My third day in Paris turned out to be the most eventful day in the trip and not entirely “eventful” in a good way. The day began as usual with what was becoming a Parisian staple – Coffee & Croissants. Over breakfast, Kang Won warned me about her experience climbing up to Sacre Couer the previous day. I couldn’t make out what she was saying due to her poor grasp of English. All i heard was ” Black man…dangerous…take money”. Put that together with a Korean accent and it pretty much sounded absurd. Jokes aside, I was grateful for the warning as it proved to be a lifesaver later on in the day.
Basilica Sacre Couer
Basilica Sacre Couer ( Basilica of the Sacred Heart) was my first stop for the day since it was only a 10 minute walk from the hostel. I took heed of Kang Won’s absurd warning and emptied my wallet to a bare minimum. Better safe than sorry right? Sacre Couer was built in 1914 and occupies the second highest point in Paris on top of the butte Montmarte. The butte located at street level serves as the base camp for entry into the church. Once you reach the butte, you are greeted by a magnificent view of the basilica in all it’s glory. The facade of the basilica together with the carousel (picture below) would fit right into any Disney movie!
First brush with danger
As i climbed the first flight of stairs up, I spotted a group of black men spread out across the breadth of the landing. They seemed to be screening the crowds walking up the stairs. Kang Won’s warning immediately came to mind and i tried to integrate myself with the group of Japanese school girls in front of me in an attempt to disguise the fact that i was alone. Who was i kidding? It obviously didn’t work! Just when i thought i had escaped to safety, a black hand forcefully grabbed my wrist and pulled me to the side. There were three of them, tall and muscular and they formed a circle around me. I tried wriggling away while muttering the word “NO” over and over but his grip was firm and unrelenting. The black man began to tie a string around my wrist. My fears of getting kidnapped and sold into a crippled child beggar heightened. The man could sense my fear and he reassured me ” It is free…it is free… For good luck… For good luck “. If there was one takeaway from my two years of Economics in college was there was no such thing as “free” in this world. Yeah good luck… i certainly needed it now. My silent pleas went unnoticed to the passing crowds aside from a few curious stares. It probably looked like i was a tourist who obliged to a good luck charm or more likely they too were scared of confronting a group of tall and muscular black men. The other man in the group noticed the attention i was getting from the passing crowds and decided to engage me in small talk to diffuse the tension as his friend finished tying the string.
Black man: ” First time in Paris? ”
Me: ” Nope. I’ve been here a couple of times before. ” ( I lied. NEVER ADMIT that it’s your first time when you’re travelling. It just makes you look like a vulnerable tourist and a sitting duck for scam artists)
By this point in time, i realized my chances of escape were futile and instead i focused on getting out of this encounter with minimal loss so i engaged in small talk.
Me: ” You Muslim? ” (It was a calculated guess because most Blacks are either catholics or muslims and no catholic would mug a fellow catholic on the way up to a church?!)
Black man: ” Ya man. Assamualaikum! You muslim too?
Me: ” Nope. I have Muslim friends back home ” (I wonder if they would have let me go if i said i was Muslim. Smart not to mention that i was a Catholic. It would have made things much worse i figure)
The man who was tying the string chanted a slew of words which interspersed between Arabic and some African dialect which marked the completion of the task.The whole thing was getting weirder by the moment. Thoughts of black magic and curses flooded my mind. The man who was previously engaging me in small talk immediately reverted back from his role as a religious man to church-mugger. He started demanding me for money. Why wasn’t i surprised? I played the denial game complete with my sob story which i had prepared prior to the trip that i was a broke student travelling back home but it wasn’t working. These guys meant business and they weren’t letting me go without emptying my wallet. I relented to the pressure and passed him 10 euros. I figured that would be enough to buy myself freedom but unfortunately that was not the case. He looked at the note with disgust(YES THE CHEEK OF HIM. I was paying him money for a piece of string which i did not even want!). He wanted more.Thankfully, Kang Won’s warning earlier had allowed me to plan ahead. I only left 20 euros in my wallet with the remainder safely tucked in my gloves which were in my bag. In a choreographed last attempt at my freedom, i took out my wallet and showed it to them. Finally, they somewhat believed my earlier story and took the remaining 10 euro. I was free and on my way. Superstition got the better of me so the first thing i did was to get rid of the string. There was nothing sharp around so i bit it off. This turned out to be another unwise choice as i would find out later on in the day. The incident did not particularly leave me shaken which would have been the natural reaction. Was i scared? Of course i was to a certain extent but I knew things like this were bound to happen on a solo trip. It was an important lesson. It made me more aware, cautious and prepared for the remainder of my trip. At that point in time i was just revelling in my little victory over the muggers and escaping with minimal losses.
