Some places you only plan to see once. You had a wonderful weekend complete with exotic lunches, a full memory card, and a few new blisters. But all good things must come to an end, and these places simply have nothing left to offer. This is the story of many destinations worth seeing, but not Paris.
When I asked my mother what she would like to do on her trip to visit us, I expected her to talk about the beach, maybe a hill town she had heard of, but no, she confidently stated, “I want to go to Paris.” I wasn’t surprised, it was the sort of thing I would do too to get the most out of my time. Both of us had been before, separately, on fast-paced whirlwind trips that included men that would much rather be drinking beer at the café. (Like most men, and I can’t say that I blame them.) But this trip would be different, this trip would be a girls trip to Paris.
I took my first trip to Paris with my future husband the day after I graduated from college. It was the first leg of a micro-managed Paris-London-Cinque Terre-Florence-Venice-Lucern two week journey. We adored every one of our three nights and three days and vowed to return one day. My mother’s trip was similar, compact and extraordinary, but she also left wanting to see more.
Since we had both done the super structured trip to Paris this time we wanted to re-visit a few favorite sights, but also let Paris come to us a little more. We also did something I had seen plenty of times but never considered doing myself; we got tickets for a hop-on-hop-off double decker bus. I feel your judgement, but let me list the pros and cons:
-Less Expensive than metro tickets or cab rides
-You see parts of the city that you would otherwise never have time for, making them perfect for quick trips like ours.
– The second story view gives a perspective one normally wouldn’t have from the street.
– The extensive network of buses means you can see just about everything while saving a bit of shoe rubber.
– You don’t have to look at it if you’re riding it.
-Sometimes you have to wait a while, and most of them stop running around 7pm, so you have to find alternate transportation after then.
-The “hopping” part of the title leads one to believe that it’s easy to leap down a spiral staircase in on a moving bus in time to make it to the doors in time for the stop you have already anticipated. And if you are unaware of the coming stop, it’s unlikely you’ll have time to get down in time.
-Pictures come out a little blurry, and photo enthusiasts don’t have the flexibility for the right angle that they would on foot.
Still, I would recommend them, especially for short trips.
So that’s how we started, after lunch we boarded the nearest tennis ball green Open Tour Bus in the Bastille/Marais area and circled the sites from the comfort of our seats.
Midway through our little Parisian land cruise, a nasty thunderstorm promised to rain us out. Luckily, a covered Antique/Flea Market presented itself along Canal St. Martin in the Bastille area, so we “hopped off” and ran for shelter. It turned out we were at brocante which is a type of flea market where each stall has a specialty, like prints or antique sports equipment. We also later found out that April-May is the peak season for these special flea markets. Lucky us.
The first covered pavilion was dedicated to the high-end stalls. Real antique jewelry, aged silk rugs, flawless art deco furniture, gallery quality art, and absolutely beyond our budget. It was like walking through a museum where everything was for sale. After the rain, we went to the outdoor stalls, and found things that were much more in our grasp.
After lots of consideration, I walked away with a handful of antique prints that I have big plans for. I also had my eye on some delft blue tiles from the 1600s, but for whatever moronic reason, I passed and I still regret it. We were both in our element and could have spent the remainder of the day, and probably the next browsing and haggling, but ultimately the precious little room in our suitcases brought us back to reality. We reluctantly left the market and hopped back on our bus.
There is no rational reason to skip a meal in Paris, many people make the journey just to eat and drink French wine. These are wise people. That night we ended up in the neighborhood near the Opera. We had a very French meal which headlined with dishes like salmon tartar and escargot.
I’ve always shied away from escargot for the obvious reasons that most people do. But I’m also likely to eat just about anything that is smothered in garlic and herb butter so I went for it. And I liked them. I don’t stare at cloves of garlic and think, if only I had some sea snails I could make this work. But if I was in Paris I would have them again.
Our next day was our pre-planned museum day blitz. My mother can take credit for lots of my better qualities and a few of my bad, but if there is one thing that she meticulously cultivated it’s a love for art. So it was special to be able to spend the day together at some of the best museums in the world. We started at the Louvre.
