Some time ago we booked for ourselves a week down at my parents’ holiday gites, Les Hirondelles. As the time grew nearer, I thought to myself, why not combine this with a weekend stopover in Paris to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary? So I went ahead with this plan, initially keeping it from Lucy but later letting her in on the secret so as to be able to look forward to it. She was anticipating crepes and patisseries; I was looking forward to museums and churches; but we were both excited by this chance to mark the milestone in our marriage in style.
To train or not to train? This question was actually an easy one to answer. We’ve travelled to Les Hirondelles by driving ourselves, getting a lift with parents, and by flying to nearby Limoges airport. Each mode has its own advantages and disadvantages, but arguably flying is the worst. Normally we wouldn’t have considered the train, but with Paris in the mix it became a clear favourite early on. Scarcely more expensive, and barely any longer, once getting to and from airports and security and boarding queues are factored in. It also proved far more civilised, as one can stretch out more with ample leg and elbow room, take on more baggage with fewer pesky restrictions, and suffer less superfluous announcements. The Eurostar is less sophisticated than the imagination makes it, but it was still a perfectly nice way to travel. An easy transfer onto the Metro, a couple of stops, and we went from Gare du Nord to the Hotel Familia in the Latin Quarter.
The last time I came to Paris was in 1999, on French Exchange. It was a good experience, but I was one of the unlucky ones who were landed with annoying partners. On that occasion we did many of the main sites in Paris, including the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, but all were marred by the miserable November weather. This time promised much better, arriving as we did in the middle of a July heat wave. Lucy has never been, so she was starting with a blank canvas.
We did the usual suspects. Notre Dame is as impressive an ecclesiastical building as I’ve seen, excepting maybe the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and it’s floor-to-ceiling coverage in exquisite carvings leaves one in awe of late medieval craftsmen, but the place has become a trifle soulless. It has perhaps suffered from its own fame, reduced to more of a tourist attraction than a meaningful place of worship. Sacre Coeur, which although situated in the less-than-classy district of Montmatre, and affords great views over the rest of Paris, is quite a contrast: no less of a tourist attraction (indeed, if anything, actually busier), but far more atmospheric. A strictly-enforced policy of silence, and the prohibition of photographs, helps to preserve a remarkable tranquility within. Catholic or not, icons or not, this was a place where one could really feel the presence of God.
The Arc de Triomphe is probably one of my favourite monuments, replete as it is with historical significance. It is one of the main outward manifestations of the profound and lasting impact Napoleon has had on the capital. Commemorating his resounding triumph at Austerlitz in 1805, and the subsequent string of victories over Austria, Prussia and Russia, it seems that the whole of the rest of Paris revolves around this one structure, like spokes around the centre of a wheel. The views from the top are superb in all directions, none less so than that straight down the Avenue des Champs Élysées, past the Place de la Concorde, to the Louvre. The Arc wasn’t completed until 1836, so Napoleon’s legacy lived on, only now it is coupled with inscriptions preserving the memory of more recent French military actions. Most poignant of all, the flame-guarded grave of the Unknown Soldier, remembering all those who fell during the mortal conflicts in which France found herself embroiled in the twentieth century.
The Eiffel Tower certainly improved, as to both weather and visibility, on my last visit, but also on the elevation, as this time we ascended to the Second Level, not just the First. Moreover, this time I covered it from just about every angle, across from atop the Arc de Triomphe, straight down eastward along the length of the Champs de Mars, directly underneath, and from across the river in the Jardins du Trocadero in the growing twilight. It was altogether lovely, so I am baffled by the early-twentieth-century view of the French intelligentsia that it was an eyesore, a ‘metal asparagus’ that should be pulled down, and very grateful that it survived these calls. The light show against a darkening sky at the end of the evening was pure magic.
