Champ de Mars to (Olympus) Mons

Get the tenuous link there and you’re doing well. Today was departure day for France, A short but busy visit and somewhere I definitely want to return for a more leisurely time in the future. I woke earlier than expected, ate my passable breakfast and realised I felt a whole lot better than I had recently. I still thought it would be a 2-hankie day, but the cough had all but gone and my head felt less concretey.

My heels had, annoyingly, come close to blistering. I think this was because it had been so warm the day before and my feet got sweaty. Still, better to learn this now than later on The Walk. From now on I change my socks once a day if I’m walking a lot. Otherwise, my legs and feet were fine which is a good sign for the punishment to come!

As I sat in reception killing time, I noticed something about the Metro system – the names used for stations are genuinely useful especially for tourists. They’re all pretty much named after the sight or building they take you to: Notre Dame, Concorde, Trocadero, Opera. Mind, they’re a little off with Luxembourg and Stalingrad. I don’t think you get that far for your 1.4 Euros.

My last stop in Paris was to be the Cemetiere di Pere Lachaise. This one was for Chunky – I got some pictures of Jim Morrison‘s grave. This was the only one surrounded by basic security fencingm and also one of a very small number with fresh flowers on. Oscar Wilde is also buried here (or interred or whatever) but I was short of time, so I’m afraid he’ll have to bask in my presence on another visit.

It’s a huge place with some very ornate tombs and crypts, all joined by a maze of paths. The maps are genuinely helpful, in fact necessary, in finding your way around.

The Eurolines terminal was maybe twenty minutes’ walk from there and involved some interesting navigation over some serious roads. It’s obviously somewhere they don’t expect you to walk to. I checked in then doubled back to McDs for lunch where I got stuck behind the most annoying people in the world ever. A couple who discussed their order for five minutes then placed it. Then when they had it, dug out a Post-It and read another order off there and waited for it. Then the guy ordered another meal for himself.

Just before I dig out the knife I’ve bought in Thailand last year and informed them how hungry I was, the girl serving moved their stuff to one side and finally provided me with my Big Mac meal which I wolfed down iat indigestion-threatening speed before haring back to the bus station.

Aboard the Mons Express, I dozed for around two hoursand at 1626 saw the blue signs telling me I was now in “Belgique”. Half an hour later we pulled up as the coach swapped drivers. I asked one passanger, “C’est arrivee?” and my response was a lot of handwaving and shaking of heads so I sat back down.

Ten minutes later I noticed that I didn’t see any more signs for Mons. Or Charleroi. But lots for Brussels. Oh dear. I crept to the front of the bus where the original driver was obviously scrounging a lift home. I didn’t understand his exact words, but they were definitely French for “Didn’t you get off at Mons?”

Great. Next stop, Brussels. The new driver spoke English and phoned ahead to explain the problem. He told me they’d sort me out a train ticket as they had no more buses that day heading back south. Then the original driver spotted my shirt – “Ah, Newcastle!”, the first French/Belgian/Spaniard to not proclaim “Juventus!”

“Et tu?” I asked.
“Chelsea!” he beamed.
“Quelle surprise…” – that got a laugh.

Somehow despite my rusty French and his non-existant English we managed to discuss football for five minutes including Liverpool’s two recent Champions’ League finals before I “retourne’d a ma chaize” and awaited my very short visit to Brussels.

When we got there I was shepherded very carefully to the train ticket office and then to the correct platform by one of the Eurolines staff. Eight Euros. Grr. Ah well, next time I ask the driver not one of the passengers who’s going to the next stop. Fortunately I’d managed to text Jojo in Mons so he wasn’t sat at the station there wondering where I’d got to.

I picked up a Mars Bar to munch – a “double pack” which I notice has replaced the King Size ones since I left as Mars do their bit for the enlargening waist sizes in Europe. The fact that the twin is only 10 cents more than a normal bar and (I believe) larger than the old King Size ones is beside the point. Eat less, get ripped off. Eat more, get fat. The instructions on the pack are fun, too. They tell you to hold one bar in each hand and pull downwards to break the seal in the middle then tear it in two. This is obviously for bars right out of the fridge as the ones I had would have burt out of the wrapping and disgorged warm chocolatey/nougatty goodness all over my trousers courtesy of the 30 degree heat.

I arrived at Gare de Mons (for the second time) on time as far as the train was concerned – 2 hours 20 minutes later than I had originally intended. Jojo came to meet me and walked me back to his nearby flat where I was introduced to his mum and two brothers. I dropped my stuff and we took off on a 30 minute “taster” walk around Mons. We returned to an Authentic Portuguese meal or Authentic Portuguese soup, Authentic Portuguese burgers and salad and Coke made in the United States of Portugal. Sorry – running joke from the evening!

