It is several years since we were last in Paris and it really is a delight to be back in this most cosmopolitan of cities where nationalities from all over the world intermix so naturally that nobody seems to notice what colour skin you may have, what language you speak, whether you wear a fez, a veil, a cowboy hat or just green dreadlocks.
It was late morning by the time we were ready to leave Caen. We left Modestine in Genevieve's garden and took the bus down to the station rather than walking as we had the rather heavy laptop computer with us. Here we discovered we had so long to wait for the next train we might as well get a sandwich and a beer at the station buffet. French railway buffets are far nicer than your usual British Rail buffets serving full menus and wine at very reasonable prices.
Fares too are reasonable but so many different discounts apply it is complicated working out just what the full fare for a journey actually is. We were automatically entitled to a 25% discount because of our age. However, if we bought a special card it would entitle us to a 50% discount on all fares for a year! Other discounts apply for under 26 year olds, students, unemployed and members of large families! We gave up trying to understand and cheerfully paid up the 84 euros requested for two return tickets to Paris. That's one heck of a lot less than a similar length journey would cost in England without having purchased special discount cards and with the freedom to travel on any train. Trains and buses run exactly on time here too with little electronic maps at bus stops where you can check your bus's progress as you wait for it to arrive.
Our next surprise was the cleanliness of the metro at the Gare St. Lazare. The platforms, escalators, stairs and long underground corridors between platforms were all spotlessly clean and bright. A big improvement since we were last here and an example for London to follow. A carnet of tickets for 10 journeys anywhere in Paris, regardless of distance costs 10.70€ (about 75 pence each) which compares favourably with London Underground's cheapest ticket of around £1.20 for a couple of stations.)
We are staying, as we always do when we come to Paris, in the Rue de Malte, near the Place de la République. There are two hotels we use here - Hôtel de Vienne and the Hôtel de Nevers - depending which has a room free. Fortunately we'd booked ahead as by the time we arrived all the rooms had been taken. This is an inexpensive area and the one star Hôtel de Nevers is very basic but clean. We have a 4th floor room with shower, loo and wash basin for 51 € a night without breakfast. The metro passes right beneath and sometimes the vibrations can be felt when sitting on the loo – an interesting experience. You would however, have difficulty finding a cheaper deal or friendlier atmosphere elsewhere in Paris. The immediate area is a community in its own right with side street shops providing everything from bakers to plumbers, or internet cafes, bars and restaurants to dry cleaners, betting shops and launderettes. Two minutes walk will take you to the Place de la République with its huge statue of Marianne. The Place is surrounded by seafood restaurants, bistros, hotels and department stores. Here, for a euro each in one of those cheapjack stores that sell everything and appropriately named Tati, we bought a couple of mugs to make illicit tea in our hotel room.
Statue to the Republic, Paris
From here we explored the area of le Temple, visiting the 17th century convent chapel of Sainte Elizabeth famous for the 100 low-relief wooden carvings of Flemish origin depicting scenes from the new and old testaments. We continued past the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers and the Church of St. Martin in the Fields (Yes there is one here too!) Our stroll also took in the oldest house in Paris, now rather dilapidated but dating from 1407, the house of Nicholas Flamel, a bookseller who made a fortune copying and selling manuscripts.
Jonah being thrown into the sea, Eglise Sainte Elizabeth, Paris
Oldest house in Paris
St. Martin des Champs, Paris
Just around the corner we discovered a sixteenth century half-timbered house, a very unusual sight in Paris. Today it stands in the heart of a Chinese residential quarter, where every shop is run by the Chinese for the Chinese, with restaurants, take-aways, supermarkets, clothes and shoe shops. The streets were crowded with Chinese people returning from work while Chinese children played in the streets. Here we found a typical crowded little restaurant that looked so different from the French bistros and restaurants on the main streets we decided to try it. We were the only Europeans there but the atmosphere was friendly and we were generally left to ourselves to observe our fellow diners. We selected chunky spring rolls with prawns and chicken in a translucent white rice paper parcel served with a spicy sauce, followed by beef rice with ginger and spring onions. With it we had real Chinese beer bottled in the People's Republic of China. We ordered in French and the waitress wrote it down in Chinese. Fortunately, in the table, hidden amongst the chopsticks in the bamboo jar, we found one spoon and one fork to share between us. We've never been very deft with chopsticks. Our total bill was 15.50 €, (less than £11)
Continuing our stroll through the side streets of the district we were amused to see how one enterprising person was avoiding the high prices charged by Paris hotels. Tied down directly over a large floor grating emitting warm waste air from the nearby metro, a small tent had been erected, its sides puffed up from within where its occupant basked in real if stale warmth! Passers-by simply walked around it and nobody seemed to mind.
