I feel like the cat that got the cream, or who always lands on its feet. This is Tom. He is quite frankly a ridiculously generous man. Yesterday was my 21st birthday, and as his gift to me, Tom took me to Paris.
We start this tale of decadence and joy bright and early on Sunday morning. I mean very early. Leaving the house at a quarter-past-seven in the morning early. In the sleepy haze I managed to forget my camera after having taken a photo of my very nice new luggage. Fortunately, my phone has a snazzy camera, and we bought a disposable one once we got to France, so pictures will follow when I get them uploaded.
Then the fun began. We got a bus to the big station in Southampton, Southampton Central in a bid to catch the train to London Waterloo. All trains to Waterloo were being cancelled left right and centre as engineering work further up the line had overrun. After mild panicking I did the only thing thinkable, I pestered the station manager for advice. He told me in the most roundabout way possible that we should leap on the Virgin Train to Manchester that was sitting at Southampton Central, as this was stopping at Guildford, and we should be able to catch a London Train there. I can see now why Andy raves about Virgin Trains. They were very smooth and professional and I would have been quite sorry to leave if I’d not been getting off it to go to PARIS!
Our train to Waterloo from Guildford was also delayed, so upon reaching Waterloo it was mad dash through the crowds to the Eurostar Departure areas. Chaos ruled there, with problems with the ticket barriers creating large crowds. I have to say I really saw the difference between the French and the British ends of the Eurostar. Admittedly, we came home on the penultimate train so the crowds seemed less manic, but the staff at the French end all seemed much more serene and in control.The baggage label from Euroster "Sorry I'm already spoken for"
One of the funniest bits about the Eurostar is trying to actually get on it! The trains are so long you have to walk for what seems like miles down the plat form with your bags. We were in carriage 18 on the way out so had quite a way to walk. The trains are furnished in that slightly industrial modernist way that seems to define French style, think La Defense and the Pompidou Centre. Grey plush and brown leather interiors with seats with very angular squared off head rests. I loved all the little touches like there being two overhead racks, a large shelf for bags, a narrower one with a chrome rail for coats and smaller items, and the little foot rests that folded down from under the seat front so that vertically challenged people like me could sit in comfort.
We passed gently through England and then more speedily through France when the TGV speed train could let rip. Watching the rolling hills and patch work green of England disappear through the tunnel, we were soon greeted by the vast expanses of soft brown earth that looks dusty and dry and the big industrial parks intersected with popular trees that makes up French countryside between Calais and Paris.
Once at the Gard du Nord, I wondered around in a slight daze with a skip in my step. All around me were the bubbling lilts of French voices and announcements. We scurried through the crowd trying to find the right metro line and bought snzzy little tourist passes that let us use the Metro, the RER and the buses for three days sans limites’ The Paris metro has a very distinctive smell and is very different from the RER that intersects the city and takes Parisians out to the suburbs. The metro stations are funkier, with bright colours and widely spaced seats. None of these communal benches for the RATP, but 8 individual seats spaced along the platforms. I liked the fact that the RER trains were double deckers and had bigger stations.
Our hotel was on the Rue de Pepinere, that ajoined the Boulevard Hausmann, him of the famous ‘boulevard-isation’ of Paris, near the church of St. Augustin. The hotel was lovely, our room overlooking the courtyard of bay trees in pots, and breakfast being served in a dining room that peeped onto the street. Having dropped off our bags we explored the neighbour hood and ended up wondering around the church of St. Augustin. It was a lovely quiet respite after our bustling journey. I loved the plaques people had put next to the statues of saints, noting thanks for prayers answered.
That first evening in Paris, we caught the Metro to Monmartre and fully swallowed the Hollywood and tourism version of Paris. It was like concentrated Paris. There was a brass sextet playing jolly tunes, a street fair (celebrating Chilean food and wine of all things), quaint little shops, winding roads, mad drivers, kids running around and an amazing view. We dived in to a little grocers and bought bread and garlic sausage so Tom could have a sandwhich as he was starving from the journey. We sat and ate in the Place des Abbesses while children played foot ball in the little square and mopeds zoomed around us.
Sacre Coeur was phenomenal. I think it is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever been in. We arrived just as mass was finishing and sat to listen to the end of the service. Even though it was filled with worshippers and tourists, it still felt amazingly holy. The mosaic above the high altar was so intricate and glowed in the lighting as if it was a fragment of the sun, it took my breathe away. We wondered around it, looking at all the side chapels, the paintings and the candles left by others. We walked out to the setting sun. I could see all the major sights from my vantage point outside the Sacre Coeur, and giggled with Tom at the buskers covering Princes’s ‘Purple Rain’ for the crowds soaking the autumn evening sun and the fabulous view on the steps of the church. Paris truly is the most romantic place I've ever been, and felt wonderful to be sharing this with someone who means so much to me.