Paris, gay Paris. Hmmm, whatever made us think that Paris would be different to any other major city? One way systems, industrial areas, residential areas, motorways, shopping centres, historical sites … it was hell!
Our first day was very wet, to say the least. We decided to try and find a city park that was marked on the map as a dog walking area. Parc St. Vincennes was wooded with a network of paths for walking and cycling around a very large lake. We were only 30 minutes from Paris and the journey was straightforward until we started to actually try to find somewhere specific. Whilst just heading for that large, sprawling spot on the map we were fine, but once we directed our attention to a fixed location we found ourselves being diverted – like Alice through the Looking Glass, or Harry Potter in the maze in the Goblet of Fire, or Moley in the Wild Woods … you’re beginning to get the idea aren’t you. I was driving as Bob hadn’t quite got his frog legs yet (get it? – sorry poor taste I know), and Bob was navigating with the help of three maps. One showed a general view with major roads, one showed areas of Paris with main routes and one showed smaller streets and, importantly, direction of traffic. How quickly can you shuffle one map book and two folding maps? We discovered that Bob is average … very average. Bless. It didn’t help that it was bucketing with rain, absolutely lashing. So three hours after our 30 minute journey had expired we finally parked on the side of the road at the Parc St. Vincennes. I would like to say we really appreciated the woodlands and lake and that it was beautiful. It probably was, but I gave up wiping my glasses after the first half hour, so my memory of it is rather blurred. It did look very green and there were still people stoically walking, cycling and running and the dogs had a great time, but we were wet, soooo wet and then, in the fogged up damp interior of our car, we discovered some roads had been closed and it took almost as long to get out of Paris as it had to get in.
The next day we were determined to assault the main tourist attractions. The sun was shining and we planned with military precision. The route, the timings, what we were aiming to see and so on. Alas, Paris had not heard of, and had no regard for these plans and several hours after setting out I laboured up yet another one way street to nowhere. At one point I stopped and asked a group of people where I could park and they pointed to the underground parking not many yards away. I tried to explain in faltering french that my car was too tall (we had on a top box kindly loaned by our friends Paula and Ian), and they looked at me blankly. We finally found a ‘payant’ street parking space. This is so rare you almost feel there should be a bottle of champagne resting against the kerb in anticipation of your undoubted celebration on finally coming to rest. You had to buy a card (like a voucher) which you inserted in the machine with a stipulation of how long you intended to stay. A very kind passing lady helped me find the shop (several hundred yards down the road) where you could buy said card. I have to say we found nothing but good manners and helpfulness throughout our visit in France. Far from hating us the French welcomed us at evey point, showing genuine delight and offering encouragement when I attempted my appalling french. We found a cafe where we could sit on the street with the dogs and had lunch and coffee. Just a minor side point on this. I learnt very quickly that when ordering black coffee I needed to stipulated americano and grand in order to receive half a very small cup of coffee. Otherwise it came in a thimble and anyone who knows my capacity for coffee will know the inadequacy of this proferring.
After lunch we tried to find the river Seine, but the pedestrian areas and our map did not seem to have met at any stage and after an hour we gave up and headed back to la voiture. The dogs raised their eyebrows quizzically. They were angels and with a shrug of their shoulders they leapt back into the boot with a look of resignation. They were asleep before I started the engine!
After another hour or so of exploring the Paris streets we managed to park right behind the Musee d’Armee which is at the end of the park in front of the Eiffel Tower. We could not believe it. After all our driving we were in the thick of it. We had a coffee on the street to regain our strength and composure and then headed off for some sightseeing. The park was heaving and, as there was only one lift working in the whole Tower, there were queues weaving their way everywhere. People were very patient, but it was still very sunny and it must have been an uncomfortable wait. We had coffee (you see a pattern emerging?) by the Seine and then, using our unreliable map, we walked to a pedestrian bridge to cross the mighty river. We had an objective – the L’Arc de Triomphe. It was lovely walking through the Paris streets bathed in dappled light and indulging our several passions of walking, people watching and architecture spotting. When we reached the arch we marvelled at the traffic mixing seamlessly in the umarked wide roundabout and took pictures (the doods were here – you know the sort of thing). We walked back to the Tower admiring tourist boats and floating restaurants and finally had dinner at the foot of the Tower on the banks of the Seine. Paula and Ian had given us some money to buy a celebratory dinner for our anniversary which was two weeks later. We drank their health in sprite and had a lovely meal.
We did not get back to the car until gone 11 p.m. and I should have twigged then that it was very late and would have consequences. However, blithely we climbed into the car now confident that we could find our way out of Paris without any difficulty. Wrong. It just got worse and worse until three hours later and in tears of frustration I managed to find the road back to Crevocoeur en Brie where we were staying. After a particularly scary encounter with an inner motorway I was shaking like a leaf – not least out of exhaustion, this was our fourth day of what seemed like non stop driving. As we approached the site I suddenly exclaimed – we’re not going to be able to get in. Bob looked at me in disbelief and I explained that the gates to the site would be locked so that traffic could not wake the inhabitants at unreasonable hours. After his nervous enquiry about when the gates would open and my tearful response of 7 a.m., we resigned ourselves to a night in the car, well a few hours anyway, because by now it was gone 2 a.m. We settled down, very uncomfortably and slept fitfully. Morning could not come too soon, except that the next day (the same day really) we were due to leave Paris and drive to Le Mans …