16 July 2009

Snails & Frogs Legs - Four Days in Paris

Grab yourself a coffee and find a comfy chair – I have a feeling this is going to be a long one!

Day 1 started off at 3:30am! We were up and out the door very quickly. Unfortunately we were up before the underground started running so we had to take two busses to get to St Pancras Station. A friendly French couple gave us a hand to find the correct bus which was really helpful. We got our tickets, through security, and boarded the train. All fairly painless really... I think I like this international travel via train deal...

The trip went quickly. I spent most of the time planning our day and Rochelle spent most of it sleeping. We departed the train about 9am (Paris time) and headed for another station on the network that was closer to where we wanted to go and had luggage storage. Little did we know, but this was to be the start of a loooong day in France.

We successfully navigated the Metro. A few observations – it’s a lot larger than the London underground. They have two-storied trains which are much wider than the tube on the routes that head out into the suburbs (RER) and even the smaller trains (Metro) were much bigger. The whole atmosphere was much dirtier though... dodgy people hanging around, a lot of graffiti etc. We also found the people to be quite rude! Very pushy and inconsiderate, which made things difficult with all our luggage. Anyway, we got to the station where we wanted to store our luggage, spent a good 45 mins trying to find the lockers, with the help of some unhelpful French people (if that makes sense). Finally we got our two bags and laptop bag into the small sized locker (with a lot of shoving and cursing) to save ourselves €3 =)

We excitedly headed outside, finally to venture into the beautiful city of Paris. We stepped out into a huge courtyard and took a second to orientate ourselves and work out where we were heading. We were greeted by a grey sky, a dodgy looking character and a couple of stoner dudes. The place reeked of urine – which as it turned out is not uncommon in this city. Our first destination was Saint-Michel Fountain for the start of our free walking tour, about 2kms walk from the station. I navigated us along what I thought would be a nice walk along the bank of the river Seine... as it turns out there were no decent walkways in that part of the city, and it was an almost industrial area with no shops at all. Being quite tired, a bit stressed and a little disillusioned by the mornings events, we were both not in the best of moods. This was amplified by the fact that all we had to eat that day was half a banana at 3:30am. We decided to try to find somewhere to eat, which was proving difficult in that part of town. We finally stumbled across a subway, where communication with the attendant was difficult, but I got almost what I wanted. He proceeded to blatantly rip me off, then turn around and ignore me. I gave up and decided it wasn’t worth my €1 to argue. Rochelle found a semi-decent pastry shop and had her first taste of French pastry – I think she was impressed.

We got to the free walking tour (after an hours walk) with about 3 minutes to spare. Keeping in mind our morning so far, and the fact that the tour went for three and a half hours, we weren’t sure weather we would make it to the end or not. But we set off with the best of intentions and agreed we would see how we go. Our tour guide was a kiwi from Rotorua, who had been in Paris for 8 months. He was quite a cool guy and very knowledgeable about the city and its history. He also gave us some tips on the scams to watch out for, which ended up being very helpful. On the tour we visited so many amazing places. Was saw so many awesome things I think I'll let the pictures do the talking (click to enlarge).

So we made it to the end of the tour! Extremely impressed with ourselves, but now feeling even more jaded, we decided to chill on the grass under the trees for a while. The weather had improved and things were looking up. Our first impressions of Paris slowly eroding and we were starting to enjoy ourselves a little. Although, the smell of urine seemed to follow us everywhere. After a short break we thought we had better make the most of our day, so decided to check out this big tower everyone gets so excited about. I have to admit, it was a great sight. Rochelle thought it looked ugly. I was a little less harsh, but would not describe it as beautiful. But it certainly was huge! I was amazed at how thin the ‘legs’ of it are. The place was teeming with tourists! The lines to get up were crazily long, so we decided we would put that off for another day. We were also told the best views of the city were to be had at the suburb of Montmartre, so we were not concerned. This was where we had our first experience with the street ‘hustlers’. They are these guys that walk around with souvenirs of the tower on big rings and hassel tourists into buying them. They are very in your face and don’t give up easily. We were also approached by a woman asking if we spoke English. Being the good Samaritan I am, I answered yes, thinking she needed help or directions or something. She handed me a piece of paper that I can only assume told me of her hard life and why she needed my money. I felt somewhat compelled to read it and help this woman, but after the warnings from our tour guide, I quickly declined. I am rather glad I didn’t give her any money, as throughout our trip we saw countless woman trying exactly the same scam! Another interesting observation - there are army guys walking around with huge machine guns.

