We wake late, for travellers, to a grey and rainy Paris and go downstairs to the breakfast room for a typical continental breakfast consisting of baguette, croissant, orange juice and very good coffee. Our agenda for the day is to walk our socks off and we enjoy refining our plans over breakfast.
We find that having Place de Clichy as a starting point is a great way to get our bearings. Like the spoke of a wheel, we can choose to venture down any of it’s arms and each one holds untold surprises for the curious tourist, but will always bring us back home. We set off towards the Seine and walk down damp footpaths, enjoying taking our time and window shopping, stopping from time to time to look into the many luthier and violin maker shops, seeing their beautiful handiwork displayed in the windows. I think of my sister who would just love to be here and able to try out the violins, maybe choose one to take all the way back to Australia.
We also find the stores of such luminous Haute Couture and jewellery icons as Dior, Vuitton , Chanel, and the iconic Maxim’s and Tiffany & Co. Their stylish shopfronts don’t beckon me, dressed in my ‘comfortable’ clothes, and the liveried doormen are quick to spot the gawking tourist from the genuine shopper and give them the evil eye. However, that doesn’t stop me from having my photo taken outside them, sans doorman of course, much to the embarrassed disgust of my tolerant companion.
After passing Gare St Lazare we see before us the soaring Roman columns of Le Madeleine, 'L'église de St-Marie-Madeleine'. This magnificent church is dedicated to Mary Magdalene and it took three attempts to get it built, the first being in 1764, then it was razed and re-built in 1777 in the Greek style based on the Pantheon, and then, in 1806, Napoleon commissioned it to be rebuilt again in the Roman style. Today it is an imposing structure with fifty-two columns each standing twenty metres high. I am surprised by the size of these columns when standing up close – they are huge and dwarf anyone standing next to them. I have my photo taken standing next to one and it makes me feel quite slim. Gypsy beggars with hungry-looking babies ask for money, ‘Merci, merci’, on the steps.
We reluctantly move on from Le Madeleine, realising that we have a lot to see. From here it is but a short walk to my personal central point of navigation in Paris – the Place de la Concorde. As this is my second visit to Paris there are some places that bring back strong memories and on which I find myself hanging my hat. This huge octagonal shaped square (sounds odd doesn’t it) is a massive eight hectares, or twenty acres, in size. It was whilst in the Place de la Concorde on 16th August 1977 that my rudimentary French read the headlines of the newspaper, proclaiming ‘Elvis est Mort!’. They say you can always remember where you were when you heard some monumental news, such as I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot. I was a child of nine in 1963 and it was a Saturday morning. As usual, Mum was up early doing things in the house. I never really knew exactly what Mum did but she did a lot of it. But Saturday mornings we used to go in and hop into bed with Dad who always slept in. He had the old bakelite radio on next to his bed and he called Mum in to hear the news. Well, I was in Paris, in the Place de la Concorde, when my fellow companions and I were stunned to hear that Elvis had died. It was big news, as big as when we all heard last year that Michael Jackson had died.
There is so much to see in Place de la Concorde that it can be a little overwhelming. The first thing that I notice is the noise that emanates from the tyres as the non-stop heavy flow of traffic drives on the rough cobblestones of the square. There are no lane markings to guide the drivers, but round and round they go, seemingly without a care. We find that being a pedestrian in the Place is a hairy predicament and we are quite nervous about crossing.
The Place has a bloody history. It was the site where the guillotine was installed that was responsible for the beheading of such figures as King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette, plus the revolutionary Robespierre. In fact, our guide book tells us that no less than 1119 were beheaded here in only a two year period. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination for Matt and I to conjure up the spectacle of those beheadings, especially those of the King. The crowds cheering and baying for blood, shouts of ‘Vive la Revolution’ and the dull thud as the staring head drops into the bucket. After the Revolution in 1830 the square was given its current name.
Matt’s passion for Egyptian history draws him immediately to the Obelisk which stands tall in the centre of the Place. We throw caution to the wind and cross through the busy traffic to see Cleopatra’s Needle up close. The pedestal alone is a fascinating piece of artwork with hieroglyphics describing the transportation to Paris and its installation at the square in 1836, after it was gifted from the Viceroy of Egypt to Louis Philippe.
