The Travel Blog: Paris Épique

We made it to Paris! We arrived by train from Lyon, and on that note, let me just get this out of the way – New Zealand’s public transport sucks. Remember when I stoked out about how simple and easy-to-use Barcelona’s subway system was? I realised on this trip that public transport all over Europe and the UK is simple and easy to use. Whether it be getting from one side of London to the other on the Tube, or travelling across all of France on the Eurostar, public transport over there is so easy and accessible. Meanwhile, we’re putting in humongous highways that force people out of their homes, desecrate sacred sites, incentivise driving over public transport when the main cities don’t even have the infrastructure to support heavy traffic as it is, and ultimately result in way more carbon emissions being produced from the increased number of cars on the road. Go figure.

Anyway, back on track (pun intended), we arrived at our hotel, which was right by Église Saint-Augustin de Paris, dropped our bags, then immediately set off. We plotted a course up to the Arc de Triomphe and set off into the Paris streets.

It had the same feeling that Bordeaux did; a very modern society in a very old city. Like Bordeaux, the architecture was that classic French style of rows of grand, white buildings with wrought iron window boxes. But where Bordeaux could be quite quaint, Paris was just… epic; it seemed like Bordeaux on a way bigger scale, and we got that impression just from the one street that took us to the Arc de Triomphe.

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The Arc de Triomphe itself only proved Paris’s theme of “big”. The Arc is huge – a massive slab of stone standing proudly in the centre of Place Charles de Gaulle, a junction where twelve straight avenues meet that serves as a roundabout and looks crazy to try and navigate. We took a while to admire the landmark and checked out the tunnel that runs under the roundabout and provides access to the top of the Arc, but in the end we decided to forego going to the top. The line was really long and I can’t remember the cost but remember thinking it was fairly steep. And after reaching the top of the Eiffel Tower (which I’ll cover in my next post), I’m glad I didn’t waste money and time going to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, which I don’t think would have compared.

Leaving the Arc we set off down Champs-Élysées, a straight boulevard 1.9 kms long and 70 metres wide. We walked its whole length, gawking at all the fancy shops along the way.

Eventually we arrived at Place de la Concorde, a square that I’m running out of large-sounding adjectives to describe. Again, it was just huge – a quick Google tells me it’s 8.64 hectares and the largest square in Paris. In its centre stood the Luxor Obelisk, a 23m tall granite column inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphics. It felt like a crossroads; behind us was Champs-Élysées, the road we had just come down, and directly ahead of us was the Tuileries Garden. To our right was a bridge over the River Seine, and in the distance stood the Eiffel Tower.

It was standing in that spot that I realised just how grand Paris was, and I think that’s when I fell in love with it. There is no other word I can think to describe Paris other than grand – everything around us was just so big, but also so beautiful and so old. With what seemed like every building adorned with intricate carvings, statues, and gold, the city is a real testament to enduring architectural beauty. My partner and I just had to stop for a moment and admire the magnificent city we felt were standing in the centre of.

The Louvre, which we reached by continuing East through the Tuileries Garden, continued to prove why “grand” seems to sum up the architecture of Paris perfectly. It’s the world’s largest museum in the world and is actually a palace built in the late 12th Century as a fortress. It’s pretty amazing to behold, and really hard to capture in photos.

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If I was to give any advice on visiting the Louvre, it would be in two key pieces; give yourself a few hours and bring cash. We kind of made our way to the Louvre without knowing whether or not we were actually going to get in, but upon seeing the line was pretty small we decided to just do it. It was about 4pm, so we only had about an hour and a half until it closed. We knew the Louvre would be big, but we hadn’t anticipated just how big it was. By the end we had seen probably about a third of what the museum had to offer, and that was rushing through it.

I say bring cash, though, because of this story; upon lining up to buy our admission, we saw a sign saying no credit cards. We had some cash but we didn’t quite have enough after spending it on incidental stuff along the way to the Louvre. Our disappointment must have been really obvious; after turning around dejectedly from the ticket booth a random guy came up to me and shoved two bits of paper under my nose. “Here mate,” he said in an English accent, “take ’em”. Wary, I eyed the paper and said, “What is it?” The guy must’ve known I was sceptical and assured me that they were tickets; the scanners at the entrance weren’t working so, because the staff had no way of scanning the tickets to tell whether people had used them more than once, as long as you had a ticket at all you could get in. After thanking the guy profusely, we took the tickets and headed into the Louvre, beelining for the same thing everyone else was – the Mona Lisa.

To be completely honest, I personally found the Mona Lisa a bit ordinary – compared to the art that surrounds it, that is. There’s no doubt that it’s an impressive work of art and so iconic, but the thing that struck me about it is its extraordinary fame when it is surrounded by so many other amazing paintings. It’s located in a room about halfway down the Grande Galerie, an immense, arching hallway filled with incredible art that serves as one wing of the palace. Some paintings are metres tall or wide, taking up entire walls, and others depict epic naval battles or famous scenes from the Bible – many of which seem to me, admittedly in my ignorance of art history and form, so much more impressive than the Mona Lisa. So I guess what I found interesting about the Mona Lisa is not the painting itself, but the fact that it – and for some reason not any of the other impressive works of art around it – is the one that people flock to see. Who knows why one piece of art becomes famous over another (probably a fair question for a lot of literature too!)?

