Among its many distinctions and decorations, Paris is a city of travellers. Personally, I’ve now been there something like twelve or thirteen times, which sounds impressive until you realise that a third of those have been stopovers, transits, airport hops and train-changes. I’m not a fan of rushing from station to station without a rest – especially in a place as great as Paris – so these days I tend to spend a day or two in the capital each time I go somewhere and chip away as much as I can at that massive list of things to do.
This transit-hub status also means that I very nearly always have friends in Paris. Often – but not always – these are foreigners like myself who are on their way somewhere else. Sometimes they’re people who are studying nearby. Very occasionally they’re French friends who can motivate themselves to leave home and visit the baffling spectacle that’s right on their doorstep. I never will understand the tendency of Europeans not to travel when everything is so close.
Not long after my arrival and installing myself in my rental apartment, I was accordingly called away for dinner and drinks with a Japanese friend that I met here in France all the way back in 2012. She and I have caught up in Paris before, and I’m always overcome with delight by the fact that two people from such radically different cultures can communicate so comfortably in a language that is native to neither of them. It’s such an improbable situation. For me, it really emphasises the humanity that we all share – I know that sounds like a silly exaggeration, but it’s true. Friendship can and does transcend petty cultural boundaries every single day.
Despite everything I’ve just said about friends and companionship, I spent the second day of my 2.5 day stopover all on my own. While I have gotten quite good at making friends while travelling, there is still something to be said for time alone, doing what I want to do at my own pace and being beholden to no-one. It was in this spirit that I started my morning slow and took a long walk through Montmartre to visit the Sacré-Cœur.
Supposedly located at the highest point in Paris, the Sacré-Cœur is actually a pretty recent construction relative to the scores of Gothic cathedrals dotted around France. Inside, it’s written that construction was only finished in 1914. It also looks completely different to pretty much any other religious building I’ve visited before – on a nice day, the white stone glows like an enormous hilltop beacon and the whole building is curves and domes. Personally, I think it’s very beautiful.
Naturally there are a few noteworthy downsides to the Sacré-Cœur. Reputed to be chief among them is the lengthy climb to reach the hill’s summit, so much so that there is a funicular railway that is always bustling with people. However, I was almost disappointed by how easy I found the climb – it’s really not that far. I’m not the fittest or healthiest man on Earth and I nevertheless found myself asking “is that all?”
On the other hand, the reputation the area has for scam artists is unfortunately accurate. It was only about 10h00 when I arrived at the steps on the hillside and already there was a literal wall of scammers peddling human misery. For the first time – despite having heard about it many times – someone even tried the string scam on me. If you don’t know this one, it’s when the scammer approaches you, grabs you by the arm and ties a piece of string onto your wrist. For this ‘service’, they then extract a nominal fee and release you to let you be on your way.
Obviously I didn’t tolerate this treatment and shoved past them with barely a backward glance. Telling them to leave me alone in French also seemed to help, as it usually does. However, I was disappointed to see so many tourists getting taken in by it – and even more so to see the police doing nothing about it. I’d love to help, but the scammers are legion, and I’ve seen them get aggressive before.
All this is not to say that you should be discouraged from visiting – these scammers have been doing this since long before I was born, and will probably continue for centuries to come. Paris is still Paris and a little knowledge goes a long way towards avoiding them. Just as many tourists pushed straight past them like I did, and went on to enjoy the sights.
The interior of the Sacré-Cœur has signs asking people not to take photos, and generally speaking I’m respectful of that rule. However I assure you that it is appropriately grand and solemn, with beautiful gilt panels, huge painted scenes and the numerous relics and tombs that grace any good place of worship. However, my favourite part was the slightly punishing climb up into the cupola, which is one of the very highest spots in Paris with a breathtaking 360 degree view of the city. Whether because of the climb, the ticket price or the relatively early hour, I had the cupola almost entirely to myself and I was absolutely enchanted. I also enjoyed reading the graffiti on the walls on the way down, and imagining the tourists who left it.
After a walk through Montmartre and taking some lunch, it was getting towards the early evening. Fortunately, at this time of year the sunshine lasts easily until 20h30 and so I occupied my time before dinner visiting Père Lachaise cemetery. Perhaps best known for the tombs of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, it’s also a very beautiful place that feels much more like a park than a traditional place of burial. It’s a nice spot to relax, with tall walls that cut off the city noise and a sense of absolute tranquillity that one only really finds when spending time among the dead.
Having finally had my fill of lonely exile, my next day was a return to being sociable and seeking out living companions. Specifically, my friend Erin from Australia had arrived in Paris and – with much schedule-bending – we managed to find three hours or so to hang out and take in the city.
I’ve made the point before that Paris is very much what you make it. The city isn’t only for lovers, but it certainly doesn’t turn them away either. Love of all kinds is everywhere – which is actually probably true of most places in the world. Walking around the city hand-in-hand with one of my best and oldest friends was a new experience for me, and one that I will absolutely treasure. Finding each other so far from home felt very special somehow – and the Eiffel Tower looming majestically in the distance didn’t hurt either.
I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing Paris for the first time through her eyes. I hadn’t really anticipated how much fun this would be, or how accustomed to French cities I had become. As such, doing the touristy things – like eating macarons on the steps of the Opéra Garnier – made me feel like I was discovering it all over again.
The time I spend in the capital never feels like long enough, and this is never more true than when I’m obliged to leave my friends there. However, there was a plane seat with my name on it waiting at Charles de Gaulle to take me to Edinburgh, and thus Erin and I wished each other happy travels and a safe trip. While it would have been nice to have more time together, I think we made the most of what we had, and seeing her also reminded me a little of what’s waiting for me back home. It will be a pleasure to see my friends again – even if leaving here will mean leaving a part of myself behind.
To see a gallery of photos associated with this post, I would invite you to follow this link. If instead you would like to peruse the history of the Mandalorians – a warlike culture in the Star Wars universe – then you may direct yourself here and perhaps start getting excited about the upcoming Star Wars film.