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Queensland, Australia
I'm an Australian author of Contemporary Romance, Romantic Action/Adventure, and Historical fiction. I live in Queensland, Australia. www.noelleclark.net

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Week in Paris - Day 5

Weariness is setting in. Yesterday was an unbelievably long day. But so much to see and do and so little time. Sadly, Matt has to leave Paris on an afternoon flight as he is due back at his office in London tomorrow, so we need to rise early again.

Our plan is to catch the train out to the Palace of Versailles, see as much as we can, then back into Paris to see the colourful area of Montmartre, and especially the magical looking Sacre Coeur cathedral.

The 20 klm train trip out to Versailles allows us to see the suburbs of Paris. I guess like any city, train lines allow travellers to see into the most unattractive areas of a city, peering into people’s back yards, then blocked in by high walls covered with colourful but ugly graffiti, and a view that only a mother (or daughter?) could love. Now in the glorious sunshine and rattling through the outer suburbs, I find it intriguing being a voyeur, spying into the lives of every day Parisians through their back doors. Mostly apartment buildings at first, then houses with back gardens, then trees that are getting taller with each mile we travel.

About 40 minutes south-west of Paris, the train stops at Versailles-Rive Gauche station where we get off. Matt needs a coffee and so our first port of call is a small café in the town before we walk the 15 or 20 minutes along the treed avenue that leads to the spectacular gilded gates outside Versailles, one of France’s most well-known palaces.

Versailles is famous for many things – for it’s imposing architecture, for it’s unbelievable, highly manicured espaliered and sculptured gardens, for being the place where the papers were signed to signal peace after World War I – the Treaty of Versailles - and for being the home of the ill-fated King Louis XVI and his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette.

I had visited Versailles on my previous visit to Paris 30 years ago, but this was Matt’s first visit. We are both a bit overwhelmed with the size of the building and the whole estate. Time is our enemy today and we are torn between doing the tour inside the building, or taking a mini-train ride around the estate and visiting Marie Antoinette’s retreat where she spent increasingly more time, relishing in her time away from her husband, and becoming more and more eccentric and odd in her quest to stave off the feelings of loneliness and rejection from the French people.

It is a tough decision – but we decide to do the outside tour. Matt decides that, as he is living a mere stone’s throw across the creek in London, this will not be his last visit to Paris and he will come back here to Versailles and spend a whole day exploring the lavish and rich interior of the palace, trying to absorb the opulence and meet up with the ghost of Marie Antoinette.

We buy our tickets for the little kiddie’s train that is pulled by a tractor and head off on a very bumpy ride along the dirt and gravel roads around the huge estate. We pass groves of beautiful trees, lots of parks with families out in the sunshine, walking, kicking soccer balls, riding bicycles. Our first stop (it is a hop on hop off train and you can get off at many points along the trip, explore, then catch the next train that comes along), is Le Petit Trianon - the summer retreat of Marie Antoinette. Marie – the tragic queen who was brought from her home, her family, to be married to Louis. She was made to reject her language, her family, her heritage, and embrace everything French. She was only 14 years old when she was forced to marry Louis XVI, and in 1774, when her husband ascended the throne, she became Dauphine de France, the Queen, at only 19. She was a square peg in a round hole right from the start and the pressure on her to conceive a child for France was enormous. For anyone reading this who has seen the movie with Kirsten Dunst in the role of Marie, they will be able to envisage the girl who came here to Versailles and the rough time she had. But she apparently hardened up over the years, retreating into a world of eccentricity. As the political climate in France hotted up, the royal family were increasingly seen as useless and irrelevant, and Marie’s infamous throwaway line – “Let them eat cake” – when told of her constituents who were starving because they had run out of bread, will live forever as the epitome of carelessness and irresponsibility.

As everyone knows, poor old Marie and Louis were beheaded in Paris during the French Revolution in 1793. She was 38 and had given birth to four children.

But, on this glorious, sunny, warm, Monday morning, my vision of Marie Antoinette is that of a pretty, blonde Kirsten Dunst, who deserves my sympathy. Probably a very rosy view of her, but it suits me whilst in this peaceful and beautiful place.

Le Petit Trianon was Marie’s retreat. Here she played with her ladies in waiting, partied, and had a good old time.

It is not a big, opulent place, but rather looks to me like a very nice country house. It is surrounded by beautiful fields as far as the eye can see, groves of trees, a very pastoral place. The Petit Trianon was Marie Antoinette's treasured hideaway where she could escape stifling court protocol and her royal responsibilities. No-one, not even, it was said, the king himself, was allowed to enter without the queen's permission. A serious girl zone.

Back on the little train and the next stop is the lake where, looking to the left, we can see the huge palace up on the hill, whilst around us are little hire boats, flowers, gardens, and a lovely little café called ‘la Flottille’ with an outdoor pergola covered in flowering vines and wisteria, where we cannot resist stopping for lunch.

