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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

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Week in Paris ... Day 4 - the evening

Filled with pleasure at seeing the treasures of the beautiful rose windows and from hearing the haunting organ trumpeting forth and echoing through the vaulted ceilings within Notre Dame cathedral, Matt and I venture back outside into the bright, late afternoon sunshine.

The next item on our agenda for this wonderful and epic day is to board a bateau (boat) at Pont Neuf (one of the most beautiful bridges in Paris), for a relaxing cruise up and down the Seine River, right through the heart of the city. The sun still holds a pack of heat – it is hard to get used to the days being so long compared to ours at home – and we are wishing for a cold drink, a bit of shade, and somewhere to sit and rest. Matt spies some others on the boat drinking beers and bottles of wine. Within minutes, he miraculously returns to me with two flutes and a bottle of chilled champagne (French, of course). Ahhhh. Trés bon!

The bateau fills up, making our deck seem like a party boat, full of talking, laughing people all with different accents, enjoying this wonderful Sunday afternoon alongside the mother and son from Brisbane. We eventually pull away from the jetty underneath Pont Neuf and head upstream. The commentary, whilst informative, is a little distracting as it is broadcast loudly in four languages…by the time the English version comes on, we are not listening and miss it. The champagne goes down extremely well, and in combination with the hot sun, the stinging of our sunburnt arms and face, we begin to feel as though we are in a semi-dreamlike state, so relaxed that there is a danger we might fall asleep and miss some of the wonderful sights.

The cruise is soporific, calming, relaxing. We let it take us upstream whilst we enjoy the views. We pass the stunning ex-railway station which is now the Musee d’Orsay, then the Assemblee Nationale. We round a bend and there, very close to the river, is the Eiffel Tower. It is only about 10 hours since we were standing underneath her this morning, but we are feeling so intimate with Paris now, after our walking tour, that it is like visiting an old friend. The river cruise is a wonderful way to get another perspective on the tower, and also a great way to get different photo angles.

The boat does a u-turn just past the Eiffel Tower, giving us a great view of the Trocadero. The grassy banks of the river between the Trocadero and Place de la Concorde are dotted with people relaxing, soaking up the suns rays, talking, hugging, kissing, sharing a bottle of wine. I am reminded of all the romantic songs about Paris as I spy couples lying together on the grassy banks of the Seine, lost in their own conversations and gazing into each others eyes. So, this is how Parisians spend a summer Sunday afternoon. Not so different from home, I think to myself, as our parks and riverbanks also are a magnet for couples who want to just hang out together and enjoy their cities.

We pass underneath the Pont Neuf again, this time down stream, and travel firstly along the narrow left hand channel between the river bank and Ile de la Cité again gaping at the wonderful architecture of Notre Dame cathedral. We pass the massive edifice of Gare de Lyon, then Bercy, Grande Bibliotheque – a unique view of the major monuments and sights of Paris, and then back downstream, this time navigating through the right hand channel past Ile de la Cité .

Two hours pass by languidly, so relaxing, so wonderful. Sadly all good things must come to an end, and so we pull in once again to the jetty under the Pont Neuf and we all disembark. A photographer on board had taken some snaps of all on board. Our photos are waiting for us to collect when we disembark. Lovely reminders of a lovely cruise.

The glorious, sunny, satisfying day turns into a golden, twilight evening. Footsore, tired, but with a glow happening somewhere deep inside us, Matt and I continue our long day in the City of Light. Paris – such a beautiful, enchanting and bewitching city. I feel so at home here. So comfortable using the Metro system, so comfortable finding my way around. Maybe I was a Parisian in a former life. Or at least French.