So what does one do after getting mugged? Take a picture of course!
Despite the possibility of you getting mugged, taking the stairs up is highly recommended. It provides you with decent views of the city below and allows you to appreciate the church’s architecture as you approach.
I bumped into the group of Japanese girls whom i had previously tried to integrate myself into. They were mumbling in Japanese at my direction and i somehow knew it was about the incident which happened earlier. I made the first move and asked the most dumbest introductory line ever ” You from Japan? “. They were curious about the incident earlier and we spent some time talking about it. I tried a few Japanese phrases which proved to have a rather comedic effect judging from the giggles. They asked me to help them snap a picture in front of the church before we entered and like my previous volunteer photography experience they offered to take one for me!
The thought of taking a picture together did cross both our minds. There was a long awkward pause after they snapped my picture. However, being the shy conservative Asians that we are(plus my camera-shyness who my friends are well aware of), it did not materialize. In retrospect, i should have suggested it! Mingling with the Jap girls was fun nonetheless. The Japanese are really a friendly and bubbly bunch!
At the top of the butte, once you’ve braved all those steps, relax and soak in the view!
The church compound is made up of two main buildings. The main church building and a smaller chapel/monastery right beside it which has a conjoined observatory deck(under renovation at the time i visited)
Entry into the church is free of course but do donate some money. There are numerous collection boxes located inside. Most European churches function on the principle of self-sufficiency so public donations are a major source of income. Your donation helps them with day to day running as well as maintenance/restoration works on the centuries old decor/architecture. Alternatively if you’re not a donation kind of person, you can contribute by patronizing the gift shop. Most of these gift shops sell commemorative coins featuring the church or patron saint. A great collectible’s item/gift for you to bring home! I bought a few coins and an intricate hand made rosary for my mom before leaving. Photography without flash is permitted in most European churches but please be considerate since it’s a place of worship too. I didn’t take any pictures as it was dark inside and the pictures would not come out decent without flash.
I decided to take the Montmarte Funicular back down to street level. This was to avoid the gang of black muggers and more importantly i wanted the experience. On my way to the summit of the funicular i took the chance to grab some souvenirs from a few street peddlers. These guys are everywhere in Paris and sell a variety of souvenirs ranging from postcards, key-chains and even 3D replicas of famous monuments. The best part is you get to haggle so you’re highly likely to get a decent price significantly cheaper than the shops. I picked up 10 Eiffel Tower key-chains and a full scale model of the Eiffel Tower for just 7 euro! Besides street peddlers and muggers, Paris also features a strong street artist/busking scene.
This guy must really take his job seriously.. Standing still at sub-zero temperatures for most of the day!
The summit station for the Montmarte Funicular is located a short walk east of the church when you exit. You’ll see a sleek modern glass structure and that’s the station! The Montmarte Funicular is basically a vertical-tram of some sort. It has only two stations. One at the base of the butte and the other at the summit. Tickets for the funicular is included in most Paris transport passes. You can also buy them at either of the stations or any metro station since it uses a standard metro ticket(1.70 euro). Most ticket vending machines in Europe have an English option so don’t worry too much.
