IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 3 > Paris (Louvre, Eiffel Tower)

Paris (Louvre)

Sunday morning, and I awoke feeling like my adventure was now into full swing. There was electricity in the air, as I gazed from my bunk through the open window at the forks of lightning zapping the rooftops of Paris, followed by crashes of thunder and deep rumbles which shook the building. It was only 5am, but it was worth waking early to witness the spectacle as dawn broke, and I had a wonderful view from my dormitory on the sixth floor of the hostel. A refreshing breeze drifted through the room and rain hammered down, lifting the dirt from the pavements and generating that unique smell of washed grime.

Had I found out about it earlier, this would have been the perfect opportunity to have popped over to Montmartre and enjoyed the bicycle ride through its evocative moody streets and alleys, which took place every Sunday morning at dawn. I sat examining this entry in my tourist leaflet, but despite the time still being short of six o'clock in the morning, I had chosen to take an interest in the only visitor attraction in all of France for which I was already too late.

Instead I set off through an almost deserted city for the Louvre, ruing the fact that a few hours previous the date had advanced to the 8th of June, meaning the free entry afforded to visitors on the first Sunday of each month was not valid today. Admiring the vast scale of the place, I pondered over the likelihood of one of its underground tunnels extending as far as San Diego and falling nine hours behind under Pacific Time, from where I could mastermind some form of cunning infiltration without charge. I soon decided that when it came to my pondering, there was a fine dividing line between ill logic and insanity, and I grudgingly prepared to part with my cash. Standing beside the famous pyramid I took in the view of the enormous museum facing me on three sides, estimating that I could probably cover all of its interior on foot if I stayed for most of the day. My guesswork was to prove wrong to the point that had my name been Linford Christie, I would still have been a couple of days wide of the mark.

Descending to the mezzanine underneath the glass triangle, I was soon to be buffeted about by over-zealous security officials who all wanted me to deposit my bag somewhere, but each having different ideas about where this place should be. I started to lose my rag and almost left in protest, eventually losing my bag instead, at least for the day, at the official consigne kiosk.

There was a temporary exhibition being held, displaying some of the early sketches of Leonardo da Vinci, which seemed worth stumping up extra cash for as one didn't often get within three inches of the first works of the world's foremost artistic and scientific genius. This ended a little disappointingly, however, when having viewed countless precious draft designs in darkened rooms, visitors were suddenly confronted with a large computer projection on a wall of the Last Supper, which appeared rather out of context with the other small works on display. It seemed to be a crowd pleaser though.

I had whiled away the morning in this relatively small sector of the museum which, following a nastily overpriced lunch in the least expensive eating establishment I could find in the complex, left me with even less time to explore the colossal remainder. It was impossible to resist the temptation of seeing the most famous inhabitant, the Mona Lisa, but I was again left a little perplexed by its placement. Situated near the far end of one of the arms that formed the U-shaped building, it was necessary to stroll along an extensive gallery containing a ridiculous quantity of large-scale paintings, hung in a cluttered fashion at many levels. It was too much to absorb, particularly with the indulgent surroundings of exquisite, ornate columns and ceilings which loomed above throughout the procession. The contents of that gallery alone could have occupied the rest of the Louvre and provided a day's observation.

When I passed a dividing wall into the chamber containing the Mona Lisa it was alone, comparatively tiny and secured inside a glass case. Perhaps this was the precise intention, for visitors to admire its simple beauty, but I felt that after such an overblown build-up its effect was rather diminished. Naturally it was difficult to get anywhere near the exhibit with the sudden convergence of half the museum visitors at the spot, but I departed with the knowledge that even if I'd been unable to get a good look at the Mona Lisa, legend foretold that whichever direction I went in, she would be watching over me.

My next stop on the mammoth museum walkabout was Napoleon's apartments, conveniently located at the farthest point from the Mona Lisa, so far in fact that the crass installation of a monorail system would probably not be objected to by most of the museum's patrons. This series of rooms became ever more pompous and ostentatious as I walked through them. The decoration of gold, diamonds and chandeliers (below) was almost obscene.