Cheapest lodging place in Paris
The lights and atmosphere on the streets this evening have been very pleasant but we returned to our room around 9.30 pm, passing the cheerfully lit building of the Cirque d'Hiver, currently showing "L'orange mécanique". Tomorrow is expected to be a major day of national protest against Villepin's proposed law to take away any job security from young people - the CPE. Since Chirac went on television a couple of nights back refusing to use his presidential right to overthrow the legislation there is a situation of stalemate in the country with neither the Government not the young people prepared to back down. Trouble tomorrow seems inevitable with the transport system shut down and many public buildings closed. So we will be dependent upon our legs wherever we go and there may well be blockaded streets. There will certainly be a high police presence. When the French feel strongly about something, there are no half measures. It could be quite an historic day.
Cirque d'Hiver, Paris
Tuesday 4th April 2006, Paris
Whew! We are exhausted! An entire day on our feet around Paris with a cold wind has taken its toll. Because of the "manifs" (manifestations) by the students today much of the public transport system was closed down and we were obliged to walk wherever we decided to go. This isn't such a problem as the best way to see and enjoy the different districts of Paris is on foot.
We started the day with a walk to the Père Lachaise cemetery. This is the largest "green" space within the city and is really a small city in its own right. A city for the dead! Started at the beginning of the 19th century it is the main burial ground for Paris. Surprisingly, it is a fascinating place to visit. There are entire "streets" of tiny stone "houses" that would make Modestine look spacious. Each encloses a shrine and houses the mortal remains of affluent French families. You almost expect to meet the postman on his rounds as you find yourself lost in a maze of little cobbled streets. Here and there you stumble upon a name of renown - composers Chopin and Bizet; painters Delacroix, Corot and David; writers Balzac, Beaumarchais, Proust and Wilde; the singer Edit Piaf and Napoleon's marshall General Ney , to mention a few. Here too is the tomb of Abelard and Heloïse.
Père Lachaise cemetery
Having been obliged to stand in the rain on our last visit waiting to file past the grave of Morissey with our daughter Kate, then aged 14, we gave it a miss today, paying our respects instead to Oscar Wilde, where we found his flamboyant tomb, so typical of the man, had been daubed with thousands of pink kisses! A strange kind of graffiti, not altogether inappropriate for such a larger than life character. Wilting roses surrounded the base accompanying an anonymous message written on a slip of paper "thank you for showing me how to appreciate beautiful things."
Tomb of the author Oscar Wilde
Next we visited the tombs of the "Paris sparrow", the singer Edith Piaf, the playwright Beaumarchais and finally the neo-gothic tomb of Abelard and Heloïse.
Tomb of the singer Edith Piaf
Tomb of Abelard and Heloïse
In a corner of the cemetery we discovered several very disturbing and thought provoking monuments to the people of France who had died in Nazi concentration camps, including Buchanwald, Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau and Ravensbruck. Most were too stark and horrific to photograph but we include the one commemorating Buchenwald which we have visited on the hillside overlooking Weimar as an example.
To those who died in Buchanwald
Nearby is a plaque in remembrance of those who died during the final days of the Paris Commune in 1871. This was a communist uprising after the Franco-Prussian war. Some 147 insurgents took refuge in Père la Chaise cemetery but after heavy fighting they were eventually rounded-up, lined up against a wall and shot. They are buried where they fell.
Where the last of the insurgents of the Paris Commune were shot
By this time the atmosphere of the cemetery was becoming oppressive so we made our way towards the canal St. Martin.
Canal St. Martin
Our way led through the Arab quarter, the streets full of shops selling North African foodstuffs with Tunisian and Turkish bakers, their windows full of trays of exotic sticky pastries. We tried a couple which were heavy and thick with syrup but rather nice. We stopped for a coffee and sat watching the passers-by, from varied ethnic origins, as they went about their daily lives. Chinese mothers with toddlers and babies in prams, an Arab man in a fez and long robes, a tall African with dreadlocks, a muslim lady invisible beneath her jaliba and head-covering. The area is so vibrant and colourful. To misquote Samuel Johnson "When one is tired of Paris, one is tired of life". We continued our walk through the busy street market selling everything we have come to expect from French markets but with many additional ethnic stalls catering for the immigrant population of Paris. Here we listened in stunned amazement as a white Parisian "hoodie" running a stall selling ladies underwear advised a heavily robed Arab lady on the quality and support of the different bras and knickers he was selling! This really is a cosmopolitan city!