But the clock is ticking, so we reluctantly move from this idyllic and old fashioned lakeside heaven and once again board the train back up to the main palace. We hurry back to the train station so that we can catch the next train back to Paris where we are heading for the bohemian area of Montmartre.

The Metro station at Montmartre has the old fashioned signage which is so, well, Frrrrench!

On the way, we cannot resist stopping to touch and feel the wonderful 19th century Pont Alexandre III , the most beautiful and most decorated bridge over the River Seine in Paris. Part of the construction effort for the 1900 Expo when the Eiffel Tower was created, the Pont Alexandre III has beautifully constructed lamp posts, granite and gilded cherubs and nymphs displayed on it. As the name suggests, the bridge was a joint project between the French and the Russians and was a symbol of the friendship between the two nations.
The basilica of Sacre Coeur is a most imposing, snow white building reminiscent of the Taj Mahal at Agra. It has smooth walls and minarets, and sits atop a very steep and high hill overlooking Paris. It does not look at all French, it is so exotic, yet it is one of the most well known icons of Paris. From the alleys and lanes in the artistic and ‘hippy’ areas of Montmartre, the hill rises sharply, with a very wide, very high staircase leading up to Sacre Coeur. There is also a funicular (cable railway) to take people to the top, but the queue snakes through the milling crowds and Matt and I both know that there is no way Matt will get to visit Sacre Coeur today and still get out to Charles de Gaulle Airport and his flight back to London.

It is hard, but Matt decides to go back to the Cabourg, get his bag, and head out to the airport. It is the most sensible idea, but I suddenly feel sad that this magic time with him in Paris is over. Matt is a wonderful travel companion and we have a synergy which means we are very compatible and like to do the same things, mostly.

Matt is getting harassed by some African men. Paris is full of beggars and pedlars, but these men are scary. They seem to react badly to our normal responses to beggars and street people who can be very full on, and so I agree with Matt that it is best that he goes now. There is also nothing worse than having the pressure of wondering if you will make your plane in time. He has to walk at least half and hour back to the Cabourg Hotel, then back to the Metro, catch trains to the airport with at least 3 line changes along the way. Matt’s French is non-existent and neither of us have any idea how long it will take to actually get right out to the airport which is a long way out of Paris. We say goodbye (me being a sook as usual), and wish each other bon voyage.

I suddenly feel very alone. I am not scared nor nervous. I just suddenly feel alone. I decide to join the queue for the funicular. Once at the top, I am absolutely stunned by the spectre of the snow white building. I have to go and actually touch it, so surreal is it. I spend a long time exploring it from every angle, including inside, but the view from outside is something I just don’t expect. The view over Paris is – well – I am lost for words. I find myself looking for and finding the major landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, les Invalides, Notre Dame…and more. The Seine river, snaking through the city, looks like a silver serpent in the late afternoon sunlight. What a place.

I look downwards, and at my feet is the start of the huge white stair case. Hundreds of people are sitting on the steps, just taking in the view and enjoying the warm sunshine. A young man is playing the guitar and singing a Cat Stevens song. I too sit down and just enjoy the atmosphere and the view. After about half an hour (I don’t really know how long), I start descending the stairs, dodging the people relaxing on the stairs. I have this quirk where I count stairs (think of The Count in Sesame Street). So, as I descend, I silently count the stairs. Who wants to know how many? Okay, I counted 225 steps.

Once at the bottom I turn around and look back up the steep stairs to the stunning Sacre Coeur, unbelievably bright against the deep azure blue sky. My camera is almost on melt down, so important is it to capture the sights of this place. How am I ever going to leave Paris?

It is hard to leave this area, and I begin wandering through the lanes and narrow streets filled with alternative shops, selling everything from tourist kitsch to original art work to cute, skimpy clothing that would be good for my daughter Robyn. It is vibrant and noisy, with lots of little hole-in-the-wall cafes, each with a table or two outside where you can get a coffee and sit and just watch. The sun is setting more quickly now, and I am very, very tired. I begin the long walk back to Place de Clichy, feeling like I know the streets quite well now and I eventually arrive at the Cabourg Hotel where I throw myself on the bed and turn on the TV, not really to watch it, but just for some company. A very familiar tune draws my attention, and I am amazed to see ‘McLeod’s Daughters’. But wait! The vocals have been over-dubbed in Spanish. I laugh out loud at the absurdity. I need a little rest before I venture out to get a bite to eat from the supermarket.

Eventually I walk across the Boulevard Batignolles to the little supermarket, buy some cheese, grapes, crackers, strawberries, and have an early night. It is quiet now without Matt but I have grand plans for tomorrow – visiting Pere Lachaise Cemetery, and I want to go and see the Impressionists at Musee D’Orsay. Bring it on!! Bon Nuit all!

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