Like the previous occasion in 1987 we had bought EuRail passes in India which enabled us to travel 1st Class in all trains including the prestigious TGVs and the high speed trains that were basically meant for inter-city travels. In 1987 the TGVs used to ply only between Paris and Lyon and Paris and Geneva. In the intervening ten years its operations were exponentially expanded and most of the West European cities are now served by TGV trains. TGV stands for Train a Grande Vitesse (high speed train),
So, one morning we climbed into a TGV train plying between Brussels and Paris. It was a non-stop journey and we were in Paris in much less than two hours’ time. Having researched the Paris underground my wife knew which train to catch from the Gare du Nord station for the station that we were to travel to to get to our hotel. This time we had booked a (budget) hotel close to Eiffel Tower We could see the Tower from our window and could also walk across to it. It was somewhere close to the area known as Trocadero.
This time we had decided to take it easy and had decided not to rush around. We had quite a good visit ten years ago and had seen quite a bit but every evening we used to feel tired. Now we couldn’t do all that. We decided to walk around as much as possible. The Eiffel Tower was a good starting point. It had extensive gardens and lawns which we had not really noticed on the last occasion. This time we took it all in and more leisurely at that and saw the environs and enjoyed whatever we saw. The Tower has its own facets and looks beautiful from several angles. It is indeed a marvelous piece of engineering. Reclining on the green grass I kept wondering how it was conceptualized during the infancy of the Industrial Revolution in France.
We walked along the Seine looking at the shops selling curios and wall plates some of which we had at home. Some men accosted us trying to sell curios they said were very expensive. They ran for their lives as soon as they saw some policemen. As we met another such group on a bridge over the Seine it turned out that they were all Indian illegal immigrants. They made a living by operating in the Eiffel Tower area. One wondered as to why they leave the comfort of their homes and undertake perilous journeys to live a life in shadows mostly in fear of the arm of the law that relentlessly chases them in an alien country.
We walked another day to Notre Dame. It was standing by the side of the Seine in all its glory. Almost a thousand years have not made any difference to it. It was as majestic as we had seen it ten years ago, I found the front portals very interesting with beautiful carvings of the Last Judgment. We tore ourselves away to go towards Champs Elysees. We walked from the Notre Dame admiring the buildings in the surrounding area, one of which apparently was the Arsenal and hence there was heavy police presence. Soon we got into a bus that deposited us on the Champs Elysees near Arch of Triumph.
Champs Elysees is the finest boulevard in the world that I have seen. I have been to quite a few world class cities in the world in the US, Europe and Far East but have never come across a boulevard like Champs Elysees. In fact, this along with almost the entire city of Paris is a planned town planned by two Frenchmen, the French Emperor Napoleon III and Georges Eugene Haussmann, in the middle of 19th Century. They were neither architects nor city planners yet they undertook perhaps the largest urban transformation and built Paris that is called the City of Light today. Also, some others call it the City of Love as it has emerged as the most romantic city in the world.
The two, together, planned every detail including the boulevards, avenues and the streets, the height and colour of apartment blocks along these, the massive sized rotaries and so on. They also planned the sculptures and friezes that would be used on buildings or at every conceivable place to beautify the city. Around 400,000 residents were displaced and 600,000 chestnut and other trees were planted along the boulevards and avenues. Hundreds of thousands square metres of open spaces were created and thousands of miles of roads were laid that included Champs Elysees which is one of the boulevards radiating from the Arch of Triumph located at the massive Charles de Gaulle Place.
It is a pleasure to walk on the pavements of Champs Elysees where massive stores display the latest fashions and where fashionable women strut around with a swagger showing off their acquisitions of trendy garments, hats and shoes. There are numerous cafes that put their chairs and tables out on the very wide sidewalks. Over a cup of coffee one can watch for hours this unfolding panorama. Evenings are perhaps the best to do that when fashionistas amble around displaying their haute couture.
We also walked up to the Place de la Concorde at the other end of Champs Elysees. It is perhaps the largest square of Paris but has a history written in blood. Built in the late eighteenth century it was later used as a place for executions of the elite during the French Revolution. It was here that King Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, were guillotined. During those anarchical days the square was known as Place de la Revolution. Its name was changed to Place de la Concorde after the dust raised by the French uprising settled down. There is an obelisk planted here which was a gift from Egypt to France. Paris is a place which should be visited when one is young. We were 30 years too late in getting there. But when we were young we had no money to travel abroad and when we had little bit of it was a little too late. Nonetheless, given a chance I wouldn’t mind visiting this marvellous city any number of times.