There’s so much more to Paris than just shopping and the iconic Eiffel Tower, writes Loong Wai Ting

THEY say Paris is where broken hearts go to heal. A place where couples and newlyweds profess their love for each other under the iconic Eiffel Tower. And when the tower sparkles at night, that’s when man gets down on their knees to propose to their girlfriend.

Ah, yes, the charming city with its cobbled streets, tiny cafes, beautiful scenery and stunning architecture. It’s no wonder Paris is also said to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s hard to separate Paris and romance as they go together like coffee and croissants, jambon and champagne. But what makes the French capital so alluring ... so romantic?

The city is famous for its marvellous skylines and preserved buildings that make you go ooh-la-la.

There’s nothing more romantic than taking a stroll through the city, hand-in-hand with your partner and taking in the sights and sounds. You can’t get lost in Paris. Even if you do, there’s always something beautiful around the corner. Local bakeries selling freshly-baked chouquette, mouth-watering pastries, macarons and baguette — it’s enough to keep you going and not panic.

Paris has always been on my bucket list, after watching countless movies set there like Amelie, The Devil Wears Prada, Midnight in Paris, Funny Face and Mr Bean’s Holiday. In music, American-born entertainer Josephine Baker sings loud and proud about her love for France (“I have two loves, my country and Paris”) while Joe Dassin sings about a chance encounter between a man and a woman on the most beautiful avenue in the world, the Champ Elysees.

FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE

One of my favourite things about France is its beautiful countryside with its wealth of gorgeous chateaus, historical villages, cathedrals and vineyards.

There’s nothing like spending a day or weeks of exploring the cobbled stone streets, medieval castles-turned-chateaus and sampling local wines. And of course, the people are generally nicer and more friendly than the city folks.

If you’re looking for a change of scenery during your trip to Paris, consider trips to the Loire Valley and explore the many chateaus there. I have the opportunity to visit the largest chateau in the Loire Valley, the Chateau de Chambord. Easily-recognisable from afar and renowned for its distinctive French Renaissance architecture which blends traditional French medieval forms and classical Renaissance structure, the lure of the Chateau de Chambord is the double helix staircase.

The unique staircase was said to be built thus so that the King’s mistress could walk up and down without being seen by those walking on the other side.

I visit on a national holiday, so the place is quite crowded. Children on school trips can be seen with their teachers, while tourists both local and from abroad alike dotted the hallway and the balcony, all busy snapping away.

Next, we visit Chateau Royal d’Amboise, the home to several French kings, such as King Francois I. Built on a strategic site just beside the Loire River (the longest river in France, by the way), the chateau also houses a gothic chapel on the far side, said to be the final resting place of famous painter Leonardo Da Vinci.

A castle perched on top of a hill, the Italian genius also helped to design the historic royal residence. But Charles VIII, who died when he accidentally bumped his head on the door’s lintel while on his way to a tennis match, was responsible for rebuilding it extensively.

Do wander through the halls and the refurbished Gothic-style rooms of the chateau and learn about the French royalty’s lifestyle. Climb to the top of the Minimes Tower, which offers a panoramic view of the Loire Valley. The visibility is great on the day of my visit: white clouds scattered lazily across the clear blue skies.

We also stop by Chateau de Chenonceau, which was built across the Cher River. The moment we step out of our bus into the crisp, cold air one late October morning, we know that we’re in for a treat.

The place is so beautiful and classy. We walk through tree-covered alleys, something like what you’ll see on Nami Island in South Korea.

There are also vegetable and flower gardens and a small farm where horses and donkeys roam freely. Bushes of lavender are planted around the chateau and the aroma carried by the wind is like walking into a natural spa.

Lady Luck is smiling at me on the day of my visit as the gardener gives me a bunch of fresh lavender to take home.

You’ll then arrive at the castle proper with two well-trimmed gardens — Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitier — on each of its side. Landscaped in the French tradition, these two gardens reflect the personalities of the two women, who played important roles in French history.

During World War 2, the castle was turned into a hospital and served a key role in helping the injured.

Apart from Chateau de Chenonceau and Chateau Royal d’Amboise, other important chateaus include the Blois and Cheverny.

MONT SAINT MICHEL

For centuries, Mont St Michel in the Normandy region is one of Europe’s major pilgrimage destinations. Today, the Unesco World Heritage Site offers one of Europe’s most unforgettable sights.

From the moment our bus drop us off at the visitor centre — about five minutes away by the local shuttle bus — we are immediately taken by the beauty of the location.

As the free shuttle bus drops us off about 450m from the abbey, we take the curving footbridge that connects the mainland to Mont St Michel.

Barely five minutes into our walk, we stop to admire the looming Mont St Michel in front of us.

From afar, the building rising from its granite foundation feels isolated, indistinct in the bay. But as we get nearer, the majestic structure with its slab-sided abbey and Romanesque church has a humbling effect on all of us. The abbey itself is sheer, solid magnificence.

Set on top of an island, the medieval monastry with its massive stone structure has long inspired awe and imagination among its visitors.

