22. Around Paris


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May 23rd, 2011
22. Around Paris

From Carcassone to Paris, ours is a plodding old train, stopping at every station and without plug-in points or WiFi. It takes us 6 hours to reach the Gare Austerlitz, where we are met by my brother Peter. He takes us the scenic route home, along the sunny banks of the Seine past the Palais Royal, and out of the city fairly quickly, ahead of rush hour traffic. We are soon travelling through wheat fields and woodlands to Fontenay le Fleury, the small town where he lives, near the chateau de Versailles.

This visit is more about family than sightseeing, and it is great to see the French family again. The children have grown in the way that children inevitably do, but everyone else is just the same.

My brother's home in Fontenay - nephew Simon in the doorway

We are to stay two weeks here, and Peter’s in-laws have generously prepared the most charming accommodation for us – the ‘granny flat’, crammed with antiques and elegant mahogany book shelving. It sits in a beautiful garden under an enormous walnut tree. We feel as though we have arrived to stay in a miniature manor house.

Place de la Concorde, obelisk and Eiffel Tower in background

Fontenay LF is served by a metropolitan train which goes straight in to the Gare Montparnasse in central Paris. We get a day-pass on the Metro and pop up in the heart of it all – at the Place de la Concorde with its egyptian obelisk and its avenues leading off in all important directions. We just wander about, being in Paris. Down the Champs Elysees, we take a quick look at the Arc de Triomphe and then stroll on, looking at the shops (Virgin superstore etc.) and angling down towards the Eiffel Tower. We cross the bridge under which Princess Diana spent the last seconds of her life (the horrid golden memorial flame sculpture is so ugly we avoid it).

That golden blob is the Princess of Wales memorial

The general volume of tourists has been amplified as the season progresses towards summer, but we don’t feel crowded out yet. Thus we are able to find a free table with a view of that iconic lacy steel tower, and have our pavement café lunch in the shade of the plane trees, occasionally being peered at by the occupants of open-topped double decker tourist buses. These people obviously feel we are part of the sights they have paid to see…

When we do stroll over to the Eiffel Tower the crowds are loosely-packed and queues for the lifts are short. But we don’t go up as it is still a ridiculous price.

The obligatory 'we were here' shot! Under grey skies...

Eiffel Tower with not too many tourists!

We are still saturated with art from our stay in Florence (also Carcassonne had a great art gallery), and so we opt not to visit any of the famous art galleries, most of which we have seen before. The Musée d’Orsay is having a special Manet exhibition – not tempting… Paris hasn’t changed, it is still stunning wherever you look, and there is still the usual scaffolding covering many of the public buildings, but one innovation does stand out – the Velibres. These are ‘Velos Libres’ – Free Bikes in english – which are all over the city, ranks and ranks of them in every handy spot. You purchase a voucher, use it to unlock a bike, and then cycle around wherever you want, dropping the bike off at any other Velibre rank. Lots of Parisians take advantage of these on fine days, and of course the tourists are also picking up on the trend, as it beats the Metro for both sightseeing and on price.

Even the doorknobs are elegant in Paris

Our perambulations take us into the Tuileries gardens and towards the Louvre, with its once-shocking, now natural-looking glass pyramid. No matter how many times one sees this magnificent palace, it always overwhelms you in real life. The mind boggles at the sheer scale and opulence of the buildings which were once the heart of the most powerful nation in Europe. And we visit another ‘new’ thing since we were last here – a modern shopping mall which has been built underneath the Louvre gardens. Here to my amazement I discover my first ever Toilet Shop. Yes folks, a shop that is both a public toilet and a boutique selling everything to do with toilets, including plumbing fittings, jolly brush sets, soaps and smellies and a wide range of printed loo rolls. I look for a Mugabe toilet roll but there isn’t one. For one Euro, the attendant personally escorts you to your luxury cabinet, which is cleaned and disinfected after each user. Inside this fragrant space there are displays of merchandise for you to contemplate. Apparently the shop is very popular with the fastidious Japanese tourists.

