Previously, I’d only ever driven through Paris while getting to and from the airport. I’d never stopped and had a proper nose around, but had always meant to. So I decided to hop on the Eurostar and have a real look. As it was my first trip, I decided to be a true tourist and do the standard tourist faire, pretty much.
After lugging my rucksack and travel-weary bones up the several flights of hostel stairs I opened the door to my shared room and was greeted by the obligatory Aussie (all European hostel rooms come with an obligatory Aussie). He was a nice guy and we had a brief chat during which he recommended a nearby cathedral. It was early evening and I didn’t have much planned, so I decided to pay a visit. The Aussie had already been to London and joked that it’s much better value than St Paul’s. Apparently St Paul’s is £18, which does seem a little steep. This was free, so I headed off to Sacré-Cœur Basilica (The Basilica of the Sacred Heart). My Aussie friend was true to his word. It’s pretty astounding. There’s a mosaic in the apse called Christ in Majesty. Being one of the largest in the world, it’s pretty impressive.
Outside the cathedral is quite a nice viewing point. It’s the highest point in the city and offers quite an impressive view:
The next day I trundled off to explore the city. One of the first attractions I encountered was the Arc de Triomphe (Triumphal Arch). It was commissioned in 1806 to honour those who died during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Amusingly, a thrill-seeker named Charles Godefroy flew his plane through it three weeks after the victory parade to mark the end of World War I. My main reason for climbing the many stairs to the top of the arch was to look down upon the infamous Place Charles de Gaulle. Place Charles de Gaulle is the meeting point of twelve roads and acts as, what appeared to me, a logistical challenge for drivers. It looked like chaos.
Along with Sacré-Cœur Basilica I was surprised to find that the famous Notre-Dame Cathedral is also free. It’s a beautiful building with a very brooding, sombre atmosphere inside. Its design also serves as a key moment in the development of European Gothic Architecture.
Being in a city renowned for high-brow culture I also decided to head to an art gallery: Musee d’Orangerie. It houses works by Cezanne, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau and Sisley, but it’s most famous for having eight examples of Monet’s Waterlilies series. Monet made over 250 paintings of the water lilies in his garden. What surprised me most was how huge they are. They aren’t paintings that you’d hang on the wall. They are the wall. They’re massive (the biggest is around two metres high and seventeen metres long). They’re also very impressive. They’re beautiful. Afterwards, I went and relaxed in the nearby Tuileries Gardens. It was a glorious day and I sat by a pond my reading book as people crunched along the sun-scorched gravel while chatting and laughing. It was a similarly beautiful day when I visited the Jardin du Luxembourg. I sat in the beautiful 17th century garden and read my book. For some inexplicable reason some local bugs became incredibly intrigued by my rucksack:
There are a few highlights in the garden, including a model made of the Statue of Liberty before the full-size one was given by the people of France to the people of America:
Talking of relaxing, I did take the opportunity to enjoy the Promenade plantée. It’s a pleasant walk in the southeast of the city built upon an obsolete railway line. While enjoying the walk I stopped off to explore Père Lachaise Cemetery. It’s the largest cemetery in Paris. Over one million bodies have been buried there. It may seem an odd thing to visit, but there are quite a few famous resting places to be found there. My main reason for going was to track down the grave of, and pay my respects to, Jim Morrison. He was living in Paris at the time of his death (in 1971):
Another famous resident of the cemetery is the Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde. Traditionally, visitors to his grave would don red lipstick and kiss the monument. This is now discouraged as it damages the tomb and the family have been left footing the cleaning bill. It was such an issue that they took the drastic step of encasing it in glass.
As I walking away I was approached by an American couple seeking directions to Wilde’s grave. Unfortunately, even though I’d only just been there, I managed to send them off in (slightly) the wrong direction. Oops. I said to take the first right without having noticed that I’d passed a second one. Oh well, it was the general direction. I’m sure they found it eventually. But it goes to show how huge the cemetery is. You could easily get lost among all the weaving and criss-crossing paths.
As I was leaving I encountered a young couple by a grave. The guy was standing, but the girl was sat beside the grave. As I neared I began wondering which famous person occupied the tomb. But as I got close I saw the girl solemnly nod to her boyfriend that she ready to go and reluctantly ease herself to her feet. Her hand lingered momentarily on the grave. She clearly didn’t want to let go. It suddenly brought the whole place into perspective. I was viewing it as a tourist destination where I could bag a few famous graves. She was there to spend some reflective time with her grief and a recently departed loved one. Père Lachaise Cemetery is still a working cemetery. There’s quite a waiting list, but people are still buried there. It was a poignant reminder that beyond the ostentatious tombs and celebrity gravestones it’s also a place for people to say goodbye to those they’ve lost.