If I said it was the most-visited paid monument in the world with over 7 million visits each year and it received its 250 millionth visitor in 2010… where would you be? A clue, it’s the tallest structure in Paris…
It was erected in 1889 and was the world’s tallest structure when completed as the entrance arch for that year’s World’s Fair. What is interesting is it only had a permit to stand for 20 years; it was to be dismantled in 1909, when its ownership would revert to the City of Paris.
Well with those few facts in our pocket Nicola and I knew getting to the top of the Eiffel Tower would be a challenge, especially given the summer crowds were at their peak, but nothing had prepared us for the shear size of the queues. We took one look at the massive snake of people standing for hundreds of metres and thought the City of Paris wisely changed their mind about tearing it down. The queue was taking about 4 hours to get to the ticket office and then there were further waits to get up the tower. It’s the grand poobah of moneymakers and would undoubtedly still be there in the winter when we have decided to return.
I found an interesting little fact when reading about it, the shear amount of paint it needs to ward off the rust. Maintenance of the tower includes applying 50 to 60 tonnes of paint every seven years to protect it and if that doesn’t make you stop dead in your tracks with astonishment then wait till you learn the next one which will make your eyes water. The height of the Eiffel Tower varies by 15 cm (5.9 in) due to temperature change… I did warn you.
Next stop, the largest cemetery in the city, reputed to be the world’s most visited cemetery, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually … the Père Lachaise Cemetery of Paris… Famed for the people who lie still within its walls, who contributed one thing or another over its two hundred year history.
To get there we pedalled on the “get on your bikes” incentive that the city has created, with hundreds of bicycles available for hire from bike stations dotted around the central areas. It’s a super idea and on some days difficult to actually find a bike available. They are free for the first 30 minutes and then cost small increments on your credit card until returned. I’m sure it had to be profitable within days of putting them out, because so many people go over the free time and then just keep pedalling their euros away, bit like a phone bill really.
We found a couple of new looking bikes outside the train station in the centre of the city and 28 minutes later were at the gates of the cemetery, which is now an official bicycle record. I waited for a phone call from the Sky team on the Tour de France, who must have been impressed with the time we did. “Hey, fancy coming over to the team and talking about technique?”… But after a couple of days of waiting I guessed they must have not received my message, which I have to say was slightly disappointing given I had put so much effort into our sprint I could hardly walk for the rest of the day.
After arriving we collected a map including the names of hundreds of well known people, some you would only know if you went to school in Paris, but others we had heard of, so made a list of the gravestones we wanted to see.
The cemetery was opened on 21 May 1804 with the first person buried there, a five-year-old girl named Adélaïde Pailliard de Villeneuve. Napoleon, who had been proclaimed Emperor by the Senate three days earlier, had declared during the Consulate “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion.”
Since that generous proclamation, over one million people have been placed in the ground. It had to be expanded over the years but now it is what you see, unless the French government remove the odd office block, which I can’t see happening.
As the guidebooks had suggested we were not the only ‘grave spotters’ there for a day’s outing in the dead centre of the city (sorry couldn’t help myself). It’s a labyrinth of tombstones, some big, some small and some simply weird, but that’s their choice and if they had the compulsion to be buried under a block of stone being held up by half a dozen angles with harps and skeletons with sickles, then who am I to argue. It’s fun watching couples wandering around with pieces of paper and a map getting frustrated with their inability to find the famed person they had circled. If you don’t have a good sense of direction you could spend the day scratching your head, that is until the sensible wife says… “For God’s sake Derick, can we just ask someone”?
“Just over here love… trust me”…
But the truth is for men, regardless of how lost we get, how long we pretend we are on track and how much time it takes, asking for help is not in our nature, we haven’t been wired that way… So men have over the years found a way of dealing with this hurdle… When we see another man beached and floundering in the midday sun, we feel compelled to help, it’s called… “Throwing a life ring to fellow man”…
An example is when you are in the vicinity of target, you know where it is, but you see a man flapping…
“Hey there buddy… you guys seen the ‘whatever’? It’s great and it is just over there”…
“Yeah, we were just heading in that exact direction.”
It’s usually the roll of their partner’s eyes that gives it away, that they were in fact completely lost and you have just saved them from an argument based solely on pride.
“I” found a few stops including the likes of Edith Piaf, Moliere, Sarah Bernhardt, Frederic Chopin, Oscar Wilde and one that is the big draw card for the cemetery and one of the biggest in the world, Jim Morrison, front man for the Doors, who died in Paris on the 3rd of July 1971.
