An October 1996 trip
to Paris by actonsteve
Quote: It pains me to say this but Paris is probably the best city in the world. With fantastic architecture, superb art, terrific food, great public transport, and spectacular monuments. You will come away, wherever you are from in the world, wondering why your city is not like this...
What can be said about Paris that has not been said before?
Everyone, and I do mean everyone, eventually visits Paris and comes away entranced. During the second world war it was not bombed or blasted like London, Budapest or Berlin so still maintains its 18th century cohesity and cityscape. To go with this is a thirst for technology, and a real penchance for the cutting edge. Side by side will be domed baroque churches next to futuristic glass buildings. Where else on earth would you have a stain-glass pyramid smack-bang in the courtyard of the largest Renaissance palace in the world?
But the best thing about Paris is it's liveability - it's full of characterful neighbourhoods where people spend their lives in restaurants, charcuteries, zinc bars and boulangeries. And after visiting this city - you may start to envy them. After all, with all they have in Paris, what is the point of the rest of the world?
But there must be something wrong with Paris you are thinking - no city can be this beautiful without a counterbalance? Of course, there are the Parisians - how rude they are - they must be Paris' achilles heel? In actuality, they are some of the nicest people in the world and make very good friends. And when you live in heaven,try as you might, it is hard not behave like a god...
The mark of a great city is when the public transport is so good you do not need a car. Paris' public transport is c'magnifique, mainly due to large government investment.Most of Frances' rail network passes through here and the great station (including the Gare D'Nord for the Eurostar) connect with the metro.
The metro covers the city exhaustively, and your best bet is a carnet of 10 billets for 70 Francs you can use all over the city. The metro itself connects up with the overground/underground RER network which you may use visiting Versailles and the Tour Eiffel and these double-decker trains are a sight in themselves.
One fact that I always enjoy about the Paris metro are the escalators taking you right up to the street and the old Guimard Art Nouveau metro entrances are still dotted around the place. But the best thing is to walk, you will find yourself compelled to walk as you encounter great sight after great sight. For sheer physical pleasures - Paris has no match in the world.
Your feet will ache when you do the Louvre. The museum has over five miles of corridors and over 30,000 works of art - but the experience is amazing. To see so much great art in one place will blow you away, and a visit is a must just to see one of the biggest palaces in Europe smack in the middle of Paris. Now that it has been spiffed up in Presidents Mitterand''s grande project, the place looks spectacular. Your first glimpse of the great courtyard of the Ceour Napoleon with its glittering pyramid and fountains will take your breath away. And along with the worlds greatest art collection (sorry Prado or Hermitage..")it is a contender for best museum in the world...
President Mitterand wasn''t the first to make his mark on the Louvre. There''s been a royal palace on this sight since 1205. Successive monarchs added to the place including Catherine de Medici who added the Tuilerie gardens, but it was King Louis IV who used Bellini to construct it the way it looks today - and that is absolutely spectacular(see photo). A vast sand-coloured Renaissance palace grouped around the gravel courtyard of the Coeur Napoleon. The renaissance architecture is like something out of ''The Three Musketeers'' and its very Frenchness is overpowering particularly with statues of kings and saints under the hundreds of windows. But the pieste de la resistance is the glass pyramid - it was a stroke of genius to make the entrance to the museum under the I M Pei''s glittering pyramid. The contrast between its sharp modernistic lines and the Ancien regime architecture makes it one of the most memorable vistas in Europe.
Even if you don''t like art - I suspect you will do the Louvre on your visit to Paris - and it is best to come early. The crowds especially in summer are suffoacating and the entrance queue stretches all around the Ceour Napoleon. Stumbling across the Louvre for the first time is one of the great pleasures of Paris, and I cannot recomend one approach above another as they are all spectacular - probably the one through the Tuileries gardens is best. Two metro stations stand next to the museum; Palais Royale/Louvre de Musee and Louvre Rivoli, both take you to the surface. Place Richelieu takes you through the northern wing of the museum and there are plateglass windows allowing you to see the artworks from the street such as the horses of Marly (see photo). But I think the walk across the footbridge of the Pont des Arts is best - especially for views up and down the river.
