A warm autumn in Paris

written by Aldona Grupas

I came home to Birmingham from Moscow with a whirlwind of emotions inside me. I was still on a high when another adventure came calling…

Six months earlier my husband and I had made plans to spend a few days in Paris. We wanted to arrive near the end of September, because we had been told that in the autumn Paris is at her most beautiful. We had already booked our tickets and hotel. 


Day One 

And so, on 19 September we flew into Charles de Gaulle airport. Bienvenue en France!

Paris met us with warm sunshine. The city seemed happy and serene. But where was autumn? Was it always summer in the city of lovers? 

At the R. Kipling Hotel on Rue Blanche we were greeted like old friends. I had already stayed there once, in this old French house with six floors, and its entrance painted orange. I liked how warm and homely it felt, as well as the nice people who worked there. We were met by a handsome young Asian man, who spoke English. The three of us barely squeezed into the tiny old-fashioned lift. But this was Paris, after all: a tiny lift, a tiny room, tiny cafes – but with (as they say) softer mattresses, wider beds, softer duvets, fluffier pillows and silkier sheets than anywhere else. I had spent time in France’s capital in the spring, in the summer, and now in the autumn. I have to say that the beds and blankets are the same as everywhere – but the city really does have its own special charm.

We unpacked our suitcases, changed into new clothes, and stepped out onto Rue Blanche. This narrow little one-way street leads to Place Blanche and Boulevard de Clichy, home of the famous Moulin Rouge. We went down into the metro and travelled to the no-less famous Galeries Lafayette. 

Galeries Lafayette is a French chain of department stores with branches all over the world, but its flagship store for a hundred years has been on Boulevard Osman. The grandiose building is one of the city’s historical monuments, as well as being one of the world’s most expensive malls, and a Mecca for French shoppers. 

And so we walked into this historical monument. Looking up at the great glass cupola, the galleries with balconies and the glass bridge took our breath away. It was very beautiful, stylish, fashionable, as if the boutiques had been made from the delectable French pastries sold in all the Parisian boulangeries. All around were stores of the world’s biggest brands, and expensive cafes and restaurants. In the centre of the main hall was a fabulous podium, where on Fridays there are always fashion shows to present the latest collections for sale in the mall. I heard that G.U.M in Moscow was built as a copy of Galeries Lafayette. But I was surprised by something else.

Everywhere, in addition to signs in French, there is writing in Chinese, and the assistants in the boutiques are of Asian descent: Chinese, Korean, Filipino, as well as Arab. There were so many wealthy shoppers from Asian countries that I would say they made up the majority.

Strolling through the mall, we went up to the seventh – top – floor. Right on the roof there is a restaurant, with a viewing platform with a view of the Eiffel Tower and all of Paris. What an incredible view! I then went along the Glasswalk – the glass bridge that links the parades of boutiques. For safety reasons only a few people are allowed to walk over at one time, so I had to wait in a queue. It is a long way up – and I have been afraid of heights all my life. It made me very queasy to  look beneath my feet, but I overcame my fear, walked along the glass tiles, reached the end and took some photographs. Voila! It was an unforgettable feeling to not let my fears get the better of me.

After Galeries Lafayette, in the afternoon we went to the Louvre. As always, at the world-famous museum there was a huge queue, so we made do with a walk around the square, then from the banks of the River Seine we walked to the Jardin des Tuileries, opposite the Place de la Concorde. It is an idyllic place to take a stroll, and relax in the fresh air. We sat by a little pond, admired the sculptures and fountains, walked along the alleys, and decided that that was enough for one day. 


Day Two

The next day we went to Versailles – the former residence of France’s royalty, and now a suburb of Paris. On an autumnal September day the weather was glorious, as though the warmth of summer would never end. For us, coming from England with its damp autumns, it was almost too hot. 

This excursion gave me particularly strong impressions and emotions. With its classical architecture and gardens designed as pieces of art, Versailles truly is a place fit for kings and queens. Delicate paths, gorgeous fountains, colourful flowers, manicured trees and hedges; in some places, the leaves had just begun to turn yellow, giving them an autumnal feel. We wanted to take photographs of ourselves at every step. I was stunned by the majesty of the palace, and how enormous its grounds were. It would take several days to walk around all the royal apartments and salons. We galloped around to see as much in one day as possible… 

In the evening, when we got back to our hotel, I just collapsed from tiredness and from the heat. I couldn’t even think about a night-time walk through Paris. We left that for the next day. 