As soon as i exited the base station, i spotted a black man holding a bunch of strings from afar. He began walking in my direction. Thankfully this time it was just one guy. That served as a good enough cue for me to run for my life. I sidestepped past him successfully on my way to safety amidst his hollering of the familiar “GOOD LUCK” and “FREE”. I should have kept the bracelet on but in retrospect, it wouldn’t have mattered and he would probably tie one on my other hand anyway.
If you’re visiting Basilica Sacre Couer, I highly recommend taking the steps up and the funicular down for a complete experience.
Nearest Metro: Anvers
Tour Montparnasse (Montparnasse Tower)
After what was my most dangerous visit to a church to date or forever for that matter, i took the metro to my next stop – Tour Montparnasse. The tower was included in the Paris Pass and was along the way so i decided to give it a quick look. It is built on top the Montparnasse – Bienvenüe Paris Métro station so getting there wasn’t a problem. The tower was built in the 70s in a bid to urbanize the city skyline which failed miserably since a law banning buildings higher than seven floors was put in place not long after its completion. These days it remains a white elephant in the city’s skyline. Despite this, the tower still serves as decent vantage point to enjoy some spectacular aerial views of the city. The tower is the third highest point in Paris only behind the Eiffel Tower and Sacre-Couer. It was also the tallest skyscraper until 2011. The tower’s 56 floors are mainly used as office space with an observation deck and terrace open to the public. Tickets to the top cost 14 euros and can be bought online at the website listed above or physically at the counter located at the ground level of the building.
The tower claims to provide you with an unobstructed 40km panorama of the city on a clear day. Unless you travel during the summer months and that’s if lady luck is on your side, you’ll be disappointed. A clear day is an extremely rare occurence.Telescopes are positioned all round the observation deck for you to get a closer view of things. As you’ve seen from earlier pictures at Sacre Couer, the weather wasn’t on my side that day so i gave it a miss. Here’s some pictures from the observation deck anyway!
Even in overcast weather, you still get a decent view of the city. Not picture perfect but it’ll have to do. From the observation deck, take the stairs up to the open-air terrace which is also the roof of the building.
I wouldn’t say that the tower is a must-visit if you’re in Paris especially if the weather conditions are unfavourable. I would spend the 14 euro admission fee on something more worthwhile. If not for the Paris Pass and the tower’s location, I would have probably given it a miss. I barely spent half and hour at the tower before i left for my afternoon train to Versailles from the station directly opposite.
The station was one of the bigger ones i visited in Paris. A train station in a mall would be an apt way to describe it. Gare Montparnasse mainly served the RER lines (surbuban trains) and a few of the TGVs. The upper floors consisted of retail shops while the lower floors served as train terminals.
My Paris Pass did not cover my trip to Versailles so i had to buy a ticket. Previously, i headed straight to the ticket counter and purchased the ticket from the train staff in person. However in light of the events which happened earlier on in the day, i consciously decided not to be a typical tourist( making myself vulnerable) and proceeded to the ticket machines like what the locals did. After all, there was an English option. How hard could it be? After numerous failed attempts, i conceded defeat. I did not understand a single thing on the screen even though it was in English. You see train tickets in France operate on a departure and arrival station where only the first and last station on the line is displayed. Unlike the metro system which i had a map for, i was totally clueless about the RER/TRANSILLIENT network. To add to the confusion, there are two stations with the word Versailles on it. My confusion caught the attention of the man beside me who had just arrived at the ticket machine. He offered to help me but i politely declined out of pride and paranoia (from the mugging incident earlier). I gave up after a few more unsuccessful attempts and headed to the ticket counter. Suddenly, the man who had offered to help me with my tickets jumped right in front of me. Now that i had a full view of him, i noticed that he was of Algerian/Moroccan descent. Not being religiously bigoted or anything of that sort, i had a niggling feeling that he was Muslim( he probably was based on demographics) and things were going to get worse. Muslims just love to have a go at scamming me i suppose.