You enter through the great glass pyramid and descend glittering steel spiral stairs to the atrium - Halle Napoleon. From there escalators take you to the three wings Denon, Sully and Richelieu. Denon has all the great artworks including the Venus di Milo and the Mona Lisa so the crowds usually sprint there - that often means you can have great swathes of the museum to yourself. You have to determine how desperately you want to see them, and if you do, see them early in the morning or late at night. And despite the crowds the Mona Lisa is rather special. I was entranced by the huge Davids which covered the walls in this area - including Napoleon''s self-coronation in Notre Dame. The Louvre is mostly filled with looted artworks from other countries. So next time someone wags their finger at the British Museum for hoarding the worlds treasures - point them in the direction of Napoleons misbegotten gains here in the Louvre.
As you move through the galleries great windows provide views of the Ceour Napoleon and as you continue there will be great works by Boucheron, Poussin, Giotto, Botticelli, Michaelangelo, Constable, and Rodin - all the big names. The dutch masters were their usual glum selves with endless pictures of windmills and cows. The French were much juicier and one of my favourites was one by Poussin with a Parisian woman watching her baby being taken by a lion. Her reaction was so dramatic that her breasts were popping out - a recurring theme. I liked the dark paintings best especially ''The Raft of the Medusa'' and ''Noahs flood'' with people trying to escape the deluge - wonderfully overdramatic.
After so much art you will need some fresh air. Next door is the Tuileries gardens. Created by Queen Catherine Medici (If you have ever seen the film ''La Reine Margot'', she is the Queen mother who plots against and poisons everybody)they still retain their renaissance splendour. Entered through the bright pink Arc de Carousel (another of Napoleons legacies)the gardens are exquisite with gravel drives, plane trees, classical statues, boating ponds and bright flower beds. My best advice is find a bench, tuck into a baguette and watch the world go by. After all, your feet will probably be aching by now...
Ile de la Cite was where Paris began. Archeaologists have found stone age settlements going back 4,000 years and it was the Parisii that the Romans conquered, to build up the city as it was the best crossing point on the Seine. From there the city grew out and upwards. There has been a church on the site of Notre Dame for a thousand years and the current one was built in 1265. But Ile de la Cite was mainly covered in a warren of medieval housing, the Parvis in front of the Cathedral was where the market was held and the Place Greve across the water was where witches were burn't and public executions took place. Baron Haussman destroyed the medieval city and put up the Palais de Justice and such austere governmental buildings. The Ile is now almost entirely non-residential with only a few exclusive places' on the tip of the Ile - the rest is the domain of camera-clicking tourists.
The metro can take you directly there to Cite stop, which brings you out directly on Place Lepine and its market. But I think the best approach is over the bridges, that way you get to look down on the Bateau-mouhces' plying the river below you. And the sight of the buildings, especially the Conceirge, lit up at night as you cross the bridges is spectacular. Pont St Michel from the Rive Gauche seems the most popular, but I recomend Pont D'Arcole from the Hotel De Ville as you will have breathtaking views of the Ile de St Louis upstream (see photo). Most visitors make for Place du Parvis du Notre Dame and gaze up at the Cathedral. This is undeniably impressive, especially if you have never seen a gothic cathedral before. The legends attached to Notre Dame are legion - the self-crowning of Napoleon as Emperor, the medieval place of sanctuary, and of course - the Hunchback. When you gaze up and see the gargoyles and monsters - it still evokes the time of Esmerelda and Quasimodo.
Before you enter wander around the exterior and get a good look at the architecture. The two towers of its front facade loom into the air with lines of kings carved above the rose window. Also take a look at the rear with its flying buttresses, very advanced in their day and copied all over Europe. The gardens set around Notre Dame are beautiful and worth a look. The interior, for me, was a little disapointing. The great rose windows were superb - throwing multi-coloured light amongst the columns and shadows. But you are herded around and the ceiling was rather plain (I'd seen better ceilings in English Cathedrals, notably York Minster, and Westminster Abbey is more ornately delicate). But the best thing about Notre Dame is a trip up to the towers and bells. For 20 Francs you could climb the steps to the towers, you emerge on a platform with a balaustrade decorated with leering gargoyles and fiends. From here you could see the Ile de la Cite spread around you and the spires of Sainte Chapelle, even as far as Sacre Coeur perched on its hill. This excursion I would strongly recommend.
