Day 17 Westwards
Since the train to Nice, France from Ventimiglia, Italy was one of the few for the day, courtesy of the rail strike by the French SNCF Train company, the train was packed. We did manage to find seats for ourselves as Ventimiglia was where the train started its journey. The journey as yet on that day had been in Riviera Ligure, but thenceforth, we transitioned to Côte d’Azure (literally the Coast of Azure). This did not mean that the landscape dramatically changed from one country to the other; quite the contrary.
In reality, the two Rivieras form a contiguous coastal stretch for all practical purposes. However, if one abandoned the coast and went north at Ventimiglia, one would find oneself in the company of the highest peaks of the Alps culminating at Mont Blanc, the highest of them all. The locus of these icy peaks forms the cultural and political frontier separating the two great countries.
Europe is a very strange place when it comes to the concept of nationhood. We were to travel to one of these strange “nations” on our way to Nice. Monaco, the Goa of the nineteenth century, is one such country. Completely enveloped in the north, the east and the west by France and the south by the Ligurian Sea, it was sustained in popular imagination by two things: gambling and the Monaco Grand Prix. Only an Indian can watch a Monaco Grand Prix race with equanimity. Ridiculously fast cars whiz through ridiculously narrow lanes with ridiculously sharp curves and as ludicrously steep slopes. 2018’s Grand Prix was round the corner and the city-state was gearing up to invite it.
Only this part of the above paragraph is relevant to our journey as, as the train entered Monaco and stopped at its railway station, three women in their forties with bright eyes and weather-beaten faces became our immediate co-passengers in the train. In the past in most cases, conversation with strangers in trains had needed a finite interval of time to develop. In this case, no sooner had their persons hit the seats than one of them started engaging us in conversations. “You are from India, right?…” The trio happened to contain a Dane, a Frenchwoman and an Australian. The Australian was the most gregarious of the lot and an Indophile to boot.
She began an enthusiastic monologue with occasional contributions from Karthik, me and her two friends. The three of them had been part of the large machinery which gets the Grand Prix off and running. Their work done, they were leaving Monaco (of which, they did not have a very high opinion), for Paris. They seemed to have circumambulated the world several times over and knew more about India than in the usual Bollywood way. The Australian belonged to that tribe of people who seemed to draw life and inspiration from the chaotic order of India.
Cannes, known for its Film Festival, was an hour’s ride from Nice. Karthik and I had been toying with the idea of going there, but our new friends disabused us of our apparently ill thought scheme. “It’s all painted faces and fake smiles. Don’t waste your time there.” And that was that. They had a good opinion of Nice though, and advised us that we would use our time better if we spent it there. We assured them that we would follow their advice to the letter as we bid them goodbye at Nice Ville Station.
Our hostel was literally a stone’s throw from the station. (By literally, I mean literally: if you threw a stone from the gates of the station – and if you had a good throw arm, and if the conditions were not too windy – it would hit the hostel). We crossed the road and Hostel Antares was upon us. It was a narrow building with many floors. (It had to be. Imagine opening Leela Palace in North Chithirai Street. You can’t, can you?) We took possession of our room which had three beds and an attached bathroom. The room had an interesting luggage locker under every twin bunk bed. It was made of steel rods woven into a coarse mesh. It had the aspect ratio of a book, and like a book, had a hinge along a longer edge which could be used to open it, stuff the luggage inside and snap shut and lock it with an amukku poottu.
We left our luggage in the room and went in search of the kitchen. It was located in the basement. I could call it spic and span, and if I did, I would be wrong. Most utensils were unwashed and a good amount of searching was required to locate them. There was, however, some free rice. Since the two of us were in Kolappasi, we decided to make Pongal. The welcome change was the gas stove. Until then, we had been forced to use the induction stove which, I hadn’t quite warmed to. We quickly learnt how to use it, assembled the cooker and put it on the stove. We waited and waited. When we opened the cooker after the usual number of whistles, we found that the rice was only half cooked. One more lesson learnt, we supposed and waited a longer wait until a broth which could be approximated to Pongal was obtained. By then, it was half past three and our bellies were braying for food. We ate up the food without complaint, even a little grateful for even this luxury, and exit the hostel in search of the sea.
The sea was one half a kilometre long road away from our hostel. This road, which seemed to a be an artery of the city, had tram lines and a lavish footpath. It was completely paved. The one wonderful thing about any part of Europe is the extraordinary respect that a pedestrian is given, and Nice was no exception. It was always a bit unsettling to find cars come to an abrupt halt even if one only thought about crossing the road. On the way, we spotted a promising supermarket called Monoprix and decided to give it custom. It lived up to its promise and we filled our day back with our usual stuff including some apricot jam which was priced ridiculously low to our delight. With jingling bags, we continued towards the famous Nice Promenade. Just before it was a huge Circle with a very large statue of what looked like a Greek God (he turned out to be Apollo).
Each city had a certain shade to it, and Nice’s was a sandy orange. Buildings, statues, pavement conformed to that shade in one degree or the other resulting in an illusion of warmth which belied the cold weather which we were currently experiencing at a windy fourteen degrees Celsius. The Circle was approached by piebald tiles. On one side was a largish fountainous area which seemed as though an array of subterranean people lay supine and blew spit bubbles at pre-arranged intervals.