After dinner I had a shower and managed to flood the bathroom when the tap wouldn’t turn off until Jojo came to the rescue with a screwdriver. I certainly made an impression on my first visit… Despite this, the family made me feel a lot less bad about the whole mess than I really had any right to. We sat for a couple of hours and chatted about travel, films, TV, computers and so on and then off to bed. I road-tested my new bed roll (supplied by the kind folk at Kudos Adventure in Cardiff on the floor of Jojo’s room and it did the job just dandy. I’m sure it’ll be even better on the grass of all the European countries I have yet to visit!

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Paris by more bikes and more feet

Here’s a hint if you want to climb the Eiffel Tower – get there early. The queues don’t really start building until around 9:30 and the one for the stairs, as opposed to the lift, is usually shorter. There is a lot to do once you get up there as well as admire the view, so allow a couple of hours.

I arrived at 8:50 and was on the bottom steps by a minute or two after 9:00. I must have spent an hour looking around the first stage and posting cards (with official Eiffel Tower postmark!) before clambering to the second and noticing that the stair count was off. On the west flight, the steps are numbered every ten as you climb up. Towards the end, they go 640…650…660…700. The east flight is numbered correctly, the total being 668. Still, it’s quite a few steps. And I’m a pedant.

Over the last year and a bit I’ve climbed some tall things – Auckland Tower, Sydney Tower, Kuala Lumpur Tower, Melbourne Observation Deck, Fansipan – but the view from the Eiffel Tower is definitely the best. It’s also the most interesting to climb as it’s covered with historical trivia, most likely as (aside from Fansipan) it’s by far the oldest of the lot.

Once I got back down to earth, I walked to the Arc de Triomphe and took some nice pictures down the Champs-Élysées. The Arc costs money to climb (EURO 8), but you can get onto it at ground level for free and it’s certainly worth a visit. A very impressive structure and the tomb of France’s “unknown soldier”. To get to the free area, don’t play Frogger in the traffic. Use the subway, approach the steps to the ticket office and turn right instead of left.

The traffic around the Arc isn’t as bad as I expected but it’s fun to watch the different traffic rules in action. In France, traffic on a roundabout has to give way to traffic entering. Strange.

I walked down the Champs-Élysées into another McD’s. Now I wasn’t starving they were everywhere. This one had free toilets and I availed myself of them and guzzled a McFlurry. Nearby was a cinema showing Shrek 3 in “version original” or “English”, but annoyingly only in the late evening when I would be doing my bike ride.

I strode on into the warm sun down to the Place de Concorde and took some photos of the beautiful Obelisk. The French say it was a gift from Egypt, the Egyptians say it was stolen. That’s going to kick off one of these days. The obelisk is placed where the guillotine used to be and, frankly, I think this is a good thing. But I like obelisks.

On into the park, and I bypassed two ridiculously expensive ice cream stands before chatting briefly to a Dutch couple walking the most beautiful Afghan hounds. A short stroll later and I was at a waterfall with ducklings swimming in it where I propped my feet up and read my book for a while. Almost reluctantly, I regained my feet a short time later and walked down to the Louvre.

I didn’t go in – architecture does it for me, art doesn’t – but here’s a hint for those who do want to visit and can’t get there for 9am to beat the queues. Go downstairs into the Carrouselle shopping precinct. Locate the Virgin Megastore and buy your ticket there. See the huge queues at the Louvre doors? They’re all for people without tickets so you can walk right past all of them and into the museum. Chumps. You should be able to do this with the multi-day, multi-museum pass as well.

I have no regrets about skipping the Mona Lisa. I’ve seen the thing a million times on postcards anyway and the Louvre building from outside is, in my opinion, far more awe-inspiring.

OK, bizarre things I’ve noticed number 76a – the little plaques used in Paris to identify house numbers are the exact same as the ones used in Hanoi. Blue with white digits surrounded with a white border and in the same font. It’s probably not surprising given all the colonial history, but still… I wouldn’t have expected the plaques to remain so long in Hanoi.

At around 4pm I reached the Notre Dame cathedral and got some nice pictures of the front. This was the last place on my major “to see” list within the city itself and was worth the walk. The queue to get inside (although free) was too long for me, and the queue for the tower climb (EURO 7.5) was even longer. You can use that museum pass for the tower climb, though, to save money. I assume it works like a theme park pass – you spend half your day queueing and walking between rides so you don’t save as much as you’d hoped.

