Even in miniature, France is larger than life

Sitting by a French town at Miniature France, an hour and a half from Central Paris. It is a five-hectare park divided into six regions with over 2,000 models at 1/30 scale. Easily one of my favorite trips to France. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
Sainte-Croix d’Orleans Cathedral on Jeanne d’Arc street in Orléans, located on the Loire River in North-Central France. As you can tell by the street name, it is the church most associated with Joan of Arc.
The mini Eiffel Tower is true to the detail of  Gustave Eiffel’s iron lattice work.

My friend Nicole and I are going to France Miniature, which is, well, a park with France rendered in miniature models.

We have the directions on how to get there but we can’t find the right track for the train. Elancourt, where the park is located, is not linked to the Paris Metro, RER or the rail network that goes to the suburbs. Instead the nearest station from Paris is in the next town.

All in all, the trip is about an hour and half by train and bus from Central Paris.

It occurs to me the folly of this adventure when we get to the outskirts of Paris and there is an interminable wait for the bus in a desolate part of town, and I’m answering emails on my Blackberry (what can I say, I was a Crackberry even as late as 2012).

Why would I want to see a miniature Paris when I am already here…in life-size Paris, in real France?

Because miniatures are so damn cute, that’s why!

If only it were this quick and cheap to travel all of France in real life. My friend Nicole, who has lived in France for over 15 years, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and I at Le Mont Saint Michel in the Normandy region.
A typical Alsatian village in France’s eastern border and on the west bank of the upper Rhine adjacent to Germany and Switzerland.
I don’t know which region is this…any idea?

France Miniature is a five-hectare park divided into six regions with over 2,000 models at 1/30 scale.

Paris is in the North and Ile-de-France section. The East has the Alsatian villages, Nancy and Beaune, which is the capital of Burgundy wine (a year later, I would be in actual Beaune for the first time). The West has Normandy, Mont Saint Michel and the Breton coastline. The Center has the mountainous region and Limoges. The Southwest is Toulouse, Lourdes and Saint Emilion. The Southeast has the Alps and Saint Tropez.

I haven’t been to all the regions in real life and seeing the country in miniature, I realize that the Southwest was one of the regions I had seen on my first trip to France — on a pilgrimage to Lourdes as we went by coach from Paris; and some years later, on a short working trip, I went to Toulouse (I was on the plane longer coming to and leaving France than I was actually there), where I did a story on the Airbus factory putting together its first jumbo plane, the A380. One of those 24-hour work trips.

The section of the park I love best is North and Ile-de-France (Paris), one that I would grow most familiar with in real life and keep coming back to.

Southeast is a region I also love, having gone on road trips in different seasons to Nice and Marseilles, and last summer to Provence, where three of us friends literally drove across towns filled with lavender blooms.

The West is one I have never been to but I’ve been told by two Frenchies that this is the most beautiful part of France—the Normandy region. It’s famous of course for the Normandy beach landings in 1944, which helped turn World War II in the Allied countries’ favor. In modern life, my friends say, it’s still about fishing, cottages, farms and horses, and chilling.

Place Stanislas square in Nancy, Lorraine in Eastern France, which was built in honor of King Louis XV.
The Arles Ampitheater in the South of France.

The miniature models are very detailed, and not just the landmarks, even the small villages. Some vignettes have mini people, cars, boats in the Breton docks and yachts in the Saint Tropez marina—also an aqueduct, and a train line going around the park. They have boutiques and carousels—and children on the horses! Anyone who has ever been to France knows that their carousels are so pretty and fabulous, looking like they were gilded in gold.

By late afternoon, Nicole and I take the last scheduled bus to the next town and catch our train back to Paris.

Easily, this is one of the best attractions I have ever seen in France, but maybe it’s just because I love miniatures.

I never had elaborate dollhouses when I was a kid, but when I saw them in magazines, I always imagined little people living in those little houses with chairs you could push with your finger to rearrange, tiny teacups and plates on tiny tables.

Little people living perfect lives, content in the smallness of their world.

I wanted to live in a dollhouse.

When I asked a French friend to help me identify this cathedral, he said he couldn’t without knowing where it was. “It’s a typical Gothic cathedral found all over France.” Indeed, you see such grand churches all over the country, including in the small towns.
Now this one everybody knows: the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris or Sacré Coeur, one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Great bistros and an art market on the top of the hill too!

* * *

I am staying in Nicole’s flat for a few days. It’s a walkup in the 18th arrondissement and when I arrived a few days earlier, we struggled to get my luggage up the small winding staircase after she met me at  Garde du Nord train station from  CDG.

