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Is Paris burning?

Not quite, but the skin of the locals has turned quite red

sunny 32 °C

It would be churlish to say 'regretfully, we set off for Paris' but as we slid out of Amsterdam's Centraal Station on the French-owned Thalys fast train, we certainly felt like we could have happily stayed longer in the Nethernetherlands. A train ticket is a train ticket though, and when using a Eurail pass, once you have made a booking, that's it. no change is permitted. On the other hand, if you don't book well ahead, you run a high risk of not being able to get a ticket to the destination you need to get to on the day you need to be there. Such are the dilemmas that the traveller faces.

The flat lands fly by at up to 250 kph, with a glowing indicator at the end of the carriage informing you of how ludicrously fast you are moving, yet the water in your plastic cup shows barely a ripple. After dozing for what seems like a few moments we slide into Gare du Nord, the northern of the four or five major railway stations that are clustered within a few kilometres. Kind soul that I am, I proposed that we grab a taxi to cover the two and a half km to our hotel, rather than dragging our suitcases through the streets. A taxi procured, we proceeded in the right general direction, but our driver's French was almost as halting as mine (like many, many people in Paris, his origins were uncertain), and he dropped us off at an Ibis hotel as requested; but malheureusement (unhappily) it was the wrong one, as a baffled reception desk looked for my pre-paid booking on the computer. So, we wound up with a kilometre or so of luggage dragging with map and compass in hand, and arriving hot and sweaty at the Ibis Bastille Opera Hotel.

The hotel presented some good aspects and some moments where I was ready to pull out some of the nastier words from the Bad French Dictionary (and my dear friends well know that I am slow to reach boiling point). It is in a side street not far from the Place Bastille, set back a little from the road, with a compact eating area painted with green paving paint to give the illusion of greenery. To complement this, two enormous red plastic plant pots guard the entrance doorway, illuminated at night. This is the area where smokers, exiled from their rooms by regulations, would sit on stubby little pebble-mix coated stumps, under the watchful eye of the security cameras, while adding their fags to the burdensome Parisian smog.

Inside, the breakfast room was ruled with an iron fist by alternately a Madame La Fargue character seeming quite ready to whip of the head of any guest whose "paid for breakfast" status could not be immediately confirmed, and later by a Chinese gentleman who was so abusive that I have been forced to make special mention of him in my post-stay feedback. As for the Ibis hotel, well, once upon a time we had a really pleasant stay in one at Avignon, where even though the kitchen was officially closed, they turned on a tasty meal for us and a warm welcome. Here: this one is for the birds. The dank corridors have not seen oxygen for many a year, with carpet worthy of a geriatric home. The monk's cell room size, with a bathroom somehow triangular in the shower preventing anyone of average size from even turning around. All this is supposedly compensated for by having free wi-fi, but even that tended to drop it's net connection at critical moments. As a semi-retired couple (given the current not so strong demand for over 55's) one has to choose an economy hotel, and some of them I have found to be really excellent and in many ways preferable to the bland, white bread offerings of the major chains. I would not rate this as my best choice ever. But enough Paris spleen. Here are my impressions of our visit to the City of Light.

Baudelaire wrote many poems that capture the schizoid nature of the city, so rich in beauty, yet in the next moment engulfing you in a sense of ugliness and despair. To paraphrase one of his Fleurs du Mal.... "Swarming antheap of a city, city full of dreams, where the spectre accosts the passer-by in broad daylight." After you have passed the thirtieth beggar of the day, and freaky, odd people have appeared and disappeared in the corner of your eye, all jostling for a euro or two, gypsy women sleeping with their legs poking out of a public telephone, three month old babe clutched in their arms, ludicrously overdressed in 30 degree plus heat, encampments of the homeless in every available public open space with the hollow promise of slight shelter, you begin to feel the deep resonance of those poems he dedicated to Paris in the mid nineteenth century. Although "cleaned up" it remains in many ways filthy, and by the end of the day, your skin feels tainted by ingrained grit that seems to fall from the overcooked and almost unbreathable air. The French word for shower being "douche", it must have been a douchebag who approved the dimensions of the Ibis shower where one at last removes most of this urban grit from one's skin.