I’m happy to leave the interiors to another time. Paris is cheap and easy enough to get to from “home” anyway.

OK, how’s this for ironic. I popped into another McDonald’s for a McWee. I then used their McInternet to McGoogle for the location of the nearest McKFC and strode off in the direction of the Place de la Republique to devour one. Which happened to be next door to another flipping McDonalds. I queued for twenty minutes as the heavy dinner time queue was served by two staff and bought the largest meal on the menu.

At 6:00, I started walking back to Fat Tire for the evening bike ride. I’d definitely made a good decision skipping the ride the night before as tonight’s weather was much, much better. The walk took me a little over an hour, but I made it in time to join Miles’ group – he reminded me far too much of Bill S. Preston, Esq (look it up if you don’t get the reference) – and we pedalled off into the wilds of Paris.

There was definitely more distance involved in the evening trip than the daytime one. We first stopped near Notre Dame after twenty minutes for some delicious overpriced ice cream (I had cherry). It was still pretty light, being only a few days from summer solstice, which was good for road safety (such as it is in Paris), but poor for seeing the monuments lit up. Mind, how many people would do a bike tour from 10pm to 2am?

We circled the Latin Quarter (Johnny Depp part-owns a restaurant in there somewhere) and stopped in a park where I discovered that Dietrich von Choltitz – the Nazi commander who was in charge of Paris for most of the duration of its occupation – actually refused to set off bombs set within the city so that it could not be recaptured by the Allies. He did this at the risk of his own execution, and that of his family.

As darkness finally fell, we boarded a boat on the Seine for a 30-minute trip up and down the river. The wine was opened and poured just as the lights flashed on the Eiffel Tower. Magnificent. Glowing a continual yellowy colour, with occasional bursts of many bright white lights as if the whole structure was an enormous glittery toy. Every time it did this, a “wow” could be heard from neighbouring boats who’d just come into view of the spectacle.

Over the free wine, I got talking to a nice couple from New Zealand and a lovely girl from Washington State on her way home from Cairo. Folks, I’m sorry I didn’t catch your names – please do email me!

After the boat ride ended, we returned to the office to drop off our bikes. I walked the three I had been chatting to to the nearest Metro station then returned to the Eiffel Tower to get some decent photographs of it blazing away in the darkness. The pictures I took from the boat were all motion-blurred (not a result of the wine, honest) and I wanted to good ones.

It’s great to see a city, like so many in SE Asia, with a buzzing nightlife. Midnight on a Monday and there were huge crowds on the Champ de Mars picnicking, playing guitars, playing football, hanging out… wonderful. I felt like some kind of lonely voyeur or a fly on the wall just capturing it all. Paris would be ideal with a group or a partner.

Unfortunately, the Metro stops running around 1am and walking back to my hostel would have taken over two hours. Stopping only to make sure three very drunk Americans got on the right train in the right direction for the right stop (I must be going soft), I headed back to the hostel and bed.

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Paris by bike and foot

I wouldn’t like to guess how many miles I travelled today. Actually, knowing would be useful regarding The Walk as I’m only tired from the neck up.

I tried to make as much noise as possible when I got up around 9-ish. Yeah, I’m petty but I don’t like being woken at silly o’clock unless it’s by someone demanding my body and that’s not happened in far longer than I’d care to calculate. Breakfast was OK but not as varied as I’d have liked. Still, it set me up well and at least I ate.

I gathered my daybag and set off for the La Motte-Piquet Grenelle station, and from there to the office of Fat Tire Bike Tours. For EURO 48 I signed up to both the day and night tours (4 hours apiece) and did q uick email check which cost over £1.20. Ouch. There are cybercafes in London for £1 an hour – this place was EURO 1 per ten minutes.

Just before 11:00 I arrived at the south pylon of the Blackpoo Eiffel Tower. Well, they both look the same. The guide there gave us some lovely trivia and then we walked back to the office to saddle up. I was lucky enough to be Austin’s “bum boy” or “ass man” or whatever. Basically, it was my job to make sure we didn’t leave anyone behind. How he knew that bribing an Englishman with beer would work is beyond me.

We hit many interesting places – l’Ecole Militaire, Place de Concorde (containing the oldest object in Paris, a 3300 year old obelisk stolen from Egypt), Les Invalides, the Grand and Petit Palais, the gold domed building housing Napoleon’s tomb… and some busy streets with psychotic French drivers on them who have no regard for road regulations or cyclists. We couldn’t go to the Arc de Triomphe as the roads around it ar ejust far too nuts to even contemplate as a cycling tour group.

