I’ve been to Paris a few times before and to be honest, each time I’ve come away underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong. I love France but Paris is not France. It’s something different altogether. A world unto its own. It’s elaborate and ornate beyond description – from its buildings right down to its food. And the people look somewhat like they’ve just stepped out from the pages of Vogue. It is glamour (and to some extent snobbery) at it’s finest. This time, I was determined to discover another side of Paris, the side that the 2.2 million who live there all know and love. I’m pleased to say that I think I found it.
I stayed in the 9th arrondissement, in between the Opera district and Montmatre on the Right Bank. That was a great choice to start with. My hotel was right off the Rue des Martyrs, which stretches from the Boulevard de Clichy to virtually the foot of the beautiful and well-known Sacre Coeur. It’s one remarkable street. Full of artisanal bakeries, butchers shops, boutique cheese stores and all the fruit shops you could ask for, this street is bustling with life and better yet, not just with tourists, but with locals too (who’d have thought!). It feels like a proper community that has remained relatively unchanged for the past century or so. Everyone goes about their way of life as they always have done and you can speak French there without people speaking back to you in English (a sure sign).
At about 6pm the street becomes something even more special. As people make their way home from work, the shops open out onto the streets, the lights go on and it becomes a true market scene so close to all the main attractions that the hordes of tourists flock to Paris for, yet seemingly so far away. There is certainly no lack of authenticity here. I loved it.
This time in Paris, I didn’t spend hours in queues. I took to the streets and let myself get lost. It’s the best way to experience a city. And the thing I noticed? Was that at every turn, you run into something captivating, and almost always beautiful. This all started when I was first forced to wander the streets after a some 16 hour journey from Singapore, while I waited to check into my hotel. I wasn’t really clear on where I was or what there was to do in the vicinity. But I soon discovered there was no need for concern. As I stumbled upon the commanding Basilica of Sacre Coeur virtually on my doorstep I went inside for the first time. Fortunately for me, they were holding mass, which not only offered me the perfect opportunity to rest my wary legs, but also sit there in awe of the building and marvel at its acoustics as the two nuns and a priest sang a hymn or two. What an experience.
On another occasion, after meeting an old friend in la Place de las Republique, I walked straight into the Jardins des Tuileries – it’s the perfect spot to have a picnic lunch… and that I did, with viewsof the Louvre and of the Eiffel Tower.
But Paris was not all roses – as Paris never (or any other heaving big city) will be. If you spend time in Paris, you learn patience. I went through all of the below in one day.
Challenge number one was that my mobile phone decided to stop roaming while I was in Singapore. No matter what I tried, it wouldn’t connect to a local carrier. After some troubleshooting from Telecom at home, and certain it was a setting issue with the phone, I decided to go to the Apple store to ask them for help. I was asked first if I had an appointment. No. I was then asked if I wanted to wait 10-15 minutes as something might become available. Yes. It should’ve been clear to me then that I shouldn’t waste my time, even the people with appointments were waiting. After the guy in front of me was seen to, I held onto hope. Over 1.5 hours later I had still received no assistance so I gave up – frustrated and close to tears after the lady in the shop spoke to me like a meanie pants! Fed up.
I consoled myself with a very expensive tea frappe in the park. Calmer.
Not long after that I experienced what it means to be a lady in Paris. The men. I was walking back to my hotel when out of the blue, I was grabbed and kissed on the lips on the street by a very forward young man! Taken a-back.
After this, I decided to buy some classier shoes than my terrible trainers (they make me stand out like a sore thumb in a city where even the street cleaners look chic) only to return to my hotel after hours and hours of walking to find I had bought two righties. Delirious from the entire days events… Laughing. Hysterically.
Aside from catching up with a few friends, waiting in technology stores and being kissed by strange men on the streetside, during my four short days in Paris, I took a trip to Versailles. I have always meant to go and have never made it. And boy was it worth every minute. There were lines but they moved quickly.
I was there for around six hours exploring the palace, the gardens and Marie Antoinette’s residence and still didn’t see it all! If you want to appreciate the history of France in all its splendour, you must come here. The audio guides are very comprehensive, and the commentary on each room is kept nice and succinct so there was no getting bored! I thought this was a great way to see the place, you can take it at your time, and you are guaranteed to always here what your “guide” has to say.
The gardens are immaculately kept and are so very, very large. I’d be interested to know how many gardeners they employ to keep it in tip top shape. I read somewhere that in its heyday, there were around 200.
Somehow this time round despite a roller coaster ride of experiences and emotions, Paris managed to capture me. Aside from my obvious obsession with France, it’s definitely a place I see myself returning to. And perhaps next time for a bit longer… we’ll see.