We’re on the homeward stretch in my Travelling in the 90s series, which features extracts from my original travel journal in 1993-1994. This was my first ever trip overseas, taken after I finished my undergraduate university studies. I’m young, green and oh so enthusiastic!
So far we’ve spent a couple of weeks in Greece and about six weeks tripping around the UK. This latest installment picks up on our arrival in Paris, after an entire day of travel. (No Eurostar train in those days!)
[Saturday 5 February, 1994] The train arrived in Paris at 6:15 on Thursday evening — and it was dark. After lugging our extremely heavy packs for nearly one and a half hours, we finally found the hostel we’d booked — very swish, with clean, large rooms and a huge wall heater for drying our washing. After trudging through the streets of Paris it was lovely. But expensive.
The next morning we mastered the Paris metro system and found somewhere cheaper — the “Young and Happy” hostel in the Latin Quarter of Paris, surrounded by markets and little cafes. The hostel itself is quite dilapidated, but has so much character that we love it! In any case, we were able to drop our packs for the day, and take a proper look at Paris. Breath it in.
Characteristically, we began with an extensive walking tour, strolling along the Seine River in the direction of the Eiffel Tower. It was a very long walk!
We met the Seine at Notre Dame, and walked along the north bank west past the Louvre, the Louvre gardens, the place de la Concord, the grand et petit palais to the palais de chaillot, et finale le tour eiffel!!
We were rather exhausted by this stage, despite the fact that we had been strolling in a calm, easy manner. At the tower there was a queue for the lift, so we (foolishly) decided to climb the stairs and save some money at the same time. It didn’t look that far…
By the time we’d reached the first level we were panting and footsore. Eventually we summoned the energy to stroll about the viewing platform at the first level. There were signs and pictures all the way around pointing out buildings and monuments etc.
The view was superb — so superb in fact that we decided that the next level up couldn’t improve on it too much. (At least, we decided this after a few steps onwards and upwards.) So we’ve done level one of the Eiffel Tower — now there’s something left to do next time!
Not surprisingly, by now we were hungry, and needed to change some traveller’s cheques in order to eat. So we headed for the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysee (more walking).
The Arc is certainly magnificent and awe-inspiring — looming up in the centre of a busy roundabout. Access is via tunnels. Both hunger and the threat of being mugged in the tunnels prevented us from approaching any closer than the side of the road, so we gazed at the Arc and walked on by… The Champs beckoned.
It took us ages to find a bank that did not charge us a commission on our travellers cheques. It seems to happen a lot to us — we decide we’re hungry, and we want to eat NOW. But unless we have our lunch already (as in carry bread etc around with us) it invariably takes hours before we find a suitable place to eat.
Take the Champs Elysee, for example. According to popular report, this is supposed to be a happening place in Paris. In actual fact, the traffic roars down it, so that anyone at a roadside cafe would breathe in as much car exhaust as O2. To overcome this, cafes have glass annexes attached to their shop-fronts — but the convivial atmosphere of Paris is just not happening here. The Champs has to go down as being very disappointing.
So we finally ate in a baguette chain called “Pomme du Pain”. It was delicious but very expensive — I don’t think we’ll be eating out much in Paris! After “lunch” we stuffed around for a bit and then caught the metro back to our hostel ( about 8km is enough walking!). We broke-in our beautiful new kettle by having cup-a-soup for dinner and settled in for a quiet evening.
Today we went to Versailles. Contrary to my own expectation, Versailles was magnificent! I rather expected to find it a trifle tizzy and gaudy — and it certainly was in places — but for the most part, all the gilt work was quite tastefully done.
Most of the rooms we saw were fairly similar, but one of the features which really stood out was the marble work on the floors and walls. All colours of marble (red, green, grey) were used in decorative patterns, highlighted with gold trim. And the ceilings were works of art themselves — intricate paintings of both mythological and religious significance.
Not all of the rooms were beautiful, though — notably those possessing bright velvet wallpaper or intensive floral design. Nevertheless, overall my impressions were favourable.
However, it impressed on me the severity of the excesses of the old French nobility, and I cannot think it an amazing thing that the French Revolution was so bloody and so heartfelt. Versailles is so filled with gold that it is sickening when you think about it.
The gardens of Versailles are beautiful too. We took our lunch there for a picnic (camembert, fresh white bread, mandarin) and fortunately it was a sunny day. We wandered around the gardens, checking out the famous fountain which shows four straining horses pulling a chariot up out of the water — it’s Apollo (my favourite god) of course.
Most of the other statues were covered in heavy green cloth which struck us particularly. Sometimes travelling in Winter is depressing — things are so often closed or under repair!
General impressions of Paris so far: It’s a lovely city, and seems even bigger than London. The river — definitely the centre of attention — meanders through the city, with ornate bridges arching across and buildings (old and new) lining its banks.
All the trees are skeletal, and the whole effect is quite soft. The weather seems to be mild, although it rained a little bit yesterday afternoon. The buildings are light-coloured and not too ornate. The people all seem to be very purposeful.
We’ve really only seen the river section so far, and there’s a lot we won’t have time for unfortunately. However, I think I’m starting to get a feel for the city. It’s lovely and light and open with space — even the roads are wide.
There ends the account of our first two days in Paris. Apologies (yet again) for the poor picture quality… these were all taken 20 years ago on a disposable camera and photographed with my iPhone. The next post will cover the second half of our Parisian expedition.
I was about to say I returned to Paris just recently… and then I realised it was four whole years ago. Ye gods!