Budget Travel: Paris on a Shoestring
By Irfan Ahmad
It was early afternoon when I walked up the steps to the French Embassy in London. It had closed its doors for the day. But I was confident that I would be able to get in and have a visa stamped on my passport. I had used wasta (connections). If you have a Pakistani passport and are visiting London for a few days, the chances are that the Embassy will ask you to go back to Pakistan and get a visa there. Someone I know had a friend whose father was a former Ambassador in Paris. He had pulled some strings.
“Why do you want to go to Paris?” I was asked. “To see the Mona Lisa!” was my prompt reply.
It was the summer of 1981. I was young. I was a student. I had seen the movie Casablanca and remembered the lines, “We will always have Paris.” And I was looking forward to a memorable experience.
I arrived in Paris and took the train from the airport to Garre du Nord – one of the two train stations in Paris. I had torn out the pages on Paris from Frommer’s travel guide, Europe on $15 a Day, and followed the instructions on how to get to the youth hostel near Place du Concorde. The hostel receptionist directed me to my room which I would be sharing with five other people. I left my backpack by the side of a bed and set off to explore Paris.
I had two days and a limited budget. I went to the tour bus office and got a 10% discount on the city tour fare by mentioning that Frommer’s guide had recommended their service. The dog eared pages of my travel guide suggested that if you are in a city for a short trip the best way to begin is to take a guided bus tour. Over the years I have learnt to believe in this – albeit with one caveat – it is good if you are not traveling with children.
The three hours bus tour I took covered most of the important sights of Paris. We first drove by the Arc du Triumph and Champs Elysees and stopped briefly for a photo-op near the Eiffel Tower. We continued past the banks of the Seine with its famous cafes on the Left Bank. We passed the Louvre and the Notre Dame Cathedral and finally stopped at the little artist’s village in Montmatre. We got off the bus here and spent some time looking at artists making caricatures for tourists, painters busy with their easels and numerous souvenir shops selling trinkets. I picked up a bronze replica of the Eiffel Tower and placed it back after seeing the “Made in Taiwan” sticker.
The bus dropped us back near the center of the city and I worked my way to the Champs Elysees where I had spotted a golden arch. The comforting thought of having a fish sandwich without worrying about halal meat and lard being used in the preparation of the food had kept me away from the fancy cafes in Paris. I am actually being a little generous with my religious proclivities. By having a meal in one of the cafes I would have had to spend the next day in Paris on an empty stomach – I was on a shoestring budget and McDonald’s was wallet friendly!
I bought a carnet of ten tickets for the Metro – they have one day passes now but in those days you got a discount if you bought multiple tickets. I took the Metro to the stop near the Eiffel Tower. Although the bus had stopped for us to take pictures, I wanted to get a view from the top. I walked close to it and was dissuaded by the long line of tourists waiting to go up. I admired the metal structure, wandered in the grass nearby and then headed back to the Metro.
I got off near the Art Factory – the Pompidou Center. This is a fascinating building with red, yellow, green and blue colored pipes going around. Instead of concealing the conduits that are used for water or electrical wiring, the building was built with pipes running on the outside. Inside is the museum of modern art with a rich collection of contemporary art. On the streets outside the Pompidou Centre you can purchase paintings by undiscovered artists.
It was getting dark so I made my way back to the hostel. I got into the room which was dark, located my bed and noticed that there were several others already asleep in their beds. Quietly, I, too, fell asleep.
Breakfast at the hostel consisted of a hard bread roll, some butter and jam and tea. I checked out of the hostel after breakfast as I had an afternoon flight to catch.
A visit to Paris is incomplete without window shopping in the rue du Faubourg St-Honore. Although this is a narrow street it is considered to be one of the most fashionable streets in the world. This is where you find the likes of Chanel, Dior, Hermes and other unaffordable brands. No wonder, the Paris edition of Vogue magazine has its office here. The Elysee Palace - the official home of the French President is also on this street. I gawked at the fancy displays, thought of entering one of the shops but did not think that my sneakers and backpack were appropriate attire and decided to set off for the Louvre.
The Louvre is where you can take in culture - without a fat wallet. Paintings, sculptures and other works of art can keep you busy for hours. University and school students from France as well as overseas come here to imbibe culture. Many spend days here. I only had a few hours left.
I was in Paris. I had come here to see the 16th centuy portrait of a woman whose facial expression remains an enigma even today. I headed directly to the gallery where a painting 77cm in height and 53cm in width was the centre of attraction. It looked small in comparison to the enormous paintings I had walked by. But this was it. A portrait by Leonardo da Vinci of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, known as La Joconde in French - the Mona Lisa. Surprising that the most important work of art in this French city that is steeped in culture is actually a painting by an Italian.
No wonder the French Embassy in London had scratched out my answer to “Purpose of Visit: See the Mona Lisa” and had instead written – “Tourist.”