Day 1 – Arrival, La Défense & Tour Eiffel
After a hectic morning packing session, we left La Jourdanie in good spirits for our drive north. We followed the A20 for hours, skirting around Châteauroux and Vierzon. We swapped to the parallel D-road to avoid motorway tolls and later stopped briefly in an aire in Theillay for lunch. We swapped drivers and Nicky faced the first proper traffic as we reached the southern outskirts of Orléans. We crawled through the centre, paying the price for avoiding tolls, and made our way to the town of Angerville to overnight by their stadium. We were stopping an hour or so short of Paris so we could arrive early in the morning and have that day for exploring. We slowly walked around Angerville to stretch our legs. A few late arriving lorries naughtily parked up near us, in a zone clearly marked as max. 3.5t, disrupting our otherwise quiet overnight stay. We headed off early for the last hour or so into Paris.
We must credit Ju & Jay at OurTour for seeding the idea; we’d read their blog post on visiting Paris and we thought it would work for us to pop up for the Christmas markets. Under six hours driving for a classic city break – why not? We arrived in the Le Camping Paris (AKA Indigo Paris) campsite before 10am and had no hassles checking in early. We arrived under blue skies but facing down a biting wind that whipped heat away from any exposed skin. The only downside was that the usual navette was not running, so we had to walk directly from the campsite each day. We headed first to La Défense, crossing a wide bridge to a long island and then on to the opposite side of the Seine. On the main boulevard in the shadow of the Grande Arche we found a huge Christmas market with a vast array of stalls, incredibly busy with lunching workers. We browsed the goods, smelled the foods and absorbed the atmosphere.
Security was tight, with intermittent bag checks and armed soldiers patrolling the perimeter. It had only been a few days since the deadly attack at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, so the alert level was justifiably high. Everyone seemed relaxed though, so the atmosphere was unaffected. We ate lunch on the steps of the Grande Arche, sheltered a little from the wind and overlooking the lively markets, the vista stretching all the way to the distant Arc de Triomphe. We watched runners threading themselves through the crowds and this seeded another idea for later. We returned through Puteaux, passing a cute kiddy Christmas display, then followed the western bank of the Seine south. We saw the campsite across the river where we could spot Benny before reaching the next bridge to return.
With 10km of walking already in our legs, we sipped a cup of warming tea to recuperate. Then we changed clothes and headed back out to face the cold, this time for a run. We headed through long stretches of woodland, crossing busy roads and along bustling city streets to reach the glorious sight of the iconic Eiffel Tower. We approached along the river from the south, through a fairground and masses of tat-selling hawkers. Here we were surprised to find new glass security barriers surrounding the perimeter of the tower that were not in place last time we visited (over 8 years ago, for my 35th birthday – time flies!) A sad but likely necessary installation, reflective of the times we live in. There were long queues to enter the tower or the restaurant, with slow security checks, so we instead continued our run around the bare gardens. More armed soldiers passed as we stopped to pose for obligatory tourist photographs.
We happily walked a little, to better enjoy the crowds and buzzing atmosphere. So many touts were selling the same tacky plastic pieces, flashing Eiffel Towers in all colours or gaudy keyrings, 5 for €1. With our iconic jaunt complete, we returned through busy shopping streets, skipping past distracted shoppers and dodging a multitude of the powered scooters that seemed prevalent in the city. Above us the skies dulled and clouded over as the sun dropped, sucking all the light from the day. Light had faded to a low grey as we crossed the woodland to return to Benny. We had completed a fully enjoyable 13km run, and just in time as the rains started for the night. After long, wonderfully hot campsite showers, we wrapped up warmly and prepared a tasty dinner, contented with our first day in Paris.
Day 2 – North of the River
We awoke to the continued pitter-patter of rain on our roof, so indulged ourselves in a lazy breakfast of croissants and jam before leaving around 10.30am when the rains had stopped. We walked north through the woodland, spotting flocks of bright green parrots in the bare trees, to reach the Louis Vuitton foundation. This building was another Frank Gehry creation, and there were large crowds queueing at security checks to enter. We walked around the perimeter, taking in the hypnotically constant flow of cascading waves that dropped down a long, wide staircase to a shallow reflecting pool. We soon reached the metro station at Les Sablons and travelled 14 stops east to Bastille. The trains bore a strong similarity to London. During the journey we did some back-of-a-napkin math and realised Nicky had sat on tube trains, from her days working in London, for more than a full month of her life.
