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Budget Travel: Paris on a Shoestring

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By Irfan Ahmad
March 14 2010

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 touralt 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.

1montmartre souvenirThe 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.



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