This was the trip that changed everything, the trip by which all future overseas journeys were measured.
After a couple of horrible flights during my second overseas holiday to Malaysia in early 2000, I doubted whether I really wanted to travel overseas again. However, B was adamant that she wanted a honeymoon overseas and how could I deny my true love her dream wedding?
We thought about Los Angeles, holiday packages to Disneyland were reasonably priced. But where was the romance in that? New Zealand was reasonably priced and reputedly beautiful, but it was so close! Surely we could visit it later.
Where could be more romantic for a honeymoon than the city of love: Paris?
We found an excellent deal with Qantas and, amidst the myriad other wedding preparations, booked it. Through Qantas Travel, their headquarters at the time just opposite my previous place of work, we arranged a hotel room, a tour to Mont St Michel and some museum and travel passes.
Now we usually book everything ourselves, scouring the internet and guidebooks for descriptions and the best deals. But there was something fun about putting our holiday together out of a single brochure, a single photograph and brief description all that you know about your hotel or tour.
B purchased our very first Lonely Planet, a pocket guide of Paris. I borrowed books from the library, though with all else that was happening there was little time to read them. We bought new bags rather than borrow unwieldy suitcases.
A couple of issues worried me between the time of booking and of departure. Our hotel was located in the Pigalle, Paris’ red light district. Was it safe? My French friends at work assured me that it was. Then the terrorism events of September 11 happened. Was it safe to fly? I worried, but B did not, and in the end it worked to our advantage, frightening off many other tourists who would otherwise crowd the Parisian sights.
Saturday – The Wedding
The honeymoon began the moment we stepped into the stretched Rolls Royce that awaited us outside our reception at the Imperial Harbourside at Circular Quay. Finally, after a long, long day of ceremonies and celebrations we could relax. As B dozed I gazed outwards, taking in every last moment of this wonderful day.
The late night activity and drinking of The Rocks was soon replaced by solitude as we left the city and drove out along the Eastern Distributor, with only streetlights flashing past and the odd car for company. The land outside was asleep. We passed through the tunnel and under the runway from which we would take-off on our honeymoon. No aircraft crossed overhead, the airport closed by the noise curfew. The limousine emerged to be greeted by the dark, calm waters of Botany Bay, and soon we had arrived at the hotel.
A bath in the hot spa, to wash away the long, long day, then it was time for bed.
The Novotel Brighton Beach is a semi-ziggurat that overlooks the calm waters of Botany Bay. From our room we could see the city skyline in the distance, watch the flights rise and fall at the airport, the kitesurfers out on the bay. Yes, the are industrial views in the distance, over the Norfolk Island pines and flat beaches, but I like the combination of human activity and nature.
Below us was a Balinese waterfall and pond, the outdoor swimming pool with its waterslide and deckchairs. A resort surrounded by suburbia.
We woke into our spacious honeymoon suite with a sense of serenity. After a year of preparations, of celebrations and speeches, after hours of posing for photographs in uncomfortable clothes, of aching faces from a ay of smiling with genuine joy, it was time to relax.
But first things first. I had to take a lift downstairs to the little convenience store to buy B a pair of nail clippers.
On the night before our wedding I had received a distressed phone call from my soon-to-be wife. She hated her artificial fingernails. She normally wears her nails short, but these long claws prevented her from doing so many everyday tasks. As soon as the wedding was over they had to come off!
My first orders followed as a husband, it was time to go down for breakfast. Brides usually eat little during the reception and the hot buffet breakfast was much appreciated. We sat by a sunny window overlooking bay waters glimmering silver and blue in the morning light. It was wonderful to just, chat and eat without a care in the world.
B’s brother came to visit us later, bringing some forgotten items and taking unneeded clothes away. I didn’t want to see any family or friends, just wanted to enjoy this quiet, relaxed time together away from shrieking aunts and crazy cousins.
