Category Archives: Paris

Paris to Rome

A week ago, I woke up in Paris. The idea still makes me smile. I did some work and got organised, then headed down the precarious steps to check out. A quick breakfast of coffee and croissant (and sadness that I can’t do this every day). It had rained in the night and the morning was fresh. It felt more like a European city than the sunshine of the previous day. It was really pretty. I headed off to the meeting that was the official reason I was in Paris. The meeting ended sooner than expected and rather than remain at the office, especially as I had gotten a lot of work done that morning, I headed out again to enjoy Paris just a little bit longer.

I planned just to sit along the marina and enjoy the view, but I found myself walking back towards Notre Dame. I walked along the river, along the Seine, thinking about the history and the way people must have lived in those buildings and the people who lived and who live in those beautiful attic windows.

I didn’t go as far as the Notre Dame – it looked a little dusty and windy, so I decided just to enjoy it from a distance. Instead, I spent a happy 20 minutes picking out souvenirs. Yes, I realise that is terribly touristy but it’s one of the things I really enjoy about travel, choosing something to bring home. Besides, I wanted to remember Paris. My thought over coffee that morning had been that Paris seems an eminently liveable city. I could live here. Not something I normally say about anywhere outside of Africa, and a feeling that should be tempered by what I know about how expensive Paris really is. Still.

I walked back past the Hotel de Ville and along the river. Far below, beside the water, an old man and an old woman sat in garden chairs, she with an umbrella in case it should rain. On the ground between them was bottle of red wine. Oh, to grow old in a city as beautiful and convenient and bohemian as Paris.

The receptionist at the hotel, when I picked up my bags, looked a bit perturbed when I refused her offer to call a cab and instead said I would take the subway back out to the airport, but I had directions from a colleague in the Paris office, so I ignored her dismay. Into the Metro, where a very business-like woman helped me to buy a ticket – I didn’t really need help but I’d gone to the window instead of the machines, where apparently, which I didn’t know, it was only possible to use a card not cash, so she clearly felt I needed to be assisted all the way through the process on the now-English language machine.

Ticket in hand, I set off on the trek to find the right platform. The trains here worry me just a little, with enough light in the tunnel to show the expose wiring and the open doors providing a clear view of the lurching twists in the track and the run-down 70s decor. Such a contrast with the Gautrain. Just a few stops and then a train to the airport. Out of the window, I caught a flash of an old stone building with beautiful flowering wisteria around the wooden, top floor windows.

At the airport, I set off through the maze of passages and eventually found my terminal/gate and settled down with a delicious baguette, trying to ignore the soldiers with large guns who were, for some reason, patrolling the airport. Automatic check-in machines, find the right counter, through security and wander towards the gate. The airport – well, at least the bit I was in with the flights to  Europe, was crowded with people. Small children ran around, parents looked harassed and business travellers looked long-suffering.

photo (765x1024)I was flying to Rome. This was only my second trip ever to Europe. It felt so odd not only to have had the opportunity to explore Paris but now to be heading off to another European capital that has existed, for me, only in stories and pictures. I boarded the plane, realising with a sigh that the person in the seat next to me was a very small (admittedly cute) little girl with brown curly hair and
green, green eyes. Her vociferous objection to the seatbelt subsided once we’d taken off and I settled down to read. A little while later, I looked up and glanced out of my window. Far below, as far as they eye could see, were soaring mountain peaks, white with snow.

We land in Rome and the pilot makes the usual “Please remain in your seats” request. Before we’ve even come to a stop, everyone is up and out of their seats. I let them go – I was in no hurry.

Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport of Rome. Another airport with poor directions and miles and miles to walk. I eventually found the baggage reclaim and then found myself wandering another good 10 minutes to find the train station. I asked for a ticket for Leonardo Express. The woman at the counter took pity on me and said there is a shuttle bus (mini-bus) leaving immediately. I just reached the shuttle in time and sit back, barely noticing the city as we headed towards Rome.

I got out at Termini, the main train station in Rome. The hotel would be nearby but I was nervous of getting lost – I have even less Italian than French and I didn’t trust the map I’ve been sent. The taxi driver I approach, however, was adamant that the place was just 400m up the road. Which is how I found myself lost in Rome with my all bags, at 10 o’clock at night, trying to figure out how I had accidentally misplaced a large, stone church that was supposed to be my landmark.

After wandering around for a while, I spotted some taxis (sitting, as it turns out, in the shadow of the church) and went up to them, determined this time to take a cab. The driver looked at me with pity and pointed to the hotel, across the road and a few buildings up the street.

The man at the hotel handed me the key to room 52 and cheerfully informed me that it was four floors up and no, there was no lift. I was too tired to argue. Not that I’m complaining now – in fact, it was the perfect option – I got to stay in one of those beautiful attic rooms, with double-door shutters opening onto a gorgeous rooftop in Rome.

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Paris in Springtime – A day in Paris, Part 2

From the Hotel de Ville, past a merry-go-round, ducking and dodging between tour buses, hurried traffic and far too many tourists, I headed back towards Sainte-Chapelle (which is on the same island as the Notre Dame), glimpsing the flower market (Marche Aux Fleurs) along the way. Had there been more time, I may have decided at this point to stop and visit these incredible places properly but with only one day, I pressed on.