Back on terra firma I poked my nose into the ancient Hotel Dieu (The Hospital) and Palais de Justice with clerks in flowing robes milling around. Place Leuteuce contains a wonderful flower and pet market - with songbirds trilling away. But I followed Quai de Orferes northwards to Place Dauphin. This beautiful square is surrounded by beautiful houses offset by plane trees and gravel earth - Parisian squares never have any grass in them, only gravel. At the tip of the Ile, past the statue of Henri IV, is the Place du Vert Galant. This garden is right at the western tip of the island, and is very green with willow trees trailing in the Seine. Bateau Mouches' deposit and collect passengers from here, and you can watch waterweeds sway in the current.
If this has given you a tasted of romantic life on Paris' islands -the head for Ile St Louis. Attached to its neighbour by the Pont St Louis, this is nearly deserted and just as pretty. It's aristocratic apartment blocks overlook the latin quarter, and you can take an ice-cream from Berthillions, wander down to the stone quais and gaze at the rear of Notre Dame (see photo). You may not have blue-blood but you can act like royalty and have a good time on the Ile de St Louis.
Le Marais literally means "swamp" and it was the area in the middle ages that the nobility built their mansions as to be close to the royal palace at the Louvre. Le Marais extends from Place Republique in the north, Boulevard Sebastopol in the west, Hotel De Ville in the south and Place Bastille in the east. In all this area are narrow medieval streets and hidden squares surrounded by white balconied apartment blocks. During the revloution the upper classes were turfed out and their mansions given over to artisans and workmen. Not looked after, the area descended into squalor and only in the sixties did it begin to climb back up the rung and gentrification begin apace. Nowadays, it is breathtakingly trendy and the reserve of arty types, media-moguls and gays which give a special spice to the nightlife.
The best place to start a wander is Les Halles. This was Paris' marketplace throughout its history and used to look like the Carreau du Temple before it was demolished in 1970. Nowadays it is the renovated Forum Les Halles and spreads all over the surrounding streets. Above ground is a spacious park area overlooked by the medieval church of St Eustache. Underneath is a modern shopping mall containing designer stores, boutiques and even a swimming pool while the streets around all the way to the Beaubourg are bursting with cafes, restaurants, galleries and crowds. This is the area of the Formulae meal where waiters accost passers-by and try and get them into their restaurants, especially around Rue Rambeauteau. But the variety of bars and pubs is incredible, there is a Scottish pub called 'The Auld Alliance' and more entertainingly, an English pub called 'Le Frog and Rosbif'. Their beer is good too...
Heading east you will hit Rue St Denis with its overweight busty prostitutes (Mon Dieu! some things in Paris never change!)then the Beaubourg. The most famous feature of the Beaubourg is the Pompidou Centre. You either love the Pompidou Centre or hate it - and I love it! This is a great machine of a building plonked in the centre of elegant 17th century Paris and the contrast between the two works brilliantly. They have recently retouched the building so it's pipes and internal organs shine brighter and the interior is worth a look with special exhibitions most days. But the best part is the transparent escalator with carries you along its facade to to the top of the building. Here Paris stretches out around you with the prominent landmarks of the Pantheon, Tour Montparnasse and Tour Eiffel standing out. Try to catch it at sunset - the sight of the sun setting behind the Tour Eiffel is spectacular.
When you cross the busy Boulevard Sebastopol you enter Le Marais. Whenever I come to Paris I always stay in Le Marais which has the advantage of being in the centre but not smothered in tourists. People still live here and have done for generations and I get a special buzz of seeing them trudge off to work in the morning or haggling over vegetables at the market. If you like specific sights then Musee Picasso, Musee Carnavalet (City history museum) and the Place des Vosges are the best places to make for. But I just like wandering the streets. Rue du Temple stretches north-south and still has posts that were used to tie horses along with charcuteries, patisseries and zinc bars. Alot of the aristocratic mansions have fallen into disrepair and you can have secret glimpses into green courtyards. Every once in a while you emerge into green square's where Parisians walk their tiny dogs on immaculate lawns.
But the best place to make for is the Place des Vosges which is in the southeast part of Le Marais before it hits the Bastille. The streets leading up to it are very narrow and atmospheric particularly Rue des Rosiers which is jewish Paris with its workshops and boutiques. Place des Vosges is enormous and was built in the 16th Century for royal jousting tournaments (this is where Diane Poitiers and Queen Catherine Medici vied for the attention of King Francis). The green square is surrounded by redbrick townhouses which housed arcades.The southeast corner houses the Victor Hugo Musee where the great French author lived. But it is a good place to soak up the sun, but beware of the wardens who will shout at you for putting your feet up on a bench or taking your shirt off.
