SOMEBODY (PROBABLY A FRENCHMAN) once called Paris “le deuxième pays de tout le monde” – everybody’s second country. And somebody else (Ernest Hemmingway) once wrote: “If you’re lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” We didn’t need a second country, but we were in the mood for a moveable feast. And, seeing our French adventure had to start somewhere, we thought: why not start here?
THE RAIN IN SPAIN FALLS mainly on the plain. Or so they say. But the rain in France (take it from me) falls mainly in Paris. At least it did the afternoon we arrived. Europe’s glorious City of Lights was downright dripping wet. But somehow it didn’t matter. The fashion capital of the world was still able to work its magic on us, with its wide boulevards and big-name boutiques … its crowded cafés and spectacular landmarks … its passion for eating, drinking and dressing well …
The first thing we saw from our hotel was the glittering Eiffel Tower, illuminated on the skyline like a golden chandelier. And as soon as we’d bounced on the bed and freshened up, it was back down the road for a closer look.
Paris-by-night is truly something else. We wandered the Place de La Concorde – a city square to beat all city squares. The Louvre, once the home of French kings and now the finest art museum anywhere, glowed darkly in one direction (boasting 30,000 works, if you’ve got all year … or just the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo if you’ve only got five minutes). And way off in another direction, we watched the trendy set (and cuddled-up couples) strolling along the Champs-Elysees, Paris’s legendary oh-so-romantic promenade.
In yet a third direction, we spotted the Arc de Triomphe. This monumental archway built to celebrate the victories of Napoleon’s Grand Armée can be reached by sprinting across the busiest roundabout in France. “But death is certain!” promised an onlooker – so we chickened out, took the underground passage, and lived a little longer.
By day, Paris seems even more overrun by maniac drivers and hurtling cars. But you don’t go half way round the world to hide inside. So, armed with a just-in-case umbrella plus the few French phrases I could remember from school, my lady and I took to the streets.
The Eiffel Tower (it didn’t seem quite so gorgeous in morning light – more like a giant grey Meccano thingy) was erected over 100 years ago for no particular reason by Gustave Eiffel (which is probably how it got its name). I wanted to take the lift to the first-floor landing, with its promise of city-views and souvenir shops. But my wife was starving. And, in a restaurant called La Cremaillere, our lunch was getting cold. (We would ‘do’ the Eiffel later …)
Montmartre, highest of Paris’s seven hills, (you can count ‘em if you’ve got nothing better to do) is the home of the quaint Place de Tetre where the city’s pavement artists do their best to charm tourists out of a few Euros. Once we’d eaten ourselves silly, we mingled with the carefree crowd, pretending to know what the locals were talking about, and pretending to know a lot more about art than we really did.
Then we wandered up the steps of the famous white-domed, bell-towered Sacre-Coeur Basilica. The first martyrs of Paris met their deaths here, but we settled for something less breath-taking (although only slightly less): a fabulous panoramic view of the city.
Paris straddles the River Seine. And Notre Dame Cathedral, on the banks of the Seine, was first on our agenda following breakfast next morning. If you’re into cathedrals, this is rated one of the world’s best – and if you’re looking for flying buttresses, Notre Dame has lots. Quasimodo, the ugly ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’, met Esmeralda, the beautiful dancing gypsy, right here on this spot.
Cheeky gargoyles (immortalised in Victor Hugo’s novel) pulled faces at us from high up on the looming stone architecture, and an equally cheeky Frenchman tried to sell us cheap postcards.
We spent some small change in Gallery Lafayette (Paris’s answer to Harrods). But failed to spend some at a coin-operated street-side toilet – where, no matter how carefully I tried translating the instructions and pushing the right buttons, I couldn’t get the stupid door to open.
Desperate now, we snuck back into Lafayette. And, after venturing by mistake into the ladies’ loo (slow learner: failed School C French), I managed to find what I was looking for.