Saturday, 20 October 2012

Paris - that most elegant of cities.

It  took me all of about five minutes to agree to go to France for a three week adventure with my sister-in-law and a group of her friends.  It was a grey, rainy morning when she rang to ask  me to join her and visions of a European summer and, more truthfully, baguettes, french cheese, french wine and general all round slothfullness turned my head mighty quickly.  We were to meet up with the group at a small town in the Loire district but would first spend a short time in Paris before rendezvousing with them.

Paris is, well, Paris and I cannot add anything much of value to the screeds and screeds already written about this wonderful city.  So here are just a few of my observations and a couple of, perhaps, helpful tips.

Elegance everywhere you look
We booked into a small, inexpensive, independent hotel in a sublime location.  Hotel Quai de Voltaire is basic, to say the least, but clean, welcoming and every room has its own en suite bathroom which, as far as I'm concerned, is essential.  The hotel's location, right on the River Seine and directly opposite The Louvre, is ideal.  Our room looked out across the river with a great view of the river boats going up and down and the famous riverside bookstall holders plying their trade.  We chose not to have breakfast at the hotel because the small on-site restaurant, while it looked romantically like a scene from an old french movie, reeked of cigarette smoke, an anathema to we New Zealanders used to smoking being banned from all restaurants.  Be warned - the French are very heavy, and defiant smokers.

Crowds waiting to go up the Eiffel Tower

As it was August, and the height of the tourist season, all major attractions had lengthy queues.  We did not even attempt to go up the Eiffel Tower, or into Notre Dame, as we were not prepared to waste precious hours standing in queues.  I had been to Paris on a couple of other occasions and had done these things before but it was a shame for Mary for whom this was a first visit. She was philosophical, though, "Great excuse to come back to Paris" she said.  Instead we took the hop on - hop off bus which is fantastic value and visits all the main attractions of this most beautiful and elegant of cities. We enjoyed this trip so much we did the complete circuit twice, sitting in comfort  in the glorious sunshine on the open top deck.

Unfortunately I had built the manic traffic around the Arc de Triomphe up a little too much, I think. Well it had been manic last time I was there but on this particular day it was quiet and restrained, much to Mary's disappointment.

 Tip 1:  Go to Paris late September or early October when the weather is still good but the crowds have diminished.

Tip 2: Buy a ticket to the Louvre the day before your visit, as we did, to ensure quick entry the next day.

Art Noveau bistro - so Parisienne
It was a great feeling to sail past long snaking queues at the Louvre and walk straight in. We watched aghast as bus load after bus load of tourists raced in and ran, and I mean literally, ran, to see the Mona Lisa. Ten minutes later they were all heading back to their buses... they reminded me of trophy collectors - "that's done then, now we can tick the Mona Lisa off our list."  We decided to go in the opposite direction and what wonderful treasures we discovered.  Our most exciting find was an exhibition of delicate, moody, watercolours by French artist, Eugene Isabey (1803 - 1886), which we spent quite sometime admiring, having the gallery almost to ourselves.

Other delights of Paris we enjoyed were a visit to Hediard, the stunning delicatessen in la Madelaine district, an afternoon of lustful " not shopping" in Galleries Lafayette, window shopping in some of the side streets away from the main tourist traps and long, lazy, bistro meals people watching.
Hediard delicatessen
People watching has to be some of the best fun in Paris.  Goodness me, they are an elegant lot!  As the weather was warm, and sultry, pavement side dining was a joy.  One evening we had a delicious meal at a bistro near our hotel.  A middle aged woman dining alone at the table next to us kept stopping the busy waiter for a chat and holding him in conversation.  He seemed happy to chat and we thought they must know each other well.  They seemed friendly and companionable - that was until she got the bill for her meal.  Then she began to argue about how many glasses of wine she had had.   He said it was three, she said it was two, he pointed to the empty glasses on her table.  She was not happy and after paying the full bill flounced out of the restaurant with gesticulations, gallic shrugs and filthy looks at the waiter.  We wondered if she had been trying a charm offensive on the waiter earlier, whatever, it was very entertaining.

All too soon our brief sojourn in Paris came to an end but we had so much more to look forward to  and so  it was that  with great anticipation we headed to the railway station to catch the train to Tours, in the Loire district.

Here's to a great holiday!