The last major thing to see is the Hotel de Ville - Paris' town hall since the middle ages (see photo) which resembles a chateau from the Loire. Alongside is the Rue de Rivoli which is one of the most exclusive in Paris with its shops and cafes. This area really comes alive at night. The Bastille and Le Marais are fabulous places to go for a night out. Nothing beats sitting out at a pavement cafe in the early hours, nursing a cognac and talking with friends. It is what Paris is all about...
As a tourist high on your itinery will be to eat out, after all what could be more romantic then a meal on the banks of the Seine. You will have no trouble finding excellent restaurants anywhere but my advice is to go where the Parisians go for better quality and value for money. Whenever we head for Paris we never eat anywhere near the Voie Triumphal or the Quartier Latin as it is full of expensive restaurants or mediocre ones praying on weary tourists. We always head for Le Marais, Montparnasse or the Bastille area where the Parisians enjoy their night's out. Even Les Halles, which caters for out-of-towners enjoying the bright lights, has some reasonable places to eat. Watch out for the Formulae (set-price meals) as a glass or bottle of vin will send prices soaring
So you have found your bistro, brassiere or restaurant - what are you going to have? There will be things on the menu that you have never thought of trying before such as - Lapin (rabbit), Oie (goose), Tete de Vevre (calf's head in jelly)and Lievre (hare) not to mention the famous Rognons Blancs (I'll tell you what that is at the end of the entry). But the French have a genius for coming up with delicious sauces to enhance these dishes. Such as Aioli (garlic mayonnaise with a touch of salt cod), meuniere (butter, lemon and parsley sauce), Payes D'Auge (cream and cider) and Chasseur (white wine, mushrooms and shallots). All washed down with a delcious provincial house wine - the experience can be unforgettable.
You will find your own little restaurant in Paris. I would include L'Excuse (Rue Charles V) and Le Counde Fou (Rue du Bourg-Tribourg) as the places I head back to. But you will find your own little gems.
And as to Rognons Blancs - they are bulls testicles - delicious cooked in a red wine sauce...
The Arc de Triomphe is at the centre of things. It is at the hub of all bus, metro and RER routes and the metro stations of Arc de Triomphe and Kleber are the closest to the monument. But reaching the great arch takes some doing, it is situated in a colossal cobbled traffic island - the E''Toile - and surrounded by five lanes of manically driven traffic with each driver intent on mowing down pedestrians. The safest way to reach it is via the underpasses, the main and best one is from the Champs Elysse. Whatever you do try not to cross the traffic - they will kill you if they get the chance, and not stop to wipe you off the windscreen. Once you have reached the island containing the Arc - the view down the Voie Triomphal is spectacular. To the west is the epic Avenue D''Armee with the great hollow cube of La Defense looming over all. To the east is the Champs Elysee rolling down to the Place du Concorde, the Tuileries and the Louvre. And looming over all will be the dark needle of the Tour Eiffel, just a little way to the south.
Only when you get close can you appreciate the scale and detail of the Arc de Triomphe. It''s four legs soar eighty feet above you (see photo) and are covered in inscriptions and statues. You can pay 40F to climb the stairs to see even better views down the Champs Elysee but most people admire the scale and take a look at the burning flame of the ''Tomb of the Unknown Warrior''. Of course the Arc was put up by Napoleon Bonaparte to celebrate his victories and commemorate the French empire in Europe. The insides of the legs are carved with the names of his victories. Please note Trafalgar and Waterloo are noticeably absent. Watching the tourists around the Arc reminded me of his tomb in Les Invalides. The majority of tourists were Europeans. Were they admiring the Arc or remembering him invading their countries? First he would invade, then defeat their armies, topple the monarch, loot their art-treasures and put one of his family members on the throne. All done in the name of liberation.
For a break from all this grandiosity, head west along the Avenue Foche to the Bois de Bolougne. This was one of my surprises in Paris. Reading ROUGH GUIDE, it noted that it was built in the manner of Hyde Park in London. So I was expecting a vast lawned expanse where I could put my feet up and relax. Upon reaching the end of Avenue Foch imagine my shock when I discovered a forest in the middle of Paris. Autumn had turned the leaves and trees brown and little trails led deeper into the woods. This begun quite pleasantly but after a while I began to notice raddled wild-looking women in fish-net stockings in the undergrowth. The Bois was infested with prostitutes!
