Paris: City of Light at end of the tunnel

By Linda Herrick

The glorious Eiffel Tower in Paris. Photo / Jim Eagles
The glorious Eiffel Tower in Paris. Photo / Jim Eagles

Linda Herrick refuses to let an accommodation blunder hinder her much-anticipated Parisian holiday.

Day 1

7am: After two 12-hour flights have arrived in Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, northeast of Paris. Am scrambled with excitement at the prospect of being in the City of Light for a couple of weeks, a holiday I've been dreaming of, saving for, for years. Grab luggage, and wait outside Gate 8 for shuttle bus, booked online.

8.30am: Shuttle finally arrives. Driver surly. Note for future reference: don't use shuttle but more reliable Air France buses (€15) which run between the airports (Charles-de-Gaulle and Orly) and inner-city stations (Gares de Lyon and Montparnasse) and taxi from there.

9.30am: Shuttle drops me off on Rue de la Roquette, Bastille, where I have booked an apartment online - and paid €900 in advance for two weeks' accommodation. Assumed the apartment service, which operates various places across Paris, was secure as a friend had used them a year ago.

But have developed a wee nag of worry because I couldn't get hold of "employee" Sebastien on his mobile when I rang from the airport, as instructed to do. But now he answers and says he'll come and meet me, on the street. Sebastien is a stocky, middle-aged man. Forget about a "Welcome to Paris". His first grimly delivered words are: "You cannot stay in the apartment - it's been flooded."

Next: "But I have another apartment in the 7th Arrondissement you can stay in. Very nice. Same rate - but for one week, not two. Then you have to leave."

Merde! This is a situation I am unprepared for. But Sebastien is. Flourishing a "contract", he instructs me to sign, or find my own alternatives. Disbelief, accompanied by a suitcase and jetlag, is not conducive to clarity. I've got to have a roof over my head. So I stupidly, naively sign away one week's worth of accommodation, and lose €450 of my Paris budget. That's NZ$920 worth of shopping money.

We take a cab away from the district I wanted to be in, and across the Seine to the Left Bank. Sebastien indulges in a non-stop moan: he's German, came to Paris in 1972, Paris is too crowded these days (tourists? immigrants?), he's a socialist, his tenants - thanks a lot - are unreliable, filthy, dishonest, addicted to porn.

When we pass the exquisite golden Hotel des Invalides, home to Napoleon's tomb, I try to lighten the conversation and remark on its beauty. "No," snaps Sebastien. "Napoleon was a mass murderer."

When we get to our destination, he has no cash. I pay for the cab. Up two flights of wobbly stairs, and Sebastien conducts a three-turn manoeuvre with keys to fling open the door. Voila! An airless bright pink cavern with paper thin orange curtains and artificial flowers on every surface. It's on a corner site, with buses and cars charging along both sides, and the thundering Metro directly opposite. The small lounge has three windows with a view on to a sheltered concrete square which is, I quickly discover, permanent home to a family of three aged junkies/alcoholics and their rather beautiful golden dog. Over the next seven days, I will get to know the routine of these junkies well: they sleep through the day on dirty little mattresses, interspersed by nocturnal bouts of shouting, drinking, vomiting, staggering. The dog looks bored and anxious.

Before he leaves, Sebastien instructs me to never, ever open the windows ("the soot comes in and makes everything black") and by Christ, don't flood the cafe below. As soon as he leaves, I open the windows (deafening roar) and take a shower (the drainage is so slow the shower nearly floods).

Day 2

Am determined this debacle is not going to ruin my dream. Walk from the apartment at Blvd Pasteur along a park on Avenue de Breteuil towards Hotel des Invalides, founded by Sun King Louis XIV in 1671 to shelter wounded war veterans. One wing, facing a topiary garden, still functions as a hospital for army retirees, while other parts of the building house a military museum, the Eglise St-Louis and Dome des Invalides, the royal chapel.

Walk across Pont de la Concorde and along the right bank of the Seine, heading east - the shops on this stretch are devoted to plants and pets - until I reach Blvd Diderot, home to Gare de Lyon and a cafe recommended by a friend, Entre Les Vignes. Lunch - ravioli, filled with the lightest ricotta with a creamy sauce tinted by mint and parsley, followed by the most refreshing green salad (€20) - perks my spirits up.

Outside, it is windy, and rain is pouring down, which sort of reflects my mood. I do what I have vowed never to do and board a tourist double-decker bus, to escape the wind and get my bearings. The sun comes out on Blvd Raspail, in the 6th, St Germain des Pres area, and I stumble across a colourful food market on Rue Daguerre (14th), near Cimetiere du Montparnasse. Camembert, bread and traiteur de la mer (seafood salad) will be my repast in my noisy, nasty pink apartment tonight.

Day 3

Boo hoo. Not sleeping well. Furious with Sebastien (and myself). Awoken about 5am by the sound of a woman singing loudly on the street. Look out bedroom window, blazing with light due to huge orange street lamp, to see a woman dressed from head to toe in red, wearing sunglasses and holding a long furled umbrella. Every time someone passes, she whistles as if she is calling a dog. Perhaps she is. She is there until 8am, when the drug clinic next door opens.

