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Perfecting Paris

As the Easy jet plane circled in the cold December sky, the stewardess, Santa hat slightly askew, flicks the switch for the seat belt sign to light.  I stare out of the window trying to catch a glimpse of Paris as we land, but it’s already too dark and the rain doesn’t help. 

Three quarters of an hour later, our luggage retrieved and directions obtained from the airport information man.  My partner, and myself are heading through the cold drizzle toward the train station. We trudge down the well-lit and well signposted walkway toward RER B. It’s about a twenty-minute walk to the rather sparse train station that links Charles De Gaulle airport with Paris and the rest of France. Once we got to the window to buy the train ticket I confidently state in terrible French that I would like two tickets to St Michel.  The young blonde lady behind the plexi glass smiles encouragingly and asks in perfect English how I would like to pay.  I hand over my debit card, once again humbled by how the rest Europe always seem to be able to speak English when we Brits never seem to bother too much about learning a second language.  The train station itself has two ticket booths, an information cubicle, a café and a newsagent, as I said, fairly sparse.  It feels very large and relatively empty, however it’s clean and not intimidating, with well-lit signs and seating areas.  The RER B is the line that travels from CDG airport right through Paris. It has limited stops but you can catch a metro (tube) train from any of the stations it stops at to anywhere in Paris.

When we arrived at RER B it was roughly 7pm and the only things left open were the ticket booths and the information cubicle.  All the occupants spoke English and the tickets cost €7.70 each which is about £5.10 apiece, not bad for an hours trip.  About five minutes later we found ourselves on a large, snaky but comfortable train heading for the centre of Paris.  The rain was still falling making everywhere seem darker than it actually was.  Some of the houses we passed were overflowing with fairy lights. Decorations, plastic reindeer, snowmen and Santa’s adorned the Parisian suburbia in the five days before Christmas day.  The train trundles along and the city grows before our eyes. The houses falling away as the buildings became bigger, more modern, and Paris began to take shape around us. Then we move underground and join the metro system, no more rain and no more views.  We stop at Gare Du Nord, one of Paris’ four largest train stations. The four stations serve the north, south, east and west of Europe respectively, each bringing in thousands of people. The amount of passengers on our train doubles, they are wet and chuntering in a myriad of languages as the train pulls away. 

A couple more stops and we reach the metro station of St Michel.  We make our way up to the streets above and come face to face with the awesome sight of Notre Dame.  Its beauty is breathtaking and we stand stunned just staring at the gorgeous cathedral. We take in the huge rose designed stained glass window and the two majestic towers that form either side of the building. The ugly but fascinating gargoyles hanging off the building look faintly gruesome even in the distance and darkness.  The Seine flows past on our right and the passers by pay us little mind as we stand staring, on this rainy Friday night, at one of the most famous buildings in the world. The lights are on in all the cafes, bars and shops which line the Place St Michel and we make our way, threading between tourists, dogs and traffic, toward the Rue De La Huchette and our hotel.  I’d booked Les Argonautes through the Internet and it was very inexpensive and only a two-minute walk from the Notre Dame in the heart of the Latin Quarter.  The Latin Quarter has more restaurants per square metre than anywhere I’ve ever experienced.  The narrow, winding cobbled streets are packed with every restaurant and cafe imaginable, vying for space with the odd bar and souvenir shop in-between.  The men standing on the restaurant doorsteps offer you menus, calling out in French and English the specials for the night. Extolling their establishments in loud voices to drown out their neighbours. Christmas lights and decorations flicker and flash adding to the show.  Tourists are rife but so are the natives, creating a backdrop of hustle and bustle as they roam throughout the Latin Quarter. We find our hotel a narrow doorway next to a Greek Restaurant, Richard spots it first, the sign saying “Les Argonautes.” It’s fairly lost, up quite high and plain brown and green, swinging gently in the rain.  The hotel is actually above the Greek restaurant and they bear the same name.  I had been pre-warned of this and had requested a room on the fourth floor to avoid as much of the noise as possible, which I had been told could go on until 2 or 3am with renditions of “Happy Birthday” in Greek, rocking the first floor of the hotel.

The room was small but perfect overlooking the busy Rue De La Huchette it was well decorated and had a lot of character.  The bathroom was roomy and everything was very clean and tidy. The cries of the Greek restaurant men, the plate smashing and the sounds of laughter floated around the room when we open big windows. Hanging out over the wrought iron sill the enticing smells from the Latin Quarter beckoned us down for dinner.

