Loving and Loathing Paris
It’s possible to love and loathe Paris at the same time. A city that demands to be seen, heard, touched, tasted and smelt, Paris has every intention to stun and mesmerise. It’s a cocktail of the good, the bad and the ugly. Tantalising assaults on the senses, how can one resist?
Skate through Bastille, “rule the world” from atop the Eiffel Tower or simply trot around a French quartier. The point is to fall in love with your very own Paris. Choices abound; from breezy boulevards, proud monuments and magic lights to cheese, chocolate and caviar. Better yet, root yourself on a cafe terrace, sip a vin blanc and let the French fall in love with you.
Capital of the nation, Paris is located in northern central France. The “City of Romance” is divided neatly into two by River Seine. The area north of the mystic river includes the tree-lined Avenue des Champs-Elysees, running west to the Arc de Triomphe. East of the avenue lies the mammoth Louvre Museum and a lively district of shops, bazaars, restaurants and markets. Close by is the world-famous Notre Dame. Meanwhile, the area south of the Seine boasts the city’s chief landmark – the Eiffel Tower – as well as the disturbing Les Catacombs. There are also bohemian locales like Montparnasse, where academic and artistic individuals roam at will. Here, great minds once gathered – Hemingway, Picasso, Miro and countless others.
Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and d’Orly are Paris’ main airports. After landing in CDG, 27km north of central Paris, you can catch a free shuttle bus to the nearest train station. Transfer to the city centre by train takes 30 minutes and costs 7.50 euros. A taxi ride takes 40 minutes (depending on traffic) and costs about 40 euros. Quite frankly, I’d suggest tolerating the train unless you have a 12-piece luggage set to haul along and euros to splurge.
Central Paris is, well, to say the least…somewhat amusing. At first glance, it delivers fashion, passion and glamour, dominated by boutiques and billboards. Look again, and it reveals a whole lot of dirt, dust and graffiti! But, as someone once remarked, what’s a true city without a little “careless art” on the sidelines?
If time is not on your side, the best way to move around is by using the underground Metro and its sister system, the RER. The public bus system also covers the whole city, but its hours and timing are laughable, especially on Sundays and public holidays. If you’re thinking of driving around, bear in mind that driving in Paris is best reserved for the chronically hostile and aggressive.
The underground Metro is a blessing to the city. It first opened on July 19, 1900 with Art Nouveau entrances, crafted by architect Hector Guimard. The public transportation service hires more than 15,000 employees and ferries around 6 million people daily in its 3,500 carriages. Vast and effective, the Paris Metro has 368 stations and 14 colour coded lines, from lavender to golden ochre (how French!). There are various ticketing options for different zones. It can all be quite daunting at first, especially when the chap behind the counter rattles away excitedly in French and nothing else.
Individual tickets for downtown zones cost 1.30 euros each while a packet of 10 tickets is priced at 9.60 euros. If you choose to travel further than the city centre, it’s more economical to buy a Paris Visite pass that covers Zones 1 to 3 or Zones 1 to 18. The price varies according to the validity of the pass and the zones covered. Unless stated otherwise, most tickets and passes allow rides on the Metro, RER, bus and tram.
It’s bunks and hostels when one goes backpacking. Fresh off a Metro stop and up a few narrow rues (roads) later, it was time to check out La Maison Hostel. Aside from an elevator carpeted with furry purple layers from wall-to-wall, the place was everything a budget traveller should expect to experience. You get what you pay for – creaky bed, lumpy mattress, coarse blanket and the occasional bug in the toilet. Breakfast was free every morning, but was never a stroll through a buffet with platters of ham and fruit baskets. Everyone grabs a few pieces of toast, slap on some butter and drink hot tea or coffee from paper cups. Not too savoury perhaps, but the delight lies in enjoying a simple, straightforward meal with fellow travellers.