From the tower, we headed to the Arc de Triomphe. I am sure I don’t need to explain what this is, but I will tell you it was built by Napoleon in the early 1800’s. It is truly an intimidating monument. The size of it, and everything around it, is massive. It is in the centre of a huge round-a-bout, with 12 streets radiating from it, including two enormously wide boulevards (I’m talking 70m!). Under the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War, marked by the eternal flame. The traffic on the round-a-bout is insane. We sat and just watched the cars for about ten minutes. There are no road markings, and the give way rules seem to be in reverse (i.e. those on the round-a-bout must give way to those entering). These two combined with hundreds of scooters, tourists who have no idea what they are doing, and huge tour buses make for utter chaos.

By this stage we were both almost asleep on our feet. We decided to call it a day and head for our hotel. But we first had to pick up our luggage. I think they specifically designed the station as a labyrinth, with the luggage storage the goal in the middle, because it is simply impossible to navigate! We walked for miles around the station before finally going down an obscure set of stairs leading to a completely different area, containing the lockers. We jumped back on the Metro for what seemed like an eternity, but was really only six stops, to reach our destination. We got out of the station and found ourselves at a mall – perfect, as we were starving again by this stage. We carted our luggage around the mall for a good 30 minutes looking for a food-court of some description before giving up! As we headed out, we happened to see someone with a supermarket trolley. We quickly walked in the direction they had come and finally found a Supermarché. Rochelle watched the bags as I ran around and got a few bits and pieces. Little did I know – but French supermarkets work in crazy ways. I wont go into details, but it ended up taking twice as long as it should have, and thank god I found a helpful English speaking worker or I think we would have starved.

We FINALLY ended up getting into our room at about 9:30/10pm after a mammoth day. We had been up for around 20 hours and on our feet for most of them. What we found behind door number 206 was a box with a bed, TV and tiny bathroom. There was no soap, no kettle, and no room to move! By this stage we were passed caring, and were simply happy to have a place to sleep. Our experiences so far did not match the amazing, romantic, beautiful image that the city was portrayed in, but we did enjoy ourselves, and we were open-minded about what Sunday might bring.

After a hectic day, we decided we deserved a bit of a sleep-in on Sunday. One thing I noticed on Sunday morning that I did not notice on Saturday night was we were directly across from a HUGE graveyard. Nice. We were up and out the door by just after 10am, which we thought wasn’t bad going. Our first destination was the Louvre. We got a little lost on the way but found another amazing church - Saint Eustache, which has the monument l'Ecoute.

We had seen the outside of the Louvre quickly the day before, but today we decided to spend a bit of time and head in. The place is bigger than huge, it is GINOURMOUS! We were told if you were to look at every piece of art for only 30 seconds, 24 hours a day with no breaks, you would be in the building for about 64 days. Both not really being into art, we headed for the big draw-cards, namely the Mona Lisa, the Venus De Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. To be completely honest, the Mona Lisa did not take my breath away. Maybe it was the crowds that were continuously pushing to get a better view that spoiled the experience, but to me she just wasn’t that impressive. The Venus De Milo and the Winged Victory on the other hand, were. Truely amazing. One thing that blew both Rochelle and I away was the size of a lot of the paintings. We could not understand how someone could paint something so big so well. We probably didn’t appreciate the art as some might have, but we still enjoyed the experience. Anyway, I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

After a couple of hours in the museum, lunch was all we could think about. We wandered for a bit until we found a café that wasn’t charging an arm and a leg (was takeaway only) and lined up. The woman could not speak a word of English, which was our first hurdle. We managed to get across what we wanted, paid, then waited as she proceeded to serve other customers. My first concern came when I saw she had no gloves and was handling both the money and the food. The second and many more came when I saw how she handled the food. I am positive if they were inspected by food safety, they would have failed miserably. About ten minutes went past before I started getting a bit worried about our order. I went and lined up again, thinking this was going to be a repeat of the Subway fiasco the day before. Thankfully she didn’t try to rip me off and was very apologetic (I think?), and got our order. It still tasted good even though her dirty fingers had literally been all through it, and by that time we were too hungry to really care.

From there we wandered down to the Notre Dame, famous for its stained glass windows and flying buttress (a type of exterior supports). The cathedral was built in the 1100’s, which is just hard to believe when you see how complex and detailed the building is. We wandered around the building, and relaxed in the shade at the back. The crowds were again really bad, meaning the hustlers, beggars etc were also out in force. We spent a short while there but decided we needed to get away, so we bought sorbet and went for a nice walk along the river.