Further on, and just short of the Promenade, we found an ice-cream shop and gobbled a couple under the shade of the shop as it started to drizzle. Our ice cream and the rains ran out almost instantaneously and we proceeded to the Promenade. Promenade des Anglais, translated as Promenade of the English was a road adjoining the beach. It was the arithmetic mean of Kamarajar Promenade, Chennai and Goubert Avenue, Pondicherry in almost every respect thinkable. It was not as wide as the Marina, nor as abrupt as Pondichery. It was neither as sandy as Marina, nor was it just a pile of rocks like Pondichery. It was entirely made of pebbles.
However, the adjoining road was definitely wider than both the above-mentioned Indian promenades and sufficient walking lanes were in place to help people enjoy a stroll. We walked along the length of the beach all the way to the eastern end from where we could climb up a little hill. Our hostel receptionist had confidently said that there was a lift up the hill which we could use. However, a sign outside it said that it had been in a state of disrepair for a while. “Than kaaley thanakkudhavi,” they say. In any case, we said that to ourselves and began climbing. Two Euro-hungry binoculars later, we were at the top of the hill at the famed view-point from which the entire city of Nice between the Alps to the north and the sea to the south could be regarded all the way up to its western end where lay the Airport.
From atop, we saw a lone swimmer get into the water a swim what looked like half a kilometer away from the shore and return back. After enjoying the view for a reasonable period of time, we descended to the shore (“bayangara slope”) and took a route through the narrow lanes of Nice to see what the city was like. It was clearly brimming with life. Every restaurant and pub was replete with humanity (especially the latter). On the way, we covered what looked like the town hall (a large and impressive edifice), and several churches into one of which we entered. But for the language of the sign boards, the architecture and iconography was similar to those in Italian churches (which is probably to be expected as both followed the same Roman Catholic faith).
We also walked through a park in a road parallel to the Promenade. Here we found a young woman sitting by herself in a park bench and sobbing noiselessly into her hand-kerchief. Although the park was bustling with humanity, people did not intrude in her misery. I wondered how people would have reacted to a solitary weeping girl in India, on a scale of Madurai to Chennai. I decided that people would have either surrounded her and offered to take her home or call her dad, or might have not even noticed her at all. I don’t really know which is worse.
We eventually reached the Promenade once again and this time, hit the beach. We had brought a change of clothes in the vain hope that we would be able to take a dip in the ocean. At fourteen degrees Celsius, it was all we could do to keep our teeth from typewriting. We found a couple of convenient rocks to seat ourselves and set out to finish our dinner. We washed a couple of green apples (which we had purchased at Monoprix) in the ocean and had a dinner of bread, jam and apple. The washing of the apple had to be accomplished by wetting my feet in the ocean in the course of which process, I first felt a thousand needles prick my feet and then my feet went numb.
I felt sad for Europe. The poor Europeans, except for some strange people like that solitary swimmer, had but a narrow three-month window in an entire year to enjoy their pristine beaches whereas we Indians choose December of all months to flock to Goa. With dinner coming to a close, we started walking back to our hostel. On the way at a distance, we came across a statue strikingly similar to Kannagi the Arsonist holding the Silambu.
It was past eight thirty now, and darkness started to set in in earnest. We reached out hostel and found that our room-mate, a Russian aged above sixty had arrived and was busy having his packed dinner. He tried to tell us something. But, we had no common language and so could not understand what it was that he was trying to convey. Eventually both parties gave up. By the time we showered and went to bed, he was already snoring.
This day the fifteenth of May, a merry Tuesday, we woke up leisurely, by which time, our Russian mate had cleared his bed and himself. The hostel had promised some breakfast (which was a welcome surprise, as hostelworld.com, the site in which we had booked the room had not mentioned such a perk). We rounded up our possessions, had our breakfast, went downstairs to the kitchen to collect and dismantle our faithful cooker which we had left there to dry, and started our walk across to the station. We gave a healthy cushion of nearly forty-five minutes (given past experiences) and reached the station by quarter past nine itself. There in the very first platform stood the TGV (Train Grande Vitesse, translated as High Speed Train) to Paris.
This was one of those trains we had reserved in advance (which was a requirement for TGVs). The distance between Nice and Paris is roughly the same as that between Bangalore and Mumbai (around 950 km). There is a KSRTC bus to Mumbai from Bangalore which takes well above fifteen hours to cover the said distance. The train route is, and takes, even longer. But the TGV promised to deposit us in Paris in less than six hours for a relatively paltry 15 EUR for reservation which, Vaishnavi had secured for us more than a month previously in Stuttgart itself.
We clutched our reservations which told us the train number and the seat numbers and regarded the serpentine train which stood in our platform. The train number in our tickets and that on display on the train did not match. We asked a train official who stood wearing the SNCF scarf how to resolve this, and she pointed to our left, further along the platform. We went where she pointed. After we had crossed a few compartments and what looked like an engine, we found that many more compartments continued from the engine on the other side as well only, the train number on these matched that on our ticket. We located what looked like our compartment and took our places in the allocated seats.
