Oh Paris, what can I say? I have had the best few days in the beautiful city of light, and I am so sad to leave. It was my first time in France, and I can now see why Paris seems like the center of the world to so many people. I have a lot to cover, so I will try to keep my descriptions brief. I won’t even be able to come close to capturing all that we experienced in these few days!
On Thursday afternoon I left the archives and headed into central London to catch my train to Paris. After a lovely, and quite fast, train ride, I arrived in Paris in the evening. My mom met me at the Gare du Nord, and it was so great to see her and explore Paris together! We hopped on the (very) crowded and hot Metro and headed down to our hotel in Montparnasse. I must say, that despite all of the charms of Paris, London has it beat as far as public transportation! But it’s ok, because you really don’t need to use it very much, since most of the best areas of Paris are within walking distance of each other. We arrived at our hotel on the Rue Delambre, which was the same street that Jean-Paul Sartre lived on. Montparnasse was a cultural and intellectual haven during the early twentieth century, and it has a fantastic history and charming atmosphere to this day. We stayed on the top floor of an adorable hotel, with two tiny balconies attached to it! It was the perfect place for us to use as home base as we headed out to different parts of the city (and it was very European—tiny elevator, tiny bathroom, so charming!).
Since I had been traveling for a while, I had worked up a bit of an appetite, so we headed out in search of food (which, in Paris, is abundant and delicious!). We got some warm panini at a little street stand, and walked around the neighborhood for a while. Paris is so similar to how I always pictured it—wide boulevards, hundreds of cafes with dozens of tiny tables spread out in the front, awe-inspiring architecture, beautiful gardens, and artists and students galore! I was pretty much in heaven from the start.
On Friday morning we headed out to conquer the first sights. We walked to the Luxembourg Gardens first, which is one of the most beautiful spots in the city (and only ten minutes walk from our hotel!). We found some strong coffee at a little stand and sat around the gardens, taking in the view. It was a beautiful start to the morning! From there we kept walking and wandered through parts of the Latin Quarter towards Notre Dame. On the way we discovered our favorite crepe place, which is just a little hole in the wall but has some of the most delicious and cheap crepes in Paris. With warm crepes in hand, we headed to Notre Dame. The cathedral is beautiful and intricate, and completely impossible to describe. You really have to go and see it for yourself! It was amazing to see such an iconic structure in person. We were blown away by the architecture and grandeur of it all, and we also had some fun outside. There was a man feeding pieces of churro to all of these little birds outside of the cathedral, and he gave some to us so that we could feed them as well! We had clusters of tiny birds grouped around our hands taking bites of this churro, and then he would hold pieces over our head so that the birds would land in our hair for a snack as well. It was so fun!
After Notre Dame, we went to the Shakespeare bookstore and explored all of its nooks and crannies. I loved it! It’s a truly amazing little place. I just pretended that I was an American expat living in the 1920s, reading and writing out of the corners of this winding store and having life-altering conversations with fellow wanderers. I could have set up residence in there! But it was off to see more of Paris after that.
We went back to the hotel for a break and then headed to the Eiffel Tower. It looks much bigger in person! It’s very cool to see, even though it’s in a pretty boring part of town (more of a business district). From there we went to Montmartre to walk around until dusk, when we planned to climb the Sacre Coeur. Even though Montmarte is very touristy and seedy in some places, it’s also very beautiful up in the hills. It reminded me of the hill town where I studied abroad in Italy— Bergamo. The streets wind around and with each twist and turn, you get a new and ever-breathtaking view of Paris. It’s fun to just explore and get lost, it made me feel like I was transported back in time (this was away from the inevitable tourist traps, of course—they are an epidemic in Montmartre!). As it got darker, we headed to Sacre Coeur to take in a view of Paris at night. The church itself is gorgeous once illuminated in the evening, but of course, the view of Paris at night beats most sights that I have seen in my life. It’s really beautiful but impossible to describe!
Exhausted and full of baguettes, crepes, café crème, and panini (have I mentioned that we ate our way through Paris? There is always an excuse for a snack when you are there!), we headed back to the hotel and collapsed. The next morning, we decided to take it easy and check out the market in our neighborhood. Paris has a really great rule regarding local markets. Each arrondissement is required to hold an outdoor market twice a week, so the residents of each neighborhood can buy all of their produce, meat, cheese, bread, and other goods fresh every few days. It’s so fun to walk around these markets and see the array of food that is available in France—it’s mouth-watering! We bought some peaches and some Breton crepes, and mingled with the locals who were out purchasing their food for the next few days. After that, we went to the Montparnasse cemetery to walk around and look for the graves of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (we completely missed them, but went back another day and found their joint headstone, so all in all it was a success!). The cemetery is beautiful, with such a cool array of headstones and monuments. From there we explored a few more of the back streets of Montparnasse, and then headed to walk around the neighborhood of the Pantheon.