But the Obelisk itself, a 3200 year old relic from the temple of Ramses II at Thebes and standing 23 metres tall, is a spectacular addition to an already spectacular square. The huge pink granite monolith is covered with hieroglyphics picturing the reign of the Pharaohs Ramses II and III. Matt is as good as a historian on this subject and he allows me see the story behind what I am viewing. History shows that Egypt, willingly or not, gave away many relics such as this obelisk to foreign countries. I wonder, if they had their chance again, would they be so generous. How sad that the Egyptian people cannot see this spectacular monument in their own country.
Surrounding Place de la Concorde are several large bronze statues, each depicting a French city. There are also two beautiful fountains, both installed in the mid-1800s. Today, the Place is grey, wet and cold, but I can imagine that, on a hot Paris summer’s day, these fountains would provide a cool haven for people to dip their feet to cool off.
By now, the rain is getting heavier, but we don’t let it dampen our enthusiasm to explore this beautiful city. We spot the Ritz Hotel, and I am reminded of the TV footage showing Princess Diana and Dodi al Fayed coming through the doorway here, only minutes before they met their deaths in a nearby tunnel. Matt gives me a nudge and I look up just in time to see Pierce Brosnan walking towards us with his son. Oh Paris, what a beautiful city you are!!
By now the rain is heavier and I doubt Pierce Brosnan would be interested in an adoring woman who is wrapped up in a see-through plastic poncho, dripping hair and camera at the ready. Matt left his umbrella back at the Cabourg and so, generous mother that I am, I give him mine as he simply refuses to don what he calls ‘the condom’ and walk around stylish Paris. The things we do.
We now enter the beautiful Avenue de Champs-Elysées. This beautiful promenade loses nothing of it’s magic in the rain. I prattle on to Matt about my last visit to this memorable place in 1977. How the gendarmes back then wore quite different uniforms with hard pillbox hats, how all four lanes were all cars and not pedestrian-only outer lanes as they are now, since the refurbishment in 1994, and how I strolled, as a wide-eyed 22 year old, along here with my companions and soaked up the oh so Frenchness of it all.
We walk the length of this very wide, tree-lined avenue, passing firstly by the Jardins des Champs-Elysées, a beautiful formal garden with fountains. We see the magnificent Grande Palais and Petit Palais (home to the French Presidents since 1873). We stroll along watching the people, seeing the luxury Head Offices of Yves St Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Cartier and others. The imposing Arc de Triomphe looms before us and as we slowly draw closer, we see the sheer magnificence of this monument. I keep pinching myself as it feels surreal to be here.
The Champs-Elysées and Arc de Triomphe are the iconic sites for all major French celebrations. New Year’s Eve celebrations, military parades on 14th July, and the Liberation at the end of World War 2 have all been celebrated in true French style here. I remember in 1977 risking life and limb to cross the mad traffic that rumbles ceaselessly around and around the Arc to go and stand underneath it. These days, there is a subway for pedestrian access to it. Maybe it was there 30 years ago and we just didn’t notice.
Matt and I take many photos and, as obvious tourists, get hassled by the beggars – young boys mostly – and we have to learn to firmly say no otherwise we are followed. Matt gets some good bargains in the upmarket clothing stores – very good brands at sale prices. By now we are hungry and find a lovely café with views of the Arc de Triomphe where we sit in the shelter of a canvas awning, damp but not directly in the soft drizzle that still falls. I spot a bargain lunch (hard to do in Paris) and we dine casually on a quick déjeuner of ham and cheese baguette, strawberry flan and iced tea – all for only four Euros! Magnifique!
We notice there is a McDonalds not far down the avenue from where we are eating this lovely French lunch and feel sorry for the people who have chosen La Grande Mac for their repast.
Feeling satisfied, we stroll back down the avenue again towards Place de la Concorde, heading in the rough direction of the Jardins des Tuileries, and Place Vendôme. A watery sunshine now starts to brighten the day and steam rises from the footpath. We dodge puddles and stride out, happily mingling with Parisians and tourists alike, as happy as pigs in mud to be strolling through Paris – surely one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
We arrive at Jardins des Tuileries, a delightful park full of families, carousels and a very small version of the London Eye. We particularly wanted to familiarise ourselves with the Metro station here, as we need to be here tomorrow very early to board our tour bus for Champagne Ardennes. The gardens are situated very close to the Louvre and were designed in the 1600s by the same man who designed the incredible gardens at Versailles. The site was originally a quarry to make the clay tiles which are so evident even now in the buildings of Paris - (the word tuilerie is clay in French).
