Airport Rating ***** (Eurostar)
Reception of locals ***
It's the most visited city in the world and a city that is synonymous with beauty, class and elegance. There's a reason why places around the world are sometimes called "the Paris of the ...insert geographical location". Despite living fairly close to Paris, I haven't been to France since a school trip I scarcely remember.
The city itself is very old, founded in the 3rd century BC, it has grown to be one of the most populous cities in the world, although compared to somewhere like London, it isnt particularly large in size.
I was lucky when I went as I have a few friends currently living there. This meant that even though I only went for a weekend, I was able to fit in a lot of things as they knew the city inside out. As with Singapore, Koh Samui, Madrid, Barcelona and Santiago, having someone who knows the local area definitely helps.
The train journey from London to Paris is very short, just over two hours, about the same time it takes to travel from London to my home in the Midlands. Despite the fact you are on the train, as with any cross border travel, you get the usual airport style security although it isnt as strict. I certainly didnt have any issues, although I find that I hardly do when travelling out of England.
The Eurostar has just rolled out a batch of new trains, very open and spacious with a modern design and they have free wifi on board (although it isnt a particularly reliable or strong signal). I always find it surprising when I travel the couple hours up the M40 back home every few months that when I leave the train near Birmingham I am surrounded by completely different accents, well when I got off the short train ride to Paris I was surrounded by a completely different language.
We all have certain perceptions of different places and walking out at Garde Du Nord immediately dispelled the ones I held about France. I was surrounded by a mix of people from all over the world. It was incredible. Almost immediately I breathed a sigh of relief. Some people dont like the area around the station, to me it felt familiar and I definitely didnt feel like an outsider. I headed down to the RER (a double decker train they have on the continent) and headed into the city.
One of my managers from work is a French national and before I left she gave me a bunch of tickets to use on the Metro, however, the city was in the midst of a pollution problem and to combat this the use of cars was restricted and all public transport was free for the day. On the day that I went, only cars with even numbers on their number plates could drive, a similar system to something I had seen in Santiago. For a first world city, the transport system looked like something closer to somewhere less developed. Trains are very old, you still open doors manually and the stations smell, sometimes really bad. That being said, it was much cheaper than London. The Metro system is also busier than the one in London and there are more stations.
I headed to meet my friend and we quickly grabbed some food to eat. There seems to be a stereotype on the continent that English people eat horrible food. I didnt understand it until I got to Paris, the food is unbelievable. It made me really question what I'd been eating at home all these years. I ate a tarantula in Cambodia, a scorpian in Thailand so I thought I'd try snails and frogs legs in France. I've got to admit, both were quite nice, especially the frogs legs.
Up until this point I thought I'd been lucky. The pollution meant that public transport was free, but it also meant that thick haze hung over the city, made worse by a particularly bad weekend of fog. We headed to the Montparnasse Tower to get a view of the whole city however when we got there we were told visibility was zero. My friend didnt believe the guy so asked if we could go up for free and take a look, which we did and he was right, you could see nothing. We headed back down and decided to go to the Eiffel Tower, but again it was completely covered by haze, even close up. Luckily, Paris is one of the few major cities that has decided to stick to the architecture that makes it so beautiful and has strict regulations against building up, this meant there was still alot to see and do so we headed to the Arc de Triomphe where we met a third friend.
The Arc was commissioned by Emperor Napolean in 1806 as a monument dedicated those who fell during the Revolutionary and Napoleanic Wars and it is still used a French war memorial today. In fact, when we went, there was a ceremony commemorating French and Indian cooperation in the wars.
At 50 metres, the Arc is smaller than the Montparnasse Tower and we figured it might be below haze level so we paid the 12 Euro's to climb to the top. There are over 200 stairs and its a pretty steep climb, although it doesnt take too long .That being said, some people had definitely underestimated the climb as there were a few people struggling. The view from the top is indescribable. It showcases the planning that went into designing Paris and illustrates its beauty in a perfectly symmertrical way. The Arc sits in the centre of a roundabout and all the way around roads radiate out from it like rays of light from the sun.
Directly infront of the Arc is the famous Champs-Elysees all the way to Place de la Concorde which you can see at the end. Slightly to the right is Les Invalides, the resting place of Napolean, and further right still is the Eiffel Tower. Although we could probably only see about half of the tower, it was lit up and covered in haze which gave it a mysterious look and it looked amazing. Inside, the Arc holds various memorials to French victories and dedications to fallen soldiers. It's one of those few monuments that probably exceeded my expectations.