Where to now? The Louvre beckons and so we slowly walk along the river bank until we get to the massive structure that is the Louvre. It is so, so huge. It must stretch for three city blocks. Thirty years ago, on my first visit to Paris, I went inside to see the treasures it holds. The Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo. Today, especially today, when we are now so tired, and it is too late to go in anyway, we just want to go and see the glass pyramids in the square. The ones that featured in the movie ‘The da Vinci Code’. Stunning. They are so, so beautiful in the flesh. Crisp, clean, modern. A total contrast to the solidity of the massive stone buildings surrounding it that make up the Louvre Museum. I am told that the locals, especially the traditionalists, were aghast at the monstrosities and that they believed that the pyramids took away from the history and grandeur of the buildings. But I think they complement them. They are unique and, in my opinion, are now yet another draw card for tourists and worthy icons of this beautiful city. The photo opportunities are wonderful, with the low, low sun showering the glass walls of the pyramids with a golden glow.

It is now about 8pm. We start to cross the road from the Louvre heading towards our regular hangout, the restaurant/café in the square underneath statue of Joan of Arc. We are stunned to see some gorgeous gendarmes on roller blades booking cars as they weave through the traffic. The drivers look stunned too. We gratefully take our regular seat out on the pavement where we can keep a good eye on Jean d’Arc, and order a lovely French meal, some gorgeous crisp white French wine, and relax before we join yet another tour – a bus tour through Paris to see the lights. They call it the “Illuminations Tour”. Matt and I look at each other over our meal, agreeing that this day certainly has more than 24 hours in it. How else could we possibly have covered so much, by foot, and seen so many wonderful places and experienced so many things that will live with us for life.

It is now nine o’clock and time to join our ‘Illuminations’ bus tour. There are only about seven people on the tour. I am all geared up to take both still and movie pictures, awkwardly juggling the two cameras. We are looking forward to seeing the spectacular laser lights on the Eiffel Tower that sparkle and spangle for 15 minutes every half hour. Off we set, excited in our expectations of seeing the ‘City of Light’ all dressed up. We are not disappointed. Our cameras click away in time to our companions on the coach. One thing I had not factored in is that the streets of Paris are cobbled. Really big, rough cobbles, and so all my photos are turning out shaky. I think perhaps a good quality SLR with a fast shutter speed might be better, but as I review my photos I see that I have some fairly stunning shots with red and white ribbons of light blurring across the photo. Still good. I end up with a series of photos which are a kaleidoscope of colour, of patterns, all reminiscent of the vibrancy, colour and life of Paris by night.

We drive around the rough cobbles surrounding the Arc de Triomphe, conservatively flood-lit as befits the sombre and proud monument that it is. The bus is unable to stop so we must capture this moment with our eyes, minds and cameras as best we can. Next thing, we gasp with delight as we near the Eiffel Tower and she bursts into a spectacular show of white laser lighting shooting up into the sky and flickering on and off. She is SUCH a showoff. But a beautiful, graceful and fun-loving showoff.

We can’t get enough of watching her do this dance for us, twirling and coquettishly flirting with all who are watching. But just as a flirt does, she suddenly turns off her charms and retreats back into the shy and fetching young lady, just waiting until some more unsuspecting tourists come by when she will once again burst into life and sparkle and shine and lure them in to her charms. Such a wonderful, wonderful sight.

The mood changes as we drive now to see Les Invalides lit up in her regal and graceful lights, showing off her pride and strength and conveying a sense of safety and protection for her inhabitants who have seen the worst the world has to offer and who now are enveloped in this calm and peaceful place where they live with other ex-soldiers of France.

Our Illumination Tour ends all too soon, except we are glad to stop the vibrations caused from driving over the cobble stones. Surely the bus had no suspension. We drag ourselves off to the Metro station and eventually find ourselves back at Place de Clichy. It is past midnight. We have walked and walked for at least 16 hours today. We have seen some wonderful, memorable sights, and we have experienced Paris from the footpath. We are both happy, delightfully happy, but very tired. But a good nights sleep is all that separates us from bouncing out of bed again tomorrow morning, bright and early, and doing it all again. Tomorrow we plan to visit Versailles.

Bon nuit.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Week in Paris - Day 4

A Week in Paris - Day 4

We arise surprisingly early considering our big day yesterday. Downstairs we go to the little cavern-like breakfast room for our petit dejeuner, and then head off on another day of excitement and discovery in Paris. Over breakfast, we decide to visit le Tour Eiffel first, and then to see where our map and our feet take us.

