In my experience, no other city has created such a broad spectrum of opinions as Paris has.
The following are opinions of Paris that I have read, seen in movies or on television, or have heard from friends and acquaintances:
(Note: These bullet points are not my views).
– Paris is magical! Heaven on earth!
– It’s filthy. Trash everywhere on the streets, and it stinks. It’s so gross.
– From Midnight in Paris, “This is unbelievable! Look at this! There’s no city like this in the world. There never was…Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain?” (More on Paris in the rain later…)
– The Eiffel Tower isn’t that great. Don’t get your hopes up.
– The Louvre is boring and crowded, don’t waste your time.
– Paris would be nice if it weren’t for the French. (Ouch!)
– There’s never enough time to see all there is to see in Paris.
– Paris just screams class and elegance.
With all of those ideas bouncing around in my head, I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I wanted to see it for myself. When Sam’s parents visited, we thought it was a perfect opportunity.
We packed up the car, drove to Folkestone, and hopped on the Eurostar train to take us under the English Channel to Calais, France. The Channel Tunnel (usually referred to as the Chunnel) is ~31 miles long and includes two high-speed trains. You can read a bit more about it here. When crossing at this point, it takes about 2-2.5 hours to cross the channel by ferry, while the Chunnel only takes around 35 minutes.
After checking in and waiting to board, you just drive onto the train! You can’t even see the Channel from the port so it takes away some of the eerie feelings of, “Wait. I’m going under water?!”
You stay in your car – or you can walk around the train – for the quick journey. It was an easy trip, although the cat in the car behind us seemed to think differently.
Once we arrived in France, we drove about three hours to Paris. Right as we approached the city center, our GPS decided to stop working, so we took an accidental, yet scenic, drive through the center of Paris. Sam was a pro navigating the city; he even safely drove us around the Arc de Triomphe roundabout (infamous for causing numerous accidents) before taking us to our accommodations, Hotel Odessa.
Paris is divided into twenty zones known as arrondissements. We stayed in the 14th one, called Montparnasse. I had read somewhere that it was a residential area with many cafes and restaurants; we found that to be true. Creperies were everywhere, there were several places within walking distance to hop on the Metro (their subway system), and a market just down the road. Our hotel was very affordable for Paris. I loved the view from our window as well… Perfect for people watching!
In fact, one of our first stops in Paris was at a creperie. I was surprised to find savory buckwheat crepes alongside the traditional sweet ones. I ordered a “coffee” and received espresso, forgetting that was the norm there. It was delicious though! Along with the espresso I downed a savory buckwheat crepe with mushrooms, ham and cheese. By the way, if you ever go to Paris, you’ll want to know the French words, “jambon et fromage.” Ham and cheese. You’ll find them on almost every menu in numerous ham, cheese, carb combinations. But hey, no complaints here!
From where we stayed, it was a few mile walk to the Eiffel tower area. It was doable, but a little tiring. Our transportation in Paris was split between taking the Metro and walking. So, with crepe filled bellies, we walked to the Eiffel Tower. It really does tower over the city, visible from most places. The Eiffel Tower also generates some split opinions. For every person who finds it beautiful and grand, there is someone else who see it as just a big, tasteless hunk of metal. One famous hater is French novelist Guy de Maupassant, who is said to have eaten lunch at the Eiffel Tower restaurant daily because it was the only place he could enjoy a few hours without having to look at the tower. He sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t he? 🙂 In the early 1900s it was quite trendy to hate the Eiffel Tower… Now, the crowds gathered around the tower’s lawns indicate otherwise.
There are huge gardens surrounding the Eiffel Tower, with large lawns, empty/dry fountains, and massive swaths of dirt. I wonder if the fountains are only filled during the summer… but the first view of a large dirt area with some empty fountain areas didn’t match the beauty surrounding it. However, walk towards the grassy areas and you’re met with a stunning view of the tower and lively, happy people. Crowds of tourists (of course) taking pictures and locals picnicking spot the lawn. It seems like most people have a certain picture in mind that they want to capture with the majestic tower in the background. Others seemed to panic and strike a fast, random pose as their photographing friend counted up to 3. We saw some strange poses including, but not limited to, The Saturday-Night-Fever-Disco-Point, The Playing-It-Cool-Shoulder-Shrug, The Make-It-Look-Like-I’m-Kissing-It, and The Cheerleader-Toe-Touch. But the most popular of them all was the selfie. 🙂 We will admit to that too, don’t worry. 🙂
One phenomenon witnessed there that I found hilarious was the extendable selfie pole. Nothing screams tourist quite like that!
