Monday, March 7, 2011

Paris Revisited: Fresh eye on the French capital

I have recently returned from a 5-day trip to Paris.  The French capital is generally perceived as the ultimate European city destination, and it is easy to see why when you begin to check off the boxes-history, architecture, tourist attractions, shopping, cafe culture, romance......for centuries Paris has had it all, and more.  But when a city has been so long celebrated, so utterly glamorised and elevated in the eyes of the world, can expectation haze real experience?  Is Paris on a pedestal or does it deserve its prestigious reputation? I cast as fresh a pair of eyes as I could (for someone on their third visit in 8 years) over the French capital, looking to see past postcard Paris and evaluate the city as it lives and breathes in 2011.  

My first visit to Paris consisted of a hostel stay-one of the worst I've been in, complete with sagging bunks, a curfew, a lock out time during the day and filthy conditions.  My second was a 2* hotel with iron-barred windows, bare floors, bug-ridden beds and a fluorescent-lit basement breakfast room.  Both were grossly over-priced and substandard. Of course I wouldn't have had much cash to flash on either of my previous visits, but the point here is that you don't even get what you pay for when it comes to accommodation in Paris.  The reasons that I can see for this are simple.  Paris is an old city, made up of old buildings, many of which have escaped proper modern restoration and continue to allude renovation decades after it is due.  Paris is an old city, made up of old buildings.  It is rich in history and architecture and therefore many people want to visit it.  Demand exceeds supply. Paris grew out, not up, and people like to stay in the centre. Like any competitive market this leads to inflated prices for often sub-standard accommodation.  Paris is a year-round destination.  With no real off-season and continued demand for accommodation despite the need for a lick of paint or retiling, why would a hotel or hostel proprietor want to close its rusty door for the sake of a face lift? Simple economics and old city charm combine.  For those who can afford it, pay big. After all you are in Paris.  For those that can't, be content to enjoy the luxury and elegance of the city with the majority, as a shared, public , exterior experience.  Who needs to be indoors when after all you are in Paris?

Another option, what turned out to be a third time lucky roll of the dice for me, is to rent an apartment.  Half my reason for being in Paris was to source vintage clothing for my sister's online boutique Dandelion Daydreamer.  To be close to the shops and weekend markets we decided to stay in La Marais, literally 'The Swamp'.  The area, which now makes up the 3rd & 4th arrondissiments of Paris, was built on marsh land from the 16th century onwards.  Since then it has been a centre of history, politics and the arts.  Home of kings, of Napoleon, and home of the ideas of liberty.  Home of music and literature, of Mozart and Victor Hugo.  And now, the home of the creative, design and fashion elite.  Home to the Parisian gay scene. Home to a young, stylish and modern Parisian people.  And home to me, for five days anyway.  

On walking into our little apartment after a scratch o'clock flight and a 2 hour multi-transfer journey from Charles de Gaulle, I was immediately refreshed and lifted by its stylish mix of fancy-french elegance with modern finishings.  We settled in at once, locating our local bouloungarie and toasting our trip with fresh-baked baguettes and oozing cream patisseries.  It became our little haven in a hectic city, home for a cup of tea, a wink of sleep, one indulgent bakery binge after the next, and, most importantly, a place to put our Parisian purchases, of which there were many, and then more.  We took to apartment living like ducks to water, helped in I suppose by the value of it all.  €40 per person per night for a little shelf of our own in that great city. Legitimate locals if just for a few days.  

Shopping was a priority for us. Our first few days were spent at markets, some good, some bad, all on the outer, less desirable, limits of the city.  The suburbs we visited stood in stark contrast to the exquisite architecture and elegance of the city's historical centre. Grim, grey buildings loomed over heavily littered and unkempt streets.  Shop fronts were fluorescent, undressed, unappealing.  No trees or greenery broke the grey.  Groups of men stood together, leering and whistling at us as we passed.  If I din't know I was in Paris, I would have guessed at an Eastern European city, some part of Pest perhaps.  It was Paris without its make -up and it wasn't pretty.  Deep in the markets of these suburbs however, past the riff-rff fare of pirate DVDs and electronics, amid heaped piles of clothing, shoes and bags, were some utterly splendid vintage finds.  