We had a good group and conversation over lunch in the Jardin de Tuileries was fun. At 3pm, we returned to the office and scattered in our various directions. I decided to pretty much wander about randomly starting back at the Black Eiffel Tower. No way was I waiting 90 minutes in a queue to climb it, so I took some more photos then went walking down the side of the Seine to see the Statue of Liberty. No, I’m not mad. They have a fairly large replica of the original near the Radio France building. It was a gift to France from the US on the 100th anniversary of France’s gift of the original one. The one in New York is crafted around a framework designed by Gustav Eiffel, trivia fans.

Finally, I was peckish. Being ill plays havoc with my appetite. I decided to look for a KFC (of course). Around two hours later I found a McD’s on Rue de pennes. No KFC anywhere, and only glimpses of Pizza Hut. Trust me, these are some of the only ways to eat economically in Paris. I was bursting for the loo so I rushed in, headed to the downstairs toilet and was foiled by a combination lock! I had to buy dinner first so I could get a code for the loo. Unreal. Hopping from foot to foot while ordering a Big Mac Meal elicited no sympathy from the evil McServer and I bolted my food so that I could sprint to the loo… as someone walked out so I didn’t need the code.

Back at my table, I spotted someone on a laptop so I got out my PSP and had a tinker. It turns out that every McD’s in Paris has free wireless. So I have to pay money to go for a pee, but I can download gigs of music for free. Sensible. The sites I can view on the PSP are limited due to memory issues, but I could make a quick email check and look at the news before deciding that the weather still sucked (it had been raining for almost 4 hours by now), so I kept my night biking token and decided to chance it for tomorrow night instead.

I pulled out my map and plotted a route to the Moulin Rouge. Or more specifically the Musèe de l’èrotisme along the street. Well, I ddi one of these places in Barcelona and this one was bigger and cheaper with a coupon I’d got from the hostel.

The walk took me around ninety minutes and past some more wonder sights, the Opera Garnier probably being the grandest. I also discovered how stupidly expensive Paris can be by popping into a pharmacist’s for a regular packet of Halls cough sweets – EURO 2.90. That’s a shade under two quid. They’re a quarter of that in the real world.

The museum was pretty good and different from the Barcelona one with two art exhibitions on the upper floors as well as all the weird and amusing stuff elsewhere. One floor was predominantly dedicated tot he story of prostitution in France and the phases it had gone through. Interesting stuff. Back outside, I dodged the men (and women) trying to convince me to go into the variouis peep shows. I almost punched one guy who grabbed my arm, but settled for wriggling free and giving him a “try that again… go on” look. He didn’t.

I spotted another McD’s and was considering a McFlurry until I saw the prices – significantly more than the other branch I’d been in earlier. I guess dirty old men who frequent peep shows don’t mind paying a premium for their fake chicken burgers.

Instead, I caught the Metro “home” and settled for an enormous chicken sandwich, chips and a litre of mile from the local shops. Same price as McD’s but twice the sieze and somewhat more like real food.

Then to bed with two Paracetamol in my belly and a few drops of Eucalyptus oil on my pillow. I had an early start and 700 steps to climb tomorrow.

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Bonjour France!

Well, I made it. Barcelona airport was a breeze, but a bore and the pilot we had managed the gentlest landing I think I’ve ever experienced. I slept virtually the entire flight seeing as I was up late blogging for you lot. Paris Charles de Gaulle (not Saint Germain… that’s a football team) is another behemoth based on a ring pattern, I think. There’s a central column filled with criss-crossed escalators. It’s the only airport I can recall being to which tells you how long you have to wait at the baggage carousel for your items to be transferred from the plane.

The train station was reached via a free monorail thing and is a pain in the neck to navigate. All the escalators are surrounded by a glass wall and it’s impossible to see where the gaps are to get to the platform. Having said that, I think you’re actually supposed to go through the barriers which may explain why my EURO1.40 ticket still worked the next morning. It was around 10pm when I got to my hostel near the Hoche Metro station. Thanks to Delphine for doing the research for me as I didn’t have time in Barcelona.

I checked in, grabbed a burger and some munchies from nearby shops and retired. Only to be woken at 1:30 by the entire population of my room (plus one extra person) crashing in and talking with the lights on. I think I got them back by snoring all night as my head cold’s worked it’s way into my sinuses and throat. Joy.

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