Getting around Paris is simple yet nightmarish; the Metro, with it's elegant Art Deco entrances, becomes an underground where tormented souls wander in search of the right connecting line to get to where they want to go. The barriers require negotiating not only a turnstile, but then a push-door that briefly swings open with a jolt and gives you just enough time to go through. The range of vehicles that trundles through the underground demiworld is intriguing; one day we jumped on at Bastille Station in the front carriage to find we had the front seats of a driverless, fully automated train with an amazing view forward as the train twisted and turned below the streets. On our final day in Paris, I happened to notice a small, dead end tunnel with some kind of notice. On approaching I found I was looking at the few remaining stones from the Bastille after it was torn down in the French Revolution. Above ground, the site is dominated by a later monument to the communards of the 1830s and their rebellion, while the prison where it all got going has only this very humble sidebar in an out of the way corner of the metro station. At any rate ( and the going rate is about 6 euros for an all day ticket) the Metro is definitely the way to get across Paris in a hurry, avoiding lots of walking, but requires bearing up to some very stuffy, heat-retaining places, both vehicles and the stations. The tunnels that must be navigated to move from one line to the next are byzantine, some are very long, but once you crack the code of symbols on the signs, you can reliably find your way without too many dramas.

We walked along the Seine, observing the pleasure derived by the people of Paris from a heap of sand placed on the bank of the river, dubbed the Beaches of Paris. No swimming allowed. Lots of sunbathing and kids playing, showers and temporary toilets, and of course the inevitable itinerant vendors of drinks and dumb trinkets. At one point of our visit we encountered at least twenty African guys, each dangling scores of miniature Eiffel Towers of cheap Chinese knock off appearance, all eagerly clinking their shoddy wares at each pedestrian.

Notre Dame remains majestic and dripping with history. Here is Joan of Arc, her statue in pride of place, rehabilitated in the eyes of the church that condemned her to burn as a heretic. The sun leans down and pushes sparkling coloured beams of light from the stained glass windows. The pure voice of a woman rises with crystalline clarity into the high, arching ceiling, as she sings a hymn in French. A video screen lets us all get a close up view of the action. A priest is hard at it in the confessional, which is ready to hear sins in French or English, as required. We cool off in a nearby tiny park dating to the 18th century, and after a search find France's version of a memorial to the martyred Jews. This plays on the triangular patches the Nazis compelled them to wear, and creates a tightly claustrophobic structure using triangular concrete forms. There still seems to be some residual shame at how the Vichy collaborators assisted in the shipping out of so many to the death camps. Sadly, outside many of the primary schools, there are plaques indicating how many thousand children were lost from such and such a school district.

Next on our list of 'must sees' was the Rodin Museum. This is astonishing in the scope and depth of what one man can achieve in a lifetime, with so many of his works in one place, showing his evolution from a Michaelangelo-like ability to make marble seem like flesh to a modern take on ancient themes. Heads emerge organically from rough hewn blocks, as if they had been there eternally and Rodin has merely revealed them. There was a temporary exhibition showing many of his lesser-known but fabulous works, all a real treat to see. Moving into the actual Rodin museum, which was his house towards the end of his life, a grand place that for many years harboured a range of arty types including Isadora Duncan, the dancer, Rainer Maria Rilke and many other famous bohemians. To cap it off, there were three Van Goghs and a Munch (of The Thinker) hanging casually on the walls, included in Rodin's gifts of all his work to the nation about a year before his death. This museum, together with its beautiful garden and grounds, is so much more than a place for tourists to snap the Thinker with their i-Phones. It is a unique legacy that anyone who admires fine art must go to and explore at leisure.

Drained by our afternoon with Rodin, M rested (well, she had to get on with one of those Swedish Girl with a whatever books) and I set off for a short stroll to check out the Pere la Chaise Cemetery. This is of course renowned as the resting place of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and other 'celebrity dead'. It's a huge place, rising up on one of the steeper hills of Paris, filled with trees, shady winding alleyways between the thousands of tombs. I could find the Acacia Lane that the cemetery map said was where young Jim was planted, but for the life of me I couldn't track him down in this crowded city of the dead. This was of no great concern for me, as I was fascinated to learn a little of the cemetery's origins. Named after the priest who was Louis IV's confessor, when first established no one wanted to be buried there. Too far out of town. Hadn't been consecrated properly. Pfff! So, a marketing campaign had to be established - 18th century style. The authorites exhumed and brought to Pere La Chaise the remains of two giants of French literature: Jean de la Fontaine, the writer of Aesop's fables (you may remember him from Year 7 French class if you were awake) and Moliere, the dramatist whose works such as Le Malade Imaginaire are still cracking up audiences with laughter today. Their bones are set side by side in coffin like stone boxes raised above the ground. This dash of celebrity really moved things along, and today their are somewhere between one and three million remains within the cemetery's bounds. Tiny little shrines, many shared by multiple families, tall but so tiny that only one person can step inside these spooky structures to say or prayer, or simply be thankful they don't have to stay for the night... or longer.