When the late check-out time finally approached we left our bags at the counter and wandered out to the beach. We lay on the grass under a mostly sunny blue sky watching the aeroplanes descend across the bay while eating chocolate dipped strawberries and slices of our chocolate wedding cake, sharing an apple gelato. For the first time there was no last minute rush to pack for the trip, no hurry to reach the airport. We were utterly relaxed.
Eventually it was time to catch the minbus shuttle to the airport. We had plenty of time to wait until our flight departed so we just sat around in the terminal and enjoyed each other’s company. I hoped that I wouldn’t get airsick on the flight ahead. At more than twice the length of the previous flight to Malaysia it was going to be agony. At least there was a break midway.
We boarded the massive 747-400 through the front door of the aircraft and made our way down to our blue fabric seats on the right hand side. I took the window seat, B next to me, with an older lady to her left in the aisle seat.
The cabin door was closed and we trundled away from the terminal. As we taxied out to the runway I could see our hotel in the distance. The hum of the engines and the gentle motion along the tarmac lulled me into turpitude. I immediately returned to alertness as we were pushed back into our seats by the application of full thrust. Then we were away, lifting off into the gold and blue evening skies above Sydney.
Even as we were still rising the crew were up and about serving snacks and drinks. B soon fell asleep on my arm, for she is an expert sleeper. I am the opposite and if previous flights were anything to go by I would be lucky to grab short, disturbed naps as we cruised along. The skies outside the window were cloudy, so I took out my French books and attempted cram some more of the language into my skull by writing a letter describing our wedding to a French friend. I was not very successful, still too dazed by the past day’s events to focus my attention.
Eventually, the cloud cleared and I could see the red desolate beauty of the inland Australian desert. B woke up for the start of the inflight entertainment. The aircraft had not yet been upgraded with personal seatback systems, so instead we watched movies projected on to screens at the centre of the aircraft.
In some ways this shared entertainment was a good thing because it allowed the entire cabin, and especially my wife, to enjoy the movies together. I have since flown in both IFE and otherwise equipped aircraft, but the latter have all had tiny screens rather than a big centre projector and weren’t as fun as this Qantas flight.
“Legally Blonde” was suitably fluffy. “One Night at McCool’s” was just weird – I was half asleep for that one. Dinner came and went, then cabin lights dimmed.
The lights weren’t switched on again until we approached Bangkok. Looking down, the city still appeared very much alive at 11pm. Neon lights mingled with headlamps as pedestrians scampered between the stalls of night markets. It was a bit like flying into Kuala Lumpur again. I love flying over these busy Asian cities at night, for there is so much to see.
We stumbled, bleary eyed, into the heat and humidity of Bangkok’s Don Muang International Airport, our body clocks believing that it was 3am. The airport was quite clean, though the brown, cream and yellow did not help the impression. The souvenir, food and duty-free stalls and shops were still very active. Shiny metal statues and jewelery, colourful silks and carved wood. Stalls along the passageways sold interesting looking snacks. It was fascinating to browse through, but not tempting enough to bother exchanging dollars for baht and we were a little wary of food poisoning, seeing as our holiday still lay ahead.
Our heads wanted to keep sleeping, but our legs enjoyed a little exercising. Still, it was a bit of a relief to be called for boarding. Nine hours and no sign of airsickness! Only 12 hours 20 minutes to our next stop in London.
I was wrong about the 12 hours. Soon after we had taxied away from the embarkation gate a warning light was displayed in the cockpit. As we sat there waiting for the system to be checked I drifted off to sleep. A couple of hours later they still had not found the problem, so the entertainment system was activated and we were shown a movie unfit for a honeymoon. No, it wasn’t “War of the Roses”, but instead starred Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. “Bridget Jones’ Diary” started B’s obsession with the latter actor. Not fair!
I would have sworn that we only spent a couple of hours on the ground instead of the four hours shown by my watch. It all disappeared so smoothly that I did not even mind the delay. Again, thanks Qantas!
Soon after we took off the staff enforced a lights off, window blinds closed policy. With no more movies to watch and unable even to look out the window I settled into a restless sleep, unlike Beatrice who snoozed besides me, waking only to shake legs suffering pins and needles. The cabin crew made regular trips through the aisles dispensing water to ward off dehydration and Deep Vein Thrombosis, an issue recently made popular at the time by the press.