No death is completely clear-cut when there are drugs involved, which is what killed the 27 year old. The official version of his death is he was in his apartment in Paris on that fateful night with his girlfriend/companion Pamela Courson, sucking up more powder than a vacuum cleaner. Courson said he picked the wrong bag… he thought he was about to snort a line of cocaine but instead snorted Courson’s drug of choice, heroin. And like that horrible scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’ he hemorrhaged internally and bled to death in his bathtub. But there are lots of versions including that he overdosed in a nearby club where he died of a heart attack and was carried home by very nervous bouncers, who didn’t want the negative press, and dumped in his apartment bathtub…. Nice…
Regardless, he died young and is now part of the ever increasing group of rock stars that have strangely died at that age in what is know as the “27 Club”… I’m sure there is a perfectly rational reason why so many do, I’ve read a few theories, but I don’t believe Morrison timed it… there are dozens and depending what music rocks your boat you will know many of them, the latest that I know was Amy Winehouse, before her Kurt Cobain, Leslie Harvey, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Brian Jones, the list is long.
What’s surprising is the amount of people who visit his grave, which has been defaced over the years by cemetery vandals. The originally grave had a bust of the singer sitting on the top, stolen in 1988. Seems a strange thing to steal, what the hell do you tell your friends that visit your house?
“Hey, what you got there buddy?”
“Oh this, it’s the bust from Morrison’s grave.”
“Oh shit, is that the time, sorry mate got to go, don’t call me I’ll call you…weirdo.”
But saying that he was pretty popular with the fans who liked or rather loved The Doors. Many seem to believe he was a demi-god who had a message from higher sources in his music and poetry. At his gravesite you get to see some of the sentimental crap the more passionate fans leave, which is why the authorities have tried their best to rope it off. People leave bottles of vodka, packets of cigarettes, little mirrors that I guess are for drug taking. There are also notes… “Jim… you showed me the way and I will follow”. What the hell does that mean, he’s dead…
“Life is short for the beautiful”… No, life is short for people who snort heroin, you idiots…
I would love to meet the kind of person who leaves that drivel, they have issues, which I would feel obliged to point out…
But then he was pretty well known for living life on the edge and consequently attracting all sorts of fans… I will leave you to ponder one of his many quotes…
“I wouldn’t mind dying in a plane crash. It’d be a good way to go. I don’t want to die in my sleep, or of old age, or OD…I want to feel what it’s like. I want to taste it, hear it, smell it. Death is only going to happen to you once; I don’t want to miss it.”
OK thanks Jim, that’s deep… feeling much better about myself now.
After the cemetery we found something interesting that I would like to share with you… We had just arrived back at the riverbank of the Seine, the main artery of Paris and a place that seems to draw you back every time you venture too far. It’s a place you can wander along and feel you don’t have a care in the world as you watch the boats and people pass by.
We saw a big black tent in the distance, which as we got closer was in fact three tents all joined with a little tunnel. Very new, very modern, very chic and with its location most likely very expensive… We were greeted by a long legged model standing at the door handing something out with the title ‘The Glory of Water’ by Karl Lagerfeld… given he is fashion designer, it had to be a launch for a new perfume.
But as we entered we saw that it was a photography exhibition of the fountains in Rome, including the Trevi, which we had visited while there, so we decided to take a look.
It was a bit odd to say the least; basically it was a book that he was launching in cahoots with Fendi fashion, which donated 2.1 million to the restoration of these fountains.
Karl had a lovely setting within these dark tents, his photos that made up the book were individually framed and sitting perfectly under a bright light with the sound of rushing water giving the feeling of standing next to a noisy fountain, which made us want to pee after a little while. Fifty of the photos appeared as platinotypes, a very rare and very expensive photochemical process involving platinum and palladium on Japanese paper, one I had heard of, but never met anyone rich enough to pay the bill. But considering he had the Trevi to himself for a morning in Rome, a truck full of camera equipment that would make any photographer green with envy and more assistants than Tom Cruise, his photos were very average… It appeared to be a classic case of more money than talent and a way to do something so you can invite your fancy friends for an opening…
“Marvelous darling, you’re a genius.”
“Oh Karl… wonderful, simply magnificent.”
“Brilliant… touched me like my fourth husband.”
I’m probably being a bit unfair as to do a whole book on water and marble is a tough ask… I know art is in the eye of the viewer and I’m sure there are people out there that love them, but I can’t help but think that just because you are a well-known designer, who oddly never takes his sunglasses off, doesn’t necessarily make you a great photographer…
As chance would have it Nicola’s brother Jeremy and his girlfriend Vanessa were in France, gallivanting about the country in a 4×4. Lucky things, how nice would it be to have the time and finances to do exactly what you want for a few months… We had by providence learnt they were going to be in the vicinity of St Malo at the same time as us, which was both the port we would be disembarking from as well as the finish line for the 10th leg of the Tour De France.
Nicola had stayed in touch via ‘FB’ and suggested we all meet somewhere in the area, the time could later be confirmed. So with the date set and ferry booked to depart, we had only a few hundred kilometers left of this journey before we arrived back in the UK.