The day was still young, so we decided to head to Montmartre, famous for the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur (church) and the Moulin Rouge. The Basilique du Sacré-Cœur is located at the highest point in Paris, giving amazing views of the city. The church sits on top of quite a steep hill, and from the bottom seems to tower over you. My vocabulary is just not good enough to describe how intricate and beautiful this building is, so take a look at the pictures below and you will see what I mean. Again, the place was teeming with tourists and con-artists. The main con being – a guy will come up to you, extremely friendly and try to give you a friendship bracelet. He will ask you to hold the end as he quickly weaves the bracelet, then ties it around your wrist, all the while smiling and being extremely friendly. Once he finishes things start to turn bad. He has you by the wrist and starts nicely demanding a tip. If you refuse they get a bit more forceful and really intimidate. We saw one couple get conned and could not believe how persistent and pushy these guys can be. To be honest its quite scary. Thankfully the couple stuck to their guns and wouldn’t give them anything and after a while they gave up. There is the other side of the coin though – there were some amazing buskers and performers. After checking out the church and the buskers, we dipped out feet in the fountain and relaxed in the sun for about 30 mins before deciding to head on.

The Moulin Rouge was our next destination. As we don’t have huge stacks of cash, we had to appreciate it from the outside. It was a bit of anti-climax. It is really just a building with a windmill on top. I guess it is one of those things you have to do though. I will concede that we did not see it at night (it didn’t get dark until about 10:30pm and it’s located in the heart of the red-light-district), so that may have made a difference. We stuck around for a bit, took the cliché tourist shots, then decided we had had enough of that and moved on.

One thing we decided we could not miss was the Eiffel Tower at night. We caught the metro down and walked past the Hotel des Invalides. Being early evening, we chilled out on the grass under the tower for a while. We had expected it to get dark around 9:30pm, but 9:30 came and went... We were so buggered and both just wanted to sleep! But we couldn’t leave without seeing the tower lit. So we hung around, paid way too much for a chocolate crepe, got hassled by people trying to sell us crap... Then finally the lights came on, which were pretty mediocre, until the sparkling lights came on. It lit up like a Christmas tree. It was really awesome to see and I am glad we waited.

The Arc de Triomphe is located a couple of kms from the tower, and seeing we had already walked so far, we thought why not walk a little more. The Arc at night was a little disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, the Arc itself is incredible, but what we saw was basically the Arc with a couple of torches shining on it. Still, worth a couple of photos.

After our second very long day in Paris we headed home. Although we encountered just as many con-artists, beggars, rude and dodgy people, I think we started to relax a little more and get to enjoy the city. It is truly a remarkable place.

Day Three bought amazing weather – perfect for a day trip to Disneyland! We arrived at the park just after opening at 10am. The amount of people meant we didn’t get through the gates until about 11, still plenty of time though, as the park didn’t close until 11pm. I thought we did quite well, we got on all the ‘big’ rides we wanted to, wandered right around the park, saw people dressed up in big suits, all the normal stuff... Rochelle wouldn’t go on the Indiana Jones ride, but decided she would go on the Big Thunder Mountain. The ride did look quite tame – we were in carrages pulled along by a big train. Couldn’t really go that fast, could it? Uhh, yeah, it could. It could also fly through huge pitch black tunnels making very sharp turns. Rochelle was not impressed! The afternoon we spent in Walt Disney Studios, where we saw a stunt show (above par I thought) and went on a studio tour which was absolute crap. I then went on the Aerosmith roller coaster. Best Ride Ever! I wish I had more time to go on it again. I then went on the Tower of Terror. I decided I could not leave without going on this ride. They had built a HUGE hotel to contain the ride, which was basically an elevator that went up really fast, then down really fast, then repeat. Not bad, but the building itself was more impressive than the ride. As Walt Disney closed at 7pm, we headed back to Disneyland for the evening. We had a bit of dinner, did a couple more rides then took the train the whole way around the park. Just before 10 we got a good spot for the parade. The parade itself was quite cool, lots of lights and people dancing. I think the only complaint we had was the crazy asian lady that kept pushing Rochelle to try and get a better spot. After the parade the fireworks started. I think the fact that the castle was in the background made them that much more impressive. Check out the vids and you will see what I mean. With that, we called it a night.