Around midday we returned to the Place de la République near our hotel to find it thronging with students preparing for the major demonstration against the government's proposed new legislation for employing young people. We stopped to watch as thousands of young people converged on the Place de la République, an obvious location to demonstrate for national equality. There were floats, loud speakers, pounding music, flags, banners, hot air balloons and all sorts of razzmatazz. Young people had travelled from all over France to protest and brought their own musicians with them. The contingent from Brittany for example had their own bagpipes while others had trumpets. There were clowns, hot dog sellers and people on monocycles and roller blades. Had the cause not been so vitally serious the atmosphere was more carnival than protest. They sang songs, chanted slogans, waved banners, sat down in protest or bounced and danced, waving fists as they sang out their own message to the tune of Piaf's "Milord" Everyone was wearing luminous slogans stuck to their clothing. Even we ended up with labels proclaiming "retrait du CPE" (contract première embauche) "un emploi stable pour tous!" One young man had face decoration that said it all "F**k le CPE."
Preparing for the manif
A high police presence
Students start to gather
Students march in protest
Even Obelix joins in
Statue to the Republic, a natural starting point for a mass demonstration
France really knows how to organise a "manif". The Place was totally packed and the police were in position in case of trouble, with dozens of police cars and ambulances lined up, the sound of their sirens adding to that of the loudspeakers, drums and trumpets. In a side street we discovered a cavalcade of green City of Paris refuse vehicles waiting to clear up once everything was over. Our sympathies were very much with the young demonstrators, most of whom have not yet had the opportunity to work and are fighting to be allowed to do so, once their studies are finished, on the same terms as everyone else, rather than subject to the possibility of dismissal without reason during the first two years of employment.
Waiting to clean up afterwards
We struggled through the crowd back to our hotel where we took a rest with a cup of tea as we watched and listened to the crowd from our window four floors above street level. There were many thousands thronging the streets around here. Later we went down to continue our walk, only to get so deeply mangled in the crowds it became quite frightening with so many people forcing their way through in so many different directions. We were rocked back and forth with little sign of us ever getting out from the throng. We were feeling quite panic-stricken by the time we eventually reached the edge and realised the crush was caused by metal barriers around the square.
Away from the area everything was quite and peaceful. In previous visits we have concentrated mostly of the tourist areas of Paris but this time we are trying to observe the more intimate areas of daily life in the city. So this afternoon we wandered down towards the Opéra along the Boulevard St. Martin and then to the Porte St, Denis, investigating some of the 19th century arcades such as the Passage du Prado, the Passage des Panoramas and the Passage Jouffroy. Most of these contain second-hand books, stamps, antiques and old-fashioned specialist shops including one selling nothing but walking sticks.
Theâtre de la Renaissance
Passage off rue St. Denis
Realising that the public transport system had started up again and we did not need to walk all the way back to our hotel, we made our way onwards to the Louvre, the Jardins des Tuileries and up the Champs Elysées to the Place Charles de Gaulle where we indulged in our macabre interest watching the rush hour traffic going round the Arc de Triomphe, waiting for an accident to happen! Happily we've never seen one yet but it remains a matter of astonishment to us as driving techniques seem completely anarchic.
From the Tuileries
In front of the Louvre
Japanese visitors photographing the Arc de Triomphe
By now we were tired beyond belief and very cold so took the metro down to Place de la Bastille intending to change for the line back to our hotel. However, because of the demonstrations the trains were disrupted. When one did arrive nobody could get out or in so we gave up and decided to walk the rest of the way. As we emerged into the evening light the tail end of the demonstrators were still chanting, having moved down from the now deserted Place de la République. The amount of litter covering the streets was astonishing! Approaching us as we walked up from the Bastille was an entire fleet of City cleansing vehicles washing down the streets with high pressure hoses and swilling all the rubbish into the gutters. Behind them came other vehicles sucking up the debris while dozens of council workers with inverted vacuum cleaners blew pavement rubbish into heaps for collection.
After the manif, Place de la Bastille
When we reached our hotel we were too weary and exhausted to cope with finding a restaurant so collected some salad and chicken which we ate with a bottle of wine back at our hotel while writing up today's blog.