On arriving at our campsite at Maisons Laffitte we commented to the receptionist on the numbers of cars we had passed streaming south from the city. She told us it was the first Saturday of the French holidays and Paris was emptying of residents heading south to find warmer weather and filling up with visitors, like us, from elsewhere.
Maisons Laffitte is a well-heeled suburb on the Isle de France and has grown up around the impressive belle epoque mansion owned by the 19th century Laffitte of banking fame. Mini-scale versions of the famous ‘maison’ are homes to Paris’ wealthy set. A stone’s throw away is Paris St Germain’s home pitch on which they entertained Real Madrid during our stay.
Our camping cost just €19 a night with a river view and a brisk 20 minute walk uphill to the railway station for a half hour journey into the city centre.
The train passes through an urban sprawl of tower blocks and commuter centres and a surprising number of buildings in dereliction. This simply wouldn’t happen in an equivalent location in London as the value of the land alone would be so high. It illustrates the massive scale of Paris and the simply vast landscape of France.
Over the three days we spent on foot criss-crossing the city the weather was dry but damply cold. Occasional breaks in the cloud brought bursts of sunshine but generally the skies were low –hanging grey and flat, and perfectly atmospheric in which to admire Paris’ broad vistas of stone-built boulevards and bridges from its highest points.
Trees are plentiful in the city and their situation in early autumn was interesting, some were still in full green leaf, others in varying shades of yellows and golds and some had already fully shed their leaves. People dressed down generally, locals were grumpy and all wrapped up in blacks and greys against the cold, tourists wore brighter clothing sometimes peeling off to t-shirts in the welcome short breaks of clear blue skies and sunshine.
Getting around Paris on foot is easy and allows you to experience the different feel of each of its districts. Its streets were much cleaner than on our first visit five years ago and free from the perennial dog muck caused by the army of small dogs paraded on long leads or carried under arms, or in large handbags.
We didn’t see so many dogs so assumed they too had gone south with their owners.
Generally the city seemed to have spruced itself up with all the stonework of its major sights cleaned, repaired and repointed, although walls along streets are often covered up to head height in graffiti ‘tags’.
We made sure to see the big sights – the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Pont Neuf, Sacre Cour, Champs Elysee and Sorbonne and visited again the splendid Musee d’Orsay to admire its collection of mesmerising paintings by Van Gogh.
In the Revolutionary ‘Cordeliers District’, now part of the Latin Quarter, we tracked down (with the help of a nearby history-loving security guard) the former Cordeliers Club, site of Marat’s assassination, the haunts of Danton and Desmoulin and the workshop of Dr Guillotine.
This area around St Germain boulevard and its famous ‘Bon Marche’ department store, still retains narrow and winding streets towered over by the cramped attic rooftops of four-storey high terraced housing and is packed with street markets, art galleries, bespoke stationers and small bistros. Outside café de Paris we enjoyed a glass of Chablis each for the same price as a coffee!
In contrast, across the river the classic ‘Hausmann’ street design opens into broad straight boulevards lined with impossibly expensive designer clothes shops and chandeliered restaurants.
Crowning the steep and winding street to Montmarte the Sacre Cour gave views of the towers, domes, palaces, triumphal arches, terraced gardens and wide flowing river through the heart of the city. On the way back down we meandered around the famous residential quarter of the impressionist artists, and dancers and absinthe drinkers of the Moulin Rouge.
Eating and drinking is easy but expensive in all of the districts. We kept up a three day search for a reasonably priced coffee of a decent size. Typically, an espresso size mouthful of coffee cost more than €3 at any street side cafe. Eventually we discovered a newly opened Costa on St Germain Boulevard!
We ended each day with a tiny glass of wine each in one of the many low lamp lit wine bars and were served by uniformed waiters from behind polished pewter or copper bars. A couple of busy M&S food outlets said something about locals needs for cheap packaged eats as alternatives to the prolific €6 ‘croque monsieur’ booths.
Staying north of the river we enjoyed the gentle ambience of the ‘Marais’ and its smart bourgeois brick and sash-windowed houses, and the many lanes of artisan and specialist shops that become crammed on Sundays with Parisians looking for a unique gift and a cheap meal from the famous falafel bars of the nearby Jewish Quarter.
A particularly gloomy afternoon sent us to Pere Lachaise, one of Paris’ oldest and largest cemeteries and it’s most ornate. Hundreds of stone sculptured sepulchres of the city’s notable families cluster along cobbled lanes winding upwards through autumnal trees.
A bewildering series of steps and pathways ensure you become quickly lost amongst the tombs, some of which are touchingly decorated whilst others are macabre. We admired the angel of death over one young girl’s grave and were pleased to stumble across the tombs of Moliere, Flaubert and Balzac as well as several of Napoleon’s famous army generals. Jim Morrison’s headstone is apparently a draw.
It was interesting to see how the city from the 1700s dealt with the practicality and emotionality of death, and the enormous size of the cemetery illustrated again the sheer scale of Paris.
We also discovered possibly the city’s biggest money maker, the privately owned ‘public pots’ at the Tuileries Gardens. Granted, you enter the loo doors through curtains and fairy lights, but at eighty cents a throw, and with thousands of people paying a visit every day, the profit margin of this very Parisian entrepreneurial business makes your eyes water.
Paris was the final city on our trip… and what a city.