Our final day in Paris didn’t start too well. We packed up and headed to the supermarket to get some breakfast... except it was a public holiday in France and everything was closed, DOH! Our stomachs rumbling, we set off toward Gard du Nord (Eurostar station) to put our luggage in lockers for the day. Once out of the station, we went for a walk to see if we could find something good to eat. We found an awesome bakery, so had a huge breakfast. We sat outside to enjoy the sun, the only thing that spoiled it was the drunk beggar that was drinking what looked like pure gasoline. We decided to head to the south of the city to visit the catacombs. These are basically a network of subterranean tunnels and caverns filled with human bones. The history goes that many Parisians were suffering from disease, due to contamination caused by improper burials, open mass graves, and earth charged with decomposing organic matter. Basically there were dead bodies everywhere and they didn’t have space to bury them all. Thousands of graves were dug up and the remains moved into these underground tunnels. For a bit more info and some awesome pics, check out this link. So we arrived at the metro station near the catacombs. Rochelle took a look in our touristy book and got the address, I entered it in to the gps on my phone and we were off. Only problem was Rochelle had given me the address for the observatory - we didn’t pick this up until we arrived about 30 mins later. The observatory was closed so we couldn’t even make the most of it while we were there. So we walked back and found the catacombs, which were also closed! We weren’t having much luck. Something interesting did happen while we were there though, about 10 army tanks and a whole lot of army trucks with large guns rolled down the road.

We got on the metro and headed back into town. We decided to check out the Notre Dame and see if we could get inside. Thankfully the line was only about 100m long. The things that immediately stood out were the sheer size of the building, and the mind-blowing stained glass windows. They were so detailed, yet so huge! The pictures do not do it justice, so you will just have to take my word for it.

From there we bought more sorbet (so good!) and just wandered around the city. It was really interesting to just walk around with no destination in particular. Around every corner you find another amazing building, or street markets, or huge museum or monument. Things they probably do mention in the tourist books but you never get that far. We got given some free flowers and they didn’t even hassle us for money (later some drunk guy on the street tried to snatch them from Rochelle). We sat in the sun and watched kids play in this water playground. We were then approached by an old woman handing out newspapers. Rochelle must have been starting to feel that people in Paris were actually nice after being given flowers – so took one. Bad move. The woman expected money, and when we did not give her any, she started (I can only assume) abusing us in French. You can't go all the way to a foreign country and not get abused in their native language, right? From there we walked to the Saint-Jacques Tower and enjoyed the sun and our last moments in Paris.

We headed to the Eurostar terminal, picked up our bags, then checked in. Again, a really painless process. I definitely recommend international travel by train. Beats flying any day. The trip back was fairly standard, nothing out of the ordinary to report. We arrived home a little after 9pm, tired and not wanting to face work the following day.

In summary, it was an eye opener. I can see how people can describe it as the most romantic city in the world – at times you can believe it. But there is this whole other side that you don't really hear about. It wasn't always comfortable, but the uncomfortable bits do add to the experience. And the French really aren't as bad as they are made out to be. After the first day I thought the French were all bastards, but after four days we learnt that it is really only a small minority. Many are really friendly, helpful people. It is probably the same as most places you go in the world, the effect is just multiplied because you are in a foreign country where you don't speak the language. I also have a new appreciation of home, and to a lesser extent, London - places where you don't feel you have to watch your back 24-7.

Would I recommend it? Definitely. Would I go back? Undecided – I think I would much rather get out of the big city and experience the rest of France. But I wouldn’t say no to a free trip.


  1. We had the same experience under the Eiffel Tower with the lady handing us an envelope and then asking for money! Must be a good place for her beggaring business.


  2. We saw lots of them eh. Must work...

  3. I was just in Paris for the first time a few weeks ago and it was amazing! But I was also rather surprised to see people walking around with machine guns (outside or hotel, and in a MALL!)... it was a little disconcerting at first. Anyway, this is a great post, it reminds me so much of all the stuff I did!

  4. These pics are beautiful. I have always wanted to go to Paris. Me and my sister want to see Le Pere Lachaise Cemetery where Jim Morrison is suppose to be buried. We are big fans. It was good reading this.

  5. Oooohhhh Paris, I was there a few times but over 15 years ago. I'm sooo over do. I always said that Paris is like a museum out doors!

    What an amazingly beautiful city!

  6. i LOVE paris. that said, i don't love the big touristy things, but the small shops and cafes with such big personalities.

    excellent photos!

  7. The Aerosmith ride is the best thing in the place! I remember going on that ride over... and over.. and over.. and over..

    I'd say my parents just wanted to leave.


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