Man: *waving bunch of tickets in my face* ” I help you buy your ticket already! ”
I did not even mention my destination to the man earlier on. I knew immediately that he was a scam artist. I was furious. There was no way i was getting conned/extorted the second time in a day.
Me: I raised my voice ” No! I did not ask you to buy anything! I’m not going to pay you! ”
Man: ” You owe me 10 Euro for the ticket! Pay me! ”
This guy was indeed a scam artist. I checked the price of the ticket beforehand and it only cost 3 Euro. He probably bought a open ticket to any station which cost 4 euro and there he was trying to sell it off for more than double its cost price.
The arguing continued for awhile before he started attempting to cry in exasperation. God… this guy was an actor too. Things took a turn for the worse when he signalled to his friends to come over. They were part of the scam obviously. One of them was big and the three of them surrounded me. The big guy began demanding me to pay his friend while his friend continued his Oscar-winning performance. I stood firm and was not going to be bullied. I slowly inched my way towards the ticket counter. Just then, a railway security team entered from the other side of the hall. Before i knew it , the group of scam artists dispersed back into the crowd. After i purchased my ticket from the counter, i spotted the group of scam artists surrounding a Chinese family. The situation looked calm unlike what i went through earlier. The Chinese family were falling for the scam. They bought the tickets from the scam artists and even shook hands. Such idiots! I felt bad for them though and wanted to help but there’s no help for stupidity right? I reminded myself never to be so naive and gullible.This incident was strike two of dangerous encounters. Thankfully that incident was the last of it because if there was a strike three, i would be out!
A conversation with a Frenchman
The train station was really a happening place to be in. At the platform while waiting for my train to arrive, I saw a man simply light up a cigarette. Mind you the platform was indoors and air-conditioned but he did not seem to care. The rest of the passengers didn’t care either. Not long after, the railway security team entered the platform on one of their regular patrols. They spotted the smoker and approached him. You probably would expect security to subdue him/take him away or something along those lines. However all they did was simply request him to stub out followed by checking his I.D . After a few minutes of calm exchanges between both parties,the smoker took out a few notes from his wallet and the security team were on their way. I still don’t know if it was a bribe or a fine but the main point was everything was done in such a calm, respectable and relaxed manner.
French trains are a thing of beauty. Wait, anything French is a thing of beauty! It was my first time seeing a double decker train. It’s not actually a double decker but there are two decks in a cabin so we’ll just leave it at that. Instinctively, i headed to the upper deck.
Excuse the grainy picture quality. This picture was interrupted by a rather embarrassing incident.
There were no completely empty booths on the upper deck so i settled for a random seat opposite a man who was sleeping. At the very moment my camera was focusing in preparation of snapping the above picture, the man opposite me woke up.
” Are you taking a picture of me?! ” he said in an accusatory tone
That was embarrassing! I clarified with him that i was taking a picture of the train ( which must have sounded even more weird to a local). I explained to him my story so far. Thankfully he was cool with it and we introduced ourselves. He was not a man yet, barely 16 though he looked years beyond his age. Much older than me i must say. He went by name of Achard ( I’m not sure how to spell it but that seems French doesn’t it? Close enough..). Achard was on term break from boarding school and was visiting his Grandfather’s farm in Reims ( My years spent in De La Salle Primary served me well in this case. I knew the place. Birthplace of my alma mater’s patron saint, Saint John Baptist De La Salle!) . My little knowledge was enough to surprise Achard. His time at the boarding school meant that his English was understandable. I was just grateful to find a Frenchman who spoke any English. We spent the rest of the journey talking about sports, school and our countries. He played volleyball mainly and football of course. He was fond of Arsenal and Wenger. It seems everyone in France takes a liking to Arsene Wenger and Arsenal too! I also took the chance to clarify with Achard where i was supposed to get off and directions to the palace. Achard alerted me when the train reached my stop. We shook hands and exchanged well wishes before going our separate ways. It’s funny how an embarrassing incident sparked off a friendly conversation between two strangers from different parts of the world.