The movie screen showed our position in the world with a regularly updated map. I could see the barest outline of sunlight through the portal, but the attendants insisted on keeping it shut, I guess to help passengers ease through the time zones. Finally, while over Armenia we were allowed the lights were switched back on and the shutters opened. Below was a mountainous landscape almost bare of vegetation, very different to anything we had seen before. The were the odd signs of human habitation, but life in the snow topped mountain ranges looked very harsh.
As we ate a breakfast prepared in Thailand, omelette, fruits and the first yoghurt I have tasted that was actually somewhat pleasant, the plane moved across the Black Sea and Turkey. Austria’s Alps were coated with green meadows, while Germany and the Benelux showed more signs of industrialisation. My eyes were glued out the window the entire way.
In a short time we were crossing the English Channel and flying over the mouth of the Thames and onwards across London. There was a fleeting similarity to the computer generated landscapes of Microsoft Flight Simulator of so many years ago, but this scene was fully textured with the age of the city below us. So many recognisable landmarks, Big Ben, the Tower Bridge, the London Eye and many more. Rows of terrace houses forming spiral walls enclosing narrow streets. It was both new, so different to an Australian city, yet familiar from a heritage of British TV and books in my childhood.
Our twelve and a half hour long distance journey must have given our flight some sort of priority as, despite our late arrival, we were not placed in a holding pattern above busy Heathrow. It was a long taxi to the arrivals gate, past aircraft in liveries unseen in Australia. I laughed at the not so subtle anti-British Airways messages on the Virgin Atlantic aircraft, while listening to “Summer Rain” playing over the entertainment system, a song which seems to pop up at seminal points in my life. The strange thing was, the skies over London were actually quite clear and certainly free of rain!
We said goodbye to the third passenger in our row of seats, an ex-Welsh Guards soldier, now a management consultant who was divorcing his wife for an Australian girlfriend. Despite his planned move to Australia, he seemed happy to be back in his home country. Legs weak and uncoordinated through lack of use, we walked out of the aircraft that had been our home for 26 hours and into Heathrow terminal. I have to admit that I felt a little sad to be leaving the plane, for, despite the delay, it had been a fantastic and surprisingly comfortable flight.
Due to the delay in Bangkok and our consequent very late arrival in London we had missed our connecting flight to Paris. The British Airways staff rebooked us on a later flight, but in the meantime we had an hour and bit to waste in the airport terminal. The Harrods store was decked out in Christmas decorations (it was November!), but the British Museum shop goods were more interesting. Again, the time spent in the airport did not warrant us changing any of our Dollars to Pounds. We could always get a snack in Paris, or so we thought.
The British Airways Airbus A319 to Paris was rather spartan compared with the 747 we had arrived on. The plane was full, the passengers all French so far as I could tell, and Beatrice and I were placed in nonadjacent seats. One male passenger was trying to get me to do something and seemed quite unhappy that I couldn’t understand his French. Well sorry, but after 26 hours in a plane and very little sleep my knowledge of the French language was impossible to retrieve! Besides which, we were in a British plane on British soil, so I didn’t feel morally wrong (I always try to speak the local language and respect local culture as much as possible when overseas).
It turned out that all he wanted to do was swap seats, so I was able to sit with my wife (and he with his wife I think)! That was nice of them, and indeed our subsequent encounters with the French were nothing like the arrogant stereotypes they are too often made out to be.
The airline meal was our first taste of things to come in aviation for short distance flights – stale turkey sandwiches and fruit juice served in a paper bag. Qantas dropped hot food from their short distance menus shortly afterwards. At least it was food, because by this time we were hungry.
The flight was short enough that we barely had time to get to cruising altitude. As we descended to Charles de Gaulle airport we skimmed over perfect square fields and tiny villages. What struck me most was the short distances between the villages and the number of them that punctuated the landscape. In Australia there would be a single, larger, country town, but a much greater distance between it and the next town.
