Having taken a day to get over the sheer exhaustion of two weeks of travelling, I finally sit down to sort through the memories (not to mention some 2000+ photographs!) of what has been an amazing fortnight. It truly has been the trip of a lifetime and even though it has just ended, it already feels like a fond distant memory, perhaps in anticipation of the stories that will be told for years to come.
Our very first leg took us to ‘Gay Paris’, which was by far the most beautiful stop on our little jaunt, despite the fact that of our four days there, we only had sun for about a cumulative day and a half. But somehow the grey and rainy wasn’t as depressing as it can be in good ol’ Blighty. Rather, the sprinkle in the air lent a beautiful romantic ambience to walking around Paris, especially at night when the entire city was lit up so beautifully, with the raindrops dancing magnificently in the light of the old street lamps on the street corners. The lights in Paris are in fact so beautiful that it was like visiting two different cities – the grey washed old soul, full of powerful gothic architecture and a fairy city, the light of lovers at night.
Seeing as this was our first stop, and also my friend’s first time ever visiting Europe, we went absolutely crazy on the sightseeing, not to mention the walking (oi veh the walking!). It was four days full of running around the entire city seeing every little thing on my friends “list” which he had apparently compiled after industrious research. I’m not going to bore you with every little item, but rather just throw in some thoughts about my favourites. First of, I should mention that if you want to proper hoof it around Paris you probably can see a lot of it, but if you don’t want to come home to swollen feet every night like we did, make good use of the ‘Carnet’ (pronounced Kar-nay)– this is a set of 10 passes for the Metro and it works out cheaper than buying individual tickets. It also works on the RER within Paris so that’s cool.
Of course the first thing everyone thinks of when you say Paris is the iconic Eiffel Tower – La Tour Eiffel – and for good reason. It is probably the thing we saw most of in Paris – not entirely because it was quite beautiful to look at (especially at night) but more because you could see it from pretty much any decent vantage point in the city – so everywhere we went we’d go, “There’s that guy again!” Walking under the tower one might not quite get goose bumps and picture a romantic honeymoon – its actually quite monstrous to look at up close – Monstrous, yet dauntingly impressive. It is just so bewildering to see so much steel and iron molded to create this great giant thing – it truly makes you marvel at the brilliance of engineering that it is. But daunting as it is during the day, it will just take your breath away at night. I can understand why the Societe Eiffel wants to keep a tight claim on their copyright of the nighttime image of the Tower (not that any vacationer has ever listened to that – EVER!), because it really is a spectacular sight to behold. From the twinkling lights that go off now and then to the massive beam that revolves from the top – its all marvelous – and though I’m sharing pictures, they just cannot do justice to this sight in person.
I think the same could be said of the Arc de Triomphe. Right down at the end of Champ Elysees, this magnificent arch looks beautiful all lit up at night – though between the dozens of people in the way and the traffic buzzing down each side, getting a good picture from right down the middle can be quite a task. If you choose to you can even go right up to the top of the arch – I’m sure the view from there must have been amazing, but sadly due to the fact that we had walked some 8 hours by the time we got there, not to mention budgetary restrictions, we decided to skip the climb up. Still, you can enjoy an amazing look down the Champ Elysees from the end for free and this is would be an amazing spot for you photographers out there to try some long exposure at night. Apart from that though, I didn’t much see the big deal with the Champ Elysees – My friend said it was a ‘must-see’ but all I really saw was lots of high-end brands and other stores – didn’t get it.
Certainly you cannot fully appreciate the city’s landmarks without visiting the breathtaking Notre Dame. We were lucky enough to have a distant family member let us crash at her place (savings!), which was in the Latin area, i.e. very close to all the University buildings and also where Woody Allen’s movie ‘Midnight in Paris’ was shot. So Notre Dame was just a 10-15 minute walk away. Which was why on day 1, after a full day of sightseeing, we stumbled along there in the evening. And man were we lucky. There was absolutely no queue when we got there so we walked right in, right in the middle of an organ recital. It was amazing to hear the haunting sounds resonating from the giant organ through the halls of the cathedral (and it felt like my very soul!). Seeing it from outside just isn’t enough, you MUST go inside (its free if you just want to go check out the floor level).
But all the beautiful sights aren’t in Paris alone. If you’re there for a few days you should take a day/half-day trip to Versailles. It’s a 1 hour or so ride out of town by the RER and it costs about 12 Euros return – But do yourself a favour, do not go on a Sunday! We encountered such long lines because we picked that day – but then again it was the only day we had sun so in hindsight it was a good call (it truly was our Sun-day ; p). Even after buying our ticket we waited in line in the massive ‘Place D’Armes’ courtyard for another an hour and a half to get in. Though the proprietors were nice enough to provide free wi-fi so we both got onto our phones to make respective friends jealous while we idles away time. The wait was well worth it though. My day at the Chateau de Versailles was definitely one of the highlights of the trip – though we didn’t actually spend too much time in the actual palace itself. While it was amazing to see so much art adorning the walls of the Chateau – an obvious sign of the French tradition of being a home and great patron of the arts – I was much more taken by the gardens. Designed by Le Notre (fellow students of copyright law might recognize the name!) the gardens were immense and exquisitely designed. While the entire estate had a beautiful hegemony to it, each individual grove had its own personality and each had something different to add to the experience. My favourite touch was how there was a constant stream of beautiful classical music flowing through the air as we walked around, thanks to strategically placed speakers in the hedges. It made the entire experience so much more enjoyable and lithe. If you are planning to visit make sure your time coincides with the water displays so you can see the fountains in their proper glory. I would have to say that of the 28 or so fountains and groves, my favourite was the ‘Grove of Apollo’s Baths’, followed by the ‘Mirror Fountain’ (where there is a musical fountain show every 10 minutes) and the ‘Encelade Grove’ – If you’re in a rush and can’t or don’t want to see it all, don’t miss these.
