My Parisian Debut – Midday to Midnight from a First Timer’s Perspective
The clock had just struck noon as we stepped out of our Parisian apartment and began our stroll towards the Metro station. The sun was glowing, high in the sky while light, warm winds played through the tops of trees that lined the city boulevards. We were late. Our plans had seen us leaving our accommodation, early in the morning, journeying into the city with the daily commuters and beginning our day of sightseeing with the grey dawn. Unfortunately, we had all slept in, recovering slowly from the past week of constant road tripping, camping and packing up and moving on again. While we weren’t exactly on time, we were still taking it easy, basking in the moment and the unstoppable anticipation of exploring together the City of Light and Love for the first time.
We had purchased a three-day public transport pass that would allow us access to any form of public transport in Paris. While quite pricey at 109 Euros (173 AUD) for the four of us, we found that it had been well worth the cost and was much more efficient than paying a fortune for carparks all over the city.
Stepping off the faded red train, we began the exit climb from the Metro, up the well-trodden stone stairs, the blinding white light clouding our eyes. Blinking rapidly, I finally reached the top of the staircase where the sunlight was suddenly blocked by the magnificent looming figure of the Cathédrale Notre Dame. I gave an inward gasp, my eyes widening with thrill. We had arrived in Paris!
The eyes of the Cathédrale scrutinised us from above, their stone cut figures elegantly perched on the towering stone walls. We joined the fast moving queue and entered one of the, largest standing cathedrals in the world. The mesmerising French Gothic Architecture followed us in through the soaring wooden doors, and I glanced up in awe at the arched ceilings and the vibrant stain glass windows that flanked us on both sides. The unfaltering momentum of the crowd behind us deposited us at the stone basin where engraved on the sides of the table fittingly were the very words “I am the way which seeks travellers.”
My smile wouldn’t falter as we journeyed deeper into the Cathedral, marvelling at the medieval tapestries that lined the golden and silver edged murals. The chandeliers lit our way to the very end of the church where on display were long sheets of paper, graphically illustrating the prolonged renovations the Cathedral undertook, starting out from an ordinary Parisian church and transforming from century to century into a world treasure.
The haunting song of the spectacular church organ, coupled with the melodious harmony of the live choir, saw us out, back into the sunlight. Passing by Charlemagne’s copper green regal statue, we began to head east along the river bank, waving to the chugging ferry boats and ducking underneath numerous decorous bridges. Looking up, I realised we had arrived at the foot of The Pont des Arts, otherwise known as the famous love lock bridge of Paris. We watched from a distance as couples attached a metal lock upon the silver grated barriers of the bridge and then tossed the key into the emerald green depths of the Seine below. With a few quick snaps of photos as souvenirs, we continued to head straight only to realise we had been going in the wrong direction.
Thankfully, we discovered this certain mishap right next to the bench of a bus stop and in just two minutes, a bus rolled along as our saviour. We flashed our public transport passes and boarded the air-conditioned confines of the bus. With a welcome respite from the walking and unwavering heat, we settled down, and I glued myself to the window, allowing the spellbinding enchantments of the city’s architecture to enthral my soul.
Elegant black metal balconies lined the streets, decorating the flower-laden apartment blocks. We drove past the ornamental complex of the Sorbonne / Universite de Paris, surrounding students crisscrossing the bus’ path on bicycles. Boutiques and cafes invitingly infused the streets, while alluring fountains and imposing statues graced the roundabouts and corners. Just as we passed by the National Assembly, I caught a momentary glimpse of a certain tower rising above the apple green trees and stone buildings. For a few seconds, I was silenced, unable to digest the fact that I had just seen the tip of The Eiffel Tower grazing the sky. “There it is!” I jumped up, finally finding words. Twenty pairs of eyes stared back at me, our fellow bus passengers turning their heads to see what the commotion was. My cheeks burned, and I smiled sheepishly, whispering a quick ‘Merci’ to our bus driver as we stepped out onto the cream borders of the Pont Alexander III.
Charcoal cherubs adorned the ornate bridge lamps with an occasional flicker of the sun setting the golden decorations on fire. In the back of my mind, I could almost hear the harmonic lyrics of Edith Piaf singing ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’. Despite the beauty of this view, I was itching to make the quick walk to the Eiffel Tower, however, the basic human need of hunger won out when we all realised that 6 hours had gone by since we had eaten breakfast.
We traversed the cobblestone streets a few blocks from the tower, where we discovered a quaint and cute Asian infusion eatery, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch of fruit salad, samosas, noodles and grilled vegetables finished off with a giant vanilla and chocolate cookie that we purchased across the street from an endearing bakery. Replenished, we criss-crossed through the bowers of radiant oaks to arrive on the green. I sank to my knees in the lush grass, eyes unfaltering from the sight before me, mesmerised by the metal lacework of the tower, streaking the sky as if a dream.
We lost track of time on the green, lying on the grass with hundreds of others who sat enjoying picnics of fine cheese and wine. The sun began to forfeit its crown in the sky and instead resigned to play in between the mesh gaps of The Eiffel Tower. It was only when the light passed shadows over our faces that we realised we best get a move on.
