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Chris Sayer’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 22 Sep 2007

Location: Paris, France

MapThursday 20th
After a couple of days in Paris, we can now find our way around this fabulous city. The two public train systems (the inner city “Metro” and suburban “RER”) is easy to use for access to all parts of Paris. We can, however, walked to many historic sites, as our hotel is in a great central location at Les Halles. Paris contains much of what we have become used to in France – narrow streets, ornate arched bridges, church spires above the roof tops, baggettes (what we’d call a French Stick), patisseries, cafes on the sidewalk. But the Eiffel Tower dominates the skyline – it’s visible from everywhere, and you know you’re in Paris. I wonder if there was enough stone in the world to build Paris – every building, every bridge, hundreds of statues, are all made of stone.
Notre Dame – the cathedral made famous by a hunchbacked bellringer, was fantastic, and must consume half the stone in Paris. I must say, however, that after three weeks in France, we might have become a little accustomed to such buildings. After all, every French village has a church at its centre, and every one has some historic beauty and significance. Major cities have several of them. Notre Dame is enormous, almost as if walking through its doors was not “going inside”, because it’s so big, the ceiling reaches the sky. No photo could do it justice.
The Louvre is huge, the largest museum in the world – too big to even contemplate a visit, specially considering the queue at the entrance door (the glass pyramid featured in The Da Vinci Code – didn’t see Tom Hanks though). Lonely Planet says you’d need 9 months to see everything in the Louvre. Lenny’s Mona Lisa had to be given a miss this time.
(By the way, many of my facts and figures have come from Lonely Planet’s “France”. LP is indeed the hitch-hikers guide to the galaxy – I believe it inspired Douglas Adams to write his famous books)
Thursday night was a special triple-treat, booked and paid for back in February. Dinner on the first level of the Eiffel Tower, followed by a cruise down the Seine to see Paris by night, and finally the midnight show at Moulin Rouge.. The meal in the restaurant was very nice, the view was superb, and it was only the first level. The lights of Paris when seen from the river is special – a completely different perspective. Moulin Rouge was an absolute squeeze – they sit you at a tiny table, with the tables all around you so close that you hardly have room to breath. A tip – go the loo before you enter. The show was incredible, with all the theatre elements amazingly done – lighting, colourful sets, moving stages, athletic dancing, music and singing (although it sounded pre-recorded to me – almost too good). A comedian, juggler, ventriloquist and two acrobats complimented the dancers. Were there bare breasts on the ladies? I don’t recall.

Friday 21st
First up, the Arc de Triomphe, located at the confluence of 12 busy Paris streets, making it one of the worlds largest, and busiest roundabouts. We’re told that if you want to drive a hire car in Paris, they will not offer you insurance if you want to negotiate the Arc de Triomphe. Built by Napolean and completed in 1836, it is (guess what??) huge, towering above you as you stand underneath. Beneath the arch is France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with an eternal flame, burning since 1921. A fantastic view from the top, where you see that Paris is essentially flat except for a small hill in the suburb of Montmarte, on top which sits the Sacre Coeur, a Catholic basilica built in the late 1800s.
In another direction, in the distance we could see a concentration of skyscrapers, which were the only tall buildings on the skyline (other than the Tower). And in the middle was what looked like a white square arch. We hopped on the train to explore. La Defense is the modern business district of Paris, deliberately located away from historic Paris. Started in the late 1950s, it is an ultra-modern city, with glass skyscrapers and large open walking spaces. Not a car or road to be seen, and is in complete contrast to the rest of Paris. It’s dominated, however, by the Grande Arch, made out of marble and glass. It is 110 meters along each side, forming a huge cubic arched building with a window looking toward the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre’s Glass Pyramid, quite a few kilometers away. Built in 1989 to commemorate 200 years since the French Revolution, it actually contains offices on both sides of the Arch. An amazing thing.

Saturday 22 September
Up early to beat the crowds at the Eiffel Tower. It opens at 9.30, and before opening, the crowds must have numbered thousands. An enduring image, while waiting in line, was the sight of three soldiers walking amongst the crowds, armed with machine guns, no less. Security is rife in Paris – we were body searched when entering the rugby, and all rubbish bins in Paris are simply clear plastic bags hanging from a ring, so its contents can be seen.
The Eiffel Tower is imposing, all 324 metres and 2.5 million rivets of it. Built for the 1889 World Fair to commemorate 100 years since the French Revolution, it was only ever supposed to be a temporary structure – about 20 years. It was kept to mount radio aerials on the top – now it’s hard to imagine Paris without it. It’s obviously the major Paris tourist attraction – thousands and thousands of people were there. We had breakfast in the Eiffel Tower.
We then caught the same RER train further up the road to Versaille, and its famous palace. Built by King Louis the 14th in the late 16th century as a means to glorify himself in the eyes of his people, this place can be described in various ways – grand, immense, magnificent, opulent, royal, beautiful, and ultimately over-the-top. And the gardens are ten times more than that. This Louis guy was certainly full of himself and his own importance, and the other kings that came after followed suit, and it’s no wonder that the French people revolted against this opulence to overthrow the king in 1789. We walked through the very bedroom where Queen Marie Antoinette was sleeping when the peasants stormed the palace, and she escaped through a side door with seconds to spare. We walked through the room where the Treaty of Versaille was signed to end the First World War. Its easy to see why this place is listed as World Heritage – rooms gilded in gold, masterpieces painted on every ceiling, money was no object when they built this. The gardens are a huge man-made park, with dozens of fountains, and we’re talking about each fountain shooting huge volumes of water into the air. Manicured lawns, shaped hedges, 200,000 trees over 800 hectacres, while the palace covers 11 hectacres, contains 2,153 windows, 700 rooms and 67 staircases. It was all a bit overwhelming, really.