Tales of People Watching in Paris

sacre coeurAside from one or two pre-agreed must-dos I travel on a pretty tight budget most of the time. In eagerness to visit as many places as possible, I sacrifice that extra spending money and opt to fill the time sheet with free activities. But there are only so many museums one can visit. In Paris, Jack and I ended up spending the better part of our last day people watching.

People Watching
the action or practice of spending time idly observing people in a public place.

People watching was not the plan we started out with when we packed our bottles of water and ham & cheese sandwiches into my backpack. Jack and I set off in the morning on a long looped walk from Père Lachaise Cemetery to the Sacré-Cœur. The walk took most of the morning. Eventually, we crested the top of the hill where the Sacré-Cœur is perched.

I don’t think the idea of laying your jacket on a damp bench appealed to many people. The tourists walking up from the metro were only stopping for the requisite photograph of the steps. After traversing the steps for a while, Jack and I decided to take a damp bench, unwrap our sandwiches and watch.

What we saw was both hilarious and disturbing in equal measure. When we had arrived there had been three bike mounted police at the landmark which meant that the hawkers and scammers had all fled to the top of the hill. Not long after we arrived, they hopped on their bikes and left.

Their place was taken by three people, two men and a woman, navy blue ‘surveillance’ jackets. We tried to work out who they were and what their actual point was. They yelled at a Japanese man who tried to set up a tripod at the base of the steps. The man was startled but complied and he and his very Vogue team of film makers continued on up the steps. At the same time, the hawkers were descending. A small group of men of African descent were gathering around a tourist whose hand was completely entwined in string. This is a so-called ‘African friendship bracelet.’ They didn’t let the man go before a €50 note was exchanged (a €5 having been refused). Yet the blue-jacketed crowed watched, approached but ultimately did nothing.

After the tourist escaped – pockets significantly lighter – the jackets had some kind of conversation with the hawkers. They then moved to the balustrade near where we were seated and remained there. Jack and I then took up a solid 15 minutes of watching people trying, and failing, to avoid being accosted by the men with string. Some people hand their hands in their pockets. Those who did not were grabbed, groped and harassed. And the string me weaseled big note after big note from their victims.

We tried to work out the hierarchy. It was mesmerising and terrifying. Was no one else seriously observing this as we were? The man speaking in an American accent having some serious business conversation on the next bench over seemed to give precisely zero cares. A man skipped passed a string man but his less wary girlfriend was snatched by the arm and it took all of her nervous laughter and wriggling to get away (We were a bit disappointed Mr Boyfriend didn’t grow a bigger set and help her). Another Asian tourist, travelling on his own, was not so lucky. He was cornered by several men at the base of the stairs, arm tied in string, and was not released without money being exchanged. These guys basically had their hands in his wallet.

And then they were running. The string men. They dashed up the stairs and scattered as the police returned on their bicycles. Jack and I found ourselves laughing out loud at the sight. One of the police caught our eye and smiled. Jack gave him a thumbs up. We were discussing the hilariousness of this when something unexpected happened. The police were talking to the blue-jacket guys. Voices started to get raised. A female cop looked at her companion and they got off the bikes. Then it descended into blows! One of the blue jackets and one of the cops trading punches. The female cop was on the radio and within literal seconds an undercover car had arrived and men in civilians were carting off this ‘surveillance’ lad.

If there were ever a time I sincerely wished I spoke French, it was then.

eiffel tower

After the excitement of the Sacré-Cœur the weather started to clear. I begged Jack to go back to the Eiffel Tower for one last photo attempt. He agreed and we hopped back on the metro to Trocadero station.

It did not disappoint. I finally got my blue-skied photo – even if there was construction work that meant I couldn’t stand dead centre. After a million photographs, we decided to have another go a people watching and took up a place on a bench near the fountain.

The ethnic hold over this spot was completely different to the Sacré-Cœur. European hawkers and scammers were set up at regular intervals around the fountain in groups of about five or six. The game here was a ‘find the ball’-type of game. A ball is hidden under one of three cups, they bet a couple of €50 amongst themselves and try to get tourists to watch, think they can win, place a bet and ultimately lose all their money. I named this game ‘Flip Cup’.

Our bunch comprised of an older man flipping the cups, a slightly thicker blonde-died woman, a younger woman in black pig tales and three other men all in jeans. They looked utterly ambivalent going through the motions of the game. That was until a tourist passed. Then they would all applaud to try and draw attention to their game.

