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Paris, France - Arrival, Les Halles and Marais Quarter- 19th April 2001

Posted by Edmond on Monday, June 10, 2002

First experiences of Paris on arriving at Gare du Nord on Eurostar. A tour of the Les Halles Quarter including Forum Des Halles, Square des Innocents and Pompidou Centre and the Hotel de Ville in the Marais Quarter. Hopping on the metro to Bastille to continue exploring the Marais Quarter including the Place des Vosges.

Les Halles and the Marais Qtr:
1. Forum Les Halles
2. Cathedral St Eustache
3. Les Halles Gardens
4. Fontaine des Innocents
5. Pompidou Centre
6. Church St Merri
7. Hotel de Ville
8. Place de la Bastille
9. Place des Vosges
10. Marais Museums (Musee Picasso, Musee Victor Hugo).
Links: - Place des Vosges
Pompidou Centre
Hotel de Ville
RATP Web site

I arrived early in the afternoon at Gare du Nord on board the Eurostar train from Waterloo, to be overwhelmed again by the sheer amount of people around the station's concourse and platforms, talking in a language I could barely understand. And it felt even stranger that I was able to walk straight to the arrivals hall without having my passport checked. Maybe the french had finally decided they can trust the english. Nevertheless, this gave me the extra incentive to rush out of the station and to my lodgings.

Checking into my room at a pension hotel near the Gare du Nord was another new experience, which probably meant a hostel was a much better idea. The lifts were only small enough to accomodate one person with luggage or two people and my room was way up to the fifth floor. Yet, the hotel staff were pretty friendly and spoke english fairly well, once I had mastered the introductory "Bonjour Monsieur/Madame".

Finally I made my first trip via metro from Gare du Nord to Les Halles using the Visite card. Unlike the depressing, cramped holes of the London Underground station and carriages, the Paris metro is well spaced and there is lots of room in the carriages. Still, the platforms look old and neglected the carriage doors need to be opened by hand. Busking and begging is also more frequent than on the london underground as I've recently realised on my first trip - as always, I'm reluctant to make eye-contact with any of them for my own safety.

After struggling with the french keyboards at EasyInternet followed by lunch, I toured the Les Halles Quarter. As I had done little research on the area, I picked a direction from along Aubry le Boucher and walked west towards Forum Les Halles, passing the crowded Square and the tall fountain of Fontaine des Innocents before arriving at Forum Les Halles. Here, the large church of St Eustache, which almost looks like the Notre Dame, could be seen.

Curious, I walked around the more quieter shopping avenues around the Forum Les Halles to meet up with the church. Beside the church was the Place R Cassin and the distinctive head and hand sculpture of Henri de Miller. Here, some tourists struggle to take their pictures at the sculpture as local children crawled through its nooks and crannies. Further west, I could pick out the domed building of Bourse de Commerce. Nevertheless, this place was more peaceful than before, so I took the time to gather my thoughts.

Moments later, I walked back up through the gardens of Forum Les Halles and Fountaine des Innocents to explore the Beaubourg Area, specifically the Pompidou Centre and Church St Merri. While on my way, I decided to poke around the forum where I found a small modern-looking square in the middle of the shopping centre. Unlike the shops which was crowded, this square was surprisingly empty of people.

Like what the guide book says, the Pompidou centre looked like a building turned "inside out" and is most evidently so with the external escalators and ventilation ducts outside the building. This is where the modern art of Picasso and Matisse can be found. Beside the centre, strange colourful sculptures appeared to float in the fountain of Place Igor Stravinski and the church of St Merri could be seen.

The Church St Merri was much smaller than the Church St Eustache and was also packed in by the other buildings around it, but this one was opened to the public. Unfortunately, there was not much to see in this church so I soon exited and found myself back at the Pompidou Centre and Place Igor Stravinski. Bored, I decided to head for the Marais Quarter, starting with the Hotel De Ville.

Once again, the square around the Hotel De Ville, known as the Place d Hotel de Ville, was packed with people. And the construction work going around the square didn't help either, forcing me to dodge people within the fenced areas. Still, this didn't seem to spoil the size and beauty of the Hotel de Ville, its immense white facade decorated with statues with a beautiful clocktower in the middle. Unfortunately it was closed to visitors, but the square around the town hall, unbelievably, was the scene where many notorious executions took place.

As it was now getting late and overcast, I decided to rush things along and caught the metro to Bastille from the Hotel de Ville on the gold (number one) line. Unlike the carriages before, these looked more modern but doors still needed to be opened manually. The stop would take me directly on to Place de La Bastille, where the immense column of Colonne de Juillet towers over the traffic. Built in 1830, the column was built in memory of the lives lost from the uprising against the French Monarch. The gold figure at the top is the "Genius of Liberty".

After marvelling at the site of the Colonne de Juillet, I arrived at the Place de Vosges a few minutes later via Boulevard Beaumarchais and turning left into Rue du Pas se la Mule. The Place de Vosges was neatly laid out, the fountains on either side of the square and the neat terraced houses beside the King and Queen's Pavillion outside formed a perfect symmetry. Although the daylight was deceptively bright, all of the museums around the area were already closed so I decided to relax here in the square before I returned for dinner. Looking around, it was hard to imagine that jousting duels were once held here where the neatly cut maples and fountains now stand.

The day was a huge leap out of the "comfort zone" for myself. On arriving into a non-english speaking country , I had already mastered some essential phrases like asking for the bill, touring a totally different metro system that is sometimes hard to navigate and is crawling with beggars, gypsies and buskers and sometimes having no idea where I am going. Yet, behind this confusion and bewilderment is a city that has a diverse culture and history as seen by its monuments and squares, even if this is only within two of the main quarters in Paris.

Edmond, 2002