Finally, finally, we touched down on French soil. We had made it, and with NO airsickness. We looked forward to a hot shower and soft bed and whatever French stuff we could see in between.
We raced through the terminal corridors to retrieve our luggage. We waited at the rotunda, and waited. A camouflaged member of the paramilitary waited nearby, a concession to the recent terrorist actions. Still no bag after half and hour. We wandered over to the BA counter, only to be told that, in the rush caused by the delay of the Qantas flight, our bags had been placed on a later flight. They gave us a voucher for refreshments, a note to show security, and told us to return in an hour or so.
I remember seeing photographs of Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle Airport back when I was five or six years old. The cylindrical concrete interior looked very architecturally fashionable then. Unfortunately, the terminal was a huge disappointment (this is before the huge new terminal, remember). All stark grey-brown rough concrete and dark. It was the ugliest terminal that we had yet been inside. The shopping and food was just as bad. Our voucher was only for a drink, and the drink we selected was not very nice. It’s easy to get lost in the circles, security gates and confusing lifts. Bored, and very weary we wandered back and waited again for the luggage to appear on the rotunda.
To be fair, at least it had a unique character in comparison to the clean steel and glass of more modern terminals and I now feel a sense of nostalgia for Terminal 1.
Eventually the big brown backpack appeared, followed by the smaller olive green bag. We picked them up, cleared customs and found our way out of the terminal and to the transfer bus that would take us to the station. There we took the easy way out and just used our prepaid Visite Transit passes to pass through the gates – once the attendant showed us how. Maybe it was a waste of money, but we were too tired to work out buying all the tickets.
The yellow electric passenger train soon arrived and somehow we managed to squeeze our bags on board what was essentially an everyday commuter train. We passed autumn yellow birch trees above bright green grass before entering the outskirts of Paris.
As we neared the centre of the city the dirty greys and browns of the structures silhouetted against a darkening gold evening sky evoked a sense of the age of a city much older than any in Australia. Memories of leafing through old European model railway catalogues were triggered by the other locomotives and rollingstock on the lines besides us. Despite the exhaustion of the flight I was excited to the core.
At Gare du Nord we had to change to one of the metro lines. This involved running up and down stairs and through long tunnels (the Paris Metro system is great for its coverage, but awful for changing lines) while lugging bags that seemed to increase with weight at each step. Our first metro journey was one station long; Gare du Nord to Barbes-Rochechouart. From the elevated platform, we rushed down to the underground line to the Pigalle. Tried to rush, but with two big bags hanging off me I got caught in one of the narrow gates and it wouldn’t let me try again. I eventually got out through an alternative gate and rejoined Beatrice.
Two stops later we arrived in the Pigalle. The light was fading, the streets narrow and joined at odd angles and we were exhausted and confused. After wandering around and retracing steps we found the Hotel Victor Masse. Thankfully, the owners spoke some English because I couldn’t manage much more than a “bonjour”.
Our room was on the top floor, a slow ride in a rickety elevator and then up a tight flight of stairs to the next level. When we opened the door, our first thought was “how small”! The double bed (at least it wasn’t two singles, as is apparently common) took up most of the room, a tiny TV mounted just below the ceiling, connected to the sole power outlet. The shower and toilet cubicle was impossibly cramped and the shower often overflowed. The heating never seemed sufficient. However, the bright yellow decore and sloping attic room gave the room a lovely quaintness that was appropriate for honeymoon accommodation and there were no complaints about cleanliness. Worth A$150 per night for two? Not by Australian standards, but we weren’t in Australia now.
After setting our bags down and calling home, we decided to rest a little before heading out for dinner.
The next thing we knew it was 10pm. A hot shower later, we realised that, despite a little hunger, we didn’t have the energy to find a place to eat at this late hour. So, back to bed and a long sleep for our first night in Paris.
After a long and refreshing sleep we woke early to the sound of street sweepers and a city just beginning to rise for a day of work. This was the first time that we had visited a country where neither of us spoke the language or understood the local culture with any proficiency. We planned to introduce ourselves slowly to Paris, started with a walk around our local area through to the Montmartre district.