I was jetlagged; she was pregnant.

When she was a teenager, Nicole (or Timmy as she was nicknamed) took care of my young cousins when they were toddlers and then she lived with my lola (grandmother).

In Paris, where she has been living for over 15 years, she has a one-bedroom apartment that’s a good size for the city, where the prices are so ridiculous Parisians actually leave for this reason alone. Like with any other woman living in this city alone, her flat is filled with clothes, shoes and bags. They are in her closet and under her bed, in boxes and unopened shopping bags.

And the must-see cathedral in Paris, Notre Dame, and across it Place Vendome. In real life, they are not so close to each other. Place Vendome square is in the 1st arrondissement while Notre Dame is in the 4th arrondissement., close to the Seine.
Versailles Palace. Isn’t it so grand even in miniature?
France has so many lovely little villages, some of them dating back to the Medieval times with the fortifications and other structures preserved so well.

I tell her I’m the same but have vowed to not shop anymore because, seriously, what a waste of money that is.

We have coffee and madeleines, and after I settle in, we look at each other and say, “Shall we go shopping?”

We do this for a few days. We scour the shops on Champs Elysées and La Défense. I go to the museums and parks and walk around the city.

One night we are too tired to find a good restaurant that we simply go to a supermarket and load up on raclette and blue cheese, mushrooms, foie gras, shallots, mini gherkins, tapas, salads and baguettes, and wine (for me).

We sit on her living room floor and put a raclette grill on top of her coffee table. We tear pieces of freshly baked baguette and slide the cheese off from the grill to our plates, talking about our finds for the day and the men and friends in our lives. We finish an impossible amount of raclette cheese.

I wonder if the little people in miniature houses sometimes eat at their coffee table, too.

Who knows about imagined lives? But to this day, in my real life, this is still one of the best meals I have ever had in Paris.

The first miniature town you see when you enter the park. I want to grow small and live in this park for a week!

The Paris I love

Paris’ Eiffel Tower, autumn 2008. Ridiculed by the French when it was first erected in the 1880s, it became one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved landmarks. Photos by Tanya Lara
…and in the winter of 2013. Still beautiful under a blanket of snow.

Like Hemingway said of Paris, “And then there was the bad weather,” at the beginning of A Moveable Feast, the only book that I try to reread every year.

In this case, the weather is merde.

Flights are cancelled in and out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Paris is buried in snow, cut off from the suburbs and the rest of the world. It is a city fending for itself for the weekend.

But Paris is unapologetic about its weather. C’est la vie. Deal with it.

This is Paris, after all, a city that is still so perfectly beautiful even under a heavy blanket of snow that falls softly from the sky and settles with resignation on the ground.

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The Opera House (Photo by Peter Rivera/wikipedia)

The city that moved Nietzsche to say, “An artist has no home in Europe except Paris.” This is Paris awash in a strange green color by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, in a golden hue by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris.

Even in this miserable cold in the winter of 2013, Paris has me putting her back on top of my list of favorite cities in the world (after a brief dalliance with Berlin).

Like many tourists, I think of Paris through a hopeful Hemingway and his merry band of creative misfits, through pop culture, through corny lines in film. I think of Paris when I was a younger writer and the smell of freshly baked baguette from the boulangeries gave me such hope.

Paris is a city for writers, lovers, artists, shoppers, wandering souls, and to borrow a literary phrase, for innocents abroad who, according to our local tour guide Mireille, pronounce Avenue des Champs Elysées as “Chumps Delysis.”

The arrondissement (district) that most tourists gravitate to is the 8th, home to Champs Elysées, inarguably the most beautiful avenue in the world with its wide footpaths and horse-chestnut trees (bereft of leaves in winter but still a breathtaking sight).

Champs Elysées is Paris’s busiest avenue, “12 roads and a circle in the middle,” and our Trafalgar travel director Hamish Wallace explains the 50/50 rule here. Since so many cars get rear-ended, the city simply imposed a rule that splits liability and fault 50/50.

The Louvre with IM Pei’s pyramid skylights. (Photo from aisweekwithoutwalls.com)
At Léon de Bruxelles on  Champs Elysées, Binky, Vangie, Gibbs, Anna and I — waiting for our mussels and fries. Winter 2013.

Talk turns to art when our coach snakes its way through the 1st. As we pass The Louvre, Mireille says, “The Italians are accusing the French of stealing the ‘Monalisa,’ but we say we didn’t steal it, we just lost the receipt.”

That French sense of humor!

Rodin’s stone sculpture “The Thinker”  looks to have become naked after a night of partying in Oberkampf and is now in deep thought as to where his clothing might be. “That’s why the Monalisa is smiling — she knows where it is.”