We took the famous walk down the Champs Elysees, a road that is pretty similar to Oxford Street although the road, like most others in Paris is very wide and very straight. We then took a short Metro ride to the Le Marais neighbourhood. An old neighbourhood, it reminded me of the old town of Valencia, or the Gothic quarter of Barcelona. Traditionally a Jewish neighbourhood, it now also hosts a LGBT community. The streets are narrow and winding and just looking at the people you could see they were a bit richer. I never feel comfortable around rich people and they dont tend to be comfortable around me, which is fine by me. They should be. I'm coming for their money.
I got a lot of stares here, one group of older women wouldnt take their eyes off me and one grabbed her purse and pulled it closer when I walked closer. I've mentioned before, alot of racism is actually about money, and these guys probably thought I was a poor immigrant from one of France's notorious housing projects. The incident took me back to when I was growing up and I found out a family friend had told her son to not spend too much time with me because "council house kids are trouble". Its something that really upsets my mom to this day.
We went back to my friends house before heading to the Bastille district. This area reminded me of Shoreditch with trendy bars and clubs. However, I saw something you dont tend to see in Western cities too much. Next to the revellers all having a good time were mattresses with whole families sleeping on the floor, outside. Even little babies were in blankets. I felt sick when I saw it and I couldnt understand if people were oblivious to it or used to it. I gave what money I had, but its events like this that always remind me about the bigger problems I'd like to solve.
We ended up going to a really fun place that played a lot of hiphop, English and French, and I had a great time, no issues getting in, no trouble inside and by the time I got back home it was almost 4am.
I had less than 5 hours sleep before I woke up and headed to the Louvre, a short walking distance from the St Germain area where I was staying. The museum is the worlds largest, second most visited and arguably the most famous. Originally built as a fortress in the 12th century, the building got its present function in 1793. The building was formerly a house for Kings and its size and design is a testament to its history, Its easily the best looking museum I have ever seen. The gardens outside are stunning and seem to extend as far as the eye can see and the entrance is the famous glass pyramid. Unlike in England where all museums are free, entry is paid but a reasonable 15 Euro's and as soon as I went inside I made a b-line for the one thing I had come to see. After about 30 minutes worth of searching (it really is that big), I found myself staring at the Mona Lisa, and there it was, the most famous painting in the world, staring back. It felt strange seeing one of the most famous images in human history, it makes you take a step back, but at the same time also questions; what is it that made this picture so special? It's very good, but so are the other paintings.
After seeing the Mona Lisa, I spent a bit more time looking at some of the other collections on display, the Greek Kingdom in India is something I am interested in, so it was good getting to see that. Otherwise, after seeing largely similar collections in the British museum, I was more interested in seeing the design of the Louvre itself as opposed to what was inside it.
Lost in the streets
I decided to take a 2 hour stroll along the backstreets of St Germain across the bottom of the 7th to Grenelle. The area reminded me a lot of the City as I walked past the back of the Parliament building and then a lot of quiet but well developed streets with a few street markets here and there. I ended up on the border of the 15th and the base of the park leading to the Eiffel Tower. The haze had cleared up slightly from the day before and I was able to see about two thirds to three quarters of the tower, I'll take that. It was much larger than I imagined it to be, and in a city with few tall buildings it really stands out.
Thats one of the reasons why the Eiffel Tower was so divisive to Parisians when it was first built. It was only meant to be a temporary structure at the 1889 Worlds Fair and was only kept as it proved useful for communication purposes. It was the tallest structure in the world for over 40 years and it still seems tall to me. Unlike the Shard, and the Burj Khalifa, this is large in a city of small and there is also so much history behind it.
As with my trips to La Paz, Cusco and Bangkok I came here in a time of political upheaval. Terrorist attacks in Paris have caused the city to be in emergency rule and everywhere I went there were soldiers policing the streets, the Eiffel Tower was particularly well covered. After taking a few pictures I decided to go back along the River Seine, the main body of water that runs through the city. Walking back really made me appreciate the beauty of the city, even the run down buildings have a certain amount of class to them.
After relaxing at my friends apartment for a short while, we decided to take a quick trip to Notre Dame cathedral. The cathedral began its life in 1163 and has progressively gotten larger over the centuries, although sometimes the rebuilding phase has happened due to damage, such as the protestant riots, the revolutionary wars and second world war. The church is imposing on the outside, larger than I expected in a French Gothic style. It's when you go inside that you really understand how beautiful this place is. The dark hall is illuminated by dim lights and candles whilst large arches give way to intricate stained glass windows. It's one of the few places I have visited that left me speechless. I've been lucky to go to a few cathedrals around the world; Rio, Lima, St Pauls, Sagrada Familia and this is right up there with any of those. I probably prefer the exterior of St Pauls for its visual appeal and Sagrada Familia for its scale, but inside, Notre Dame is in a league of its own.