First things first, however, and that was some food! Our first French meal was easy, a simple breakfast of bread rolls and croissants in the hotel.
Between our hotel and the Boulevard de Clichy the sex shops were just cleaning up after a night’s trade. Baz Luhrman’s movie Moulin Rouge had recently been released in Australian cinemas, but its namesake looked thoroughly unimpressive in the grey morning light.
We were following a path from the Time Out Book of Paris Walks that I had borrowed from our local library. After walking to the end of Boulevard de Clichy we turned right into Rue Caulaincourt and began a long hunt for the entrance to our first “sight”, the Cimetiere de Montmartre. Finally locating it, we spent some time wandering around the green and leafy cemetery filled with impressive vaults and statues. Like miniature cathedrals, some vaults even had stained glass windows and spires.
On our way out we passed a pet store with a name like “Dog Toilette”. Well, it certainly stank like a toilet inside.
The Montmartre is the hill of the Martyrs and is the highest point of Paris. The walk up to the top is along steep cobblestone streets turned into canyons by the tall old apartment blocks. It felt like a walk through history, so different to anywhere we had visited before, yet there was also a sense of familiarity, of a genetic memory of Europe.
We climbed up the steps, past the old windmill and last vineyard of Paris. The grey clouds began to shed rain and we looked for shelter. Fortunately, the Espace Dali was nearby, and so began our introduction into Salvador Dali’s fantastically warped imagination. Giant snails, elephants on stilt legs, molten clocks and so much more were on display inside.
It was not far from the Dali Museum to the Place de Terte, the famous cobblestone square where artists hawk their works to the hordes of tourists. We were starving by this stage, but all the food outlets were undoubtedly oriented at the tourist. No choice! We sat down under the shelter of a red and white awning of a café overlooking the square, warmed by a gas heaters, and ordered a ham and cheese pizza and a crepe.
Our fears of poor food were blown away. The food was so rich in flavor and the hot chocolate was the best ever tasted.
The white huge Basilique du Sacre Coeur overlooks all of Paris from its position atop the Montmartre. We were excited to catch our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and the urban canyons of Paris from our vantage point. We didn’t make it up to the top of the Sacre Coeur but we did wander around the interior.
Following the steps down from the Sacre Coeur we found ourselves in an area of shops selling rich and ornate fabrics. B was very excited by this, but the choices were overwhelming.
Our next objective was actually to be shopping in the great department stores of Paris, Printempts and Galeries Lafayette. So we wandered through the narrow streets until we came to the Church of St Trinite (which I actually thought was Opera).
Galeries Lafayette was decked out with Christmas lights, a giant tree rising up through its ornate central circle. Seven levels of shopping and nowhere to sit. My legs were in agony while B wandered through rows of clothing and housewares too expensive to purchase.
It was dark outside by the time we escaped. We were hungry, but as we walked back towards our hotel we couldn’t find anywhere to eat in this culinary capital. We popped into a small supermarket, purchased some snacks and a bottle of spearmint flavoured softdrink(!), but we needed something more substantial. Up past the Chinese restaurants near Abbesses we walked until we came to a trendy looking little café. There I had my first taste of fried goats cheese in a citrus sauce while B had chicken in a cream sauce.
By the time we returned to our hotel we were absolutely exhausted.
Our internal body clocks were not running on Parisian time yet, so we couldn’t help by wake early. Our first stop for the day was to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame. We caught the metro down to the Ile de Cite, but were too early so ended up walking back across the River Seine to the Right Bank. There we wandered past the flower sellers and pet shops beside the river, then back into some of the trendy clothes stores near the Rue de Rivoli, before returning to the Cathedral. On the way we stopped for our one and only baguette of our time in Paris.
Our Paris museum passes included a tour of the Notre Dame, but not unusually there was a strike on and all tours were free. We joined the group and began our long ascent up the narrow spiral staircase of the north tower.