We decided to spend one more night in France, staying in a small village or town somewhere on the route of the Tour De France, may as well watch the lads spin by and support the favorite rider, who happened to be British, before leaving.
We left Paris on a glorious day, sun out early, blue skies… Oh la la…
We rode to the start of that leg and followed the route for a while, until we found a very sweet little village called La Gacilly, a good place to stop for the night and watch the race pass the next morning. The idea then was to watch the race pass, jump on the bike and get to St Malo to meet Nicola’s brother, have a drink and head to the ferry. What could possibly go wrong…
As it happens it was picture perfect village with idyllic little buildings lining a gentle slope up to the square, tight bend over a small brook with ducks paddling about and timing wise, perfectly situated to be the springboard to the ferry. We had to get to the ferry with plenty of time, as apparently the city was going to be heaving with bike fans, estimated to be in the region of four hundred thousand. They were putting warnings out on the ferry link and I’m sure would not be waiting around for the odd biker that didn’t heed their advice.
As we rode into the village Nicola spotted a tourist advice bureau on the side of the road. She went in to ask about camping, given this was the most likely chance we had of a bed for the night; the place was packed with people for the perfect storm of holiday accommodation hell…. Mid summer… Northern France… Tour De France route… very pretty village… given that she immediately came back with a resounding “NO, packed to the gunnels”… “Bugger”, I thought…
So we went back into the office and asked the friendly lady if she could offer some advice, perhaps a nice field nearby… she had just hung up the phone and smiled saying we were in luck, a hotel in the center of town had just had a cancellation and had a vacant room; a double, on a quiet little side road, breakfast included, parking outside for the bike, two-minute walk to the duck pond and half a dozen delightful little restaurants, thirty seconds from the road the tour will pass. Do you want it? You will have to be quick.
I sat down just before she gave us the price… “This is going to sting”…. 50.00 euros… I perhaps shouted too loud the words “Take it… We’ll take it… Take it… Take it…” She looked at me with an expression that said… “Is there something wrong with him or does booking hotels just over-excite him?”
That slightly over enthusiastic reaction was overshadowed by Nicola bursting out the door with helmet in hand and running at full speed up the road towards the hotel shouting “I’ll get there faster by foot!” Sort of sealed the deal that a couple of “special” people had arrived…
When I arrived at the hotel a few minutes later the woman who owned it was handing Nicola the keys, we had managed against all the odds to find a delightful little hotel for our last night in France for no more money than they normally spend. Seemed odd that they had not taken advantage of the short supply and done what most others would have and hiked the price up, some things are meant to be.
We were told that the tour would pass through the village about 1pm, however the activity would kick off about 11am with what was called the ‘warm-up’, so we asked the lovely little restaurant where we had dinner that evening if we could book the table overlooking the road for lunch the next day for the race… done…
The Tour de France, as most people know, is a busy, spectator filled cycling event as famous for its controversies regarding doping as for the actual race itself. But I personally had no idea what to expect when we walked back to the restaurant the next day.
The buzz was electric, with hundreds of people already lining the road as early as 9am to get prime positions; police vans were dropping of dozens of their troops to stand guard on arterial roads for safety and direction. Then there was the army of security, volunteers and staff standing by like wind up dolls adorned with yellow safety jackets, springs tight with anticipation. It’s massive logistically when you consider this was just one of the dozens and dozens of towns and villages the tour would pass through this day on the 190km route.
Official cars and police motorbikes start the event by clearing the roads with loud hailers just prior to one of the largest marketing campaigns I have ever witnessed, which drove past about an hour before the cyclists were due.
Hundreds of people on elaborately decorated floats, cars, trucks and motorbikes all dressed in stupid outfits came through like a Mardi Gras in fast forward. Because of the speed the cyclists are travelling there is no time to hang about so it’s quick, bright and extremely loud.
It’s all about the advertising machine, companies giving away everything from free shampoo sachets to hats advertising a new better-faster-broadband. If you ever want to see a crowd in a frenzy of excitement, literally clambering over children and the aged so they can snatch the crap from mid air, then you know where to head.