It is a splendid morning. Bright blue sky, sun shining warmly. A great day indeed. We catch the Metro from Clichy to Montparnasse Bienvenue – the closest station to the Eiffel Tower. The trip on the Metro is an absolute delight. It seems everyone, on this gorgeous Sunday morning, is in holiday mood and all seem to be going to the Eiffel Tower. A merry band of buskers is in our carriage, singing and playing a variety of instruments. One catches my eye because I am filming them. A wink from this handsome Frenchman and I am hooked. At the next Metro station, they move up closer to where Matt and I are sitting in the crowded carriage. I drop some Euros (Matt thinks I am far too generous) into the violin case. I am rewarded by another wink and my handsome Frenchman looks deep into my eyes as he sings. Swoon. They keep on playing, wearing broad smiles and seemingly enjoying this experience every bit as much as all the passengers.

Eventually our gorgeous buskers alight from our carriage and move down to another carriage, trying to milk the passengers there for as much as they can. I could happily have followed them from carriage to carriage all day, such was the joy and fun they exuded with their lovely music.

We arrive at Champs de Mars Metro station and everyone alights, all bent on getting to the Eiffel Tower as quickly as they can. It reminds me of childhood memories of catching the train in Brisbane to the Ekka, the air of excitement and expectation, everyone knowing what they will see ahead of time, yet impatient to be there and to be experiencing it first hand. I remember how difficult it was alighting the Ekka train, squashed into the crowd all trying to push forward at the same time to the inadequate number of turnstiles, forming a bottle neck and taking simply forever to get through for that first Dagwood Dog.

Matt and I, because we had studiously pored over our map and anticipated large crowds, seem to be the first through. “Quick”, says Matt, “let’s go this way”. Matt’s way veers off from the major throng threatening to overtake us. We hurry off via a side street, stumbling upon the Australian Consulate building on our way, and we enter a gorgeous park full of children’s playground equipment and rose beds. I look up through the dappled leafy canopy of trees and there above me, towering like a metal mother welcoming her favourite child home, is le Tour Eiffel.

You can see the Eiffel Tower from all over Paris, as it’s imposing 300m lacy metal tentacle soars high above most buildings in Paris, but nothing prepares one for being right up close to her. This is not my first encounter with her. I last saw her 30 years ago and she had me under her spell even then, to the point where I can graphically remember exactly what it was like to climb up to the second landing via the hard metal stair case, and the views of Paris I could see from up there.

The crowds mill about under the four huge pylons which are the legs of the Tower. There are colourful stalls selling food, drinks and souvenirs. Already the queue to take the lift up to the top is stretching for several hundred yards and moving very slowly. Matt and I, necks aching from craning upwards, get our fill of photos and walk around the Tower, trying to see it from every possible angle. I buy some souvenirs here, a nice scarf for Mum, and some other trinkets.

We want to get some good views of the Tower and in order to get the whole magnificent structure in one photo, we have to be a little away from it. Built in 1889 for the World Exhibition (or Expo) and held in Paris to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the French Revolution in 1789, the Eiffel Tower was never meant to remain here permanently. How could it’s creator, Gustave Eiffel, ever have anticipated that his handiwork would become, and remain, one of the most recognisable and iconic structures in the world? Paris would not be Paris without le Tour Eiffel.

Matt and I start to walk down the long strip of park that looks like a table runner leading from the Eiffel Tower to the École Militaire (Military School), the foremost military academy in France. The massive Parc du Champs de Mars covers over 24 acres and is a mile long. The park is huge and it was originally where the locals grew their vegetables, but was eventually used as a training ground for the troops and could accommodate battle training manoeuvres for up to ten thousand troops at a time! That is where the park gets it’s current name as it is named after Mars, the Roman God of War.

By now it is hot and we are wearing T shirts, our jackets a nuisance to carry but necessary as the early mornings and evenings can be cool, especially for Brisbanites. We stop at the many fountains along the park, turning back to look at the Eiffel Tower, and enjoying the relaxed, quiet and beautiful park with it’s border of mature trees and colourful garden beds.

