We’ve been on a few European jaunts over the years but always to Spanish and Greek bucket 'n' spade resorts (with the exception of Italy in 2003) and always with the kids whose entertainment comes first and whose dietary requirements consist of little more than pizza or chips when on the continent. It was with some trepidation therefore when we booked a long weekend in Paris on our own as we would be outside of our usual comfort zone of Mediterranean weather, English-speaking resorts and family orientated restaurants.
Booking a holiday was the first problem. We had left it late and needed something with just a weeks notice. Sites like lastminute.com proved useless as we wanted to fly from Birmingham airport but all their deals involved changing flights, even to close destinations such as France which we know Birmingham services directly. In the end we went onto the Birmingham Airport website itself and we found it had a good travel planner where we could specify the flights we wanted, the destination and book a hotel all with the minimum of fuss. We booked three nights in the Ajiel Hotel in central Paris with a Friday afternoon flight out and a Monday afternoon return. We cut our baggage down from 40kg to 20kg to save an extra thirty quid and the print-out of our confirmation mail acted as our ticket to be presented at check-in so we didn’t have to worry about tickets not turning up in the post in time. We were also emailed a voucher to print out and present at the hotel to confirm our check-in.
It turned out that our booking via the Birmingham airport website was actually with FlyBe although they were using Air France to ferry passengers out. When we arrived at the airport, our flight was the only one on the screen not showing a check-in desk number so we found the FlyBe desks and asked what we should do. We were directed to the Air France desks and allowed to check-in immediately. At 11kg, our single case was well below the allocated weight and with two hours before take off there was no queueing so we were able to take a leisurely lunch in Departures.
The signpost at Birmingham airport shows Paris is 491km in *that* direction!
The flight out, operated by Air France was billed as ‘No-frills’ and the website had warned we may not even sit together (although we could pay extra to guarantee it). There was no problem getting adjacent seats however and we had been allocated particular seat numbers at check-in. One nice surprise was that Air France ran a free trolly service providing tea, coffee, beer or a soft drink along with two biscuits and a packet of some kind of nut-like snack all for free. The flight was only about fifty minutes from Birmingham to Paris Charles de Gaulle, however after landing it took about twenty minutes to taxi from the runway to the terminal and then about ten minutes to be transferred by bus from the aeroplane to the terminal. After passing quickly through baggage collection, it was a ten minute walk to get to the train station! Charles de Gaulle airport is massive and navigating through it by plane, bus or on foot is not a quick affair.
As I understand it (and I may be wrong), there are three train services you’ll see when getting into Paris from Charles de Gaulle airport, the Metro, the RER and the TGV. The latter is the overland service you use between cities and we weren’t concerned with that as we were just going to Paris. There is an RER service that can take you directly into the city and once there the Metro will get you around. The RER line that goes to Charles de Gaulle also terminates there at the airport so any train you catch will head back into Paris. Ticket machines have touch screens, multilanguage menus and are easy to operate allowing the purchase of a ticket via a chip & pin credit card without any fuss. Tickets are used at entry barriers to gain access to the platforms but are not checked on exit unlike many UK stations. We jumped on the first RER train out of the airport and it took about twenty minutes to reach St Michel Notre-Dame where we bailed out. We took a quick look at the Cathedral as we passed before entering the Metro station at Cluny la Sorbonne.
St Michel Notre-Dame, 29/07/11
Unfortunately the Metro line is where some bother began. Unlike the RER ticket machines, those in the Metro stations are not quite so straightforward at first glance. Although there are pictures of international flags on the machine, you have to navigate through some French menus to find the change of language option and you have to use an annoying trackball type roller device to get there. We couldn’t figure it out at first and we were well aware that it was Friday rush hour and we were holding up a line of people so we did the British thing and abandoned all hope, quitting the line so we wouldn’t hold people up. Fortunately a helpful native behind us offered to assist and when we asked for five day Zone 1 Metro passes he navigated to the correct option for us. One chip & pin transaction later and we were in possession of two tickets. When I tried to use mine on a barrier however an orange light pinged on illuminating something in French that I assumed was a ‘void’ notice. When we went to the ticket office (which was manned in Cluny unlike many other stations), we experienced the classic French stereotype unhelpfulness as the attendant shrugged his shoulders and basically told us he didn’t care. It wasn’t until further inspection we realised the orange light actually means the ticket is valid and the barrier is unlocked while a red light shows a void ticket. I dunno why they didn’t use green as a more obvious colour when you’re clear to proceed or used a symbol sych as a tick or forward arrow.