First of all, lets give I.M. Pei a little credit for the pyramids. It’s not easy to mix architectural styles successfully, and still honor the old with the new, but the pyramids work really well from the outside and inside. Like placing a simple jewel in an ornate setting.
Once inside the Louvre, one has to make the painful decision of which area to choose. You can easily dedicate and entire day, or week, or month to the Louvre, it’s that big. But if you’re only going to be there two or three hours, you can only target a small section. We headed for the Denon Wing which walked us through some incredible ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.
Then we meandered up a few staircases just to admire the building, which used to be the French Royal Palace at one point and then happened upon a hall that showcased important French artifacts including the crowns of Charlemagne and Napoleon.
Although, the Louvre would be a spectacular building to see on its own without the art, we decided to seek out the actual paintings and sculptures its famous for before we wore ourselves out, or worse, got lost. It wouldn’t be my first time getting lost at the Louvre.
The crowds were considerably thicker in the Italian Gallery. Most people seemed to be there simply to say they have stood in front of the Mona Lisa, and raced toward that section of the gallery. Which worked out to our benefit. While many flocked to join the herd in front of the Mona Lisa, we had the opportunity to catch up with the likes of Raphael and Botticelli without having to body check anyone.
And yes, we did see the Mona Lisa from a distance squeezed behind a rope. It’s a terrible way to view art, and the crowd is so unruly I would advise satisfying yourself with a distant sideview. It’s probably the only painting that can be better appreciated in print.
We browsed some more and then decided it was time to eat and move on. We chose a café nearby next to the Palais Royale called Café Palais Royale.
I was a little worried we were walking into a tourist trap because we were so close to the Louvre, but the service was excellent and food turned out to be wonderful. I had a tartine of apples and toasted goat cheese with salad. A very simple meal, but it was actually my favorite of the trip.
We wandered the Tuileries Garden on our way to our second stop which was the Musee de l’Orangerie. Neither of us had been to this museum before, so it was actually the one I was most excited to see. It’s a small museum on the southwest edge of the Tuileries gardens, and if you didn’t know it was there, you would probably assume it was a nice administrative office for the grounds or historical society. This museum is special because it houses a very unique collection of Monet’s work. During and after World War I he set-up huge canvases facing each other in an oval configuration, and painted the ponds and water lilies of Giverny that he loved so much. This series is called the Les Nymphaes, and Monet left them to the French government with the stipulation that they must be displayed in an oval like they were painted. The Orangerie, which was originally built to house orange trees in the winter, was repurposed with two elliptical rooms and large skylights. The curator at the time called it the Sistine Chapel of impressionism. I don’t disagree, if you don’t have time for the larger museums, go here, sit on the bench in the center and think serene thoughts, this was Monet’s intention and contribution for world peace. No pictures were allowed.
We crossed the Seine River on one of the several pedestrian “lock” bridges.
I’m not sure when this started, but it wasn’t a thing nine years ago when I first visited. At some point couples and friends started bringing padlocks to bridges, writing their initials on them, fastening the padlock to the bridge and then throwing the key into the river. The jury is still out if it’s actually vandalism, and it’s not illegal. Most of the concerns have to do with the added weight on bridges, and the threat of falling locks hitting passengers on boats. I’m not sure where I stand, but I think they’re pretty in the sunset, and it’s nice to think that every one of the estimated 700,000 locks in Paris means something to someone.
Our final museum was the Musee d’Orsay. Like the other museums, this is a re-purposed building, in this case the Orsay was a train station. Today it houses paintings from around the 1850s to around the mid 1900s. Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Romanticism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, with a few exceptions it’s mostly housed here.
It’s wonderful and much, much bigger than it looks. We saw what we could in the few hours that we had left, starting from the top down. But I think we were both victims of art fatigue at this point. Personally, my brain can only take about six hours of concentration before it starts to shut down look for exits. I’m ashamed to say this happened about midway through the most complete and breathtaking collection of impressionistic art I had ever seen. But we were tired, and though we did make the motions through the rest of the exhibit, our hearts weren’t in it, which is sad. If we had more time we would have split up the museum blitz into at least a few days instead of one. So unless your attention span is better than mine, which isn’t anything to be proud of, I don’t recommend three art museums in one day. That being said, it still gives a pretty good feeling of accomplishment.