The Mall under the Louvre

Daily life back in the tranquil and flower-adorned village of Fontenay le Fleury includes sitting with our laptops at my brother’s dining room table every day, taking advantage of their WiFi connection. But it also includes the fun chore of fetching the kids from their little school a few blocks away in the village. Here they spend most of the day, coming out at 4:30, starving, so the mommies all take snacks and biscuits etc. to stave off their hunger pangs till suppertime. This is the ‘gouter’ roughly corresponding to kiddies ‘teatime’.

The Apollo Fountain (note horrid sculpture behind) at Versailles

One afternoon, Eve my photographer sister-in-law takes me and the kids on a bike ride over the fields and into the formal park of the chateau de Versailles, along the grand canal (built for royal boat rides) with its elegant avenues of square-trimmed trees and smooth lawns, to the famous Apollo fountain. This has been disfigured by a rusting pile of giant iron horseshoes – apparently a modern sculpture.

Rusty Horseshoes disfiguring the grand Canal, Versailles gardens

We admire the classic statuary and watch the tourists, then picnic on the banks of the canal, feeding ducks and picking daisies. On the way back, we see a swan on her nest of eight large, creamy eggs.
On our anniversary we travel into Paris again, with the intention of taking a romantic lunch cruise on a river tour boat or ‘bateau-mouche’. But the weather has turned cold and grey, so we give it a miss.
Which gives us time for another long-cherished plan – a visit to the resting place of Jim Morrison of the Doors, who is buried in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Here too is a part of the city we have never seen before. The cemetery is huge, the size of an entire city ‘quartier’. And here lie very many famous names; there are special tours one can take. At the entrance gates there is a map showing who is buried where where. We find the immortal Jim pretty much by following the other visitors; we are mostly all going in the same direction. The grave is squeezed in behind a couple of large tomb structures. A tree nearby is entirely covered with graffiti messages for him. The grave itself has crowd-barriers protecting it, and looks neglected and sad because flowers have had to be chucked, rather than placed, on it.

James Douglas Morrison, RIP, alas alas, long live Mr Mojo...

Some complete turkey of a souvenir hunter has removed the bust of Jim which topped the headstone. But a steady stream of devoted fans have left sentimental objects in tribute, tokens and pieces of paper with poems and messages; even a half-jack of whisky (‘O show me the way to the next whisky bar...’) Jim’s grave apparently receives visits from thousands of fans from all over the world, all year round. There is no ground slab and the earth is sunken – or people have been taking away stones or earth from on top. Which would explain the barriers. Sad, sad to see The Lizard King’s tomb such a state. We pay our respects and move off as a tour group arrives.
Then we travel by Metro to the Latin Quarter, vibey and full of students from the Sorbonne university and medical school. This is the famous ‘rive gauche’ with its fashion and artistic community and café society, or rather, lots of tourists pretending they are part of the café society… we join them, taking our lunch with a carafe of wine at a pavement bistro.
On the recommendation via FaceBook, of Christina our francophile friend back in Cape Town, we seek out the nearby Musée de Cluny, which specialises in all things gothic and mediaeval (a connection to Carcassonne!). We have never seen this museum before and we are delighted to find that its current exhibition is The Sword, its history, role, significance and mythology. Fascinating. Some incredibly famous swords are on show, including one said to be Joan of Arc’s.
As part of its permanent collection, the museum also houses an enormous and wonderful tapestry, ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ in five separate panels. This is kept in a special dimly lit room so as not to fade the mediaeval colours. One is not allowed to take pics so this pic of one of the panels is copied from a french website:

La Dame a la Licorne (the unicorn lady) tapestry

Previously a bishop’s palace, the Cluny incorporates the remains of ancient Roman baths, incredible to see, massive vaulted rooms which were heated by under-floor ducts from furnaces, and the pools fed by special aqueducts. Unfortunately only a scrap of the baths’ ancient mosaic work remains.
Paris is warm and sunny for the rest of our stay, and everywhere roses are blooming to the point of exaggeration, making the city, already beautiful, even more so.

One of the pair of Marly horses framing the entrance to the Champs Elysees


Ah, Paris in the springtime. Actually it is more like summer, say the locals, and the ground is indeed very hard and dry, as it hasn’t rained for weeks. But we hope that all this lovely weather will keep following us around as we progress northwards.

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