This didn''t seem to deter the little old ladies who walked their poodles and yorkshire terriers in the Bois. Most live in upper-class Auteil and Passey which is the classy district between the Bois and the Seine. The area is so exclusive that agencies are set up so that partners can be found without leaving the arondissement. But it made a pleasant way to walk back to the Champs Elysee. The streets are generally deserted and lined with white apartment blocks, galleries, flower stalls and haute coutre boutiques. Place Victor Hugo is especially pretty and worth a look.
But this area is very expensive and you will probably find yourself back at the Champs Elysee for something to eat and drink. The great ten lane boulevard is one of the great strolling streets in the world and you may come back again and again. Not as exclusive as it was it is lined with cinemas, car-showrooms, department stores, nightclubs (Le Queen and Le Lido), cafes, restaurants and thronged with people. It is easy to while away an afternoon here, sipping a coffee and pretending you are a French film star at Fouquets - with the mandatory dark glasses of course...
For me this is a wonderful place to stroll even if it is just to dream and look in the windows. And everybody who comes here may not be poor, but they come away feeling it. Paris must be the best place to live in the world if you have money. So stick your nose in the air, take on a brisk place and pretend you are a rich Parisian.
The best place to start is the Place de la Concorde. Everyone knows the story about how this was a place of execution during the revoloution with Robespierre, Marie Antoinette and Danton meeting grisly ends here. You wouldn''t think it today with the traffic belting pell-mell across the Place. To reach it take the metro to Concorde or Elysee/Clemenceau or any bus that goes along the Rue du Rivoli. I think the best approach is from the Tuileries gardens where Cheveaux de Marly (rearing horse statues) guard the entrance to the traffic spinning square. It''s bigger then you expect and in the very middle are four traffic islands with gushing fountains and goldtipped statues. In its centre is a tall Egyptian obelisque and the western side is the start of the Champs Elysee (and nearby in prime position is the American embassy). But architecturally it is perfect with two brownstone neoclassical gems on the northside - the Hotel Crillon and the Naval ministry. The south side leads to the Seine where the opposite side is guarded by the Assemblee Nationale - the French Parliament. You are now in the heart of the French Republic.
Between the Hotel Crillon and the Naval Ministry - if you haven''t been killed by the traffic trying to reach it - is Rue Royale. This ends at the impressive Doric Madeleine church and is bisected by the poshest shopping address in Paris - Rue Faubourg St Honore. This street drips with designer shops and courturiers including Hermes, Lagerfeld, Gautier, Westwood and Yves St Laurent. You need a second mortgage to buy the perfumes in the shop windows and the best dressed women you have seen in your life patrol this street. Opposite Versace was the fortress-like British Embassy and literally the nextdoor neighbour was the Elysee Palace - home of the French President. The last time I was there crowds were gathering and women were gathering up their little poodles as a motorcade accompanied by police motorcycles emerged. Was that the French President Jacques Chirac - who knows?
Following Rue Royale to the north takes you to the Church of Madeleine. This is one of Napoleon''s monstrosities (anyone who has read these journals knows that I am not a fan...) The Greek porticoed church was rather dark and atmospheric inside with a gold filigree altar and flickering candles. Outside is a flower-market but the best thing to do is head north-east along Boulevard Capucins. You now enter an area known as the grandes boulevards - immense thoroughfares lined with white apartment blocks and lined with plane trees. Every vista is spectacular and epic although it does mean more noise and traffic congestion. This part of Paris used to be as tangled as Le Marais before it was bulldozed by Baron Haussmann to create these epic boulevards. They were not made for aesthetic reasons but so the establishment could get the army across Paris quickly if the proles started a revoloution.
Boulevard Capucines has endless French language cinemas, restaurants and galleries but ends in the spectacular Paris Opera (see photo). The Second Empire facade of this legendary building was so vast that I had to step onto a traffic island to get it all in. The interior is very opulent with gold and claret decor but expensive ticket prices. For 40 Francs you can go on a tour of the building which even takes you down to the cellars abode of the ''Phantom of the Opera''. Behind its grime-ingrained bulk are two of Paris'' great department stores Galleries Lafayette and its sister - Printemps. The stalls outside are fascinating but the interior with its bottle-green faux arts dome is magnificent. Once again prices are expensive and whenever I go in I am chased by salesgirls trying to spray me with eau de cologne. Are they trying to tell me something?