The train was jam-packed. All compartments were double-decker with two plus two seats all of which seemed to be reserved without exception. Even those which looked empty had the reserved sign glowing which meant that a passenger would fill them at a later station. The train started westwards. as we were trying to settle down at our seats, an American couple came over to us informing us that we were sitting in their seats. Whereas the gentleman was courteous and civil, the lady was brash and loud. From the first instance, her tone was accusatory and condescending. We dug our heels and double checked with our fellow passengers if indeed what they claimed was correct. It turned out to be so. Our rightful compartment happened to be the neighbouring one and since I could not interpret the sign on the outside properly, this error had occurred.
There is nothing more humiliating that being told we are wrong by people who think they own the world. While we were trying to clear our seats and move to compartment, the lady tried to hurry and shoo us to add insult to injury. As tempers rose, her husband intervened and diffused the building tension by taking his worse half for a short walk and apologising to us. Was it classism? Or was it racism? I don’t really know. From the available data, I would say that it was plain old rudeness.
After this avoidable bit of unpleasantness, we found the seats which were undeniably ours for the remainder of the journey in the next compartment and prayed to Azhagar that we would not be made to undergo another mortifying eviction (Poor Azhagar, what will he do if I don’t locate compartments properly?). He gave us our wish, and the rest of the journey passed in peace and harmony with another couple with whom we shared the two plus two.
The promised high speed did not arrive until we hit Avignon. There, the train finally turned north from its initial westerly course and “showed me the meaning of haste”. From there until it reached Paris, it did not so much as slow down for a cow to cross. It by-passed every town and city it would otherwise have been obliged to pass. For those six hundred odd kilometers all I saw was fields and pastures, the occasional mountain, fifteen cows and three people. It did not quite exceed three hundred like the German ICE. The maximum speed it managed was two hundred and ninety-five kmph. But it made up for this lacuna by sustaining this high speed for most of the length and by three forty, we were at Paris Gare de Lyon station.
To understand the general layout and workings of most railway stations in Europe we had extensively relied upon the seat61 blog. https://www.seat61.com/stations/paris-gare-de-lyon.htm was thus a very useful resource from which we learnt that a Monoprix supermarket lay right across the station. We made a beeline for it (it called itself Monop’) and stocked up with dairy products. We returned to Gare de Lyon and located a staircase which would take us underground to the Paris metro station of the same name.
A patient perusal of https://www.seat61.com/Paris-metro.htm made it crystal clear that we should buy a carnet of tickets (a bunch of 10 exchangeable tickets valid for a period of one year from the day of purchase). On an underground atrium of sorts we found a number of vending machines disbursing tickets. However, we chose to transact with the lady behind the ticket counter, to be on the safer side. This turned out to be a good idea as she gave us a complimentary map of the Paris metro and bus systems which came in quite useful.
We had corresponded with our hostess and got instructions on which metros to catch and where to get down. Gare de Lyon is a large metro station with several metro lines crossing it. So, we chose the line to Saint-Lazare metro station with patience and mimicked a fellow passenger at the gate by feeding our ticket to a small slot. It gobbled it up and farted it out on the other side with a tiny date stamp on it. It also opened the gate and on we went. After a nearly five minute walk we went to our platform and the train pulled up. It was jam-packed and we only made it worse with our ample luggage.
Even then, it was becoming increasingly apparent to me that Paris was different from every other place I had visited. For the first time in the entire trip, I felt that we were melting in a pot without sticking out as we had done elsewhere. Just before the train reached its stop, the speaker in the train would announce its name once in aarohanam (madeLEINE) and a few seconds later in avarohanam (MADEleine). We got down at Saint Lazare along with a hundred others and started to follow the sign boards which pointed to the platform of the M13 route.
Each route was colour coded and signboards were plentiful. Sometimes, the same route ended up in two destinations. For example, the M13 had trains which went to either Asnières Gennevilliers or to Saint-Denis. One had to be careful in knowing which direction to choose. As instructed by our hostess we chose the M13 – direction Asnières Gennevilliers. The train which had been sticking to below ground level broke into the sunshine to cross the marvellous river Seine, after which it hurried back below the earth.
We got down at the Gabriel Péri station. In one of the nearby suburbs of Paris called Asnières we had booked a room for ourselves. It was a little past five then, and the sun was positively Madurai-ish. After a short walk, we got to our place which was located inside a quiet gated community which shared a wall with a quieter cemetery. After the high decibel hustle of Paris proper, this was a welcome contrast. We met our energetic hostess outside her house where she was engaging a flock of mischievous children.
She had informed in our earlier correspondence that she would not be able to check us in before six, and so, we waited for an hour in her backyard during which time we downed a large number of strawberries which we had procured in the platform kadai in Gabriel Péri station (Paris was very different). Once her day job, which was that of a nanny, got over, she came over to us and gave us a tour of the house and laid down the rules. She was by far the most engaging and warm of our hosts until then. Ever smiling and ever ready to help, she gave many tips and pointers on how to enjoy Paris.
