Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Paris, Day one

As we wandered out into the misting rain, with the soft grey dawn all around us, the previous 25 odd hours of almost sleepless travel were all but forgotten. The cobblestones were hard and irregular under my feet, the air was cool and damp as it brushed my cheek and the sounds were of the breeze through the trees, loosening Autumnal leaves and swirling them to the ground. The streets were almost empty, few cars moving through the streets, and most of the store fronts closed. We found an open cafe and snuggled into a booth and ordered petit dejeuner (in French!!) and thought about what we wanted to do for the day.

I had been excited to find out that our arrival coincided with the Fete des Vendanges, the harvest festival of the only vineyard that remains in Paris. The festival of food and wine apparently taking place around the feet of Sacre Coeur  in a display of produce from around France. But at 8am in the morning and with bodyclocks that were severely out of whack, we discussed instead just meandering, becoming a flaneur for a few hours until we could work out which was was up. As I munched through my tatine and sipped hot chocolate we watched the cafe become busier and busier as people popped in for coffee, ordered a croissant and chattered away in blissful French.

On leaving, the precipitation had developed into something heavier than mist, and the droplets curled my hair into an unmanageable mess and beaded on Bingley's new wool coat. We crossed the Pont de l'Alma and meandered along the Seine for a while before finding the Place de la Concorde. It was slightly ugly and disappointing, with crowd control guard rails up everywhere. We passed it quickly and headed for the corner of the Jardin de Tuileries where lies the Musee de l'Orangerie. This often bypassed museum has a beautiful conservatory full of muted natural light to view the masterpiece of Monet's waterlillies. We were almost alone as we gazed at the changing of the seasons and the colours and light on water that Monet captured so beautifully.

That alone would have done enough for me, but in the basement, next to the seasonal exhibition was a tiny gallery that we almost bypassed, filled with Renoirs and other impressionist works. This was an important finding, as I was later to discover that it would be my main brush with the French master. As we headed back out through the glass doors later, a queue had formed, snaking through the rain in a display of multicoloured umbrellas across the pale limestone gravel.

The Jardin was not busy, the rain keeping out most but the die hard tourists, and it was still relatively early by Paris time as we sauntered along, marvelling at the art so carelessly displayed in a garden, open to the public.  As the arms of the Louvre began to enfold us the scale of the place began to impress itself. It is impossible to understand in pictures just how big this place is. But for all its imposing style, it is beautiful, welcoming, inviting you to hide away in its many corners. We explored for a while as the gypsy traders moved in with their blankets full of Eiffel towers before heading out under one of the grand arch ways.

I wanted to go to the Fete, but knew it was probably too far to walk at that point, meaning we would have to go via Metro. Having investigated this highly recommended option before hand, I bought a clutch of tickets (known as a carnet) and we worked out the various routes to get to Montmartre. It was chaos in the crowded station, but we navigated onto the platform, caught our two connecting trains, and arrived at Abbesses, the closest stop to Sacre Coeur. We should have realised that we were in for a climb, when we saw the queues for the single lift out of the station, however being the blithely happy tourists that we are, we walked the stairs instead. All 300+ of them. Then, walking out of the station, we saw yet more stairs, another 300+ in total before warm, red cheeked and exhausted we arrived at the tourist mecca of Place du Tertre.

Bustling with tourists, artists and gypsies, the Place was everything you think of when you dream of Paris. There were berets and wine. There was an accordion and a general festive atmosphere. As we crossed through it, looking at the near identical pictures of Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower et al the colour and the sounds were so beautiful that it made up for any cynicism that could have taken over. As the rain continued, we climbed up yet more steps to find ourselves at the foot of the basilica, and in the middle of a hundred tents filled with wine, cheese, deli meats, sausages, sea food and Champagne.

I bought a punnet of raspberries from one stall as big as plums and ate them as we wandered through. We ate duck sausage and macarons, and drank amazing Champagne from real glasses from a little stall. We watched crepe makers make perfect discs on hot plates before smothering them with nutella from 5kg jars and I tried to convince myself I was hungry enough for a taste of the giant vat of tartiflette bubbling away in a cauldron. We tasted wines from an enthusiastic woman from Limoges and bought a bottle to take home with us, debating the merits of oysters.

By this time it was early afternoon and the creeping exhaustion was starting to weigh in. Our feet were also starting to feel the stairs and the many kilometres we'd already walked, so we decided that after examining Sacre Coeur we'd head home. The inside of the cathedral was lovely, some beautiful stained glass and the usual Catholic iconography, but we were too tired to appreciate it fully. After picking up a souvenir gold medallion, we started to head for home when I saw the sign to walk up to the dome. Now bear in mind how little sleep we'd had, and how many steps we'd walked already - it was over 300 more steps up a tiny, winding stone staircase that landed us outside in the Constantinople like rooftop of the basilica, slipping over the damp worn stones as we climbed to the viewing platform within the dome.

The view was so incredible that I wavered between smiling like it was Christmas morning and tearing up because my heart hurt. It was like it was yelling at me, this, this is what you always wanted. It is exactly as beautiful as you imagined it and somehow so much more. And it was. Every view, every angle ached with loveliness. The grey misting clouds only adding to the view out across the Paris of my dreams. It was cold and the wind shrieked through the rooftops, cooled by the rain and it could not touch me. The spire of the Eiffel Tower solemn and austere against a ghostly, elegant city that housed all of my dreams. I didn't want to leave, I wanted to stay there, right at the top, and drink it in until all of it was so firmly imprinted that it would never ever leave.

Smiling from the inside out, we carefully navigated the stairs, hand in hand, alone (being the only ones crazy enough I guess). The walls of the stone staircase were engraved with the many who'd made this trip before us, hundreds, thousands who had come to see the Paris they'd dreamed of as well. I cast a longing look back at the stalls full of food and wine as we headed to the steps again and back home to our hotel. Too tired to walk all the way, we caught the furnicular railway down most of the hill before catching the Metro again.

On arrival to our hotel, exhausted, full and happy, there were more surprises to come. Our room was ready now, in the late afternoon, and after we crammed ourselves and our bags into the teensy, tiny lift, we were shown to room 35. A room I had been told regretfully had no view - not that I cared at this point, because I was wanting only a warm shower and a soft bed. Wondering with a small amount of excitement if the room would be as tiny as legend has it. But then I realised that it was the corner room, one two stories below the room that everyone recommends and I wondered, hoping with heart in throat, if it could possibly be that we would have some view as well.

And as I flew across to the window, opened the curtains and the glass, I hoped and I hoped and I hoped, then simply stopped and began to cry, because there, outside my window, was the Eiffel Tower.

1 comment:

Dolly B said...

ahhh Paris sigh



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