France: Capital times

By Paula Oliver

AS the taxi wound its way into Paris on a cold Sunday morning, I pressed my nose against the window trying to figure out which part of the city the little car was zipping through.

Around a corner and through an intersection we hurtled, along largely empty streets as most Parisians were wisely sleeping at this early hour.

Then, suddenly, there it was.

Down a long avenue, with the first rays of morning sunshine beaming straight through it, stood the magnificent Arc de Triomphe.

Just as suddenly it was gone again as we raced into the street where my bags and I were dropped at the hotel that would be my home for the next five nights.

I had been to Paris 10 years earlier, twice in fact, and was confident before leaving New Zealand that the standard touristy landmarks wouldn't be for me. I had seen them all, climbed most of them and was ready to look at new things.

But there is something breathtaking about turning a corner and seeing the Eiffel Tower, or the Louvre, or the picturesque Seine, or the Arc de Triomphe. A special something that I suspect never completely disappears.

My trip to Paris this time was not only a working journey but also an opportunity to catch up with a London-based New Zealand friend who made the short hop across the channel for some quality girl-time, along with a few good French vins.

We left the lads behind and set about seeing as much of Paris as we could in the wee gaps between talking and sampling the city's food and wine.

I began with a brisk morning walk through the city centre, as a stunning pink tinge was cast across the buildings and monuments by the early morning sun.

Almost no one was on the Champs Elysee; it was too early for the locals, aside from the overly happy ones coming out of chic nightclubs at 7.15am.

Street cleaners glanced at me and smiled as I strolled past with the sun shining into my face, marvelling at the beauty of the city. Perhaps I had a silly grin on my face.

Down to the Louvre and along the banks of the Seine I went, noticing the number of environmentally friendly Smart cars parked tightly along the sides of the streets.

Several hours of walking around the best-known sights of Paris was enough to remind me that the flight over had been long and I went back to the hotel for a big sleep.

The train out to Versailles rumbled along, and our stomachs felt all the better for a short detour into a boulangerie on the way for croissants and half a pain au chocolat each.

We got out of the two-storey carriage at Versailles Rive Gauche station after a half-hour ride and walked the few hundred metres amongst the tourist throng to the enormous Chateau de Versailles.

Built during the reign of Louis XIV in the mid-17th century, the chateau has about 700 rooms, and beyond it huge gardens stretch as far as the eye can see.

I had been inside the palace before and felt fairly confident that it wouldn't have changed too much since I last visited.

But the gardens were something neither of us had seen, and we wandered down past the chateau, through a building to the gardens which were free to enter.

Renovations of the gardens and tidying up of statues have been going on for years _ and still are. Undeterred, we took the advice of our Lonely Planet book, headed for the bicycle rental centre and pedalled away at the cost of 6 ($10) an hour, bells ringing, through the geometric garden paths.

It was a relaxing and flat ride, and we discovered a strange English-feeling village of thatched-roof buildings, built for Marie Antoinette in the 1700s.

Many photos later we took a ride around the edge of the gardens and found more buildings, before we headed up to the food stall and found a seat to enjoy our baguettes and bieres beside the Grand Canal.

The gardens seemed to go on forever, and when it came time to hand back our bikes we weren't at all confident we'd seen everything so we headed back up to the chateau and lined up to hire what looked like an oversized golf cart to drive ourselves around the remaining bits.

We set the voice guide on to English and drove the mapped-out track, laughing as sporadic opera singing burst out of our speakers as we rolled over the bumps at a great pace.

At 28 an hour the vehicle wasn't cheap, but it was fun. By the time we parked it was 5.30pm and we realised we had been there since noon.

The gardens are a must-see for everyone - even those of us who don't know a geranium from a rhododendron.

Tourists to Paris must also take time to experience the huge number of eateries.

We found the perfect place a few streets away from the busy streets around Sacre Coeur, and sat at a pavement table to enjoy delicious salad-based dishes and glasses of wine, then half a plate of profiteroles each.

Another time we ventured into a small supermarket with a stunning range of cheeses and other nibbles in a brilliant display. We could have stayed for hours. We even found a Lebanese restaurant.

But it was the poulet and pommes frites at the bistro which made us really feel we were in Paris.

One night we popped in to a jazz bar and heard a big band for the price of a cocktail. A pair of middle-aged French businessmen spent the next hour trying to communicate with us in an amusing mix of broken English and French. It was fun although the men looked a little disappointed when we decided it was time to move on to the next venue.

From museums to galleries to landmarks to shops, the city is a delight. You can even have a tour of the sewers.

Sure, like every city there are downsides. The beggars at every landmark eventually became annoying. They even asked for leftover chips at McDonald's.

Getting around Paris either on the Metro or on foot was easy and our stuttering French was enough to get us by. The locals were mainly friendly and happy to see that we at least tried to speak the language that they are so proud of.

There are many good vantage points from which to look over Paris but the most spectacular is up the 300 steps that lead to the dome of the Basilica at Sacre Coeur.

Just when you think it's really not worth the effort and are wondering why you paid 5 for the privilege, you pop out into the sunshine and are treated to a 360 degree view of the city.

You really can see for miles on a clear day and for us it was the perfect way to finish a trip that had been a wonderful time to catch up and experience the French capital.

*Paula Oliver flew to Paris courtesy of Singapore Airlines.

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