My favourite of the markets was at Monte Marte.  There are two distinct areas. The first consists of open-air weekend stalls and is everything I hate in a market-fake branded products sold by heckling vendors.  The second,  more permanent arrangement, is made up of a labyrinth of winding lanes packed higgeldy-piggeldy with antique boutiques and outlets.  Here we encountered a world of wonderful and absurd items, piled high in stores and spilling out onto the lanes, making a mini museum-like obstacle course of our path.  War-time trunks, ornate picture frames and mirrors, vintage perfume bottles, jewellery cases, hat pins and brooches, fur coats of every kind, dusty trinkets, yellowed first editions, dainty teas sets, mahogany drinks cabinets, door knobs, parquet floorboards, amoire desks, four poster beds.......all mixed up together with a large sprinkling of dust and a collective odour of must and history.  The vendors-many on the kooky side-know  that for some these items are gold dust, rather than just dust, and they charge accordingly.    Even if you don't intend to spend, a walk around the market is a pleasant way to spend the day off the tourist trail.    They don't allow photography, but I couldn't resist sneaking a snap of this fella, just the kind of random thing you can expect to see!  

When we had our fill of markets we focused our attention on La Marais.  This is a charming place to walk around taking in an array of tempting boutiques, artistic window displays,  elegant public spaces, stylish dog walkers and coffee drinkers and lots and lots of vintage shops.  

For antique lovers Rue St. Paul is a street of dreams.  

Also in La Marais is Hotel de Ville, a lovely recreational open space that includes an ice rink and a beautiful carousel that brought a smiie to my face each time I passed it.  I also loved the old-style snack cart selling 'barbe du papa' or 'Father's beard', a lovely name for the sweet treat candy floss.  

Our shopping did not end in La Marais with our spending money. It wouldn't have been a visit to Paris without a stroll down Avenue des Champs-Élysées.   The wide avenue continues to exude style and elegance, with flagship stores from most of the world's top fashion houses occupying an almost palatial presence on the famous street.  There is also a good representation from high street stores, so if your budget is more H&M than  Louis Vuitton you don't have to leave empty handed.  

As you may have noticed from my previous posts on Biarritz, Hossegor and Bayonne, I am a lover of French patisseries.  From early morning bakery runs to cheeky fly-by macaroons, one of my favourite things about France is their cakey, bakery culture.  The minute I stepped into Ladurée on Champs-Élysées I knew I was in for a treat.  Ladurée is a luxury cakes and pastries brand based in Paris.  It has a long-standing reputation as being the inventor of the double macaroon, of which it sells over 15,000 daily!  A glance inside made me weak at the knees. Trays of macaroons and elaborate displays of cakes tempted me from every direction.  We were brought to a grand tea room upstairs, where we sat on plush antique chairs at a little table covered in a white cloth. We began to read.  Page after page of dessert options almost made me dizzy.  We finally settled on a couple to share and almost cried when they arrived and we had to break the artistic creation in order to eat -although of course the eating sweetend this for us!  My favourite, pictured below, had so many ingredient combinations that I cannot regurgatate them here, but believe me it was delicious.  For me a trip to Paris must include a trip to a Ladurée.  

When not eating cakes there are many restaurant options in Paris.  Ambient Cafes line the streets, although I prefer these for a coffee or a glass of wine to rest the feet.  Often they have restricted hours on their kitchens.  Fine dining is synonymous with France, so there are many high-end gourmet establishments.  These come with a price though so more a special treat option than a daily feed.  In between the bakery and fine dining I think Paris could do with some bolstering.  There are so many tourist traps, serving over-priced, tasteless meals that eating out proves to be a real case of hit or miss  and it is often a cheaper and more satisfying bet just to grab a pastry or stop at a roadside  crêperie.     This is not to say that there aren't lovely restaurants, of course there are, but they just need a little teasing out from the tourist traps.  Local knowledge in Paris would have you eat out every night in one great place after another, but alone, uninformed and hungry can sometimes result in bad choices and disappointment.  To try dodge this it is always good to stay away from major attractions when dining, explore side streets, check out where the locals are eating, spy on other diners' meals from a window.......using these savoury survival techniques we managed to uncover a tapas hideaway that was cozy, delicious and well-priced, as well as a very nice Italian.  we also landed a few absolute honkers, but what can you do!

