Best of Paris in eight hours

With so much won­der­ful ar­chi­tec­ture, walk­ing is the best way to ex­plore, find facts and dis­pel myths travel2013

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - KEVIN RITCHIE

PARIS. City of Love. City of Light. As­terix. Eurodis­ney. Our 2007 rugby World Cup vic­tory. The 1998 soc­cer World Cup. The Lou­vre. The Da Vinci Code.

France’s cap­i­tal is all this and more – it just de­pends on whom you speak to. The prob­lem is that it’s also got a stink­ing rep­u­ta­tion; it’s dirty, it’s ex­pen­sive, the peo­ple are rude, they speak only French. Ev­ery­one eats gar­lic.

Prej­u­dices work be­cause they but­tress our fears and cloak us in the warmth of our ig­no­rance, which is why travel is so im­por­tant if you get the op­por­tu­nity – or even if you force the op­por­tu­nity.

The prob­lem is, with some­thing that is as much part of global cul­ture as Paris, where do you start, par­tic­u­larly if your time is lim­ited? Can you do jus­tice to it?

Yes, you can, and you braai a cou­ple of holy cows along the way.

Hélène Bezuiden­houdt, a dis­placed Parisi­enne now run­ning Atout France (The French Tourism Board) in Rivo­nia, has no qualms what­so­ever. She’ll evan­ge­lise even if you’re only go­ing to be pass­ing through. Give her an eight-hour chal­lenge, and she’s in her el­e­ment: the Mont­par­nasse Tower, the Eif­fel Tower, the Seine and Notre Dame cathe­dral – in that or­der – is her sug­gested walk­ing route.

The tower in Mont­par­nasse (the same age as our own Sand­ton City), is a nat­u­ral start­ing point. At 59 floors high, it’s a shade higher than the Carl­ton Cen­tre in the Joburg CBD, but with the same un­sur­passed panoramic views.

The Eif­fel Tower makes the list just be­cause. For a tem­po­rary struc­ture (it was only sup­posed to be there for 20 years), it’s done well, rack­ing up a quar­ter of a bil­lion visi­tors in the past 124 years.

The Seine, well if you head right (up­river), you’ll pass some of the most beau­ti­ful ar­chi­tec­ture in the city (which is no mean feat) as well as the ugli­est build­ing – the South African em­bassy in Paris, laughs Bezuiden­houdt.

You’ll come out at the Notre Dame Cathe­dral ( on the Île de la Cité, it’s one of two re­main­ing nat­u­ral is­lands in the Seine). Fa­mous for the epony­mous hunch­back, as well as be­ing 850 years old this year, it’s sym­bol­i­cally cen­tral not just to Paris but the whole of France. At least two peo­ple have shot them­selves at the al­tar, count­less kings have been in­au­gu­rated there and even cru­sades started. It’s also Paris’s re­li­gious cen­tre and Kilo­me­tre Zero, from which all high­ways in France are mea­sured.

And en­try is Bezuiden­houdt.

You com­plete the cir­cle by walk­ing back to Mont­par­nasse, through the Latin Quar­ter.

All in all it’s about 10km. Pre­pare for a bit more in prac­tice, be­cause the Left Bank is a labyrinth of short roads, dat­ing back to me­dieval times, that are crooked, illogical but al­ways charm­ing.

Mont­par­nasse is a great start­ing point be­cause of the huge train sta­tion right there. You can take a train from Paris CDG (Charles de Gaulle Air­port) or catch an Air France bus.

Paris is made up of those who live in­tra muros (within the walls) of the old me­dieval set­tle­ment and those in the out­ly­ing sub­urbs be­yond the ring road or Boule­vard Pé­riphérique. Air France’s Pierre Descazeaux says two mil­lion peo­ple live within the ring road and another 8 mil­lion out­side in the ban­lieue – 10 per­cent of France’s pop­u­la­tion.

The city, in­tra muros, is made up of 20 ar­rondisse­ments di­vided by the Seine, which cuts it hor­i­zon­tally into a Left Bank (south) and a Right Bank (north). The Left Bank is tra­di­tion­ally home to Bo­hemi­ans and in­tel­lec­tu­als, served by schools and uni­ver­si­ties, while the North Bank is where the re­tail, com­mer­cial and gov­ern­ment sec­tors are housed.

The Left Bank, though, re­flects most closely the ver­sion so beloved of Hol­ly­wood. Here you’ll see peo­ple buzzing about on scoot­ers, whizzing past on bi­cy­cles, all im­mac­u­lately dressed, smok­ing as they sit at pave­ment cafés with their heels on the kerb­side, sip­ping a glass of wine af­ter work, push­ing their prams through the crowded streets or tak­ing their dogs for a walk.

