Fare thee well, London. We had fun for two days, struggling with jet-lag and trying to see as much as our tired eyes could take in. But now the real adventure begins as we lug our suitcases through corridors, down stairs, into elevators and finally into the packed-out reception room of The Wombats Hostel. It’s 7 am and our Topdeck Tour, the Winter Spirit, is due to depart in half an hour.
Honestly, I felt really nervous. We were about to jump onboard a bus with 40 or so total strangers and live with them for 24 days. As one of those, ‘I’m-really-quiet-until-you-really-get-to-know-me’ / ‘never-says-much-in-groups’ kind of people, it was pretty intimidating. Now, looking back on it, I can happily announce that my fears were pointless as I soon found myself surrounded by incredibly awesome people who soon became my friends.
Our bags all squeezed beneath the bus, we clambered onboard. We introduced ourselves to the people around us, mainly speaking with Michelle and Mackenzie. Michelle, I found out, had the same grey Kathmandu jacket as me, so we became jacket-buddies for the trip. Our awesome tour-leader, Chrystle, introduced herself and we all settled in for a long drive to Paris.
We started driving down a slope, and I turned around to face the White Cliffs of Dover. The cliffs, which are formed mainly of chalk, are very striking in appearance; they stand out brilliantly white against the bluey-grey backdrop of the sky. We wandered onto the ferry that would take us across the English Channel to Calais. We introduced ourselves to more future-friends; Jeff, Jonathan, Beck, Ash, Georgie, Richie… there were so many people to get to know! Katie and I decided to go for a wander around the ferry, we went up on the top deck and said our goodbyes to England as we sailed further and further away from the white cliffs.
I’m not going to lie; the drive was long. We saw a lot of wind turbines, green paddocks, and very luckily for us in winter; blue sky! It was heart-breaking to see the refugee camps near Calais as we were driving past, and to imagine the lives of the people living inside the little blue and white tents as we holidayed past them. We didn’t get to Paris until late afternoon. It is very eye-opening to see the poverty even in the outskirts of Paris. There are people all over the street; men, women, small children, begging or trying to make money by cleaning car windows as people wait in traffic.
We had a heart-warming moment when we saw three young people, probably in their early 20’s, walking around the streets with suitcases. They were handing out gift packages to homeless people. One homeless man cried and looked so overjoyed to receive the simple gift of a blanket. It is amazing how something so small but thoughtful can change someones life when they are in need.
Once we had weaved our way through the busy streets, we checked into a room with Michelle and Mackenzie in a hostel with vibrant feature walls and interesting bathroom experiences; it turns out that people in Europe aren’t so shy about being stark naked and striking up conversations with strangers. I mean, I guess it’s as good a time as any to get to know someone?
Our first group dinner was inside the hostel tonight, and of course we couldn’t not try out Escargot while in Paris, right? Mmm, there’s just something amazing about the deliciously rubbery texture of cooked snails that gets me every time. Okay, not really, but it’s worth a try. It kind of just tastes like a rubbery bit of chicken with garlic on it, so unless you’re a vegetarian you’ve really just got to pluck up the courage and give it a go.
After dinner, we had our included city lights tour. Everyone was looking pretty tired after an early start and a full day of travel… and a couple of us (definitely not me, cough cough) may have drifted off a little during the event. We went past the Moulin Rouge, L’église de la Madeleine, Place de la Concorde, and around and around the Arc de Triomphe a couple of times. It is easy to see why Paris is called the City of Lights; it is beautiful. However there was one sight that none of us could sleep through; and that was the Eiffel tower all sparkly and lit up for the night show.
The bus stopped and we were told we had 15 minutes to go and marvel at the beauty of the Eiffel tower. We rushed for the doors as if we were crazy tourists or something pretty similar. I was wide awake now, that was for sure. We rushed across the road and stared, aiming our cameras up at the pretty lights. There is something absolutely magnificent about the Eiffel Tower lit up at night. It is like a stronghold, a symbol of strength and a strange kind of industrial beauty. There’s something about standing at the bottom, amongst hundreds of other people who are all looking up at the tower in awe, that makes you feel like you belong here as much as anywhere else in the world.
The next morning, it was all go-go-go. We started off with a bike tour. Now, I haven’t ridden a bike in a really, really long time. Let alone in a strange and busy city, on the opposite side of the road, but hey, why not? Lucky for us it was a crisp blue morning and we set off with our tour guides. I was so wobbly at first and freaking out because apparently helmets are not a thing cyclists in Europe use! I thought I was literally just going to topple over, I could hardly make it around corners and almost crashed before we even got onto the road… but I must have gained some confidence/skill as we went because I obviously survived the experience (somehow).
