais which reminded me so much of Rajpath and its surrounds, in New Delhi! Of course there’s no bridge next to Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Yamuna flows miles away! But still..
Now the French have a bad reputation worldwide – especially so in India – for being stuck up, unhelpful and racist! I know I wasn’t there for to long but in my 4 days there, I didn’t have any reason to complain. In fact, I would say, they’re a lot warmer and friendlier than I would ever have imagined! All you need do is put in a little bit of effort (in their language) and they’re all smiles, all ears 😉 Maybe the smiles had something to do with my poor French accent but at least I tried, and I got their attention!
So what are the cons you would ask? Well, apart from being overpriced, Paris has everything going for it – there’s really not much to complain about. Except one, actually two things..
1) There is no concept of water fountains (the US really spoils you in this department) so your invariably dependent on 3€ bottles of fancy Evian or if you’re on a really tight budget, there’s always Vittel, priced at a bargain €2.80!
2) Public toilets are non existent! The only one I saw, I actually ended up photographing – it was at the Centre Pompidou!
So what does someone with a very weak bladder like myself do? Get off the Batobus somewhere in the 5th Arrondissement (district) and look desperately for a toilet! I do end up finding one but only after stumbling upon the 28 hectare expanse of the beautiful Jardin des Plantes – the Botanical Gardens! Sometimes unscheduled detours for a pee are so well worth one’s time 😉
I’m almost there – about to wrap up this blog and ask myself that one vital question! While I wouldn’t reveal the answer just yet, I will say that if I was to ever move to Paris, one of the strongest reasons for that would have to be their food! From Crepes on the street to a plate of Fromage, from Croissants at breakfast to Quiches at brunch, each meal only left me lusting for more..
But the Pièce de résistance was saved for my last dinner there – Steak Tartare or ground raw beef! It was my first experience with the dish and one where every single bite was memorable! When it comes to raw food, Sushi will have to settle for second place! It also provided, quite definitively, the best combination of red meat and wine for me! (Sorry, no pictures of Steak Tartare itself, since my batteries died soon after this one!)
For me, Paris turned out to be everything I had ever heard, read or seen and much much more.. To cut to the chase, I would move there in a heartbeat!
There is one problem though – Je ne parle pas Français! 😉
A full set of pics can be seen here.