Sir Google was of the opinion that sun down on that day was not due before nine thirty PM. That meant that three and a half solid hours of sunshine lay ahead of us. We decided to wash and have dinner as quickly as possible (she allowed us to cook in her kitchen) and hurry back to the city. By the time we had done all this, (noodles for dinner), it was almost eight and the sun was still a merry yellow. We rushed to Gabriel Péri and caught the M13 back to the city. We got down at the Invalides station on the southern bank of the Seine. We started walking past the expansive lawns of the Invalides area towards the crowning glory of Paris which the locals had famously hated when it was erected.
Eiffel Tower was about two kilometres away from the Invalides and we chose a scenic walk along the southern bank of the Seine westwards. The river, like every other river in Europe was fertile with water and had dedicated walking and cycling lanes along both banks. Much Parisian life seemed to revolve around the river which, unlike in other places, did not just cut across the city, but coursed through it in a serpentine fashion so much so, that if one got from a north-western suburb in Paris to a south-eastern area, one could cross the Seine nearly 5 times.
We eventually got to the gates of the Eiffel tower which had been dominating the horizon for most of our walk. It was around nine when we took our place in the queue to the security check. Karthik got security cleared first and then came my turn. What ignoble signs the guard saw in me, I shall never know. But he gave me and my bag a thorough check at the end of which my Swiss knife and lock lay on the table silently shouting “Culprit!” at me. The guard refused to let me in unless I lost these two equipment. He spoke English as fluently as I spoke Russian (which was, not at all). I half gesticulated, half killed the French language to ask him if there was a luggage locker. He shook his head decisively. I told Karthik, who had been observing this drama from the inside, to wait there until I found a solution and headed towards a nearby park.
Just before we had left our room, we had met our fellow inmates: a Brit who looked like the guy who played Watson in Sherlock, and a middle-aged Frenchwoman (with a haircut which my friends variously described as a Bob cut, or Straight Bangs, or a Bob with a Bang) from Bordeaux on business whom our host knew intimately as she was a regular. We had had a very interesting conversation with the latter who apparently had many Indian colleagues as part of her employer’s overseas arm. The minutes of that meeting include the story of some Indians who had come on site to Bordeaux, and gone on a wine-tasting tour. Our friend had warned them that they were supposed to spit out the wines that they tasted. But her very Indian colleagues had thrown caution to the winds and downed all that had been offered them with the inevitable result that they had lost most motor skills by the fourth tasting.
She explained how differently Indians and Europeans worked with the latter sticking mostly to business and not revealing so much as their marital status and the former starting the work day with last night’s dinner, the kids’ school admission etc. She related these stories and opinions, not with disdain or superiority, but with curiosity and interest. She also told the story of how she had been absolutely flummoxed when she had first encountered the Indian Yes-shake of the head. We repeated the Indian head shake tutorial that we had given the sky-diving German two weeks previously.
More to the point, she and our hostess had been unanimous in declaring that Karthik and I were to be very wary of pick-pockets, especially in the area surrounding the Eiffel Tower and Champs-Élysées. Considering this advice, what I was about to do cannot be described as anything but foolhardy. But that’s what I did. I located a path in the park which was reasonably deserted and buried the Swiss-knife and the lock beneath a bush, all in broad daylight. Since it would be dark by the time I got back, I chose a place near a lamp-post so that I wouldn’t have trouble locating it.
I rejoined the queue and was this time granted entry by the same guard. There was an even longer queue outside the entry ticket counter for the lift up the Eiffel Tower. This was not good, as we wanted there to be at least a little bit of daylight when we went up the tower. Fortunately, there was another entry to the tower which was practically empty and cheaper to boot. This was for those who chose to climb up the steps to the second floor of the Eiffel tower, and by lift from there to the top. Just before we started climbing, I asked the ticket checker how many steps there were to the second floor. “Seven hundred”, she answered. It sounded like a very small number and we started climbing with gusto.
By the two hundredth stair, seven hundred started to look like seven thousand. The long queue outside the lift ticket counter for a sum EUR 8 dearer started to make complete sense. We got to Floor One and clicked away a few photos. The sky was only then starting to dim. A look down from even this height wrung my bowels. We continued our upward march, and arrived palpitating at Floor Two. Here we were joined by a much larger crowd which included the nogama nongu thingara lift-folk. The carpet area of this tower was large enough to accommodate all of us. Even from this height, most of Paris and the Seine’s many convolutions were visible to us. But we quickly joined the queue for the lift further up. Fortunately or unfortunately, the lift was the only way to get to the top of the tower. We were flanked by a chatty group of young women who kept up a constant stream of conversation in Hindi. We could as well have been at Qutb Minar. A good fifteen minutes later, we entered the lift which zoomed up to the top. The top was the shape of a square with chamfered corners (which makes it an octagon). It had a high enough parapet and was completely meshed. If people with a suicidal bent were to visit the top, they would have to equip themselves with a blowtorch and a power source both of which, I was sure our friend at the gate would object to.