Across the river, again, I found myself in the St Michel area and for the rest of the day had “Where do you go to my lovely” playing softly in my mind. A bookshop nearly lured me in. A cafe seemed too full to contemplate. Families and pigeons sat on the square across the road. I should probably, at this point, have taken the Metro the rest of the way to my destination but it was so pretty and the sun was shining and I didn’t want to miss anything. The walk along the river was a long one. By the time I found myself opposite the Musée d’Orsay, I was tired, but there didn’t seem to be anything to do but to go on. And, to be fair, there were magical things along the way that I would have missed, had I taken the Metro.

Like the book-sellers. Imagine living in a city where all along the river are people selling second-hand books. And not silly tawdry romances, but real books: poetry and philosophy and beautiful novels. Some of them were also selling paintings and sketches of Paris. A few stood with their Easels. Stop to wonder at the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of love-locks affixed to the bridge at Pont des Arts . Enjoy, disproportionately, the picture of Parisians picnicking along the Seine with cheese and bread and wine. Marvel at the Pont Alexandre III bridge, with its cherubs and nymphs and winged horses and its gilt-bronze shining in the sunshine.

By this stage, I was fairly exhausted but not long after I spotted the Eiffel Tower in the distance. The Eiffel Tower really is quite spectacular. Of course, crowded, with so many tourists taking pictures and queuing for tickets to go up the tower or buying curios. I wandered beneath the tower and into the gardens beyond, past a group of French teenagers surreptitiously drinking beer and settled on the grass to enjoy the view.

After resting for a while, with pictures of the great Eiffel Tower, I decided to head back. I was planning to find the first Metro station and catch it back or to take a boat, but I got distracted – too much to see. I crossed the river and walked back instead. Enjoying so much the avenues of spring-green trees and the incredible buildings.

Paris was still being ridiculously beautiful in spring when I turned into Jardin des Tuileries. The Gardens are persons some of my favourite highlights of this day in Paris. Comfortable-looking metal armchairs and decorative benches ranged around lawns decorated with statues. A boy sat hunched over listening to music. Another read a plain-coloured old-looking book with red-edged pages. A man sat sketching what he saw. I walked past and along the main walk. Around every pond and fountain and lawn were gathered Parisians enjoying the sun and reading or drawing or chatting on a random Monday afternoon. I had a moment of wondering if no-one in this city every works but truly it was a picture of a city committed to enjoying and appreciating the beautiful, the artistic and the springtime. Everything was spring-green leaves and flowers and blossoms and birds.

Beyond the statues and lawns and a small maze, I came to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel built by Napoleon. This is not the main Arc de Triomphe but still manages to be fairly impressive with its pink marble columns, its facade and figures, its gilt statues on top and the bas-reliefs.

Paris and Rome 242

Beyond the arch, is the Louvre, with the Grand Pyramide outside. The Louvre is definitely not at the top of my list to see (sorry art people – not my kind of attraction), although I may have visited it had I had more time in Paris. Instead, I finally found a Metro station (with ticket bought from a newsstand outside) and headed back to my hotel.

That evening, I headed out to find dinner. I know plenty of people who, especially when travelling for work, will not spend money dining out. I take the opposite view – when will I get the chance to go out to dinner in Paris again, after all? Bastille, where I was staying, is packed with fascinating little restaurants from French and Italian to Japanese, Laos/Thai, South Korean and Irish. I wandered around for a while, just taking it all in. Then I headed across the intersection where there were even more places to eat. I was most attracted by French Bistro-type restaurants. I passed one that seemed to focus on mussels and, helpfully, had English descriptions. A little more walking and I was ready to eat. I went back to the place with the mussels. It’s called Leon de Bruxelles. I ordered the mussels in mushrooms and cream. The waiter brought me a really nice glass of good, dry rose and I sat sipping it while I waited. In no time at all, the owner brought out a good-sized, steaming potjie pot of the best mussels of my life. Perfectly cooked in a delightfully flavoursome and delicate sauce, with firm mushrooms and a touch of freshness added by fresh celery. Magical.

Delicious Moules

I headed by to my hotel, exhausted after the long flight and the long day of exploring and having fallen just a little bit in love with Paris.

Paris in Springtime – A day in Paris, Part 1

5am, coming in to land at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. Paris. I try to remember what I know about Paris. Beyond the fairytale romantic city, it’s not much. Charles De Gaulle turns out to be a rabbit warren of an airport – up escalators, down stairs, airport-train then suddenly, unexpectedly, customs. I pass smoothly, easily into France. Luggage in tow, I change into something a little warmer and head towards the Metro station. The airport isn’t hugely well sign-posted. Nor is the Metro. I eventually manage to figure out enough to buy a ticket. I have no French and early in the morning in a new country, I’m not feeling particularly confident.

Luckily I have directions. A pleasant train trip with just one change to the Bastille Metro station. I proceeded to get lost trying to find my exit. Rabbit-warren transport hubs appear to be a theme in Paris.