Now, is Paris really the sole centre of glitzy trends and designer labels? Well, if there is one word to explain the notoriety of globalisation, “fashion” fits perfectly. Dare any particular city lay claim to being the hub of fashion these days? It could be Paris and New York today, and perhaps Berlin and Tokyo tomorrow. Anyway, unless your pockets are bulging with euros and credit cards, it’s quite impossible to “shop till you drop” in Paris. Glamorous one minute and groovy the next, items with labels that spell out Chanel, Gucci and Prada naturally don’t come cheap. Sometimes, it’s advisable to look beyond the big franchises and seek out less expensive alternatives.
It’s enjoyable to just waft in and out of focus throughout Paris. The city’s Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph) is worth a visit. See the world’s largest roundabout and the meeting point of 12 avenues! Napoleon Bonaparte commanded its construction in 1806 to commemorate his imperial victories. However, it remained unfinished until 1836. Avenue des Champs-Elysees is one of the dozen avenues that branch out from the base of the arch. On both sides of the avenue, you’ll find some of the most pricey outlets and eateries in all of Paris.
Towards the east of the avenue lies the glorious Louvre Museum. One of the greatest museums in the world, it is also one of the most avoided by tourists. Perhaps overwhelmed by its grandeur, some people head to other galleries such as the lovely d’Orsay Museum, located just across the river from the Louvre. The formidable Musee du Louvre has a strong collection of famous works from all ages. Its masterpieces include the “Seated Scribe”, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, Michelangelo’s “Slaves” as well as works by David and Delacroix. Some 30,000 paintings are on display.
Of all the grand projects in Paris, none caused more stir than the Pyramid of Louvre, created by architect Ieoh Ming Pei in the 1980s. The spectacular structure sits in the open courtyard of the Louvre Museum, surrounded by fountains. Amazing in concept and form, the huge pyramid is a complex interlinked steel formation sheathed in reflective glass. After descending into its interior foyer, there are doorways that lead to the galleries of the museum and an underground shopping mall.
Just beyond the Louvre section is the heart of Paris – Notre Dame. Seated right in the middle of River Seine in central Paris, the cathedral has been the Catholic city’s ceremonial focus for over 700 years. La Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Paris (the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris) has witnessed a rich pageant of French history. Important events included the one held in 1804 when Napoleon crowned himself the Emperor of France at its altar.
Construction of the colossal building began around 1163 and ended a century later. It is said that Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” roused enough interest and attention to save the lofty cathedral from demolition in the 1800s.
Regarded a marvel of medieval engineering, Notre Dame has a capacity to hold 6,000 people and boasts sublime rose windows of stained glass. Although Notre Dame is considered a magnificent achievement in French Gothic architecture, there are minor anomalies of sorts. These include the cathedral’s many frightening – and most tasteless – gargoyles perched at the top of the legendary monument.
Another remarkable building dedicated to Catholicism is the Sacre Coeur Basilica. The Sacre Coeur – with its white, pastry-like exterior – dominates the city’s skyline as it hovers above Paris from the peak of the Montmartre Hill. Built at the end of the 19th century, the basilica is an intriguing blend of massive walls, Byzantine-inspired domes and glittering mosaics within.
South of the Seine is the Eiffel Tower. Built for the 1889 Universal Exposition (World Fair), it was the world’s tallest structure at 1,050 feet until Manhattan’s Chrysler Building was completed. The tower was almost torn down in 1909 after initial opposition by the city’s literary elite; who possessed a self-claimed function to disagree with everything. La Tour Eiffel was saved only after it proved to be an ideal platform for radiotelegraphy. The tower was completed at a cost of 8 million French francs. It was designed and built by engineer Gustave Eiffel. Lit by thousands of light bulbs mounted within the structure of the tower itself, it’s truly a sight to behold at nightfall.
Famed for its romantic appeal, it’s unfortunate that the landmark structure also attracts the depressed and suicidal. No less than 450 people have either jumped or fallen from the tower. Sometimes it’s just hard to tell the difference. After all, the tower does sway slightly in fierce, gusty winds.