The Pantheon is enormous, and has a very interesting history (look it up!). The whole area around the Pantheon is beautiful, with hilly, twisting roads that reveal fun little shops, cafes, and of course, tons of university students because the Sorbonne and other universities are in the same neighborhood. After a good bit of exploring (and some more French snacks!), we crossed the Seine to check out the Marais. This area of Paris became one of our favorites. It has an incredible history, and because it wasn’t destroyed when Haussmann redesigned Paris in the nineteenth century, it has lots of winding medieval streets. It’s also the historic home of Parisian Jews and other immigrant populations, so it has great energy and diversity (of course, in recent years, it’s become very trendy and expensive—so there are also lots of upscale shops, hotels, and cafes!). We wandered around for a while and checked out the beautiful Place de Vosges, then went to what became one of our favorite cafes in Paris, Café Martini. It’s an adorable little place with incredible hot chocolate and bountiful meat and cheese plates. We were in foodie heaven when we got our “mixte” platter, which ended up feeding us both for two meals because there was so much (and all for 10 euros! Excellent). Full and happy, we did some more exploring of the neighborhood. Mom wanted some new eye shadow, so we stopped at a fancy French makeup shop (Guerlain), We ended up getting free makeovers from the sweetest Parisian woman, which made us feel like we fit in a little better in fashion-conscious Paris despite our tennis shoes!
Very tired from our exploring, we headed back to our hotel to rest (and eat our leftovers from dinner). After refueling, we went back to the Marais to watch a very cool outdoor digital exhibition about French history outside of the Hotel du Ville. It was really cool, and there were hundreds of people there, but we didn’t stay for too long because it was all in French and we could only understand so much! But never fear, there is always something wonderful to do in Paris. We took a beautiful nighttime stroll along the Seine, stopping at the Pont Neuf for a view of the city and walking along until we arrived at the Louvre. The Louvre is much bigger than I ever imagined, and it’s even more beautiful and breathtaking at night. The whole time I was in Paris, I was constantly amazed at the power that the French monarchs and clergy have had throughout French history. The cathedrals and palaces in Paris are ridiculously huge and awe-inspiring, and of course, very expensive to build and maintain. I can understand why there were so many revolutions there, with such wealth serving as a constant visual contrast to great poverty and suffering.
On Sunday, we headed back to the Eiffel Tower to meet up with a group to do a bike tour. On the way, we checked out a truly great neighborhood market that was buzzing with people and goods. The best part for us was the petting zoo! Yes, we found a petting zoo in Paris. The market had several pens with farm animals in them that you could pet and hold, from geese, chickens, turkeys, and peacocks (ok, maybe you can’t hold them) to bunnies, chicks, lambs, and piglets. It was so fun! I got to hold a tiny little lamb, it was super cute. We reluctantly left the market and headed to the Eiffel Tower, stopping along the way at a boulangerie. There we bought the most amazing prosciutto and cheese sandwich that I’ve ever had—and I’ve lived in Italy! I will judge all future sandwiches by this sandwich, and I can’t imagine that any will ever come close.
When we got to the Eiffel Tower, we met up with our group and headed to the bike office. The company is called Fat Tire bike tours, and they are a wonderful little group of American expats (along with guides from many different countries) that do really fun tours by bike in multiple European cities. We signed up for the day and night tour, since we knew that we could see much more of Paris by bike than by foot (and, since we don’t have credit cards with smart chips, we couldn’t rent the Velib bikes which are scattered all over the city). Following our American guide, Preston, we rode all around the military school, Louis XIV’s dome church, the Invalides military hospital, the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries Gardens, and the Louvre. We covered a lot of ground, and Preston stopped along the way to tell us about different buildings and bridges along with their history. It was a great way to see this part of Paris, which is very sweeping and grand and exhausting to see by foot! Preston also taught us how to “dominate” Paris traffic and use the “palm of power” to stave off aggressive Parisian drivers, very useful since Paris streets are pretty crowded and tumultuous.
A few hours later, we returned for our evening bike tour with Andre, our Portuguese guide. He was a wonderful guide, and has lived all over the world, so he speaks four different languages fluently. The night tour was even more fun than the day tour, especially since Paris is absolutely bewitching at night. We rode down the Boulevard Saint-Germain, which brought us into the heart of the Latin Quarter, and around to Notre Dame, where we received a fascinating history lesson from Andre with the illuminated cathedral in the background (we also got some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had!). From there we crossed the river, took a very fun stop on the Art Bridge, and headed back west. Along the way, Andre would stop to tell us even more about different buildings and historical spots. We really felt like we got to know this part of the city with him! We biked through the Louvre at night, which never stops being enormous and beautiful, and headed down the Seine for our boat ride. The night bike tour includes this boat down the Seine, which is something we had planned to do anyway, so we got to kill two birds with one stone. A boat ride is a fabulous way to see Paris, since so many of its iconic buildings are along the river. We sipped French wine and saw the entire city by night from the river, it was really the perfect way to end the day.