They were reasonably successful, too. Umbrella man, teal puffer jacket, asian girls, and couple-now-headed-for-divorce, all lost fifties to this little syndicate.

We were in a bit of an awkward position. We knew these unsuspecting victims were getting drawn into a well-established hustle. Although we would audibly cry, “No, don’t do it!” to each other, it was out of earshot of the circle of cup-switchers. I don’t think those groups of six or more hustlers, scammers and lookouts would let us affect such a juicy spot as the Trocadero. If we caused any real damage to their game we would have been putting ourselves in a dangerous position.

We even identified their pimp or lookout or whatever he was. The man who would indicate for the group to split up or return (we tried to keep track of them as they all walked off in different directions only to reassemble a few minutes later).

There were plenty of other dodgey people at the Effiel Tower it was hard to tell who was genuine. There was a group of three men who asked me to take their photo, which I did with my lookout Jack on guard. That seemed harmless enough, only they spent the better part of twenty minutes taking photos of the tower and asking passers by to take their photo. I began to doubt myself with them. It was too weird.

Even after we called it a day, we left with renewed wits after watching so much money being so easily taken from tourists. Thank goodness we kept up our A game as the Malaysian woman beside us on the metro got pick-pocketed of her passport. A fellow traveller saw it in action, called it out and I think they got everything back.

The strangest moment of all was Jack and I saying to each other how much we were looking forward to going back to Belfast so we could feel safe again. I don’t know if that’s something we would have said thirty years ago.

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Power and Diplomacy in Versailles

versailles france hall stone statue

Last week I sent my hard drive down to Dublin in Tiernan’s car glove box, which made it really difficult to get photos for this post. But here it is. And with another closure of Versailles today it seems fitting to post another Versailles-themed blog.

So, the notorious queues of Versailles had ended up taking an unanticipated format with the strike action. When we eventually got inside the palace, I was eager to see what all the hype was about. My work colleagues and guidebooks had agreed that the interiors of Versailles are beautiful; culminating in the outrageously ornate Hall of Mirrors. Definitely worth seeing.

Sadly, we were encouraged not to linger in any of the rooms due to the number of people following on behind. My hopes of stopping for photographs were mostly dashed just by the sheer number of people. When we left in the mid afternoon most of the lines had vanished. If I ever get to go again, I think I’ll wait until almost closing to visit the Palace. Perhaps I can get some of those sans people photos that grace blogs like Kevin & Amanda!

Still, it was absolutely beautiful. This was the seat of French power and majesty from the 17th Century until the French Revolution. Everything was covered in a thick layer of gold – particularly on the street facing side of the palace.

The first thing we noticed was that the palace is comprised of deceptively narrow buildings. I’m not sure how well I can describe that. If you are looking up from the gardens or from the road, Versailles appears to be broad and imposing. Yet the buildings are only a couple of rooms deep. Look at this floor plan I took from Wikipedia to see what I mean:

Plans_du_rez-de-chaussée_et_du_premier_étage_du_palais_de_Versailles,_Éditeur_Gavard,_premier_étage_-_Gallica_2011_(detail,_color-coded)

We were rapidly swept about by the wave of people. Starting in the yellow area – the Royal Chapel – we seemed to fly through the King’s State Apartments to the Hall of Mirrors mercilessly. Everyone wanted to see the room on the postcards!

Built by Louis XIV, the Hall of Mirrors saw footfall as part of the King’s daily commute around the palace and also as a ballroom for major celebrations. It is strange to think that now trodden by thousands of tourists every day.  It would have been nice to linger, to think about how almost 100 years ago the Treaty of Versailles was signed here; bringing an official end to the First World War. Or about the parties and other diplomacies that must have happened there. To be honest, I have probably thought more about it now, writing this post, than I did while in that room.

versailles hall mirrors

When I visit a country I try to get a good look at their patterns and textiles. In fact, it might even be worth a blog in itself. These are the designs that signify a culture! France is a flourishing feast of upholstery. This chair, for example, would look utterly out of place in my house, but I wants it.

Actually, I met a girl, also named Rachel, in Morocco who studied textile design and felt up everything from rugs to pashminas. I really think she was on to something there and travelling through France and Italy has made me appreciate the use of fabric a whole lot more.

