Once Upon There Was A City Called Paris
Paris is well-known for its highlights: The infamous Eiffel Tower, the architectural masterpiece of the Louvre, and the monolithic Arc De Triomphe. All exude beauty, all capture a microcosm of what this city has to offer, but I was here for something different – something that truly expressed what this city had to offer the discerning traveler who wanted adventure mixed with a story to tell.
Paris is more than the city of love, it’s a city rife with history – a story steeped in ancient roots that goes beyond the glossy picture postcard tourist brochures or the shiny gleam of the 328 meter Eiffel Tower.
This is the story of Paris that gets to the heart of the city, this is Paris through the eyes of a local.
Paris – How to Get From A to B
Paris has an extensive transportation hub, one that requires a fair amount of patience and virtue in order to find your next destination. I am always the guy that gets lost when I travel so it was no surprise that upon arrival in Paris I would find myself in the all-too familiar boat of wandering around aimlessly. After 30 minutes of getting nowhere I finally found myself traveling on a sky train hurtling towards the underground.
After a brief changeover and another 30 minutes by underground I arrived at my destination for this part of the trip – Villejuif. Literally Jewish Town in French, this suburb sits on the precipice of inner-city Paris. A residential area of greater Paris, it is home to numerous city parks and is well-located halfway between the city and Paris’ second biggest airport – Aeroport De Paris Orly.
Once you get familiar with Paris’s underground it is one of the easiest to use. It’s rather extensive and spread out. Maps are free at the train station and other location hubs throughout the city.
Paris on Two-Wheels
Parisians love their scooters and motorcycles, the array of two-wheeled machines on offer around the city is overwhelming. The constant buzz of combustion engines roaring past at any time of the day or night, can leave your ears buzzing as the fumes leave a trail of smoggy destruction in their wake.
So what better way to see city then on the back of a motorcycle. Fortunately for me, I was staying with a passionate biker who loved spending his spare time riding around the city, as well as navigating the city in fun and dynamic ways as I was to find out.
In the afternoon of my first day in Paris, I was invited to meet up with some of his friends who were at a popular cafe in town. It was during the visit to the city center that I understood why Parisians have such an affinity to the two-wheeled kind. A melange of fear and exhilaration coursed through my veins as we zipped between traffic and rode freestyle down the bus lane like an antelope being chased by a pride of lions. The 25-minute journey took us through some of the architectural masterpieces of the southside as we weaved between traffic.
Parisian life is one of extravagance and elegance. All of the things you assume about the city at surface are true – there is love, there is culture and there is a certain flair for the suave of one of the world’s biggest metropolises but that’s not all Paris has.
On our way back, we took a detour along the periphery route and deep into the trenches of Paris’s outer lying suburbs that link Villejuif with the city’s core. The city is one big loop of congested roads after another yet the tour by bike gave me some indication of the sheer tapestry of ingenuity that goes into making a city function such as this.
Paris – The Real Catacombs
As far as travel events go, this would go down as one of the major highlights of my life as a full-time traveler and adventurer. As the daylight faded, I was about to explore a world that very few seldom explore. Paris exists on two plains – one is the superficial surface, the other exists deep within its underground labyrinth of tunnels known as the Catacombs.
These tunnels have existed for centuries, as the city has expanded so to has Paris’ Catacombs. Without a doubt, they are an impressive site. One that everyone who has the fortune of doing so should take at least once in their lives. However DO NOT travel inside the catacombs without a guide or someone that has experience inside them. They are dangerous as well as dis-orientating due to their massive volume and plethora of endless trails.
The Catacombs exist below the surface of the city, and due to their nature can only be reached by a few points in the city. We began our journey in the south of the city overnight at an intersection towards the airport. Tunneling down from the entrance, it was clear what we were entering was beyond ordinary. A ladder careered towards a dark abyss. A second ladder took us even further until we reached a dark tunnel with knee length water.
