Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Encore France: Day 2 - An Amazing First Day in Paris

After a great Air France breakfast, we enjoyed a smooth-as-silk touch down at CDG to discover that, because of the time difference being even greater with French daylight saving, it was still dark, dark, dark in Paris.
Once through immigration (and, yes, stamps in our passports this time), we were directed to a little train. Huh? Yes, we, along with a zillion other people, boarded a little airport train which took us to the baggage area. And no waiting here, folks: the luggage from our flight was already there, so we picked up our suitcases and walked straight out to the arrivals area, where our driver was waiting for us. There had to be something wrong, though, didn’t there? Yes, there was: one of our suitcases had been badly damaged and was now sans one wheel, making it impossible to just pull along behind us. A bummer as we really liked that purple case. The traffic from the airport into the city, probably at the start of the morning rush hour, was just insane, with motorbike riders zapping along weaving between cars and trucks – they provide entertainment as you go.
8.00 o’clock, and it is still pitch-black. Incredible. 8.30, and there is a hint of light in the sky. Yes, yes, yes, we begin to make out buildings and people. It’s so long since I lived in Europe that I had forgotten how dark mornings can be.
We arrived at our fantastic little hotel, the Agora Saint-Germain, just before 9.00 o’clock, way too early to get into our room. We were welcomed by a lovely member of staff, Ailen, who showed us where to leave our luggage, gave us a little map and suggested we come back in a couple of hours.
The location of the hotel was fantastic, right in the Latin Quarter, on rue des Bernardins just off rue Monge, with just about everything you could possibly want in walking distance. We headed off down rue Monge and onto Boulevard Saint-Germain, and then right onto Boulevard Saint-Michel until we reached the river – ah, we are definitely back in beautiful Paris when we see the Seine. We cross the bridge over to the Ile-de-la-Cité, walking alongside the police headquarters until we reach Notre Dame de Paris.
Notre Dame de Paris, with less people than you
are likely to see. Message is: go early.

Please note: if you are off to Paris and want to visit Notre Dame, go early in the morning. It was probably now about 9.30, and there were no crowds, hardly anybody around. It was so quiet I was unsure whether it was even open, but then I saw a couple of people coming out through the doors and realised that, yes, we could enter. I had not felt any great desire to visit, but once we entered the cathedral it was as if all the air was sucked out of my body, as if my very physical self was in awe. For a Catholic it must be really overwhelming; for a non-Catholic like me it was incredibly inspiring, humbling in its majesty. It truly is everything and more that you could expect and hope for, a totally amazing place.
Quite beautiful.

From there we strolled around the island and enjoyed a few minutes of lovely peace in the delightful park behind the cathedral.
We had planned to stroll back to the Latin via the next bridge along, but on our way to do so we were very surprised to find that the Memorial to the Deportees, something which was on my list of places to visit during this trip, was right there in front of us when we crossed over the road. At first we thought we were in another little park, but then noticed the steps leading down from the park to the river level and realised where we were. I had not for a moment expected to come across this on day one.
The Memorial is accessed by very steep, very narrow steps leading down from the quiet little garden. It is just a small open space and a few tiny rooms. There are no attendants, no souvenir stalls, just signs requesting silence and respect. Carved into the walls are the names of the various concentration camps which the deportees were sent to, and there are signs explaining the various categories of those deportees. There are small cells which you can look into through barred windows, but nothing is dark, all is pale creamy limestone. The most touching bit of the Memorial is a corridor, a long, narrowing corridor which you can’t enter but which you simply look down through bars. The side walls of this corridor are embedded with shining crystals, one for every Parisian who was deported. Even writing about it now I feel like crying. There were a few other visitors to the site, but not one person was speaking, everybody was silent, everybody was incredibly moved and no words were either necessary or sufficient.
That visit to the Memorial to the Deportees will stay with me for ever. It is a truly moving tribute to those 200,000 people who were “deported” by the Nazis, people who were dragged from their homes and sent away, never to return.
Feeling much quieted, but so privileged to have visited such a place, we crossed the river back to the Latin and walked along by the river. Time for another totally unexpected surprise, the chance to visit another place which was “on my list”: Shakespeare & Co. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Joyce – and me; we’ve all been there. What an amazing, chaotic, exuberant store. I loved it, and could have spent hours trawling through the place were it not for the fact that our stomachs were now demanding attention.
We stopped for lunch at the Café Depart Saint-Michel where we enjoyed a great meal and a pichet of delicious rosé from Provence. It was fantastic sitting there at a table by the window and watching that amazingly busy area, life being played out as if on a screen.
Suddenly, cops seemed to appear from everywhere - lots and lots and lots of them. Firstly, they blocked off all traffic from the bridge. This was accompanied by much blowing of whistles. Then that barrier was removed and tape was placed across another street to block that off, again with beaucoup beaucoup blowing of whistles. And then, lo and behold, nothing happened! They then removed that tape and blocked off yet a different street. Oh, and with all those whistles, of course. Crazy, huh?
Now, this lasted for quite some time, probably over half an hour. Police cars whizzed everywhere, cops on motorbikes tore around like absolute loonies, and those on the street got their thrills by constantly blowing their whistles. It was quite deafening, absolutely fascinating, and the most insane of street theatre – certainly kept all the diners intrigued.
The weirdest was yet to come, however. While watching all this high drama from the comfort of our restaurant table, I looked into one of the police cars speeding past and – what?? – the policemen inside were all wearing full-faced balaclavas. This day was our first day in Paris, remember, and already it was just amazing. Bursting with excitement, I told my husband about the cops in balaclavas, but he – oh, Doubting Thomas that he is – did not believe me. He hadn’t seen, and so he didn’t believe. He said, “No, you must be mistaken; they were just normal cops in normal gear”. Don’t worry, his words would come back to bite him later in the day.
As quickly as it had all started up, so it died down and returned to normal – well, as normal as a Paris street can be with two amazingly tall (I mean, they looked at least 7 feet tall) leather-clad transvestites marching along the Boulevard in their second-skin tight body suits. One was all in patent black leather, head to towering platformed boots, and the other in white, with lots of chains and silver embellishment. They were almost as fascinating as the police street theatre, and were hungrily followed by American tourists with large cameras eager to get some good shots to show the folks back home.
What entertainment we had had; it was wonderful.
Replete now and ready for a bath and a good rest, we headed back to our hotel when, about halfway along Boulevard Saint-Germain, we hear police sirens start up again and a veritable caravan of police cars come tearing along the street at VERY high speed. Just like everybody around us, we stopped to watch, and – guess what – in some of the vehicles the occupants were all wearing full-faced balaclavas. But wait, there’s more: they were also holding (and balancing over the backs of seats and on window ledges) automatic rifles. And do you know what? My man saw it, and he believed.
We got back to the hotel, collected our luggage and went up to our room, a lovely comfortable one with a great view over the street to the church across the way. I quickly unpacked and then luxuriated in a long, deep bath while the man pushed out the zzzzzs. Once refreshed and changed, we headed down the street to where we had spotted a Fran Prix – so convenient – and picked up some wine and munchies. Back to our room, sat by the window, sipped wine, nibbled on our munchies, and watched the Parisians going about their business down on the street.
For dinner we visited an Algerian restaurant around the corner from the hotel. The meal was delicious – delightfully spicy without being hot, just subtle, tantalising flavours – and we washed it down with a bottle of Algerian wine, which was light and lovely.
Ah, and now it is time for bed, perchance to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream – no, the whole day has been a dream already, let’s just sleep.
See you tomorrow.
(PS. Apologies for the lack of photographs - not really our priority today.)

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