About half way down the park, Matt and I decide to take one of the exit roads and walk in the general direction of the Latin Quarter. We turn into Rue St-Dominique and soon find ourselves walking through quiet Paris streets on a glorious Sunday morning. We both marvel that we seem to be the only tourists within earshot. It is very quiet and we stumble upon many lovely, hidden parts of Paris. We seem to walk for miles and we admit we are a little lost, as we have a habit of taking side streets that look intriguing. Eventually we discover a street that is closed off for the local markets.

Our senses are zinging as we wander through, seeing the lovely fresh produce, colourful vegetables and fruits as fresh as can be. There is music and colour and we feel so privileged to have found this slice of unspoilt Paris where all the locals are going about their usual Sunday morning, socialising with each other, buying their produce for the week, and selling their wares.

I spy a thin little man with a pointy goatie beard and matching black bushy eyebrows and he seems to spy me at the same time. "Bonjour, bonjour madame!" I am immediately taken with this man and his wonderful little clocks that he makes from the cardboard round boxes in which they sell camembert cheese here. He has dozens of clocks all made with different brands of cheese. "Je suis Monsieur Camembert!" he says proudly to me, flashing a friendly grin which shows some gaps in his teeth and takes years from his 60 plus year old face. He soon discovers that our French is limited, so he talks to us in rudimentary English, but we are both able to understand each other using gestures and some odd words. We both happily communicate, as travellers do, because of that indefinable thing that allows humans to interact without need for a common language.

He tells me that he is called Monsieur Camembert because he makes all his clocks from the cheese boxes. He is tres famous! He shows me a magazine article about him, complete with pictures. He shows me more and more newspaper clippings and stories about him. He is indeed very famous! His enthusiasm for his clocks is infectious and he doesn’t have to try very hard to convince me to buy one (I wanted one with a passion as soon as I saw them). I choose one with Notre Dame brand cheese on the box. Matt and I then wait for half an hour while Monsieur Camembert tells us all about how he inserts the clock workings. He enquires where we are from. "Ah, Australie! Trés jolie!" Because I will be flying back home, he ensures that the battery terminals are covered. He goes to great lengths to show me that he is giving me a brand spanking new battery. His charm, enthusiasm, and passion for his little clocks just had me hooked. I tell Monsieur Camembert how proud I am to be taking his little clock all the way home and that every time I look at it, I will think of him. He is thrilled, shy, humbled. Meeting this little man is one of those special serendipitous things that happen in life. He gives me photocopies of the magazine articles, he gives me his card (a little piece of paper hand written), and with a very Gallic flourish, he asks if he can autograph my clock for me. "Mais oui Monsieur!!" Of course, of course! With my precious new possession safely wrapped, battery de-activated, Matt and I reluctantly leave this wonderful market and say au revoir to little Monsieur Camembert.

On and on we walk, stopping only to study our map but to no avail. We really do not know exactly where we are. We meander through the streets, stumbling upon scenes that are just so, well, 'French'. We are glad we have brought some water with us as it is very hot now and we have been walking for several hours. We find some magnificent churches, doors wide open welcoming all to Sunday Mass.

Eventually we find the magnificent gardens surrounding Hôtel des Invalides. The stunning gilded dome of the chapel gleams brightly in the hot Paris sunshine, and standing over 350 feet high, it dominates the view and takes our breath away. A most impressive complex of buildings, the Hôtel des Invalides houses France’s war veterans, but is also home to several important museums, in particular the Military Museum. The imposing edifice is huge. Matt and I walk for over half an hour to get around to the front entrance so that we can take better photos of the golden dome. It is surrounded by a high wrought iron fence and beautiful mature trees line the footpath, shading us from the heat of the day. Originally commissioned as army barracks by King Louis XIV, Les Invalides was completed in 1676 and housed four thousand war veterans.

As we walk the half kilometre up to the main entrance, we notice many floral tributes stuck in gaps in the fence and at plaques. Yesterday was the anniversary of the liberation of Paris after World War II and so the patriotic French people recognise this day much as we Australians recognise Anzac Day. The French are fervent and passionate patriots and flags fly everywhere, but especially so at this time of remembrance.

