As a great European metropolis, Paris is as renowned for the style, grace and elegance of its inner core as for the malaise, grime and shabbiness outside. And as the packed TGV train from Geneva pulled up into Gare de Lyon it disgorged its passengers right into the second spectacle – a late Friday night hangout of hobos and derros. But then train stations are never the most glamourous of locations at the best of times, and there was going to be plenty of time to tick off some of the more conventional sights over the rest of the weekend, once I caught the connecting Metro to the hostel where I was staying and got some sleep.
The day’s big news story out of Paris had been a hotel fire the night before which led to the deaths of twenty people. And had a fire broken out where I was staying the death toll may well have been have the same or even higher, a single tight wooden staircase spiralling up seven floors seemed to be the only way out. Casting a quick glance out the window of the room I was in I think I would have been OK. I was only on the first floor, with a Jackie Chan stunt jump out onto the awning below and then a deft somersault onto the footpath away from safety. Of course I’d have to wake up first, which given my level of fatigue would be a tough ask.
It was a little harder to find Sacré Cœur than I had imagined. It seemed the natural start to the morning, or what was left of it by the time I was up and away, as it was close to the hostel and from the summit of the Eiffel Tower on my previous visit to Paris (on my first Contiki tour almost five years ago), I had seen the domes at the top of Butte Montmarte stick out like the proverbial. But now on foot at ground level, hemmed in amongst the pedestrian traffic and apartment buildings of the 18e arrondissement, the white church was nowhere to be seen. Eventually I found it via a series of stairs to its east, and both inside and out it was packed with such a crowd of fellow tourists that left me to wonder if there is such a thing as an off-peak season in Paris anymore. But my visit was timed specifically enough to the hour to be in parallel with a Mass service, and to the times in general when memorials were a blaze of candles for the recently departed Pope Jean Paul II.
Back outside and at the bottom of the series of terraces in front of Sacré Cœur, Paris was much more how I remembered it – bunches of African men actively trying to flog off all manner of tourist tat to earn a few Euro. But I hadn’t got too far away when I got a surprise. When I was in Morocco four months previously the guidebooks said that Casablanca was the Europe of North Africa. But here in the streets of Montmarte, with its lively fabric shops and fruit markets, Moroccan restaurants and gelliba-clad men ruling over the dirty streets, this part of Paris was more like the Casablanca of Western Europe. It was very atmospheric, so much so that I half-expected to come across the obligatory Moroccan carpet shops, and I think it says a lot for the enclaves that have been built out of Paris’ well renowned influx of immigrants from former French colonies.
Although the trees were full of the pink blossom of spring, the day was grey, chilly and had the feel of imminent rain. So I decided to spend the afternoon indoors hoping that the outlook would improve, and the venue I happened upon was the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie. As the name suggests this turned out to be less of a museum and more a city – it covered such an expanse that I only covered the core exhibitions in the main building before it closed for the day. Most of the information went straight over my head, and not just because it was in French. There was more than enough English translation, but dealing with the science behind topics like optical illusions, complex mathematics, energy and genetics made my grey matter hurt. One exercise in particular frustrated me more than any other, using a computer presentation to match the 23 pairs of human chromosomes. The instructions were to put the strands of equal lengths and identical line patterns into pairs, which sounded easy enough. But I was buggered if I could find any similar line patterns to them at all, and to make it harder it seemed a few pairs were not of anywhere near equal length. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if every time I got a match wrong the computer didn’t tell me what a black, empty and vacuumous space I had between my ears. But I got the hint and went off to the exhibition about black holes and other stuff on outer space.
As the museum closed, things looked a little brighter outside. So I did what I do best when I’m looking around a place – I walked. Then continued to walk and, after that, walked some more. Along Canal St-Martin, past place de la Bastille and then along the right bank of the Seine. I crossed the river at the base of the Eiffel Tower right on the dot of 9pm when, with a collective gasp from the waiting crowd, every piece of its steel structure lit up with hundreds of flashing yellow lights. In the year 2000 I was sure this nightly show was on just for a year to celebrate the turning of the millennium. I was either obviously wrong or it was such a great success that they’ve kept it going for five years, but in any case it does give an extra angle of interest to the landmark and certainly goes down well with the punters.
Having been to the very top back then during the day I was interested to find out what the view was like at night, so I joined one of the long queues for the first of two lifts to the top platform. It didn’t take as long to get up there as I thought it might, but the icily biting wind meant I didn’t stay up there too long. At 300m high it’s billed as Paris’ most impressive night-time view but, as impressive as it was, I think I had one that beat it about a month before. It was halfway through a flight from London to Geneva on a clear Sunday night in March. I happened to look out the window and see the sprawling lights of what I guessed could only be Paris and started looking for visible landmarks. Directly below I spotted the grandeur of the Eiffel Tower in the midst of its light show, an unmistakable glittering centrepiece which akin to the reaction at ground level tonight, also led to a collective gasp from others on my side of the plane who appeared to spot it at the exact same moment as me.
