A disproportionate amount of my time in Europe was spent in markets – I’m not usually that keen on shopping – but there are so many of so many kinds that one simply can’t avoid them. On Saturdays, in the same location as the markets mentioned in my last post, Paris plays host to a different type – the Creation Markets. They’re a particularly good type of market for tourists, because the stalls are held by artists who are selling their own works – they have all sorts; paintings, jewellery, carvings, metalwork, everything. One of the stall holders informed me that they are forbidden to sell anything not manufactured by themselves and that all products must be signed. Alex and I arrived early and walked through the stalls, admiring the work on display – most was too large or bulky to take home – but we did eventually buy a few small items. More fun, for me, was talking to the stall owners about their work. It was a good day for French-speaking, the conversation came easily and left me feeling confident and cheerful.
Unfortunately, although now filled with confidence and good cheer, I was still feeling pretty unwell on Saturday and in light of that, we retreated to the hotel to rest a while longer. Travelling is surprisingly exhausting – doing something every day, dealing with the language barrier and never really having time to rest take their toll. It’s the downside of the amazing experiences that each new day brings.
After our repose at the hotel, we took the metro to Montparnasse to climb the tower of the same name. Montparnasse Tower is famous in Paris for being the ugliest building in an otherwise beautiful city – it is remarkable that they ever allowed it to be built; a huge cigar on the picturesque Paris skyline that rockets out of the Earth like a black, broken tooth. However, the best views of the city can be had from its viewing platform. On the day we went, the view was somewhat obscured by fog, which was a little disappointing. The view was still remarkable, but I’d like to visit again when it’s clearer. The viewing platform itself is amazingly tacky, with touristy souvenirs and information kiosks. It fits right in with the tower’s overall mission of lowering the aesthetic value of the city.
Feeling somewhat fortified by seeing the city from on high, we descended the tower and metro’d our way to Île Saint–Louis, the small island which is near Notre Dame cathedral. We were seeking Berthillon, a famous ice-creamery that we’d heard a bit about before we left for Europe. The shop is surprisingly controversial online – some people love it, some hate it – Although taste is entirely subjective, we agreed (and still do at the time of writing) that the ice-cream was the best we had ever tasted. The fruit flavours in particular are remarkably close to their named counterparts.
Sunday was our second-to-last day in Paris and our last day alone together. It also happened to be the first Sunday of the month, a day on which the city of Paris throws caution to the winds and declares its hundreds of museums to be free of charge. In light of that, we decided we would spend the main part of the day at the Museum of Arts et Metiers. Loosely translated, it means ‘Arts and Crafts’, but a more apt translation would be ‘Arts and Industry’. They have a huge collection of scientific equipment, early machinery and other similar exhibits, including much of the equipment used by Antoine Lavoisier in early chemistry, and Foucault’s pendulum. The museum was actually much more fun than we expected, and we ended up passing virtually our entire day there. Despite the free entry, very few other people were there, as the museum isn’t a particularly well-known one for non-Parisiens. That said, all of the information was available in English and the museum was extremely well organised. I loved it.
In the afternoon, we bade a tearful goodbye to privacy and joined our Topdeck group in La Villette. Not long after meeting our guide and some of the other ‘Topdeckers’, we went to a nearby restaurant for dinner which served as a good icebreaker with some of our tourmates. This gave us some people to sit with on the first activity; a ‘city lights’ tour of Paris by bus, during which we visited some of the major landmarks. It was a good start to the tour – the atmosphere of excitement was contagious and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves a lot. Being with other people also enabled us to get a couple of dark, blurry but iconic photos together in front of the Eiffel Tower after a parachute drop by our driver – he’s good that way.
On Monday the tour begun in earnest with our ‘free day’ in Paris. We were dropped off in Place de la Concorde in the morning where everyone else rushed off to cram as much Paris into their days as possible. Fortunately for us, we’d already hit most of the main tourist sites during our week alone, so we started our day with a leisurely walk in the Tuileries gardens towards the Louvre concourse. Once we arrived there, we headed through to the metro stop by way of Ladurée – a famous chain of stores that sells macarons. We saved these for our afternoon plan – a look around the Latin Quarter, a few sites in which had been recommended by the staff at our previous hotel.
