France, land of snails and frog legs

Trip Start Feb 15, 2008
Trip End May 31, 2008

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

That morning I joined a tour of mainland Europe which allowed plenty of free time for independent sightseeing with a group of 35. We set off to Dover to board a ferry for Calais in France where we met our bus and driver. We were exposed to London's Thursday morning traffic chaos before reaching the ferry terminal. As the ferry departed we enjoyed a distant glance of Dover Castle and fantastic views of the famous White Cliffs of Dover. As nice as it was to cross the English Channel I can see why the Eurostar train is so popular; the trip was a bit slow and cumbersome. On reaching Calais in France we boarded our bus and continued through the French countryside to Paris.

Paris is the capital of France and has a population of just over two million though greater Paris is home to almost twelve million and is one of the most populated metropolitan areas in Europe. An important settlement for more than two thousand years, Paris is today one of the world's leading business and cultural centres. The city is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, with over 30 million foreign visitors per year.

That evening we took a short night tour of Paris which began with a stop at Montmartre, a hill of 130 metres which offers a premier vantage of the city and is the city's second highest point. A Basilica named Sacré-Coeur, which means Sacred Heart, was built on the hill during the late 1800s and is dedicated to the 58,000 people who lost their lives during the Franco - Prussian war. The basilica was constructed using travertine stone, a white rock which is resistant to discolouring from exposure to pollutants and therefore the building glistens in the afternoon sun.

From saints to sinners the next part of our drive took us through the Pigalle Region which is Paris' famous red light district; home to sex shops, strip shows, hookers, whores and the famous Moulin Rouge which began in 1889 and introduced the French Can-Can to the world. As we reached the centre of Paris I was met by what was clearly the most spectacular city I had ever seen. By day Paris looks nice though at night the city is illuminated like a Christmas tree. All of the buildings, monuments, towers, parks and gardens in the city centre are fog lit and many are also fitted with sparking fairy lights. Paris is known as the world's most beautiful city and I can see why. Our driving tour took us past Paris' best known locations and provided us with some important history.

Everyone's heard of the Phantom of the Opera right; this famous musical is based on the Palais Garnier which is Paris' magnificent opera house, completed in 1875 and seats 2200 people. There is no camera which can capture the immensity of the Louvre, Paris' premier art gallery. It's Europe's longest building and contains over 400,000 pieces of art, the most famous of these being da Vinci's Mona Lisa. It is said that if a person were to spend one minute looking at each piece it would take nine months to view every piece displayed among the building's 18 km of corridors. Our drive then took us past the Arc de Triomphe, which literally means Arch of Triumph and was built by Napoleon during the 19th century. Napoleon envisioned himself leading his victorious armies marching home from battle and passing beneath the structure's three glorious arches, though he died 30 years before the monument was completed. The round-about which loops around the arch forms the junction of 12 avenues and is said to be one of the world’s busiest.

Place de La Concorde means Plaza of Peace, though during the French revolution, at the end of the 16th century, this location was anything but peaceful. It was here that the city's guillotine once stood, a device invented as a humane means of execution by Frenchman, Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin, though a blunt blade was often used when a particularly unlikeable character was to be executed. In fact King Louis the 16th was so unlikeable that when the people executed him no bag was placed over his head and he was faced the other way so he would be forced to watch as the blade descended. The blade was so blunt on this occasion that it required seven strikes to sever his head and for three of these he was still conscious. On this site now stands the Obelisk, an Egyptian monument which was donated by the Egyptian prime minister. The pillar weighs 250 tonnes and features hieroglyphics which depict how it was transported from Egypt. In the year 2000 French climber Alain Robert, alias Spiderman, scaled the 23 metre monument with his bare hands and feet.

So far our tour had avoided the Eiffel Tower and our first look at this spectacular structure was from its premier vantage point. For the first ten minutes of every hour the tower sparkles like a diamond with what appear to be thousands of fairy lights; for the remainder of the hour it is flood lit. This famous world symbol was constructed to demonstrate France's engineering abilities at the Paris World Expo in 1889. The tower stands at 324 metres and weighs 10,000 tons. It consists of 12,000 iron pieces joined by 12,000 nuts and was constructed by a team of 210 men over a period of 21 months.

The following day our coach drove us back into Paris and the traffic became chaotic as we approached the centre. I decided to leave the bus and continue on foot and soon after discovered the cause of the congestion. A group of students had positioned themselves on a busy intersection as some kind of protest which ground a couple of streets to a complete halt and delayed the surrounding streets. I began my walk of the city at the Palais Garnier and retraced some of our previous night's driving tour making my way through Paris' central park, Tuileries Gardens whichadjoins the Louvre, then on to Notre Dame cathedral.

Notre Dame de Paris was completed in 1160. Its construction spanned the Gothic period and the building’s architecture is signified by the use of flying buttresses. The building was not originally designed to include the flying buttresses though after construction began and the walls grew higher, stress fractures began to occur as the walls pushed outward. In response, the cathedral's architects built supports around the outside walls. The cathedral fell into disrepair during the French Revolution in the 1790s and much of its religious imagery was damaged or destroyed. During the 19th century, an extensive restoration project was completed, returning the cathedral to its original state. I took an electronic audio commentary around the site which was interesting though the amazing thing about this truly inspiring place of worship is the sheer height of its roof.

I continued my day by walking the city's streets and avenues to see and photograph its important buildings and monuments ending my day with a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower. It is possible to either climb or take a lift to the tower's second level. The tower's third level observatory can be reached only by the lift. The tower is crowded and the view from the top, on this particular day, was not the best. Our group met near the base of the Eiffel tower for an evening picnic which ended early due to rain, before taking a cruise up Paris' Seine River on a Bateaux Mouches boat. Cruises on boats such as these have been popular since WWII and passengers can enjoy a clear vantage of sights such as the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Alexander III Bridge, Pont Neuf, Orsay Museum, The Louvre, Les Invalides and Napoleon's burial site.
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