Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I dream of Paris...

For a long time, I had my head in the sand and fully believed that the sun rose and set on Montreal. Not only was this city the centre of my universe, but also the centre of the world. I didn't believe there was any reason to leave it for a sustained period and thought the whole world could be found in my backyard. Now, several years later, while I still hold my home city in the highest regard, I know a little better. A couple of weeks ago, I visited Paris, a city I swore up and down I had no interest in visiting. Why go all the way to there when I had what the city had to offer just down my block: the French language, the beautiful architecture, the food...But I was very sorely mistaken.

I decided to take a rather spur of a moment trip to two of the world's most famous capitals - London and Paris. Nottingham is really conveniently located - it's about a two hour train/bus ride to London and 30 minutes from the airport. I decided to take the bus to London and drop in on my cousins for a couple of days then take the Eurostar to Paris.

Now, I've never been to London and didn't really expect much, but I was happy with what I saw. My cousins, Sarah and Esther, are conveniently located in South London and Esther and I went to town a couple of times and I was floored with just how dense London was. With a population of 8 million and home to so many museums, it sometimes felt like I was walking through molasses because the crowds were so thick.

I didn't really get to sample the best of what London had to offer food-wise (traveling on a budget - hoo ray!), but I tried a seminally British stalwart - the cornish pasty. You can get all sorts of pasties and pies everywhere in this country, but apparently, the Cornish Bakehouse supposedly offers one of the best. I tried it twice, and while they satisfied my hunger, I wasn't particularly crazy about them. Meat stuffed in pastry - not rocket science, but no foodgasms here. Perhaps my palate has grown too sophisticated.

I travelled on the tube a few times and I couldn't resist getting a shot under the Underground sign. What was really cool was there was a place right around the corner called "The Japan Centre" where I was able to get an onigiri (rice ball) and some yaki niku (grilled meat) sauce. There were so many Japanese people that I felt like I was back in Japan! Sigh. Excuse me, I'm digressing. London has a pretty easy metro and I found it a great way to get a taste of the characters that called the capital of England home. Unfortunately, I was not lucky enough to get treated to this event though I was in London when it happened. Damn shame.

Overall, I thought London was pretty nice, and was happy to see all those famous sites, but I wasn't particularly bowled over. London is like a song with a really loud baseline: you feel the pulsing beat but you really can't make out the details of the composition. However, I really enjoyed the the museums and the fact that entry was free. I only had enough time to visit two - the British Museum and the the National Portrait Gallery. My appreciation for art, particularly those of the impressionist persuasion, has been growing since I arrived in the UK and I plan on taking every opportunity to see the greats of the past and the future while I'm living here and traveling around.

After a couple of days in London, I set off to Paris on the very sleek, very clean and very fast Eurostar. In 2 hours and 15 minutes, I was in the centre of gay Paris and I was buzzing. Stepping off the train was like exiting a really fast revolving door - you pray you don't crash and burn. Thanks to my very handy Lonely Planet Paris, I knew I had to make my way to the metro station below Gare du Nord and buy a carnet of 10 tickets. My hostel, Oops! Budget, was located in Le Quartier Latin, an area off the beaten track, but still centrally located. At 23 euros a night, it was a steal. It was clean, practically next door to the metro, new and close to restaurants. The only downside, however, was that I was in a dorm and had to share a room with 3 men. All very nice men, mind you, but men, nonetheless. Needless to say, I didn't get a lot of sleep and it was definitely an experience, but one that I'm loathed to repeat again. I would recommend the place and I would return, with an army of girls, but I probably wouldn't stay there on my own again.

After checking in, I walked back out and headed to the Montmartre area where I got down to it. First, I went to the very beautiful Basilique du Sacre-Coeur. Finished in 1919, the basilica is perched at the very top of Butte de Montmartre and has fantastic views of the city. There are three ways to get to the top - stairs as far as the eye can see, a cable car, and a mixture of pathways and stairs, which was the route I took. There were not many tourists on that cold, gray, late-January day, but there were quite a few pushy Africans peddling their crappy wares, one of whom put their hands on my wrists and wouldn't let go. For the first time ever, I felt a shock of fear while I was travelling. He was a persistent guy and I just kept saying "no" in increasing volume until he finally let me be. I don't know why, but he was just on me. A few 100 feet later, I was greeted by more pushy creeps, including one who I could have sworn spoke in Ga.

