Hello all, my name is Warren Wilson. I’m a 21 year old visually impaired History student at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. I lost a considerable amount of my eyesight two and half years ago whilst doing my A-Level exams at Long Road Sixth Form College and with the help from Cam Sight I have maintained my independence so much so that recently I went on a study trip to Paris. The Friday to Sunday trip was organised by the History Department at the University. At first I was a bit apprehensive about going as my vision is very minimal and therefore I would surely miss all the exciting sights that Paris has to offer. However, my Study Support Assistant (SSA) was very helpful as she bought me a book for my birthday about the travels of a blind man, Tony Giles. I recommend his book to anyone considering travelling, especially those who are visually impaired/blind the book is called ‘Seeing the World My Way’. It really boosted my confidence and made me realise that there is more to travelling than just the sights. Having previously never been travelling before except to St. Lucia when I was two and Euro Disney when I was three, both of which I cannot remember, the whole trip was all very new to me.
To make sure I was ready for the trip I just had to talk to my lecturer who was organising it. The only provision I really had to organise for myself was a sighted guide for me as I don’t use a guide dog and I think my friends on the course would get very tired describing everything to me, whilst soaking in the history themselves. Therefore after much bureaucracy I managed to get another SSA to come along with me as my sighted guide and audio describer. An example of how ridiculous the bureaucracy was, my SSA was officially not allowed to have breakfast from the bed and breakfast we were staying at because that was one step too far for student finance. That was the only extra pre-trip organisation really. All I had to do now was look forward to the trip.
On the Friday morning, the first day of the trip, I met with my SSA at Cambridge station and set off for the Eurostar, St. Pancras. After a wonderful train journey filled with getting to know you talk, in which I discovered he had been to see The Who when they were young, which I was very impressed by, we arrived at Kings Cross. He was pretty nervous about sighted guiding me but it was fine, we did not plough over anyone and that is always a bonus. When we got to St. Pancras we met up with the rest of the group from my course. Once everyone was there we went on the Eurostar and off to Paris! Once we arrived at Gare Du Nord Paris one of the first things I noticed about Paris was the smells. In some areas the smell was horrible and in other areas the smell was pleasant. The initial smell was that of the Paris Metro and the strength of the smell of urine varied from station to station. However an ever present nice smell was the lovely cafe’s with the smells of the croissants, breads, cakes etc which was so inviting. The cheese shops on the other hand would split opinion over the appeal of the smell; personally I loved the occasional cheesy smells. A further initial thing I noticed was the noises. Something I found astonishing is the excessive use of the horn when the streets become gridlocked by the sheer weight of the traffic. The first time I noticed this was when we were at the Opera House during the evening rush hour. Another thing I noticed regarding the sounds was the sound of the crowd. The multitude of pedestrians sounded different and that is something I found quite fascinating. I think the reason I found this so fascinating was because I have never been abroad in living memory, so I have never experienced this before.
On the Friday evening we set up in the hotel. The hotel was a very basic place which provided us with mattresses of sorts to sleep on and lumps of bread in the style of cement for breakfast. The spiral staircase was also incredibly steep but the hotel did not matter that much as we did not spend much time there. Also my room seemed much better than some of the others. Some of my more unlucky fellow students had bed bugs in their beds, something I have never experienced but sounds rather unpleasant. Once we had all set up we immediately set off for a historical guided tour of the local area by my lecturer. That is when we went to the Opera House. The Opera House is where Emperor Napoleon III was nearly assassinated and it was described to me as a large, grand building built in the classical style and was kind of like a huge Fitz William Museum to look at. It was in an area of Paris not dissimilar to Knightsbridge of London, it even had Paris’ equivalent of Harrods across the road to match. I’m sure I looked grand with my long scruffy hair, unruly beard and tatty jacket. Also on this walk we walked past Paris’ equivalent of Madame Tussauds, in the window there was a wax model of the queen with French Football World Cup winner and former player of the year Zididine Zidane’s face on her body, pretty weird. On this walk we also went to Place de’la Concorde where the royal family and other riff raff were beheaded. Under the monarchy the huge open square in the middle of Paris, Place de’la Concorde, was called Place de’la Bourbon after the royal family. After the revolution it became known as Place de’la Revolution. When the royal family came back it reverted back to Place de’la Bourbon and then when a king came in they liked (for a while, anyway) he tried to appease everyone by renaming the square Place de’la Concorde which roughly translates as ‘peace square’. After the Place de’la Concorde we went to the nearby site of where the former palace of the royal family used to be before Versaille. The original site of where the French Royal family lived is now a park with the same reputation as Hampstead Heath. The palace was burnt down during the revolution, as was much of Paris’ architecture which represented royalty. Someone who knew Paris in 1789 would not recognise it in 1889. After the tour on the Friday evening, we went for a meal and I tried snails (L’Escargot) for the first time. They were actually quite nice. They tasted more of the garlic and butter marinade than anything else and I would say their texture would be similar to muscles but I have never had them before so cannot really say.