We were standing in the restaurant eating a pizza and watching the spectacle on the road for about 30 minutes, when I saw a giant size Rolex watch on top of a truck come around the corner; I thought it was about ‘time’ (get it… wasted)… time we got something other than useless rubber bands for your wrist or little sachets of anti-itch crotch cream “for the series cyclist” which was being relentlessly lobbed at us, but unfortunately they were just giving the time of 30 minutes before the bikes arrived, cheapskates… The floats disappeared around the corner and the load hailers stopped shouting things in French that nobody understood apart from the French… “Sorry where are we again”…
So with pockets full of useless crap that would go straight in the bin when they got home, the crowds were well and truly frothing at the mouth with excitement and were ready to scream their heads off when the bikes eventually came through. After 20 minutes a dozen very serious looking police and press bikes roared through indicating it was about to begin. Then a car shot past shouting “deux minutes”… We could kind of guess the bikes were not far away when two filming helicopters came over the tops of the buildings, then more police and more photographers on motorbikes… There had been a small group of cyclists who had broken away from the main peloton and we now heading towards the corner we were on. The crowd as predicted were screaming their heads off when the bikes whipped past. A few minutes later the main peloton came past and then it was all over…
Watching any sport live has it’s advantages and disadvantages, replay would have been nice, because you certainly don’t go to these events to see the riders individually, they are moving so fast it’s all over in seconds and a bit of a blur, but worth seeing to soak up the atmosphere and get a key ring from a company in France I have never heard of.
We were lucky that we had planned the day with a timetable that would have put the British rail network to shame (which these days is not all that difficult). We had already packed our bags and had a little time up our sleeve. Unfortunately we had not heard back from Nicola’s brother, who must not have received our email in time… So given that we decided to see another pass of the circus on the way to the finish line further up the road, we could take a side road and zoom ahead to get in front of them.
It worked a treat; we found a small town, pulled over literally five minutes before the blur of bikes sped past us again. The good news was the peloton had closed the gap allowing our lad from England to catch the leaders when it counted.
Twice was enough, so we headed to the St Malo to catch the ferry home, disappointed we would not get to see Nicola’s bro … but with an additional 400,000 people arriving in the big city, every hotel full to overflowing, it was unlikely we would have been able to catch up anyway, the shear nightmare the tour has on the road system would have stumped us. The road they pass along is blocked for hours before the race and unless you know your way around it would be harder to cross to the other side than the Berlin Wall.
With about 40 minutes before the end of the race I spotted a bar on the side of the busy road on the way to the ferry. I saw that they had a TV, so suggested we stop to watch the end of the race given we had a couple of hours to kill.
There were a few old guys sipping beers, glued to the screen when we walked in and ordered a drink. What a lovely way to finish our trip, watching the end of an exciting race in a quaint bar in France, we could relax as there was no stress with plenty of time to get to the boat. I was just saying what a shame it was about Nicola’s brother and we wish we had Wifi when the door opened and in he and Vanessa walked.
I sat there with a confused look on my face and shock over Nicola’s when he simply said, “Hey guys, glad you could make it.”
It took us all a moment to work out that only a short time after we did one final check of our email making use of the hotel’s Wifi, Jeremy had replied suggesting we meet at this exact bar at precisely the time we arrived, which happened to also be where they were sleeping the night.
I don’t believe I have ever had anything in my life happen that can be accredited to serendipity as much as this moment. We were all delighted and amazed that some things in life just work out unexplained. We caught up for as long as we could before it was time to bid each other bon voyage and we head to the ferry.
We made it to the ferry with plenty of time to spare, which was useful, as we still had to find that tiny cabin we had booked.
The journey back to the UK was pleasant and uneventful. We had learned from our first ferry journey over that we could safely leave nearly everything on the bike, so we just took a small bag with us allowing a quick arrival at the bar, where we would have a celebratory drink before heading to bed to encounter some rock and roll… be slowly rocked to sleep with the gentle roll of the British channel.
It was with mixed feelings that we arrived back at dawn to Portsmouth, which was under a blanket of a pink sky that glorious morning. Since the outbound trip all those months ago, we had travelled in one big loop around Europe encountering some of the most wonderful cultures this small planet has to offer. It’s true to me that the more I travel the more I see the same pattern of life existing everywhere regardless of how rich or poor you are. People are happy when they are fed, have some spare money to spend on others and have their health. There are subtle differences between us, including language, skin colour, religious beliefs, a nation’s standing in the world economically, and so on…but as individuals we are all pretty much the same, smile when happy and frown when not.
My mixed feelings were that our trip had come to an end finally and for you readers, my blog… “Thank the Lord” I hear you say…
I left on a journey with my best friend Nicola, who had spent no more that a couple of hours in the saddle before departing and had no idea what to expect. I came home with a fiancé, who I love even more than when we started… She is the most patient person I have ever met and if you have ever spent time on the back of the bike, let alone four months, one of the bravest… She has worked tirelessly to make me look good in the blogs by reading them, correcting and attaching the photos and videos we have taken on this long ride.
For those friends and family who managed to find the time in their busy days to read my rants, thanks for the effort, it was lovely getting your messages along the way… now as for the rest of you who used the excuse that I suggested at the beginning of the blog that went like this…“you’re kidding, you did a blog… with photos and hours of travel waffle and we never got it… Damn”… I forgive you and won’t hold it against you… but please I insist that when you hear we are home, don’t call us we’ll call you…
So from us both… See you when we are looking at you…