We alighted and soon were walking through wide Parisian streets full of life, glittering Christmas lights and elegant people. We passed a long line of nursery school kids, walking hand in hand, all adorned in fluorescent yellow bibs that made us think of the Gilets Jaunes and how they were starting their protesting young these days. We followed side streets with attractive new shops and tiny stores hosting chaotic ancient trades, cobblers and tailors with shop interiors straight out of Harry Potter. We passed large groups of chattering students, looking much too young to be at university – we’re definitely getting old. We soon arrived at the main Hôtel De Ville for Paris, a towering, decorative Neo-Classical building. It was mostly inaccessible, surrounded by Christmas trees and tall metal fencing.
We crossed the Seine to Île de la Cité and joined the crowds admiring the façade of Notre Dame cathedral. We watched over made-up girls take turns photographing each other, posing on tall bollards like catwalk models. We crossed the river again to the south, to visit Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop, its aged shelves heavy with books. The layout was all nooks and crannies and soft seating, indulgent and comfortable even when overcrowded with other bibliophiles; a wonderful place to browse. We ate lunch back on the island, viewing Notre Dame and dodging pigeons, before heading back north then west along the Seine to Pont Neuf. We slowly browsed the green market stalls that lined the banks selling books, art and tourist trinkets, considering a few sketches to decorate our walls.
We arrived at the rear elevation of the Louvre and sneaked through a small passage into a grand empty courtyard and then into the main plaza featuring I.M.Pei’s iconic pyramidal entrance. With no plans to enter we were simply enjoying the ambiance. The reflection pools and dancing fountains had been drained for winter and the plaza was definitely worse for the loss. We turned north to Palais Royal and along the diagonal to Opéra, it dripping with gold and colour. We reached Place Vendôme, an impressive square bursting with expensive designer stores. All streets were full of top-end brands, with minimalist displays of pricey coveted goods, three staff members to each customer and private security on each door. The roads were stuffed with chauffeured cars delivering rich patrons into roped off spaces. We felt out of place in the lavish, almost vulgar, display of riches, so we dipped into a surprise find on the street – a Decathlon store – for quiet reflection.
After, we sat on the steps of Madeleine church staring at the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde as we planned our next move. We decided that would be a metro up to Montmartre and a visit to Sacre Coeur. We soon alighted at Abbesses station and chose to climb the stairs over joining a queue for lifts, and 144 steps later my overused legs were not thanking me for that decision. Outside we found cute timber market stalls, thick with wonderful Christmas smells, leading on to many more upward steps. We shunned the funicular and walked up long flights to reach the first main platform, before turning for our reward – a stunning panorama over all of central Paris. We stood and stared, picking out monuments and spotting buildings we’d visited. It was a sharp, clear day, a perfect vista of Paris.
After another security check to enter the Sacre Coeur, we sat a moment on hard wooden pews and absorbed the painted ceiling of the church’s domed ceiling in welcome quiet. Then we continued into the heart of Montmartre, where we bought a small metal tray, just the right size for two cups of tea, that will act as a small daily reminder of our Paris trip. We browsed the many artists’ varied work in a cobbled square lined with cafés and bars, enjoying the soulful ambience. We then picked out one restaurant from many and feasted on three courses alone in their warm interior, as all other customers felt compelled to shiver their way through their food at the outside tables.
When we extracted ourselves, night had fallen and everything was lit up. It began spitting with light rain as a talented busker sang Purple Rain to the crowds. The tat-hawkers were packing up, desperate for last sales. One guy follows me closely and, despite my polite but firm ‘non’ he continues to aggressively push his goods. He then harshly grabs my wrist and refuses to let go, until I finally protest very loudly in colourful language. The possibility of drawing the attention of one of the nearby security guards leads him to scarper away, but also left me wondering what terrible, indentured slave-like contract he might be locked into to drive such desperation. It must be a miserable, sad life, and I immediately felt guilty for my dismissive impatience, even if his chosen sales technique was threatening and invasive.
We fell downhill through more crowded markets and brightly lit shops to reach a large boulevard. We followed this to Pigalle metro, where, before descending, we could see the lights of the Moulin Rouge beyond. We caught the metro to Pont de Neuilly and walked the long road back to our campsite on low lit, very busy, urban roads, passing a large tent complex where Circus du Soliel were performing. Even with liberal use of the metro we had walked over 18km around the Parisian streets – an exhausting day.
< Part 2 to follow >