On my second full day in Paris I ate my small but perfectly adequate breakfast of a baguette, butter and a coffee at my hostel, AIJ Hostel in Bastille, and then decided that rather than getting the metro from the nearest metro station I would walk down to Bastille station instead. This walk was extremely pleasant; the main thing I noticed about the area was that every other shop seemed to be selling shoes! Perhaps Bastille is the shoe district of Paris, I don’t know.
Anyway, I got to Place de Bastille, which has an opera house and a monument and, oddly, the canal seems to go underground here. But more on the canal later. I boarded a metro train and headed to my first stop of the day: the Eiffel Tower.
I sort of felt like I had to see the Eiffel Tower, being in Paris, and a tourist. I had a little bit of trouble getting to the famous tower as one of the RER lines was completely close for what appeared to be an entire month (just think, it’s only weekends on the underground!) but with a bit of faffing around I got to Trocadero metro station. And there in front of me was La Tour Eiffel. And what was the first thing I did at the site of this famous landmark? Well I sat in the shade by the aquarium and read; you see I’d got to this really good bit in my book…
After a while I thought I should go and have a look at the tower. It is… very tall, that’s for sure. I walked up to it, dodging people hawking miniature versions, and then ducked and dived through the crowds to stand underneath it. The thing about the Eiffel Tower is that whilst it’s completely as it is in pictures itself, the setting of it seems quite different. I’m not entirely sure how the surroundings of the Eiffel Tower would look, but I was just a little bit overwhelmed really. The queues to go up it were enormous; I’d tried to buy a ticket the day before I travelled but it was fully booked, and in hindsight I’m quite glad I didn’t. And really that’s all I have to say about the Eiffel Tower I’m afraid.
I knew that I could go to the top of the Arc de Triomphe for free, so this was my second famous landmark goal of the day. Peering at my map I realised the arch was completely walkable from the Eiffel Tower, so I set off across the river, trying to avoid the hundreds of petition people who kept accosting me with a disability petition. I’d already signed this petition, possibly unwisely, at the Pompidou the day before, but it was now that it struck me that the fact they were seemingly trying to get English people to sign it and nobody else, even though it was a French petition, was a little odd. Further research revealed this to be a scam of some description, but whether it’s a pickpocketing scam or a donation scam seems to be under hot debate. I fortunately survived without having anything stolen, but the density of this clipboard wavers at the Eiffel Tower was fully ridiculous. In the end I just pretended I couldn’t speak English or French and fought my way out. I have a feeling this was a pickpocketing “pinch point”, but my system of knotting the drawstring on my rucksack at least 5 times and keeping my real valuables in a bag around my body seemed to work.
Having escaped this, I crossed the Seine, as I said before, and headed up a very posh street with classy hotels and designer shops, and then, there I was, on Champs-Elysees. This is another place that was very different to how I imagined it; really it’s like Paris’s Oxford Street, I suppose my images of it have only ever come from the Tour de France. After buying some postcards I walked towards the impressive arch, which is actually pretty cool.
It’s on a roundabout in the middle of what is known as Charles de Gaulle Etoile, a group of roads which come away from the arch in a sort of rough star shape. Approaching the Arc de Triomphe I couldn’t seem to work out how to get across to it. I saw some people holding hands and running across the road, pretty much risking their lives, but I figured there must be a way of crossing somewhere…
I crossed pretty much every road of the etoile in my quest to avoid getting run over, and about halfway round I spotted the opening of an underpass on the other side. You’d think this would have made it easier to find the entrance, as now I was looking for an underpass, but still it evaded me. I even went down into the metro station, in case this was the entrance, but it was not. Finally, after I’d walked a full circle, I spotted the matching underpass entrance and walked down underneath the road.
I presumed the queue in the underpass was for tickets to go up the arch, so I joined the queue just ahead of a group who I assumed were Americans. I think it must have been the McDonalds cups. But as I eavesdropped on their conversation (I presume every lone traveller is a terrible eavesdropper) I realised that they weren’t American at all, but Northern Irish, and as their conversation turned to entry fees I realised I could help and told them it was free for under 25s from the EU. This started off a flurry of searching for ID, but nobody in the group had any on them, so instead they decided to pass off as many people as possible as under 18s. When we reached the ticket office they pushed an actual under 18 towards the window, and an adult was asked for. One of the older members of the group stepped forward and the ticket seller asked them if they were together.
“Well we’re not together, like” said the older Northern Irish bloke, to which there was quite a lot of laughter from the queue. He turned round, grinning “a lot of you understood that, didn’t you?”
I got my free ticket and headed up the steps, onto the sort of glorified roundabout. And then, after queuing again for a short time, I got to walk up what seemed to be an absolutely never ending staircase. Honestly, I nearly died (I didn’t, but I like to exaggerate) and by the top I was out of breath and cursing all the people who told me I’d get really fit working as an outdoor instructor. But, beyond one more set of steps, was Paris, all of it.
The view was stunning. I’d seen my first glimpse of Paris’s skyline from the Pompidou the day before, but this was stunning. I picked out the landmarks I recognised: the Eiffel Tower, of course, Notre Dame nestled down by the Seine and in the distance, standing proudly on its hill, the Sacre-Coeur. I walked around, taking rubbish photos on my phone, all the time seeming to be in the way of other people’s photos. I had this quite a bit in Paris, everywhere I stood I seemed to be in the way of a photo, but I’ll write about the worst instances of this tomorrow.