Natural light had ceased some minutes ago and the city was illuminated with its many street- and other lights. We came around the octagon and consumed the many views that each side afforded us. On one side the meandering Seine could be seen, its path illuminated by many lights. Two huge searchlight kind of things (the kind that would have been used to light the Bat-signal) cast their piercing beams through various parts of the city as they rotated round and round. The centre of the octagon had a display of a mannequin (presumably Gustave Eiffel) seated on an easy-chair along with another similarly seated mannequin (whose identity I know not). There was also a hole in the wall where a chirpy guy sold champagne (some of it was glowing in ways I would have never expected consumables to glow) at such paltry sums as twenty euros a goblet.
Even at this advanced hour (well past ten), the top was packed to capacity. It was all we could do to find a patch of the parapet so that we could take photos which did not include body parts of strangers. Large groups often froze the free flow of people through the corridor by suddenly deciding that they would take a selfie then and there. In spite of all of this, the crowd was extremely upbeat and largely well-behaved. Convinced that we had squeezed all that was possible to extract from the Eiffel Tower’s many floors, we joined the queue to the lift downwards, and fifteen minutes later, we were plummeting down, two stairs at a time, to ground zero.
As I neared Mother Earth, qualms about the safety of my little treasure buried under a bush in a busy park started to resurface. What if a morally ambivalent Parisian had seen me hide it? What if the park had been closed? What if a dog had found it? After all, dogs were the primary source of irrigation for lamp posts. This last thought doubled my pace, and in no time, Karthik and I had left the Eiffel tower enclosure and entered the park. The park was deserted, but open. I located the alley and the lamp-post and rummaged in the bush underneath. Something glinted and relief swept over me. Both the knife and the lock lay where I had left them – unharmed and spared by all the dogs of Paris and beyond.
As I pocketed the stuff and started to walk out of the park, we heard a collective “Ah!” and we looked up. The Tower was lit up with serial lights which sparkled dynamically from head to foot of the tower, making it look like a many faceted diamond jewel reflecting moving light. This went on for a good five minutes and, when it stopped, we could hear people on the Tower and around it cheer enthusiastically.
This serial illumination of the Eiffel tower was a phenomenon that occurred on the hour every hour from eleven PM until one AM for a duration of five minutes. We had seen the first of these and decided that, unmindful of the tardiness of the hour, would see the midnight illumination too. Our hostess had told us that the Pont de la Concorde, one of the several bridges across the Seine would be a nice place to spy the Eiffel tower from. This was some distance from the tower and involved a walk a metro ride.
We climbed out of the metro hole into the Place de la Concorde. It was a large square with many statues and lawns. On one of the sides of the square was a giant wheel rotating happily at this ungodly hour. Paris seemed to lie awake for a very long time. We walked across from one end of the Place de la Concorde to the other end where lay the bridge. At that time, I did not know that this place with its many statues (of horses mostly) had been built by Louis XV whose grandson, Louis XVI, would later be deposed and killed in the name of Revolution, and that this very square would ironically be used as a guillotine arena (at which time it would be called the Place de la Révolution) to execute him.
However blind we might have been to history and irony, we could not be so to the traffic which was ample at nigh on eleven forty-five PM. We crossed some busy roads and eventually reached the bridge. The Eiffel tower was clearly visible from there in normal illumination. Indeed, one would have to be extremely busy or preoccupied to miss the structure which had inspired many a poet and a cell phone tower engineer, what with its rotating searchlights screeching.
As the clock struck twelve ushering in Wednesday the fifteenth of May, the serial lights started to dance as they had done an hour previously. It was a satisfying sight and a different perspective from the one we had had up close. We walked across the bridge to the Invalides station and retraced our now familiar path to Gabriel Péri and our lodging at around one AM, and crept to our bed and slept like babies.
We woke up late next morning – how late, I can’t recall. But when we did wake up, the Sun was shining brightly. We came down to the kitchen to make some breakfast and tea during which time we chatted away with our most excellent hostess and formulated a plan for the day. I had downloaded an app by the travel guru Rick Steves and downloaded a couple of Paris playlists. This is how it worked. We had to follow the written instructions and turn up at the place mentioned and turn on the audio. Rick Steves’ voice would guide us from that point and give us directions to explore a list of places (also found in the app) and tell the story of each place in an engaging and informative manner. The walk we started with was called the Historic Paris Walk. The map we followed can be found in podcasts.ricksteves.com/pdfs/map-historic-paris-walk-AT.pdf .
We said goodbye to our hostess and her brood of squealing children and proceeded in the direction of Gabriel Péri metro station. After a change at Champs-Élysées – Clemenceau station, we resurfaced at Hôtel de Ville. It was not a hotel, as the name suggested, but Paris’s Corporation office where people presumably came to complain about bad roads and clogged sewers. It was a grand building with flamboyant architecture and many windows. It lay on the northern bank of the Seine. But we were headed to the Srirangam of Paris which lay across the bridge. The Seine forked out and rejoined 750 metres later leaving in between an island called Île de la Cité.