Despite the effort, the view was absolutely worth it. Looking back we could see yesterday’s location of the Sacre Coeur, then across to the Eiffel Tower and all the interesting sights in between. More exciting still were the giant stone gargoyles that decorated the edges of the Church. It was like being in a forest of weird monsters.
The high vaulted interior of the Notre Dame was lit by the multicoloured beams of sunlight passing through the huge stained glass windows.
We walked upriver to the Ile St Louise, stopping to purchase a couple of silk cushion covers printed with colourful works of Van Gogh. Following the recommendations of our Lonely Planet guide we decided to try a menu du jour – a three course standard set – and left feeling very, very full. I did love the food, however, so it was a good feeling.
We decided to walk back via the left bank and through the student quarter. The students were obviously protesting about something, so we didn’t go too deep into the area. Instead we walked along the Seine until we reached the Pont-Neuf, the oldest bridge across the Seine. It was raining again, but our objective was indoors, the massive Louvre.
The sun was setting as we stepped into IM Pei’s glass pyramid entrance, but it was Wednesday so the gallery was open until late. We were determined to make the best use of our time possible, so had planned our visits to sights to coincide with late openings. Our pass allowed us to bypass the long queues.
I wasn’t in the best of moods at the Louvre. Maybe it was a bit of jet lag and both our legs were exhausted from a day of stairs and walking. Still, it was impossible not to be impressed by the art works and statues on display. Some huge canvases were more than twice the height of person, depicting grandiose events from history and imagination. In comparison the Mona Lisa was insubstantial, but at least we managed a clear look without the crowds. The hallways of statues were more human scale, though sometimes representing creatures of myth.
We wandered the Louvre until closing time. The gallery is so huge that a day would not be enough to take everything in, but our three hours had been well worth it. Still, it was not the end of the day for our exploration. There was one more museum to see.
Close by to our hotel and open until the early hours of the morning was the Musee de l’Erotisme, the Museum of Eroticism. The seven floors of sexual objects and art works from across history was a highly amusing (and stimulating?) way to end a very full day.
Another day, another set of stairs. Thankfully our visit to the Arc d’Triomphe did not involve crossing the roundabout. One could spend hours there watching the cars attempt to enter and leave the crazy unmarked rotunda.
It was sunny when we emerged from our underground metro station and climbed up to the museum inside the arch. But as we stood atop the arch, the convergent focus of wide boulevards from across the city, a dark cloud suddenly approached and it actually began snowing! Then it was gone, leaving a rainbow and a clear blue sky.
Enjoying the Sun, we took a long stroll down the Champs Elysee, past shops of luxuries that were beyond both our finances and, truth be told, our desire. We passed by parks where the trees were shedding autumn leaves, past the Louvre again until we arrived at the Samaritaine department store. One of my colleagues had told me that you could get a good free view of the city from up there, so that is what we did, allowing B to do some shopping at the same time.
As darkness fell we wandered through trendy Marais, window shopping at strange homewares and gay fashions. We had a delicious candlelit meal at a café beside the carnival-like fountain in front of the Centre Pompidou, before entering the gallery of modern arts.
The highly abstract displays didn’t capture our imaginations as much as the Louvre did the day before, but it was interesting. And wherever we found a spot to sit, that is what we did, for our legs were as tired as the day before. And when we arrived back in our hotel room, walking past those sleazy bars with prostitutes silhouetted in the windows, we were glad to sleep.
At last it was time to visit that most famous French landmark, the Eiffel Tower. I had always thought that the tower was red in colour. The steel structure is, in fact, brown, but what is not disputed is its visual impact over the city. It is difficult to believe that authorities once wanted to tear the tower down as an eyesore. Fortunately, Eiffel’s structure proved to be eminently suitable for a new use – the transmission of telecommunications signals. Now it is difficult to imagine the city without its most prominent landmark.
Prior to reaching the tower we made a short detour. In the rush before the wedding I had not organized to pre-vote in the upcoming Australian election. I saved myself an explanation to the electoral office by popping into the Australian Embassy, a scant couple of hundred metres away from our destination. Fifteen minutes later we were on our way.
