Thursday, 27 December 2012

Days 236 to 240: Christmas in Paris

Merry Christmas. Last year's Christmas was brought to you courtesy of Kuala Lumpur and the Petronas Towers, and this year's has been brought to you courtesy of Paris and the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, and the Sacre Coeur.

It was the first Christmas together for Danielle and I (work and travel account for the previous two), and way back in June we'd decided to have a peaceful, private, and perhaps even romantic Christmas away from the usual festive family hubbub. Where better than the berets and baubles of Paris? One of the world's greatest cities, it is a mere hop from Glasgow, and is packed with the chic and the historic, a cafe-packed extravaganza of elegant beauty. It would, Danielle and I agreed, be the perfect Christmas away.

A mere coincidence, of course, that it happens to have three of my Wonders.

Danielle was under no illusion that this was a major factor swaying the decision for me, or that she would have to visit each of these sights at least twice; she insisted only that, in order to counterbalance, she would get an afternoon to look at the shops. Graciously, I acquiesced - and by Christmas miracle she didn't even want to go into any of the shops, just walk by them and coo.

Each of the three Paris Wonders will feature in their own review, and were unsurprisingly pretty prominent features of the trip, as indeed they are of Paris. But even without the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, and the Sacre Coeur, Paris is a city packed with sights and atmosphere, in which four days were a mere toe-dip into an ocean of depth. We walked a lot, sat on the open-top tourist bus, and drank wine and coffee, savouring the festive feel of a world city at Christmas.

The Christmas spirit was well and truly alive during our time there. Perhaps slightly foolishly, viewed in hindsight, we thought Paris might actually be a little quiet over Christmas. Anything but. It quickly appeared that we were not the only people to have considered spending Christmas there. Couples and families from around the world converged, and young French filled the cafes at night as much as you'd expect during the summer. Hazily, we'd thought a Christmas exodus might occur, with the urban fashionistas of Paris retreating to their rural family homes deep in the French countryside, but this appears to have been a demented figment of our imaginations. Christmas in Paris is a busy affair.

This added to the atmosphere of the city in winter. Christmas markets lined the Champs Elysses, lighting up in twinkling blue the massive boulevard linking the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. Carol singers and bands playing Christmas tunes popped up on the steps of the Sacre Coeur, or at the Opera, and a Santa sleigh containing the Seasonal Papa himself was seen descending into a busy crowd of children by the Champs Elysses, suspended we assume by a strong wire. I don't know the French for "He's not real, kids, just a cruel fantasy of a more perfect world," so I kept my opinion to myself.

A very prominent reminder of this annual celebration of Christ's birth was the Roue de Paris, a 60-metre high Ferris Wheel that pops up seasonally just next to the Luxor Obelisk (3300 years old compared to Jesus's 2000-ish years - take that, Jesus). That has apparently been around in fits and bursts since 2000, and now crops up every year over Christmas. Nearby also was a tall, but rather dreary Christmas tree, reminding me of an awkward, gangly teenager forced to wear a glittering party outfit and perform, with the greatest reluctance, in front of small children. Danielle was not all impressed by the tree, and was compelled to make disparaging remarks about it every time it appeared in view, but the Wheel was more to our liking, and for 10 we took an evening visit, enjoying views over the city, and a particularly good view staring directly down the festive-lit Champs Elysses to the Arc de Triomphe.

On Christmas Day, after a gentle wander by the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero, we ended up at the Arc de Triomphe, after many days of having spotted it from afar. Given its fame in a city bursting with famous landmarks, the Arc de Triomphe might seem like a bit of an omission from my list of potential Wonders. After having visited it I can say, yes, it is a bit of an unfortunate omission. Grand and ornate, the Arc de Triomphe makes no attempt for subtle beauty, instead preferring to proclaim, "HERE I AM GUYS" to anyone passing by. Nonetheless, it is quite exquisite viewed close. You can very often tell the major landmarks of a city of country simply by visiting the souvenir shops: Paris has a lot of souvenir shops, and the Arc de Triomphe is one of the most represented landmarks there.

