It was 32 degrees on Friday afternoon, and the coach from Beauvais airport into Paris was rammed full of sweating tourists, cursing the lack of air conditioning and hoping for a break in the traffic. Sammy was a few rows behind me, and before taking in the local culture was distracting herself with country music, while I was nose deep in a book about British postcodes.
As we crept along the Parisian skyline came into view, and it soon became clear that this was going to be a city of contrasts, with the modern high rise offices of La Defense appearing on the horizon, shortly followed by the Eiffel Tower peeking through, then the abject poverty of a crudely assembled shanty town along the embankment of the road on which we were travelling. This initial impression would set the tone for many of our encounters in the city; the trade-off between modern and historical France, the opulence and grandeur against the begging and homelessness. The post work friends meeting outside cafes, alongside families of refugees sheltering under blankets in the ornate doorways. I’m not a political writer, and this piece is a positive reflection on our experiences and the enjoyment we got from our time there, but it would be negligent and untruthful of me to gloss over the hardships we saw, or to not mention the times in which our happiness and excitement was met with sorrow and guilt.
We were based in Pigalle, an area known for its sex shops and adult entertainment, the red light district of Paris. We had chosen this area specifically, not from any desire to partake in a couple’s sauna or to purchase an Eiffel Tower dildo (€24.99, if you’re interested), but because we wanted to stay in a boutique French hotel in a historic area with good transport links, and the Hotel Villa Royale provided us with precisely that. With around six rooms on each of its six floors, each named after French cultural icons (ours being Louis Vuitton), decorated in a Rococo style, and offering views over Place Pigalle and the Sacre Coeur, the hotel is also situated just a short stroll from the iconic Moulin Rouge – although we chose not attend a show due to the use of animals in their act.
Following a delayed flight and the clammy bus transfer, we arrived in the early evening keen to make the most of the remainder of the daylight, so after a quick freshen up we headed up the Butte Montmartre, the highest point in Paris, where our neighbour the Sacre Coeur loomed over the city. The basilica took almost 40 years to build from 1875, and as you approach from street level your eyes are drawn up and along the many steps that lead to the imposing white domes. Upon reaching the top, the elevated position delivers views across the city, a seemingly endless sea of white-grey buildings, with the odd high-rise poking through the waves like driftwood.
We often visit religious buildings, and being a non-believer myself my interest lies mainly with the history and architecture, and I was not disappointed with Sacre Couer, particularly on entering and being presented with the enormous intricate dome ceiling mosaic. We shuffled around outside of the prayer area looking at the various Roman Catholic things, and joining in with the other tourists in completely flouting the ‘no photography’ rule, before shuffling back outside into the searing heat.
With the evening upon us it was time to find our first restaurant of the trip, so we descended the 130 metres from the church, past the many ‘ball under the cup’ tricksters in the streets and bustling cafes with tables and chairs encroaching onto the pavements, through Pigalle to the Opera/Bourse area to find Vegebowl, a small vegetarian eatery offering a variety of Asian cuisine to the meat averse. After loitering around the two outside tables, reluctant to venture into the sweat box inside, we successfully managed to pressure the occupants of one of the tables to relinquish as soon as their bill was paid, and we settled down to meals of black pepper ‘beef’ and shredded ‘pork’, both of which were sublime, to the point that I began to doubt the validity of their meat-free status.
Since Sammy became vegan last year, our experience of eating in British vegan/vegetarian cafes has been fantastic, however there seems to be a preference for celebrating vegetables rather than imitating meat. I wonder whether this is a conscious choice, with the restaurateurs opting not to remind their customers of the produce from which they are abstaining, and whether many vegans wish to remove themselves completely from the thought of having a piece of flesh on their dinner plate. As a self proclaimed ‘almost pescatarian’ (I’m yet to give up beef), I was astounded by the similarity of texture and flavour of whatever substance I was consuming that mimicked beef so proficiently, and thankfully this was not going to be the last time that week I was able to eat such things.
The nourishment had given us a second wind, so we opted to continue the night with cocktails in the infamous Dirty Dick bar, located a stone’s throw from our hotel. We had read amazing reviews of this small, kitsch, tiki/Polynesian/totem pole sporting/bamboo furniture bedecked watering hole, and I’ll get this out of the way now – it turned out to be my favourite thing in Paris. On entering we were greeted by one of the bar staff who found us a space at a table in the heaving seating area, furnished us with a menu and asked us to order at the bar when ready. There were a wide range of cocktails, ranging from €7 to over €20, from favourites like daiquiri, to novelty erupting volcanoes complete with dry ice and elongated straws for all of those involved in the spectacle. I was overjoyed with the choice of music, a mixture of reggae and ska, and all our fellow patrons lounged casually around, smiling, laughing, and soaking up the ambience.