The massive golden Dôme des Invalides sits atop the Chapel of this huge complex and is now used as the burial place of many French war heroes, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte (his remains were exhumed from St Helena in 1840).

Matt and I spend a pleasant half hour just taking in the huge vista of the front edifice of this massive complex which stretches over a huge area. The sunshine glinting off the huge golden dome is captivating. As we stand there we see across the large roundabout (well, the French version of a roundabout sans lanes), the Rodin Museum with the famous statue of Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ taking pride of place outside. We decide not to visit this museum today as we still have a lot more ground we want to cover on our self-designed walking tour. We are so happy to just be walking everywhere that takes our fancy and not having to worry about time nor direction. We find ourselves a little lost sometimes, but generally our map keeps us going in the direction we want, which is towards St Germain and the Latin Quarter, and eventually to Notre Dame Cathedral. But mostly we put the map in our pocket and just walked, so rich is the variety of wonderful places to see in this part of Paris.

We found ourselves outside the Church of St Sulpice which featured in the movie 'da Vinci Code'. We went inside to escape the tortuous 35 plus degree heat which was beating down on us outside. Moving on from St Sulpice, we wandered up past the Senate, past the Luxembourg Palace, past the Place de St-Thomas d’Aquin, onto the Boulevard St Germain and from there we plan to head towards Boulevard St Michel. My head can not help singing over and over the words from that delightful 1960s song ‘Where do you go to my lovely’:
I hum songs happily to myself as Matt and I walk along. So many songs are about Paris. They keep entering my brain from way back – ‘A country girl in Paris’, ‘The girls of Paris’ – on and on, round and round. The songs make me feel like I have a connection here, kind of like I’m family, like I am home. Hmm, maybe the hot sun, lack of food (it is now well past lunch time) and the fact we have by now run out of water are starting to take their toll. Just as Matt is about to disown me from embarrassment, we come to the gorgeous little square of St Germain des Pres, where the Boulevard St Germain and Rue Bonaparte meet.

This place is just oozing with character. Matt and I are now very footsore with blisters to prove it, thirsty, hungry and very much in need of a rest. We look at the famous cafes that open onto the square – le Deux Magot, Café de Flore, and le Bonaparte. We know they are hideously expensive, but these cafes were the favourite hangouts of the greatest philosophers and intellectuals of the post war period. Jean-Paule Sarte, Simone de Beauvoir, Juliette Greco and Albert Camus famously met here to discuss all things ‘intellectual’ and were said to have ‘existentialised’ at le Deux Magot (or the Two Maggots, as Matt called it). We hope they cleaned up after themselves after they ‘existentialised’.

St Germain des Pres is in the intellectual quarter of Paris, rivalling only Montparnasse, and is widely recognised as the thinking area of Paris and home to the legendary free thinking radicals and philosophers. Even Francois Mitterand (President of France in the 1980s) used to hang out here. I remember learning about this so-called ‘Lost Generation’ of surrealists and existentialists of Paris during my literature studies at University. Even Picasso haunted this place. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway sipped lattés here, possibly plotting and planning their next literary masterpieces. So, what is a few Euros if it means we could be drinking out of the same cups, eating off the same plates, as these luminaries.

Our first choice is the Two Maggots – “Non Madame et Monsieur, vous avez besoin d'une reservation”. Oh, OK, no we don’t have a reservation. Same at Café de Flore. We go to the Café le Bonaparte with it’s gaily striped red, white and blue canvas awning and tables on the footpath overlooking the square, the Two Maggots and the Café Flore, as well as across the square to the church of St Germain des Pres.Mais certainment Madame et Monsieur’. Oh, I am just so glad to sit down for a while. We sit at our table which unfortunately is copping the full force of the now mid-afternoon sun, but we know we are on hallowed ground, so we don’t mind. We order a cold Corona beer each, a fromage platter to share and a bottle of water. Simple enough, but when we finish and get the bill, we are aghast that the bottle of water alone is ten Euros! Mr Hemingway would turn in his grave.