Last time we were in Paris, we overdid the grand museums, and let;s face it, after tramping through the twentieth vast Louvre room lined with massive canvasses of undoubted virtuosity and lots of horses and generals and kings, the brain does a little fizzle and stops in its tracks. If one is to take it in with any justice to the artists, it must be taken in like medicine, in regulated doses. So having been awash in Rodin's genius (as I can say, his facility with marble and bronze makes these solid things into something miraculously fluid) we determined that instead we would do some idle wandering in certain neighbourhoods to see where the locals hang out, and far fewer of the louder variety of tourists are to be found, filling the pizzerias and burger joints that the evil collaborators in the demise of fine cuisine have set up to feed these same travellers. And so two of the nearby areas: Le Maraise and St Germaine des Pres.

Le Marais was clearly very different to the area around the Bastille. Instead of ten shops selling motorcycle helmets and accessories, there were perhaps fifteen shops selling drums and guitars. We strolled down Beaumarchais Boulevarde, where the original Mr Beaumarchais owned numbers 2 to 20, now comprising a whole city block. When he died he was buried within his own domain - but his remains were lost within twenty years of his demise, when a property developer carved it up into a profitable little set of smaller properties.

The streets of Le Marais (literally The Marsh, as it once would have been when it sloped down to a Seine without stone lined banks) are lined with stone facaded shops dominated by fashion and art galleries, some of which was quite attractive and vastly superior to the derivative junk offered in the flea markets that pop up under rollout roofing at certain times of the week. And the giant Lego men and women that were available, the more you buy the cheaper they become, were visually compelling. I just wonder if, like the little Lego men, their faces eventually start to be wiped off by wear, often leaving a peculiar half face. I know that some of you - yes, you know who you are - have compared my own appearance to that of a Lego man, when kitted up in motorcycle gear, only able to move my limbs stiffly and without a trace of gracefulness.

We arrived at a little park to see how the Parisians cope with a hot summer day. What they do is find a personal space equidistant from the rest within the absolutely symmetrical, man made layout, with four identical fountains, one in each corner, with avenues of modestly sized trees so trimmed that they form a continuous canopy above the fine gravel of the paths. To each person, there appears an entitlement to either a lover or at least two dogs. Sunscreen seems not in favour, and since hot sun has been present since we arrived here, the burn marks are starting to show, with many local shoulders sporting a degree of redness that most Australians would now take care to avoid. Just beyond the park sits the house formerly owned by Victor Hugo, one of the giants of French literature and author of Les Miserables (the novel, not the musical of course). This is now a museum devoted to Hugo, though as it was closed we could not enter if we had so wished. It became quite a joke between us, every time we turned and looked at something the name of Victor Hugo seemed to be on it. Boulevardes, Rues, statues in parks and of course multiple busts of the fellow by Rodin. This dude has his name on more things than Donal Trump ever will, no matter how much he spends.

On the following day we crossed the Seine to explore the St Germaine-des-Pres locality. I had thought that this supposed to be the bohemian end of town, but the streets close to the river seem fairly mundane, much like walking down Burke Rd, Camberwell. But looking up a side street I spied the outline of the Pantheone, so directed our steps up a rather steep hill to have a look. The Pantheone, with its huge,majestic columns supporting a massive dome, is France's answer to Westminster Abbey in the sense that if you made it big in French society, you probably got buried here. Think Voltaire, etc.
Opposite is the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris. The adjacent building appeared to have the names of major contributors to French thought, ranging from the ancient Greeks and Romans to more recent fellows from just a few centuries back.

Walking on, we came to the famous Luxembourg Gardens, leftovers from the adjacent Palais de Luxembourg, a former Royal Seat. Again, formality and tightly geometric layouts and constant trimming of the vegetation into strict formality seemed to be de rigeur. Little signs warned everyone to stay off la pelouse (the lawns), and we found this to be demonstrated in practise when we hear a little 'Pe pe; from a gendarmed du parc who used his whistle to alert some daring people who had dared to lie down on the greenery. They beat a hasty retreat as he paced purposefully towards them, ready to pull out his notebook and make an official report of their transgressions. I can only hope they made out of the park unscathed.