Leaving Notre Dame, we headed north to Sacre Coeur, another church but this time built on the highest point of the city. As I made my way up one side of the hill I had a sense of deja vu. The area was quite run down and it reminded me exactly of the climb to Bunkers in Barcelona, a similarly high point in that city. The Church itself began its life in 1875 and is built in a unique style, resembling more a Buddhist temple than a Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the haze had returned by the afternoon so although the views were impressive, I couldnt make out landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, but it still looked amazing. The inside of the church was every bit as grand as the outside with large domes and intricate paintings. I'm always confused with buildings like this (churches and Sikh Gurdwara's). On one hand they are beautiful, on the other, wouldnt spending all that money on combating poverty be more useful? I know in Sikhi, the building of newer and larger Gurdwara's is more of an ego stroke than anything else, and being built after the Franco-Prussion War of 1870 makes me think this might have been something similar. That being said, its definitely a building that captures your attention in a good way.
A city of contradictions
We made our way down the other side of the hill, through the Montmatre area, a much nicer side of the hill. The streets were narrow, the buildings still beautiful and it just reinforced the impression of Paris being a city that is big on style. At the bottom of the hill, the classy streets and plain white buildings gave way to the bright lights of Pigalle, an area the equivalent of Soho and more like parts of Amsterdam. The bright lights of the Moulin Rouge are surrounded by questionable shops, but every city has an area like it somewhere.
We caught the metro back into the city centre, this time to Place de la Concorde, the largest square in Paris and at the extreme end of the Champs Elysees. It was a great last stop on my short visit to Paris. The large ferris wheel decked out in the lights of the tricolour lies directly infront of the Obelisk of Luxor, an Egyption monument given to Paris. Numerous grand buildings surround the square. We headed past the fountains to the Champs Elysees once more, the Arc de Triomphe a small arch in the distance on this occasion. Walking around the busy Christmas market made me take stock of this city.
I asked my manager once why she moved out of Paris and she said there's not too much to do and its really small. And she's right, compared to London its very small, but its also the same reason that my friend likes living there, telling me its easy to get around. As I walked under the glittering Christmas lights I thought to myself that although its a nice place to visit, I couldnt live there.
That's made all the more clear by the stares you get in Paris. Its strange considering how close it is to England that there are almost no Sikhs here (bar a small community in the Bobigny neighbourhood). You know how sometimes you catch people staring at you, you look at them and they turn away. Parisians dont do that. They just stare, and continue staring. Maybe they are curious. I'd rather they just smile and approach me, perhaps say hello. Maybe the terrorist attacks have made them hate/fear people that look different. I'm not sure that's an excuse in this day and age, although I understand not everyone wants to go out and learn.
Usually I'm used to curious looks in different parts of the world, but by the end of the weekend I was getting pretty tired of it, I'd began to feel like an animal in a zoo. It's a shame because the looks Parisians were giving Sikhs just 70 years ago were much more different and much more positive. One of my favourite photo's of all time is the Sikh Army helping to liberate Paris, and as the soliders walk through the city, a French woman pins a flower on one Singh.
There is a lot to like about Paris, and at Christmas it looks particularly spectacular. I didn't find the people as rude as some of the stories you read or hear, although they are quite direct. In fact, the French people at my workplace had long dispelled that myth. The city is surprisingly small in terms of area, especially the central core, but it packs alot of beauty in that space. The city has gone through some tough times recently, and its still feeling the effects, but its dealing with it very well. I'd welcome a bit more education regarding Sikhs in France for a number of reasons. Firstly it will showcase the sacrifices Sikhs made for the freedom of cities like Paris and secondly it will also highlight the deep cultural history of the two nations. Following the Napoleonic Wars, scores of French soldiers decided to take up service within the Sikh Empire, the most famous of which included Jean-Francois Allard and Claude August Court; two high ranking military officers that retain a huge level of respect in Panjab, especially Allard.
There's still a lot of Paris and the surrounding area that I will go back to explore, and I definitely want to see the view from the Montparnasse Tower. The Palace of Versailles is not too far away and is another landmark I'd quite to see. If there are any other suggestions for Paris you would give, please leave a comment below.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.