We get our bearings, then head towards the lovely Hotel Regina opposite the gardens. This imposing building is in typical French Renaissance style as is the Hotel deVille (which is Paris’s City Hall) opposite. Our own Parliament House in Brisbane is modelled on this Renaissance style of architecture and the resemblance is unmistakable. Outside the Hotel Regina, in Place de Pyramides, is the most spectacular statue in all of Paris (in my opinion anyway). Matt and I are drawn to it for it’s absolute beauty. The gilded statue of Jean d’Arc astride her rearing golden steed! What a sight to behold, and what a strong statement she is making - challenging, brave and heroic. The men must have been so intimidated by her to burn poor Joan at the stake. As with many public squares in Paris, here people were beheaded, quartered, cooked up or burned at the stake.
Purely to be able to admire the golden statue of Joan of Arc, and not because we feel like some wine, Matt and I decide it must be time to relax in the gorgeous little café right next to it. We have been walking for many hours and a bit of a sit down is called for. What I love about French cafés and restaurants, is that as soon as you sit down, the waiter brings you a basket of bread and a little stone jug of wine each before you have even looked at the menu. How civilised! We sit there for an hour or so, admiring the view, discussing our day so far, and just absorbing more of Paris into our beings.
Time to move again, so we start walking back up towards Place de Clichy. Still some things to discover on our way so, map in hand, we head off to Place Vendôme. We seem to stumble into this massive cobblestone square before we realise it. This now very prestigious and exclusive residential square has a very interesting history, as everything in this city has. The French Revolution was a major turning point in it’s history and so many monuments, statues and buildings were either razed or replaced with the new heroes of the Revolution. This square was also the scene of le guillotine. Ominous black clouds once again roll in and again we are reminded of this city’s violent recent past.
Place Vendôme was first laid out in 1702 and the most striking feature is the verdegris green column in the centre called Colonne Vendôme which was erected by Napoleon to commemorate his greatest victory at Austerlitz in 1805. The sculptor, Bergeret, used metal from cannons retrieved from the enemy to create a continuous ribbon of bronze bas relief pictures depicting scenes from the Napoleonic Wars. The main entrance to the exclusive Hotel Ritz as well as the Hotel Vendôme are here, but the private residences have, in the past, housed such people of note as Chopin and Ernest Hemingway.
Place Vendome and Napoleon's monument
We continue our walk and arrive at L’Opera. What a sight! This beautifully majestic and massive baroque building with it’s green copper dome and twin gilded statues is so visually rich with it’s rose marble columns, friezes and sculptures. Built in the late 1800s, the construction took 13 years because the workers discovered an underground lake which they had to negotiate around so as to make the building solid. The lake still exists and is the legendary hiding place of Paul Leroux’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Matt and I are very excited to see this place.
L’Opera’s real name is Opéra de Paris Garnier and was designed by Charles Garnier for the Emperor Napoleon III. Matt and I are not able to go inside, but our guide book tells us that it is rich beyond belief, with a massive marble grand staircase and an interior that rivals Versailles. No longer used for opera performances, this gorgeous auditorium is used for ballet as there is a new opera house elsewhere in Paris.
We are tired now, but in this city we know we could walk all day. It is getting dark and so we walk the last forty minutes back to our hotel. A quick rest, clean up, and then we meet our friend Marc in the foyer who brings with him a bottle of Moët et Chandon. Our hotel manager brings us an ice bucket and some flutes and takes us through to the Cabourg’s private courtyard, complete with gazebo, lovely gardens and tropical fish pond. He shares a glass of Moët with us.
The three of us go for dinner at a nearby restaurant. The meal is fun and our waiter loves the little golden kangourou pin I give him. The boys walk me back to the Cabourg. They are going out to visit some nightclubs in le Marais district. As I am falling asleep, I am amazed at how much we saw today – and we have only just begun. We have a very early start tomorrow morning, and then the next day we will explore the Left Bank. I fall asleep with a smile on my dial – I swear.