I usually manage to get out and do something at least vaguely interesting or off the beaten track when I'm traveling but I have to admit that in Paris I was just doing the same tourist stuff as all the other tourists!
It is a nice city and easy enough to get around, though I was cheating by having a french-speaking friend there to help :).
We took the TGV in from St Raphaël which was again busy but comfortable. I don't think it was a great move for them to make them double-decker because it takes ages to get everyone off the stairs and the next lot on up, especially since the platforms are so cramped!
One day we walked down the Champs-Élysées avenue towards the Arc de Triomphe starting at the west end, La Defense, the area hosting the giant Grande Arche building, a building with the dimensions of a cube but hollow through the centre and with bevelled edges that provoke comparison to nerdy bits of higher-dimensional geometry.
The odd thing is that it's turned off the axis of the avenue, mainly in order to fit the foundations around the motorway and trains stations that sit underground beneath it.
The building is mostly occupied by government offices. Disappointingly the exhibition thing that they host there was closed for lift maintenance – would have been cool to go up in them.
The area was actually really nice, quiet but not dead in the weekend (an improvement on Wellington's government-heavy CBD!), lots of sculptures and fountains around. Down the paved area there was a carousel with big glossy Jules Verne-themed decorations.
There's a free museum there about the area itself – worth a brief look. Lots of models and plans of the area's history, and some other random bits and pieces – loved the ridiculous nuclear-powered transport ideas, but more interestingly there was a little model of Jean Bertin's aéro-train – a hovercraft train powered by an aircraft turbojet.
This was actually prototyped quite successfully and the fifth iteration built was tested on a test guided rail north of Orléans and achieved a peak speed of 430 km/h – 417.6 km/h average on a 3km return track. All this in 1974! The TGV was however eventually chosen by the government as the high-speed option for France and the project terminated, with some regrets due to the possible advantages of air-cushion trains.
The great success of the TGV has certainly borne out this decision, and we ourselves were using the TGV for all our travel around France except for the first leg from a small town in Germany to Lyon. Still… hovercraft trains… geeky goodness.
Not at all like I imagined, but quite nice. There was a service on and then they started closing up the interesting end of it, so I didn't get to look for a WWII companion to the WWI memorial I noticed saw inside, dedicated to “the memory of one million dead of the British Empire who fell in the Great War… and of whom the greater part rest in France”, with the name and coat of arms of The United Kingdom, Australia, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada.
Long, long waits, but still something you have to do. The metal skeleton is a lot more complex than I expected. Also surprising was the nighttime flickering lights show (on the hour after dark) – a bit random. Great views though!
This was a welcome respite from the broiling summer heat outside – I realised that day how lucky we'd been that most of our time in Paris we had had more moderate temperatures. It is again, though, a long queue. It's hard to advise how to prepare for this – you'll be in a long queue, so you'll want to drink something, but then there's no bathrooms at the office at the head of the queue, nor of course any in the catacombs themselves, and once you start going down the long stairs down into the depths, the only way out is to walk through the catacombs and then eventually back up at the other end. So don't take anyone with claustrophobia!
It was not at all however like the few photos I'd seen online suggested – I thought we would be edging past racks of bones in narrow corridors. In fact it's mostly fairly broad, several meters at least, and it's relatively rare that one has to stoop to fit under the roof. The bones have mostly been arranged into neat piles and some have plaques or even a few coffins. They started out as chalk mines; it is mostly dry but there are some damp patches, which provoked a few shrieks as clean drops of water landed on people's heads.
Long queues again, though not as long a wait as above. I noticed as I left that there are self-ticketing machines in the atrium which I presume mean you can skip the indoor queue (if you're super-organised you could buy your tickets ahead of time and then skip the outdoor queue too I think).
I enjoyed visiting and there is certainly a lot to see, but I actually found that the paintings weren't the best part. Sure, the Mona Lisa is a must see, but after the dweebs who last tried to steal it, it's even more tightly locked up, and you're a long way from it which makes it harder to check out the smile thing (I find the spatial frequency theory I read about in a signal-processing journal once – also covered elsewhere – pretty reasonable).
“The Pandemonium” looks awesome though – ok, slightly sauroney.
Anyway, for me the best bits were the awesome sculptures, and in particular the more recently-added collection of ‘indigenous art’ from around the world – some amazing stylized stuff from the Pacific and Africa really caught my eye. There's also some incredible older works – the Assyrian man-beast door guardian things are in amazing condition.
So that was pretty much Paris for me – lots still left there for another time. Best part I think was zooming home by the river and down empty city streets from the Eiffel Tower at midnight on the hire bikes!
Do not put any unpasteurised cheeses in your hotel room fridge, even if they are just Camembert and smell fine when you smell them on their own. They will have a secondary stealth smell which is capable of penetrating through 4 layers of packaging and two doors, and you will have no idea what hit you.
After Paris we took the Eurostar to London where we crashed for a night before flying to Iceland.