The Louvre is another famous landmark that has divided opinion. We were divided amongst ourselves, for Lucy loathed the modern glass pyramid, while I quite liked it. We were agreed, however, on several points: the sumptuous grandeur of the architecture without is at least as impressive as the handiwork within, if not more so; the place is definitely best visited out of season, on a weekday, in the hope of avoiding the sweating hordes of tourists; air-conditioning would greatly improve summer visits; the Mona Lisa is extraordinarily over-hyped, and pales by comparison with larger nearby works such as the Wedding at Cana and the Coronation of The Emperor Napoleon. We also probably agreed that the best items in the collection were Michelangelo’s sculptures, which had a gallery of their own, a particular favourite being that of Psyche dying in her lover’s arms.
As well as these more prominent sights, we also covered many others, some intentionally, some by happy chance, and it was these that actually provided the better memories. The Jardins du Luxembourg are a charming enclave of flowers and trees in the heart of the Latin Quarter, all set around a baroque palace and boating lake. Paris truly caters to the tourist’s every need, even down to providing plenty of green metal chairs in which one can sit and enjoy the lovely views. Less green, but more imposing, was the church of St Sulpice, hidden away in a honeycomb of streets that seem to have grown up around it. From the rear, where we stumbled upon it, it is strangely rounded, almost in the fashion of a pagan temple, although it’s massive front facade is more orthodox. Inside its tall nave is cool and sombre, full of fading tapestries and candle-lit side chapels. The golden-domed Hotel des Invalides can be seen from every part of Paris, and is so impressive that I’m surprised it doesn’t feature on more visitors’ must-see lists. Another Napoleonic site, it began life as a retirement home for veterans wounded in Louis XIV’s wars in the seventeenth-century, shifting purpose as time went on to a palace, building of state, and now a military museum. A military history buff like myself could easily while away an entire weekend just here, but even those not so keen on the paraphernalia of wars past can appreciate the formidable spectacle of Napoleon’s tomb, lying under a richly-decorated dome and surrounded by angelic statues and the mausoleums of other French generals, such as Vauban and Foch.
Paris certainly caters for tourists, and lives up to its billing as a city of great romance and deep culture. There is so much history here, so much cultural heritage, that just about everybody could find something interesting or amusing. It’s hard to compare it with other European capitals, each of which is endowed with long-lived refinements of their own, but there are certain unique things about Paris. One is the pervading air of artistic expression, with street side murals or medieval friezes everywhere you look. Another is the penchant for good food, wine and simple joi d’vivre: every city has hawkers, but nowhere else have I seen them selling whole bottles of fine wine to people draped all over sun-drenched parks. I could not fail to notice the love-affair with all things Roman, with the ubiquitous neo-classical facades and colonnades, an enlightenment replica of the Pantheon, and several triumphal arches after the pattern of Titus’ or Constantine’s in the Eternal City.
The Paris Metro is both better and worse than the London Underground. It’s less busy and crowded, better supplied with vending machine refreshments and cheaper for all-day travel, but it’s not as sleek, comfortable or well-oiled as the Tube. Like the Tube, however, it makes sightseeing incredibly easy, allowing you to do far more with your time than you would otherwise. Another comparison occurred to me: Paris probably has more public toilets than London, but of a mind-boggling variety. Their convenience is greatly undermined by a number of quirky features. For instance, what do the French have against the simple toilet seat? Such a simple refinement, but so badly missed in Paris. Also, why the obsessive tendency towards self-cleaning models? They tuck their seats away, issue ominous warnings and then flood the floor, catching out unsuspecting tourists of other languages. The cleanest public toilets they may be, but when this cleaning routine is done in between every single visit, the reasonable queues can grow to quite preposterous lengths and induce desperate tourists into unlikely coalitions to save time by going in together. Desperate times…
So Paris has its downside after all (and I haven’t even mentioned the impossibility of finding a remotely filling breakfast), but nothing that really detracts from a visit. We came away extremely tired from our sightseeing exploits, but very happy and satisfied. We’d done a lot in a short space of time, and learned a great deal. We’re already busy filling out a wish-list of city-breaks: Barcelona, Prague, Athens, and so on. But for now our path leads southward into the sleep French countryside where the delightful enclave of Les Hirondelles is situated, on the edge of the Brenne National Park. I shall write of that place in another post soon…