Day Three

Our day began with a visit to one of Paris’s main sights, the beautiful snow-white basilica of Sacre Coeur. She sits proudly atop Montmartre, the highest spot in Paris, with a many-layered staircase of 237 steps leading up to her. Not without difficulty we made it to the top, and as our reward were treated to a magnificent panoramic view of Paris. Montmartre hill is a wonderful place to see the beautiful French capital in all its glory. 

The basilica itself is stunning, too. The sculptures and large cupola are very impressive, while inside, underneath the cupola, is the Mosaic of Christ in Glory – a monumental mosaic that is the largest in Paris, and one of the biggest in the world. The famous organ of Sacre Coeur is also one of the biggest and oldest in the world.

Having taken the 237 steps down again, we walked for a while through the streets beneath Montmartre, and then went to see another of Paris’s sights – the Centre Pompidou, the gallery for contemporary visual art.

We stopped at each of its floors and halls, amazed by how some of the modern artists see the world. The standout gallery at the Centre is the one dedicated to 20th century avant-garde pieces. I can’t say that I am a fan of the primitiveness of the paintings and installations, but they do have something to them. I don’t understand why people sit for hours looking at a green square or a  purple rectangle – I prefer images that are more comprehensible. But I was impressed by paintings by the celebrated artists: Picasso, Christian Schad, Francis Picabia and Otto Dix, as well as Andy Warhol’s portrait of Elizabeth Taylor.  I noticed that the most important theme in works by artists at that time was a love of the female body. It wasn’t important whether the woman was fat or thin: the naked body is a source of inspiration. But the most charming sight at the Centre Pompidou came from the viewing platform on the top floor: of Paris, the Seine, and the snow-white cupola of the Sacre Coeur basilica ruling the skyline.

We also wanted to visit Place Charles de Gaulle, with its famous Arc de Triomphe. But we decided to have something to eat beforehand. In a cosy little cafe they brought us some wonderfully soft, thick French crêpes. Some were crêpes Suzette, with an orange filling, and some were crêpes soufflées, with candied cherries… But straight after lunch I suddenly felt very tired, and started to feel pain in my back. My mood disappeared, as well as my desire to see the Arc. We decided not to go; it would be better to rest in the hotel for a little while, and then end the day with a walk through Paris at night. 

In the evening, as we left the hotel and stepped onto Rue Blanche, we saw a minibus with armed policemen parked in one corner. We hadn’t noticed them before. We were taken aback, but thought it might have something to do with the area’s reputation as a ‘red light district’. Boulevard de Clichy, a little way past the legendary Moulin Rouge on Place Pigalle, was lit up with illuminations from nightclubs, peep shows, sex shops, and a building with a sign saying “Sexsodrom”. The surrounding streets and squares were filled with suspicious-looking young men; outside the sex shops, young Parisian girls were standing in mini-skirts and high heels… And as if to confirm our suspicions, soon a black French man approached my husband and offered us some joints. Now there was a surprise! I remembered that this happens in Amsterdam… but Paris?? But yes, the world is becoming globalised – everywhere there are tourists, everywhere there are those ‘red lights’, and everywhere tourists are offered the same things…

When we went home to England and saw the news, I understood why I had felt that sudden tiredness and aches in my back. They had been warnings from above. Some of the strange moments during our night-time walk hadn’t been strange at all, but necessary measures by the authorities to keep the city safe.

That night, after walking on Boulevard de Clichy and seeing the sex and drugs side of Paris, we went to a restaurant for dinner. Can you guess what we ordered?

Yes, of course: frogs’ legs, a famous staple of French cuisine. The waiter told us that the chefs use the frogs’ thighs: the meatiest and juiciest parts of their bodies. 

– Ok, then bring us a fricassee of frogs’ thighs, – I said.

– And which wine will madame et monsieur be drinking? 

My husband thought for a while, ran his finger down the wine list, and ordered a Riesling from Alsace. 

– An excellent choice, monsieur, – said the waiter, and walked elegantly back to the kitchen.