We had been warned to expect huge queues to catch the lifts up the tower. Obviously the combination of the recent terrorist events with the season had scared many potential tourists away. There we still crowds, camouflaged soldiers with automatic weapons, and most annoyingly of all, African postcard touts.
During our week in Paris we had climbed up to many vantage points with views across the city. None were as spectacular as the views from atop the Eiffel Tower, a sense of being suspended above this city of monuments. It’s worth doing, at least once in a lifetime, whatever the wait.
Back on the ground we wandered along besides the Seine before B decided that she wanted to do more shopping. So it was back on the Metro to the department stores. It’s amazing how even window shopping can suck so much time from a day. When we got out of Printemps it was dark and we were hungry for dinner.
Rather than hunt for restaurants we decided to treat ourselves to an expensive meal at the Royal Trinite restaurant opposite the church. It looked very posh inside and the other clientele were far better dressed than the two of us, but we were treated with friendly politeness by the staff. B felt obliged to try an entrée of escargot, or snails as they are known here. As a rule, I do not eats molluscs of any sort, be they oysters, octopus or calamari, but I did have a taste. Chewy, with a bitter aftertaste, though the garlic butter sauce was nice.
For the first time since our arrival in Paris we actually returned to our hotel before 10pm. But that was only because of the long day to come.
There is much more to France than just Paris and despite our short stay we wanted to see something of the country outside of its capital city.
Leafing through the Qantas Holidays brochure we felt inspired to visit the Cathedral and Abbey on Mont St Michel in Normandy and so we booked a day tour to the site.
When I say a day tour, I mean a very full day tour. We left our hotel in the early morning darkness and hurriedly walked the quiet streets to the departure spot. There we met the tour leaders and piled into the coach.
There were two tour guides, both French ladies. One gave commentary in Japanese, the other in English. When the latter spoke she emphasized every syllable of the names and locations with a pause in between each, so Normandy became Nor-Man-Dy.
After taking our first ride through the streets of Paris the coach turned out on to a motorway and past the royal forests near Versaille. I’m not a huge fan of boring motorways so I was delighted when an accident ahead of us closed the route and forced us to detour along narrow roads and through historic towns instead. The ivy-lined stone shops and houses, the cobblestone streets, made me want to stop and explore further. I resolved to return one day to explore the French countryside.
Back on the main roads again, the coach pulled into a service station/roadhouse on the outskirts of a town for a toilet stop and to allow passengers to grab some snacks. I doubt if many had a chance to eat breakfast before setting out and we were certainly hungry.
As the bus rolled along the guides explained the history of Normandy, from the invasions of the English and Joan of Arc to the D-Day invasions and the battles of the hedgerows that had destroyed so much of the region’s historic architecture. But amongst the recitations there were long periods of silence. After standing, walking, climbing up stairs, virtually every waking moment since our arrival in Paris this opportunity to sit back and watch the world pass by was much welcomed by both of us.
While B slept I finally had a chance to listed to some music on my portable CD player: Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to the 13th Warrior. Interestingly, it was one of the movies I had watched during my last overseas flight, to Malaysia.
I was very excited to catch my first glimpse of the spires of Mont Saint Michel above the flat pastureland of Normandy. It was like viewing the serene backdrop of a religious portrait, always more interesting to me than the subjects themselves. The small conical island and structure stood out across the landscape.
Before crossing to Mont Saint Michel we stopped at the nearby Relais Saint Michel hotel and restaurant for lunch. Our entrée was a very fluffy omelet, one of the region’s signature dishes. One of the annoying older Americans whinged that it was undercooked, but I really enjoyed mine. The American further annoyed me by stating loudly to an Israeli passenger that after 9-11 she now knew what it was like for Israelis. Except, of course, that she was from a location far away from New York.
Sated after a very large lunch, we took photos across the paddocks with the Mont in the background, before piling back on the coach for the short ride across the causeway to the island.