Versailles was a welcome change from the capital-city centre atmosphere of Paris. You’ll notice a change in atmosphere from sounds and even the air that you breathe which was cleaner. It reminded me of a small quaint chateau town in the countryside even though geographically it’s a suburb of Paris, 17.1 km from the city centre. From it’s beginnings as a weekend chateau for royalty to hunt to its transformation to a palace and capital, Versailles has certainly evolved into a city of great historical and cultural significance.Two of the most important treaties which shaped major global events were signed here- The Treaty of Paris which ended the American Revolution and the more familiar Treaty of Versailles after World War I. It is also home to a UNESCO world heritage site- The Palace of Versailles. Prima facie, it’s hard to imagine that Versailles used to be the de facto capital of the French monarchy for over a century. Well that’s until you get to the palace!
Getting to Versailles
There are two ways you can get to Versailles. Do take note that each way ends at different stations( Versailles is served by two different stations) You can take RER C which is connected to the Metro Network (3.25 Euro/trip) and alight at Versailles Chantiers or if you’re leaving from Gare Montparnasse like me, take the Transillien and alight at Versailles Rive-Gauche. RER C is the efficient option since the journey is faster taking only 20 minutes compared to the Transillien (4 Euro/trip) which takes double that time. Versailles Chantiers is also nearer to the palace (5 minutes) compared to Versailles Rive-Gauche (20 minutes).
Since i took the Transillien i was on the other side of town and the palace was nowhere in sight. I didn’t bother looking at the map beforehand since my friend who had been there before told me that i would see it once i exited the train station. He probably got off at Chantiers. I was lost once again. Emboldened by my previous encounters with strangers , i did not hesitate to approach one of the locals for directions. I was spot on with my choice of a random stranger- He spoke English! If you need help or directions in France, try approaching the younger crowd. They are more likely to speak some English. I didn’t catch his name but this stranger assumed the role of good samaritan and walked me to the bus stop even though he was in a hurry to catch a train! It was nice not getting mugged/scammed by a stranger for a change! Don’t make the mistake of taking a bus like i did and waste 2 euros. All you have to do is walk straight down from the train station and turn left into the main avenue. It’s a straight road to the palace from there on. A 20 minute walk to the palace isn’t all bad since you get to see most of the town along the way.
Just follow the crowds and you shouldn’t get lost. The palace lies right at the end of the long main avenue which stretches across the entire town. You’ll make your way through the palace’s courtyard where a giant bronze statue of Versailles’s founder King Louis XIV on horseback takes centre stage.
The golden gates mark the entrance to the main palace. You’ll pass through a few of them. The more gold you see, the closer you are to the actual palace.
Entry into the Palace cost 18 euros. If you have the Paris Pass admission is free. Audio guides are available for rent at 3 euros and i highly recommend you get one to make your visit worthwhile.The interior of the palace houses one of the most valuable art collections in the world mostly depicting French royal history and Christianity, all housed in intricate stucco work. Walls and ceilings are adorned with artwork commissioned by royalty. If you’re an art lover Versailles is a must-visit. There are also exhibits featuring royal artefacts which have been recreated to give you an idea of how royalty lived. Prepare your eyes for some art porn!
Even their staircases are not spared from embellishment! It’s transformed into a stairway of royal fame featuring the country’s deceased monarchs.
There are much more pictures but i guess you get an idea what the Palace is like on the inside? The tour inside taught me that royalty have rooms for every single thing- Changing room/ waiting room / waiting room before you enter the waiting room etc. The Palace of Versailles remains the most ostentatiously embellished structure my eyes have ever seen. Not a single inch was spared from the artist’s brush. I don’t think i’ll ever see that much gold in my life. A word of advice, do some neck exercises before you enter the palace. Your peripheral vision will not be enough to see everything. Prepare for continuous cycles of 360 degree rotations of your neck. Two hours inside and i was going mad. My eyes were about to burst from all that art. It was overwhelming. If there’s one word to describe the Palace it’d be EXCESSIVE (in a “too much of a good thing is a bad thing kinda way”).