One of the rooms in Napoleon's apartments

Returning from the apartments and through the Rubens Room, I decided to squeeze one last section of the museum into the day's schedule. There were so many miles of corridors in the Louvre, absolutely jam-packed with paintings, sculptures and artefacts, that it was simply impossible to absorb it all in a day, or even a week. One novel feature that required investigation though, was the Medieval Louvre, buried underground beneath the square on the east side, and only excavated in the previous couple of decades. It was possible to walk around the circumference of the old castle walls, and to see the plans for the site, upon which was built the palace that stood today.

By the time I emerged in late afternoon from the pyramid, the sun was beating down and thousands of tourists were gathered around the fountains which had been devoid of souls when I entered. After this, I had practically explored more museums than I could cope with for the whole trip. And the hectic hustle and bustle of the big city was starting to grate on me a little, as I looked forward to tomorrow when I would escape and head south. My next short journey was across the capital to reserve a seat on a train for the following day, and it provided some interesting features at either end.

The Louvre Metro station contained some artefacts from the museum above, placed in cabinets along the platforms. It was surely quite a bizarre site when expecting to arrive at another standard stop on a grimy subway line, for passengers to gaze out of the window and be confronted with a Roman bust staring back at them. Meanwhile, alighting at Montparnasse rail station involved riding on the longest single travelator I had ever seen. I half expected to find myself at London Waterloo when I reached the other end. Had I been half my age I wouldn't have hesitated to step on the one going in the opposite direction, attempting to run the length of it faster than the machine took me back.

With my ticket sorted, I stopped for a breather in the Jardin d'Atlantique, a park which was perched peculiarly above the railway tracks behind Montparnasse station, and surrounded on all sides by corporate buildings. Little was happening here and the place was emptying as the sun began crouching nervously behind office blocks, leaving happy families and their dogs in the shade. There was time remaining to take in one more feature of the city before the weekend drew to a close, so I made another journey westwards on the Metro towards the country's biggest status symbol.

Paris (Eiffel Tower)

The Eiffel Tower

A visit to Paris just wouldn't have been complete without a trip to its most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower. I'd waited many years to return to the capital since my only previous visit as a teenager, and on that occasion I had omitted the attraction from my schedule, only to regret doing so forever after. I was determined to make up for it this time. It was my last evening in Paris, and I wanted to celebrate by reaching the top of the tower, but budget worries started to infiltrate my mind, and the stingy elements within me hijacked my brain. The city was an expensive place to be, and I had been over my daily spending limit since setting off from England. The worst outcome of my travels would be to blow all my money by the time I was only halfway through the journey, and have to return home defeated.

Upon finding the cost of travelling to the summit by lift to be over 10 Euros, along with over half an hour waiting on the ground in the queue, I had a rethink. For the brave there was the option of climbing the stairs for just over 3 Euros, although access was only so far as the large second level (left, centre). This was good enough for me, even though there wasn't much left of my feet by this stage, following my mini marathons around Montmartre, the museum and elsewhere. I would rather have been moving on my feet up the many hundreds of steps than standing around on them in the rather cold evening breeze.

And a breeze it was; the climb not seeming nearly so bad as expected. The view from middle level 2 was spectacular enough, and I decided that it was a good thing to leave the journey to the top for another time when I returned to Paris, saving something of excitement. At least, this was my weak justification for being so thrifty.

Perhaps my most satisfying moment of the day was yet to come, and it would arise from a surprise incident - a shouting match with an American halfway up the tower. When I finally reached level 2 and the last of the steps, I found that it contained two tiers. Naturally, since this was as far as lift-shunning skinflints were allowed to go, I wanted to be at the highest point possible, so I ascended the extra few stairs to the upper platform. It was very busy up there though, with people shuffling around the outer edges and making it difficult to get past. I absorbed the views on the north and east sides, then headed around to the south. The central section was taped off forbidding me from cutting across the middle, and I gradually squeezed my way past each person, occasionally observing some rather hostile stares aimed at me.