The park is surely the place for lovers to court unimpeded by officialdom. Yet here, only a narrow, long strip of grass was allowed for such activities, which made the process seem all the more ridiculous. So many young couples, crammed into one little area, while gravel paths and gendarmes swallowed up virtually all the space left among the hundreds of statues of dead kings, queens, and their various supporters and favourites. With a shallow pond reflecting the faded glory of the rulers of the past, the garden of Luxembourg is all about viewing the power and prestige of the high and mighty from a certain distance. An entertaining visit, yet one felt that somehow the people of Paris are still being deprived of their entitlement to roll about on cool, soft grass as they wish. It is all so circumscribed by officialdom and a deeply conservative over-structured attitude of controlling the individual. It makes our Melbourne parks seem like bastions of freedom

As for Le Tour Eiffel, I at last achieved my goal of ascending it, to the second level at least. This pilgrimage, like most, comes with its own forms of penance. The queue is long; and is this the right queue? Does this queue go to the ticket office for the elevators, or does it go to the ticket office for those who dare to walk up the stairs? At first I thought it was the latter; eventually, while M kept place, I scouted ahead and found that we were in fact in the queue for the ascenceurs (lifts). Emboldened by my dogged conquest of Cologne cathedral, I had thought I would do the same here. But the sun beat down without mercy, and I was kind of glad that I would have the assistance of electrical motors to make the ascent equivalent to about 550 steps. This would take me directly to the second level of the tower, high enough for me. To go higher is to reach heights where the features on the ground become so small as to defeat the purpose of viewing Paris spread out like a Sim City all around you.

Miriam felt that her vertigo would not make it possible for her to go so high, and so she opted to find a shady spot by the duck pond and read her novel for a while. After an hour or so, I reached the ticket window and made my purchase. Next, through the security screening room where all must empty their pockets and have their bags rifled through by large gentlemen who dealt with large numbers of people in minimal time. And so to the waiting room adjacent to the double-decker lifts, until it was my turn to be ushered hurriedly into the lift. In former times the lifts were driven hydraulically with pistons and fluid pressure, but now electricity drives us upwards in about one minute and forty seconds. A life size mannequin of one of the former lift jockeys sits outside the cabin - what a demanding job that must have been.

Arriving at the second level, there are souvenir shops, places to get your souvenirs engraved, even toilets, strange, triangular little cubicles ruled over by a multilingual mistress of stern toiletary discipline. In this multilingual crowd with excitable bladders, she rules with an iron fist.
"Hombres!" she almost shouts, "Due!" indicating two fortunate males, including myself, might step inside and relief the pressure that comes from drinking lots of water in a long, hot queue. Relieved, I move out to the viewing platform, lightly caged with gaps large enough for any camera to poke through. Also many a teenage head was inserted through the metal grid, and many I-Phone portraits of the same.

And there, all around, is Paris, reaching out to the horizon in all directions, a monster of a city, yet human in scale. In one direction, the skyscrapers confined like young upstarts to the area named La Defense. That was an area we needed to know because it is at one end of the Metro line we used just about every time we wanted to get back to our hotel. At the other end of the line, Chateau de Vincennes, unfortunately not visited this time; the place where kings of France were buried until Louis IV wanted a grander shack and had the Palace of Versailles constructed in what was then a little way out of town. From this eyrie you can gaze down at the broad boulevards carving up the land in orderly segments as demanded by Napoleon and executed by Baron Haussman, who got to have a boulevard named after himself as a result. These innovative roads built by decree and design required shoving aside whoever and whatever was in the way, resulting in the displacement of the poor and their slums and hovels especially. An unarticulated part of Napoleon's demand was that he wanted to be able to move soldiers quickly through the city to quell any civil disturbance.

What Paris shares with London is that sense of buildings that are stylish and grand, but not overly huge. The styles of construction are generally consistent, forming a pattern that is pleasing to the eye, not chaotic and discordant like many of the world's larger cities. The eye lingers over the river and the green patches interspersed among the closely build streets, and finds an overall harmony that the efforts of millions of people have together built over nearly two thousand years. I think of the fishermen who gathered shellfish from the Seine, and captured wild pigs, about three thousand years BC: their traces are preserved in the crypt below Notre Dame, further down than the remains of Roman buildings. From this height, Paris appears organic, living, and likely to be here for a long, long time to come.

From the second level, there are stairs by which the more ambitious could go even further up; or queue up again (and I thought queueing was an English habit) to take a second lift to close to the very top. For myself, I was well satisfied with about 20 minutes of gazing and photographing in all directions, and to then descend with amazing quickness to ground level.

So, our time in Paris drew to an end. The capital is frenetic, everyone is stressed and hurrying, from the cabbies to the cleaners to the cooks.
There is no time to breathe, and if you do, the air is thick and hard to get into your lungs, and once there it seems to solidify. We needed air.
Fortunately, our next stop will be by the seaside, at La Rochelle on the south west coast. We hope there will be a sea breeze bringing freshness and release from the wound-up spring that is Paris in the summer.

Posted by piepers 13:53 Archived in France Tagged paris eiffel tour st notre dame marais rodin germain-des-pres

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