My recent tearaway trip to the enigmatic city of Paris, with my older (but no more world-wise) sister seemed to the both of us as the height of sophistication. The fact that we succeeded in booking the entire enterprise ourselves; designing a dynamic enough itinerary to allow us to explore the whole city in the few short days we had available to us, making sure that our transport in and out of the country ran smoothly and keeping ourselves fed and sheltered throughout the duration of the trip, was surely a testament to our new found maturity and superb skills of organisation and budgeting. In fact, it more likely represents the growing ease of foreign travel in modern times, where cultures are becoming increasingly accessible and marketed, due to a burgeoning trend of tolerance and exploration.
The Eurostar and the connecting transport in both countries were booked online with a flurry of clicks of the mouse. In the same way a hotel with an acceptable charge per night and a reasonably central location, was found rapidly with the use of hostelworld.com, which provided us with a wealth of other options to compare and detailed reviews from previous users. Our final preparations included a quick trip to the local post-office, to change our money into euros and secure our travel insurance. The entire trip was booked in the space of an evening, and we were both so impressed with the ease and speed of the process that we wondered why we had never thought of doing this before.
Even arriving to a sodden Paris, having risen before two in the morning in order to drive to the station in time for the first of our trains, and being presented with the challenge of locating our hotel in the vast spider web of streets, using an increasingly drenched and indecipherable map, didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. Having exited the warm, coffee fragranced interior of Gare Du Nord international station, we now immersed ourselves in the surrounding streets, picking up landmarks to guide us on our way. The area was certainly a bit of a surprise. The shop fronts we passed, with their steamy, greasy glass, were scrawled confusingly with Hindi and other languages from India, and not French. Hand written signs advertised halal meat and spangled salwar kameezs with their glitzy filigree provided bright displays in contrast to the rain-darkened street. It was not my first experience of being surrounded by people of a different race, but it was definitely unexpected to be a minority colour when we’d only traveled across the Channel.
We finally arrived, dripping, with our oversize battered rucksacks and hair plastered to our heads and met a very bemused looking man behind the counter. Although he nodded to our enquiry of ‘parlez vous anglais’ it took several bewildering minutes for our booking to be confirmed and we were then shown to our room. We were relieved that the room seemed entirely adequate, with two beds and a miniature en-suite complete with only-slightly quirky shower. A rapid dry-off and change was followed by us once again braving the lashing rain with umbrella’s poised, and a dash to the Chateau- Landon metro station, located a convenient distance from the hotel. A struggled conversation in broken English and probably-massacred French, secured us both a 5-day travel ticket for inner Paris and we courageously stepped onto our first train and our explorations began.
Throughout the duration of our trip, the language barrier would certainly prove to be a persistent and occasionally irritating, often-amusing barrier. The basic phrases would, for the most part, get us by when ordering coffee or buying entry to various attractions. In many cases the café-owner or ticket-seller would begin the conversation in English anyway (well, all English people stick out abroad). Perhaps the only real issue was when enquires were made of us by the every-day population of Paris. The first few times, all we managed with was a blank stare to the onslaught of rapid French that was presented to us, but we quickly grasped upon perhaps the most important phrase in French, other than the essential pleasantries, which was ‘je ne comprends pas’ or ‘I do not understand’. This satisfied most, who would either cease their attempts or give us a pitying, sympathetic and rather fond smile before trying again in English.
The highlights of the trip itself were plentiful. The awe and sorrow inspired by Notre Dame and the lives and stories behind the fantastical architecture was incredibly moving. The Louvre was simply massive, and full of new and thought-provoking sculpture, paintings, fabrics, pottery and artefacts, around every corner and up every staircase. The Eiffel Tower was dizzying and provided the city with an incredible reference point, especially at night when it glowed with millions of lights and strobes. But the moments that really stood out were walking beside the Seine on the final night, with the city’s lights reflected in its black water, and conducting a bistro trawl, where we hopped from Metro station to Metro station, emerging in a new part of the City at every stop to explore and sample coffee from.
The Centre Pompidou was an incredible find late one night, a huge, fantastical building in the Beaubourg area of the 4th arrondissement of Paris, which we stumbled upon from our explorations from the Les Halles Metro station. It was not only a wonderful example of the many pockets of culture that Paris has to offer, crammed with art and books it was a sensory heaven, but also one of many places that surprised us with being free or discounted for residents of the European Union, under the age of 25. With a flash of our passports we received discounts at most of the attractions we visited and in the case of the Centre Pompidou we went in for free. We devoted the end of that evening to delving into as much of the Musee National d’Art Moderne, the largest modern art museum in Europe, as possible and vastly enjoyed the interactive and wonderfully odd exhibits. A personal favourite was perhaps the goblets of muslin hanging at the end of a corridor, each porous droplet filled with a different spice, creating a melting pot of stimulating colours and smells.
All in all, Paris proved to be an incredibly accessible city with no end of places to visit and explore. It was a trip that was very different to my usual choice of excursion, but my doubts over a city break were cured with the wealth of experiences that were on offer. If I could remove the rose-tinted glasses for just one moment, I would say that a strong nerve is certainly required for an unaccompanied tour of the city. Fighting on and off of the busier Metro trains is no small feat and there were some unwelcome, although not serious, advances to be fended off. However for the most part the city was clean and calm, devoid of the loutish and lewd and our trip was without a remarkable negative instance. Should Paris be on the hit list of the travel-hungry student? Definitely. As a relatively inexpensive, easy and certainly extraordinary experience, it is not to be missed.