There is one more set-price before you leave this arondissement - the Place Vendome (see photo). Reached from the north by the Rue de la Paix - this is the world of the Beau Monde and only the deeply rich can shop there. It consists of a vast cobbled square dotted with lamposts, 17th century ornate townhouses surround it on four sides and under their eaves are the creme de la creme of French chicness - Van Cleef, Cartier, Boucheron, the Rothschild bank and the Paris Ritz. All watched over by a 100ft statue of Napoeleon made out of green bronze.
All this wealth and opulence may be getting to you and you may be cursing your luck at not being born a millionaire. Don''t worry it is a short walk or bus ride back to Les Halles or Beaubourg and there you can be back with ordinary Parisians. So find a cafe, order a bottle of vin and enjoy the simple cheap pleasures that Paris has to offer...
Versailles in the work of one man - one of the most successful monarchs in history - Louis the VIX. It was always a royal hunting lodge but the Sun King always associated Paris with intrigue and violence so moved his glittering court to the countryside. The construction of the chateau took place in 1664 and was still going on in 1715. It was not meant to be homely but to impress on the populace the divine majesty of the monarch and is so grand and large that it occupies two and a half miles. King Louis VIX was meant to be second only to god and his risings, comings and goings were minutely regulated and cloaked in court ritual. At it''s height it was home for 20,000 people most of them aristocrats. After the revoloution it was passed between government and monarchy and only in 1918 was it the centre of the world again with the armistice of World War one. The Palace of Versailles is one of the most historic buildings in the world.
To get there is easy. The best way is using the RER ligne (line) 5 to Versailles Rive Gauche. The most central RER stations in Paris are Chatelet les Halles and St Michel. Both within easy walking distance of the Latin quarter, Le Marais and Beaubourg. The trains themselves are huge double-decker monsters which are very quiet, fast and efficient. Make sure you get on the right train and it will take forty minutes into the countryside and the chateau of Versailles. You will disembark at an elegant wrought iron station and them it is a simple matter of following the crowds to the chateau.
The town of Versailles itself is very posh. Rather like a miniature Paris with wide boulevards and elegant buildings. As with most royal towns it is conservative and priveledged with the aristocracy who gained their titles before the revoloution taking precedence over those who gained them after.But when you turn the corner and see Versailles in all its splendour - your mouth will drop open. Behind gilt gates is a vast cobblestone courtyard the size of a football pitch. In its centre is a 20ft equestrian statue of Louis VIX and two great sand-coloured wings stretch out into the courtyard, enclosing two more smaller wings watched over by the baroque Opera house (see photo). The centre of the courtyard is the main entrance which is incredibly ornate with carved balaustrades, mansard windows and covered in gold filigree.
I thoroughly recommend the guided tour which brings the place alive and are only about 90F. You will be given a time and entrance to meet at and in summer the queues for these tours can stretch all around the courtyard. It might be worth putting any belongings with the conceirge and taking a look at the gardens if you get bored waiting. But the tours are good, we had a very elegant French lady and she took us first the baroque chapel were Louis VXI and Marie Antoinette were married. Next were the state apartments which were full of portraiture and strangely devoid of furniture (most of it vanished in the revoloution). The Kings bedroom was stunning with a small golden wall seperating his bed from the apartment and you can imaging the lines of courtiers waiting to dress their king.
On the marble staircases were bewigged busts of the last Bourbon monarchs to inhabit Versailles. And in a wooden panelled room was a portrait of an aristocratic lady clutching a negro child. I asked whether there were many coloured people in France at that time, and the guide answered, not many but they were in demand for portraits as they made a womans complexion even whiter. A tanned complexion was unfashionable and was associated with peasants working in the fields. The tour ended in the famous Hall of Mirrors which is full of dullish mirrors ending in the royal ballroom. This was where the treaty was signed at the end of world war one and its name was associated in Germany with betrayal, and became one of the causes of World War II 21 years later.