Get a taxi (including a whirl around the Arc de Triomphe) to Les Puces aux Clignancourt, the largest flea market in the world, in St Ouen, just out of Paris, which opens Saturday-Monday. It's a boggling array of alleys, shops, stalls and cafes, and a tantalising glimpse of what you could sweep up if you had serious money, a container and shipping service at your disposal. I buy a table cloth.

Back in town, cruise around the Musee d'Orsay (Rue de Lille, 7th), where I especially admire the sculptures but get annoyed by Asian tourists darting around taking photos and videoing each other without looking at the art. This will be a continuing irritant in every gallery/museum I visit.

Day 4

Sunday morning: Eiffel Tower about 15 minutes away so set off for the Parc du Champ de Mars, alive with kids playing soccer, family groups strolling, and people walking their dogs. Get approached by a girl in Romanian gypsy garb asking if I speak English. This is a begging trick; if you say yes, they hand over a piece of paper saying their mother/sisters/aunts have leukaemia and can you give money? Another con (my plumber in Auckland had told me about this) is the "wedding ring", "found" at your feet and offered with the proviso you pay for it, with the likely result that your wallet will be nicked. It's a mad ploy. The gypsy beggars are all over the tourist hot spots. Just walk away.

Day 5

Must find new apartment. Track down agency Paris Appartements Services, in Rue Bachaumont, Montmartre, where the efficient Marie-Claude looks aghast when I tell her about Sebastien and his one week for two weeks' pay deal. She advises a complaint to Office de Tourisme et des Congres de Paris. On a brighter note, she has some lovely looking apartments on her website. Book one in Rue Vieille du Temple in the heart of the Marais and skip out to lunch, then a wander through St-Eustache (built 1532-1640), near Les Halles, to give a heartfelt blessing. Feel like a local when, walking along the banks of the Seine, an American jogger asks me where is the Seine. "That's not the Seine, is it?" she says, pointing at the river. "That's a moat or something?"

Day 6

Feeling even more like a local, I take the Air France bus to Orly airport to meet a friend from Sydney who's travelling around Europe. Show her some sights near the Blvd Pasteur apartment - she too is fascinated by the junkies and the dog.

Day 7

Destination Versailles. We get the Metro from Sevres-Le Courbe to L'Italie, change to Austerlitz line then wait for RER train to our royal destination. Am expecting gold-covered train with plumes and insignia but it's a shabby, graffiti-covered double decker. At Versailles, we wander the acres of gardens, finding at the far eastern area Marie Antoinette's eccentric English farmlet, Hameau de la Reine, where she pretended to be a milkmaid to escape the reality of what lay ahead. Her head. The vegetable gardens are maintained to this day by tenants who live in the quaint Potter-esque cottages.

Back at the chateau, with fatigued legs on fire, find we are locked into a one-way system of moving along. When we try to get out after the Hall of Mirrors, we are scolded, but flee anyway. An hour later, back at Blvd Pasteur a cold beer at O'Kafe, the scruffy cafe beneath the apartment, vanishes within seconds.

Day 8

Raining. Bus to high-end fashion street Blvd St Germain where we discover the Sonia Rykiel boutique. I buy a black and white striped top that's almost a parody of French style. We are looking shabby, with wet hair. The shop assistant can't bear to look at us as she completes the transaction and says, to the air, "Goodbye!" Outside, we burst out laughing.

Rang Sebastien last night to say I was getting out one day early. Typically, he couldn't understand why I am annoyed with him. After all, he says, I had signed "the contract".

We move to the Marais apartment - it's fabulous, large, clean, no artificial flowers - then I dash back to hand over the key. Over a coffee at O'Kafe, I tell Sebastien - just to push him - he has caused me stress. "Stress?!" he cries, opening his shirt. "This is stress!" as he shows off scars from heart surgery. Yes, it's all about him. Am glad to see the back of him, but sorry to farewell the dog, last seen frisking around the concrete square with a piece of plastic bag in its mouth.

And so, off to Marais, which proved to be a 100 per cent heavenly Parisian experience.

Footnote: A week after my return to Auckland, Sebastien's business partner emailed to say they had sold all the apartments and taken their website down because of "stress". "Bon vent." Good riddance. I found most people I encountered in Paris helpful, friendly and charming. On the other hand, thanks to Sebastien, I had also seen a side of Paris I would otherwise never have come across.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies daily from Auckland to Paris via Hong Kong.

Finding an apartment To book an apartment, see paris-apts.com; paris-appartements-services.com; or en.parisinfo.com, the website for the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau, where you'll also find information on restaurants and cafes, museums and monuments, maps and transport, what's on, shopping and fashion, tips and tours, and plenty of practical tips. If you are unfortunate to find yourself in a similar apartment situation, don't do as I did. Demand an immediate refund, find a hotel and from there, book an apartment via the above. Any problems, mention the visitors bureau. Try to avoid Paris in August when it is congested with tourists and many Parisians flee town for their own holidays.

Linda Herrick paid her own way to Paris via Cathay Pacific and finally found a good apartment via paris-apts.com.

- NZ Herald

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