Tag Archives: France

On the road

On the road

We’ve just got back from the UK a couple of days ago. It was a busy trip, with lots of chores and little sight-seeing. I didn’t take many photos of pretty things – particularly as it rained a lot! On the way back through France, the sun broke through so I’ve got a few shots for you from the little-appreciated ‘from a moving car’ school of photography.

We start near Dunkirk, on the road down through the flat lands of northern France.

A grey motorway under blue sky with puffy white clouds - rolling hills and trees in the distance

This next shot is still in the north, showing the breadth of the sky. Living in Vaud, in a valley, this sort of sky startles and fascinates me.

A grey motorway stretches away under a blue sky with puffy white clouds - flat countryside around
Finally, we’re entering the foothills of the Jura, themselves the foothills of the Alps. We took the caravan up over the mountains again – it’s quicker and more fun and there’s a joy in taking the familiar roads with the unfamiliar weight of the van behind us.

A grey motorway disappears into green hills under a grey and stormy sky

Paris on the cheap

Paris on the cheap

There are plenty of things to do in Paris which don’t cost very much. We bought the Secret Paris
guide book, which is well worth it as most of the quirky things it suggests are free. Several things on this list came from the book.

1. Visit the Promenade Plantée (free)
One of our favourite spots in Paris for a walk. The Promenade Plantee is a disused railway which has been turned into a public park. It stretches from the city centre right out to the ring road, so it’s probably best not to try to walk the whole route. My favourite part is the old viaduct, a raised garden on top with quirky artisanal shops tucked under the arches. Official website. Wikipedia.

 K (a white man, about 25) stands under an arch of greenery. Through the arch you can see that the gardens continue into the distance.

2. Walk under the Eiffel Tower (free)
It really is much more impressive close up – and looking is, of course, free. Between the Eiffel tower and the Ecole Militaire there’s a long park which is great for runners, dog walkers and small children (there’s a kid’s playground here, too).

3. Go up the Tour Montparnasse (€7 per person)
At 56 floors, this is the tallest sky scraper in central Paris and gives you amazing views of everything else. When we went (mid-February) there was no queue and the weather was clear and bright. There’s a restaurant at the top (shut for rennovation on our visit) which might be a nice place to eat, although I suspect that would not be cheap. Official website.

 View from the Tour Montparnasse. Paris is spread out under blue sky with white clouds. The city looks white cut up by brown roads. The Eiffel Tower is visible on the left.

4. Have a traditional Breton crêpe (€5-10 per person)
The Tour Montparnasse is right next to the Gare Montparnasse, which is where the trains from Brittany arrive. Walk out of the station into the back streets and you’ll find plenty of crêperies. You can have pretty much anything you like on a crêpe here, from ice cream to spinach to alcohol.

We ate at the Crêperie Josselin (56 rue du Montparnasse) where the food was very good, prices were reasonable and the interior was all wood and traditional bits and pieces.

If you prefer a quiet place to eat a picnic, the Gare Montparnasse has a roof-top garden which is rather lovely.

5. Walk up to Sacre Coeur (free)
Another high point, this beautiful white church is on a hill so getting up there can be a struggle. However, the views are lovely and the crowds attract lots of street performers including musicians and fire-dancers. Another lovely place for a picnic.

Sacre Coeur, a white church with domes and saints, at night.

6. Check out fabulous Metro stations (€1.70 per person)
Several metro stations have been decorated to reflect the area they serve and are worth visiting in their own right. Trains run frequently and you can travel as convoluted a route as you like on one €1.70 ticket, so if you’re not in a rush, hop off and have a look. We liked Arts et Metiers (all brass and copper, like a steam-punk version of itself), Louvre-Rivoli (models of some of the art from the museum) and Concorde (covered in words – apparently it’s the text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man). More detailed metro station list, with photos.

Paris by film

Paris by film

I like seeing places before I visit, and tracking down places I’ve seen on film when I get there. The following three films are all ones I enjoyed enough to watch at least twice, and which show chunks of Paris, both famous and mundane locations.

Before Sunset (2004)
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke wander around Paris and talk about life, love and good coffee. Celine and Jesse  first met nine years ago, and spent one passionate night wandering around Vienna – as described in Before Sunrise (1995). Now they’ve met up again and are finding out who the other is and what’s happened since they parted.

