Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The skeletons in Paris' basement

So, on our third and final morning in Paris, the early-morning attraction du jour involved over a kilometre of underground tunnel-walking and thousands upon thousands of human skeletons.

Make sure you're ready if you head down to the Catacombes.

Yes, reader, by this point in the holiday, I'd given up on makeup...

To be honest, it is kind of foreboding. Apparently Paris has a massive network of underground caves and tunnels, which are of course forbidden to the public because, for one thing, it's really easy to get lost.

But I did hear a rumour that a bunch of people got busted for setting up a secret cinema down in one in the 80s, and stealing electricity to power it.

Anyway, this is what you walk down once you're through the gates. For quite a while.

Then it gets more warren-like. In order to navigate, workers painted a black line on the ceiling of the tunnels which, when candle-light was shone upward, showed the way.
We're following this route.
Every now and then, you see a brick with some initials and a date on, like this, to show who laid this particular brickwork to uphold the tunnel, and when.
These amazing handmade sculptures, replicas of Parisian cityscapes were dedicated to a man who used to work in the caves but who had been accused of a crime. I was enjoying the story, until they revealed that the man in question later died during a 'cave-in' down here. A CAVE-IN!
Anyone suffer from claustrophobia?

They built wells down here, so that workers could wash/drink without needing to go back above ground.
After some time, you come to this. See the black line?
The rest of your walk underground is sobering and shocking simply because of the sheer numbers of the unnamed dead who finally came to rest here.
It's not like there's one room of skeletons.
They are stacked over 6 feet high, bones upon bones, and the walk takes at least a further 20 minutes to cover wthout stopping.

At the end of the tour, they actually check your bag. Apparently people have stolen bones in the past.

Needing something light like Retail Therapy after our morning, we hopped on a metro, only to discover the market we wanted to go to wasn't on today. We eventually found a vintage/flea market and whiled away an hour haggling in French.

Then it was on to Montmartre, where we climbed some steps to view the Basilique du Sacre-cour
and this lovely landscape, but mostly, we did what has to be one of the best things to do in Paris and went to a cafe for lunch.
I had snails, Eric had beef. We both had chilled red wine which on a hot day hits the spot.

Sadly, after some book-shopping for Eric (he bought authors who are amongst those buried in the catacombes) and one last drink at our local, it was time for the metro.
A bientot, Paris!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Paris Day 2

So, as previously mentioned, one must hit the attractions either really early, or really late. Attack it like a theme park, reader.

At 1pm, you can wait over an hour in line, then get hearded around Notre Dame Cathedral like a sheep. At 9am, you can stroll in and have the place pretty much to yourself.
Then go get a pain au chocolat, because the Towers of Notre Dame, (which you really want to do, believe me) don't open 'til 10, and you will have to queue for a few minutes. DO NOT come back at lunchtime unless you have nothing else you want to do that day.
The thing I love about this Gothic religious building is it's darkness. There's just something, well, wrong about it.
Check out these poor peasants bearing the weight of saints,
or the demonic stare on this little creature, having stolen a bible.
Inside, the stained glass windows are huge and magnificent,
and in places the bright paint on the pillars is still intact.

Building began on Notre Dame in 1163, but was not completed until almost 200 years later!

Once you begin climbing the 422 steps in the spiral staircase up to the top of one of the 69metre-high towers, you begin to realise what inspired Vitor Hugo to give the hero of his novel (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, first published 1831) Quasimodo a home as well as the job of Bell-Ringer here.

At 46 metres above the ground, you get a break from climbing stairs round and round in a circle, as you reach the Chimera gallery. This is an outdoor gallery walkway (very worn) that it's easy to imagine Quasi walking around, hanging out with the chimera or statues here.

These guys aren't to be confused with gargoyles, which are specifically designed as protruding features designed to drain water. So now you know.

Also up here are cool grimacing heads and the afforementioned gargoyles, but I couldn't get a good shot of any.

These are Stryga, or 'birds of night'. In eastern legend they're seen as a nocturnal and evil spirit. And this one appears to be eating a falafel.

