Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris

sacre couer

Date of visit: 15th August 2009
Where: Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris

Be prepared for the hundreds of steps. If you are very unfit and its the middle of summer you may struggle to see everything or it may take you a while but it is well worth it and I would say a must see if you’re in Paris.

Sacre Coeur sits at the top of a hill in the northern side of zone 1 in the Montmarte area of Paris and I think offers some of the best views of Paris and I think it holds more interest than most of the other attractions. I’m not a religious person in the slightest, so I only speak from the point of view of its setting, architecture and contents. Its location is much more interesting than say around Notre Dame, du Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. There are many winding streets and small shops to find so you can easily escape the tourist masses.

Make sure you take a rucksack and a lot of water, as when you’re there 500ml bottle will cost you €3.50 instead of the normal €0.80 in the shops/ supermarkets.

So getting there, you can start off from Anvers Metro station or from Lemark Caulaincourt or Chateau Rouge. Then just look for the hill and start walking up hill, either way you go you’ll get there. We actually started futher out and walked from Jules Joffrin Metro station and it did take a while to get there, but again we just started walking up a hill and eventually got there. Its pretty much the only hill in central Paris so you shouldn’t have any problem finding it or keeping on the right path.

Because we walked what turned out to be the back of Sacre Coeur we missed the lazy route up via the Funiculaire Gare Haute – A tram that goes up the hill for you. So we missed this and instead walked up a couple hundred steps to reach the base, however we did use the tram later on in the day and to be honest it will make you just as sweaty as climbing the steps – think of it like a moving greenhouse. To reach the tram and the front of Sacre Coeur you’ll want the Anvers Metro station.

footballer-lamppostEither way you walk, you will be greeted by a few things: the volume of tourists there, the volume of artists there doing portraits, the number of buskers there and of course my favourite the guys trying to sell the shitty Eiffel Towers. However I can’t speak for all buskers being a nuisance raping/ scamming the tourists for a quick Euro because I think a few of them were generally worth watching. For instance, there was a chap there that while it looked like he was just playing keepy-uppy with a football this was just the start as he begun swinging around the lamp posts 3 metres up still controlling the ball on the end of his foot and performing such a feat of skill and acrobatics you really couldn’t begrudge paying him. Beggars take note!

Incidentally if you are asked by a stranger ‘speak English?’ just ignore them as they’ll produce a scrap of paper with some sob story written on it. Watch them long enough and you’ll see them working in gangs – basically a less glorious version of charity muggers.

Anyway I digress, the most important aspect you will be greeted with when you arrive at the bottom of Sacre Coeur is the scale of it, the fountains, the landscaped lawns, the domes and pathways. Set against a clear blue sky it is stunning. Shame about the sheer volume of people, but still better than the other attractions in Paris.

So climb up to the top and to the main entrance which if you venture inside (which is free), you will be warned that this is a place of continual prayer and to show respect along with all other the normal allowances that organised religion takes away from the individual. I have no respect for the hypocrisy of religion or prayer so it didn’t bother me but I still didn’t walk around shouting and touching everything – I have no respect for religion but plenty for my surroundings. So you shouldn’t dress like a tart, eat/ drink food, talk aloud or take photo’s at Sacre Couer as its offensive to the religious aspect, apparently, but then I reasoned that it was offensive to me to try and impose their rules so I still took a few photos. Interestingly you couldn’t take a photo but you could buy one… which comes back to that hypocrisy thing again.

There are the normal statues, shrines etc.. inside Sacre Coeur, along with a shop (respectful to continuous prayer?). What you really want to go inside for to look up at the domes, which show phenomenal architecture and painting, I came over all religious and decided I needed a seat. My camera also had a religious moment as it accidentally went off (several times) resting on its tripod. The other reason to go inside is of course to too cool off from the heat and have a sit down, interestingly if you stay for a while you will note people trying to be more flamboyantly religious than others. A man will kneel to prey, then be upstaged as another man walks around with their arms out stretched chanting. I’m sure if I stayed long enough it would have escalated into them speaking in ‘tongues’ rolling around on the floor. So much like the queue to get in, I queue to leave impressed with domes, the interior here is much more impressive than that of Notre Dame.

Hmmm.. what next, well if you look around and find the side entrance to the left of the main entrance down some stairs you see a sign to the crypt and towers, which for €5.00 each was well worth the money. Be warned to get to the top, it takes 300 steps! But this is well worth it for the views of Paris that you will get and there are places to sit down when you reach the top. You can stay up here for a long time taking in the views, also most tourist people won’t bother you up here as the climb generally puts most people off so it’s typically quiet. After you get bored of the views you can walk down another flight of stairs that will put you in the crypt.