Just southeast of the tower is a popular grassy expanse for sports and leisure. Most teens use it as a skateboarding arena while activists use it to bad-mouth politicians in particular and the world in general.
The only sane way to reach the Eiffel Tower is to use the Metro and get off at the Bir-Hakeim station. It costs 10.20 euros to catch the lift to the summit of the tower, 3.70 euros to reach the first level and 7 euros to reach the second. Guided visits are also available. It’s possible to mail things from the tower itself as there is a little “post office in the sky”. One can also wine and dine “in the sky”. Just remember to make reservations months in advance and be prepared to empty your wallets.
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once commented, “Without the French, we’d still be eating ham steak with pineapple rings in America.”
True, some people may not appreciate snails with garlic butter and goose liver with raspberry vinegar, but many do agree that French culinary is classic. While eating in Paris might cost a fortune in prime areas, there are pockets around the city with inexpensive bistros and creperies. Poke your head into little alleys to find them and be prepared to work your taste buds! Note that certain eateries charge more if you eat at a table rather than at the bar. Also, there is always the option of munching delicious hot crepes (thin pancakes) on the go!
Next, it’s best to wolf down your crepe before entering Les Catacombs. In 1785, Paris decided to solve its problem with overflowing cemeteries by exhuming the remains of dead Parisians and relocate them in underground tunnels. This led to the creation of The Catacombs where skeletons are neatly stacked and aligned to form the walls of nearly a kilometre of walking passages. Visitors to this “attraction” will find themselves 65 feet below ground, surrounded by skulls and bones. There are bizarre attempts to make patterns with the remains, which speaks a lot about French “art”. Also, people over the age of 60 can get in for free, which says a great deal about the French sense of humour.
Not to be outdone when it comes to crypts and graves, French notables too have a resting place worthy of mention. The Pantheon accommodates the vaults of great French public figures, particularly scientific and literary ones. Some of the illustrious buried here are Pierre and Marie Curie, Voltaire and Rousseau. The Pantheon was also the place where, in 1851, the astronomer Foucault first held his famous experiment. He demonstrated the change in a pendulum’s swing due to the rotation of the Earth, to prove that the world spins around its axis.
Next on the list is Pigalle (pronounced “pee-gahl”, and not “pig alley”). It’s an area endowed with little wells of naughtiness, though this might well have displeased Pigalle himself, a sculptor after whom the district is named. Here, the Moulin Rouge reigns supreme with its trademark red windmill, neon lights and exotic dancers. It threw open its doors on October 6, 1889. The site was first occupied by the Reine Blanche, of which the most popular act featured an acrobatic dancer who walked on her hands. The resulting display accounts for her stage name – “Nini of the Beautiful Thighs”.
Perhaps the best known legacy of the Moulin Rouge is the “cancan”. This high-kicking, exuberant dance never failed to delight the crowd. The origin of this distinct dance can be traced back to Jacques Offenbach in the 1850s. By 1861, it became known as the “French cancan” or “French tittle-tattle”. Today, the Parisian cabaret handles over a thousand costumes of feathers, rhinestones and sequins worn by its many professional dancers.
The Moulin Rouge is still among Paris’ more popular attractions with a capacity to hold 800 diners in its splendid interior settings. Each night, patrons in elegant attire are feted and entertained. The cabaret charges up to 90 euros per person for a single show while dinner menus are priced according to set, ranging from 130 to 160 euros.
Small regions in suburban Paris offer respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s just a train ride to places like the Ile de France. There are woodlands ideal for hiking and historical towns to admire. Of course, you may also opt to get propelled and tossed from left to right in Disneyland Paris. Much maligned in the beginning, the resort theme park is known to avoid the use of primary colours. Instead, pastel colours rule. Apparently, subdued colours enhance its appeal to the French.
Paris begins as a tourist destination, but for some, it may eventually develop into an obsession. Well, nothing truly ends in Paris anyway.
The writer can be contacted via her writing services website.