Thursday, 19th May 2016
From the Charles De Gaulle (CDG) airport I manage to find my way to the RER-B station, buy my 5-zone Visit card from the counter, and get going towards la Tour Eiffel (the Eiffel Tower), for which I have to change trains. A small incident aside, I reach there just after sunset, around 9:30 p.m. in the evening. Lighted up and beautiful, la Tour Eiffel does its 10-minute glitter at 10 p.m. right before my eyes.
RER-C is closed and I can’t catch Musée de Louvre at night, so I decide to take a walk along the river-bank behind la Tour Eiffel. I am lucky to catch the moon-rise behind the trees and this grand structure, which keeps looking back at me wherever I go. Then I get going towards Ecole Polytechnique, in Palaiseau, where Abhishek, my friend from college and host in Paris, comes to pick me up at the RER-B station Lozére, and we have to walk up 295 stairs to the campus. I would say, doing that every night, tired and hungry (and once drunk and tipsy), was the worst part of living in Paris.
Friday, the 20th
Although my plan was to spend the entire Friday in Versailles, it’s raining since morning, and I decide to catch central Paris instead, visiting the Notre Dame Chapel and Saint Chapelle. The queue in Notre Dame is long. However, the wait and the long climb up the 422 circular stairs is really worth it, as the grand structure offers a central view of the city of Paris, with the Eiffel tower rising in the west, the Arc de Triomphe in the north-west, the Sacre Cour Basilica rising on the hill in Montmartre in the north, the Pièrre Lachaise Cemetery in the east and the Pantheon and numerous other churches, office buildings and houses in the south. Of course, you can’t miss la Seine and its branches cutting across the city. The Chapel also hosts the balcony from where the distance to Paris are measured and the great bells which chime on special occasions and at noon each day. I find myself lucky to be up there at noon.
After the tiring climb-down, I decide to take a walk towards the Luxembourg gardens as the Sun is coming out, catching Université la Sorbonne on the way and also buying necessities from a supermarket. I hang around for some time in Shakespeare & Company, the famous English bookshop, catch croissant and almond cookies in their café, and walk along the route the characters in ‘Before Sunset’ had taken. I walk to Saint Chapelle, which is on the same island as Notre Dame, but find it closed (in the same building as the public court, it is closed between 1:15 and 2:45 p.m. every day). Still half an hour to open, I decide to take a walk along la Seine. The river-bank is beautiful, with musicians and painters and lovers. I find a Batobus counter and check the price. I see that I am eligible for a 6€ discount, and can go anywhere for as long as I want on Batobus for 2 days at 13€. So I buy a ticket and go around the city in the boat, deciding to give Saint Chapelle a miss for then. The buildings and trees and people lining the banks of the different branches of la Seine going this way make the river-banks beautiful, and the breeze adds to the experience. Musée de Louvre, Musée de Orsay, la Carousel, la Tour Eiffel are all along the banks of the Seine, covered by Batobus round trip. After around two and a half hours, I decide to head towards Montmartre, catching Arc de Triomphe along the way.
Aside from a forgettable experience in a defunct public toilet, and a complete confusion about where to catch the bus, meeting a Sri Lankan who doesn’t speak English but is excited to see me, and buying some souvenirs, I manage to board the right bus. However thanks to the crowd, I end up missing my stop at Place de la Concorde and having to find Champs Elysées by foot. I walk along it towards Arc de Triomphe, the poshest street I have ever walked on in my life (and possibly ever will). From there I take the Metro to Pigalle and run into Abhishek inside the train, who was supposed to meet me in Pigalle after work.
In Pigalle, I have the best Friday evening of my life! The Sacre Cour Basilica is situated at the top of the hill surrounding Montmartre. On the walk up to the hill, the atmosphere changes quickly. The crowd is young; the streets are beautiful, the stairs are beautiful, and of course, the women are beautiful. We catch two young musicians surrounded by a group of people, playing guitar and violin alone and together and what not! Street-artists of different kinds: painters who paint portraits if you “sit for 10 minutes and pay us 10€,” solo musicians playing a variety of instruments, another group of musicians playing soft rock music in English, Spanish and French, jugglers and performers exhibiting their talents. People gather around the various artists and cheer them on. And then there are the beer-sellers, making a lot of profit from a young crowd who find themselves in need of a casual drink. We don’t go into the Basilica, just walk, sit, drink beer and take in the electrifying atmosphere till late after the sunset, until the desperation to pee kicks in! Quite drunk, we manage to escape some street bullies and lighten up @1€. We then find the way to Moulin Rouge, along with Paris’ famous red-light area in Pigalle. We spend some time around it and then return to Palaiseau, managing to catch some sleep in the RER-B!
