Saturday, 30 April 2016

A bookworm's adventures in Paris

I don't normally do non-book related things on my blog, but one of my other major passions is travelling. These days its more long weekends away than years abroad, but I make it a personal mission to get out of the UK every few months. Sometimes it's with friends or family, and other times it's solo. So when I went on a solo trip to Paris for a week, I decided I'd blog about it too, more for my own benefit than anything else. I figured I'd spread my blogging wings a little. If you want to hear about my adventures and/or Paris, read on. If you want me to stick to books, tell me to shut up in the comments.

Still with me? Then on to Paris!

I normally stay in hostels or guesthouses on my euro-travels, but a lot of my friends have been raving about Airbnb, so I decided to give it a try and booked a studio apartment in Bastille. I've got to be honest, I was getting more and more nervous about this from the moment my plane landed at Charles De Gaulle, mentally checking off every worst case scenario on the way to the apartment. Taxis from the airport are hideously expensive so I jumped on an airport shuttle bus to the city for about 18 euros and then got the metro to Bastille which saved me about 50 euros in taxi fare. I had the HostelWorld app locked and loaded on my phone, family members awaiting "they're not a psychopath" phonecalls and my dad preparing to do his best Liam Neeson impression if things went bad.
Airbnb: for those who like a little added anxiety with their choice of accommodation.
Luckily, my apprehensions were totally unfounded. I was met at the apartment by my host, Alex, who was an absolute sweetheart. She showed me around - she'd even stocked the kitchen with teabags and milk for me! - and on learning that I hadn't eaten since leaving the UK that morning, immediately invited me over to her apartment (she lived in the building next door) for dinner. I wasn't going to turn down a free meal! I'd heard about the expensive food in Paris, and my god some places were eye-watering! 10 euros will buy you a three course meal in the Latin Quarter, whereas the same money just about gets you a coffee and croissant in places around the main sights.

My advice for getting around? Public transport all the way. If anyone tells you Paris is a walkable city, they must run marathons in their spare time. Paris is a walkable city in the same way New York is a walkable city. Yes, you can walk from one sight to the other, but it will take you forever and you'll be knackered when you get there, so unless you want to spent your whole trip walking from A to B, the metro is your best option. The major tourist attractions are fairly scattered and the Parisian street system is absolutely insane too! If you visit Paris, you'll have to be Bear Grylls not to get lost. I was glad I bought an Everyman map guide with me. I looked like a complete and utter tourist unfolding my giant maps, but it helped me get my bearings without waving my phone around, and on more than one occasion it brought over someone asking if I was lost.
The magnolia trees were in full bloom too, so everywhere looks extra pretty!
With the UK being pretty anti-smoker these days, it was weird that people in Paris smoked everywhere. I was constantly fighting through a cloud of smoke to get into cafes or walking behind someone puffing in my face. Apparently they sweep up 350 tonnes of cigarette butts on the street every year, and I completely believe this! Staff welcome you into a restaurant while puffing a cigarette in the doorway, it's cool how laid back they are about it, but it's still strange to a Brit! It kind of put me off sitting outside a lot of the time, which is a shame. Outdoor seating in Paris all faces outwards, not towards each other, so it's perfect of people watching. There are tons of Japanese restaurants around too, which is ideal for a ramen fan like me!
Is it weird that my first restaurant meal in France was sushi?
If you're a book-lover and you're in Paris, the Latin Quarter is a must! From the book stalls lining the streets to the infamous Shakespeare & Co bookshop, it's a bookworm's heaven! It's pretty much tourist central, with all sorts of languages and accents to be heard, but there's a lovely, relaxed vibe to the place and there are more books on offer than it's possible to read in one lifetime! Despite my terrible map-reading skills, I managed to stumble upon Shakespeare & Co. It's tiny, crowded and cramped, but I was in heaven. No photos are allowed inside (I guess they'd be rammed with people taking selfies) but trust me when I say, it's book paradise! From the floor to ceiling books, the book ladders that you can clamber all over and its YA section, I could have set up home under the stairs!

My spiritual home!
The Paris metro was ... an experience. I've travelled underground in virtually every city I've visited and had no problems (except New York. For some reason I just cannot get my head around it and always end up relying on the kindness of strangers to help me!) and Paris was no real exception. It's not the cleanest (that award goes to Tokyo) or most friendly (that one to Barcelona) metro, and those carriage doors wait for no one and you're likely to lose a limb if you cut it fine trying to get on board. They set off pretty quickly too. I accidentally stumbled into a French woman when the train got going, only to be rewarded with the word "putan" when I apologised in my best secondary school French. Google tells me that it means "damn it" or "whore". I hope it was the former!

I did all of the "must-sees" in Paris. The Eiffel Tower (awesome, and the view from the top is incredible!), The Louvre (underwhelmed by The Mona Lisa. In a huge room of incredible art, it's hard to see what makes it so special. I love the Napolean apartments, although I can completely understand why the French had a revolution!),
Too many chairs? Off with their heads!
the Arc De Triumphe, which I didn't realise you can actually go up (again, amazing views from the top! But be warned, there are a lot of stairs and no lifts),
Lots of very windy stairs!
the Champs-Elysees (and spent far too much money on fancy tea), Notre Dame (worth a visit, but I wouldn't rush back), the Paris statue of liberty (don't waste your time. It's a huge walk to get to along a street with few pavements, and when you get there it's just...there. Small and dirty and nothing is made of it) and walking along the Seine (lovely, but cold!).
With lots of bridges, most of which have padlocks on them!
But the best way to discover Paris is just to have a wander. It's quite nice walking the streets without knowing quite where you'll end up (as long as my mum doesn't hear me say that. She freaks out any time I go abroad alone!). I was a bit wary of beggars or tourist scammers given the issue with immigration that a lot of Europe is grappling with at the moment, and while there were homeless people on the streets, it's nothing compared with London. It was the first time I saw people with kids though, which made me feel horrible and my pocketful of change seem absolutely worthless. There were clashes between migrants and far-right protesters outside Stalingrad metro just before I arrived, and Alex told me it was best to avoid the area because of the huge number of people sleeping rough there. It was a bit of an eye-opener to see even the tiniest glimpse of what's happening on the continent. But at no point did I not feel safe walking around the city, day or night.