In popular culture, Mont St Michel serves as an inspiration for the design of Minas Tirith in the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

The recently-ended South Korean drama The Package starring Lee Yeon-hee and Jung Yong-hwa was also partly shot here.

Legend has it that in the eighth century, Aubert, a bishop of the nearby hilltop town of Avranches, claimed that the Archangel Michael pressured him into building a chapel atop an island by the sea.

As the story went, it took the archangel three times; on the third attempt, he apparently poked a hole in the bishop’s skull to emphasise that he wanted a chapel built on the island.

From 966 onwards, the dukes of Normandy and later French kings supported the development of Benedictine abbey on Mont St Michel. Throughout the medieval times, monastic buildings were added including the vertiginous section nicknamed The Marvel.

At the height of its popularity, Mont St Michel was the centre of learning, attracting some of the greatest minds in Europe.

Today, built along its steep, cobbled village street known as Grande Rue, everything a tourist needs is available: food, bar, gift shops and the very famous omelette restaurant La Mere Poulard that dates back to 1879. On its wall are autographs from famous diners including Ernest Hemingway and Yves Saint Laurent.

Time your visit so that you won’t miss the sunset at the top before the abbey church, where you get to see the sprawling bay of Brittany and Normandy.

The Mont St Michel mesmerises whether seen from afar or across the country lane. As we turn to leave, it is quite hard to imagine how anything this magnificent could exist but it did.

BE MY GUEST

I reluctantly leave the beautiful Mont St Michel and head towards another side of Normandy,

The next thing on my list is the Trafalgar Be My Guest experience. Part of the programme is to introduce guests to the “hidden treasures” and to get to know the locals. I get to experience this when my travel director, a pleasant lady named Giovanna, brings us to a 17th century manor known as Chateau d’Eporce.

On our way, green field stretches as far as the eyes can see flank both sides of our bus. The famous Normandy cows, prized for their milk (and later turned into Camembert cheese) graze on the lush fields.

Besides its cows, apples are also a big product of Normandy. It is used to make various desserts and Calvados, a strong alcoholic drink. As soon as our bus arrives on the family-owned chateau, the wonderful and charming host Count Remy de Scitivaux receives us with open arms. As he leads us into his garden and across the moat, he invites us to sit by the fireplace inside his charming and huge chateau.

His wife and daughters immediately make us feel at home as they serve us food and drinks. As per tradition, Remy pops the champange and proposes a toast to everyone in his antique-filled room.

At the Eporce, we are allowed to explore the chateau on our own. As we walk from room to room and marvel at its beautiful painting and furnitures, Remy tells us how his family and the chateau are spared from the French Revolution in the 18th century.

EIFFEL TOWER

We return to Paris and of course one of the must-do things is to visit the iconic Eiffel Tower.

One cannot say they’ve been to Paris if they’ve not taken a picture with the Eiffel Tower, the 324m wrought iron lattice tower on the Champ de Mars.

It was named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and constructed it from 1887-89. It opened in 1889 during the Universal Exposition, a fair celebrating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. It remained the tallest structure in the world until 1930, when the Chrysler Building opened in New York.

One of the easily-recognisable global cultural icons, the Eiffel Tower is also one of the most-visited places in the world. Almost seven million people visit the place annually and about 250 million visitors have stamped their mark since its opening.

The best time to go up the tower is in the morning as there is shorter queue for tickets. Another plus point is that it’s less crowded. Being one of the most visited paid monuments in the world, it takes an average of more than three hours just to buy a ticket to the viewing platform.

With Trafalgar as my guide, my tickets to the Eiffel Tower is covered. The best part is that I get to skip the queues.

The tower’s three levels are open to visitors, with restaurants on the first and second levels. A passenger lift that travels at an angle slowly takes us up to the upper platform — the highest observation deck accessible to the public.

The view is just spectacular. I can see the Paris skyline and some of its famous landmarks like the Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides Military Museum (which also houses the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte) the La Defense business district and Trocadero (which offers the best Eiffel Tower view from below).

At the summit of the tower is a small apartment, where Eiffel himself keep as a personal space. Athough it is closed to the public, much of the original furnishings remain, along with mannequins of the designer and the only odd guest, American inventor Thomas Edison.

AU REVOIR

There are plenty of things to do in France besides shopping. If you are, like me, who shops only when necessary, you will get to enjoy more when you travel with Trafalgar. With the travel company, guests are given a lot of time for sightseeing and to immerse themselves in the local culture rather than just shopping. And the best part? Trafalgar also organises optional trips to various spots in the city like catching the Lido, the famous Paris cabaret. Oh but that’s a story for another day.

loongwaiting@nst.com.my

Pictures by Loong Wai Ting

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Tourists looking at the beautiful pastries
Paris City of Love
Palais-Royal
Mont St Michel
Eiffel Tower
Dine like a Parisien
Chatres Cathedral
Chateau de Chenoceau
Chateau de Chambord
Chateau de Amboise
Castle Eporce
Arc de Triomphe