They say that the taste of frogs’ legs is similar to chicken. I wouldn’t say so. It has its own particular flavour…


Day Four

After breakfast on the last day of our trip, we went again to the square close to our hotel. We couldn’t believe our eyes! In the very same place where the night before had been prostitutes and pimps, and where we had been openly offered drugs, now a fancy flea market had appeared! Antique furniture and crockery, vintage clothing and jewellery, paintings, dolls, books… The only reminders of the night before were a few Parisian men sleeping on benches, and an abandoned scooter on a pavement. 

Before we left we managed to take a ride on a cute little open-topped sightseeing tram. While French music played, a tour guide told us about all of Paris’s sights… Unfortunately the road up to Montmartre and the basilica of Sacre Coeur was closed off by the police, and the tram had to bypass it. We thought there must have been some kind of celebration happening that day.

And so it was time to go home. At the hotel we waited for our taxi to the airport. But then came some unpleasant surprises, which reminded me of what had happened on my journey to Moscow. First we got a text message to say that our driver would be 20 minutes late. We waited patiently. A few minutes later, someone from the taxi company called: 

– All the streets in the centre of the city are blocked. Your taxi is stuck in traffic, nothing is moving. You would be better off getting a train to the airport. 

We were calm about this – these things can happen when there are public holidays. No-one at the hotel had told us about any problems: everyone gave us a warm farewell, and we calmly set off for the train station. 

On the platform at the station there was more trouble. Our train arrived, but the guard who checked our tickets didn’t let us get on.

–  What’s the problem? How do we get to the airport? 

He said something we couldn’t understand, and waved his hand towards another platform. 

I have to say that French people either don’t speak English very well, or don’t speak it at all. I found a girl in a yellow tabard who, mercifully, did speak English. It transpired that this way to the airport was also closed. We had to get on a different train, get off at the next station, and then get on a bus (at bus stop B3).

Something had happened in Paris, and it certainly wasn’t a celebration. I became very anxious. Whether in Moscow or Paris, these transport nightmares were following me around like a stray dog. But of course, we weren’t the only ones trying to get to the airport, and so we all did as we were told. 

We got off the train at the next station, and there every 20 meres there was a member of staff showing the passengers where to go. At the turnings there was someone with a megaphone shouting directions, and answering questions, but in French. We stumbled along in the sweaty crowd. Along the street that led towards the bus stop, directions had been marked in dark blue on the pavement. There were members of staff here too, pointing the way. Wow! The French have a lot of experience in taking care of people’s safety. But still, my anxiety was getting even stronger. Are we going to make it to our flight, or not?

When at the bus stop a black man in a yellow tabard tried to take my suitcase, I didn’t want to give it to him. But he laughed, said something in French, and made a gesture to show that he was only going to put it on the bus for me. The bus driver was a black woman with a million dreadlocks in her hair. She said hello to everyone as they got on, and gave us all a smile. In front of us was a Russian family. The woman and her daughter calmly got on to the bus and sat down in some seats, but when the man got on, he stood frozen in front of the driver: 

– Madame?! 

The woman laughed, and said: 

– Оui, oui! Madame!

We laughed too. The man finally moved, and we got onto the bus. Are Russian men really so surprised when bus drivers are madames?

The bus got us to the airport surprisingly quickly. We managed to catch our flight, and landed safely in Birmingham. It was only when a friend called me that I realised that Paris was burning for more reasons than just the weather. I read the news on the internet, and thanked God, my guardian angels, my back, and much else besides, that we had not gone to the Arc de Triomphe that Saturday.

What I saw on the screen was like another French Revolution. Pogroms on its streets; smashed windows; places on fire; barricades: new scenes like those in the painting by Eugène Delacroix, ‘Liberty Leading the People’. Men were running bare-chested on the Champs-Élysées. The police had to use use tear gas. Hundreds of people had been arrested, and some had died. 

I read about what had caused the unrest. On 21 September a movement called the Yellow Vests had organised a demonstration to protest about global warming and environmental damage. I couldn’t get my head around it. How were they going to stop global warming with weapons, fires and fights? 

This was my autumn in Paris. A city of museums and artists, of Asian Parisians and African Parisians, of exquisite food and love for sale – and a city of barricades and blocked streets.


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