IT may be the city of love but there’s one thing Paris is without a doubt – and that’s an assault on the senses.
Within minutes of entering this much-adored city the smell of mouth-watering pastries, mixed with raw sewerage and the wail of sirens slapped us in our jet-lagged faces as we shuffled around in circles while towing a back-breaking 55kg of luggage.
We’d stumbled off the metro mere minutes before where we encountered our first cunning gypsy beggar (they sniff out naive foreigners better than a dog does a bone) and now the prospect of finding our street with our brains running on about a quarter of their capacity seemed slim to none.
In what we were to discover was an uncharacteristic act of Parisian kindness a woman approached us and gently steered us in the right direction to our tiny studio apartment in the Latin Quarter – a suburb teeming with patisseries, fromageries and entire shops dedicated to French wine.
We looked set to be in heaven and even the stench of urine-soaked beggars couldn’t deter us as we stumbled down the ancient cobble-stoned streets towards our home for the next five days.
After hauling our luggage up an epic set of steep spindly stairs we threw open the apartment to discover exactly what “cute, simple and compact” really means in the language of Parisians.
A couch that doubled as a bed, a kitchen measuring one metre in length and a pint-sized bathroom with a mouldy old shower greeted us with a waft of mildew while a layer of dust coated each of the cheaply made surfaces. It looked like this humble abode hadn’t seen the back of a chux in months but with three sleepless nights leaving us feeling more wrung out than a dirty dish rag we were happy to suck it up and enjoy the sensation of being able to lie down.
The next day grey clouds and an icy wind sliced through our jackets as we began our “tour of Paris” by foot.
Soaring old buildings with gargoyles and elaborate architecture framed the streets as we weaved our way past the Jardin du Luxumberg, the classic old monolith called The Pantheon and an array of churches that were probably just basic pads to hold a Sunday mass but to us seemed like a vision of history and beauty.
While perched in one of the leafy gardens, with the pleasant sensation of a camembert baguette filled stomach, we began to relax and take the city in for all its fine food, dirty beggars, stone carvings and glamorous, chain-smoking Parisians.
In true naive traveller style we’d initially been disappointed at a place we thought had far too many homeless and sewerage smelling streets to claim the title of “City of Love” but with the help of that soft baguette followed by an impossibly fluffy croissant we began to feel the magic.
And then we reached the Louvre.
“Ma’m! Ma’m! Do you speak English? Sign please this petition”!
A rough-looking Spanish woman thrust an A4 piece of paper in my face and a quick glimpse revealed a handful of scrawled signatures. Just minutes ago we’d crossed the dirty Seine river on our way to the Louvre museum and it seemed our honeymoon period was over.
“It’s for the deaf and mute – please sign – right here ma’m – we love Australia.”
A combination of confusion and desire to get away sparked me to then make an incredibly stupid decision – I signed the piece of paper. As I was scrawling my name I noticed Scott getting accosted by another group of woman who claimed to be Bolivians scrounging signatures for this seemingly harmless charity.
“Now donation!” She demanded.
“What? No, I don’t have any money,” I quickly protested.
“Yes money – that is what the signature is for – a donation!”
I quickly started backing away and suddenly the initial overbearing enthusiasm this Bolivian woman had presented transformed into a whining anger as she grabbed my arm and attempted to force me to “donate” to a charity which I’m sure was as much to do with the deaf and mute as a Queenslander does with dog sled racing.
Beside me, Scott was in the same predicament and we roughly pushed past the now group of six angry woman who doggedly followed us, clawing at our jacket until they reluctantly gave up 20 metres later.
I was still shaking when two Nigerian men planted themselves in front of me dangling cheap Eiffel Tower relics while reaching out to grab my arm.
In my best bogan Aussie accent I told them to “bugger off” and grumpily stomped down to where we thought the entrance to the Louvre lay. There seemed to be a suspiciously small number of people milling around the entrance and after asking a bored looking guard we discovered the famous museum was shut on Tuesdays.
