Wednesday, 17 August 2011

What’s special about Paris

Over the past few months I’ve often imagined what it would be like to introduce my daughter Laura to the most beautiful city in the world. The city of Light. The city for Lovers. I knew it would start with a train trip from Cafeolait to Gare Paris Montparnasse.

The two of us set out from home and walked to the station where I showed her how to buy tickets from the machines, how to use the ticket and read the signs as well as where to wait. We timed it well and joined the crowd cramming themselves onto the train. I’d chosen the most direct train; the one that stopped only at Versailles Chantier before arriving in Paris. The trip took 37 minutes.

Paris Montparnasse is huge and it takes a bit of getting used to in order to work out where to find the metro, the trains, the toilets, a snack, which exit to use. No sooner had we arrived than Laura was introduced to the seamy side of a big city. Diagonally across from us a black man was beating up a black woman; pushing her, swinging a punch and kicking her. What’s more, he was wearing a suit and carrying a clipboard. I had no idea if they even knew each other but it wasn’t pleasant. She tried to walk off as another man intervened to calm the attacker. Nasty and pointless aggression like this is hard to fathom. Soon all the participants had dispersed and we took the metro towards Notre Dame Cathedral.

It’s the quick or the dead on the metro, especially if it’s chock full, and it was. Laura and I were too slow to get to the door to disembark at our destination. We stood there watching our station recede into the distance and knowing we were in for a bit of a walk.

It’s easy to find a walking tour of Paris which is provided free (other than a tip for the guides). These walks are conducted by Parisians who are4 keen to share their enthusiasm and anecdotes of this marvellous city. What’s more, the walks are in English. Laura and I dashed a few blocks in the direction of the cathedral spires to be in time for the 2.30pm tour around Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cité. The guides wear pink vests so you can recognise them and the organisation is called Discover Walks.

This particular guided walk explained some of the details on the outside of the front entrance. Laura is now an ‘expert’ on gargoyles and knows the story of Aberlard and Héloise. A true story, it tells of how two lovers part after such a short time, with such a terrible end and no real beginning. They had been so close. And then their only link is through their letters, and the literary works that Abelard left behind. We stood outside the house where the two lovers had met. Spooky.

After the tour we had a munch at the closest restaurant to the cathedral and then walked a very long way along the right bank of the Seine. It was wonderful to feel the warm sun, the fresh breeze and admire the Paris Plages. Each year the city trucks in tonnes of golden sand and deposits it along the Seine to create beaches for residents and tourist. They also provide showers and umbrellas and fine mists for strollers to cool off underneath. There are also sand sculptures.

Laura shouted us each a chocolate ice-cream and it was quite magical to sit there, together on the Right Bank of the Seine, watching the river traffic and licking our ice-creams. Lifelong memories are made of stuff like this.

Paris is famous for is bridges; so many of them and all different. Laura was quite taken with the lovers padlocks. Originally on the Pont des Arts, even more can be found on a bridge further along. They are placed there by lovers who want to symbolise their undying love. All budgets in locks are represented and some have little written messages. Some are so crappy they must only represent one-night stands.

We walked and walked, past the Place de la Concorde with it's egyptian obelisk and then decided we’d better cross the river and head for a metro to the Gare. By the time we got back to my studio we’d been on our feet 8 hours and our tummies were growling.

Another day in Paris we strolled under the Eiffel Tower, had lunch served by a caricature of a waiter with his black and white costume and black needle moustache. He used all the stereotypical Parisian waiter mannerisms and we enjoyed it.

Lunch was followed by a ride on a Bateau Mouche. These cruising ‘barges’ give you a commentary in multiple languages as you spend a good hour floating past major monuments and tourist attractions. It would have been more relaxing if we had not had a group of children who shrieked every time we went underneath a bridge (which would have been a third of the time). We missed a lot of the commentary and it grated after a bit but we still enjoyed being out together on the water in this magnificent city.


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