Mont Saint Michel was initially a Benedictine Abbey, before being converted into a prison during the French Revolution. One remaining sign of the latter use is a giant human powered “hamster wheel” used to lift supplies up to the prison from the base of the island. Surrounding the island are treacherous tidal mudflats where quicksand lies in wait. The walls of the monastery are manmade cliffs and it is difficult to imagine trying to escape from them.
We were taken on a guided tour of the monastery and it was back to walking up endless steps once more as we followed the guide up three levels of the monastery. As we climbed higher the architecture of the buildings changed, with Gothic, Romanesque and Neo-Gothic chambers. There are halls where great cooking fires were lit, and a beautifully peaceful cloister. It was a fantastic introduction to Christian historical religious architecture that would inform us on future trips through Europe.
The monastery and surrounding town at the base of the island was both grandiose and picturesque, though rather touristy and expensive. Still, Mont Saint Michel was definitely worth the visit and made us want to see more outside the capital.
The light was fading as we left Mont Saint Michel for our return to Paris. In darkness we pulled into our final stop, the Memorial for Peace in Caen. The city had been destroyed by the aftermath of the D-Day landings and the massive memorial houses a museum dedicated to 20th Century War and its consequences. We ate a cold buffet dinner under the watchful gaze of a replica Typhoon fighter, then wandered around the exhibits in the time remaining.
The journey back to Paris was peaceful, the occupants of the bus exhausted from a very long day.
Remembrance Day. We were too exhausted from the previous very long day to wake early for the parade down the Champs Elysee. By the time we stepped out on to Paris’s most famous road the shops were open again, the crowds dispersed and the marching soldiers long gone. It was back to Sephora for more cosmetics, and to search again along the Rue de Rivoli for shoes and clothing for B. After all the sightseeing that we had done, this was her chance for some retail therapy.
Paris is famous for its antique and bric-a-brac markets and that morning we had caught the metro all the way up to Porte de Clignancourt to check out the Marche aux Puces de St-Ouen. It was big, confusing, noisy and we just felt uncomfortable there. Our brief exploration uncovered nothing of particular interest, so we decided to head back down to the serious shopping district and the aftermath of the Remembrance Day parades.
Our last day in Paris. Our flight back to London and Sydney departed late in the day, so after checking out we left our bags in the keeping of the hotel. My friend had labeled the Roman ruins of the Arenes de Lutece as a must see, so we travelled down to the Latin Quarter, the student district. The ruins were closed, but we wandered around the area, even saw a student disturbance with accompanying police presence.
It didn’t feel right to end our time in Paris here. We both agreed that it was the Montmartre that we wanted to see again, so we hopped on a north bound metro. The clock was ticking, but we were determined to make it.
We raced up to the Place du Terte, gazed over the city one last time, then it was down on the funicular and to the Place des Abbesses. B desperately wanted to purchase curtains, but there was no time! We were puffing as we reached our hotel and collected the bags, then carried them, heavier now than when we arrived, back down through the long passageways of the Metro stations and on to the train to the airport.
After checking in, we were left with plenty of time to wander the airport. The circular Terminal 1 building of Charles de Gaulle airport is particularly confusing. Somehow we found the tax refund office, and despite us already checking in the goods, they processed our refund.
We passed through security and into the grey concrete zone. Disappointingly we found little to do inside, with only a couple of poor quality eateries, a small dingy supermarket and clothing boutique.
By the time our flight was called, we were ready to leave the airport, but sad to say goodbye to Paris.
The flight home was much less memorable than the outbound journey, though it was still pleasant. We arrived home on Wednesday morning absolutely exhausted and spent most of the day asleep in bed.
Now we had had a taste of Paris, a taste of Europe, and it was not enough. Paris had changed my outlook on travel and on life. Suddenly, civilized Australia seemed too young. The houses of Sydney lacked the mysteries, the stories of those Parisian apartments. Our next trip was to Melbourne, the most European of the Australian capitals, because we hoped to recapture some of that Parisian magic. And now I knew that I could fly and enjoy it, that we could cope on our own with a new culture and language. The international travel bug had bitten and I was now an addict.