The following morning we ventured away from the Seine and found a local supermarket for cheap beer, wine and snacks.  Then having investigated the winding, narrow roads behind the Institut De France with their varied and thought provoking art galleries, we breakfasted on coffee and omelettes in one of the many cafés. We chose to sit inside the café not least because of the cloudy sky but it also costs more if you sit outside.

We then headed back to Les Argonautes to deposit our shopping before venturing out again.  We crossed the Place St Michel and headed down the Que de Grds Augustins, away from the Notre Dame. The Seine was grey and lively on our right and the houseboats were colourfully bobbing in the tide.  The book and picture sellers had opened their stalls along the side of the road and were busy being casual about catching our attention.  We walked as far as the Pont Neuf and crossing the bridge we entered the grounds of the Louvre Museum.  We had decided to walk the length of the museum and its grounds, which merge into the Jardin des Tuileries and from there to the Champs Elysee.  The museum grounds were fairly busy, even that close to Christmas. We wandered around near the gigantic glass pyramid, taking in the wonderful architecture of the ancient building and the huge Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. We then started walking through the grounds and into the Jardin des Tuileries.  The gardens were lovely, free deckchairs were dotted about, especially around the boating pond.  With the odd creperie nestled between the leafy avenues, it was a great place to people watch.  All walks of life seemed to drift, wander and jog past us as we enjoyed a very pleasant hour admiring the scenery. 

We ended up at the beautiful Egyptian Obelisque on the Place de Concorde at the end of the Jardin des Tuileries, late that afternoon, having stopped for lunch in a nearby Café. We walked down the Champs Elysee, which looked stunning with the fairy lights in the trees.  It’s an amazing sight, you can see down the whole length of the huge road from the Place de Concorde.  We turned off of the Champs Elysee onto Winston Churchill, taking in the Grand Palais on the right and it’s smaller sister Petit Palais on the left, we crossed back over the Seine on the Pont Alexandre III.  It’s wonderful golden statues at either end catching the last of the winter sun.

We ate that evening in the restaurant under our hotel, also called Les Argonautes.  The atmosphere was lively and the Greek waiters were very attentive.  I devoured the biggest Seafood Kebab I’d ever seen.  The king prawns were the highlight for me as they were massive and they are my favourite seafood. But the succulent pieces of cod and the tangy taste of red snapper definitely competed for first place in the taste sensation.  Having drunk copious amounts of red wine we finished our meal and headed out to try some of the bars in the Latin Quarter to end our day.

The following day having breakfasted on crepes from a seller at the end of the Rue de la Huchette, we walked to the Notre Dame.  The gothic splendour of the cathedral is daunting. The inside is suitably awesome and beautifully disconcerting in its dark foreboding way.  It’s worth mentioning that once you’ve walked around the inside of the Notre Dame, the gardens at the back merit a visit.  The rear of the Cathedral is unique and is totally unlike the rest of the building in its architecture.

Then we took the metro to the Sacre Coeur (scared heart), one of my favourite buildings.  The beautiful white cathedral stands on top of a hill surrounded by the lovely area of Montmartre.  You can climb the steps up to the cathedral or pay to take the hill lift.  The views are spectacular from the top. Once inside the Sacre Coeur it is just as lovely as the outside. Its exquisite stained glass windows and breathtaking dome are truly worth the visit.  It is a very peaceful and calming place.  We spent a couple of hours walking around Montmartre, the art fair was on and the square was awash with local paintings for sale. The houses, bars and cafes are truly traditional and the whole area has a village feel about it that makes it a delightful and very enjoyable place to visit. 

We then negotiated the red light district of Pigalle to catch the metro to the Eiffel Tower.  Getting off at the Trocadero we walked through the huge building. We stood for a while watching the amazing cascading waters flowing through the Jardins du Trocadero before walking over the Pont d’lena.  We had lunch on one of the boats tied up on the Seine just underneath the Tower.  The food is good and inexpensive and being able to watch the Seine pass by as you eat is a major bonus.  We then joined one of the queues at the base of the Eiffel Tower. To go up isn’t that expensive at € 6,90, approx £4.50 each, and is well worth it.  The views from the second floor of the Tower are totally awesome the whole of Paris is spread out before you.  It’s like a carpet of life, houses, offices, schools and some of the most famous and awe inspiring buildings in the world reduced to matchbox size.  All glinting in the sun, you can see the different areas merging into each other, changing and growing.  Picking out the famous landmarks is what most people do at first but then you begin to look closer at the rest of the vista.  Watching the whole of Paris, living and breathing beneath you, the sounds are muted but in the clear air on the Tower, the whole of Paris comes alive, a romantic, haunting but above all beautiful city.  I realised that the city has many intricate and fascinating layers that make you want to get to know every inch of it intimately and will keep you coming back time and again.

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