The Eiffel Tower, a stone’s throw away from our hotel for two nights, is in the 7th arrondissement. It is closed due to maintenance when we go in the morning, so we enjoy wandering through the snow-covered grounds instead.

Mireille says a lot of people used to commit suicide by jumping from the Eiffel Tower, so the city fenced off the platform.

“And tourists want to know, ‘Where can you commit suicide in Paris?’ They are very concerned about us,” she says dryly. “I tell them, ‘Just cross the street. If you’ve seen the traffic in Paris, you know what I mean.’”

Taken from the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower — Central Paris’ 19th-century skyline, which hasn’t changed much even as its population has. The green park is Champ des Mars in the 7th arrondissement, between the Eiffel Tower and Ecole Militaire. Photo by Tanya Lara
Lunch in 2012 at the Michelin-star Le Jules Verne restaurant by chef Alain Ducasse. The views are actually much better than the food.
Gargoyle on Notre Dame Cathedral (Photo by Corbis/National Geographic)

Amid the sludge and snow on the grounds of the Eiffel Tower, this is where we bond and laugh a lot — four Filipino girls and one guy from a group of 30. Binky, Anna and Vangie are from the travel industry whom I meet for the first time; Gibbs and I are newspaper journalists who have been bumping into each other at this or that coverage.

Two years later, we are all still trying desperately to see each other over lunch or dinner at least three times a year, because living in a city like Manila and having our schedules is like trying to find a Frenchie that doesn’t drink wine. It’s doable but close to impossible.

 * * *

For all the times that I have visited Paris, I literally followed the footsteps of the writers I worshipped as they walked all over the city in their books and during their lifetimes.

Sacre Coeur Basilica on top of  Montmarte, the highest point in Paris and part of the Right Bank.  Photo by Tanya Lara
Enjoying drinks with Olga and Alex in St. Germain, spring 2012.

From Montmarte’s cafes and bistros, the bridges on the Seine that connect the Left and Right Banks, the museums, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the boathouses moored on the Seine.

Obviously, Hemingway wasn’t the first writer to love Paris, but to my heart he loved it best. He articulated it in the way Van Gogh did to Provence on his canvas: with such tenderness and affection even if neither of them knew of how massive their influence would become. Their deaths, both from self-inflicted gunshot wounds (Hemingway to his mouth and Van Gogh to his chest), would not deter generations of painters or writers later.

They would all love Paris through its sadness, joy and beauty.

You always remember the first time you visit Paris like you remember your first kiss. I always go back to when the smell of baguettes brought inexplicable happiness to me, or that first time at the Louvre seeing the Monalisa and I didn’t have to line up or pay because I had a press ID as a newspaper reporter, or the first time I saw the Opera House and not far from it Galeries Lafayette with all its designer brands.

This district has always amused and baffled me. That the beautiful Opera House, center of the culturati and the well-heeled, is a short walk to the red light district and its supermarket-like sex shops. I’ve always wondered if this was by design or happenstance.

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Pont Alexandre III connecting the Grand and Petit Palais on the Right Bank with the Hôtel des Invalides on the Left Bank. (Photo by Serge Ramelli/Pinterest)
Sunset descends on Champs Elysees and Arc de Triomphe. @iamtanyalara

I remember the first time I went to Paris alone and it really didn’t matter because despite its being the most romantic city in the world, it is perfect for loners.

You don’t need anyone to enjoy or fall in love with Paris.

* * *

In 2014, I would visit Paris twice. The first is with good friends Claudette and Steve for our road trip through Provence. We land in Paris in July to news that Russia had shot down a commercial flight over Ukraine. We had taken the same airline and friends urge us to change our flight back to Manila. A week later, when they are leaving and I am flying to Prague again, another plane from a different airline would crash in Algeria.

It doesn’t seem the right time to be traveling, but the three of us agree that no one can really predict such tragedies.

The second is over the Christmas holidays. I fly to Paris armed with my laptop and my external hard drive. In Manila a few days before, I decided to launch this travel blog on Jan. 1, 2015.

Stevie, Claudette and I buy saucissons at Bastille Market in July 2014. (Photos by Steve Villacin)

Like I told friends after: never start a personal project when you are about to go on vacation because it will consume you.

Paris is this city outside the flat I’m renting in Bastille where I am writing like crazy, it is the bustling place in front of me as I write in cafes and drink wine until my fingers are frozen from the winter chill, as I walk along Champs Elysees and look at the Christmas markets and can’t wait to get back to the flat because I’ve suddenly remembered some things from past travels.