And ev­ery­one speaks English, par­tic­u­larly the younger gen­er­a­tion. Even the signs are in English and


quips French. This is bad news for the pre­ten­tious des­per­ate to show off their lan­guage skills, but a god­send for those for whom Paris would oth­er­wise be a for­bid­den city. It also speaks vol­umes about the city’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to mar­ket it­self to for­eign­ers. The re­sults are patently ob­vi­ous. On a Mon­day morn­ing, the Mont­par­nasse Tower has queues snaking out of re­cep­tion by 10. The Eif­fel Tower, closed at the top for main­te­nance, has crowds around the foot of each leg.

A walk down the Seine re­in­forces stereo­types and blows oth­ers right out of the wa­ter. Parisians strip off their tops and sun­bathe on coun­cil­cre­ated oases of pot­ted plants and rail­way sleep­ers, while lovers cud­dle each other as open-topped tour boats loaded to the gun­wales with sight­seers steam past.

But the Seine is also a work­ing river, with barges push­ing ev­ery­thing from scrap to fresh pro­duce. Fur­ther down the walk­ways, just be­fore the ubiq­ui­tous stall­hold­ers, there’s an open-air pho­to­graphic ex­hi­bi­tion show­cas­ing the work of pho­tog­ra­phers across the world, in­clud­ing our own Thabiso Sekgala, and their es­says on hu­man­ity.

It’s a Mon­day af­ter­noon, but a bride is get­ting mar­ried at the river­side – she comes up the flag­stoned stair­case to the road­side, re­splen­dent in white, and no one bats an eye­lid.

Be­hind her the river splits to form an is­land, the Île de la Cité with the world-fa­mous Notre Dame cathe­dral at its east­ern tip. Tourists stream in a con­tin­u­ous line, in through the right of the nave, all the way down past the transept and the al­tar and around the left of the nave, be­fore ex­it­ing into the bright sun­shine.

Si­lence is not ne­go­tiable, for there in the depths of the nave are the faith­ful and the pil­grims pray­ing. Notre Dame is a work­ing place of wor­ship, brack­eted by larg­erthan-life cru­ci­fixes, sur­rounded by flick­er­ing can­dles, sculp­tures of re­li­gious angst and even a statue of the re­deemed heretic Joan of Arc, who was burnt at the stake only to be posthu­mously re­in­stated, thanks to the ef­forts of the cathe­dral.

In be­tween stand vaulted ceil­ings ris­ing to im­pos­si­ble heights, sup­ported by the in­cred­i­ble ma­son’s art, all hand-dressed and hand-laid al­most a mil­len­nium be­fore. From Notre Dame, the trick is to find your way back to Mont­par­nasse.

That the build­ings are uni­formly seven storeys high and close to­gether means you can never see the 59-storey Mont­par­nasse Tower. And for­get about the fondly held Hol­ly­wood fa­ble that ev­ery Parisian win­dow has a view of the Eif­fel Tower.

By now it’s late af­ter­noon, the cafés are fill­ing up in the Latin Quar­ter. Around the Mont­par­nasse rail­way sta­tion, the bus­tle of a mod­ern city with com­muters com­ing and go­ing is off­set by a mod­ern-day As­terix with long blond hair, sit­ting on the kerb beg­ging. He has his moun­tain of a sheep dog be­side him. Next to him stands his friend, a street urchin with a rat the size of both a grown man’s fists on his shoul­der. It could be a scene straight out of Les Mis­er­ables, but it’s not.

And that’s just part of the magic. In­cred­i­ble cul­ture and style, piqued by the lurk­ing seedy un­der­side – as in all great cities.

The peo­ple are friendly and in­tel­li­gi­ble. The city is clean and ac­ces­si­ble. The only prej­u­dice that holds any wa­ter is about price. Paris is eye-wa­ter­ingly ex­pen­sive.

There are ways to man­age it on a rand- based bud­get by shop­ping wisely away from the tourist traps, but the re­al­ity re­mains that a litre of wa­ter on the Eif­fel tower will cost you al­most R90, a sand­wich and a beer at a lit­tle makeshift café along the Seine a fur­ther R260.

The an­swer is not to think about it. You can’t, be­cause if you do you’ll never ven­ture out – and never for­give your­self for squan­der­ing a price­less op­por­tu­nity in the process.

LAND­MARK: Notre Dame Cathe­dral was built eight cen­turies ago.

MA­JES­TIC: The Eif­fel Tower is en­gulfed in twin­kling lights for 10 min­utes at the start of ev­ery hour from dusk un­til one or two each morn­ing.

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