In any touristy area of Paris (and many other European cities) I can guarantee that there are 1) street peddlers and 2) pickpockets. The street peddlers in Paris all seem to be selling the same things: Eiffel Tower models, key chains, little wooden trains with letters attached to spell out names, or kids’ foam airplanes. They have their merchandise dangling from big metal hangars or sprawled out at their feet. Outside the Louvre, the sight of a policeman on bike sent them scattering, only to reappear a few seconds later. The pickpockets are difficult to identify so you just have to assume they’re always present. Ladies, keep your purse openings facing you and in sight. Men, watch your wallets. Don’t trust anyone in a crowd, even if they look like a “normal” local. We almost got pickpocketed in the Metro so our guards were up. It’s a sad but expected part of traveling in many places.
On Sunday morning, we woke up, gobbled down a few croissants for breakfast, and then headed to Monmartre, a hilltop portion of Paris famous for it’s artisan culture and it’s church, The Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart). Although we got rained on (for the second time) on our way there, we were still able to enjoy the beautiful views of the city from above.
We happened to arrive at the Sacre Coeur just in time for the 11:15 service. The music (and acoustics!) were incredible. It was one of my favorite parts of visiting Paris. A sign outside the church said, “For over 125 years, here night and day, someone is praying to the Lord.”
As you can see, the sun was back out by this point. Our weather in continental Europe was quite fickle. It rained often but not for long, so we spent a few euro on umbrellas and rolled with the punches.
After we left the church we walked through the portion of the town that was also on the hilltop. It was quite touristy, so we rushed through it to the quieter area just downhill.
One of my favorite parts of the city was just down the hill… We walked through a beautiful and quiet residential area into a hopping section of Monmartre. On one small block of the street there was a produce grocer, a boulangerie (bakery), and a few delis and cafes. I could just picture Parisians popping into the boulangerie for a baguette, picking up an espresso and walking off to work. In fact, we saw quite a few people do just that. Before going to Paris, I thought that baguettes were just a stereotype… We’ve probably all seen a painting or illustration of a beret-adorned woman with a baguette sticking out of her handbag, or a bicycle leaned against a white Parisian building with a bottle of wine and baguette in its basket. Well, let me tell you, that stereotype is 100% true! Almost every person we saw who seemed to be a local was either snacking on a baguette or had one casually tucked under an arm or in a bag for later. We did our part to blend in in that area. 🙂
We popped into the boulangerie for lunch: baguette sandwiches and pastries. We ate out on the sidewalk, people watching and resting our tired feet.
From there, we headed to the Louvre. We exited the Metro near the rear of the Jardin des Tuileries (gardens) and – in the span of less than an hour – sat and soaked up the sun, then hid under trees and umbrellas to dodge the rain. The gardens are beautiful, containing hundreds of sculptures and fountains.
After dodging street peddlers and crowds, and after taking many pictures of the famous glass triangle… we headed in! The line wasn’t too long, surprisingly!
I have many pictures and could go on and on about the Louvre…so I think I’ll save that for a second post. 🙂
After wondering around the Louvre for four hours (until they closed) we were exhausted! After a quick nap back at the hotel we walked down the road to a cafe in the Montparnasse area. The food was delicious and affordable (it’s not too difficult to eat affordably in Paris, as long as you’re realistic). We enjoyed sitting under the covered (and heated) patio while we ate.
We had yet to see the Eiffel Tower at night, so we had a mission!
The Eiffel Tower at night did not disappoint. It “sparkles” on the hour after dark, and that was pretty magical!
Overall, Paris really was beautiful. The stark white stone buildings gave the city a clean, classy air. I didn’t find it to be dirty or trash-filled at all. I loved the thousands of balconies with shutters open and flowers in bloom. Though the only French people we really met were those working at restaurants and our hotel, they were all kind enough. I think as Americans, we often expect others to be as warm and neighborly as we can be, but we must remember that’s not the norm in other parts of the world. I never felt belittled by them, though I did feel embarassed by my lack of French knowledge. Monday morning I bravely left the hotel by myself with the mission to find a croissant and coffee, not realising that Monday is typically a day off, even for cafes and groceries. After finding a locked door at the boulangerie we breakfasted at the day before, I headed down to a Starbucks. I greeted the woman politely and ordered in French. She nodded and asked me a question… in French… and I froze. (I didn’t learn that phrase! Were those even words?) With a small, polite smile and barely a pause, she asked, “Your name, please?” DUH! That is usually what comes next when ordering a drink at Starbucks… Oh well, can’t win them all. She continued the rest of the transaction in English, and I at least got my coffee and croissant, even if it was from Starbucks.
For those few minutes as I walked back from Starbucks, I could picture life in Paris, surrounded by beauty and enjoying the relaxed yet lively setting. I would love to go back and enjoy a picnic on one of Paris’ many jardins. Or pop into one of the many other museums for a quiet Sunday afternoon. I’d love to go to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, grab a book and sit with a cup of coffee in an outside cafe for hours. Rarely does a city that large and bustling maintain a relaxed atmosphere; I was impressed. It’s not my favorite place I’ve been, but it had so much to offer – there’s so much more to see. So, I guess you can add my opinion to the list above.