France, and the French, was something I looked upon with suspicion since a child. Much like many places, foods and people I looked down at, listening to the masses’ opinions and experiences. “The French are a rude race of people”, “They eat weird stuff like frogs legs” or “They refuse to speak English”. It probably had something to do with the well-publicised fact the British and French rarely get along and there is a long history of distaste between the two. Spurred on by recommendations and being in London for my honeymoon my wife Carolina and I booked a day-trip to Paris.
A four AM wake-up call followed by a taxi to St Pancras Station for the two hours twenty minutes train trip with Eurostar. With little sleep sans a coffee hit we walked out of the Gare du Nord station and into a busy grey area that reminded me a lot of London. The plan was to walk in an almost anti-clockwise loop to catch all the key sights; first walking south from the train station to the River Seine, heading west then south across the water, back east and then north again back in time for the 9:10pm train to London.
On route of our two-kilometer walk south we took in some breakfast at Café Charlot, a quaint café where I devoured a commendable Eggs Benedict and Carolina ordered a very fancy version of boiled eggs and soldiers. Attempting to sound French failed miserably so I made up for this by saying “Merci” as many times as possible to our charismatic waiter.
Soon after the café the streets started to open up and look far prettier and cleaner the closer we got to the River Seine. The buildings began to become increasingly historical including the Archives Nationales, with its immaculate courtyard allowing you to take in the vast building in front of you. A short walk further south and a building that literally stopped me in my tracks was the Place de l’Hôtel de ville, or City Hall opposite the river. I could not get my head round how big this 14th century building was, craning my neck up trying to take in every little intricate detail and statues that were carved into its alcoves as we walked around it.
As we forged ahead over the River Seine I compared it with the River Thames in London and could safely say the water looked less brown and the buildings that lined it were just as impressive. A short-walk onto the natural island Ile de la Cité that houses the Notre-Dame de Paris. It is a striking gothic cathedral but to the disappointment of many Americans, no hunchbacks were present.
Moving back off the island and travelling west we approached the world famous museum and gallery The Louvre. The site is substantial, the most impressive building I have ever seen and completely mind-boggling. Carolina and I questioned to each other how on earth humans built this building without the modern tools of today. As you enter exit the back end the glass pyramid confronts you. I personally think it detracts from the architectural styles used but apparently at night when it is lit up along with the wings that surround it, it looks magical.
We moved further west through a beautiful, long park with fountains, ponds, trees and flowers towards the Arc de Triomphe. Visible in the distance, it grows gradually larger as you walk up the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The prestigious road itself is lined with luxury stores and eye-wateringly expensive restaurants that cater for a herd of tourists, an upmarket version of London’s Oxford Street. The Arc is huge, which came as no surprise but as we needed an energy boost we stopped headed south back towards the river and stopped at a café along the way.
I had no intention of “going up” the Eiffel Tower but I did want to see it up close. After our café pit stop we crossed the Seine again and approached the tower site. We cut through the ridiculous queues to climb the tower and walked under and away from it through the Champ de Mars, another tree lined park that faced. You only really appreciate the tower from a distance back in the park, sitting on the lawn in the sun along with others that slept, or read books, or like us, just gazed up at the immense iron structure in awe.
With a few hours left of our day trip we headed east, our goal the upmarket district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Here, even more so than the rest of Paris we had seen, we noted that almost man an woman were svelte, the majority walking, almost stylish gliding the streets. There were an inordinate amount of men wearing luxurious scarves. After checking out some of the chic boutiques our blistered and battered feet screamed for a break and we sat down in a cafe, the timing incredible as heavy rain started in contrast with the majority of the sunny, mild day.
The café scene seemed to be a key part of Paris’ identity. Locals drank tiny espresso coffees, even past 5pm and when they drank beer they sipped the 250ml glasses slowly. I on the other hand drank two 500ml glasses of Belgian pale ale Grimbergen Blonde as I watched, continuing my approach of trying new beers in every location, city or country I go to, a habit prompted by a new love of craft and obscure beers in Sydney.
With the rain easing we hailed a taxi back north nearer the train station and to a restaurant wine bar called L’art Source known for its tapas. As the first customers of the night the chef was not ready so we took in the owner’s recommendation, a French cheese board and a red Crozes Hermitage wine; an incredibly rich but great taste sensation.
Finally exhausted and slightly drunk it was time to leave Paris for the train back to London. Walking around cities may leave you comatose at the end of the day but we still maintain it’s the best way to navigate and Paris was no exception. There were some negatives such as a personal one for me that every man, woman and their dog seemed to smoke furiously. Even compared to Sydney food and drink were noticeably expensive, but maybe the eleven Euro beers clouded that. Generally service was good but at times but painfully slow.
However in contrast the positives were abundant. The parks were vast, clean and manicured and I have never seen as many buildings that I stood opened mouthed starting at, taken aback at their size and the acutely detailed architecture. It oozes history and for a whirlwind tour of Paris, it left me wanting to see more to test if it can knock a certain Big Apple off the top of the tree.