Now the best thing to do is hit the gardens. Everything you have heard about the gardens in Versailles is true and it is a wonderful place for a picnic. Immediately behind the palace is an ornamental lake decorated with statues of Neptune and the tritons (see photo). Flanking this are geometrical gardens dotted with stone sphinxes and nymphs. Over a low stone wall is another garden and hundreds of palm trees stretching to another lake (see photo). But the centrepiece is a baroque fountain of Poseidon complete with scrambling sea-creatures. Nearby is a long lawn dotted with classical statues ending in an immense boating pond in the shape of a cross. And not far away are the Trianons - miniature palaces hidden in the woods. These are made from pink and grey marble and surrounded by lavender and blue coloured gardens.
By this time your feet will be aching and your head spinning. Some people do the gardens one day and come back and do the palace. Whatever you chose you will not forget Versailles for a long time. And every attraction afterwards will be compared with this most beautiful of palaces....
Is it students discussing existentialism and the works of Proust in cafes while puffing on their last gauloise? Is it impoverished writers huddled over their coffees scribbling away dreaming of becoming the next Satre or Apollinaire?
Whatever it is you may be disapointed in the now very borgeois Latin Quarter. The air of interllectualism still pervades thanks to the world-famous Sorbonne university but nowadays the cafes will be inhabited by tourists from Nagasaki, Newcastle or Nantucket. But it is still exquisitely beautiful and a day should be set aside to wander its bookshops, markets, cafes and the elegant Jardins de Luxembourg.
The Latin quarter retains its warren of medieval lanes that grew up around the southern entrance to the city at the Pont Neuf. Solidly working class it gains its name from the Sorbonne university whose official language was Latin. This was one of the first universities in Europe, and when the hundred years war broke out with England students were recalled from the Sorbonne which led to the formation of Oxford and Cambridge. The main drag of Quartier Latin is the Boulevard St Germain which hasn''t changed it appearance since medieval times and its solidly working class population in 1789 were the first ones at the barricades for the revoloution. But the areas heyday was before and after the second world war. It is still not hard to find the atmosphere of penniless chic the area is famous for. Not long ago it was possible to find Jean Paul Belmondo and Roman Polanski arguing away in its cafes. It may take abit of looking but that is still there..
All metro lines pass through the Quartier Latin whose hub is the Place St Michel. This is also a RER station and fed by at least four metro lines. But I think the best place to enter it is from the Louvre across the Pont des Artes. This beautiful footbridge gives beautiful views up and down the Seine. The quais at this point are worth a look with green souvenir stalls selling oil portraits of Paris and black and white photographs. Any alley south of here will take you into the Latin Quarter and the narrow medieval streets are thronged with comic-shops, galleries, open-air restaurants and American honeymooners walking hand in hand. Rue Dauphine is especially pretty with a bustling market with flower stalls, fresh fish and plucked lapins (rabbits) ready for the pot.
Cobbled streets will take you to the main street of Boulevard St Germain and west along here is the St Germain des Pres Eglise. This is a very old church dating back to the 10th century showing just how ancient the Latin Quarter really is. The traffic on Boulevard St Germaine is ferocious so I would recommend a walk to the south along Rue Bonaparte. The claim that the Latin Quarter is now exceptionally bourgeois can be sustained down this rue with its haute courtre and designer shops - way out of the range of struggling students. Rue Bonaparte opens up into the exquisite Place de St Sulspice (see photo). The square is bedecked in brown marble and overlooked by the Eglise St Sulspice. In the centre is a baroque fountain ordained with lion statues. The place is generally deserted and you may have the place to yourself.
But go south along the cobbled Rue Servondani (very Roman name?) to the Jardins de Luxembourg. As European capitals go, Paris isn''t as green as London or Vienna, most of its public parks are covered in gravel - but the Jardins de Luxembourg is different and is a real oasis in the middle of the Latin Quarter. The Renaissance palace overlooks the gardens with their flower beds and mazelike hedges. Parisians relax here with games of football going on on the grass and children playing in the sandspits. But if you head east, past the dome of the Pantheon (see photo)you will hit the environs of the Sorbonne. This is the heart of academic France and the monolithic buildings go back to the 12th century. You can usually enter their porticoed door and while we were there there was a terrific exhibition of modern art.