Apart from that, we found the Metro to be great. There are stops everywhere, the trains run often and the platforms are generally clear regardless of the time of day. It’s not like London Underground which can be packed to the rafters. Two things to bear in mind with the Metro, many stations seem to be unmanned which could be problematic if you have ticket trouble and the doors on the trains don’t open automatically - you have to pull up a handle after they unlock once the train stops. From Cluny we took the Metro 10 line to Sevres Babylone where we changed to the Metro 12 line to get to Convention, the nearest station to our Hotel.
The Hotel Ajiel is a basic two star joint but we didn’t need anything too flash as we only intended on using it for bed and breakfast. Our room had a double bed, TV, French windows, a desk and a wardrobe. The en-suite had a shower enclosure, toilet, sink and hair dryer. There was no air conditioning but we could cool the room down before going to bed by opening the large windows although we had to keep them closed at night to keep out the traffic noise from the street below. There were no annoying insects - we barely saw so much as a fly the whole time we were there. The hotel boasted WiFi but my handset refused to get an IP address from it. We didn’t use the LCD TV much, CNN was the only English speaking channel it had. Aside from one dead light bulb, the room was clean and well maintained and the area it was in seemed neat and trouble-free.
There were several small shops and Brasseries in the area however prices were expensive during our visit. With the Euro pretty much 1:1 with the Pound, a beer during ‘happy hour’ was €7, otherwise you could expect to part with €9 for a basic lager. For that you only got 50cl of the amber nectar which is 0.8 of a pint. Adding insult to injury, it was generally served in a pint glass meaning there was a big empty space at the top of the glass that I would rather have seen topped up with more beer! Wine wasn’t much better at around €4 for a small glass, while the single €7 cocktail we ordered which was supposed to be a margarita was pretty much just a glass of lemon juice. For a coffee with cream, you could expect to part with €3 - 5. The food wasn’t much better with salads being prevalent in most brasseries at an average price of around €15 a pop. We did buy a small bottle of wine from one of the supermarkets which was very nice - and cheap! In short though, we blew a wad of cash without even having any hearty three course meals and without getting any kind of drunk. As for the service, it was generally good. I had heard rumours about surly waiters but we found them patient enough with our poor attempts at French (or just plain English), with the exception of one who insisted he didn’t understand my request for a beer even though the pronunciation is pretty much the same in French we were in an area dominated by Americans on that particular day who also weren’t speaking fluent French!
On the Saturday we travelled the Metro to the Louvre. Our Time Out guide book gave us a great hint that queueing around the glass pyramid in the heat of the sun was for suckers and a side entrance on Rue de Rivoli would allow us to skip the long line of Japanese tourists. Sure enough, we found ourselves under the pyramid with no trouble at all. Plentiful banks of chip & pin ticket machines got us both access into the Louvre itself for little more than the price of 100cl of lager. The wife had some knowledge of art and religion so probably got more out of it than me but even she found the massive galleries crammed floor to ceiling with paintings to be overwhelming. The information on each picture is all in French so buying paper or interactive guides is a must if you don’t speak the lingo and want to find out the back story to any particular exhibit.
The Louvre pyramid entrance (strictly for the tourists!) 30/07/11
The high point of course is the Mona Lisa who enjoys a celebrity status behind glass, behind a barrier in a room off the main Italian gallery. The crowd around her is five deep and nobody is actually admiring the painting, just pointing camera phones at their relatives as they pose before it. We were no exception.
You can see the Mona Lisa but you won't get close enough to admire the brushwork.
The Louvre also boasts an Egyption collection and I found this more interesting than the medieval religious paintings whose background stories I am blissfully ignorant towards. With some artifacts going back to 3800BC it really is a fascinating look back through time.