Our first stop in the area was Les Jardins des Plantes, a surprisingly vast set of gardens which also contains a zoo and three museums. We ate our pre-lunch macaron dessert, which proved to be delicious enough to justify Ladurée’s renown and walked at length in the very lovely gardens, where we also encountered a stegosaurus, as you sometimes do in the well-manicured city parks of Paris.
After our walk in the gardens – we do a lot of walking, apparently – we found our way to the old Roman arenas in the Latin Quarter. One of the stories about why it is called the ‘Latin Quarter’ is that it is named for these very arenas, given their connection to ancient Rome. Alternatively, some suggest that it’s due to it being a student district. Apparently once, long ago, all students spoke Latin. Whichever permutation of these stories is true – I secretly believe it is neither – we found the arena and its history very appealing, and climbing all over it adequately prepared us for lunch at a nearby bistro.
Upon our return to Concorde, we found our way to the huge Ferris Wheel in the square. We’d been wanting to ride it since before we arrived and although it was expensive, the view was well worth the price of admission. Concorde sits right at the end of the Champs-Élysées and once the Ferris Wheel – which is apparently only there for the holiday season – hoists you up into the air, you get an unobstructed view down this famous and beautiful street. It also helped us get our bearings for our next destination – a boat tour of Paris.
This was another thing that we’d left aside for once we joined the tour. Boat tours are common in Paris, travelling the Seine river and providing tourists with information about Paris’ many beautiful buildings in every imaginable language, except for sign language and possibly Klingon. Although we had already begun to know the city’s landmarks fairly well, taking the tour was a fun diversion and also gave us a chance to get to know some more of our tour-mates. Pleased to discover we would not be saddled with a busload of degenerate junkies – the people we met were very friendly – we accompanied them for a post-cruise walk along the Seine to Île de la Cité and the Notre Dame cathedral.
France, like much of Europe, is littered with cathedrals. The attentive reader will have noted that I mentioned one in virtually every entry I’ve written while in France, and this is no exception. Despite its fame and renown, Notre Dame is on the smaller side compared to some of the other cathedrals and basilicas which I’ve visited and is – in my opinion anyway – less grand and impressive than (for example) Clermont-Ferrand’s volcanic Christ-palace or Strasbourg’s intense red Jesatorium. All that said, it is still very beautiful and – thanks to a tip from our tour leader – we arrived in time to see a service there, which involved a quite impressive organ performance and the obligatory prayers and hymns. It was an interesting experience.
At long last, after dinner in a nearby bistro, we made our way to Montmartre. It was well late by then, and the district’s many sex shops were lit in a neon panoply of debauchery – the perfect antidote to cleanse us of the recent dose of religion we had taken at Notre Dame. With the group, we took a drink by coincidence at Café des Deux Moulins, the location in which much of the film Amélie is set – it was the nearest bar and we were early. Once we were done, we walked around the corner for our evening’s entertainment – Féerie, the spectacle currently being performed at the Moulin Rouge.
You can find unlimited reviews of the show online, so I won’t spend too much time talking about it here. Alex and I both enjoyed it very much – it was a great dance performance, with some stage magic, comedy and acrobatics which was enhanced by mostly nude women. Few things are not improved by the addition of nude women, in my estimation. This is an opinion which does not seem to be unpopular in France. I will concede that the presence of nude women at a funeral may be slightly inappropriate, depending upon the person for whom the event is being held.
The next day, early in the morning, we set off on the tour bus for our next destination – Switzerland. It was a little sad to be leaving Paris, and France behind – but we would return to Paris later that month for our last days in Europe.
To see a gallery of photos relevant to this post – but without nude women, photography was forbidden – click here. To see an utterly irrelevant sketch of a rhinoceros, which you can attempt to copy to improve your drawing ability, click here.