If you feel nauseated from all that art, head out to the next best thing about Versailles- The Gardens. Endless rows of neatly manicured hedges and trees in elaborate designs embellished with statues await you.To give you an idea how big the gardens are, there’s a tram to bring you around.
There are numerous fountains around the grounds dedicated to Greek and Roman mythology too.
The gardens is a perfect place to take a walk or have a picnic. Entry is free and it is a public park so expect it to be filled with locals and tourists alike. If you visit during the summer months, you can rent a bicycle or even kayak in the pond!
It was about 3 in the afternoon and i was starting to get hungry from all the walking. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I stumbled upon a pop up cafe in the middle of nowhere.
and treated myself to some nutella crepes and an espresso. Yummo!
I decided to explore a bit of the town on my back to the train station.
I wanted to spend more time exploring the town but the sun was setting and i had to get back to Paris.
A town of both natural and aesthetic beauty,Versailles can be done as a day trip if you’re visiting Paris. I highly recommend it as a must-visit. It certainly left a lasting impression on me with its quaintness. It felt like i was transported to a different time where everything went by at a much relaxed pace. Versailles remains one of my favourite and most memorable places from my journeys around the world.
Here’s a quick fact about towers or tall structures in general if you haven’t already noticed – They take on a whole different light at night. I say this both figuratively and literally. If possible, plan two trips to visit them. One in the day and one at night. In the context of the Eiffel Tower, if you really don’t have the luxury of time, visit it at night. That’s when the crowds come in throngs anyway so it must say something. The tower transforms to a beacon of light at night, a drastic change from it’s dull steel appearance in the day.
The most memorable part of the Eiffel Tower for me was the walk up to it. You can approach it from all angles and it still looks magical. There’s just something captivating about this dull oddly shaped metal structure that i can’t put my finger on. Brace yourself for long queues. First to get your tickets, followed by waiting your turn for the elevator up. It was extremely chilly when i reached the top. It was already chilly at ground level but temperatures plunged at the top. Strong gusts of wind(to the point you can hear it howling) made it much worse. Once you’ve braved the queues and the cold, you’ll be rewarded with the best panoramic view of Paris in all it’s shimmering glory. For all you football fans like me, take the chance to watch a football match from an exclusive seat 300 metres above.
At regular intervals during the night, the tower transforms into a light show (cue “shine bright like a diamond”)
My HTC One X and digital camera couldn’t take good pictures in the night so i apologise for that. Here’s a video instead!
Seine River Cruise
A short walk from the Eiffel Tower, the boat cruise Bateaux Parisiens departs at half-hourly intervals taking you down the Seine past some of Paris’s famous landmarks. Though it was an activity suited more for couples, i took it anyway since it was included in the Paris Pass. It’s an enclosed boat so you’re protected from the elements. The boat cruise also includes a narrated tour by a real tour guide. If you want some peace and quiet like me, head outside and experience the Seine up close as the boat winds its way across Paris, under most of the city’s famous bridges.
Once again, there weren’t that many nice pictures due to my photography devices. Here’s another video!
The cruise ended at about 10 pm and i was feeling hungry again. Most of the restaurants/cafes had already closed. Luckily, there was a 24/7 convenience store nearby. Got myself some microwave ready pasta, soup and beer to bring back to the hostel. If you’re missing home there’s even “Singapore Noodles” available!
If you’re on a budget, eating from supermarkets/convenience stores isn’t as bad as you think it is. There’s a wide selection of affordable microwave-ready dishes to suit any palate. Beer & wine are extremely cheap too! Kronenbourg only costs 0.80 euro for a 500ml can! It’s truly a foodie paradise. An alcoholic’s one too. Here’s something to end my third day in Paris on a high note- Cheers!