Up once more, you get to the South Tower belfry. This is Emmanuel, the 17th Century bell. It weighs over 13 tonnes, and it's clapper over 500 kilos.
The structure surrounding it is wooden (and if you ask me, could do with some refurb. Good job it's only rung on major Catholic feast days.)
One more long set of steps, 422 in total, gets you up to the top of the South Tower.
Here, after taking a few shots of Paris
the moment got the better of Eric.

After all those steps, we grabbed a Velib to the Park de Luxembourg, bought some charcuterie, took up a couple of metal chairs they leave lying around for you (again, NOBODY steals them! I'd give it 2 weeks in London) made like the locals do at lunchtime and ate in the park.
We found this lovely water feature,
and these sculptures. They spelled out 'TOLERANCE'.
At this point we dropped by a cafe, to try an early evening aperitif, a Pastis. It's cold, wet and tastes strongly of licquorice. I'd highly recommend you don't try it.

I had to go to Victor Hugo's apartment.
Here, at the former Hotel de Rohan-Guemenee, Place des Vosges (there's accents over e's here) Hugo rented a 280 square-metre apartment on the 2nd floor for 16 years. A WRITER rented a massive HOTEL ROOM for 16 years! See what I mean about luxury?
The walls in this room are the same fabric as in our hotel room, funnily enough, and for me this standing writing table is the best item in the apartment. Victor Hugo wrote so much he even wrote standing up.
Here's a picture of him, doing just that.

It was getting a little late in the day, but by hopping another Velib, we made it to Rue Scribe and the Fragonard Perfume museum about 10 minutes before closing!
Anyone who's read Perfume by Partick Suskind HAS to visit this place. Or just anyone who loves perfume.
The book is true: they really did trap the essence of a flower by layering it in goose fat!
They also have plenty of vintage perfume decanters.

and this one which is specifically designed to be placed in your car. Yes, in c1920, you had to look and smell presentable if you were going out driving.
This is a an explanation of a perfume organ.
And this is Eric, becoming a 'Nose'.

We took what ended up being a long walk home along the Seine, in a great deal of heat, and slept a while.
The fish restaurant we went to for dinner, the Dome in Montparnasse, was amazing and had the best oysters and bouillabaise I ever tasted, but I was too scared to take a picture in there! Just go if you like seafood.

The bar we wanted to go to however, was closed. Actually, lots of Parisians leave the city in July and go on holiday elsewhere to escape the city heat.

After being told we'd have to pay the full price of 8euros each in another bar to see the last 10 minutes of a jazz set, we headed back to our home-quartier, the Latin Quarter and found another jazz cave.

This one, the Caveau des Oubliettes, has different jam nights every night.

Eric was first out, borrowing a bass!
Wanna see him closer? That's my man, that is.

The place was a little more forboding than the other jazz cave. A Caveau des Oubliettes roughly translates as a prison for the forgotten. There's a message carved out on one of the walls that reads in French: '1421 I will be hanged'.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

I love Paris, in the summer, when it sizzles

To quote a bit of Cole Porter (lyrics that were part of a show I used to do at sea, one I don't miss) I did love Paris, and it did sizzle. It was my first time, but armed with my own private French- speaker I was ready to take on the Ville-Lumiere.

We took the 6.30 Eurostar from St. Pancreas. In order to do this, we got a bus at 4am. This is what we look like, waiting for a bus at 4am.

We arrived in Paris, after like 2 hours in a dark tunnel at the Gare du Nord, and took a short metro ride to our quartier, St. Germain in Paris' Latin Quarter, and hotel, the Hotel Califonia (yes, really. It was a cheap internet deal, okay)

Paris' metro system is sound, the train's are larger than our London 'Tube', but there are a lot more stairs in the metro and a lot less escalators.

They do have these very gothic signs outside each station, almost as if you're entering a theme park attraction.

And our hotel room was actually great. Our view was lovely,

and we were 2 minutes' walk from this baby, Notre Dame on the Ille de Paris. We even got the AC to work on the 2nd night, which we needed as temperatures hit 32 all three days we were there.

The land-locked Parisians have found a way to deal with the heat though, with sand hauled in to make 'La Plage' beside the Seine, every July.

Eric took in the scenery.

We walked across to the Ille de Paris, passing this statue commemorating (we think) the winner of the turn-of-the century ladies' naked table tennis championships.