This was Paris in its infancy. This was the nucleus from which the Metropole had grown
to its present size and stature. In keeping with its vintage, it was home to some of Paris’ oldest and most venerated buildings. The Notre-Dame Cathedral topped the list, and that’s where our audio tour began. It was a beautiful monument. I know so, because Rick Steves held our hands as Karthik and I bumbled on the way he showed sharing earphones to avoid losing sync. The tour covered the history of the Cathedral (almost 900 years old) and the architecture of the facade and the interior, the exteriors, the tinted glass, the gargoyles, the Apostles, Our Lady, Her Son, Heaven, Hell and everything in between.
Our narrator also explained how the edifice had been erected after razing a Basilica which had stood there for some five hundred years by a King named Louis (why French Kings refused to be named in any other fashion is beyond me). Behind the altar, small glass displays of people hauling large blocks of marbles using medieval pulleys helped illustrate Steves’ stories.
We started from the facade, entered, did an internal tour, exited, and walked along the southern wall of the Cathedral which during the French Revolution had been re-christened The Cathedral of Reason. With Reason disposed of in the title, the revolutionaries cut off heads of statues, destroyed the art and generally let the monument fall in disrepair until it was restored in the eighteenth century (following the success of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) by the restorer Viollet-le-Duc who left a statue of St Thomas the Apostle modelled on himself at the base of a tall spire for all to see.
All this and more did Rick Steves say, and led us further along the road to a more sombre place called the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. Dedicated to some two lakh French people who had been deported during the Second World War, it lay facing the Seine at the south-eastern end of the island. Designed to fill the visitor with solemnity, the memorial lay a few feet below ground level with a small opening at its tip giving us a prisoner’s view of the Seine. On the other side were two rooms with inscriptions and a hall full of two lakhs lamps, each burning symbolising the spirit of the equinumerous people who haven’t been heard of since the dark days of the War.
The audio them led us past a bridge across the Seine to Mainland Paris south of the Island and through many an alleyway, showing a Gothic church even older than the Notre-Dame here, and a park there. Soon we were again in the banks of the Seine at a curious little bookshop called Shakespeare and Company. An oasis in a desert (strictly in an anglophone sense), it was a bookshop which sold only English books. This was like finding a Hindi Bookshop in Anna Arivalayam. Of all the places in Europe we had yet been to, France was the least receptive of English (Germany was nearly as English-deaf). The bookshop had been famed for having given refuge to writers-in-the-making such as Ernest Hemingway and selling books that had been banned in the UK and the USA (including DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) But here we were in arguably the most ancient part of Paris and a shop presumed to peddle only English books. A look into the price tag disabused us of any tiny inclination we might have had to buy books.
After spending a good amount of time in its many tiny rooms, all filled with books, we came back to sunshine, walked through the so-called Latin Quarter with its narrow alleyways the stones with which they had been paved had once been weaponised (Rick Steves told us) against the Police in an earlier era. Then we walked back across to the Island to a place called St Chapelle and joined a security-check-queue to enter it. This was because the premises also housed some arm of the law enforcement of the city. In any case, we did not deign to enter the Church which lay inside the premises (Entry was charged) and satisfied ourselves with enjoying the exterior which, frankly, couldn’t hold a candle to Notre-Dame. We quit the island and reached the North bank yet again, as our next stop lay only a few paces away from there.
By then, we were quite hungry. It was well past two and the bright sun was starting to tire us. We located a park bench on the banks of the Seine which seemed to have a bit of shade and munched on a large number of slices of bread and jam listening to a nearby saxophonist’s soothing rendition of an unknown song until we were ready to saachufy the kattai there by the river. However, this was certainly not an option, as we had an extremely important action point to close.
A short walk westwards along the north bank of the Seine and we were at a structure which seemed to occupy most of the horizon, if you looked its way. The Louvre stood, wider than it was tall, and grander than it was old. A few gates later, we were in the Louvre’s version of a naalukattu mutram. In the very middle stood an enormous glass pyramid with a maze of fountains around it which made it impossible to avoid anything but a zig-zag route to the pyramid. Which begs the question, why go there at all? The reason was – for those who have not read Dan Brown – the entrance to the Museum lay beneath the pyramid. Predictably, a long queue stood outside the entrance a part of which we became, and got security-cleared in due course of time (I had left the Knife behind in the room; the nearest bush was at least a kilometre’s walk away).
We descended the stairs beneath the pyramid (below which there was a pyramid below which there was a pyramid below which…) and reached a large Atrium which had all kinds of ticket vending counters, information counters, eateries, restrooms and what-not. We headed for the first of these and pocketed a couple of entry tickets. An audio guide was available on payment of a larger fee. But we were equipped with Rick Steves’ Louvre Museum Tour. After the success of the Historic Paris Walk audio tour, we were itching to try this one out.
As Steves explained, the Louvre is the largest art museum, and the third largest palace, in the world. Built as a castle by French Kings (for a change, not named Louis) in the twelfth century CE, the fortification was shed as Paris became a Metropolis and the Castle became a Palace, and an expanding one at that (a building was appended to it as late as in the 1980s). Various French kings added to the large collection and curated the collection with care. But somewhere along the way, the palace was overrun by the “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” gang. If the Place de la Concorde was the epitome of how Right to Life was dispensed with, the Louvre is the embodiment of the defenestration of Right to Property. This was neither the first time, nor would it be the last, that such excesses would happen (Cough-Russia-Cough). In any case, after Napoleon crowned himself (a portrait of which can be found in the Louvre and the story behind it, in the audio), he added vastly to the collection of the museum, and ever since it has mostly beefed itself up through the munificence of private benefactors.
