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France

CAPITAL: PARIS
LANGUAGE: French
PEOPLE: French, Provençal, German, Breton, Basque, Catalan

France, the largest country in Western Europe, was Europe's first modern republic and once had a colonial empire second only to Britain's. Together with Germany, it was a founder member of the European Economic Community.

France is bordered in the northwest and west by the English Channel and Atlantic respectively, on the southwest by the Pyrenees, on the south by the Mediterranean, and in the southeast and east by the Alps. Although the climate is temperate, it is not surprising that there are regional variations. The north and west get Atlantic winds bringing high humidity and unpredictable weather. The Paris Basin has a more continental climate. The east has colder winters with heavy snowfall in the mountains. Provence in the southeast has only a few days frost a year with hot and dry summers - but receives the cool, dry northerly wind from the Alps in the winter months.

The only problem for an Englishman (or American) in France is that the inherent differences between the races means that they are not exactly welcomed with open arms. The French are, of course, an extremely independent race which is perhaps the problem: in reality they are quite dependent - especially their farmers! I can speak a few faltering words of French - just enough to get myself quickly into difficulties - but, unlike many other European natures, don't expect the average French person to speak fluent English. This is one area they are like the English (and Americans): why should they speak another language?

At the end of the Champs Elysees lies the Arc de Triomphe, the place where the French fight it out on four wheels as eleven roads meet

Another major difference abroad in mainland Europe - as opposed to Great Britain, where public toilets are usually easily found and free - is the predilection of French-speaking countries to continue the 'madame' in the toilets: with the madame always critically positioned at her money table to get the best view of the gentlemen performing. Still, each to their own!


PARIS

Paris steps, France - click to enlarge!I love Paris in the Spring Time - it's the only time I've seen it. But I suspect I would love it at other times of the year as well - especially at Christmas. Normally I don't like too much bustle, but there's something so ... so ... Parisian, I guess, about the bustle in France. There is just so much atmosphere. Whether it's French loaves, cheap but good wine, cheeses, markets, even the architecture, I find it so atmospheric. So exciting! I prefer walking in Paris to see all this - or perhaps it's because I'm frightened of getting lost on the metro!

We did just that, Hazel and I. In a dash back to our hotel somewhere north of Monmartre, we entered a metro station we couldn't find on the map, where there seemed no one who could speak English to help us, and where we had to get on a train to somewhere simply to get to somewhere else we could find someone else to ask! When we got somewhere else, it was necessary to walk down long tunnels and pass through ticket barriers. Hazel's ticket was bent and did not work, and she had to skip over the barrier in the end. It was in here that we particularly noticed the French attitude towards dogs. The English are noted for loving their pets - often more than their relatives and friends - but in France, it seems the pets are much more independent - like the French - and lead-free and street-wise - like the French; basically they have to be to survive. For example, a couple had a little dog in this subterranean world, and they just marched forward with no thought for it. The little dog, quite happy, skipped along after/before them, even negotiating escalators with the independent air or a travel-wise canine Parisian. We saw the same on the streets of Paris: dogs were not on leads, simply and the end of an invisible but extended lead. And they survived better than a visitor is likely to when crossing roads. Keep the thought that drivers score points if they knock you over, and you score points if your cross the road without that happening. Also, bear in mind that traffic lights and pedestrian crossings are merely there to give drivers a better chance due to visitors thinking they have some calming effect on drivers. Don't, whatever you do, imagine that crossing a road with a green 'walk' light will keep you safe for the whole width of the road. You're in Paris now, not Bath!

Monmatre, Paris - click to enlarge!Monmatre had always appealed to me. Put it down to my artistic bent. I have artistic inclinations, but my bent prevents them from coming out straight in a drawing or painting. So I like to admire those who can do it right. I was therefore a little disappointed to find that the artists' area was much smaller than I had imagined. After ascending the hill up to the Sacre-Coeur and entering the Place de Tertre, everything seemed so much more compact and 'villagey' than I had imagined. The paintings were nice - and expensive - but not a lot different to those you would see in any other city. This was where Bohemian life began in the early 19th century when a few artists and writers looking for a freer life settled on the 'Butte' - as they call it there. Berlioz was one of the earliest famous residents, and later it was the impoverished artists and poets that gave it the flavour it still savours today. So Monmartre became a mecca for cabarets, cafés and dance halls.