I walk out of the subway Metro into an overcast morning. I’m glad of my coat. I’m standing at an intersection. In the centre, on a traffic island, is a tall tower, topped with a winged, golden statue (Colonne de Juillet at Place de la Bastille – a monument to those killed in the July Revolution of 1830 and possibly others). A lovely landmark to navigate by.

I sit at a café near the Metro exit and order a café au lait. The waiter, thankfully, understands English and asks if I’d like a croissant with that. It’s 8am. I’m sitting in a cafe in Paris eating an excellent croissant, drinking hot coffee and people-watching. I wish I could describe the people. There were so many, in suits and coats and scarves and boots. Carrying cups of coffee and smoking cigarettes. Riding scooters and skateboards. Reading papers.

After a second coffee and a look at my guidebook, I head off to my hotel in the hopes of dropping off my bag. It’s still far too early for check-in but the person at the hotel reception takes pity on me (I later discover his family is originally from Senegal). I check in and go up a winding, narrow staircase to my room. The room looks out towards the back of the house, across rooftops and towards storey upon storey of old flats with wide, bay-windows, geraniums in pots and bicycles leaning against wooden doors.

The urge to collapse on my bed and fall asleep is powerful but I resist and instead pack the essentials into my daypack and set off exploring. The morning mist had burnt off and the sun is beginning to come out. I retrace my steps and then head across the intersection past the stunning Opera Bastille. A big sign advertises Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues. Sadly the dates are much later in April.

With a vague notion of heading towards the Eiffel Tower (because even one day in Paris should include a visit to its most famous landmark), I wander along the right bank of the canal (which I later discover is a marina). On the other side, trees are in full, pink blossom. Across a bridge, across a road, I catch a glimpse of a sign to the Notre Dame. As I am about to head in that direction, I noticed gardens up ahead. There is something special about gardens. I wander in.

I’ve accidentally found the Jardin des Plantes (a 24 hectare botanical garden). Did I mention it was spring? Rows and lines of flower-beds stretch away, bright with flowers of every colour, from tulips to poppies and daisies to lilac. The air is rich with the scent of flowers. I wander between the beds and stroll along tree-shaded avenues. Laughing children toss pink cherry-blossoms into the air, creating a snow of colour. On a bench, a woman sits, enjoying the sunshine and reading a book. Nearby, couple reads poetry to each other. I twist in and around, past greenhouses and signs showing the way to the Menagerie. Statues and old buildings sit amongst the trees and bushes. People sit sketching flowers and shuttered windows. It’s delightful – if I don’t leave now, I may never leave. I find an archway beneath a building and step out into the street, struggling for a moment with the idea that the last half-hour was real.

Up the road past university buildings, tripping through lilac blossoms scattered on the pavement, I reach the left bank of the Seine and head, again, in the direction of the Notre Dame. There are bits of Paris that are not pretty and romantic. I’m walking past university buildings and graffiti on the street. It’s gritty and real. This is why I walk – to see more than just the sanitised bits. Yet the river still sparkles and the trees rise gracefully. On the next corner I reach the Institut du Monde Arabe, where they are displaying the Orient Express. A modern glass and steel building, so different to most of the area around the river, but displaying an old, classic train.

I cross another of the beautiful bridges and find, half-way across, a clear view of the Notre Dame. I turn left and walk along the edge of the island, enjoying the pretty old multi-story buildings as I walk by; buildings that could come from novels and stories with their double-doors and their balconies and their attic rooms, with flowers growing in pots. As I reach the end of the island and prepare to cross to the next, a man is playing an accordion across the road from the Notre Dame and somewhere in the distance church bells are ringing noon, filling the air with the mingled sounds of the romantic accordion and the classic church-bells. The sounds of Paris.

The sun is shining and there is a gentle breeze scattering blossoms as I walk into the grounds of the Notre Dame. The Cathedral is stunning, from its gothic lines and gargoyles to its spring flowers and rose windows. I walked right around it, wanting to see it from every angle. I don’t try and go in – there isn’t time on this day but also the queues are ridiculous. As I pass the western end of the cathedral, with its majestic square towers, and walk towards the Charlemagne Memorial, the bells ring out from the towers above me. Behind me, birds are singing soaring melodies from the trees. I can only relish the moment. A little further along the side of the cathedral, pink and white blossoms artistically complement the grey stone.

By this stage, I have been won over by Paris, completely against my better judgement, and given up being sceptical of the clichés I seem to be walking through. As someone pointed out when I described the day, you reach the point where you have to wonder who is stage-managing this experience.

I cross the river, enjoying the relative quiet of side-streets after the tourist-crush at the Notre Dame. Across the river I find probably my favourite building in Paris, the Hôtel De Ville. Hôtel De Ville is the city hall of Paris. It is a vast, beautiful building, rebuilt, according to my guidebook, between 1874 and 1882 in neo-Renaissance style and decorated with 108 statues of notable Parisians around the outside. I stand on the square looking up at this incredible facade, with its statues, and right above me, below the clock, the words “Liberté. Egalite. Fraternité.”.

Fountains, Hotel de Ville, Paris