Undeterred, your plucky heroine soldiered on and made the trek all the way to the top. It was just so stunning. I kept having to stop, look around and pinch myself. My pics really can't do the basilica justice. It was so white and clean. Inside was also lovely and I took a minute to collect myself and pray for an enjoyable and SAFE time in Paris.

After I left the Basilica, I meandered through the tourist stalls in the area and bought a couple of reproductions of paintings and posters and a pretty pair of earrings. I headed south and found myself in Sexyville, or the red light district. I noticed a few skanky ladies trying to physically pull men into their strip clubs so I stuck to the pedestrian path in the middle of the road. I was tempted to go the the Museum of Erotic Art but realized that I didn't have enough time to really give the place the attention it needed. Instead, I walked down further and danced in the glow of the Moulin Rouge. It was pretty freaking cool. Just amazing. There was a line of people all the way down the block and once again I was tempted, this time to see the burlesque show. But I just didn't have the funds to see naked ladies that night, and really, it probably wouldn't have been so fun seeing it solo.

After a simple meal of Vietnamese food (I know, how French), I headed back to the hostel to get some shuteye.

The next morning, I awoke to showers and chill but I left early and went to see the most famous Parisien sites. I went to the Charles de Gaulle-Etoile metro station and started there.

The Arc de Triomphe was the first stop, and OMG, it was beyond my wildest dreams. It was huge and imposing, but awe-inspiring at the same time. I walked the length of Champs-Elysees and kept turning back to stare at it. I took so many photos and I can still recall it clearly in my head. The feeling I felt when I saw it will probably remain with me for the rest of my days.

I spent several hours along Paris' most famous avenue and stood outside such iconic buildings as the houses of Cartier, Louis Vuitton and Remy Martin without have the courage to step inside them. Not that these places were must-sees on my list, but it was cool seeing the beautiful architecture of the exteriors.

I passed by Le Grand Palais and Le Petit Palais and was shocked by how palatial these buildings were. Further down the street, the beautiful golden dome of the Hotel des Invalides,the final resting place of Napoleon, brightened up the gray skies.

I made my way along the Seine, getting closer to what many people consider the epicenter of Paris, and took my time. The sun came out and chased the rain clouds away and I basked in the heat of it. I passed by the Flame of Liberty Memorial and looked at the place where Princess Diana died. It was eerie being so close to the place where someone died so violently and publicly and I thought about how even today, the circumstances surrounding Diana's death takes a leading place on the news roster. Though this sculpture was intended as a symbol of the friendship between France and the USA, it became a shrine of sorts for the late princess.

After hours and hours of walking around in the rain, wincing with pain with each step I took (my new shoes, in particular the right one, weren't fully broken in), I made it to the Eiffel Tower.

And it was stunning. Just indescribable.

I fell in love with it, and the sky cleared and I got to behold it in all of it's amazing beauty. And I was so glad that it didn't disappoint me. There is nothing else I can say.

After a dinner of moules-frites and a dessert of a waffle with chocolate sauce, I went to the (in)famous Louvre and was really impressed. There weren't a lot of people there because I went around 7 p.m. so I didn't have to queue to see the Venus de Milo (remarkable) and the Mona Lisa (overrated), and I took my time through the Roman and Greek sculptures and paintings (my favourites). I was so happy, I even bought a book about 300 featured masterpieces. It truly was a great day.

So there it is. I had a great time and I feel like I've relived my trip by relaying it here. I was pretty tired on the last day and it was so ball-breakingly cold, that I threw in the towel in the afternoon and went back to the warmth of the hostel before I departed in the late evening. But I left satisfied. I will definitely go back. It was a great experience for my first solo trip and highly recommend Paris to anyone.

I have two more trips before I go back to work in April: the Canary Islands and Rome. New posts soon!