Outside is the Place Sorbonne where you can relax in a cafe under the plane trees or collapse with all the other exhausted travellers. But my next recommendation is distinctly not ancient and is probably my favourite building in Paris as it was such a surprise - The Institut de Monde Arabe. It is at the eastern end of Boulevard St Germain overooking the Seine. The French do modern architecture so well and the fact that the buildings are set against the ancient cityscape of Paris seems to enhance them. The Institut is a tall metallic modern structure on a vast square. The ten-storey wall facing the courtyard is made of thousands of photosensitive cells designed like Arab latticework. The cells are sensitive to light and as the clouds move across the sky snap open and shut creating a wall of movement. The effect is c''magnifique!
The view from the top of the building takes in the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame and the quais are not far away and make a good walk. But the quarter is made for kicking back so find yourself a cafe, buy a copy of Satre, put on your dark glasses, light up a cigarette and pretend to be a French interllectual....
The Butte Montmatre is the highest point in Paris and always stood outside the city walls. It was always a rather rustic area with cobbled streets, thatched houses and open spaces. It was a famed working-class quarter which took the influx of people forced out from Haussmans demolition of homes to build Le Grandes boulevards. During the 1870 Prussian invasion the residents rose up in a proletarian uprising and the barricades went up in Montmatre. Sacre Coeur church was built to atone for the sins of the residents, most of which were put up against a wall and shot by the establishment. Now it is not a very delicate tourist attraction and the only place in Paris which makes my blood boil due to overkill. But the views are lovely and the Sacre Coeur when lit up at night looks like it is floating on air from a distance.
Reaching it is easy. The nearest metro is Abbesses but this involves a very steep walk uphill on cobbled streets. Easy to walk is Anvers which is on Boulevard de Rouchchouart. The streets around here cater for masses of tourists and you will find enough bureau de changes'' and hotels to suit anyone. Then you can follow the hordes up Rue Steinkurque which is hemmed in with clothes factories,textile stalls, and baguette sellars (things are a little cheaper up here then the centre, 10F for a bacon baguette?). At the top is the top Butte Montmatre topped by the Eglise Sacre Coeur (Church of the Sacred Heart). The church itself is at the summit and you have to ascend three levels of gardens with the view getting better as you ascend. The basilica itself is a sort of byzantine domed construction made out of a brilliant white marble which gets even whiter in the rain. All in all, the Sacre Coeur reminds me of a wedding cake perched on the top of a hill.
The view from the summit is spectacular and worth the climb. A small balaustrade seperates you from the drop and you can see Paris stretching in swathes around you. It''s white buildings and green rooftops are very photogenic with the Tour Eiffel and Tour Montparnasse visible in the distance. Inside is very light and airy and a huge gilt portrait of Christ with his arms outstretched decorates the dome. Spend as much time as possible in the Eglise as the tourgroups only spend about five minutes in here before heading off to the Place du Tetre. This is a little way off to the west and is tourist Paris at its most horrendous. I''ve been there twice and the last time I came away shaking my head at the place. It is a small square with pretty buildings but crushed under the tourist trade. Overpriced restaurants line the sides, portrait artists rip off the tourists and souvenir stalls sell plastic miniature Eiffel towers. Worse are the sheer numbers of tourists. Each stepping on each others toes trying to get a perfect shot of the Sacre Coeur. The last time I was there I saw a fight between a German and Australian tourist because one pinched the others cafe seat. It was not a pleasant sight.
But if you head north or west from the Place du Tetre you can leave it all behind and have Montmatre to yourself. The backstreets around the Sacre Coeur are charming and remeniscent of rural France. Rue du Saules descends very sharply downhill and was lined with balconied apartments leading to a small vineyard (see photo). Just opposite was the Lapin Agile brassiere and an old windmill, a throwback to the time when Montmatre was rustic. If you spend time wandering this area you will find cobbled streets, hidden gardens and deserted zinc bars. A much better find then the Place du Tetre.
If you can continue walking downhill you will be in Pigalle, the famous risque area. Buses on Boulevard Clichy will take you down to the Arc de Triomphe. But this is more workaday then the rest of Paris with a TATI department store and numerous sex-shops and prostitutes (if anyone has read these journals the recurring theme is Napoleon and prostitutes). The Moulin Rouge is on the corner of Boulevard Clichy and Place Blanche and if you want to spend 150 Francs on women dancing and throwing up their skirts - who can blame you? You would be in esteemed artistic company if you did?
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