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*Actual size

Maybe it has a lot to do with the next thing that really struck me there: the behaviour of the tourists (which I do realise I was one of). I think tourists can generally be pretty cringe-worthy, and all of us have probably, at one stage or another, been an obnoxious tourist ourselves without realising it. But I was particularly stunned by what I saw at the Mona Lisa: a squabbling mob of tourists jamming themselves in front of the Mona Lisa for selfies. I feel like the way I describe it seems like a caricature but that’s what it was really like; people were forcing their way through the crowd, fixing their hair or straightening their hats, only to snap a selfie and then inspect the photo to judge if it was good enough – then going back for more when they weren’t happy with the way they looked. I felt as if I was the only one in the room trying to just appreciate the Mona Lisa for what it was – a work of art. And I don’t mean that in a snobby art connoisseur way – I honestly wouldn’t know a great work of art from a terrible one – I just couldn’t understand travelling to the other side of the world just to get a photo of myself next to the most famous painting in the world. It really made me realise how prevalent selfie culture has become. Back out in the hallway, I spotted a teenager taking a photo of herself in a mirror and just about imploded; how could you stand in one of the most famous art museums in the world, literally surrounded by the most amazing paintings history has known, and take a photo of yourself? Maybe I’m being too judgmental – people can do whatever they like, after all – but as my partner summed up as she stood in front of the Mona Lisa frowning, head cocked to one side: “I just don’t get it.”

Anyway, in summary, seeing the Mona Lisa is definitely worth doing. Tick that box. But I would also advise you to take your time wandering the Grand Galerie and actually appreciating the simply vast range of art the Louvre has to offer. Find your way down to where the Polynesian art is located. Or see if you can find the collections of Middle-Eastern weapons. And if you did follow my advice and gave yourself a few hours, explore the whole other two thirds that I didn’t get to see. There were so many other things that impressed me more than the Mona Lisa, and I’m sure that if I’d had more time to explore the rest of the Louvre, I would have found more.

That first day in Paris, and that round trip that took us all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, down to the Louvre and back to our hotel again, really tired us out, so we decided to have an early night. But there was another reason we decided to catch up on some sleep – the next morning was Easter Sunday, and one thing I really wanted to do was attend an Easter service at Notre Dame first thing.

Of all the sites in Paris I wanted to see, I think Notre Dame was my priority. It probably goes back to that childhood love of all things Disney – ever since seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame I had been fascinated by the cathedral. When playing Assassin’s Creed: Unity, a video game set in French Revolution-era Paris, I must’ve spent at least a couple of hours just crawling all over the cathedral, humming “Out There” to myself. But as anyone who’s been following the travel blog will have noticed, I have a real fascination with cathedrals anyway, so seeing Notre Dame was a big deal for me.

The morning was quiet and still, and it was in this cool silence of Easter Sunday morning that we made our way to Notre Dame. Again, it was just epic; its front two towers loomed over us as we approached and I couldn’t wait to see if the interior was as impressive as its French Gothic-style exterior.

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When we reached it, however, we found it almost completely barricaded by police. Increased security due to recent terrorist attacks, we presumed. But we were determined to get in, so followed the barriers around to the front, where we found a small crowd of people discussing entry with the police. More and more people were beginning to arrive but, upon seeing the barriers, were turning around to leave. We decided to just hang around and wait to see what happened, which totally paid off – soon the police opened the barrier and let our small group through!

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Like the other cathedrals I’d visited on this trip, it was with a real sense of wonder that I entered Notre Dame. There’s not much more I can say about how beautiful I find the insides of these buildings without repeating myself, but what I will say is that I felt so fortunate to experience an Easter service there. I wouldn’t call myself religious – although I was raised Anglican, and my parents are both Christian – but I definitely think of myself as a spiritual person. So it felt quite special to be in Notre Dame, a cathedral I had always wanted to see, witnessing it provide the spiritual function it was built for. I didn’t understand a word that was being said, nor did I subscribe to the form of religion being practised, but I appreciated the spirituality of the experience all the same. Once the service was over, I took the chance to wander down the cathedral’s length and admire some of its other features, such as the smaller altars for prayer and the stunning stained glass windows. And I couldn’t finish my account of Notre Dame without mentioning the organ. Located right up the back of the cathedral, just under one of the stained glass windows, the organ is pretty incredible to see, and even more so to hear. In fact, I think if “epic” was a sound, that organ would be it.

That’s all for this instalment, but I hope to get up Part 2 of our time in Paris very soon. I think that will probably be the last travel update I give – it’s now been around 4 months since we got back from our trip to Europe/UK, and I think I underestimated how much time/effort it takes for me to sit down and actually write it all out. As time goes on, other things are coming up I want to write about, so I think it will probably be a good time to call it. So check back soon for the final “Travel Blog” update, and again shortly after that for what will hopefully be something entirely new.

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