The bartender surprised me by asking if I was from Birmingham, to which confirmed that I was (I’m not, but it’s not too far away and it’s easier than trying to explain to people what the Black Country is), and he informed me that he grew up in Solihull (close enough to Birmingham to know what the Black Country is and therefore allowing me to say as such without need for further explanation). After a brief chat and a shake of hands, my fellow Midlander kindly gave us two free shots of rum, which Sammy doesn’t like so I had both.
With lethargy creeping in following our day of travelling and step climbing, we headed back to the hotel, but not before I popped into a fast food shop and had a burger called Le Biggie, which tasted exactly like beef, because it was.
After a perfect night’s sleep, I pulled back the curtains and took in the Pigalle morning. The sun was shining, Sacre Couer was where we left it, and a man lay face first on top of two crushed beer cans in the street, being attended to by police and paramedics.
We jumped on the Metro and before long found ourselves walking past the many purveyors of miniature Eiffel Towers, towards the real thing. The queue was moving quickly, with the main hold up being the security checks to enter the Tower’s grounds. This would be just one of many bag searches and wanding downs we would have in France, which combined with the armed military presence at most of the main attractions, highlights the extreme measures the country has adopted since the attacks of recent times.
We opted to climb the tower rather than take the crowded lifts, and despite jelly legs afterwards I think we made the right choice. The first floor was quiet as the lifts go directly to the second, so we could walk around the perimeter and snap away at the view of the city without any unwelcome photobombers, and creep over the glass floor while pretending I’d never read the story about the one in Chicago’s Willis tower that cracked. Having purchased tickets for the lift to the very top of the tower, we climbed up to the second floor to be met with a swarm of tourists and an hour long queue, the culmination of which was to be packed into a sardine tin and catapulted to the top. We decided to pass, and returned to the peace and privacy of the first floor, before descending the steps again and starting the pursuit of food.
The tower is a must-do in Paris (rather than a must-see, because you can see from most places in the city centre), and aside from ticking the experience off a bucket list, it provides a superb viewpoint for picking out features like the Seine, Sacre Couer, and the Trocadero, with the latter’s esplanade offering a perfectly designed, unrestricted view of the tower, and the ideal opportunity to get a picture of yourselves with the tower beyond, much like Hitler did in a famous 1940 holiday snap.
Heading in the general direction of the Arc De Triomphe, we stopped for lunch at Le Copernic, had a vegetable salad and steak and chips (I’ll let you work out who had what), and it was at this point that I realised there was going to be no possibility of getting a reasonably priced beer in Paris. If you think London prices suck, just wait until you try getting a Kronenbourg in Paris for less than €7 a pint. Finding vegan friendly food for Sammy was so far proving to be easier than we had anticipated, but when you’re happy with salad for lunch (which I am not), then I suppose the option is always there. I’m not sure how I’d fare if I didn’t have at least fish to fall back on, but she seemed as disproportionately pleased with her meal as I was with mine.
Viewing the Arc de Triomphe from the outside of the roundabout in which it sits, the thing that struck us most, was the utterly insane traffic circumnavigating it. We stood for some time hoping for a break in the cars to get an unobscured photo, and whilst doing so I was amazed and bewildered by what constituted right of way, with what seemed like seven lanes of traffic all hurtling around in different directions, cutting across one another and with no visible road markings to guide them. A family of nutcases suicidally leaped through the speeding vehicles to the roundabout, and when we went through the underpass to the monument itself, the €15 entry fee perhaps explained why. We didn’t want to queue or pay the fee, so didn’t, but also didn’t fancy risking our very existence to avoid doing so, so continued down the Champs-Elysees instead.
I’m not a fan of shopping. I buy almost everything online and when I do need to go into a shop, I tend to get in and out in a matter of minutes so that I can be on my way doing important things like… anything else. Sammy on the other hand, found the names Louis Vuitton and Tiffany’s bizarrely alluring, and as we weaved through the mingling masses, she was drawn into both of these stores like a moth to a flame. What can I say about Luis Vuitton? Well it’s no Mountain Warehouse or Go Outdoors, is it? They didn’t even have a decent fleece and you wouldn’t catch me up Kinder Scout in any of their shoes, that’s for sure. Resisting the urge to spend the contents of our joint bank account on a scrap of leather to attach to a handbag (which as she pointed out, couldn’t be done anyway as it’s made from animals), we headed back to Pigalle where we found a happy hour selling mojitos for €5, and after Sammy’s quickly went to her head, we retired to the hotel so she could have a nap before dinner.
I took the opportunity to sit and observe the passing throngs in Place Pigalle, but in an effort to leave Sammy in peace I pulled up a chair in the bathroom, thrust open the windows, poured some Chateauneuf du Pape into a plastic cup, chopped at bit of brie with a coffee stirrer, ripped apart some bread, and watched the world go by feeling very happy indeed.