A date with Paris

By Parag Ranjan Duta

“The city’s all a-shining/Beneath a fickle sun,/A gay young wind’s a-blowing,/The little shower is done./But the rain-drops still are clinging/And falling one by one/Oh it’s Paris, it’s Paris,/And spring-time has begun.” ~ Sara Teasdale (Poems of Paris)

When my wife and I went to Paris seven years ago, it was not spring and yet the “gay young wind” soothed our minds and souls. Ah we are in the country of Voltaire and Sartre, Monet and Gauguin, and many more, I told myself.
The visit was part of a 15-day group tour of Europe organised by one of the leading outbound tour operators of India.
We reached London on August 5 and moved on to the mainland Europe to reach Paris (can we have a ‘Midnight in Paris’ like encounters with the greatest of the greats, I wondered on the way to the French capital).
When we were touring Europe, London Olympics was on and because of the heavy rush of tourists from the mainland Europe our train tickets to Paris could not be confirmed. So we had to cross the English Channel (though more comfortably and not swimming and shivering) from Dover to Calais. The two-and-half-an-hour journey to Dover was not quite impressive as we missed the beauty of the typical English countryside.
The country was found to be little rugged and barren after we left the city limit. Dover, situated in the county of Kent in the southeastern part of England, is known for its white chalk cliffs, better known as white cliffs of Dover. The monotony of the barren slopes was broken by occasional patches of bushes and undergrowths. We alighted from the coach at Dover at about 10.30 am.
Our ferry to France was to leave from jetty number 135 at 11.07am. Before crossing the channel we had to complete certain formalities at the Government of France immigration counter.
The lady officer at the desk simply checked our Schengenstein visa, which empowers one to travel freely in the countries of the European Union. We still had half an hour and all of us went for window shopping at the J Smith outlet, spent some time and relaxed in comfortable couches, waiting to be ferried to France. Seagulls were hovering around under a very bright and blue sky.
We were booked with DFDC Seaways liner that operates its service from Dover to Calais, which is the shortest distance between England and mainland Europe. At the World Travel Awards 2011 and 2012, DFDC was acclaimed the leading ferry operator in the world. The steamer was so huge that a number of tourist coaches and private cars could find space in its lower tire. I never thought in my wildest of dreams that a steamer would have facilities like restaurants, casino, children’s playing spaces and a small shopping mall. It took almost two and half hours to cross the channel, the shortest distance between England and France. Our coach rolled out from the steamer and continued a drive to Paris.
We stopped at a gas station along the Calais-Lille highway for lunch. We enjoyed our packed lunch in the open under the azure sky amidst greenery. It was a very windy morning. The gas station had facilities like cold drinks, chocolates, dry fruits etc. After about half an hour break we started our journey to Paris, a dream destination for millions.
The beauty of the French countryside was astounding. Harvested wheat fields, hamlets with beautiful cottages, conifers, streamlets passed by the window of our speeding coach. We passed the Charles de Gaulle International Airport through an underpass, definitely an engineering marvel to perfection. After 15 minutes, patches of coniferous forests appeared on our right. The variety though not known to me nonetheless broke the monotony of the landscape.
It was August 7. Paris, the largest city in France in the north central part of the country, grew from a small fishing village, and literally an island, then called Lutetia, was conquered by the Romans in 52 BC. It is located on the north bending arc of the Seine. Our tour of Paris was to begin with a visit to Place de la Concorde. The coach was driven slowly along rather narrow roads of Paris with commentaries from a local guide, an elderly Korean gentleman. The first iconic landmark which we saw from the window of our coach was the world famous Louvre museum, unfortunately which was not included in our itinerary.
In front of the museum there is a large glass and metal pyramid, which is the main entrance to the museum. Completed in 1989, it has become an important landmark in Paris. The man behind this unique pyramid was a Chinese-American architect.
