Who could fail to be excited at the prospect of a visit to Paris? It’s not like I’ve not visited before – in fact, I’ve been three or four times between 1997 and 1999. But despite the ease of the Eurostar service from London, I’ve not been back to the French capital since 1999. This, I thought, was a lamentable lack of judgement and needed to be remedied. So when my work plans were curtailed by an impending trip back to New Zealand I decided to fit in a quick visit to the City of Lights to reacquaint myself with its many beautiful attractions.
Organising such a trip at short notice leads to certain compromises, because the cheap Eurostar seats are often booked a long way in advance. In order to secure the coveted 60 euro return fare I had to sign up for the first morning service: the dreaded 5.25am train. This required me to get up at 3am in order to catch two buses to reach St Pancras International, because the Underground isn’t running at that hour. Despite the ridiculous middle-of-the-night time, the bus journey itself was surprisingly easy, whizzing through the middle of London in the dark and reaching the station in only about 40 minutes. As the bus passed through the West End there were still revellers heading home from the night before.
After the two-and-a-bit hour train journey from London to Paris’ Gare du Nord station I bought a ten-pack (carnet) of Metro tickets and headed out to Metro Pt de Bagnolet to find HI D’Artagnan, the youth hostel I was staying at. I dropped my bag and returned to the heart of Paris for a massive walk to revisit the main sights and enjoy the gleaming springtime sunshine.
From Metro Temple I walked past the Pompidou Centre with its futuristic exposed internal workings, and then proceeded to the Ile de Cite to see the justly famed Notre Dame. Inside it was cool and peaceful, and I admired the soaring nave and its beautiful rose windows.
Then I headed northwest to admire the courtyard of the massive Louvre palace, which is set off nicely by I.M. Pei’s 1989 glass pyramid smack in the centre. I saved going in to visit the Louvre’s enormous art collections for another day, not wanting to leave myself insufficient time to explore its many rooms.
From the Louvre I passed through the Place de la Concorde, where the revolutionaries beheaded King Louis XVI in 1793, and up the Champs d’Elysee until I veered left and enjoyed the vista from the Trocadero, with its superb views of the Eiffel Tower.
There was time to pay a visit to a photography museum in the Marais district on the Right Bank, where I admired a collection of early 20th century American picture postcards and a collection of large-scale prints documenting the South American hobby of spinning ‘fighting tops’. Most of the other exhibits were a bit too pretentious for my tastes though!
As the afternoon turned into evening I returned to the hostel, footsore but still prepared for another day of exploring.
Returning to the same part of the city, on my second morning in Paris I took the Metro to the Trocadero and visited the Maritime Museum. It struck me as a little strange that the French national maritime museum would be in a landlocked city, but apparently there are several other branches of the museum in prominent port cities. I enjoyed the eclectic mix of maritime paintings, wooden figureheads and nautical curios like the 19th century prototype deep sea diving costume that looked like a prop from the movie Aliens.
Then there was time for another lengthy stroll through Paris – down underneath the Eiffel Tower (avoiding the press of tourists queuing to ascend), east past the gilded glory of the Invalides dome that houses the tomb of Napoleon, and further on to the arty Left Bank where I spent an hour or two in the superb Musee National du Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Ages).
I recalled the delicate 7th century Visigothic votive crowns from my last visit in 1999, but also relished the opportunity to view the museum’s excellent collections of medieval statues and ivories such as the 6th century Ariadne from Constantinople pictured below. And as a centrepiece exhibit, the museum’s set of tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn are justly famed worldwide for their intricate detail and stately beauty.
To complete the day I met former work colleague Bronwyn for a nice dinner nearby. She now works in Paris, and I was able to catch up on her adventures in France since she left Wellington in 2007. I was impressed to learn that she now has an apartment on the Blvd St-Germain, which is just about as trendy as you can get in Paris!
After breakfast at the hostel I walked to the nearby Pere Lachaise cemetery, a huge suburb of the dead decked out with elaborate mausoleums. There I admired the tombs of Oscar Wilde, the composer Chopin, The Doors’ Jim Morrison’s humble blocky memorial, and the 19th century tomb for the relocated remains of medieval lovers Heloise and Abelard. (Right: Oscar Wilde’s grave)
Then it was time for the big one – an assault on the fabled glories of the Louvre collection. Saving time by avoiding the queues and purchasing my ticket from a machine in the Carrousel de Louvre underground shopping precinct, I entered at 1pm and spent the next five hours seeing as much as my feet and stamina could cope with. Highlights are too numerous to mention, and it’s really not possible to do justice to the treasures on display in the vast multi-level galleries that fill the former grand palace by the Seine. But I did get to indulge my usual fondness for classical sculptures and fine Renaissance paintings, even if it did mean doing battle with the massive throngs of sightseers near the Mona Lisa and the Venus di Milo.
(Above: clockwise from top left: wooden Egyptian mask, 1400-1300BC; silver statue of Henri IV as a boy, 1824; Augustin Pajou’s portrait bust of Natalie de Laborde, 1789; 13th century carving of St Matthew from Chartres)
(Above: sculptures in the Cour Puget)
(Above: Quentin Metsys, 1514; Jacob Claesz, c.1520-24)
(Above, clockwise from top left: Jacopo della Quercia’s Virgin and Child, 15th century; St Constance, 15th century; Gregor Erhart’s Mary Magdalen, c.1515)
At 6pm the Louvre reduced its ticket price by a third, and this resulted in a deluge of visitors into the galleries, so this was my cue to depart. But, as always, I’d had a fabulous time. A day at the Louvre is always a day to remember.
Determined to make the most of my last full day in France, I decided to journey out of Paris to visit Chartres Cathedral, which is one of the marvels of medieval architecture. The double-decker train from Gare du Montparnasse in the southern suburbs took about an hour, and navigation from the train station was simple because the famous mis-matched spires of the cathedral towers were visible from the platform at Chartres. (The right-hand spire is from the 1140s, while the left is from the early 16th century). I walked up the slope to the cathedral yard, admiring the fine statuary adorning the west front and the contrasting medieval spires, built several centuries apart. Once inside I took an audioguide tour, which highlighted the peerless artistry in the early 13th century stained glass windows and the allegorical tales told by the statues in the north and south porches.
After an hour or two in the cathedral I strolled around Chartres town, admiring the view of the cathedral from the riverside. Soon it was time to return to Paris though, where I enjoyed my last evening sorting through my photographs and reading. It had been a superb few days in France, and the following morning I would return to London on the 9am Eurostar. I had fitted a great deal into my days, but visiting Paris for a short time only reminds you just how much there is to see. I’ll have to plan another visit soon!