The only downside to Versailles interiors is: there isn’t enough of them! Aside from the two major bedrooms and some hall furniture, this is not a fully furnished palace. It’s the frescoes, the detail in the actual architecture you are visiting for, which – to me – is a bit of a shame. It really has been a long time since Versailles was the bustling heart of the French court.

We swept through the palace because we knew there was an awful lot more to see at Versailles. In fact, we did not even touch Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon or hamlet. After losing several hours to the queue, there just wasn’t time. Instead we spent several hours meandering through this:

Since our lovely American friends had supplied us with the palace tickets, we only had to purchase garden ones. Enormous scope aside, the gardens feel outrageous and grand as you move from hedged section to section to the wafting sounds of baroque music from hidden speakers. No picture can actually capture the sensation of sitting on a marble bench, watching a fountain play.

The gardens at Versailles are very structured. This symmetrical style became so iconically French that it took on the name “French Garden” (Jardin à la françaiseand other European houses would attempt to emulate it. Even one of my Irish faves – Powerscourt, is like a little Versailles in that respect.

Although there is something appealing about the patterns and balance of a French formal garden, I really missed the flowers which were starting to come out at Mount Stewart. Walking down the wide boulevards made the thousands of hectares really feel like thousands of hectares!

All the walking rapidly gave me some very serious shin splints! But there were so many positive things to reflect on: making new friends en queue, seeing the beauty of the hall of mirrors, and wandering to one of my favourite genres of music.

If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it.

A Strike Won’t Stop Us Seeing Versailles


Our game plan had been decided, mostly, by consulting the weather and Instagram. Despite strolling through Place de la République the evening before and seeing the statue of Marianne (the personification of the French Republic) thoroughly defaced by protestors (she was only just cleaned up in 2013), we did not really register that outrage at recent labour law changes would affect our touristy endeavours.

After absorbing the advice of my ‘Living Planet’ app, Jack and I agreed that our first full day, Tuesday, would be the best day to visit Versailles. It was due to be clear and sunny all day. I have had plenty of chances to photograph landmarks in Paris, so we allocated Versailles the best of our time. Additionally, the Chateau and gardens were the only things Jack had really wanted to see.

My nose was grazing the ceiling when the alarm went off at 6am. I was the delicious filling in a very thin sandwich between the loft bed and the roof. Clambering down required some skill in horizontal shimmying, like coming out of a pizza over. From that day on, we pulled the mattress down onto the studio apartment floor at nights – just to avoid feeling like flatbread.

Sufficiently extracted from the loft and thrown into clothing, we left Rue de Marseilles just before 7am and legged it back down to Place de la République to ride the metro, then an overland train, 1 hour to the suburb of Versailles. Jack did most of the navigating as I seemed to get turned around at every, single station on this journey. He procured our tickets for EUR7.10 each and found us our way on to the yellow, RER C line which terminates at Versailles Chantiers.


All the advice we had read online indicated that we absolutely needed to be at the entrance before it opened. Combined with the inability to buy tickets off the website the night before, we found ourselves rocking up the broad walk of the Chateau just after 8am. We were met with locked gates and a yellow sign reading ‘Due to Strike Action, opening of the Palace will be delayed’ which was surrounded by a small number of confused looking tourists. This sign, I might add, was not just printed off Microsoft Word that morning. It was a substantial, professionally provided number that indicated it is a sign regularly called for.

I had been on Versaille’s website the night before, trying in vain to purchase tickets, and there had been nothing at all about a strike there. To find out more, we began chatting to some other tourists: particularly two couples from the US. I pulled out my trusty iDevice and delved into the dubious world of EU roaming. Armed with Twitter, I became a valuable asset to our little team of investigators as we learned that strikes happen fairly regularly (as we had guessed from that substantial sign) and that we would know more at about 10am (one hour after the normal opening time of 9am).

A strike notice had now miraculously appeared on the Versailles website and a rather pompous tweet reply to another concerned visitor stated that the strike had been ‘broadly advertised’ – we laughed. In fact, Twitter became quite the resource! As a queue began to form I decided to tweet others on line.

twittertweeting

It wasn’t looking good. Word began to spread that Versailles would not be opening at 10am as we were hoping and the next update would be at 11am. One of the US couples couldn’t wait (they had to drop their hire car back). Fortunately, they had been able to visit the gardens on Monday, so they didn’t leave completely empty-handed. They were not the first. Coach groups were arriving and leaving by the bus load; unable to stray from their tight schedules. We waved them goodbye and good luck. Jack and I, along with a couple from Fort Lauderdale, were going to wait it out. As they were leaving, the first couple turned back to us:

Them: “Do you have tickets?”
Us: “No, we weren’t able to get on the website.”
Them: “Here, take our tickets for the Palace. Someone might as well use them.”
Us:

dawsons creek thank you

And they left.