We began our journey deep into the Catacombs along a narrow concrete path. The route sat halfway between dry and caked in muddy dirt to in some parts above the knee, below the waist. The sound of emptiness brought a certain eeriness to the place yet somehow it added to the ambiance of Paris’s secret hideaway.
To explore these tunnels was something magical, but nothing could compare to the night ahead. Caves carved out of the granite and clay. Each was home to a unique artistic creation – in one a small scale city was built from stone, in another statues. Bold artistic decor aligned the passageways as art adorned the mystique-filled voids in-between. The project was piloted by a French artist who wanted to inject some artist spirit into the labyrinth of tunnels. Although it was a labor of love, the project was well on track to harboring some beautiful imagery of the Parisian creative spirit.
But perhaps what was most intriguing of all was eclectic array of residents that we met who came down into the Catacombs to escape the daily grind of the city above. Everybody from a group of Canadian students, to lawyers, to artists, and everyone in-between. At every corner, there was a cave, and in every cave there was a party to be had. Experiencing the Catacombs as a collective hub for urbanites to express themselves so freely and openly was invigorating to say the least.
But this is the Catacombs, a place where Parisians come to express their freedoms. On Saturday night, a rave was taking place. Hundreds of locals had congregated in a section of the catacombs a large ceiling that separated two rooms to dance their night away. The rave would rival any of the clubs and night venues above ground yet somehow this was more appetising. To host a party underground is no small feat with the limited access points and size of these spots. Then of course there was lugging the equipment through the pitch black tunnels to the planned venue and then back again by the end of the night.
It’s true that time stands still when you are in the Catacombs. There is no day or night, summer or winter, every moment is the same. Yet it’s the notion that you’ve stepped into another time that makes this event so exhilarating.
Deep inside the Catacombs, a series of pillars pile deep into the ground adding an exquisite platform of timeless rooms, expanding at great height to bring to life the mammoth structural forces behind this system. At times there is dead silence and I can feel a slight draft of wind flex over my skin like fine-toothed bristles from a toothbrush. It is here that you can get lost deep in thought for what you are in the process of experiencing.
Before too long, our night comes to an end and we must head back to the surface. Of course we stop a few more times on the stroll home. How we remember where we came is a mystery to me as every endless tunnel looks the same, every cave starts to blur the line and fade the memories. The water has come up to our waists now. My shoes which I bought along with me, were less than suitable for this trip but that’s okay, they were cheap and of poor quality.
We cut to the ladder, chase the steel rods encased in the rock up to the first hole, covering our route from earlier in the evening. There’s a slight pause as I gather the courage from the previous participant to take a leap of faith as we climb towards the surface. One slip and it’s a painful tumble to the ground – some 20 meters or so below us.
We arrive at the surface, wet and dirty. The daylight is breaking, traffic is light. Our once-in-a-lifetime experience draws to a close and we are engaged with the real world once more. As we drive back home, I am still buzzing, the excitement of what I have just experienced is still raw – this is the side of Paris I will never forget, the Parisian Catacombs that gets under your skin and gives you a reason to feel alive.
From the Eiffel Tower to Villejuif – Exploring Paris’ Many Faces
Starting from the Eiffel Tower I decided that I wanted to get deeper into the heart of Paris. Strolling through the grounds of what some might consider as one of the greatest architectural feats of the 19th century, I found myself puzzled by what all the fuss was about. Before me, hundreds of snap-happy tourists and locals went about their day enjoying this structural defeat whereas I felt underwhelmed by its presence. I needed something more from Paris.
Tracing my way back to my base at Villejuif, I was given an opportunity to explore the heart of the city center. Paris is divided up into multiple districts called ‘Arrondissements’. They divided into the wealthiest and most expensive – the 1st arrondissement, through to the 20th, and all within the periphery ring road that encompasses the city. (Note: The 1st Arrondissement is where the Louvre is situated).