We celebrated by descending to the river and taking an early evening cruise.
These boats can be found all over Seine. Some are non-stop roundtrip cruises, some are dinner or wine cruises, and some are more like water buses that make stops. We chose the Bato Bus which was included in our hop-on-hop-off tickets. The view from the river isn’t much different than what you see from the streets and bridges. But there is a serenity and calmness from the water and the feeling of drifting through Paris that is far less frazzling than battling the crosswalks and inhaling the exhaust.
We got off in 7th Arrondissement in front of the Eiffel tower. I like the Eiffel tower. Unlike most things, it’s actually bigger than you think it is. What I don’t like is the assault of about a dozen different vendors selling everything from flashlights to Eiffel tower keychains. Our real goal was to have an apertivo, find a nice meal, and watch the tower light up before passing out in our hotel room.
My goal was to find Rue Cler, a wonderful little market street not far from the Eiffel tower with loads of bistros and patisseries, cheese shops and wine stores, everyone should visit this street. However, our map was pitiful, my GPS was useless in France, and my memory was worst of all. I couldn’t find it, but now I know that we were only a block away when we gave up, which is frustrating, next time I’ll spring for the international data.
During our journey we stopped at a small pastry shop that seemed popular with the locals. I wanted to buy some macarons to take home to my husband. They had a little pre-packaged set which made the transaction easy, so I asked for that politely and handed her the money. She took a look at the bill and told me to wait. Another lady came out and told me that the bill was fake and they couldn’t take it. She pointed out features like a corner that looked normal, and the texture of the bill which seemed the same. She also shook her finger at me a little and told me to be careful about where I exchange money, like I was buying fake chanels on the street. This was bizarre to me, I actually knew where I got that bill, and it was from a museum store. To end the scene and try to recover my reputation in front of these strangers I handed them a crisper bill which they accepted and walked away. I wouldn’t blame them if the bill had turned out to be fake, but I took it to my Italian bank back in Rome, they ran it through a little machine, and it was real. To add insult to injury their macarons were over-priced stale sugar brickettes. Marcarons should be flavorful little clouds. I’m trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they’ve been burned before, but I didn’t appreciate being treated that way because I was a foreigner.
So I needed wine, fast. We headed over to a sweet little brasserie called Café du Champs de Mars. Again, I was worried that it was a tourist trap, but it was actually pretty good. My mom had a filet in a pepper sauce that she is still talking about.
Afterwards we made our way for the five minute light show at the Eiffel tower. Is it tacky? Not really, I don’t care for the search light on the top, but other than that, it just gently sparkles, which I think enhances it.
Our flight didn’t leave until late the following day, so we were free to roam until about five pm, when we had to catch a cab. First of all, can I get a slow clap for the French breakfast?
In Italy, the traditional breakfast is a cappuccino e cornetto, which is a cappuccino with a sticky sweet croissant like roll. So in the past nine months I have forgotten what a real croissant tastes like, and in Paris it’s just on a whole other level. Just buttery, and flakey, and chewy, and light. Nothing is needed to enhance a good croissant. And the pain au chocolat, just wow, I don’t usually like sweet things in the morning, but this was just perfect. The cappuccino was good, but this is where I redeem myself with Italy, because it wasn’t quite as good as an Italian cappuccino.
We started with a walk through the Marais district. If I ever come again I want to explore this area further. It’s filled with romantic little streets, ivy covered shops, red roofs, white shutters, and iron balconies, with just a touch of elegant decay.
We strolled along the galleries and picked our way through the picnickers at Place des Vosges before finding our way back to the bus stop.
On this day we concentrated on Ile de la Cite, the larger of the two islands in the Seine, and the oldest and most historic part of Paris. Of course, we started at Notre Dame, but not immediately. In the happiest of coincidences in front of Notre Dame the Parisians were throwing a bake-off/bread exhibition/carb extravaganza. It was the annual Fete du Pain (Bread Festival), where they have competitions like best baguette, and bake croissants and pastries in open kitchens.