Twenty minutes later, yellow-clad staff began to descend from the Chateau. Jack and I clasped hands and the gates were swung open and the line – which had grown to consume the entire broad walk and was looping around the corner – surged forward. It’s the first time we’ve held hands since we were about 5 and 10 years old.

We paced meaningfully towards the Palace entrance and were almost at the front of what became another queue. That American couple saved us from having to buy tickets and potential wait for further hours. We owe them big and will be paying it forward at the first opportunity!

When the Palace was opened just in time for 11am, we were skipping passed the Japanese tourists, up marble stairs and in.

versailles rachel

The real kicker was that if we had waited until the mid-afternoon, we’d have had the Palace to ourselves!

I <3 Disney

ceuro paris disney fairytale castle christmas
Every so often I find that I need a large shot of Disney. It’s an unofficial bucket list dream of mine to visit all the Disney Parks. Complete immersion in the comfort of my childhood (adulthood) favourite films just takes my cares away!

I was 17 before I first went to Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, although the vast majority of my friends have never been at all. Disney is prohibitively distant from New Zealand for a lot of people. When will there be a Disneyland Oz? We can call it D’Oz for short.

While living in the Philippines, Tiernan and I took a quick jump to Japan and visited Tokyo Disney. It was my birthday, a terribly wet day and unbelievably crowded. With that experience still fresh in mind I tacked on a Disney visit to our Parisian Honeymoon.

disney resort balloon sequoia lodge

Our Disney Package

And so I splurged as I have never splurged before and bought a Golden Forest Package online at Disney.com.

Half board was more than sufficient and seems to have shown some foresight on my part; as I was sick, I still was not really eating by the time we go to Disney. Half board meant we had a meal ticket, to be used on lunch or dinner, that could be used at various restaurants throughout Disneyland and the resort. I crunched some quick numbers and over four days it saved us about €300 in onsite meals.

We also got tea time tokens we never used. They would have gotten us a drink and snack between certain hours. Turned out we did not need it because Golden Forest rooms at Sequoia Lodge (a 3 Mickey-Key Head hotel in the resort) get access to a special lounge with unlimited non-alcoholic bevs! Tiernan and I took a tea break in there every evening after coming back from the park.

rapunzel Disneyland paris tangled

Hotel bookings come with complimentary additional fast-passes on top of your park ticket. At no point did Tiernan and I have to queue for anything. Tiernan is not a big rides guy so only I went on the coasters. Two rides a day really maxed us out.

The room was huge, too, and the staff were all amazing. I feel compelled to find a downside and for me it was the ambient music they would play every day between 7.30am and about 11pm. I would find myself waking up early with a sense of dread and eventually realised that it was because I hate that music.

Oh! And another thing! Disney hotels also have a surprisingly limited selection of Disney films on their TVs… they do not even need to purchase the rights!

Moving right along!

cinderella disneyland paris

Tactics

I referred to our adventure to Tokyo Disney earlier and how it was jam-packed; when I knew we would be visiting Euro Disney I assumed we would have the same problems. Completely opposite experience! Queuing was not an issue, and not just because of the fast passes. I found that Paris in November was nowhere near as crowded as Tokyo in April. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Our trip was planned for two full days and a half day.

merida selfie disneyland paris

Day One

I was mostly dead of sick, but we still attacked Frontierland, Adventureland and Fantasyland. We met Merida and Jack Skellington – the latter wishing us a very Merry Christmas. Jack, if you’re reading, it was a great one! The first parade we saw was the Disneyland version of a santa parade. Complete with Father Christmas himself! Somehow Tiernan got me back in the evening to see the light and firework Spectacular.

santa disneyland paris

Day two

We took on Discoveryland and browsing every single shop in Mainstreet USA, which we did with the methodical strategy of a lad playing Fallout 4. Only one souvenir was procured on this trip – a tsum stum of Perry the Platypus who now resides on the ‘stuff shelf’ in my room. There isn’t nearly enough merchandise for that guy I’m telling you.

