Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sunday in Montmartre & On The Champs Elysées

There is so much to see and do in Paris, from early in the morning until late at night. Even on a Sunday, this city is buzzing with activity. Last weekend we spent a lazy Sunday exploring some of our favourite parts of this marvelous city.

We started off with a light breakfast in a small café on the Avenue de la Grande Armée. It was a typical French breakfast - café au lait, hot croissants and tartine (crusty French bread with butter and jam). It’s a simple start to the day but an incredibly delicious one. We then headed off on the Metro to the amazing Paris district of Montmartre.

The Paris Metro is quite easy to get around on once you get the hang of it. The secret is to know not only where you want to go, but also the name of the station at the end of the line your destination is on (in the direction you are going). You can buy tickets for unlimited travel on the Metro as well. We bought three day tickets - but you can purchase anything from one day right on up to annual tickets - the more days you buy, the cheaper your ticket proportionally becomes. If you are staying in the main part of Paris, you need only buy a ticket for Zones 1 and 2.

We were staying near to Port Maillot so hopped on the metro there and travelled to Auber, which is at the bottom of Montmartre. If you want to see the famous Moulin Rouge, get off one stop earlier at Pigalle, but I recommend you get back on the Metro to travel to Auber. It is not a long walk, but it is the red light district!

Once we had arrived at Auber, we began the long climb up the winding streets heading for the beautiful Sacre Coeur. Not for the faint of heart, Montmartre is almost always crowded and noisy and it’s uppermost point is reached by way of what seems like a thousand stairs. There is a funicular running up and down the side of the hill, but the queues are so long that even the most unfit of visitors usually abandons waiting and braves the climb. Sadly this climb involves fending off many touts and pickpockets, keeping your eyes open on all sides and avoiding all the people trying to either block your way or get your attention. The latest trick in Paris is the “dropped ring” - whereby someone stoops down and seems to retrieve a gold ring from the ground and then thrusts it in your face asking if it belongs to you. The ring has actually come from their sleeve and this tactic is designed to distract you so they can steal your bag or pick your pockets. Just grab on to your things and push past them so that they cannot take what is rightfully yours. Groups of touts will often block your way trying to get you to buy things - but again the best policy is to power on through - putting your hand up in front of your face if necessary in order to move them from your personal space. A quick “Non, merci” normally disperses them. All this is quite ordinary in Europe, but always comes as a surprise to me. It is worth braving all the nonsense though as you are rewarded with the vista of one of the most beautiful churches in the world, and a view over Paris which cannot be beaten.

Whether you are a Christian or not, it is hard to fail to be moved by the Sacre Coeur. The beautiful white facade leads to more gorgeousness within. Don’t forget to look up - the ceilings are quite amazing. This is a much lighter and brighter church than the famous Notre Dame. For this reason it is a much more uplifting place to visit. It’s a bit like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral in London. I always come out of Westminster Abbey feeling very depressed and tired, but St Paul’s Cathedral lifts you up and makes you feel wonderful. Having said that, the rose windows at the Notre Dame in Paris are well worth seeing and Westminster Abbey in London is so historic you really don’t want to miss it either! Anyway, I always come out of the Sacre Coeur feeling somehow energised, on both a physical and spiritual level. Incidentally, for an even better view of the city below, you can climb to the top of the Sacre Coeur, although I have yet to actually try this as it seems a very long way up - particularly after the climb to get up to the church.

After you have visited the Sacre Coeur, you can walk round the back towards the artists’ quarter. Before you have taken more than a few steps, the first of the artists offering to draw your portrait or do a caricature of you will begin to approach you. They are friendly souls and really don’t mean any harm. I’ve never availed myself of their services, being rather put off by the length of time it takes to be drawn! If you do have the time and inclination to sit for a portrait, it is probably better to wait until you reach the actual artist’s quarter itself - the square absolutely full of artist’s easels and wares - before having a portrait done. This way you can see the previous works of the artist before you choose them, and you can usually sit down whilst being drawn - neither of which you can do if you choose a wandering artist, although the prices do reflect this.

There are paintings of every description in the artists’ quarter - priced to suit just about any taste and pocket. Most of the artists even take credit cards these days. The square is lined with cafés and galleries as well. You could spend hours up here, although I usually find that the crowds are so intense that after an hour or so I have had enough. We spent a very pleasant morning here on Sunday though.

After walking back down the hill or taking the funicular, you can take the metro from Auber to just about anywhere. Another great place to go on a Sunday is the Champs Elysées. There are more local people out on the Champs on a Sunday, and this makes people watching even more interesting. If you want to start at the bottom and walk the length of the Champs Elysées, try getting off the metro at the Tuillleries or Place de la Concorde (known in the Metro as just ‘Concorde’). We are standing just across from here in the photo above. From here you can walk all the way to the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a little over a mile and a quarter, but it is a fantastic walk. You can climb up the Arc de Triomphe as well, which is a very pleasant way to spend an hour or so as the climb is divided into sections, with floors of things to look at about the Arc’s history in between the stairways. The view from the top is wonderful.

Lined with shops, cafés and restaurants, the Champs Elysées has been the place for the fashionable to see and be seen since the late 1700’s. Shopping ranges from the inexpensive (at Monoprix) to the very expensive (at luxury boutiques like Louis Vuitton). Not all the shops are open on Sundays, but this makes it great for window shopping and much safer for your budget! Dining ranges from fairly expensive to very expensive, but there is nothing like sitting in a restaurant or café overlooking the Avenue. A great place for lunch or dinner on the Champs is Pizza Pino (just near the Metro stop Franklin D Roosevelt on the corner of the Champs and the rue de Marignan). Their delicious food offers great value for money and the staff are very welcoming and friendly. The 21st Century Husband has been eating here since he was a student twenty years ago, and their Escalope Milanese is one of our family favourites. Or try the French version of fast food just off the Champs Elysées on the Rue de Marignan at The Entrecôte. We always have their famous ‘Formule’ - a delicious walnut salad followed by beef steak and French fries with the most delicious sauce. The fries are unlimited - as is the sauce - so feel free to ask for more!

If you are anything like we were you will return to your hotel exhausted after a day like this, but it is worth it. We walked for miles but had such a lovely time. I do suggest finishing the day back at your hotel as we did - by cracking open a bottle of champagne (purchased earlier and chilled with ice in the hotel sink) and drinking a toast to the wonderful City of Light.

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