There was one more nocturnal Paris icon I decided to see what all the fuss was about, although it must be said I had no great pressing desire to go, and it was back in the area of the city where I had started the day. But unlike Sacré Cœur this was dead easy to find – after getting off the Metro at Pigalle station it was just a matter of following the tour buses lined up to go around the corner, readying to drop their passengers off at the foot of an already lengthy queue snaking along the footpath. They were all waiting to go inside the Red Windmill, Moulin Rouge, the most distinguished cabaret show in the world. I was content with just wandering along past it and the rest of the red neon of Boulevard de Clichy. Back in the 19th century this was undoubtedly the heart of a sordid district of loose morals, but in this age of mass tourism it’s now reverted to what I would call ‘watered-down sleaze’. Sure, there was a fair concentration of sex shops and peep shows lining both sides of the street, but between them sat franchises of the giant burger chains, respectable clothing boutiques, Irish pubs and small cosy restaurants. There were no lacy dancers can-canning out in the street and no transvestite prostitutes standing around making their services available with a gravelly “bonsoir, monsieur” as I walked past. I think I was disappointed.
I spent half the day on Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine, on which the city first originated. First I was confined inside the Conciergerie though, unlike many people during the French Revolution, this was by my own choice. As part of a complex of royal buildings that had seen a thousand years of riots, revolts and rebellions, it seems the most notorious use of the Conciergerie came during the very end of the 18th Century when it was used as a prison for Revolutionary figures before their inevitable executions by guillotine. The most famous prisoner of all was Marie-Antionette, the Archduchess of Austria and Queen of France. The history books seem to paint her as either a woman who lived a flagrant life of gross excess in an era of extreme poverty for the masses, or as a scapegoat of the nobles’ resistance to bring about tax relief and whose husband, King Louis XVI, couldn’t get a stiffy. But they are agreed on the fact that she herself spent over two months imprisoned in the Conciergerie before her fate was sealed, and she too went limp.
(I’m sorry, the end of that last paragraph was in extremely poor taste but I just couldn’t help myself. The punch lines will be more refined from here on in.)
A couple of streets away at the south-eastern edge of the island the sightseers were congregating again in vast numbers. It was a bright and sunny lunch time and the Cathédrale de Notre Dame was packed both outside in the square and inside its lofty interior. And despite the fact construction dates back to the 12th century this was a place moving with the times and placing a high emphasis on transparency. For instance, outside the front door there was an explanation of the due process about to begin whereby a new pope would be elected. And inside the cathedral along a side wall, priests sat behind large desks in offices with clear plate glass walls on all four sides, their names and the languages they spoke on signs affixed to the front, facing parishioners who had come in to sit on the other side of the desk in confessional. Forget the anonymity of sitting in those tiny wooden wardrobes – this looked more like going down to your local bank branch to apply for a loan. But then I guess you could say that having your sins forgiven is not entirely unlike getting an extra line of credit.
(See, I told you the punch lines would be more refined. Not actually funny mind you, but definitely more refined.)
Once back outside I joined the slow moving line to climb the steps to the cathedral towers. Eventually I was up there with the gargoyles looking down on the multitudes in the square and on the hunt for a certain hunchback in the bell tower. The only one I found was me, stooped over so I didn’t bash my head on the wooden beams.
I only had a few hours left and there was one other thing I really wanted to see before I had to get back to the train. To get there I crossed to the Left Bank and passed through the Latin Quarter, the wonderful green expanse of the Jardin du Luxembourg and then by Montparnasse cemetery. This, like the other inner Paris cemeteries, seems to have its fair share of notable permanent residents amongst the all graves crammed into it. And not far from there were the Catacombs, my target attraction, a small but infamous part of the city’s mass of ancient subterranean passages – its walls lined with the bones of over six million Parisians long ago exhumed from the cemeteries to prevent overcrowding. Unfortunately a sign at the entranceway said it was in the midst of a long period of closure, but with my limited ability to read French I couldn’t work out the reason why. In any case I guess it didn’t really matter, what it meant was I had to fill out the very last of the weekend in a less macabre way.
And so after walking the length of the Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe to place de la Concorde and continuing on around the Louvre to the Seine, a trademark way to finish things off, it was back to Gare de Lyon and my rendezvous with the waiting TGV. I had three and a half hours to mindlessly pass before arriving back in wintry Geneva, the landscape around which had received a late dumping of snow since I’d left it on the Friday night, and I spent some of the travel time trying to work out what the acronym TGV actually stands for:
And so too was my weekend.