Walking underneath the tower, I stared up at the cage work, standing in the very middle of its belly. The surreality continued to enchant us all as we searched for the correct queue to join. Beware that there are four separate lines you can join and two on either side differ. We chose to take the elevator instead of the steps up for an extra cost, and so joined the line on the close left.
The queue at the bottom passed remarkably fast once we entered into the metal barriers and within 10 minutes we were standing at security. Here we were nearly barred entry due to carrying a plastic bag filled with supplies, amongst them a couple of bottles of French Chestnut Puree Jam. A word of warning to travellers – no glass or knives such as my father’s Swiss Army Knife are permitted on the tower, and there are no lockers in which to place your goods. The security guards shrugged their shoulders, unsure of how to help. Finally, one guard stepped forward offering the suggestion that Dad go and bury the bag somewhere on the perimeter, under a bush, where we could go collect it afterwards. Yep, he suggested we bury it. Instead, Dad hurried into the surrounding gift shop, where the guy on duty agreed to look after the bag until we returned. Problem solved! Or so we thought. Purchasing tickets were a breeze and while the line was slightly long we managed to reach the elevator in 30 minutes. But before we could board the glass monster, we were required to go through another security checkpoint. That’s when we discovered Dad’s Swiss Army Knife. Back to the gift shop in a hurry while another 10 minutes of crowds surged past us. Finally, an hour after standing in line, we squeezed into the elevator and watched with a mixture of thrill, awe and butterflies as we shot up into the sky.
We skipped past the restaurants, bars and boutiques of Level 1 and alternatively for a slightly more expensive ticket were journeying on to the very top. This doesn’t mean you are barred entry from any other levels. We were just running short on time, and sunset was approaching with lightning speed, so we had purpose of reaching the top.
Level 2 brought breathtaking views of the city below us as well as another 45-minute line to the next elevator. To pass the ticking time we watched the people of Paris scurrying like ants, criss-crossing the elegant boulevards below, for peak hour was upon the city. Finally, after 2 and a half hours since first setting foot in line, the elevator doors slid open allowing us the final climb up to the very top turret where a blast of vicious wind welcomed us to the heavens.
My trance was broken in seconds when I blinked and realised exactly how crowded Level 3 really was. Champagne coveting Hordes overran the narrow metal bracings allowing almost no room to breathe. I laughingly recounted movie scenes in my mind of couples who would romantically visit the turret of The Eiffel Tower and with not a single soul in sight, share a tableau of love. Well to reach that romantic aura, you would certainly have to break in after hours. We were shoved, pushed, pulled, thrust, prodded, poked and jostled about by our fellow human beings. We were even standing by the barrier having waited five minutes patiently for a family to take their pictures, when out of nowhere, another family, just elbowed their way straight past us, pushing their way to the front of the lookout, while actively pushing us away at the same time, as if we were just cattle in the way of their perfect shot. It was a little too disturbing for my mum, as the emotion of the moment welled up in her eyes. She expressed to us just how saddened she felt by the way people were behaving, completely unaware of those around them. In the end though, we were able to forget this as a family and just stand together by the wired edges of the tower, taking a deep breath as we all looked down.
I was flying. Soaring through the buildings of Paris, set afire by the stunning, setting sun. It was truly a moment of magnificence to stare down 281 Meters (921 Feet) into the heart of the city. My camera flashed in time to my beating heart, with those ten minutes, frozen in time, locked away in my mind as the most precious of souvenirs. The peaceful aura was suddenly broken when quickly glancing at the time, we discovered that the gift shop minding our bag was scheduled to close in 40 minutes and if the time it took to reach the top was any indication, it would be an effort to reach the ground in time. And it was!
We had to wait another 20 minutes for an elevator to arrive to take us down to Level 2, our nerves wracked with anxiety, worry growing with every second that passed. When we reached the second level, we threw caution to the wind and abandoning the bank of elevators took to the stairs, racing our way down the endless metal staircases at a breakneck pace. All four of us were separated during the flight, and it was only afterwards at the Hello Kitty decorated doors of the gift shop where we were reunited. With recovered bags in hands, we crossed the streets to pass by the exquisite, water blooming Jardins de Trocadéro, the sky, now a midnight sheen of the moon.
Twinkling in the darkness, a golden silhouette of light, The Eiffel Tower of Paris illuminated the night. After a quick stop on the Metro, we found ourselves wandering through a large restaurant neighbourhood. Taking a more non-traditional approach to dinner, we began with a first course of gelato, the vibrant fruity flavours exploding in our mouths. We finished up with plates of freshly made French Fries, Herb encrusted Falafels and zesty Garden Salads. With a final ride on the Metro, Day 1 in Paris was complete, leaving us plum tuckered out.
Two more entire days consisting of a thrilling medley of culture, art, history, architecture and unrelenting fun still awaited. The clock struck midnight, tolling, deep and radiant in the heart of the Parisian square we sat in. I could hardly believe twelve hours had passed, as if in a flicker of light, our day in Paris had come and gone. As we walked the few hundred meters back to the Metro, I took the moment to reflect on the experiences of our day. A glow warmed my heart, and I was sincerely grateful, as all we had experienced more than exceeded what I had imagined.