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Journeys : Oct Nov 2011
Destinations That’s the thing about foreign cities like Paris –we’ve all admired the landmarks in films and on TV, and we’ve pored over romantic descriptions of the French capital in novels and glossy magazines. But the reality of being in a city like Paris can be different from our imagination. Maybe that’s why you hear tourists complaining that French people are rude, that the streets are dirty or that the city is ridiculously expensive to visit (none of which we found to be true). Or why the Eiffel Tower doesn’t look exactly like some of us expect. The first mistake many first-time visitors to Paris make is not interacting with locals because the language seems too tricky. So how do you conquer France and win over the locals when the only French you know is bonjour, au revoir and oui? A smile goes a long way, whether you need help buying bus or train tickets or you simply want to chat with locals on the street. I realised the power of a smile while resting to catch my breath and a glimpse of the sweeping view after scaling the hundreds of grey concrete steps leading up to the dazzling domes of the Sacre Coeur. Amid the throng of tourists visiting the famous basilica, a sprightly old man with a violin emerged, his eyes wide, his greying hair poking out from under a peaked cap. Striding purposefully towards me as if he was playing me a personal serenade, the man’s hands moved expertly back and forth to create sweet strains of music, and a broad grin appeared. All tiredness in my legs melted away, I forgot about the sweat forming on my brow and a smile quickly spread across my own face – all because of this simple, wordless exchange. Handing out such smiles works wonders in Paris when checking into hotels, ordering at restaurants or asking for directions, especially when coupled with some broken but well-meaning lingo like merci or bon soir. Another tip is to wear comfy shoes. Paris may be famous for bread sticks and berets, but we soon discovered the city is equally famous for its stairs. Everywhere we went, there were signs counting the stairs at each attraction – 1665 stairs to reach the top of the Eiffel Tower (although only 1021 are open for general public use), 284 spiral steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe (above left), 387 w inding stairs to reach the home of the gargoyles at the top of Notre Dame cathedral (above right), as well as countless stairs in the Louvre, which is the most visited museum in the world and features 35,000 works of art. We also covered significant distance exploring the many parks and gardens, including Luxembourg Gardens where elderly locals play chess on outdoor tables, kids chase pigeons and teens drive remote- controlled sailboats on the water, while corporate workers relax during lunchbreaks and lovers picnic on the grass. Paris – which ranks among the world’s most popular cities and attracts 45 million tourists a year, despite being home to just 2.2 million people – is a sprawling city but if you’re not afraid of walking, most of the main sites can be accessed on foot. One of the great things about walking is that you avoid the manic traffic and you’ll also discover lots of hidden treasures – we stumbled upon impressive monuments and fountains, perused the art of street sellers and enjoyed the food at markets and cafes, things we wouldn’t have otherwise found. Walking also ensures you can eat as much as you like – which is important given the wealth of sweets Paris is famous for. You often hear people raving about French patisseries – and for good reason. Most are filled with rows of delectable cakes, f luffy éclairs stuffed with decadent custard and crispy macarons with delicious gooey centres – I wish I could have ordered one of everything. With treats in hand, we took time to sit and admire Gustave Eiffel ’s eng ineering masterpiece. We watched children dart about and snap-happy visitors capture the iconic landmark from ever y imaginable angle, while more relaxed holidaymakers lazed on the grass and enjoyed bread sticks and cheese purchased from nearby markets. Meanwhile, heavily-laden hawkers, whom we affectionately named the ‘ bling bling boys’, could often be seen running from police, their masses of fake designer handbags and cheap Eiffel Tower keyrings jingling in their wake. But unlike the dodgy dealers, I wasn’t making a quick getaway because I was thrilled to be soaking up the atmosphere in the City of Love. And the romance of the place must have been rubbing off, because even my husband, despite his early reser vations, found himself becoming more enamoured with the statuesque ‘railway station’. PhotoLindaSmith October / November 2011 21
MNJ Aug Sep 2011