For the first time, writing gets in the way of Paris and me.

It feels like I have wasted my time with Paris, but my friend Marta, a Polish girl married to a Filipino friend, puts things in perspective. She says, “Maybe you wouldn’t have written as much as you did if you weren’t in Paris.”

She is right, of course.

At our lunch a few days after the New Year with Marta and Hendrik is my French friend Cedric, who helped me with the tech details of doing a blog. We met the year before and he was so generous and patient in explaining things to me.

With friends Hendrik, a Filipino diplomat in Paris, his linguist wife Marta and their daughter Sofia after the New Year 2015; and Cedric after Christmas at the Mojito Lab Bar.

The irony is, even as I fall deeper in love with Paris, he can’t wait to leave it for Tokyo. I am struggling to understand how anyone could ever want to leave Paris.

One day after I arrive back in Manila, the Charlie Hebdo shootings would occur, less than a kilometer from where I had been staying for more than a week.

It fills me with sadness and rage.

* * *

Around 2008, my high school friend June and I are in the same city (Geneva). He gives me a book on which he writes and misquotes Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I tease him, “Dude, you can only use Hemingway as a pick-up line to girls who haven’t actually read him if you’re doing it wrong.”

Almost a year later, we would find ourselves in Paris, nearly missing each other by a day, but he redeems himself here having really read the book now. We spend the autumn afternoon walking around Trocadero and the Left Bank, go on a cruise on the Seine consuming a bottle of red wine each because it is so damn cold.

It is at this time that my crush on Paris becomes real, ten years after my first visit.

Hotel de Ville with the skating rink over the holidays, January 2015.
There is that one visit to a city when you fall completely in love with it. For me it was 2008, my fourth visit, when I realized that Paris is a place I will always find my way to.

Three years later, in the spring of 2012, I am in Paris for a work trip with Alex from the competing newspaper, Anna from a magazine, and Olga from the LVMH Group. Paris is a stopover. Olga and Anna have arranged lunch at the Jules Verne restaurant on top of the Eiffel Tower.

I am looking out at the views from the top of the tower, and at some point during the Alain Ducasse lunch, say, “I wonder if Parisians realize how lucky they are to be living in Paris. Look at this!”

Below us is all of Paris, spreading its arrondissements outward like the shell of an escargot.

I realize, of course, that there exist two sides of Paris: one for those who live here, and another for those who visit. One for whom the French are an absolute nightmare, and another for whom they are darlings when you talk to them in your bad tourist French.

I know this is the Paris that I love, the city that melts my heart like no other. The same Paris that Hemingway did before so many others like me, the Paris whose skyline hasn’t changed much even as its people and immigrants did.

Even have changed from when I was a tourist here for the first time in the 1990s, when Paris threw stardust in my eyes that I have never really been able to wipe away.

It is the same Paris even as I am older, a little wiser, not much richer because of this pesky need to travel.

But, unavoidably, still a writer.

I know this is the Paris that I love, the city that melts my heart like no other. (Photo from mandarinoriental.com)


Where I’ve been wandering

Some wanderings in 2014 and 2013: (upper photos) Rome, Provence, Barcelona; (middle) Vienna, Amsterdam; (bottom) Marseilles, Paris, Paros, Prague. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)

So, Macedonia makes it the 50th country I’ve visited in my lifetime. This post should really be titled “How I learned to make interactive maps” to remember where I’ve been.

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance mentioned to my colleagues that she had traveled to Guam with me on a coverage. I said I had never set foot in Guam. Ever. But she was so insistent that for a second I thought: did I really go to Guam and  forget all about it?

The answer is no. I had never been there, but it led me to think that there might be places that are slipping from my memory, though I loved being there at the time. (I forget where I put my car keys at least once a week, or is that twice?)

While I don’t keep a diary, working as a journalist all my life has taught me to mentally store details, atmosphere and conversations, to  take down notes even when I am not working. After I started my travel blog in January, I told my friend Cedric in Paris that I wanted to make maps of my wanderings to remind me of the stories I’ve been wanting to write for years, also because I’ve lost  thousands of pictures from some trips because I keep accidentally deleting them en masse.

He taught my how to do it over Skype, which was frustrating at first because I don’t know how to do shit on Google, then it got fun — and then obsessive. Each map can only have a maximum of 10 layers, and I’ve done mine per country. You can be as specific as per city and its sights or attractions if you have the time.

So here’s an example of how you can plot your travels. Trust me, don’t start until the weekend because if you’re anything like me, you’re not gonna stop till they are finished. Start mapping!