In the crypt there is a central room that holds some great statues along with a few of the bones of their subjects, the first cardinals of the cathedral. On the outer part there isn’t much to see apart from a couple more statues and a couple of display rooms (showing all the wealth).

You can continue to walk around the area and explore a bit to see all around Sacre Coeur taking in plenty of different views of Paris below, it’s nice place to relax despite all the hustle and bustle. There is plenty to walk around and explore and you aren’t far from walking to Moulin Rouge or the Dali Museum and artist area.

The Paris Catacombs

paris catacombs

Date of visit: 13th August 2009
Where: Paris, France
More info:

Be prepared for the horrors of the Paris catacombs: they close at 4pm, they have a 2 hour queue to get in and if you’re last in then you get herded out by the staff. If you can survive the queue and the 2 hour lesson in self restraint of having to remain polite while having to listen to tragic trendies (sun glasses in the dark catacombs!) and Americans inanely yak on then this is worth a visit. No offense to the American populace but some of your accents seem to carry really well both in the outdoors and the underground passages.

Anyway, it’s just before 2pm and we arrive from the nearest Metro stop which is Denfert Rochereau (either on line 4 or 6) in zone 1. You can see the entrance/ ticket hut for the catacombs as soon as you walk out pretty much. Oh and you can also see the long queue quite easily that snakes around the block for which we find its end and join, at that point we are then advised that they will close in 2 hours and the queue is also 2 hours long by the staff.

We decide to take the chance since we are British and can handle a queue and a lengthy wait that may end with disappointment. So we survive the 2 hours of inane babble – ‘oh my god I was like totally like this is like the best thing like…’ Such a waste and pointless over use of similies giving insult to languages the world over. Anyway, so we survive and get to the front and they are starting to close. They only let in 20 people at a time so its difficult to know if you’ll be in the last 20. We are. We get to go in looking back at the queue that is still going around the block.

After walking down 130 spiraling steps we lose the other 18 people in the group and ditch them, I think the catacombs should be viewed in some level of solitude so you can fully appreciate the experience – that means near silence and as few people as possible it also seems more respectful. We wait a little while and read the information about the tunnels at the start and how we are about to enter essentially what was a large anonymous open grave for many of Paris’s corpses.

The Catacombs of Paris, the municipal Ossuary, were created at the end of the 18th century. The cemetery of Innocent which is close to Saint-Eustace, in the district of the Halles, had been used for nearly ten centuries and had become the source of infection and disease for all the inhabitants of the area. After multiple complaints, the Council of State, by decision of November 9th 1785, pronounced the removal and the evacuation of the cemetery of the Innocent ones – around 6 million in total, old stone quarries were selected to deposit Parisian bones and the catacombs were created.

Having no identity the bones were laid out to form patterned walls which then concealed the rest of the bones behind them – due to volume of remains the workers needed to traverse the tunnels otherwise they would have probably just dumped the bodies down there.

We begin our journey down the dark, damp carved out tunnels, its about a 2km walk in total and half of that is just getting to the site. There’s a few things to read along the way and you can see foundations of the buildings above. Near the start there are a couple of carvings done into the tunnel walls, which are done in such good detail.

A bit more walking and we catch up to the group in the start of the catacombs, I found it funny to watch someone in sunglasses trying to look ‘cool’ staggering and triping over the uneven floors and as they have their photo taken next to a strangers skull you have to wonder why?…

There is no flash photography allowed in the site (obviously doesn’t apply to everyone), so to get any decent photos you either need to be able to hold a camera perfectly still, shoot in a high ISO setting or use a tripod and long exposure times, which is exactly what I did. The staff seem pretty helpful in shining torches at the skulls and patterns for you so that you could see in better detail but this is more a hinderance and annoyance when you’re taking photos and trying to get the right settings. I’d recommend a tripod and your own flashlight as that seemed acceptable to the staff, it also seems acceptable to be able to touch the remains as some people even pick up the bones.

And now we start to get herded as we’re the last group it’s not even 4.30pm and we get rushed through the remaining caverns and passage ways barely able to take in the surroundings and this is what really ruins the experience for us – we constantly have the staff marching forward to drive us out of the tunnels so they can go home at 5pm. Going in last didn’t work out for us as I had hoped for – I thought we would have got the place pretty much to ourselves and had more time to explore.

It’s still worth a visit though and the entrance price is fairly cheap, 8 Euros I think, but I would recommend going there at 9am to queue and get in there first, taking a tripod and flashlight with you if you want any decent photos. I would like to think that you would get enough time to see as much as you wanted.