Although feeling recovered slightly I decided to go on the Star Wars themed simulator and brought up everything I had worked for two days to keep down. So my decision making isn’t crash hot. Finally, we ticked off the Disney Magic on Parade at 4.30pm before heading to a steak dinner in the aptly named Steak House.

Day three

The final morning was spent at Walt Disney Studios. Hindsight says we should have gone there first. As a Classic Disney fan, Walt Disney Studios was never going to compare.

mickey minnie mouse disneyland paris parade

Hot Tips

  • Grab a map and tick off the rides as you go. It’s a fun souvenir to look back on with little scribbles and routes.
  • Like the point above, it’s all about strategy. I like a good clockwise procession around the park. But if you want to meet Princesses in the pavilion you will need to make a bee line for that to book your time.
  • Nap time! I might be 27, not 7, but thank goodness for Nap time! We would Disney ourselves all tuckered out between 9am and 1pm, head back to the hotel for a wee sleep, and then attack the evening with full force in the early evening.

euro paris disney fairytale castle sunset christmas

 

Worse for Wear in Paris

paris sunriseIf you woke up to this view, I’d say you’d be pretty happy no matter what. With a 24 hour stomach virus I had no choice but to enjoy this bedroom view all day. Oh how terrible for me, I hear you say. Thanks for the pity.

Yes, I was sick on our honeymoon. I know the inside of the Hyatt Regency toilets better than their housekeeping staff.

I’d planned a free day which was to be spent getting to know Paris and its highlights. Instead we did not go anywhere for 36 hours. When we were obliged to check out of the hotel we made a last ditched effort to see what we could. This meant leaving out the Egyptian exhibition at the Arab World Institute. So mad I could puke… again.

Thus I give to you Tiernan and Rachel’s Walking Tour of Paris. A 15km, 3 hour and 3 minute stroll through urban Paree. Although we only walked half of it. Once we reached Notre Dame I called time and we used the metro to make out way back to the hotel via the Eiffel Tower – which we did not ascend because HEIGHTS.

Anyway…

Un. L’Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées
arc du triomphe paris

As much a Parisian icon as the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon ordered the construction of this huge triumphal arch in 1806. The Arc de Triomphe was not completed until 1836, well after the emperor had died. It stands at the top of the beautiful shopping boulevard, the Champs-Élysées, at the centre of one of the world’s most intimidating round-a-bouts.

Deux: Musée du Louvrelouvre museum paris glass pyramid

Walking down the Champs-Élysées will take you passed so many of Paris’ beautiful attractions. For us, this was the longest stretch of the walk because we had to stop for me about a dozen times. We could have spent a lot longer in the Tuileries Garden or looking at the Luxor Obelisk, but I just wasn’t up to it.

I also was not up to queuing at the Louvre! Even in November there was already a long line by the time we got to the museum. Not that we planned to go in, both Tiernan and I have been before. Maybe if I go to Paris again I will be able to do a Louvre blog – it really does need one all to itself. This time we skipped seeing the tiny Mona Lisa from three bodies deep.

That said, I’m in favour of the glass pyramids, are you?
louvre museum paris glass pyramid

Trois: Notre Dame de Parisriver seine paris

For  a full month before going to Paris I was listening to my Disney mix on Spotify. This included plenty of score from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. We didn’t see Quasi, but we got to this turning point in our tour just in time to hear the 1pm bells – THE BELLS ESMERELDA!

A block down the road is the Irish Pub, literally Galway, where we sat on sticky leather seats and drank some of the most expensive pints we have ever had.

Leaving here, our walking tour turned into more of a public transport tour. We hopped on the metro and went all of two stops to the Eiffel Tower.

notre dame cathedral paris

Quatre: Eiffel Towereiffel tower paris

Here it is. Up close and personal. Paris in iron. We’d watched it twinkling from our hotel room two nights in a row and, fortunately, the fog had lifted by the time we ascended from the metro.

It was not the most popular monument in Paris when it was erected, but where would we be without it today?

Tiernan and I finished our whirlwind catch up by sitting briefly on a bench in the tower’s shadow. Sitting here is probably where I felt the most clarity in a while. The rubbish. The begging. The hustling. Yet there were hundreds of people who felt the need to be here. To see the tower in person. To take that selfie that is proof they’d been to Paris and seen it.

Paris, 3 hours is not enough to know you.