Half of the world knows by now that we returned from an expedition to France. We are shocked & dismayed that fully one half of the world is unaware & ignorant of our exploits. We’re setting our experiences down in this Blog for posterity. Ready or not, here we come – The 1st post in our “France” series. Oh, before I forget – Happy New Year, Bonne Année!
A word of caution for those traveling to France from India: travel agents in India know diddly-squat about the country. Don’t expect any intelligent advice from either Thomas Cook or Cox & Kings. Use these clowns to book your hotel, flight and museum tickets. That’s all they are good for. Expecting anything else from them – such as knowing the sights & attractions of the country – can only filed under “irrational optimism”. You’re better off organizing the tour yourself.
Of course, that’s for people who want to soak in the sights & the culture of Paris. If all you want to do is go on “rubber-neck” tours – sit in a double-decker bus all day, gawk at attractions for a nanosecond as the bus zips by, click a few pictures, see only the Eiffel Tower & the Notre Dame Cathedral – the superficial cuts provided by the travel agents is right up your alley.
But that’s no way to see Paris – La Ville Lumière, the City of Lights. A trip to Paris is expensive. They don’t do “Cheap” in France. You might as well respect the city, plan your trip & do justice to the €€€ you shell out.
If you want to travel to Paris, spend $20 to buy a Fodor’s guide. Use it to learn the layout of the city & prepare your own itinerary. It will at least help you catch the gaffes of the travel agents. The bungling jack-asses in Cox & Kings insisted that we book a car to go the Orsay Museum, which they said was 60 miles from Paris. Its directly opposite the Louvre Museum, in the heart of the city! I felt like flinging them bum first into the Seine.
Paris is divided into 20 arrondisements (districts). The River Seine divides the heart of the city neatly into 2 parts – Rive Gauche (Left Bank) and Rive Droite (Right Bank). The city also has 2 small islands between the banks – Ile de la Cite and Ile St Louis. 37 bridges connect the 2 banks & the isles. Most of the attractions are situated near the banks of the river and on Ile de la Cite.
Paris is a city of distances. It’s a good idea to plan your itinerary around a particular area – such as Montmartre, Montparnasse, Latin Quarter, Le Marais, St Germain etc, so that you don’t spend your time flitting from place to place; Or worse, being stuck in a legendary Parisian traffic jam. Plus, the cabs are rather expensive.
Paris has a superb Metro system. Most tourist attractions are well-connected by Metro & the fares are very reasonable. If you are lucky, you can see the beautiful Art Nouveau iron gates built by architect Hector Guimard flanking some of the Metro entrances. Interestingly, when the Metro project was conceived, the engineers could not dig under the buildings – the land below the buildings belongs to the owners by French law. To avoid bankruptcy, the engineers had to build the railway lines under public property only – namely, the streets. So the Metro lines more or less mirror the streets of Paris.
They say travel expands one’s mind. This trip broke several misconceptions of ours. Many people told us – including our French Stewardess (Air Hostess) – that the French were unfriendly, arrogant, that they refused to parlez in Anglais. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We found the French polite, friendly, helpful & hospitable, like most people in the world. Complete strangers on the streets, on the Metro or in the shops were kind to us, whether they spoke English or not. “Maybe its us” I told Sukumar. “Perhaps they can’t resist our magnetic personalities” 😎
Many Parisians do speak English, after a fashion. After all, tourism is a major money spinner for France. Consider this – Around 8 Million people visit the Louvre Museum every year. It makes a lot of sense for the Parisians to speak some English – after all, it’s the Lingua Franca of the world; Having said that – it’s a good idea to carry a French phrase book & to learn a few words in French. So you’ll know that the waiter isn’t accusing you of being “too late” when he asks “du lait” (with milk) 😉
And sometimes, a rudimentary knowledge of (AKA high school) French isn’t enough. We were aghast to see “Plugs” listed as one of the ingredients in a Pizza. The whole world knows that the French eat funny stuff like Escargot (Snails). And now they eat – plugs? Our amused waiter explained that “plugs” is some part of “pigs”. He tried to explain how “plugs” are “harvested” in graphic detail, but we hastily asked him for some water to – plug -the deluge of information. So unfortunately, I can’t share that nugget of wisdom with you 😉
To our pleasant surprise, getting vegetarian food in Paris is easy. Of course, one must avoid the Cafes and the numerous Charcuteries in the city & patronize the ethnic restaurants instead. Paris has many Chinese, Arabic/Jewish, Turkish, Thai, Vietnamese, Italian – and yes, Indian restaurants. The cafes uniformly serve wonderful, strong, aromatic coffee. It is a deadly sin, not having a hot cuppa in a café.
While on the subject of coffee, we found it funny that in France – like Italy – “sitting” coffee costs more than “standing” coffee. If you have your coffee on the bar sitting on a stool, it costs half as much as the same coffee served in a table/chair. Go figure!
The French love dogs. Canines of all shapes, sizes and breeds sauntered around us – much to my glee – even in the biting cold. Most of them had leashes. Some of them wore dainty sweaters. I don’t know what they feed these dogs, but I tell you – they all had excellent digestive systems. If you catch my drift. Even small dogs left a small hillock sized – residue 😉 The pooper-scooper laws are either non-existent or not enforced in France. So, while on the foot-path, you have to watch for mounds of disgusting dog doo. The French love their dogs – but not enough to clean their “fixed deposits” 🙂
As far the sheer beauty of the city – there’s simply no other city like Paris. The French have been very successful in preserving their heritage. Almost every building is a jewel of incomparable architectural beauty. Most of the old buildings, dating back to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte are intact. That brings us to Haussmannian Paris. More about that later. Sukumar’s Photo Essay on Paris will be the next post.