It’s like the universe was making up for my bad bakery experience the night before. There were demonstrations, samples, and the smell – sooo gooood – I would like to make a plea to the candle makers of America to figure out how to harness the goodness of freshly baked bread into candle form, I’d be their first customer. The best part was, everything they were baking besides the pieces that were being put into competition was for sale. We suddenly knew where we were having lunch.
We split an enormous melt-in-your-mouth ham and brie sandwich on a fresh baguette, and a divine pear and chocolate tart for only seven euros. I wish we would have known about this sooner, we probably would have eaten here every day.
As tempting as it was to sit around and eat bread for the rest of the day, we decided to go ahead and tour Notre Dame.
Unlike everywhere else we had been this was a repeat trip for both of us. It’s not that it’s the tallest, or most ornate, or oldest church we’ve ever seen, but there is something about Notre Dame that feels authentic without being covered in frescoes or marble reliefs.
I briefly considered revisiting the bread tent afterward, but I was afraid I would never leave, so I bid a silent farewell to the best festival ever, and we made our way to Sainte Chapelle. Sainte Chapelle is a small medieval chapel (consecrated in 1248) only a few blocks away from Notre Dame that was used as the royal chapel when the kings of France lived on the Ile de la Cite. I wanted to go here on my first visit, but it’s not that easy to find and we eventually gave up. This time there was a line outside the gate’s entrance indicating where it was. Probably the first time I’ve been relieved to see a long line. If you’re wondering, the entrance is the same as the security entrance for the Palais de Justice. Once you get through the line, you are in a courtyard and facing the backend of the chapel. Walk around and you’ll find the entrance on the lower level.
The lower level is impressive on its own, and was used by the residents of the palace that did not belong to the royal family. There isn’t an obvious way up from the first floor, and after examining most of the lower chapel, we found two tiny spiral staircases behind narrow doors in the back of the room. We climbed, and were rewarded with this.
It’s not like I didn’t know what to expect, I had seen the pictures many times. But walking into this chapel was a genuine bug-eyed jaw-dropping experience. One of those moments when you whisper “wow,” without consciously meaning to. It was like entering a kaleidoscope of jewel toned beams. The structure seems weightless and ethereal with the reaching windows, star spangled ceiling, and delicate stone support work.
Even the floor was impressive with its bright enamel tilework coordinating easily with colorful dappled light. I couldn’t get a full shot of the chapel because about a third of it is being restored. They hope to finish all restoration by the chapel’s 800th anniversary, which is in 34 years, but I think the glass restoration should be completed sometime next year. I can only imagine what it looks like when all the windows are at full power.
On the same street as Sainte Chapelle is the Conciergerie. A building that served as the royal palace before the Louvre, then a prison and courthouse, and is still used today to house the courts.
There isn’t much to see today. You enter into a lower hall which was used for banquets and a place to keep soldiers. Then you’re lead through a series of old prison cells and small courtyard as well as a chapel that was erected in memory of Marie Antoinette. The last stop is a room with a creepy mannequin draped in black representing Marie Antoinette awaiting her sentence.
If you have time like we did it’s interesting to see, but otherwise it’s not a must see.
This was the end of our whirlwind Paris-in-two-nights trip. After leaving the Conciergerie we gathered our luggage and took a cab to the airport, exhausted.
I can say with confidence after having visited a second time, that Paris is still one of my favorite cities in the world. A masterpiece of architecture, art, landscaping, and of course, food. With the exception of the rude baker with no idea of what fake currency looks like, everyone we interacted with from the waiters to our hotel staff and even the vendors at the flea market were kind and receptive to a smile. This trip was even more special than my first because I got to spend it with my Mom, who I don’t get to see enough because I’m a brat who keeps moving farther and farther away. (Love you Mom!) She also gets at least half the credit for the pictures on this post.
Even after two trips I’m still not done with Paris, I don’t think I ever will be. There will always be shops to browse, pastries to swoon over, and neighborhoods to explore. I don’t know if this is a promise or a threat, but Paris, I will be back.