On Thursday it happened: I melded into my kitchen table, cross-eye’d and atrophying from my lack of activity. I could no longer see the forest for the tree (ferns). Luckily the next day it was off to Paris for a weekend getaway with the girls from work!
Most of the girls had never been to Paris before, though – strangely – almost all of them spoke a reasonable level of French. They knew all the important words and phrases: bonjour, baguette, fromage, Pont Neuf, pardon, je parle française comme une vache espagnole, non, merci, and many more…
I have long since shied away from the mainstream Paris attractions, as I have been to the city more times than I can count, but they were all fresh meat. This begged the question: How do five biology geekesses spend three days in Paris? Hold on to your beret and let me show you!
First, you eat.
On arrival we dropped our bags and bee-lined to the Métro République, where we sniffed out the best wine and cheese in town at Inaro! This cosy and clattery restaurant cum wine-bar had no more than about ten tables, so it was a good thing we had called ahead.
At Inaro ordering is simple: you pick cheese, charcuterie, and/or fruit de mer and then say how long you will stay. We told them ‘a while’ and were given two large platters, one with cheese and fish, the other with cheese and cured meats along with a generous pile of organic Normandy style bread from Aux Péchés Normands. Oh, and some wine – of course!
We munched and chatted, drank and savoured. Eventually we left – and the total bill came to under 20€ per person! On the way out Karin asked one of the waitstaff about a smooth, walnut-tasting cheese on the platter. It was Fromage de la trappe (or Trappe Échourgnac), which he promptly cut a generous hunk of and handed to us as we made our way back into the rain.
Next, you survey your surroundings.
I’ve been up and down the Eiffel Tower about half a dozen times, and every time I wonder what that hideous black building in the distance is. If you’ve ever been up Le Tour Eiffel you know what I’m talking about. But it never occurred to me to go up that hideous black building – Tour Montparnasse 56 – to look back on the city!
Luckily we had been tipped off by French colleagues about this spot for a view. At 210 meters, it is almost as high as the Eiffel Tower (300 meters) and offers a 360° view of the city. For less than the price of lunch (14.50€, or 11.50€ for students) you can ascend to the 59th floor terrace. The elevator shoots up at an impressive speed, and I had to pop my ears at least twice on the way.
The whole day it was raining, but when we got to the top – for just a moment – the clouds parted and we got our postcard autumnal view:
Then, you go underground. WAY underground!
Back on the ground it was raining again. Actually, I’m pretty sure it was pouring chats and chiens. So where do the Paris mice go in inclement weather? Right down into the belly of the city.
The Paris catacombs are a fascinating labyrinth that criss-cross much of the city. Below the parking garages and the metro are the decaying quarries that date at least as far back as the 13th century. These spaces are largely abandoned, but the odd cataphile makes their way down every now and again. This world, so close to Paris but lost to time and without people has always fascinated me. Here is a blog about a trip into the realm of temporal trespassing.
But we decided to go underground in a more conventional way, into two kilometers of tunnels which are open to the public. However, this isn’t just any little stroll under the city. Far from it – along the way we were in the direct company of over six million of Paris’s former inhabitants!
After queueing for an hour and a half in the rain we finally started down the stairs to Les Catacombs.
We met a number of Paris’s more permanent residents.
I should mention this wasn’t my first trip into l’empire de la mort (as the sign above the entry way reads). I visited once before in January of 2007, and it has changed a fair bit in the intervening time.
Since then, many of the bones are looking a little worse for the wear. They are fully exposed and I guess some visitors see the need for a macabre souvenir?
But on the positive side, a really nice museum section has been added in the tunnels leading up to the bones. It explains the geology of the area, the history of the catacombs and a bit about the reasons that full graveyards were relocated to this open tomb over the last centuries. While the bones themselves are the most striking part of the visit, the museum section really fills in some gaps and rounds out the experience.
Then, you eat some more.
And now for a poor photo juxtaposition: back to the land of the living we were feeling a bit skeletal (hardy-har-har) and indulged in our first Nutella & banana crêpes of the weekend.
And when night falls, you go to the river to see the Eiffel Tower’s fancy pants!
No trip to Paris is complete without watching the Tour Eiffel show off its night time bling. Sparkles & more crepes!
Oh la la! Looking up the Eiffel Tower’s fancy pants
Then a little sleep, some rest for our feet and the next morning: more metros! More walking! …. and more rain.