Saturday, the 21st
The day is sunny, and the weather forecast says it is supposed to remain so. So I head to Versailles. The Château area is too crowded with tourists, and I have read beforehand that there are alternative routes to the gardens. So I decide to explore, and after a long walk find myself completely lost somewhere in the gardens. The village area is beautiful, and I bump into a bunch of Americans who are equally lost. With the GPS, I manage to find my way to the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, which I can’t enter because I don’t have a ticket, but I manage to find the Great Lakes. I spend the afternoon walking around the lakes, a full circle, back to the Château, getting lost and conversing with other lost people on the way. There are joggers and picnickers taking in the beautiful Saturday afternoon, and cyclists whoosh past from time to time. There are lovers, there are friends, there are families and there are old couples. The walk in the park is a simply amazing experience, although a little tiring. I hang around near the Château and manage to find people who help me understand the way out through the village leading back to the RER-C station. Grandeur is the theme of Paris, everything appears huge, from the Eiffel Tower to Versailles (which of course is a town by itself) — and as I was to find out later — the Louvre, and the cemetery situated right in the middle of this grand city.
I go back to central Paris and utilize my Batobus pass to go around the city again. In the Notre Dame bank, I find 3 modellers who are posing, and I join their photograph-friend to shoot away at my heart’s content! That night is ‘la Nuit de Musée’ or ‘the Night of the Museums’, and all the museums in Paris will offer free entry for the whole night! Although the queue at Musée de Orsay is quite thin, I decide to go to Musée de Louvre first, where Abhishek joins me. It is a whole new (not to mention confusing!) experience, inside the world’s largest museum. We catch some of the items in my list, including the Mona Lisa, the Great Sphinx, Venus de Milo, the Cour Khorsabad, the tombs and mommies of the ancient Egyptians, the Roman ceiling paintings from the 19th century, and a painting I had read about: that of two naked women making love, to mention a few. After a mind-boggling experience of trying to find the way out of this simply grand structure, as we finally succeed, we have enough time to catch Van Gogh in Musée de Orsay, but by then the queue is so long that there is no hope for us to enter, enjoy and catch the last train back home. So we hang around in central Paris after sunset, catching the Carousel lighted up in the French national colours. My friend offers me dinner at Paris’s cheapest restaurant, but it’s started to rain heavily and we decide to head back to Ecole, still feeling heady with the grandeur of the Louvre…
My plans for the last day, before catching the flight to Geneva at night, includes catching the Pièrre Lachaise cemetery, and also the Saint Chapelle which I had missed earlier. However, I wake up late after the two tiring days, to find the rain continuing from the last night. When I have made and packed my lunch and is about to leave, the rain has finally stopped. Metros on Sundays are much rarer, there’s just not enough time to catch both in my wish-list so I go only to the Cemetery.
Situated in the middle of the city, it is grand, just like everything else in Paris. Spreading out on all sides, with thousands of graves all around, one lane leading to another in every direction, it is thoroughly confusing, even if you have a map. I manage to find Pièrre Casimir. From here, one can see the Notre Dame Chapel at a distance. I manage to find the grave of Edith Piaf, and it is here that the rain starts to ruin my day. By the time I find Oscar Wilde, it is raining very heavily again, and I decide to trade visiting the resting grounds of Gay-Lusaac and Jim Morrison, for shelter — because it’s suddenly become very cold and chilly. Finding my way back is another very confusing and frustrating experience, with all the small lanes starting from everywhere around you, going up and down, and quite a few of them leading to dead-ends! I finally head back to the airport.
And here are what I missed (so that you don’t):
- Saint Chapelle
- Inside of Sacre Cour Basilica
- Château de Versailles
- Musée de Orsay
- Some of my ‘To See’s in Pièrre Lachaise cemetery
- Amorino ice-cream
- Many other museums…