A thing you quickly learn about Paris is: it's all in the details. Faces on bridges, gargoyles on Cathedrals, even cherubs on public water fountains. I couldn't actually believe it until I saw people filling up their water bottles from these plentiful Godsends.

We returned to actually check in to our hotel (at 1.30pm) having stopped for a gallette (savoury pancake to me) and discovered arguably the best way to see Paris.
Reader, let me introduce you to Velib!

Here's the deal: They are racks of bikes attached to little docks, distributed around the city.
You buy a ticket, as Eric's showing, which is 1euro for one day, or 5euros for a week.

THEN you put a credit card into the central machine, which takes a deposit of 150euros in case you keep the bike.

If you replace the bike within a half hour (ie you journey across the city and clunk the bike into one of the docks there) it's free, as many times that day as you want! If you keep the bike over half an hour they charge you another euro or so per hour. If you nick the bike, they take the 150euros from your card.

Amazingly, nobody seems to do this! Perhaps it's because the bikes are specifically designed and can only be fixed by Velib technicians, but I think it's more than that, something to do with the sense of pride, the notion of right and wrong I got from people in the city. People were courteous, polite even to a Brit like me, and fair.

I regret to admit, this great system would work in my hometown, which is a shame, because the bikes were a cheap, fun, quick way to see Paris, and much cooler than the stuffy, devoid of Air-Con Metro!

One word of warning: they freeze up that 150euros for as long as a week, while they tally up all the retruned bikes. Just, you know, if you needed the money....
We cycled (or Velibbed) from our hotel where conveniently there were a bunch of Velibs lined up, down the Champs-Elysees, pausing to check out the direct line from the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre, all the way to the Arc itself.

Here we are.

Next, on to the Tour d'Eiffel, which we cycled (ok, pushed our bikes) right under.

And if you think this looks impressive,
check it out at night! But more on that later...

We cycled North, to Rue Raynouard, and left our bikes in a dock there, right near the house of famous writer Balzac.

Time for a cider, in one of Paris' street cafes. See, the thing about cafes in Paris is, THEY WORK. The staff are efficient, quick, bring you what you want and leave you alone. It's a thing the English don't seem to ever get right, but is so great when done well. We dined in cafes several times, a 24hour cafe became our local in fact. And I didn't find them expensive either. Almost all we visited had a 2 course lunch menu for around 10euros. Try seeing how much you can get in a cafe in Venice for 10 euros!

Refreshed, it was on to Balzac's house. For an impoverished writer, he definitely liked to live in style. There are letters to landlords here, in his former dwelling, on the one hand explaining how his rent would be late, and in the same correspondance, expressing a wish to purchase statues/chairs already in the apartment!

Here's his desk

a few of his notes

his coffee pot, which he overused to the point of gastric trouble, staying up all night writing

the intricate family trees he created for his characters, all interweaved

examples of the illustrations of these characters

and someone even thought to make a bronze caste of his writing hand!

Onto another velib, it was back to the Hotel California for a nap.

Later (much later) we went back to the Eiffel Tower, and managed to get up to the 2nd level (the highest level, the 3rd, was closed) by midnight. The queues are greatly decreased late at night,

and as you can see, the views over the Seine are great.

The last 5minutes of every hour in the evening, the light show on the Tower begins, making it twinkle in a Disney-esque way.

This thing is an amazing feat of engineering for 1910! Luckily, the elevators have been updated, in the 60's and more recently, so that now a computer monitors the weight in each lift and refuses to launch one up the tower if it is over-filled. Phew!

We got our first taxi back to St. Germain to find food (a charcutiere from our local, the 24hour Petit Pont cafe), and then Jazz.

Paris' nightlife often takes place in Caves, of which there are several. This one, the Caveau de la Rouchette was as entertaining for it's jive dancers as it was for the

Scott Hamilton jazz quintet, headed by a fantastic Vibrophone player.

I guess they finished at 2.30am, I don't really remember, but I do remember Eric on the way home.

What's he doing?

He's trying to steal Montagne's shoe.

Next morning, following our new rule: Do the must-see's either very early or very late, we were walking round the Notre Dame Cathedral at 9am. But I must finish this post, publish it and write about our 2nd day in a new post!