To stick to my budget, I took a couple of free walking tours with Discover Paris. These are informal tours where you meet a Parisian, usually a college student, at a certain landmark at a certain time and they walk you around some of the sights on whichever route you've joined. If you don't trust anything free, don't worry, you can tip at the end if you wish, and the guides will remind you of that fact a few times. It's kind of expected, and though a few tight arses did run away at the end without giving anything, I was more than happy to hand over 5 euros for the experience. I'd thoroughly recommend these tours! They were a great way to see the streets of Paris without fear of getting lost and the local guides had great knowledge, flawless English and were genuinely passionate about showing visitors around their city. The only downside is that they end miles from where you started, so it was back to the metro to figure out my route home! On one of these occasions I ended up at an older metro station that seemed totally abandoned except for me which was a bit unnerving given that it was about 10.30pm and nobody at all seemed to be manning this place. I was quite relieved when the train arrived!
I love the gothic Metro signs too!
It really cool meeting people from all over the world on these tours to. I buddied up with an Australian guy called Brett on my first walking tour and we ended up going on a couple more together, swapping travel stories and saying goodbye with the usual "see you again if you're ever in insert country of origin here" at the end of the day. It's weird how when you're abroad people go from strangers to friends and back again so quickly. Circle of travelling life, I guess!

I jumped on one of the "hop-on, hop-off" buses on my first day. These big green buses are emblazoned with graphics and you might as well get on and off them with the word "tourist" stamped on your forehead in big red letters, but they're a brilliant way of getting around the city and the main sights if it's too far to walk, and you don't miss everything like you do on the metro, which can leave you feeling like you're playing whack-a-mole sometimes, just popping up above ground here and there. I ended up being sort of adopted by a New Zealand couple, Janet and David, for much of the journey after I helped them with their headphones (you get these headphones to plug in the the bus for an audio tour. If you can get past the horrendously stereotypcial "French" accordion music that plays between the info, it's pretty good). They'd come on their first holiday without their kids and I think they were missing them! We went for lunch in a sushi place and they insisted on buying me dinner which was sweet of them.
There's zero chance of blending in with the locals on board this thing!
One frustrating thing about travelling solo is that you can never get particularly good photos of yourself at all these landmarks! I really wanted a photo of me in front of The Lourve with my hand on top of the glass pyramid.
They have these plinths outside to make it easier, but the people who took my photo were so bad at it! Honestly, I'm just stood there with my hand in the air, nowhere near anything. But after a few attempts I just gushed about how great the pictures were and gave up.
Believe it or not, this was the best one!
But I actually turned out to be really good at taking them, so much so that I ended up with a queue of people asking me to take theirs, and I just ended up sitting on the floor for about ten minutes with people handing me their camera, then climbing onto the plinth and posing (top tip; you have to get low to get the perfect angle!). Someone actually tried to give me a couple of euros which was a bit weird. If my career falls on its face, I can always make my living as the official "hand on the Louvre" photographer I guess!

Selfies are the future!
I'd heard a lot of mixed reviews of Paris before I went. It's dirty. Parisians are rude. They hate tourists, Brits and especially British tourists. And yes, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. From my unfortunate encounter on the metro, the hideously expensive food, the strange and sometimes uncomfortable juxtaposition of wealth and poverty and the completely illogical street system full of busy people who I constantly felt like I was getting in the way of, there were a few stressful moments I could have done without. Not least when I got the the airport for my flight home to find the terminal I was flying out of locked down and armed police all over the place. Luckily my limited french was enough for me to get the gist that it would be reopening in time my flight, though I never did find out why security was extra tight. I was a bit afraid to ask, but then again, I'd much rather be safe than sorry, and a bit of extra waiting around is a small price to pay to travel safely.

It was a shame that the weather was a bit rubbish when I was over there. At one point it was actually snowing, and for pretty much the whole week it was raining, about to rain, or just finished raining. But I'm English, I'm used to it. I did have to buy a coat though, because I didn't pack one and it was freezing. It was a blast from the past shopping in C&A again! It closed down in the UK ages ago, so it was weird seeing one in Paris! But I had a brilliant time, and I'd go back again in a heartbeat - which is perfect since it took me longer to get to the airport than it did to actually get from Bristol to Paris. It makes me realise how lucky we are in the UK to have all this practically on our doorstep. If you're looking for a relaxing holiday, it's probably not for you. There's so much to see and do, you can be constantly on the go and still not feel like you've done enough before you run out of time and have to come home.

Home again!
This was my first solo tip of the year, the others have been with my sister and my best friend, so it was kind of nice to get back to my travel roots. My first foray into solo travel was my gap year, which, looking back on it now, I have no idea how I worked up the nerve to do, and while I love going away with friends, I'm just as happy to go alone if they're not interested. I'd rather go by myself than not go at all, that's my logic. I think you're so much more open to meeting people when you travel solo, and with no expectations to fulfill or compromises to make, you end up doing so much more than you'd ever expect.

Bon voyage!

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