It is just not possible to cover the museum in one shot. It is like hoping to eat all Deepavali snacks on Deepavali day itself. If you try, you end up with an upset stomach (True story). There is just way too much to see. Rick Steves had taken the liberty of choosing a route for such absolute philistines as ourselves who knew nary about western art. He took us through a chronologically cogent route. He started with the Egypt and its art (probably “acquired” when Napoleon – and Fourier – lorded over Egypt). Then came the Greek, and eventually Roman, art. (I was thrilled to see the bust of the stoic Marcus Aurelius). Steves taught us what was static and what was dynamic in a sculpture. Until he pointed the differences out, I had thought these were terminologies that art historians made up to justify their salary.
After (or during the late) Roman times came the Dark Ages and one could see why they were called so. All faces in a canvas of this period started to look the same and objects near and far seemed to be no more than scaled versions of the same shape. In Steves’ words, these paintings lacked “depth”. I really understood what he meant by depth only when the Dark ages gave way for the Renaissance. Here, objects far away actually seemed to be far away and not just small. Look at the photos below and you can’t fail to notice the difference.
The latter of these photos is easily one of the largest canvases anywhere in the world. It was painted on a sheet the size of Sathyam Theatre screen (with Jesus Christ in the middle of a positively raucous wedding) and lay facing a disturbingly small portrait which hung alone on the opposite wall. A glass wall separated Mona Lisa from us lesser mortals. The distance added to the impression of minusculitude. Rick Steves acknowledged that after all the fuss that people generally make about A3-sized Mona Lisa, it is a disappointment to regard it in real at last to most people. But he pointed out some characteristics of the painting which, he said, made it unique. One of those was the fact that one could not find the edges of her mouth which formed what, for want of better word, was called a smile. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have brought with him the Mona Lisa to Paris when King Francois I of France invited him there. Da Vinci apparently continued to work on it in Paris. It is said to have been added to the then growing Louvre collection in the year 1518, a year before the painter’s death. There it would remain for nearly four hundred years until an Italian patriot stole it in 1911 and was caught a couple of years later when he tried selling it to Uffizi Gallery in Florence. All for a fatuous painting of a lady with a vacuous smile. (“Blasphemy!”, I hear you cry. I had warned you that I’m a philistine.)
The museum tour also included French monarch’s crown jewels and tea things. By now, our feet were weeping for sympathy. But we coaxed them to bear (with) us just a bit more as we went in search of a possibly India section. All we could find was an Africa-Asia section in which – there is no subtle way of putting this – there was no Indian exhibit. Whether it was because they are stuffed in their vaults because visitors rarely go in search of Indian works of art, or because the French had not had the liberty of plundering India the way the British had had occasion to do, I leave it for the reader to infer.
Eventually, we returned to the Atrium and visited the bakery and ate some croissants. After that, it was time to find a metro station. Since the metro by definition was below the ground and the Atrium was too, the two had got together and conveniently built a station under the Louvre itself. From there, we got a train to Concorde and thence to Abbesses along the M12 route. Abbesses was the nearest station to Paris’ own Parangimalai called Montmartre. I had read of it in, of all subjects, Chemistry where the place had been introduced to me as an ancient gypsum mine and the reason why “Plaster of Paris” was called that.
The peak of Montmartre could be reached by foot, or through a funicular which ride was covered by our metro tickets. As had become the habit of Paris ever since we got here, Karthik’s ticket was thankfully received by the ticket slot, but when I put it into the slot in my gate, it refused entry with an embarrassing beep. After a few anxious moments, I was granted entry when I tried getting through the same gate as Karthik. The funicular was packed with tourists of roughly our age, and the way up was ridiculously short to warrant a funicular. On the way up we saw a tiny little pub where a guitar clad man was entertaining his audience with, I must say, very beautiful music.
In the climax of Thiruvilaiyadal, Parvathi (played by Savithri) tells her prodigal son Murugan that from that day, he, Murugan, shall be known as the one who resides on all hilltops. In Europe, this is roughly true of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Completely unsurprisingly, we found a Church at the peak of Montmartre. The Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart in English) was a large one with expansive steps leading up to it. These steps were used by the devout to unite with God and by the heathens to squat on and gape at Paris.
Our hostess had assured us that the view of Paris from atop the hill was one of the best. This, we would have consumed as gospel truth if we had not been to that other city called Florence. Granted, Paris was a most excellent city, but it was also a very large city and the sight of buildings extending to every corner of the horizon did not inspire the amount of awe that had been promised us. Besides, sunset in Paris was an hour later than sunset in Florence which meant that we would have to stay there until nine thirty. Since that was nearly three hours away, we decided that we would do a survey of the mountain and descend by foot. The survey included a peek into the Basilica and a stroll through the food street nearby. In this, we had Paris’s famous crêpe which is a kind of dosai with sugar in the batter. I can’t claim that I enjoyed it, but we were hungry and it went a tiny way in remedying that state of affairs.