On Monday, we stopped at a café near our hotel to have some café crème and drink coffee Parisian style: slowly, at a tiny table facing the street, with a wonderful musical ensemble playing in the square out front. One of my favorite things about Paris is that there is always some sort of live music being played, whether on a street corner, in a park, along the Seine, or on a moonlit bridge. There is nearly always music! After our incredibly delicious coffee and impromptu concert, we walked over to the Latin Quarter to do some more exploring and find some fondue. The Latin Quarter is, unfortunately, super touristy, but it still retains much of its charm and intrigue if you get off the beaten path. After some delicious cheese fondue and French onion soup, we decided to learn more about this hidden Latin Quarter by taking a walking tour. As you probably know, I’m a little obsessed with walking tours in London, so I was delighted to find that my favorite walking tour company there has a small branch in Paris. Our British guide, Chris (who has lived in Paris for 16 years and is VERY knowledgeable about its history and architecture), took us all around the small streets of the Latin Quarter that remain untouched by tacky souvenir shops and endless gyro restaurants. He brought us into a beautiful old cathedral to teach us about its architecture, imparted stories of French pilgrims, told us about how Parisians lived during the medieval and early modern periods, shared rousing stories of famous poisonings, showed us the street where Voltaire lived, showed us Roman ruins, and taught us all about the history of Parisian education as we ended at the Sorbonne. When we were finished, I felt like I had seen a completely different side of the Latin Quarter and gotten a glimpse into a whole new chapter of French history. This is why I love walking tours—I get to see parts of cities that I would never be able to see or understand otherwise, it’s such a great way to get to know a place.
On Monday night, we decided to go back to the Art Bridge and take a picnic. We gathered the essentials—baguette, wine, cheese, and charcuterie—and headed for the bridge. We took in beautiful views of Paris as we overlooked the Seine and enjoyed our spread. As it darkened, we decided to walk up the Seine for a while and head towards the Arc de Triomphe (after stopping for some ice cream, of course). It was a very long walk, but a nighttime walk along the Seine never gets old! We gawked at the Arc and walked a couple of blocks down the Champs Elysees to catch some iconic sights of the city. Then it was back to the hotel after another very long, exhausting, and fantastic day.
This morning, we were quite sad to wake up to our final day in Paris. We wanted to fit in a few more things and enjoy our last day, so we decided to take one more walking tour to learn more about the Marais. We walked through the Luxembourg Gardens again on our way to that side of town, and I don’t think I could ever get tired of walking through them! It’s such a beautiful way to begin the day. We arrived at our meeting spot on the Rue de Rivoli, and set off once again with Chris to learn about the history of this fascinating neighborhood. He taught us all about the hotel particuliers (or the mansions of the neighborhood’s wealthy residents) and how they operated, along with the amazing house and story of Anne of Austria’s famous chambermaid, “One-Eyed Cathy” (look her up!). We saw two different churches and learned about how cathedrals changed before and after the Reformation, and walked through the winding streets of the Marais as Chris pointed to this and that and illuminated the history of the neighborhood as we moved. We ended at the Place de Vosges, and afterwards headed to the home of Victor Hugo to see his rooms. It was a fun little free museum, made the more interesting because it has been set up to reflect how Hugo and others of his class would have lived in the nineteenth century. These walking tours are worth every penny!
After the tour, we headed to an old Jewish neighborhood for some falafel. The falafel pitas that we had were some of the best things that we had over the whole trip! There was a huge line out of this falafel place when we arrived, and when we got our pitas, we completely understood why. Fully satiated, we ventured to the nearby Carnavalet Museum, which is the museum of the history of Paris that is contained in one of the old enormous hotels (mansions) of the Marais. The museum is very cool, with dozens of rooms decorated and furnished in the style of different historical periods in France. We saw the salons of the Enlightenment, the decadence of Louis XV and the nobility of his time, amazing artifacts and paintings from the French Revolution, the armor and weapons of Napoleon Bonaparte, and rooms reflecting France’s different republics, empires, and revolutions. It’s a fascinating museum, made more so because it is housed in one of the enormous hotels that we learned about on our walking tour earlier in the day.
After the museum, we only had a few hours before we had to head back so that I could leave for the train. Heavy-hearted at my approaching departure, I tried to enjoy and soak in the last bits of Paris that I could. We got some coffee at a café, had some macaroons, marveled at the enormous museum of modern art (the Pompidou), discovered a really cheap French cafeteria hidden in a basement, took a last visit to Notre Dame for some more pictures, had one last panini, and took one last beautiful stroll through Luxembourg Gardens. I am now back London for my last week of research. I have to give a huge shout-out to Dr. Ottanelli and Dr. Fontaine for all of their amazing Paris recommendations, it would not have been as great a trip without their help! The city captured my heart, and I’m pretty sad that it’s now behind me. But I have lots to see and do during my last week in Europe. So for now, I must bid you au revoir!