Paris was next on our European itinerary – paragon of Old World art and architecture, and drain on our funds given the still-appalling exchange rate (this would be a recurring theme throughout the trip). By an amazing stroke of good fortune – one of those things that rekindles one’s faith in people – we were taken in by a friend of our Normandy hosts, who gave us her apartment living room to sleep in for three of the four nights we spent in the city. Our professions of gratitude were typically met with laconic gestures of even greater generosity and it was only after some firm insisting that we were able to buy her dinner.
On our first day of sightseeing, we lined up a few attractions within reasonable walking distance of our arrondisement and descended first into the catacombs (managing to get a teacher’s discount on the entry fee with our Korean ID cards, which show the visa type). The humidity assailed me immediately, fogging my glasses and camera lens for several minutes (with any luck, the internals were sealed well enough to avoid any ill effects), but after a bit of walking through access tunnels the heat was a welcome change from the sub-zero temperatures on the surface. We eventually came into the catacombs proper – miles and miles of quarry tunnels carved out of the limestone upon which Paris is built (and built with), capped over the centuries and then converted into an ossuary during times of rampant disease. There were piles upon piles upon piles of bones, more than one could reasonably take in, and after a while they just became like background decoration or texture. Regular signs exhorting respect for the dead or which graveyards particular sections had come from reminded us that we were walking among the remains of thousands of people, including such luminaries as Robespierre, the Man in the Iron Mask and Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier.
After the overwhelming scale and anonymity of the catacombs, we opted to see some more of France’s celebrated dead in the less stark surroundings of the mighty Panthéon. One of the first things we were confronted with after entering was the original Foucault Pendulum – a 28 kg ball suspended from a 67 m wire high up in the main dome, used to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth, estimate the current time and knock skittles over. The upper (ground) floor was filled with carvings and works of art, while the more functional crypts below housed national heroes (number of women: 1; number of non-white people: 1; number of non-white women: 0) in suitably dignified surroundings. While most residents were politicians or leaders my (lack of) knowledge of French history did not allow me to identify, I was pleased to note the high honours accorded to Victor Hugo, Louis Braille (the only sign with a Braille translation) and Marie and Pierre Curie.
After a brief foray out to the Arènes de Lutèce (an ancient Gallo-Roman amphitheatre), it was time to follow the crowds and walk up to that whopping Gothic edifice that every tourist here has to see – Notre-Dame de Paris. We arrived just in time for a guided tour (French only, which meant that Amy had to translate every third word for me) and so got to see the places that most casual visitors don’t (not the rooftops, though, so there were very few Quasimodo jokes to be made). As expected, the whole place was bursting at the seams with history, symbology and hidden meaning and we absorbed a mere fraction of what people (presumably) write PhD theses on. I will share one neat insight we got – during the French Revolution, most statues and objects made of bronze, church decorations being no exception, were melted down to make cannons. The wily curators at Notre Dame managed to save theirs by covering them in plaster, making them worthless to your average metal-scrounge-cum-dechristianising-looter (they must also have been overlooked during the periods of iconoclasm which followed).
After London’s Natural History Museum, we weren’t sure whether the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle would be worth seeing – displays of taxonomy and taxidermy are, after all, largely the same the world over – but it most definitely was (despite every building except one being closed for renovations or the winter). The Grande galerie de l’évolution turned out to be a large indoor market-style building with galleries and displays along the sides, and plenty of intriguing original rooms going off in the direction of the other (closed) sections of the museum. One of the more impressive displays was the room of endangered and extinct animals (some probably made more endangered by their presence as stuffed specimens), a dimly-lit hall in which one was surrounded by reminders that we aren’t doing too great a job at managing our biospheres.
As most of the buildings were closed, we had plenty of time to spare and decided to head up to the north of the city to catch the sunset at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur – a gigantic Romanesque monument and tourist magnet on the top of a small hill. Upon entering, we were hissed and gestured at by someone lurking at the back (possibly an employee, more likely a service attendee) and left shortly after, fuming with indignation at a) not being treated like a person (he wouldn’t use words with us, only noises) and b) being singled out when we were following all the posted rules and everyone else was taking photographs and mooching around with their hats on. We had hoped to escape to somewhere more serene, but quickly found that the Montmartre area is wall-to-wall souvenir art shops and portrait sketchers. Upon descending, we came across our first genuine scammers and thieves hanging around the subway station, trying their hardest to relieve people of their money and getting aggressive when rebuffed or ignored (I hadn’t been in the company of people like that since leaving Thailand).
While walking around is a pleasant way to explore the many side-streets and suburbs of Paris, we often had rather a long way to travel from our base in the 13th arrondisement. We were thus eager to test out the Vélib’ system – a network of several thousand bikes which one can just take from a nearby station and drop off at another one near one’s destination. It took an irritatingly long time to find a station with free bikes, and then a little while longer to sign ourselves up for the scheme and find bikes in reasonable states of repair, but we were off in short order zipping along alleys (we avoided the main roads) for a fraction of the cost of the subway (the first 30 minutes of each ride are free). As a cheap, zero-carbon mass transit system, I couldn’t rate it highly enough.
Flush with new-found mobility, we set a day aside and pedalled out to the vast Musée du Louvre and one of the greatest concentrations of art in Europe. Due to diverging tastes and goals, Amy and I split off for the morning exploration – I to the lower floors and statues; she to the paintings in the upper halls. We rendezvoused for lunch and the afternoon guided tour, which whisked us around the history and highlights, and then finished off the checklist of artists we wanted to see in up on the top floor. Naturally, we’d probably seen less than 1 % of the collections but felt appropriately enriched and able to leave Paris with accomplishment.