Paris - City of Love. City of Lights. Asterix. Eurodisney. Our 2007 rugby World Cup victory. The 1998 soccer World Cup. The Louvre. The Da Vinci Code.
France’s iconic capital is all this and more – it just depends who you speak to. The problem is that it’s also got a stinking reputation; it’s dirty, it’s expensive, the people are rude, they only speak French. Everyone eats garlic.
Prejudices work because they buttress our fears and cloak us in the warmth of our ignorance, which is why travel is so important if you get the opportunity – or even if you force the opportunity.
The problem is, with something that is as much part of global culture as Paris, where you start, particularly if your time is limited. Can you do justice to it?
Yes, you can, and you braai a couple of holy cows along the way.
Hélène Bezuidenhoudt, a displaced Parisienne now running Atout France (The French Tourism Board) in Rivonia, has no qualms whatsoever. She’ll evangelise even if you’re only going to be passing through. Give her an eight-hour challenge, and she’s in her element: the Montparnasse Tower, the Eiffel Tower, the Seine and Notre Dame cathedral – in that order – is her suggested walking route.
The tower in Montparnasse (the same age as our own Sandton City), is a natural starting point. At 59 floors high, it’s a shade higher than the Carlton Centre in the Joburg CBD, but with the same unsurpassed panoramic views.
The Eiffel Tower makes the list just because. For a temporary structure (it was only supposed to be there for 20 years), it’s done well racking up a quarter of a billion visitors in the past 124 years.
The Seine, well if you head right (upriver), you’ll pass some of the most beautiful architecture in the city (which is no mean feat) as well as the ugliest building – the South African embassy in Paris, laughs Bezuidenhoudt.
You’ll come out at the Notre Dame Cathedral (on the Ile de la Cité, it’s one of two remaining natural islands in the Seine). Famous for the eponymous hunchback, as well as being 850 years old this year, it’s an iconic part not just of Paris but of the whole of France. At least two people have shot themselves at the altar, countless kings have been inaugurated there and even crusades started. It’s also Paris’s religious centre and Kilometre Zero; from which all highways in France are measured.
And entry is free, quips Bezuidenhoudt.
You complete the circle by walking back to Montparnasse, through the Latin Quarter.
All in all it’s about 10km, prepare for a bit more in practice, because the Left Bank is a labyrinth of short roads, dating back to medieval times, that are crooked, illogical but always, charming.
Montparnasse is a great starting point because of the huge train station right there. You can take a train from Paris CDG (Charles de Gaulle Airport) or catch an Air France bus.
Paris is made up of those who live intra muros (within the walls) of the old medieval settlement and those in the outlying suburbs beyond the ring road or Boulevard Périphérique. Air France’s Pierre Descazeaux says two million people live within the ring road and another 8 million outside in the banlieue – 10 percent of France’s population.
The city, intra muros, is made up of 20 arrondissements divided by the Seine which cuts it horizontally into a Left Bank (south) and a Right Bank (north). The Left Bank is traditionally home to Bohemians and intellectuals, served by schools and universities, while the North Bank is where the retail, commercial and government sectors are housed.
The Left Bank, though, hearkens most closely to the version so beloved of Hollywood. Here you’ll see people buzzing about on scooters, whizzing past on bicycles, all immaculately dressed, smoking as they sit at pavement cafes with their heels on the kerbside, sipping a glass of wine after work, pushing their prams through the crowded streets or taking their dogs for a walk.
And everyone speaks English, particularly the younger generation. Even the signs are in English and French. This is bad news for the pretentious desperate to show off their language skills, but a godsend for those for whom Paris would otherwise be a forbidden city. It also speaks volumes about the city’s determination to market itself to foreigners.
The results are patently obvious. On a Monday morning, the Montparnasse Tower has queues snaking out of reception by 10. The Eiffel Tower, closed at the top for maintenance, has crowds around the foot of each leg.
A walk down the Seine reinforces stereotypes and blows others right out of the water.
Parisians strip off their tops and sunbathe on council-created oases of potted plants and railway sleepers while lovers cuddle each other as open-topped tour boats loaded to the gunwhales with sightseers steam past.
But the Seine is also a working river with barges pushing everything from scrap to fresh produce. Further down the walkways, just before the ubiquitous stall holders, there’s an open-air photographic exhibition showcasing the work of photographers across the world, including our own Thabiso Sekgala, and their essays on humanity.
It’s a Monday afternoon, but a bride is getting married at the riverside – she comes up the flagstoned staircase to the roadside resplendent in white and no one bats an eyelid.
Behind her the river splits to form an island, the Île de la Cité with the world famous Notre Dame cathedral at its eastern tip. Tourists stream in a continuous line, in through the right of the nave, all the way down past the transept and the altar and around the left of the nave, before exiting to the bright sunshine.
Silence is not negotiable, for there in the depths of the nave are the faithful and the pilgrims praying.
Notre Dame is a working place of worship, bracketed by larger-than-life crucifixes, surrounded by flickering candles, sculptures of religious angst and even a statue of the redeemed heretic Joan of Arc, who was burnt at the stake only to be posthumously reinstated, thanks to efforts of the cathedral itself.
In between, stand vaulted ceilings rising to impossible heights, supported by the incredible mason’s art, all hand-dressed and hand-laid almost a millennium before.
From Notre Dame, the trick is to find your way back to Montparnasse.
The fact that the buildings are uniformly seven storeys high and close together means you can never see the 59-storey Montparnasse Tower. And forget about the fondly held Hollywood fable that every Parisian window has a view of the Eiffel Tower.
By now it’s late afternoon, the cafes are filling up in the Latin Quarter. Around the Montparnasse railway station, the bustle of a modern city with commuters coming and going is offset by a modern-day Asterix with long blond hair, sitting on the kerb begging. He has his mountain of a sheep dog beside him. Next to him stands his friend, a street urchin with a rat the size of both a grown man’s fists on his shoulder.
It could be a scene straight out of Les Miserables, but it’s not.
And that’s just part of the magic. Incredible culture and style, piqued by the lurking seedy underside – as in all great cities.
The people are friendly and intelligible. The city is clean and accessible.
The only prejudice that holds any water is price. Paris is eye-wateringly expensive.
There are ways to manage it on a rand-based budget by shopping wisely away from the tourist traps, but the reality remains that a litre of water on the Eiffel tower will cost you almost R90, a sandwich and a beer at a little makeshift cafe along the Seine a further R260.
The answer is not to think about it. You can’t, because if you do you’ll never venture out – and never forgive yourself for squandering a priceless opportunity in the process. - Saturday Star