Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Secrets of Paris

In the past month, we have spent seven hectic, crazy, beautiful days in Paris. As you probably know, people either love or hate the French city of light. Taking a romantic stroll to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night, the place was packed with tourists and hawkers crying out "selfie stick, Madame". Some of the best time I have spent in Paris is just walking around the suburbs, looking at the beautiful architecture and getting away from the crowds. With that in mind, we were on the lookout to find some lesser-known attractions.
"I am going to enjoy life in Paris I know... It is a real city, old and fine and life plays in it for everybody to see" - Katherine Mansfield
A highlight would have to be cruising Canal St Martin by boat. This is a tour through the very veins of Paris, the canals that were built in the early 1800's by order of Napoleon I. The canals are framed with delicate bridges that rotate or lift. We passed the site where a 25 metre high gallows stood until the revolution in 1789. We went through ancient locks, where the gates slowly close and the water pours out to lower the river level. What a feat of engineering. The tour ended with a spooky 2km tunnel under the city, the kids on the boat shrieking in delight and fear. The guide added casually that dead bodies are sometimes found in the canal. The kids enjoyed it, although it was slightly long for their attention spans at two hours.

View from the boat on the Canal St Martin


Market in the Bastille (12e arondissement)

I had my heart set on visiting the Palace of Versailles to see the splendour of the French royalty up close. It turns out so did everyone else. We drove from Paris and had trouble finding a park. We could see the hordes of people already in the queue so we went through the gardens first. The gardens are brilliant and massive - it took us half a day to wander around probably half of the grounds. Each part is themed and there are fountains and sculptures based around Greek and Roman mythology. The palace is a must for anyone who can appreciate the history of the ancient regime in France and the opulence that incited the spirit of revolution. It's easy to imagine the ladies of the court taking a 'promenade' stuffed into corseted panier skirts and with head-dresses piled high.


The golden gates

"Let them eat cake" - View from the Palace over the gardens

Enceladus fountain - giant buried under rocks on Mount Olympus

The Bois de Boulogne is a huge park in the inner west of the city which used to be a hunting ground for the French royals. I knew it as a haunt for the ladies of the night in the Da Vinci Code movie. But did you know it is also home to two racecourses, a roller skating rink, two lakes and a waterfall?

In one corner, we found the Jardin d'acclimatation, which is an amusement park, zoo and playgrounds all set in lovely gardens. Its bizarre past included a 'human zoo' showcasing the life and habits of the Kanaks (natives of New Caledonia) along with Siberians and many more, which was hugely popular from 1860 until the early 20th century. Thankfully, today the human exhibits are gone. The entry fee was 3 euros each but a lot of the attractions cost extra. Miss Two liked the Enchanted River boat ride, the aviary, farm animals and the petit train. Master 7 loved the bumper cars, rollercoaster and rope course. We ran out of time for the mini golf, archery and pony rides. If you visit, please plan for at least a day and take a picnic and togs for the kids.





Where to stay:

The suburbs of Paris are numbered in a spiral from the centre of the city, so the highest number arondissements are the furthest out. People often recommend to stay in the single digits so as to be closest to the tourist attractions (Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysee). However, the single digits can be very expensive (especially if you need a 3 bedroom place). I have now been to Paris three times and can recommend the 12e arondissement as safe and with loads of great places to eat. The 16e is also very safe and a little more upmarket. Everywhere in Paris has excellent transport links with the metro.

Highs:
  • Letting off steam in French TWICE: 1. To the bus operators who ripped us off and 2. To the tourists who cut the line after we had been waiting an hour and a half outside Versailles
  • Being escorted through the Paris streets by half a dozen fast cars with darkened windows (or maybe we got caught in someone else's cavalcade)
There is a lot more to Paris than the Tour Eiffel and the Arc de Triomphe. Each time we visit, we stay in a different place to explore that area, it's boulevards, parks and squares. It is always an inspiring place.
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