France, Summer 2011. Part-1.

Eiffel-1-blog

Day-1.

The trip to Europe was a long anticipated one, made necessary by the residential component of my Wales MBA, and desired by my love for arts. When a residential program took shape in June, it looked like the perfect time to combine study and travel. The module was taught in Zurich and I planned to visit Paris and Rome before going to Zurich.

The Lufthansa flight to Paris was comfortable. As comfortable as economy travel on today’s planes can be. I still can’t figure out why the airlines can’t handle a meal of choice while flying from Doha. Every time I make a choice, which is invariably seafood, I always get the right meal on the return trip but not while flying out. So much on trying to make Doha the hub of the middle east. The food on the return trip was some of the best food I have ever had on a plane! More on that in my last post in this series.

I was traveling heavy with the necessary clothes for two weeks. Throw in a laptop and my photography gear; including three lenses, a couple of batteries, and other accessories; it ‘kind of’ gets heavy. In hindsight, I could have just done with the Panasonic 20mm. The guys at Panasonic have to work really hard to make the battery last longer. Before the end of a day’s shooting the battery leaves you high and dry (even on a GH1!). Don’t ever think of taking an Olympus. The EP1 is in fact my favorite camera for the lovely colors it produces, but the battery life is abysmal, at best.

I followed instructions on my ‘BnB’ confirmation email and it worked like a charm. Sixty minutes from leaving Charles de Gaulle (‘Charl Du Gaal’ for the uninitiated in French), I was there sitting on my bed, showered and raring to go. Thanks to the ‘Lonely Planet’, which is getting there to become the bible for vagabonds. It probably already is. It was a Friday evening and I just wanted to get a feel of the city on foot. My ‘BnB’ was near the ‘Anvers’ metro station and little did I know it was right next to the legendary Montmartre area. Two steps to my left and I was staring at Moulin Rouge. That Moulin Rouge! The tickets seemed out of reach though, thanks to Ms. Kidman and Co. The tourists were throwing themselves at the place and everyone wanted to get a photo with la Rouge in the background. I just took a few snaps and moved on. The whole street was selling sex toys and accessories. What a way to get initiated to Paris!

Sacre Coeur

I noticed a sign leading to the Basilique Sacre Coeur and took the road. The basilica was in my list of must-visit sites. The walk was worth a marathon for me but the sight of the cathedral was majestic. The weather was lovely. The crowd outside was enjoying a live band playing. The devout-crowd inside was thick and a mass was in motion, in French of course. The gospel music was ethereal. Later I learned that it was the special mass conducted every first Friday of the month. I just lucked into the right place at the right time. The climb to the top of the basilica’s dome is a must-do for anyone who visits Paris. It offers an excellent view to the city. When I got down, my legs were begging for some rest. Day one was over for me, at least for my legs.

Day-2.

I got up a little late and the room was completely empty. The three other guys who share the room with me had vanished. Gave me all the privacy and time to shower and get ready at my own pace. I had to fix my train tickets for the trip to Italy and then to Zurich, which was done in no time with the help of the reservation clerk in the railway station. The stations all use an efficient queuing system regulated by young chaps. I guess they are just volunteering. I wandered out with no specific target site. As I crossed a railway fly-over (bridge), I noticed some crowding under the bridge and started investigating the reason for the buzz. It was the market. I was soon sucked into the everyday buzz of Parisian life. Fruits, vegetables, fish and meat and some more stuff like pickles and cheap imported clothes were on sale. The market was about 300 meters long, about the length of the bridge, and it was buzzing with activity. I noticed that most vendors do not provide plastic bags to carry stuff. Parisians brought their own tiny carts with bags mounted. I remember this used to be the case (minus the carts) in India too while I was a kid. Things have changed and plastic has become too abundant and far too cheap.

Thousands of years of culinary history and I never thought I would go to a MacDonald’s in Paris. But that’s what I did when I saw free Wi-Fi as part of the meal. The McWrap was decent but the Wi-Fi was not. In fact it didn’t work.

Wedding-in-Paris-blog

Post-lunch I took a stroll and reached the Opera Garnier. The building is stunning in every way. No photo could do justice to the interior. It has to be witnessed in person. Probably the ultimate in luxury. Probably this description fits not just to any single monument in Paris, but to the whole city. Nothing in Paris is a functional necessity, but the way everything melds into a functional city is amazing. The city is an urban wonder, a testament of man’s potential excellence in city planning and execution.

I moved on to the next monument, Place Vendome. A wedding reception was in progress. It was the wedding season and I witnessed quite a few weddings through the next couple of weeks. The bride and the groom were glowing in the evening sun. For me, the visit was as much about the people of the city as it was about the art and the monuments. It is the people who make the art.