I spotted a break in the crowd ahead and made a beeline for the gap, but all of a sudden a large fist met me in the opposite direction, and an enormous woman pushed me back with the force of several digested hamburgers.
- 'Oh no Mister!' she blurted, at which point I realized I was in the company of a rather overly assertive American.
- 'Yo ain't pushing in here, just you get back Mister.'
This lady tourist was apparently assuming ownership of the tower and trying to tell me where I could or could not go. Had size alone been the prerequisite of such authority then she would have passed her entitlement with flying colours. Her surprising onslaught wouldn't have bothered me so much, had it not been for the ill-advised use of the word Mister at irritatingly frequent intervals. But there was another disturbing aspect to this situation; something which had been needling me for the last three days, causing a rage building within to finally prepare to surface.

In the short time since leaving home I had encountered people of many nationalities, particularly in the cosmopolitan surroundings of Paris. But it was surprising to note so many American tourists, the only reason being the current political climate in which the US government and media were pitting themselves against France following the conflict in Iraq, and suggesting to their citizens that they boycott French goods and services. Of course this didn't mean that all Americans were going to dutifully abide by these dictates, and they may not all have shared such sentiments. The British government had also backed the Iraq invasion, although us Brits were much more divided over the issue and less likely to immediately take daggers to our near neighbours the French, since this was something our media did for us on a regular basis regardless of world affairs, whether we liked it or not. I just thought that it may have had some impact on the numbers of US visitors in the country, and I didn't expect to notice Americans wherever I went.

And thus the problem; I shouldn't have needed to, but there were a certain minority who continually probed and penetrated the protective peace bubble that I liked to imagine I deserved, and which surrounded me in my daily life. I had nothing against Americans in general, and some of my fellow Brits were undoubtedly responsible for forming part of the loud-mouth brigade. I certainly had some fundamental misgivings about the Bush and Blair governments and their foreign policies, but I couldn't hold that against the entire population of the two countries, especially since I belonged to one. There were some who couldn't be forgiven though, their overbearing voices had been taunting me from all directions, forcing me to listen to spiels of nonsense which leapt like wild bison from their tongues. They tarred the image of their countries' citizens for the rest of us who cringed in their company. Indeed, many other travellers I met were all too familiar with - and desperate to distance themselves from - these less appealing members of their own societies, and the Canadians were noticeably determined to display the maple-leaf emblem on their baggage and about their person in order to distinguish themselves.

Whilst standing outside the Sacré-Coeur the previous day, I gasped as I overheard two American ladies nattering at a volume that would have bothered deceased Parisians in the crypt below. They were discussing the location of Notre-Dame, or rather the surprise new location of this spectacular landmark as decided by them. What anybody else could see to be a regular church positioned a mile away was, to this pair, without doubt the 'cute liddle Notre-Dame'. Which would have been fine if they'd wanted to keep that misguided opinion to themselves, but instead they imposed it upon other tourists, pointing out their mistaken discovery to all who passed by. I really didn't need to know where they believed Notre-Dame resided, I could see it for myself. It was the majestic creation sitting on the horizon, not the poxy little thing they were pointing at just because it was nearby.

This kind of unavoidable background waffle had been haunting me everywhere. Although some of my own country's less bearable offspring were culprits too, I rarely encountered any other nation's people being so annoying by talking so much drivel. An intellectual discussion on the Metro between two French students was suddenly drowned out by the over-excited onslaught of an American mother and daughter at the far end of the carriage, the latter of whom was recounting an inane telephone conversation she'd had, which the rest of us were forced to listen to.
- 'So, I like, said to her, no way, and she like, said to me, oh that's uncool, and I was like, hello, I'm not gonna do this, and she was like, really bitchy and stuff, and it was kinda like she was freaking out, and I thought that's just so not on, ya know, and I said to her hey what's your problem, and she like says honey you're the problem, and I was like, gee you've got issues lady, and she was like, hey girl the only issue here is you, and I was like, whoa hold on a minute, and like...', at which point I longed for a busker to work their way into the car and blast them with a rendition of Please Release Me.