We walked down the hill along roads meant for vehicular traffic (which once again begs the question, why do you need a funicular?) and reached another nearby metro station called Pigale. Here we found a Monop’ supermarket and restocked on the usual essentials. Before descending to the station proper, we sat on a couple of seats at a nearby bus stop and finished dinner amidst all the traffic and humanity. So hungry were we that we did not even notice that a poor soul sat right next to us not getting into any of the buses which came and went. Almost at the fag-end of our dinner, he morosely remarked “Bon appetit”, and walked away. Should we have offered him a slice, or would he have taken umbrage if we had? I will never know.
After our very public meal was over, we went through a trapdoor into Pigale metro station and caught the M2 and got down at Arc de Triomphe station. In Europe, the Idea of France or the Idea of Germany is inextricably linked to the language spoken by the majority there. (That begs the question, why a separate Austria etc? Hitler asked this very question and the rest is history.) There are other factors that go into nationhood as conceptualised by each country, such as religion (Protestant or Catholic). But the overriding consideration is language. (Switzerland is one country which defies all these metrics of nationality. If anything, autonomy is an idea which the Swiss can be claimed to be historical adherents of.)
Every city which claims to be the capital of a nation has a monument dedicated to the soldiers who fought wars at the cost of their lives to protect what constituted that country. We have our India Gate commemorating Indian lives lost all the way from the First World War. The Germans have the Brandenburg Gate of Prussian Vintage, the British have the Trafalgar Square, and the French their Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph). The monument was built in the days of Napoleon to commemorate one of his many victories. (This was also roughly the time when its British and German equivalents were raised.)
It is quite a tall structure with a paid lift that lets you get to the top. Karthik who went up, reported a breathtaking view of the immediate city. The Arch lay at the centre of twelve ramrod straight roads that radiated from it. I chose to do a couple of rounds of the Arch from ground level. The walls of the Arch had names of dead soldiers and on the floor there were many plaques which had famous wartime pronouncements. In the middle lay interred the remains of an unnamed soldier who had lost his life during World War I. The plaque that interested me the most contained the excerpts of a speech that Charles de Gaulle had given from the United Kingdom through radio in 1940 spurring the French Resistance to defy the Nazi Regime which had occupied Paris and Northern France by then. (One reason is probably because it was in French that was roughly understandable to me compared to the rest.)
That completed our survey of Paris for the day, and we decided to head back to our room. After a change of metros at Place de Clichy (“place de CLICHY?…. PLACE de clichy.”), we got out of Gabriel Péri and walked in the direction of the almost set Sun to our room. We found our ever smiling hostess watching football on TV. We bade her good night and one of the best, if most tiring, days of the tour came to an end.
We woke up at our usual 6 AM on Thursday the seventeenth of May, and packed our bags as promptly as possible except for the breakfast which, if my memory serves me right, was the last of the Masala Upma packets which was washed down with tea. “You do know zat you don’t need to wash the dishes, don’t you? You can just put zem in ze dishwasher,” remarked our hostess for the nth time as we cleaned the utensils which we had used. But cleaning up had been drilled into us by hostel life elsewhere and we did not feel comfortable leaving behind dirty dishes. We said bye to our motherly hostess with whom, in the time we had been her guests, we had become quite chummy. With our luggage, we walked back to Gabriel Péri metro station to catch the M13 and, like the previous day, changed over to the M2 at Place de Clichy. We got down at Barbès – Rochechouart metro station and, from there, walked to Paris Gare du Nord. (Rochechouart, despite its appearance is merely a word of two syllables. Indeed, one of the idiosyncrasies of the French language is the abundance of jobless letters in words.)
If Gare de Lyon was the way to reach Paris from the South, Gare du Nord was the way to go up North to Luxembourg, Belgium and, in our case, Netherlands where had begun our this journey. Thalys was the train company which plied that path. It also demanded a reservation to board any one of its high-speed trains to Amsterdam. (The non-reservation alternative took thrice as long to reach Amsterdam and involved several changes of trains.) We had one, the last and the most expensive (25 EUR) of its kind, as far as we were concerned. The train was scheduled to leave at 10:25. There was a long queue at the platform and something like checking although it was quite perfunctory and not to the extent the Eiffel Tower guards had gone (although our hostess had warned us that we might be subjected to piercing scrutiny. “Don’t be upset. Zey do ze same to us,”).
We reached our compartment and double checked our ticket to ensure we didn’t repeat the TGV fiasco. This train too was packed to capacity. We found our seats and planted our Tashreef there. It was with heavy hearts that we left Paris. Paris, of all the places we had been to, was where we had felt most at home. The feeling at the back of one’s neck of people looking at one as though one were from Andromeda was conspicuous in its absence here. The metro stations with the fruit-vendors and trumpeters, the packed metros trains with the sing-song announcements, the quiet “bon appetit” of complete strangers to one another, and the omnipresent music and laughter, among many other things, made Paris very special to us. “À bientôt,” we told dear Paris and the train was off.