Guest post by Josh Harbourne
Paris is a city that is ingrained into our collective consciousness: from the instantly recognisable architecture to stylish cinematic portrayals, many of us have an idea about what Paris is like or what it is supposed to be like. Until a few weeks ago, I had never been to Paris, but I felt like I had experienced the city through television, film, music, and literature. There had never been a burning desire in me to visit Paris because I believed had already experienced it and understood it; however, like I discovered a few weeks ago, you have to visit Paris to really understand and appreciate it.
The journey to Paris began from London St Pancras on a sunny afternoon in late August. The boarding process was not dissimilar to an airport, but we found ourselves through customs quickly and efficiently thanks to e-Passports and well-organised staff.
After a brief wait, we boarded the luxurious Eurostar. My previous trips to France had always been via ferry or car through the Channel Tunnel. It became abundantly clear to me after just stepping onto the train that this was, and is, the definitive way to travel onto the continent. The carriages were so clean that I thought they had been sterilized, the food was delicious and brought to us promptly, and the train staff eager to please and provide you with the best amenities possible.
After arriving at Gare Du Nord and embarking on the short walk to the Avalon hotel, we decided to immediately go out and explore the surrounding area before enjoying the main evening’s entertainment: Cabaret.
First up was the beautiful Sacré-Cœur basilica. The surrounding area was thronged with tourists, street vendors and artists all looking to see and sell. The basilica stands out with its beautiful, ivory towers overlooking a large swathe of the Paris metro area. Be prepared to be asked about three hundred times if you would like a cold bottle of Heineken. In all honesty, if I genuinely had any cash on me, I probably would have said ‘oui’.
Immediately after our brief expedition to Sacré-Cœur, it was time to jump on the Paris Metro to the Arc-de-Triomphe. The arc really was a sight to behold in the pinkish hue of a Friday evening sunset, the perfect time to capture a picture. The Arc proved that one Paris stereotype does stand up to scrutiny: the insane amount of traffic and the reckless abandon Parisian drivers have for each other was abundantly clear here, as the cars zoomed in and out of each other with frightening nonchalance. If you want to cross over to see the Arc, you’d be well advised following the Metro walkway below the Champs-Élysées, not dicing with unrelenting Renaults and Citroens.
We decided to take a stroll down the Champs-Elysées and look for a pint to commemorate a weekend in Paris. Here’s a bit of advice that you would do very well to heed: don’t go down the Champs-Elysees looking for a pint. Unless you are willing to part with your hard earned Euros, you will be looking to shell out an exorbitant €15 or €16 for a pint of lager. We became demoralised in the pursuit of our pint until we spotted the trusted international establishment that is an Irish pub. Fortuitously, we didn’t end up paying €32 for a round of Carlsberg.
After a couple of pints down a Paris side street, we ventured back up the Champs-Elysees to spend the rest of our Friday night in the opulent surroundings of Le Lido. Until recently, I had no idea that Le Lido has been graced by a wealth of talent, including Edith Piaf, Elton John, Shirley McLaine and others, but as soon as you step in through its wide doors into its elegant art nouveau auditorium, you can appreciate that this corner of Paris belongs in the pantheon of the famous city’s entertainment.
After we were escorted to our seats, Danny and I received a complimentary glass of champagne to accompany the visual extravaganza we were about to indulge in. As a spectacle, Le Lido was a true force majeure; the dancing was bewitching, the athleticism defied belief and the sumptuous singing captured a quintessential Parisian mood. The stage transformed repeatedly to represent different environments and to move along the evening’s narrative. If I am being totally honest, elements of this cabaret epic’s story was lost on me, but you don’t go to Le Lido for the intricacies of the story, you go for the spectacle. Remember to add Lido tickets to your Paris booking before checking out!
After a swift taxi ride back to the hotel (the Metro had shut by the time we had been hypnotised by the Bluebell Girls), Danny and I decided to call it a night before we faced up to our Saturday of serious tourism.
The morning fuel was provided by a French continental breakfast: croissants, cheeses, yoghurt, and coffee. There was enough of a selection to sate the varied appetites of the hotel’s guests, and it was certainly needed before our grand voyage across Paris.
We ventured out from the hotel and walked through the almost labyrinthine streets. Most of my time was spent developing a neck injury from gazing up in awe at the varied cityscape.
The bus tour provided budding tourists an easy and manageable way to navigate around the city of Paris. One of the first destinations on the map was the world-famous Louvre. Admittedly, despite the overwhelming amount of art on display, Danny and I only had eyes for one woman: the Mona Lisa. The Louvre was abuzz with activity on the Saturday morning, with swarms of tourists frantically asking in a number of languages ‘where is the Mona Lisa’? After paying the very reasonable €15 per-person fee, we ventured through the vast collections of awe inspiring art. Art aficionados could easily spend an entire day lost in the impressive collections, but time was not on our side.
After our brief fling with Mona, we headed towards the Eiffel Tower, where we were able to see iconic French sites including the Palace Les Invalides, the Grand Palais and Jardin de Luxemborg.
Our next adventure was to get onto a mid-afternoon boat cruise – Le Bateaux Paris, which would give us a looped tour of the River Seine and some of Paris’s most recognisable sites. It was on our way here that I first laid eyes on Eiffel Tower up close, and I was totally awe struck. Television and film make Gustav Eiffel’s construction seem diminutive and has somewhat diminished its mysticism, but I was truly taken back when close up. The boat journey was packed with seats occupied on both levels, but it was a pleasant change of pace from the frantic exploration of the city. You journey serenely on the Seine under a number of historically important bridges and past a number of significant landmarks in Parisian and French history. You also loop around Notre Dame as it brings you back to the dock near the Eiffel Tower.
After the boat trip came to an end, it was time to start making our way back across Paris to Gare Du Nord and the Eurostar. We decided to take another taxi, this one was occupied by an eccentric Austrian driver called Arnaud who had an unparalleled wanderlust. He decided to whisk us through a number of tourist sites and got us up close and personal to the Notre Dame. Our desire to go inside was immediately extinguished by the gargantuan queues that had built up on the Saturday afternoon, and I would say that you definitely need to get there well in advance to get inside.
Our departure was met with a pleasant sense of déjà vu as we boarded the Eurostar at Gare Du Nord back to London. The queues were quick and efficiently managed, the security staff prompt and helpful, and the train journey back to St. Pancras International was streamlined elegance at 186mph.
I have an immense longing to go back to Paris as I feel like I have barely scratched the surface, but that is part of the city’s attraction: its abundance of riches to see and explore. By the time you have finished your trip in Paris, you have hopefully gained an understanding of the city’s sprawling architectural beauty, learnt about its wealth of culture oozing from every street corner, and discovered the sense of wonderment you get when viewing the city’s famous landmarks. I guess all there is to say is: bon voyage, passez de bonnes vacances à Paris!