Paris is the type of place where you can wander around aimlessly looking at the beautiful, old buildings on both sides of the street. Or where you can sit in a café and admire the army of chic women who walk past. You can loll around the Seine river and watch boats go by slowly. Or you can sit in a boat and watch Paris go by slowly. Paris, is without doubt, one of the cities to be seen before you die.
When I landed in Paris, the first thing that hit me was how chic my female taxi driver was. Clad in boots, a scarf knotted casually and beautifully and in aviator glasses, she made me go ‘not bad for a taxi driver, huh’. Then I realized every woman in Paris has her own style and is constantly making a personal fashion statement. Every woman seemed to know how to tie a scarf artfully. I cringed as I thought of the years I had spent tying my scarf around my head like a wheezing old grandfather. I never knew it could be an excellent accessory. Clearly everything about this city was going to be beautiful..
Paris of course offers some of the biggest tourist attractions in the world – Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe. The list can go on endlessly. I quickly calculated the list of places and the total time available to us and figured out that at two hours per place, we would be able to see the city’s highlights easily in the four days we had.
Alas, I had not anticipated that queuing up alone would take up most of the time budget. Infact, we waited a couple of hours to get to the top of the Notre Dame. From where, we enjoyed the exact same views we had gotten from the Eiffel Tower, albeit at a lower level. We did a few smart things though. For the Eiffel Tower, we had booked tickets on the net. For the museums, we tried for a museum pass and not getting one, found out about the alternate entrance options. For instance, the Louvre has electronic vending machines at the Caroussel de Louvre that no one seemed to use. Instead everyone just joined the snaking ticket line at the main entrance. Weird..
The Louvre was big. The word big, infact, can be defined by the Louvre. After a whole day and terribly tired feet I had managed to see just the Mesopotamian section and rushed through the Egyptian section. Was it wonderful though! The exhibits were arranged so well that they evoked the grandeur of the civilizations gone by. I wandered in and out of a cell of an actual pyramid. I walked through the reconstructed entranceway of the Palace of Darius. I nearly shrieked when I saw the Code of Hammurabi standing there. I had first heard about in primary school and never thought I would see it. Of course, the big draw is the Mona Lisa, safely standing behind a barricade. It was a beautiful work, with a lot of depth that one cannot see in print versions.
Musee D’Orsay had a great art collection too with Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet and a lot of popular names that even people with very little exposure to art would have heard. Being a relatively small museum, a mere half a day suffices but clearly each place takes definitely more than two hours, even if one were to skip the queues.
If normal buildings in Paris are so beautiful, then I figured out that its churches and cathedrals would be even better and I was right. The Cathedral of Notre Dame was majestic, with a façade filled with intricate and well defined sculptures. The church inside looked awe inspiring. If I had to ever believe in the power of God, it would certainly be easy to do so in such a magnificent and lofty building. I was also reading the Hunch Back of Notre Dame around then and got excited as I spotted areas from the book. It really helps, reading books set in the place or city you are visiting.
Saint Chapelle, was smaller but prettier and more vivid. The tall glass windows around the chapel each had a story to tell from the old (and I think, new) testaments. Eagerly, D and I tried to trace the story of Moses till as far as our necks could arch. Finally dizzy, we just sat down and tried to take in the beauty of the light coming through the coloured glasses.
We missed out on the Basilica Sacre Couer though. Despite being in the district, we did less holy things like watching a cabaret show at the Moulin Rouge. It was a jacket and tie affair. Quite interesting, considering the dancers in the show were frequently topless. I personally thought the show was a bit over prized at 100 euros, considering the seating arrangements were so poor that possibly only ten people in the entire hall may have had a good view. The dancers were good, though for someone used to Bollywood grandeur I enjoyed the ventriloquist, the lady with the python and the flexible brothers a lot more.
Our Eiffel Tower trip happened on a rainy morning. Braving cold winds, we got to the topmost roof and gamely took pictures of each other and of the wondrous view. Paris happens to have several spots from which you can get a bird’s eye of Paris but the highest seems to be the Eiffel Tower thanks to a conscious decision by the city to keep its skyline unmarred by tall, ugly concrete and glass buildings. The Tour Montparnasse was what probably triggered this restriction but it still serves the useful purpose of giving one a view of the Eiffel Tower itself. My most interesting experience atop the tower was not so much the view as meeting my Bangalore college professor from ten years ago. Small world.
We also spent a day at the Chateau Versaille. Comprising a palace, gardens, residences of the king and queen it is the kind of place where I would have expected royalty to live. And if I were a poor peasant with no bread to eat, I would have been very very angry if Marie Antoinette had crooned from the comfort of this estate that I should eat cake instead. The grandeur (and sometimes tasteless grandeur) had to be seen to be believed. The gardens matched the overall luxurious look, but were a lot friendlier. One could stroll past the dancing fountains or cycle by its vast perimeter or play catch. We chose to have a picnic lunch and then lulled by the soft spring sun, lay on the grass feeling at peace with the world.
This was by no means our only enjoyable food experience. We loved the cafes too. Paris makes it its business to provide wonderful streetside cafes and bistros where one can eat and eye passersby – two of my favourite activities. The food was delightful, provided you did not have any inhibitions about eating meat and sticking to a non-Indian tasting meal. I guzzled the beef, ham and veals, cooked in amazing sauces. Though neither of us could bring ourselves to eat one of the more popular dishes – Steak Tartare or raw beef. Every meal was accompanied by a glass of wine and ended with desserts that made me wonder how Parisian women stayed thin. The apple tarts were bursting with apples soaked in the sauce. The macaroons were just so – neither too hard nor too soft. The crème brulee and crème caramel just had to be mentioned to feel your tongue snake out and moisten your lips. Sigh. It is no surprise I put on several kilos at the end of it.
We spent a lot of time running from one tourist spot to the next. I am glad though that we also took the time to enjoy the city itself, not just the tourist spots. We strolled down the Champs-Elysees watching the high end shops, we took the Seine cruise and we sat at the Tulierres garden and read books. I could have gone on and on.
The four days I had, had to end though. Then I boarded an Air France flight that seemed a particularly dreamy experience despite its reluctantly reclining seats, a broken reading light and announcements made in fast, heavily accented English.
Paris does that to you