But Paris is packed with other notable buildings, many more than we had time to visit. Two that we didn't really visit but at least passed through were the Louvre and Les Invalides. The Louvre is a glittering showpiece in the heart of Paris, one of the greatest museums on earth. A visit will have to wait for another day, but we were able to admire it from the outside. Once a palace, built just as magnificently and opulent as you would expect from the French royalty, it is now perhaps most recognised by the glass pyramid built in the main courtyard during the 1980s. This pyramid is a total masterstroke in my opinion, but like the greatest structures, it flirts with total madness. The Eiffel Tower is a giant metal structure in a historic city of stone - it shouldn't work, but it does; the Louvre is a modern glass pyramid in the heart of a French Renaissance palace - it should look hopelessly, awfully out-of-place, but yet it somehow fits just right. Understandably, some might disagree with me, saying a retro-futurist glass pyramid has no coherent place in the courtyard of a French palace, but to these people I simply stick my finger up and give them a disconcerting and somewhat disturbed fixed stare until they edge away.

The Louvre is more famous, but Les Invalides is arguably more visible as part of the Paris skyline. Crowned with a huge golden dome and commissioned by the grand-daddy of all French kings, Louix XIV, it used to be a military hospital and home for infirm soldiers. It still serves as a home for retired soldiers, although the sprawling complex is mostly a military museum these days, and includes Napoleon's tomb. Like the Louvre, we didn't have time for a proper visit, and simply wandered through the main courtyard. However, our hotel was superbly positioned for a direct view of the golden dome.

Like the best cities, Paris offers a lot regardless of your interests. I like monuments and was very well supplied. Danielle likes shopping and Paris appears to have an ample selection. We both like food and wine and this was an unceasing pleasure. Choosing any restaurant that we pleased, we would inevitably be faced with a menu offering all sorts of splendid delights, from snails to steak tartare to duck breast to croque monsieur. I'm not sure if mulled wine qualifies as a connosieur's choice, but at the Christmas markets sprinkled across Paris it was in ready supply.

Like all good holidays, it's easy to look at the destination and imagine it as some kind of utopian vision of what places can be. History, monuments, food, wine, atmosphere, shops, golden domes and glass pyramids, and a Metro that was open and fully functional on Christmas Day. Even the local Parisians, famously rude, were at worst simply straightforward in their dealings with us, and at their frequent best were extremely friendly and helpful. Perhaps Paris is a mere abbreviation of Paradise? If you're wealthy and in the city centre, perhaps that might be the case, but the beautiful architecture and history soon disappears on the half-hour journey from the centre to the monstrous Charles de Gaulle airport. A sense of a grim urban wasteland with tower blocks that could have been lifted from the worst of Glasgow instead prevails. And the crime associated with such views was something I experienced, and foiled, firsthand, on that train journey into the centre upon arrival. On a bustling train, with two big bags, I found myself in a push of people trying to exit upon the train stopping and the door opening. Whether by chance or acting on some unconscious signal, I turned back and looked down, to see some guy's hand in my pocket. I glared at him and said "Hey", and he immediately withdrew, said "Pardon" and continued with other defensive words in French, by which point we were out of the train and he made himself scarce, without anything of mine fortunately. In fact, all he'd have got in that pocket would have been my ancient and battered phone, which Danielle said she'd have been happy to have seen the back of. But the holiday would have seen less ideal had it begun with a stolen phone, or camera, or wallet.

We returned to a very gloomy Glasgow on Boxing Day, but were barely given time to sulk as we were promptly whisked away to Danielle's family's annual Boxing Day party, an occasion that increasingly seems like it's set up to force feed me as much food and drink as possible. The following morning I suffered an appalling train journey, bloated and very hungover, up north for a few days with my family, and am now back in Glasgow to witness 2012 turn, in the blink of an eye, to 2013. It's occasion that can only take place, it seems, if millions of people congregate and drink too much, whether they like it or not. I'll do my best.

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