On the Saturday we started off by going to La Défense, which is like the equivalent of the Docklands, the area is all tall tower blocks. The area has a huge arch to commemorate 200 years since the revolution, although it is the other end of the city from the Arc de’Triomphe it sits parallel. From there we got a bus to Napoleon’s house. Which was a charming place with lovely gardens and although it is huge I was expecting it to be bigger. What was nice about that place is that there was this telephone like handset which I could carry around with me and depending on what number room I was in I could punch that into the phone and I would then have an English audio guide. From there we went to Montmartre to see Sacré-Cœur, it is the artisanal area where The Moulin Rouge is located. If you have never been to Paris before, this is an area of Paris unlike the city centre and the main touristy parts. The main touristy areas like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de’Triomphe have a very uniform style of architecture. The streets are mainly wide boulevards lined with huge, linear, unchanging buildings which stretch the length of the streets. The ground floor of these apartments are usually shops, then you have the really plush apartments and as you go up the floors the apartments become less and less swanky until you get to a roof which is like a bohemian, student bed-sit of a room. In Montmartre, up near the Sacré-Cœur is completely different. As opposed to the city centre of Paris this area is incredibly hilly and we had to go up what seemed like hundreds of steps to go between streets. Furthermore the streets are packed and they are not pedestrianised, you have cars crawling through a crowd of people, it is mad but brilliant. You get artists around this area, there was about a handful of accordion players, there was a row of arches which ran parallel with the road and which the pavement was in. In this little sheltered bit of pavement there were artists painting with easels. Due to the number of steps everyone was pretty knackered when we got to the top, where the church was situated, but we soon forgot about it when we saw the church and the view. Everyone was amazed, apparently you could see pretty much the whole city and the church was an amazingly vivid white. Montmartre was probably my favourite part of Paris. It seemed to have so much character. I had a real sense of the closeness and the artisanal nature of the area and I was having its beauty described to me. It was lovely. Everyone seemed to really admire the view of the city from up at the top of the hill in Montmartre. We had a spot of lunch there and I had this delicious cheese board, it had all sorts of cheese on it, smoked, soft, strong, hard, it was delicious.
After lunch on the Saturday, once we had finished in Montmartre, we were let loose and I suggested walking from Montmartre to the Eiffel Tower, via the Arc de’Triomphe. Everyone else, whom I may add, could read the map thought this was a fantastic idea and decided on a route. After about 1hr 20mins we made it to the Arc de’Triomphe, about 12-15 of us in a convoy. This quite authoritative person in the group with a hat made sure we were all in order. She remained at the front, waving her hat in the air whenever we stopped to regroup and she made sure there were 6ft+ people in the middle and at the end so we knew where everyone was. She was pretty amazing at controlling our unruly mob. Anyway by the time we were at the Arc de’Triomphe we had some pretty tired legs in the group and there were people saying, “who’s idea was this,” in an exasperated yet jokey, playful manner. At the Arc de’Triomphe we decided to pause and try and regain our energy a bit, I would say they were all a bit wimpish but it was still nice soaking in the atmosphere around the Arc. The traffic was crazy and apparently they even saw someone using a push bike around the Arc! Once we were finished at the Arc we continued onto the Eiffel Tower which took about another 30mins and it sounded breathtaking. It sounds like we caught it at just the right time. The sun was setting behind the tower, so the sky had a slight pink tinge to an otherwise black sky, the lights had lit up the tower and it was reflecting in the Seine. So with this backdrop we all had our photo taken. This gave our group a momentary boost of energy and we made our way to the tower, in a dreamlike state, only to be rudely awoken when we saw the size of the queue to go up the tower. The 12-15 of us arranged to meet up with the rest of the group at Place de’la Concorde at 6.30 and time was getting on so we could not queue. However to add insult to injury to my fellow students who accompanied me on this fantastic walk across Paris, my SSA managed to blag me on! I felt a bit harsh but by this time I had started to get to know and bond with some of my fellow students on the course, something I have previously struggled to do since I have lost my eyesight and my fellow students didn’t seem to mind. Moreover, like me they seemed to enjoy the walk from Montmartre to the Eiffel Tower as it was a great way of seeing the transformation in the city, from the narrow, busy, artisanal streets of Montmartre, to the wide, uniform boulevards of the city centre. Once up on the tower it was fantastic, serene and peaceful. It was remarkable seeing the complexity and madness of the city operate below.
My SSA and I eventually met up with the rest of the group as they were just about to order food, great timing. It was this point I realised that I had made a bit of a name for myself on the trip. My lecturer and the history administrator thought we were nuts and hilarious that the group decided to follow my lead in walking from Montmartre to the Eiffel Tower. Again I ordered a typical French meal by having frog’s legs for my starter. If you have not had them before they are delicious. I know most people say weird meats taste like chicken but this really does. It is maybe slightly more tender and slightly more flavoursome but that might have something to do with the sauce on top of them. The other things I ate I haven’t really thought to mention because they are just like things you get in Britain, lamb and duck, the only difference is that they were cooked in a tasty sauce I had not tried before.
On the Sunday, we went on another guided historical tour of Paris. We walked through St Denis and through the red light district. Thankfully it was kind of quiet what with it being a Sunday morning and all. But the stink in some areas was horrible. It smelt of urine and others even said there was human poo on the street. Luckily we went on to nicer areas with nicer smells. We went to where the Bastille used to be, then onto the Pompidou Centre, then past Notre Dame and eventually we went to the museum of Paris and again I had one of those telephone audio tours in English. I thought this was a fantastic service. Once we finished here we made our way back home. There were many sleepy heads on the Eurostar and many nostalgic stories of our fantastic weekend bubbling around our carriage. Luckily, for me though, as I was wide awake one of my pals agreed to play a game of cards with me, which I had brought from Cam Sight. They thought it was pretty cool that there were such things as Braille playing cards and it proved to be a lovely end to a fantastic weekend. All in all I had a fantastic time. I probably did as much as I could in a weekend in Paris, I got to know people on my course a bit more, and as I mentioned socialising is something I have found difficult since losing my sight, so it was a fantastic time had by all.
Therefore in the event that someone is reading this and has been discouraged from travelling because of a loss of eyesight, really do not let it. You can have a fantastic time experiences different cities, soaking up new atmospheres, smelling different smells and sampling new foods.
Anyway I hope you have enjoyed my rambling about my trip to Paris, as I hope you can tell I tried to give it a point at the end and I hope it has encouraged others to adventure.