A hard film to describe as it’s all about the conversation but Before Sunset is a beautiful, brilliant film. And you get to see lots of odd corners of Paris.
Filming locations for Before Sunset.

How to Steal a Million (1966)
Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole on a madcap romantic adventure. Nicole is the daughter of a forger, and to help keep him out of jail she needs to steal a statue from a museum – with a little help from a charming, irritating man.

Glamorous city, glamorous woman. See how things have changed and feel a bit smug when you see all the Breakfast at Tiffany’s posters for sale on the streets – wrong film, Paris!
Filming locations for How to Steal a Million.

Amelie (2001)
This film is so well-known for it’s Paris link that the cafe where Amelie (Audrey Tatou) works has become a top-10 destination in its own right. However, it’s still a lovely film and it does have some great shots of working Paris – the train stations and the small streets – as well as famous landmarks.
Filming locations for Amelie.

Avoid top-10 attractions

Avoid top-10 attractions

Anywhere which gets tourists has a List. It might only have one thing on it (the church in Foxton) or it might be a bit rubbish (the world’s oldest roundabout and inspirational urban planning in Letchworth) but the List will exist. For cities like Paris, London or Bejing, the List is so long that even the top 10 is overwhelming.

I suggest you avoid places on the List on your first trip to any big city. You’ll know what they are because they’ll be in every guide book, in the pamphet you get given at the hotel and the inflight magazine.

As a result, these places will be easy to get to, full of English speaking staff and incredibly crowded. Food will be expensive, queues will be long and all your photographs will look something like this: A crowded room at the Louvre with the Mona Lisa just visible over the heads of the crowdThat’s K looking at the Mona Lisa, if you can’t tell. He’s the one in the bright orange scarf.

Instead, figure out what you like to do anyway and do that. K likes to look at scale models and clothes shops and I like weird museums and yarn shops. We both like seeing places we’ve seen in films and getting up high to see the city spread out at our feet. So we do that. You might like football matches and local beers or dinosaur bones and porcelain – whatever it is, you’ll find it in the big cities.

Of course, when I say ‘the first time you go’, I’m assuming there will be a second time. If it’s the only time you think you’ll ever visit Paris, then yes, go see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, go up the Eiffel Tower and walk around Notre Dame. But if you think you’ll come back, you can save at least some of those things for next time.

I’m also assuming that you’ll have plenty of time to plan a first trip because I’ve found that’s usually the way it goes for us. The first time we go somewhere we plan months in advance and go for a week or more. The second time we throw some stuff in a back and go for a weekend. Or change planes with five hours to kill. Or wind up in town on business, free from 7pm Tuesday to 11 am Wednesday. And when that’s the case, it’s really nice to do something easy and the top-10 list supplies that.

Second time in Paris

Second time in Paris

Me & K, white, 30-ish, in front of the Eiffel tower on a lovely sunny dayK and I went to Paris on a whim last weekend. As I travel through London every day, getting to Paris is almost as easy as getting home from work – easier, in fact, in some ways, as Cambridge does not run buses near our home and Paris has a pretty good public transport network.

It’s the second time we’ve been there together. The first time we went (five years ago!) we spent a week camping out in a hotel in the 12th arrondisment and hunting down locations from Before Sunset, a film we both love which was shot in the city. We ate a lot of baguettes and walked miles.

Being a bit broke meant we really had to think about what we spent money on, so we only did what we really wanted to do. We didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower or into the Louvre or on a tour bus or a bateau mouche. Instead, we had a drink (just one) at the cafe we saw in the film, walked the Promenade Plantee and watched the sunset from Sacre Coeur.

This time, we were only there for two days and we only decided to go the day before we left. Luckily, as we hadn’t done the big, famous attractions last time, we could easily pick a couple out to visit.

On Saturday, we went to the Louvre. It’s easy to spend several hours just wandering around the different galleries because that place is huge. We did that, and tracked down the Mona Lisa (not that impressive in person) and the Code of Hammurabi (because it’s in the Civilisation games). On Sunday we were planning to go up the Eiffel Tower, but the top was shut and the queue was epic so we didn’t bother. Instead, we went up the Tour Montparnasse (more on that later) and had crepes – traditional ones, with savoury fillings and cider. Lovely.