Thursday, 8 December 2011

A Christmas market, Parisian style

I almost hate to admit it (because it leaves me disappointed that I left visiting for so long, when it was always very much in reach), but Paris really impressed me. Completely different in atmosphere from the others areas of France we'd been to before - more cosmopolitan, faster-paced, yet still retaining a 'local' feel - it boasted great architecture, even-better-in-real-life sights and a warmth of feeling. Sure, people replied in English when we were trying very hard with our French (and both speak a reasonable amount), and yes, I did feel rather out of place next to the designer coats/boots/scarves, but overall we met with nothing but friendly faces, an easy to navigate environment and a place we both agreed we need to see more of.

Anyway, we still had pretty much a full day left, and had heard from the lovely family at the Eiffel tower about the Christmas market along the Champs Elysees, so the following morning we wrapped up warmly and set out, hoping to kill a couple of birds with one stone.

Christmas market or not, we had always intended to head in that direction to visit another of the infamous Parisian sights - the Arc de Triomphe. Napoleon's victory gate is a dominant feature of the landscape, seven major roads branching off like a fan in every direction. The Arc sits on an island in the middle, traffic rushing underneath, the pale stone simultaneously graceful and solid. We found our way through the subway to the centre, first staring upwards at the sweeping curve of the Arc and it's carved facades, and then down to our feet to read the bronze inscriptions charting the periods of French history it commemorates and remembers.

After we'd finished at the Arc, we crossed via the subway once more, and started down the Champs Elysees, half of the famous shopping street temporarily given over to the Christmas market. There was the typical mulled wine and German sausage stalls, crafts and toys, but also the Parisian touch with cashmere scarves and jumpers and lots of fur and chic bags. We were tempted by chocolate fancies, and eventually settled for waffles covered with rich chocolate sauce and smothered in strawberries. A few Christmas presents and a couple of cups of mulled wine later, and we managed to tear ourselves away.

With a short time left until our train, we walked to the Madeleine church not far from the market; a beautiful Parthenon-style building mounted on steps and looming over the surrounding streets. There was a small christening taking place, so we sat down quietly for a short while as small boys dressed in cute suits in the christening party offered sweets to all the visitors wandering around the church. A kind gesture that summarised our experience of Paris in the shape of a small cellophane wrapper. Coming out, we took a final walk down some of the side streets before making out way to the Gard du Nord and our waiting train home.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

An evening at the Eiffel Tower

Waddling out of the restaurant after our huge lunch, and not quite ready for more walking, we hopped back on the metro to Trocadero. Boasting a platform perfect for viewing the Eiffel tower in all her glory, it was packed with cameras (and a person hanging off the end of each one, naturally). Families posed for photos, friends took turns positioning their hands in just the right place so it appeared it were holding up/pushing down the tower ("a little to the left, no, to the right, no it was better before...") and couples kissed, holding the pose while a kind stranger clicked a few shots. Our token effort at a photo in front of the tower (self-taken) resulted in me having an Eiffel tower hat - clearly needing a bit more practise at the self-portrait shots.

Darkness was already creeping towards us, so we walked down and across to the park opposite, walking underneath the huge complex structure as we did so. Much more impressive close up than at a distance, the soaring criss-cross of metal loomed over our heads, browner than I had imagined but looking as new as the day it was built. We watched the sky darken from a covered bench, chatting to a family who visit Paris every year, before walking back underneath the black sky and watching the tower light up with hundreds of twinkling lights, flashing on and off to mark the hour before settling into a soft glow.

We returned back to Trocadero to experience the full effect of the evening gloom on our surroundings; the tower a solid beacon of light, the racing traffic underneath a blurred white line. Impressive by day, it was by night that the tower's beauty was revealed. Eventually getting a little too cold, we stopped off at a local supermarket to grab some baguettes, cheese and wine, and enjoyed a makeshift picnic-dinner with some of our favourite French delights.

Monday, 5 December 2011

From fine art to stone gargoyles: a weekend in Paris

After an intense period of work, a weekend lay blissfully free in our diary. No obligations or plans, and no urgent work that needed doing. In other words, a weekend that was crying out for a short city break away... After meeting a lovely French couple in the summer, F and I had recently laughed about the fact that we'd been to some of the furthest reaches of the planet, but had never hopped across the water to Paris. We've both spent times in other areas of France in the past, and had even driven around the capital, but had never ventured inside.

A quick look on the eurostar website and one cheap hotel deal later, and we were set to go. It never fails to astound me that I can spend a weekend abroad for less money than a comparable stay in a nearby B&B would cost. Friday arrived, and after a pleasant couple of hours on the very efficient eurostar we were in the centre of Paris ready for a weekend of relaxing and exploring.

After finding the metro easy and quick to navigate, we located our hotel and had a full night's sleep. The following morning, up early, we set off for the Louvre. Although it was the first weekend of the month, and entrance would be free the following day, we'd heard stories of huge queues winding around the pyramid, and decided to pay the 10 euro to save time and our sanity.

Of course, we couldn't visit the Louvre without saying hello to the immortal first lady of France, so made a beeline straight up the Mona Lisa before too many people arrived. Although I can see why the painting is so loved, it isn't really my sort of art, and the imposing thick glass and cordoned area remove most of the atmosphere. After a brief stop, we moved on, staggered by some of the incredibly huge paintings and thoroughly enjoying wandering through the sculptures. The winged victory, overlooking a central staircase, was particularly magnificent, as were the cold yet expressive pale marbles of the Greek statues. Naturally, the solemn and serious expressions we'd assumed while scrutinising the art turned to immature giggles once we set eyes on our new friend below, who looked as if he was holding an iphone up to take a self-portrait. We could just imagine the facebook/twitter status update: 'Me vanquishing a massive beastie. LOL.'

As the visitor numbers grew, we took our leave of the Louvre, and went outside to wander around the impressive pyramid and surrounding buildings with their rich, delicate detail. If anything, the relentless rain which had been a fixture since the previous evening made the colours come alive, and didn't dampen our spirits (no pun intended...).

We walked along the river to Notre Dame, fronted by a huge Christmas tree. After exploring the interior, we joined the queue for the tower, and spent a cold and damp hour waiting to ascend. Once we finally made it to the front of the line, we were becoming a little impatient, and dashed for the stairs. Around 100 steps up the narrow winding tower, and we were beginning to regret the quick pace we'd set. As is probably obvious by now, myself and steps do not get on, so I'm not sure what I though I was hoping to achieve by attempting to run up them. 300 stairs in, and we were both feeling dizzy, and despite people behind us having slowed down, we still felt guilty in case we were holding anyone up. By the time we finally emerged into the open air, I needed a sit down.

After a short recovery (and lamenting the large dinner of the previous night and the morning's snacks...), we set off gargoyle hunting. As much as I heard of the little stone figures in the past, or seen pictures, I was incredibly impressed. Each with it's own personality, watching over the city eternally, they were beautiful, creepy and majestic all in equal parts. After unsuccessfully attempting to imitate their poses/faces for photos and nipping inside to see the great bell, we made our way up yet more stairs to the very top of the cathedral for a sweeping view across the city before descending once more.

Feeling like we had earned our lunch by then, we found a gorgeous little French restaurant on a side street and hunkered down out of the cold and rain for some thick and cheesy onion soup, creamy mussels, steak and cheese tart, washed down with some nice red wine. An utterly delicious way to build up our energy for the afternoon.