It was the straw that broke the camels back and we slouched off muttering curses under our breath.
Two hours later, after a stroll along the Seine, we discovered a group of Frenchmen having a far worse day than us.
A series of marches and protests had all but crippled the public sector of Paris as the old threat of privatisation reared its head in the city. Train workers went on strike and hundreds picked up flairs, flags and six packs to storm the streets on Monday in a show of defiance.
By Tuesday the party was still going and dozens of unimpressed policeman in riot gear were forced to babysit the protestors who had turned their noble march into something that resembled a college two-day bender.
Cans of beer littered the streets and flares were still burning brightly, creating a haze of smoke throughout the district.
While it looked like the end of a protest we soon discovered it was very far from over.
The next day we threw our hiking shoes back on and trekked from our apartment to Montmartre via Notre Dam and the worst pub in Paris.
In a fit of State of Origin frenzy Scott had researched the only Aussie pub in the city so we could watch Queensland versus New South Wales in the second match of the annual spectacular.
Being a proud Queenslander his patriotic hat was firmly on and he was excitedly telling me how this was going to be his state’s ninth victory in a row (being a New South Welshman I simply gritted my teeth and told him this entire excursion was a big favour going into the Sarah bank).
The bar, creatively called The Oz, was parked in a dirty district somewhere between the Seine and Montmartre and the outrageous decor was only rivalled by the prices of the “Aussie” beer and bloody awful food.
Posters of kangaroos and bushrangers littered the dingy interior and I couldn’t help but feel disgusted at the notion that we’d travelled halfway across the world to end up in an embarrassing example of Australian culture that made Crocodile Dundee look like an intellectual documentary.
A pint cost a whopping eight euros and a tiny plate of stale, thin fries set us back another seven euros.
There was just one saving grace of the entire afternoon and that was a sweet victory to New South Wales – which not only gave me some satisfaction but ensured Scott wanted to leave the second after the end of game whistled sounded.
Slightly steep cobbled streets lined with overflowing garbage bins and cheap clothing markets lead us up to the artists’ haven that is Montmartre. The slightly smelly introduction paved the way to picture-perfect scenes of colourful courtyards, sweeping views of the city and of course, a host of artists painting everything from Parisian landscapes to tourist portraits.
Despite the now stifling heat it was hard not to fall in love with this oh-so-French paradise and to top it off we indulged in some baguettes on the lush lawn of the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur while Parisian students strummed away on their acoustic guitars.
On the way back we dodged a girl peeing in the street and more opportunist Nigerians while laughing sanctimoniously at the naive tourists who fell for their scams.
With our bus to London scheduled for early Friday morning we decided to race off and see the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe on Thursday – our last overly tourist day.
After stuffing ourselves on more bread and cheese for breakfast (I was beginning to resemble a Hobbit in both eating habits and girth size) we tore off via foot to the other side of the city.
Dodging shonky salesman and scamming Bolivians like true Parisians we weaved our way to the end of the queue to climb the stairs to the Eiffel Tower.
Chatting animatedly to a couple of Australians we marvelled at how fast the line was moving (the queues are notoriously long) and within just 30 minutes we were standing three people back from the ticket booth.
All of a sudden the deep boom of a drum, a cacophony of angry shoots and the startling blast of a flare announced the arrival of the public sector protestors and with the speed of a cougar the woman selling the tickets turned her booth into a metal cage while a beefy security guard told us to move along as they were shutting entry to the Eiffel Tower.
“But for how long?” We demanded.
“For as long as the protestors are here,” he sharply retorted.
With enough beer and flares to keep even the most boisterous frat house happy running the protestors looked set for another all-nighter and so we grumpily conceded defeat and headed over to the Arc de Triomphe to wind up our day.
With a whirlwind introduction to Paris now just about behind us we’re preparing to pack up our things and bus it to London in what will be the last mini break before the bikes get unpacked and the real Long Rode Home slowly wheels off.