Half way through the weekend! Time to shop like a local
The neighbourhood around La Bastille isn’t just good for cheap eats, fancy drinks and people watching – on Sundays a giant swath near the main roundabout turns into an open air market: Marché Bastille. And being November there was plenty of my favourite fare on offer: mushrooms! Cèpes (porcini), trumpet de morte (horn of plenty), pleurotes (oyster mushrooms) and of course girolles (chenterelles). Yum, yum, yum!
And maybe check out some Latin names in the Latin Quarter?
What do five biologists do when the weather isn’t fit for people watching? Naturally they go animal watching instead! At the Paris Natural History Museum, which is nestled right up next to the Jardin des Plantes in the Latin Quarter, there are giant halls dedicated to comparative anatomy. And I must say, the collection is nothing if not complete!
The displays include a pygmy hippopotamus that was given to Napoleon as a gift, a giant dugong that was hunted to extinction a mere twenty-seven years after its discovery by Europeans and a number of specimens only labelled in French and Latin that left me cocking my head sideways and trying to mentally flesh out the creature for identification.
Upstairs there is an extensive collection of long-extinct creatures, ranging from my favourite: the monstrous armadillo like Glyptodon, to the more easily recognised mammoths and Pterodactyls.
Another level up, ringing the mega-fossil collection, are the fossil plants, invertebrates and the oft-overlooked protists! I found a tree fern fossil from the genus I have been working with, a coral that strongly resembles the one that has been riding around in my car’s cup holder since a trip to Gotland a few years ago and some rolly-polly trilobites.
Now you shouldn’t overdo it: pause for a breath, grab a coffee and write a postcard!
Oh and in case you didn’t already realise this: coffee in Paris is fantastic!
After coffee we of course had to eat some more. We made our way to Paris’s first vegetarian restaurant, Le Grenier de Notre-Dame, which is also largely organic. I had a veggie version of my favourite dish from the south-west of France: cassoulet, and we imbibed in a dry, hard cider from Normandy. We also had a going bet on who could figure out how to operate the bathroom sink in the shortest amount of time. Turns out the sink was a foot-operated deal with a well-camouflaged set of instructions.
Final morning, gotta make the most of your time: check out one landmark… on the way to another!
Naturally you can’t see everything, but if your hotel is in the shadow of Amelie’s Montmartre then there is no excuse not to have a little spin around, view the view, and then hop the metro into the centre. And perhaps briefly fall into a strange day-dream about a photo-booth repair man chasing pigeons down the iconic stairs.
Take a moment to reflect on everlasting love
At the core of Paris is a little island in the middle of the Seine – neither right nor left bank – the Île de la Cité: the island of the city. It is in the first arrondissement, the point all of the other arrondissements in Paris spiral out from. And it is home to perhaps the most famous cathedral in the world: Notre-Dame de Paris.
Crossing over to Notre Dame we passed the Pont de l’Archevêché (Archbishop’s Bridge), which is a monument to the need to profess one’s love. While I guess it is a romantic gesture, I don’t think that our group was the first to look at the locks, then look at each other and ask ‘I wonder how many of these couples are still together?’. Turns out many Parisians aren’t overly impressed either. The locks are a burden on the bridges and have even lead to collapse – and this is added to the fact that ‘locking’ love is not especially French to begin with. But it does make for a cool photo.
And for the coup de grâce – wave goodbye to the city…
…from the tippity-top of the Eiffel Tower! And if you’re short on time like us, you can skip the queues for the lift and just go up à pied. By walking up the south-west leg of the tower you not only skip the ticket queues (there were only two people in front of us in the ticket line), but you pay less and get some exercise… as if we hadn’t been walking enough. And it actually doesn’t take that long – we made it to the first floor in well under ten minutes.
The first level had some features I didn’t remember. Namely, a plexiglass section of the floor that made my stomach fall right through my feet. Turns out I didn’t remember this because it wasn’t there last time I went up Le Tour – a full renovation of the premiere étage is underway. After some time we manage to get both feet on the see-through section for just long enough to take a photo and prove our pluck.
We hoofed it up to the second floor, and then took the lift to the summit (no option to walk the final bit). Here we said our final adieu to Paris.
Not bad for three days. À bientôt, mes amis!