This artistic quarter unashamedly caters for the tourist, but watch out. It was here that we bought our son a Paris-style T-shirt. It seemed to be a clingy kind of material but, when he put it on back in England, it clung so hard that holes quickly began appearing in it! The material seemed to disintegrate before your very eyes. In fact, to put it on or take it off without making new holes was a challenge. (Clearly selling them to tourists without them realising is another.) In what other country could you get such a holy garment? However, take into account that it was bought within the shadow of the Sacre-Coeur. Wander around the narrow cobbled streets at the back of the Sacre-Coeur and make sure your camera is functional for this very photogenic part of Paris.

The Sacre-Coeur is an imposing building on its hill, and there was a service taking place within, and a strong religious atmosphere despite the tourists bustled around the internal periphery. Even as one of the tourists, I found this disturbing. 'No photographs', the sign said, but flashes indicated that others were not going to miss this one opportunity of capturing some of its architectural splendour, and so I, too, against my better principles, pretended not to see the sign. Wrong move! An Act of God thrust the camera out of my grip as I pressed the button, and the camera got a nasty crack and was never quite the same again. So be warned!

Lower down in Monmartre, where the cars try to park in the wide and leafy Boulevard de Rochechouart, things are more earthy. Here the sex trade still lives, with pornographic cinemas, clubs, shops, and, in the adjoining Boulevard de Clichy, is the famous Moulin Rouge. After hearing about the latter for a lifetime, it all looked a bit tatty - still, it has been around for a few years.

Then there's the centre of Paris, and the shopping area. What struck me was the evidence of extreme wealth: from the expensive car showrooms, through antique markets - full of really expensive antiques - to shops such as those on the wide Avenue des Champs Elysees where prices in the shop windows knocks you out of your boots, and the crowds coming and going from these shops and cafés exude elegance. At the end of the Champs Elysees lies the Arc de Triomphe, the place where the French fight it out on four wheels as eleven roads meet, cars speed around the vastly wide circle attempting to go in eleven different directions sideways-on to the fast traffic flow, and the public only have any chance of visiting the arch and returning with their lives if they use the underpass. (Even French insurance policies have special exclusions for this roundabout!)

Eillffel Tower, Paris, France - click to enlarge!You really shouldn't come away from Paris without having been up the Eiffel Tower, of course - even if you only take the lift up a couple of floors .It makes a good photograph to really prove where you've been, with pleasant views of it from across the Seine a must; it is such an elegant shape. But don't miss the experience of being at the top; it's one you will never forget. You can either climb all the way, or take the elevator most of the way. If you're fearful, there is an enclosed platform almost at the top, and if you get to this you can get away with telling people you went to the top. You can't fall over from this one! But a few adventurous steps more take you up onto the open platform at the very top. On the day we went up, there was hardly a breeze at the bottom, but the wind seemed gale-force on this platform! We went down in the lift and, not being fearful of heights, I leaned nonchalantly on a glass panel looking at the approaching view - until I discovered it was actually a glass door!

Playing boule in Paris, France - click to enlarge!Find a quiet (sandy) corner and you'll find a little band of men playing boule. Now here's something that's taken very seriously in France, so don't think it's just a game! Watch the concentration, see the emotion brimming forth, admire the application as the hand swings, the gleaming ball arcs into the sand. One wonders what would happen if they played a game where the balls were actually allowed to roll freely. I fancy it would be a bit too much for the emotions!

We did the Seine trip in a Bateaux Mouches; now this takes some concentration, for you have to pick out the pre-recorded message in your own language as they constantly change. If you're unlucky and your language is late, you may have passed what's being described, so you need a good memory as well! Never-the-less, especially on a sunny day, this is a very pleasant way to spend a little time. While in the vicinity of the Seine, don't forget to visit Notre Dame. A wedding ceremony was taking place when we went inside and the chanting was beautiful - as are the cathedral's exquisite rose windows. This is the heart of medieval Paris, with the river islands of Ile-de-la Cité and Ile St-Louis nearby, both linked to either bank of the Seine by bridges. From here, a short walk north, are the bustling shopping streets of Paris, while on the opposite bank you have the Latin Quarter, centre of University life, and source of many interesting cafés.

Whether you want art (the Louvre), gardens (eg Monet's house at Giverny), churches or cathedrals, cafés, palaces, splendid architecture (eg Invalides or The Conciergerie), controversial architecture (eg inside-out buildings like Grand Arch, La Défense or the Pompidou Centre - with its 'Titanic-like' pipes enshrining it), shops, fashion, entertainment, or just atmosphere, Paris has it all. It is also full of contradictions, sometimes practically side-by-side: pompous and modest, spacious and compact, cheap and outrageously expensive. What ever you want, Paris is sure to have it!

End of this segment!

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