From the Arc de Triomphe you can see right up to a second arch at La Defense, which is Paris’s business district, and there’s a third arch down by the Louvre but I missed that one completely. La Defense, with its sky scrapers, surprised me quite a lot, as did Tour Montparnasse. I’m not sure why I imagined Paris wouldn’t have tall, modern buildings really! Really though, Paris is laid out fascinatingly, it makes London look quite random in comparison.
I wrote a postcard at the top of the arch, and then I walked back down the spiralling staircase and sat at the bottom of the arch whilst mad motorists drove their cars at clearly irresponsible speeds around me. I’m certainly starting to wonder, from my limited experience, if the British are the most sensible drivers in Europe… After writing two more postcards, it was time to travel back under the underpass and decide what to do with the rest of my day. It was getting on a little bit but I fancied going to Musée d’Orsay so I, for some strange reason as it’s so close, got on the metro and popped out by Jardin des Tuileries, which is a very nice garden between the Louvre, the Seine and Place de la Concord. I was feeling pretty tired, as it was still quite hot, so I took some time to put my feet into the pond and to read a bit, and then headed off to the art gallery I intended to go to.
On my way round to Musée d’Orsay I passed some boys wearing beanies (in thirty degree heat!). They looked lost, and sure enough they asked me where the Louvre was. I knew the answer to this:
“You’re looking at it, it’s over there” I said, and they shuffled off looking rather embarrassed. As I got to the side of the museum, which is rather stunning as it is a converted disused train station, a woman next to me appeared to pick up nothing from the ground next to me. She then came over to me proffering a ring and asking if it was gold. I told her it could be and she forced it into my hand.
“You must have. Lucky day!” she said. Then: “Lucky for you, lucky for me”, gesturing towards her mouth with her hand. She kept saying this, and I realised she was expecting me to give her money because she’d given me the ring. This stunk of “scam” and I tried really hard to give the ring back to her but she wouldn’t take it. In the end I put it on the railings by the side of the road and walked off, and it was no surprise that she went over and picked it up immediately. I later read that this was a popular scam using brass rings. I’d been subjected to two scams in the same day, how lucky was I?
Anyhow, I went into the art gallery about half an hour before it shut, which was poor planning on my part I’ll admit. I saw some Picassos and some post-impressionism and some jolly large paintings, but as much as I’m probably a philistine for admitting this, I sort of like modern art a lot more than I like, er, not modern art. Sorry. It would have been nice to have a bit more time to explore, but I found myself back out in the Paris sun all too soon.
After this I sat in the grounds of the Louvre for a bit, as I thought I should even though I had no plans to go in, and then I got the metro back to the hostel, stopping to buy a spinach and goats cheese ready meal from monoprix as I just didn’t think I could cope with wandering the cafes that night.
After a revitalising shower and internet-using session at the hostel I decided to do something a bit different with my evening and walk to the Canal. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but being near water is usually a good place to be, so once again I got the metro from Bastille.
When I got off the metro I had a small walk along a boulevard with a park in the middle and after purchasing a beer from a monop’ (do you see what they did there?), I found said boulevard and walked along it. I was accosted by a very rude French boy in French about something, I think it was a lighter, but as I can’t really speak French he got very aggressive and I had to walk off at quite a pace. Aside from this there were a number of French youths playing petanque and table tennis on the boulevard; indeed I’d noticed that in the evenings any vaguely sandy patch of ground was used by petanque. We just don’t have an equivalent of that in the UK, except for perhaps football. I think I’d rather like to have an evening game of French boules in the street.
Eventually I came out at the point where the canal re-emerges from where it dips underground at Bastille, and to my surprise, as far as the eye could see, there were people. I sat at the closest end of the canal for a bit, sipping my beer, and then I decided to wander up it. There were people having picnics, drinking wine from plastic cups, mostly younger people but many were a little older. It was all terribly civilised. I walked along, taking in all the sites as people around me talked and laughed and just seemed to be having a lovely time. Until I reached a young man sitting on the barrier by the canal, headphones in, staring straight ahead with his back to the canal. He looked as though he might be about to cry and was in such very stark contrast to the other people sitting by the canal that it was actually him who inspired me to start writing down what I saw. I wondered what his trouble was, why he was here amongst all these jovial people. But it’s perfectly possible that was just his normal face and he was waiting for somebody.
As I continued along the canal, I sat down to write in my notebook and once again a French boy started talking to me. I sort of looked at him with an “I have no idea what the hell you’re going on about” look on my face, so he asked me in English if I could move to my left. Which I did, but still, bit rude. Especially as people were fishing to my left, you see, the canal is very diverse.
There seemed to be a masquerade party going on, with masks ranging from traditional eye masks to all out creepy V for Vendetta masks. I wondered why the canal was such a party hot spot, but it certainly seemed to have a good vibe.
I crossed over the canal and on this side a boy was strumming a guitar whilst is friend flicked a lighter in accompaniment. On this side it smelt quite strongly of weed, although the civilised, chilled out picnic vibes were still in existence (probably because of this actually). There was another boy strumming a guitar further up who had the most bizarre skull tattoo, I definitely hope it had just been scribbled on in marker pen.
I spotted a sign asking people to respect the tranquillity of the canal and not play music. The guitars and the ipod docks tunefully disobeyed this rule, and I don’t think it really think it spoilt the ambience at all. A girl leaned back, laughing, and nearly fell into the canal, but fortunately she realised in time, next to her was a man in flashing glasses. A man walked by with a large rucksack selling “boissons fraiches”, clearly the canal is a renowned Saturday night hotspot.
It was very late, midnight in fact, by the time I decided to head back to the hostel. On my way back I saw a whole family asleep in the street, it was not the first.