Following the route through the 14th and 15th, I was given a taste of what life was like for some of the city’s wealthiest citizen’s as baroque and renaissance brownstones with tasteful marble and chalk statues and decor gave way to more modern and lifeless apartment buildings. Here, busy produce markets sold fresh fruit and vegetables while across the street a food court and supermarket offered customers something a little more mediocre. There were Asian and American style fast food outlets which also revealed a lack of diversity. Shops customarily sat along the sidewalks while apartments sat above.
Further out the arrondissements began to disappear and were quickly replaced with modern glass low rises, as well as car dealerships and the hustle and bustle of suburban life began to sink in. The periphery road marked a turn of events as the brick crumbled buildings of 19th century Paris began to grew. Fast food outlets became more local affairs and the streets filled with typical Parisians out enjoying their lunch break.
The periphery road disappeared and a new highway grew out of the blank wasteland of suburbia. A new tunnel and road were being constructed as I made my way towards Villejuif. A more modern appearance began to take affect – the changing face of an ever evolving city. Back to Villejuif, the narrow streets and 3-story apartment buildings overshadowed by yet another bland suburban landscape.
In the short space of 2 hours I was once again given a tour of the many shades that Paris has to offer. From its affluent roots, to its ever-changing modern influences, the beauty of Paris lies within its suburbs and its unseen elements.
The Cultural North Side of Paris
Often given a bad rap, it was the second part of my trip that I would find Paris’s cultural elements lay within the confines of its northern suburbs. After leaving my wonderful host, Romain for the past few days, it was onwards to Gare du Nord where I would be staying for the last night of my 5-day tour of Paris.
The northern suburbs are some of Paris’s poorer suburbs and as a general rule of thumb contribute to an unfair proportion of crime and social issues in the city. The Gare du Nord is bustling hive of activity with the kind of pzazz that you would expect to find in the bazaars of Marrakech or Zanzibar yet can be found within a few blocks of the city’s central hub.
Strolling along the streets, you can expect to find peddlers selling plastic goods all along the roadside, while there is a collection of knick knack type stalls all along the street. During the night, I stayed in a cheap rundown hotel that had not seen a lick of paint in eons yet gave me the impression that I’d stepped from Paris into the back-streets of the Middle East. A decaying stairwell with an old-world bathroom and featuring a small private room overlooking a courtyard, it was not what many would enjoy but I found it worthy of the experience of visiting this part of the city.
One major difference with Paris’s North versus it’s south is the onslaught of noise – energetic, and cascading with an indulgent river of hopeless wanderlust – Paris North kicks to a different beat, that’s an attitude all of its own. The mix of Afro-Francophile and Maghreb citizen’s lays a testament to the harshness of life in this foreign land for many immigrants arriving in France from abroad. The struggle to assimilate is real, as is the constant burden of finding work. The markets pay some of the way for people from the projects, but many go without the basic necessities of life – a warm home, running water, and security. The French state contributes to an inefficient system that sees many people struggling to get by. It’s just that in Paris North, it is more present in the eyes of the people you wander past.
Paris In A New Light
5 days allowed me to combine my schedule of errands with enough time to explore the vibrant beast that is Paris. It’s a city that exists beyond the shiny glow of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. It’s more than a mix of ultra chic and debonair colors. It’s a bold manifestation of life as we know it. Paris isn’t France, but Paris is a nation all to itself. It’s multi-dimensional, it’s abstract and it’s infinite. It’s passion, it’s desire, it’s perfection, it’s flawed. One thing you cannot say is that Paris is anything but boring, you think you know it but you don’t.
Every corner, it will surprise you. Every street, every alleyway is waiting to be explored and from my 5-days in Paris, I was given an opportunity to see a city below the surface that very few people have seen or will ever see. Paris gave me the experience that I was hoping to get from it. It set a standard high above any other city of it’s size – one that may never be surpassed. Paris is my kind of Intrepid City.