Paris was also the city where we spent the most time in museums. First and foremost of course, was the Louvre. We were warned about long lines but actually ended up just walking right in and getting our tickets in a matter of minutes, which was fantastic. Navigating the Louvre however was a less easy task. The place is absolutely massive! So I can see why some people would end up spending an entire day there (if not more). Well my friend and I aren’t exactly philistines, but we’re not such die-hard art lovers either. He basically just wanted to see the Mona Lisa so that was our first stop. The painting itself can be disappointing if you build it up in your head – for one it is a lot smaller than it seems in print and movies, for another it’s behind thick glass and surrounded by just a mob of people – so the experience I think was a bit of a let down for my friend. I however was quite happy to just stand there and stare at it, looking for the answer to his question, “Why is this painting so famous?” The truth is, I have no clue. Some people like to talk about the fact that the model herself is quite plain – why didn’t Leonardo pick a more beautiful subject? Some are curious about her half-smile – Is she happy or sad? I think the fact that it makes you question so many things itself makes it special. But then again, what do I know, I just like to look at pretty things. Apart from its most famous resident, I did also enjoy looking through the Louvre’s Italian paintings, on the same floor of the Denon wing. And I really liked the collection of Islamic Art – particularly a lot of their jeweled scabbards and pieces of armour. The collection of paintings was actually very minimal – there’s a much better collection of Mughal miniatures in Delhi – but they did have massive embroidered carpets and wall hangings, which were quite exquisite. On the way out we visited the inverted Pyramid, and I, of course, had my little Dan Brown ‘praying on bended knee at the foot of the Arc’ moment (oh come one like you wouldn’t have!). I tried to locate the Rose Line on the street but unfortunately wasn’t able to (which really ticked my friend off because I made him run around at night for like 20 minutes – haha).
While the Louvre was just as epic as one was made to believe it would be, it wasn’t actually my favourite museum/gallery stop. I much preferred the visit to the Musee d’Orsay and the Musee de l’Orangerie. The Orengerie currently holds Monet’s ‘Water Lillies’, which were housed in oval rooms so that you could get a panoramic view of the beautiful impressionist paintings. They had such a captivating combination of colors; examining them closely I truly was in awe of the monumental number of brush strokes it must have taken the artist to create these works. They have a subtle blending of the shades and at the same time capture the dynamism and energy of pools of water teeming with life and rhythm, reflecting the vivid colors of the skies. Hands down my favourite however was the Musee d’Orsay where I finally got to see the work of my favourite artists up close – Vincent van Gogh. I simply stared at each of his paintings for ages. Van Gogh’s style seemed to be so fluid and colorful – many of his paintings looked like you were seeing the world in a beautiful drunken haze (perhaps because he was actually a notorious drunk). His art and his story are both heartwarming and at the same time heartbreaking – for a soul who saw the world so differently and beautifully to be driven to madness and take his own life – yet without his madness his art my never have reached the heights it did. My favourite of the works they had on display were ‘La Nuit Etoilee’ – rather similar to the famous ‘Starry Night’; ‘Portrait de l’Artiste’ (1890) – the famous self-portrait, where looking into his eyes I found himself feeling moved and saddened all at once; and ‘L’Eglise d’Auvers-sur-Oise, vue du chevet’ – for the Doctor Who fans out there, this is the house he paints in the episode where he meets the Doctor. Thinking back to the day, I wish I had never had to leave that room. I could honestly have stayed and stared at his work for hours (provided I had a comfy stool).
From art inside museums let us move to art in the open. The artistically inclined amongst you absolutely must visit Montmartre. It’s a small climb up to the top of the hill (or you can use one of your 10 tickets to use the lift), from where you have a wonderful view of the city and a host of artists and small cafes and galleries (including a Salvador Dali collection) as well as shops selling handicrafts and jewellery. It’s a really nice neighborhood to sit and have a coffee (and maybe have an artist come and do your portrait using your leftover beverage), purchase a small painting form one of the dozens of artist-vendors or simply relax and stroll around. A simply must-do by all accounts! Finally, though it’s not such an awesome itinerary item, those of you who are particularly hardcore fans of Oscar Wilde or Jim Morrison might think of popping over to the Cimitiere du Pere Lachaise – it’s totally free to roam around and you can visit many of the other famous artists, actors, statesmen and authors interred there. The visit to the cemetery was the one day we weren’t too ticked about the grey weather we were encountering, because it really set the tone for a hauntingly beautiful walk through its serpentine cobbled stone paths, attempting to find our way around while marveling at the great lengths and expenses that had been gone into to preserve the memory of those who resided within its walls. You could see that some families had spent small fortunes in building and maintaining mausoleums and graves for their departed loved ones – though I wouldn’t want my loved ones to suffer such great expenses, I hope I am remembered as fondly by those I leave behind. I actually joked to my friend that I don’t want my people to visit me on the day of my death, but rather my birthday, so it would be quite fitting if I passed away on that very day. He did not enjoy this line of conversation and started giving me the silent treatment…
Okay, well, I think I’ve said quite enough. And though I’ve prattled on for a fair bit, I still feel like I’m only glossing over my stay in this beautiful and captivating city. Truth be told if I were given the time I’d probably go on forever, but for now let this be it, for there are still four more cities to come…