So, eager to complete my circuit of the Eiffel Tower viewing platforms, I stood perplexed as this rather rude woman accused me of pushing into 'the queue', and explained that as part of a group, it was not right for me to be taking such liberties. Upon pointing out that I was not a member of their group - the statement of such a fact causing waves of relief to flush through my body - her clan, which had increased in number and was surrounding me, attacked me in unison with the message,
- 'No, but we are!'
I looked around for the man holding up script boards, but only saw three gormless males whose faces had been carved in that specific 'won't find a sense of humour in here' mould. Following another attempt by this now hysterical woman to push me back - a method of attack now proving fruitless as I was cushioned by the many other members of 'the group' who had amassed behind me - my patience was wearing a bit thin, and I enquired as to what I was supposedly queueing for.
- 'The lift, stupid!' she proclaimed.

Clearly there had been no need for insults, and the red mist began to build up inside me.
- 'But I'm not queueing for the bloody lift!' I rebutted in a voice which had suddenly taken on the persona of Michael Caine.
It was not my fault that this miserable collection of people surrounding the upper middle level were not moving because they were waiting to enter a lift, and that I happened to be simply admiring the sights. Many had probably expected to gleefully sail all the way to the top level, not realizing until now that they had to change here and spend at least another half an hour waiting to travel in the second lift in order to reach level 3. But they had no exclusive rights to level 2. At no point on the way up the stairs from below was there a sign to say, 'Thou shalt not dare just walk around and have a look at the view when other people are trying to queue for a bloody lift' (in any language).

The fact that I had walked up the tower this far - a practice that she might have horizontally benefited from herself - and that I was therefore at the summit of my experience, being barred from going any further on foot, had not dawned on her. Clearly I was expecting my reward of gazing at the spectacular panorama, and her assumption that I was queueing to take the lift, rather than just admiring the view I was entitled to, began to infuriate me.

She was backed by a gang of cronies, consisting of lanky teenagers who repeated everything she said in an exceptionally condescending manner. One of them, however, after a bit of a brainstorm, piped up,
- 'Er, perhaps he just wants to go over there or something and isn't in the queue,' which I confirmed.
Mrs Bat Out Of Hell then stood back sheepishly, reluctant to offer any form of an apology, a solitary 'oh' being all she could manage. With tower rage descending rapidly over my eyes, I pushed past and snapped at her,
- 'Why don't you think before you open your mouth ya' bleeding old bag!'
It wasn't the most eloquent tribute I could have paid, but it served its purpose.

I took up my hard-earned position on the south side, and giggled as I watched and heard their burdened lift struggle to ascend the remainder of the tower, half expecting the cables to snap and to see them plunging back past me with shocked, falling faces. All my worries and anxieties from the exhaustive weekend were released in that instant, and I cast my eyes over Paris as the sun began to set behind cloudy skies, savouring the delights ahead of me on my journey. I descended the steps of the tower, pausing regularly to admire its beautiful structure of criss-crossing struts and girders (right and below).

view from the stairs of the Eiffel Tower

view of Paris and the Seine from the steps of the Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower illuminated at dusk

Back on the ground I took a final glance up at the tower, fantastically illuminated at dusk (left), before heading off and stopping for a superb nosh-up in a Traiteur d'Asiatique. The Metro was creepily quiet after dark, with water dripping in the tunnels and echoing around the deserted station. If a further French sequel to American Werewolf in London had ever been planned, this would have been the perfect setting, and I had just met the perfect character to play the part of the beast.

Due to the makeshift arrangements in place during les grèves, I was forced to pace the platforms for half an hour, spotting a rogue rat scampering across the tracks, until the train could be seen approaching from around two stations further down the line. The Parisian Metro tunnels were of a large twin track design, and the stops were often spaced only a short distance apart, so it was possible to see other waiting passengers pottering around further down the line in the brightly lit station sections. I wondered if any romances had ever been formed this way; two lonely people flirting at long distance through the dark tunnels, and boarding the same carriage at consecutive stops. My own chances of succeeding at this were slim, since the only person I could spot leaning forward and looking down the tunnel my way was a tramp who made occasional unintelligible gestures with his fist. I made sure I avoided his carriage when the train rattled in.

Back at the hostel, it was getting late on a Sunday night, and the other guests in my room were already tucked up in their beds. I found the disco bar downstairs as unappealing as it had been the previous night, and decided to join the sleepers, with an early start facing me the following day.

HOSTEL REPORT: Paris - Le d'Artagnan - see day 2

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