This is a really difficult post to write and I’ve tried about ten times now. At the end of May, I went off in a caravan with my sister for a week. Being sixty-five miles north-east of Paris, we had to pop into Paris for a day. And while I need to write a post about it, the fact is that I’m a monster who doesn’t love the city of romance.
My number one problem is that I don’t find anything about it romantic or beautiful or arty or any of the other things people associate with Paris. It’s a big dirty city full of tourists. I don’t mind that in itself. That’s London to a tee and I love London. But big and dirty and overcrowded is part of London’s aesthetic. Add more tourists, add more dirt, you just get more London. Add more tourists and more dirt to Paris and you just wear away any romance or beauty.
Sacré-Cœur is pleasant. It’s a big grey-white church and it’s pretty and it sits on a hill overlooking a big dirty city where all the roofs are the same level so it looks like a sea of a city but it’s hard to get near the view when all the tourists are sitting on the steps preventing you getting up to the top.
Notre Dame is pleasant. I love me a few flying buttresses. But we got distracted by the Bread Festival happening in a tent right outside – stalls selling all kinds of baked goods and a baguette competition – and then we got distracted by wanting to go inside but being unwilling to join the queue and then we got distracted by looking for Kilometer Zero which was probably underneath the Bread Festival and we wandered off without even thinking of looking down the sides.
This was when the weather started to get hot. I don’t cope well with hot weather and I began to seek out fountains to play in. We went to the Louvre because I had a desire to see the glass pyramid and the old glass building and my Dear Sister had a desire to use the most expensive “private cabins” in Paris (€1.50!), which turned out to be ordinary public toilets at which you could buy expensive accessories like rainbow coloured paper or cat-shaped brushes. Outside, I did cool off in the water feature – and apply suncream to toes that were turning a bit pink and then became very itchy a week later.
The Arc de Triomphe – now that was a triumph. I haven’t been to Paris for at least fifteen years. I had simply forgotten how enormous the Arc is. It’s colossal. It’s just so big that pictures don’t do it justice. I was very pleased with the Arc de Triomphe. I was even more pleased with the underground passage you take from the Champs-Élysées, which is wonderfully cool. We sat on a marble bench for a ridiculously long time before reluctantly emerging back into the heat of Paris where I tried again and again to get a panorama of the underneath of the arch, from one street to the other. It never quite worked.
Last, we stopped at the Eiffel Tower. All my careful planning, weeks of reading the guidebook, scuppered by excessive heat. That’s all changed since I was last there. No more can you casually wander underneath it. It’s all been terrorist-proofed and you can only go inside if you’ve got a valid ticket to go up. So you have to wander round the sides, where you can get some lovely views of it among the trees in the parks you don’t notice are there until you’re forced to walk through them. I noticed the little gold names around the first level for the first time – seventy-two scientist in homage to Gustave Eiffel’s idea of the Tower as a giant laboratory. We lay in the cool damp grass of the Champ de Mars and took ridiculous photos and refused to buy model Eiffel Towers or bottles of wine from passing sellers and then we walked up to get the metro home from Trocadero, only to find the entire north side of the Palais de Chaillot was fenced off and we had to walk right down the gardens and back up the other side in the heat – the same Palais de Chaillot, incidentally, described in my guidebook as “it would look less out of place in Fascist Rome than here”. As we walked up, I looked at the excellent view of the Eiffel Tower and wondered why they chose that dusty brown for it. It used to be reddish and I think that would look nice. It also occurred to me that the dusty pale purple of the flowers would like nice on the Tower for special occasions. The internet says it’s actually three shades of dusty brown but that’s not particularly obvious. In fact, staring at my photos, I can’t see it at all.
What occurred to me as I stood on that palace staring at the Tower was how weird it must have been when it first went up. I can’t remember the first time I saw it, I was too young. It’s just a thing that’s always been there. But when you start to look at it – see how industrial and functional it is in design, how out of place it is, how big it is, then you start to wonder what it must have looked like in 1889. I know people, especially artists, protested about it. Imagine trying to build something like it today. You just couldn’t. It’s so weird and so alien and so huge and it would take at least a century for it to stop being something mad and expensive and stupid and start being something iconic and beautiful.
The metro was very crowded as we travelled from Trocadero to Strasbourg-St-Denis. So so crowded. When we changed onto line 4, the first train that came along was so crowded people were standing pressed against each other in the doorway. You couldn’t have fitted a butterfly on, let alone another two people. But the next train came along less than thirty seconds later and that was half empty – because all the people waiting on the platform had already boarded. And back at Gare du Nord our train back to Soissons was delayed for a very long time and then horribly overcrowded. But we were among the first on it so we had seats which was good because my sunburnt feet were also red and tired from so much walking in so much heat. We got home pretty late and spent the next day recovering in the pool.