The Place Vendome made way to the majestic gardens named ‘Jardin des Tuileries’. It is a public garden with ample free space for people to move around and lots of trees and artifacts scattered around. I can imagine a snowy evening in winter when the people throng to the place in skates! The cafes in the gardens serve typical French fare: crepes, pastries, bubbly. You can order a crepe and snack on it lazily stretched out on some of the most comfortable park chairs ever designed. ‘People watching’ is the national pastime in France and is the only reason why people come to outdoor cafes here.

Right next to the gardens is the mighty Louvre. Frankly, I hadn’t done my homework and was caught unawares when the glass pyramid of I M Pei hit my eyes, at the most unexpected moment. But the timing was great and the warm evening sun was bathing the whole place in a golden glow. On crossing the pyramids (its actually three pyramids juxtaposed vertically) you enter the square contained in the main building of the Palace du Louvre. That’s the name of the most important museum today. At every entrance of the palace there are Cello players playing beautiful music. Some players, better than the others. You can easily spot the better ones just by looking at the intensity of the crowd around them. Toss a few coins and enjoy the music. You would see people playing music everywhere in Paris, in the subways, inside the trains, and all important public places. In the first train I took from the airport to Gare du Nord (Railway station North), a musician was playing the Violin and I had no coins to toss. I placed a Qatari Riyal note in his tumbler. He should have found the currency amusing when he checked it out later.

Cello-Player-blog

As the sun went down I crossed the gardens again to enter the Champs Elysees, probably the most famous road in Paris. Something of an icon like the Times Square in New York. It is also significant that these two places where people throng to celebrate house two near-identical obelisks donated by the Egyptian government. The obelisk is so perfectly done and poised, it gently reminds you that Egypt had achieved a level of engineering perfection a few thousand years ahead of the rest of the world. It’s a powerful icon, so out of place, yet so relevant in the middle of Paris. I had no time or inclination to verify the Masonic stories associated with the obelisk, though.

Obelisk-blog

It started raining and I had to move on to the Champs Elysees. I have read that Parisian girls are no strangers to risqué behavior. I never understood what it meant until now. It’s not the ‘public display of affection (affectionately abbreviated as PDA by the popular press) or the cuddling that is fashionable in Paris. As I walked along the Champs Elysees a girl was changing her clothes with just her hands to protect her modesty (!?) in a large house with a huge window, all lit up, right next to the sidewalk. You know that the Champs Elysees is stuffed with tourists and Parisians alike and is actually never free of people. Unbelievable. It probably happens only in Paris.

I also noticed a large toffee-shaped artifact swathed in Qatari colors and the Qatari flag flying in a building right next to the Arc de Triomphe. Instant exposure of the Qatari brand to millions of people who throng to the Arc every year.

The Champs Elysees is where the largest party happens every Friday and Saturday. There is dancing and all kinds of entertainment on the sidewalks. The arcades are buzzing with people shopping and generally having a good time. The place doesn’t sleep on weekends.

Day-3:

Never travel with a pending assignment to submit! Well that was the lesson I learned in Paris. The assignment took away most part of my day. Not to mention that no monument is open past 6 pm. The day was spent at the ‘BnB’ furiously typing the report.

Once the assignment was out of my mind, I paid a visit to the Eiffel Tower. On way to the tower, I took a stroll along the banks of the river Seine. The river is a UNESCO protected site and the Parisians take good care of the river. There are numerous cruises on the river providing guided tours of the city as well as unforgettable dinner experiences. I prefer to eat my food and not gawk at anything else while eating. Pay undivided attention to any one thing at a time.

Seine-footbridge-blog

There are numerous bridges across the river and some of them are dedicated foot bridges. One that is popular is the Pont des Arts. It is made of two parts. The central arch connects the banks of the river. The arch opens at the middle of the flatter top layer that offers a fantastic view of the river. Lovers throng to this bridge to affix ‘love padlocks’ to the fence and throw the keys into the river, as a sign of their undying love.

I crossed the bridge and walked to the Eiffel Tower and sat down on the large lawn next to the tower. Wherever you look at it from, it has a majestic presence and the image of the tower sneaks up on you. Then you know you are completely in love with the tower. It is probably the only tower in the world built at such scale with no purpose other than to demonstrate that man could build such a tower using steel. Today it is home to some of the communication antennas, but frankly it is purely a monument to modern day steel architecture. Man can decide to build incredible structures like the Eiffel or add some portland and create the concrete jungle that we all love to call ‘apartment blocks’. I salute the French for establishing and enforcing the ban on any towering structure in Paris, except maybe for that infamous Montparnasse tower, which the Parisians dutifully loathe.

France is a great example of exemplary urban planning. The city is well spaced out. Street after street of iconic buildings and other monuments. Concentration of the most important sites along the banks of a lovely river. A metro system that crisscrosses every part of the city within 500 meters to any place, it just takes a few short minutes to figure out the connections to reach a point. Trains that run every few minutes, when there are no strikes. This is one city where you can live without a car.

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