It is not acceptable to dodge the capital's famous attractions simply for the sake of your stomach however.  Parisian landmarks are amongst the most recognised in the world and are a must-see/must-do for tourists.  Luckily for us the Arc de Triomphe is located at the end of the Champs-Élysées.  We were able to roll out of Ladurée and immediately encounter the impressive 50m high structure.  The Arc, which was commissioned in 1806,  honours those who fought and died  for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its walls.  Under the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Arc stands at the centre of a pentagon-shaped configuration of twelve radiating avenues, a sight that in itself is something to behold.  Traffic winds its way around the Arc in a flurry of disorder and chaos.  No insurance company will cover a vehicle involved in a crash while navigating this danger zone! 

After taking in the Arc we headed via the Metro towards the Eiffel tower.  We had spotted it poking its head above the city a couple of times over the past few days, each sighting bringing with it a little excitement and a rushing reminder of where we were.  The Iron Lady, as it is commonly known, stretches 324 metres into the sky and is the tallest structure in Paris, as well as the most visited.  We arrived on site and marvelled at the sheer size of the tower.  The symbol of France, so commonly used and seen and printed, suddenly becomes a giant when you stand underneath it.  Apart from appreciating the colossal size of the tower, I prefer viewing the tower from a distance. Walking around a corner and spotting the tower lurking in the distance, or appreciating the fullness of the structure  framed and staged from the Trocodero are nicer experiences than moving amongst throngs of tourists snapping iron.  Like many a lady, this one is better viewed from a distance.  

After our token visit to the tower we again hopped on the Metro and headed towards Notre Damme.  Located near La Marias this was a convenient last stop for us to walk home from.  Like good tourists we took our photos of the Gothic cathedral and bought a crepe.  As we left the crowds of tourists busy flashing their cameras and crossing the cathedral off their lists, I thought of how we had rushed three major attractions into one afternoon.  Witnessing the exteriors of these famous architectural buildings, but going no deeper than that.  I suppose we were surface tourists. 

Feeling somewhat guilty about the lack of proper attention I had paid to France's most celebrated structures, I decided to take a red bus tour the following day to  learn a little more about the city's history.  OK so technically I was cramming Paris into an afternoon again, but this time I was using my ears as well as my eyes.  €24 got me a 90 minute round trip complete with an audio guide.  I sat on top, as you have to do or you miss everything, and endured the bitter cold as I learnt some interesting facts about the city.  Having spent the previous four days underground on the Metro it was wonderful to piece together the landmarks and familiar street names, finally mapping Paris out visually in my head.  It was also a great opportunity to appreciate the incredible town planning that Paris is laid upon, symmetry, clean lines, bridges lined with statues, urban gardens and the vast, magnificent Place de La Concorde.  The formal layout of Paris is for me more impressive than any single monument, structure or space contained within it.  Visually the bus tour provided a great vantage point from which to soak in the city.  The audio fell short of stimulating however, with a rather dull recorded commentator offering historical fact and and instructions on where to look.  No anecdotes, current affairs, local knowledge, no colour or flavour, it was formal and clipped and dull.  A live guide that could entertain and educate simultaneously-somethign akin to a London bus tour-was grossly missed.  

Disembarking the bus I couldn't help feeling like more boxes had just been ticked, rather than enjoyed. Historical dates and names of Kings swirled in my head, but soon were lost as I was yet again absorbed by the city swelling around me.  Boutiques, boulangeries, intimate cafes, stylish ladies all caught my eye and then blurred as yet another came into sight.  The everyday elegance of Paris is what I love.  It struck me then, that Parisians do not live in Paris because of its architectural grandeur and aesthetic appeal,  rather that this exists because of Parisians.  Mentally I threw away the tourist check list-I had no intention of going to the Louvre anyway- and enjoyed my final walk to the apartment.  

I actually had been to the Louvre a few years before and found the endless galleries quite draining.  With no art history education much of the priceless art  washed over me and blended to one.  I do remember my surprise at seeing how small the Mona Lisa was.  It is so easy to big things up.  I remember how from a distance her face appeared smooth and as one, but how on closer inspection there were countless cracks and lines.  In many ways Paris is like this.  It has its cracks, its blemishes, its dirty secrets, but this fade away when you take a step back and evaluate it as a whole.  I saw litter on the streets, was served some terrible meals and let crowds of tourists spoil my view of its prestigious landmarks. But distance makes the Eiffel tower more splendid, makes the heart grow fonder and makes Paris more perfect.  Every day I stay away makes me want to go back more. The cracks fade in on themselves. That's the magic of Paris I guess.  


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