From the Louvre, we walked towards the Eiffel Tower hoping to find a riverside cafe to have lunch but surprisingly little is made of the river and we didn’t find any such place opting for a street cafe instead. When we reached the Eiffel Tower we found it was rammed with tourists which wasn't too surprising for a Saturday afternoon in the late July sun and with temperatures hitting 31C. It’s a hopelessly confusing place at first as each of the four legs of the tower houses a ticket office and with security barriers only towards the front of the queues, the hundreds of people at the back will go snaking off in all directions. Add to that the queue for the (seemingly) single coffee/snack bar, the separate entrances for people with prebooked tickets or disabilities, the milling tourists not queueing but wandering around looking upwards and the hordes of street sellers trying to flog you tat and you get a confusing mess.
Here’s the lowdown on the Tower: It has three levels you can visit, level 1, level 2 and the summit. The North and East pillars have lifts while the South and West pillars have ticket booths for the stairs. You can only take the stairs as high as level 2. Obviously the queue for the stairs tends to be shorter than those for the lifts and a stairway ticket is cheaper. Electronic information boards in French and English explain what each queue is for. Even if you do buy a ‘Summit’ ticket and take the lift, you’ll be kicked out at the second level to join a new queue for a second lift to the top. There are no time restrictions on those who are visiting the summit which means the top of the tower quickly fills up and once it looks too busy they close it with the electronic information boards citing ‘congestion’. I’m not sure if that means you can’t still buy a summit ticket and wait on level 2 for the lifts to reopen or not. We decided it was too busy that afternoon to bother queueing so we took the Metro back to the hotel to freshen up before returning to the area for some dinner. We went back at about 20:00 but things were still busy. We queued for about half an hour but it was obvious we’d be there at least another 90 minutes just trying to reach the ticket booth and with dusk approaching it seemed unlikely that the people already at the top were going to give up their vantage point when it was so close to the illuminations switching on. We decided to quit and watch the lights from the ground that night but vowed to return first thing in the morning to get our Eiffel Tower view of Paris.
The tower lit up an orange colour after 21:00. Every hour on the hour strobe lights would come on for five minutes making the tower sparkle. It’s an amazing sight against a dark blue summer night sky. We watched it until after 22:00 before heading back to the Metro.
The next morning my trusty Casio woke us at 07:00 for breakfast (coffee, cereal, croissants, bread and fruit juice at the Ajiel), and we jumped on the Metro. We figured the Tower would be quiet first thing on a Sunday and sure enough, despite several hundred people already there, the queue for the lifts at the East pillar was relatively short. We joined it at about 08:40 with the Tower due to open at 09:00. In those twenty minutes hundreds more people joined the queue causing it to snake off behind us, doubling back and spilling out towards the street. We had definitely chosen the right time of day to get there. The morning dew was raining down off the tower onto us and we were constantly pestered by street sellers trying to flog crap. In a brasserie the night before I’d seen a French news broadcast showing the police performing secret filming of the street sellers, arresting them and confiscating their wares. They were also interviewing shopkeepers who were complaining about these people damaging their business and handing out leaflets advising tourists not to buy from them. That said, despite a heavy armed police presence around the Tower, nobody seemed to be stopping them. They all sold the same shit at the same price too so it gets tiresome when you tell one of them you’re not interested only for another to approach you immediately with exactly the same crap at exactly the same price in some kind of hope that maybe you changed your mind in the intervening two seconds.
The ticket price to the summit was only €13.50 per person - less than two beers! Once armed with tickets and cleared through the security checkpoint, the queue was split into two for the two lift cars. We waited about five minutes for our car to return from the upper levels and then we were off. The lift is on an angled track and paused at the first level without the doors opening before proceeding to level 2. If you have a summit ticket you can join the queue for the next lift at your leisure but we wasted no time. Despite there already being an established queue for the lifts to the top, all of us from the lower lift were directed into a barrier section which interjected with the front of that existing queue. I’m not sure why that was and I’m sure it annoyed the hell out of those who had been patiently waiting there but it was a bit of a free for all and I had to bravely elbow an old woman out of the throughfare so the wife and I could get in. After a couple of minutes, the summit lift arrived and up we went. It was a nerve racking ride for someone who doesn’t like heights but it was a great experience. The view was amazing on that cloudless, windless Sunday morning. The summit quickly filled up, especially the two sides in the sun as people took photographs of the amazing view. Spotting landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre was easy.