Situated on the right bank of the Seine Louvre is housed in a large palace which was once the residence of the kings of France. I don’t know about others but I was twice lucky to have seen the famous Sorbonne University campus and the equally famous opera house. It was a long drive to Place de la Concorde and we had to cross the Seine a number of times, possibly because of traffic restrictions. I was disheartened to have a first glimpse of the Seine, a very small stream by Indian standards. My video camera was on, capturing different frames of important landmarks, iconic buildings, roadside cafes, narrow roads lined with beautiful trees.
Once known as the Place Louis XV in honour of the king, Place de la Concorde is a magnificent and the largest public square in Paris. In the summer of 1793 this place was turned into a guillotine square where Louis the XVI, along with Mary Antoinette, Madam Bovary and many others were executed by the revolutionaries.
A huge stone adorn the centre of Place de la Concorde. Carved from a single piece of black granite, this monolithic pillar once adorned the entrance to the Luxor temple in Egypt. This 3,300-year-old obelisk was gifted to France in 1829. The obelisk is flanked by two beautiful fountains. The one in front of the obelisk is the fountain of River Commerce and Navigation which have six figures of tritons (mythological Greek God, the messenger of sea) holding fish spouting water and six allegorical figures.
On the opposite side of this beautiful fountain and across the road, there were two very unimpressive looking buildings and one of these houses the French Naval Ministry.
After spending half an hour we headed to Napoleon’s burial place. On the way we crossed the Seine once again, and passed by beautiful parks and iconic buildings. After about fifteen minutes drive we were at the burial place of Napoleon Bonaparte called Les Invelides, declared an UNESCO world Heritage Site.
The mighty general met his tragic end in exile because of slow poisoning in the distant island of St. Helena in the Southern Atlantic, from where his body remains were brought to France. We got off from the coach to have a grand view of this iconic land mark. The sky was cloudless and it was rather a windy day. A huge shining golden dome adorns the burial place for the royals.
The next landmark was a very exciting one for any tourist coming to France, it was la tour Eiffel or Eiffel Tower, a symbol of the capital. Flanked by the Seine, this massive wrought-iron lattice structure was named after Gustave Eiffel, the man behind the creation. But we could not have a bird’s eye view from the top of Paris as three lifts were out of service and there were hundreds waiting to go to the top level.
With heavy hearts we continued our tour of Paris to another important destination, Champs Elysees, one of the most famous avenues of the world. It is flanked by two iconic landmarks- Arc de Triomphe (arch of victory) and Place de la Concorde. During the rule of Louis XIV Champ Elysees was merely occupied by fields and kitchen gardens. It is one of the most beautiful and famous avenue of Paris and is without doubts the most expensive block of real estate of the world.
Champ Elysees is noted for its theaters, cafes, specialty shops and restaurants. The avenue is lined with elm trees, flower beds and beautifully pruned horse-chestnut trees. Champ Elysees is a place where nobles and intellectuals meet in roadside cafes, discuss art and literature, go the theatre followed by dinner. I considered myself extremely lucky to set my foot in this iconic place. This is where Bastille Day parade is being held and the finishing line of Tour de France. (An annual men’s bicycle race primarily held in France). Our next destination was Arc de Triomphe located at the western end of Champ-Elysees which was built by Napoleon in honour of the soldiers after the battle of Austerlitz. This is one of the most famous monuments of Paris. There were beautiful sidewalks and roadside stalls near Arc deTriomphe selling souvenirs. We collected some replicas of Eiffel Tower as gift items.
Our next destination was Fragonard Perfume Museum located in the opera Garnier Quarter. There was a free guided tour and we were thrilled to see an exceptional collection of ancient perfume bottles.
We enjoyed a splendid lunch with dosas and idlis at the Saravana Restaurant. Our last stop was Montparness tower. The top floor sixty storied terrace are open to public. The beauty of Paris from there was breathtaking. On way to Montparness we had glimpses of some world famous banks and services like BNP Paribas, Lamborghini, Garnier, Lacoste and others. After a hectic day long orientation tour of the fashion capital of the world we retreated to the cozy confinement of Hotel Ibis.

(The author is a former professor,
Department of Geography,
St Edmund’s College, Shillong)

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