Feeling refreshed and much lighter in the pocket, Matt and I cross the square to visit the oldest church in Paris – St-Germain-des-Pres. The original building was begun in 542 as a Benedictine Abbey to house holy relics, but with one thing and another, it was rebuilt in the 11th century, the 19th century and again in the 1990s. As with many buildings in Paris, it was burned down during the Revolution, however one of the three original Romanesque belfries still remains and is the oldest in France. Descartes, the philosopher/mathematician, is buried here.

‘You live in a fancy apartment off the Boulevard St Michel
Where you keep your Rolling Stones records
And a friend of Sacha Distel
But where do you go to my lovely
When you're alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head, yes I do
I've seen all your qualifications
You got from the Sorbonne
And the painting you stole from Picasso
Your loveliness goes on and on, yes it does'

Outside the church, a lively jazz band is playing under some large shady trees on the footpath with instrument cases lying open at their feet, hoping for a few Euros from the crowd that has gathered around them. It feels so French, so chic, to be standing outside a church that is over one and a half thousand years old, listening to New Orleans jazz.

Onward we trudge, very tired but our enthusiasm is high. We still have a lot of places we want to see before our walking tour ends and we head homeward. Our goal is to get to Notre Dame and because it doesn’t get dark until around 9pm, we see no reason why we should not continue as we have been.

We pass the church of St Severin, first built in the 1200s, and as we finally get to walk along the Boulevard St Michel (there goes that Peter Sarstedt song again!!), we finally see the Sorbonne, the famous University of Paris, where legend has it students meet and fall in love over café crème and croissants. The Latin Quarter, or Quartier Latin was named after the students and professors who spoke Latin in the classroom and on the streets.

We find some Roman Ruins sitting in a big dirt hole in the middle of this bustling area so we decide to buy an ice cream and we sit in the little park next to the ruins and read about what we are seeing. These are the remains of Roman Baths. How unusual they look, sitting here in this chic area of Paris. Again, big leafy trees provide us with a cool oasis to rest and recuperate before we move on.

We pass the Palais du Justice or the Law Courts. The huge complex includes the Palace of Justice, the Sainte Chapelle, an exquisite church renowned for it’s acoustics and natural light, and the Conciergerie.

We finally reach the Seine River again. It is late afternoon now and the Left Bank is in shade, thankfully. We stroll along the bank stopping to look at the artists who will paint your portrait for you, or at the many stands that sell prints and reproductions of Paris scenes. It is a lively place, full of fun and colour. Across the river we can see, sitting astride the Île de la Cité, the most famous Cathedral in the world, the gothic masterpiece that is Notre Dame.

Matt and I queue up to enter this magnificent and famous church. To visit such a place is not at all a spiritual experience because there are too many tourists and, although Mass is said in there regularly, we are ushered through like cattle, unable to stop and fully appreciate the spectacle of it. It takes a while for our eyes to adjust to the dim light after the searing sunshine of outside, and there are many security checks and ushers to ensure that all visitors are dressed in an appropriate manner. There are constant cries from the ushers for us to be quiet, which seems odd when they are yelling, but Matt and I soon find that the atmosphere of the place takes over the reality and we enjoy walking around the gloomy interior, taking in it’s beauty. Lo and behold, we both start when a very loud pipe organ somewhere above our heads launches enthusiastically into what sounds to my untrained ears as the stunning da - da da da da from Phantom of the Opera! Obviously that is not what it is, but it sounds just as dramatic. We both peered into the gloom, looking for Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo. We love it in here and the organ adds to the fun. I am allowed to use my movie camera in here and so I capture this sound as well as the vision on my camera.

Last time I was here, I was able to climb up the north bell tower, go across the narrow path that leads to the south tower, and down again. It was scary. It was a very narrow, very steep, and very high stone spiral staircase with no railing. The stairs were higher than a normal step height and the steps were worn in the middle from centuries of footsteps. We looked for poor old Quasimodo then too!

We spend a cool and interesting hour inside Notre Dame, before venturing outside into the late afternoon sunshine before continuing this wonderful day on foot in Paris.