Arc de Triomphe taken at maximum zoom on my little digital camera.
The Louvre is towards the centre left of this snap.
Champ de Mars
Don't look down! This is the height from level 2.
Looking right across Paris!
We probably spent about twenty minutes up there before it got a little too busy and we decided to head down. The lift dropped us out on level 2 where we had a coffee and took in more sights before heading down via the steps to level 1. Here you’ll find some fascinating facts regarding the tower and its construction along with some of the original preserved lift machinery. Rather than queueing for the lift to the ground, we took the steps. It’s a long way down and feels rickety but on every landing are more interesting facts and the sights on the way down make it a more rewarding experience than if you were to use the lift.
On Sunday afternoon we had headed on the Metro to the Abbesses station to visit Monmartre. This lively part of town is where you’ll find the artists gathered knocking out portraits or caricatures of tourists or paintings of landmarks. There are various styles on show and the narrow Pl. du Tertre is packed full of Americans, Germans and Japanese tourists.
Pl. du Tertre is where you'll find all the artists.
Navigate away from this square and things get calmer. The cathedral of Sacre Coeur is also here.
Sacre Coeur, 31/07/11
There are some steep stairs here for those who don’t want to use the Funiculaire lift thingy. We got accosted by some women at the top of some steps who were adamant we should sign some kind of petition-like thing and looked indignant when we refused. I saw another tourist getting collared and handing over cash although like us, I doubt he knew what it was really for.
A quiet part of Monmartre, 31/07/11
The spectacle of the Eiffel tower illuminated at dusk was such an amazing sight on Saturday that we returned on Sunday night. This time it was a more leisurely affair and we had time to throw more Euros at a couple of drinks in a nearby bar before heading off to watch the light show at 22:00. It’s a shame there seem to be so few bars and cafes overlooking the Tower and I think the French are missing a bit of a trick by not having bars and restaurants facing attractions such as this and the river. We were struck by how many beautiful buildings do look out towards these sights but seem to be permanently shuttered.
We intended to do what everyone else was doing and have a bottle of something on the grass on Champ de Mars while looking up at the tower but despite roaming the side streets we couldn’t find an open supermarket anywhere. At this time of night you can expect to be bugged more street sellers this time selling bottled beer as well as those still punting the crappy keyrings and models. The previous night hed been slightly spoiled by some drunk American teenage girls who thought everyone would be happy to hear them singing loudly but fortunately the second night had no such distractions. One word of warning when sitting on the grass and benches, avoid sitting near the litter bins and bushes as we could see rats happily scurrying between them.
For the final morning of our long weekend we went to Jardin du Luxembourg, an oasis of beautiful calm right in the centre of the city.
Jardin du Luxembourg. Right in the middle of Paris although you'd never know it. 01/08/11
Finally it was time to jump onto the RER back to the airport. Charles de Gaulle check-in can only be described as a 'riot' of people but the departure lounge was modern, relaxed and not a bad place to wait. The return leg was on a FlyBe jet and the difference between them and their Air France counterpart was that no frills meant exactly that. Although there was a trolly service, this time you had to pay but you'd be lucky if you could get what you wanted as they seemed out of stock of everything besides instant coffee.
All in all, Paris was a great place to visit, albeit expensive. It’s a shame the brasseries didn’t offer more choice in food but the only negative point other than this and the prohibitive pricing was the graffitti. There’s a lot of it about and none of it is artistic. Scrappy ‘tags’ are everywhere, covering the pretty mural that winds up the long staircase at Abbesses station, on the facade of beautiful old buildings, over street furniture and on trains. It’s a shame that such a pretty city has to be spoilt by these mindless morons who take some kind of pride in their destructive scribbling.
One of the few sad points is the amount of graffiti. You half expect it on a subway train but when it's on historic buildings or over artwork it's a real shame. This van wasn't the only vehicle we saw that had beeen decorated with this mess.
We’ll go back one day but with the kids next time. It’s a great place to visit and they’d get a real kick out of it.