In the end, the bike tour was a lot of fun and quite adventurous. We definitely had to challenge other road-users for our right to be on the road! There are a lot of Parisians who cycle around and they clearly didn’t like us being in the way (which we were, especially me, and I’m sorry for that). Nonetheless, we made it safe and sound until about midway when one of the guys got a puncture in his tyre. We all waited around while the guide fixed it, and just as we were finally ready to go again, there was a tremendous crash. A girl had just fainted. She fell off her bike and onto the concrete. Her skin went incredibly pale and she suddenly woke up and panicked, like she was going into shock. Luckily, some of the women on our tour were nurses and nurses-in-training, so they were able to help her out until the ambulance arrived and took her to hospital. Thankfully, she wasn’t seriously injured and ended up being okay.
Our bike tour ended up taking about four hours, which was a little disappointing as it chewed into most of our day in Paris. After the tour, Katie, Beck, and I went to check out the Arc de Triomphe. The arch is a monument for those who have fought for France, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars. The arch is meant to represent a powerful, unified, ensemble. It is very impressive to stand beneath as the arch is almost 50 m tall. We wanted to go up to the top of the arch but were limited on time as we had to meet for our group dinner and also wanted to see Notre Dame Cathedral. The line was way too long so we had to leave (however Katie and I were able to climb the arch when we revisited Paris after our tour ended).
Now it was time for us to find our way from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre-Dame Cathedral, where we wanted to have a look inside before we had to meet up for our group dinner. We (somehow) managed to catch a metro train that was heading in the correct general direction, and then we pulled out our trusty paper maps of the city, courtesy of Topdeck, and began wandering the streets. Paris is very pleasant to walk around; you find yourself surrounded by gorgeous architecture, interesting people, and an incredible sense of culture. And hey, an added bonus; we found the cathedral too.
Standing outside a place like Notre-Dame makes you feel very small, that’s for sure. The Gothic-style cathedral is huge, it simply towers above you, and it’s amazing to think that its construction began way back in the 12th century. We got lost inside, admiring the stained glass windows, the interior architecture with incredible arches and detail, and the flickering candles giving warmth and hope. Notre-Dame is an awe-inspiring cathedral. Somehow we got separated from Beck in the crowds, and Katie and I found ourselves outside where it was now dark. The cathedral and the surrounding buildings were lit up in a beautiful light display, constantly changing colours.
We found a concrete step to sit on while we waited outside for Beck to emerge. Eventually, as time passed we saw the rest of our group show up, but still no sign of Beck! We walked over to meet our group, huddling like penguins with people we hardly knew yet – the late afternoon was cold and dark. I’m not used to it getting dark at about 4.30 pm in winter. Eventually we couldn’t wait anymore as we had a reservation to meet, so our group began to walk. We wandered down cute little Parisian streets, feeling like locals amongst all the brightly lit alleyways. We found ourselves in a cute restaurant where I had an amazing meal. Beck must have been really engrossed in the cathedral, because she didn’t show up until about an hour later. We were all so relieved to see her and still have no idea how she managed to find us considering all the twists and turns we made down the alley-ways.
After a delicious dinner, Katie and I decided to split off from the rest of the group and find our way to the Christmas Markets on Champs Elysees. Under the impression that the markets were next to the Eiffel Tower, we made our way there. Thinking ourselves, and our ability to utilise public transport in a foreign city, pretty impressive, we got off the train, walked up to Eiffel Tower, marvelled at it’s beauty and then came to the conclusion that there were no Christmas Markets anywhere in sight.
“But I swear they’re meant to be near the Eiffer Tower,” we said to each other, and then it hit. Champs Elysees is near the ARC DE TRIOMPHE, not the Eiffel Tower. Having already wandered far away from the metro station towards Institut des hautes études de défense nationale, we set out to find another station. By this point, our feet were pretty sore and we were getting sleepy, but we were determined to visit the markets before we left.
Eventually, we made it. Champs Elysees is 1.9 Km long, and we had a good wander up and down. The streets are lined with cute stalls, filled with everything from Christmas decorations, to cheese, to fancy lightbulbs. There are rides for kids, and all kinds of food.
We stopped and I bought some mulled wine, something I’ve never tried before. Katie had already tried this, and she wisely decided not to buy any. Thinking I better give it a go, I bought some and found out that I didn’t like it. What a surprise. It tasted a bit like warm, herby water; almost an earthy taste.
Once we had worn ourselves out pacing up and down the street, filling up on banana-strawberry-Nutella crepes, we decided to find our way back to the hostel. While on the metro, a little lost, Katie suddenly shouted, “let’s get off here!” and we ran for the doors as they were closing. Somehow, she’d managed to figure out a quicker, alternative route to the one we were taking and we got home a lot quicker than expected. Suffice to say, Katie became chief public-transport navigator from that moment onwards.
Once we were back in our hostel, we basically collapsed onto our beds. Exhausted, happy, in love with Paris, but also eagerly awaiting the journey to Switzerland and for more adventures to come.