Paris: the City of Light, the City of Love, the City of Crepes!
June, 2015 was my first – and hopefully not only! – visit to France. After spending two days in London we took a bus to Dover, boarded the ferry to Calais, and then hopped on another bus to Paris. The whole trip took about 13 hours and I couldn’t help thinking about when we read A Tale of Two Cities in high school. We got caught in rush hour traffic on our way into the city – seems like no matter where you go, you can never escape rush hour traffic – and quickly checked into our hotel before rushing back out into the city for a group dinner at a bistro. The food was great and I enjoyed the intimate setting as an opportunity to get to know some of my traveling companions better.
Our second day included a tour of the Fragonard perfume museum, a bus tour of the city with a hilariously sarcastic British guide, a trip to Versailles, and a river cruise on the Seine. We caught lunch near the Eiffel Tower and while much of the group disappeared into cafes, a few of us just got hotdogs from a corner stand. They had bright red casings and were served on baguettes – not your typical American hot dog stand fare! We only had about an hour free when we got to Versailles and there was a huge line to get into the palace so a few of us just went through the gardens instead. I wrote a note down that day after we left, “it’s hard to believe that people actually lived there, but not so hard to believe that they were killed for their opulence”.
That evening we had our river cruise and then after dinner a few of us just went back to the hotel instead of going out clubbing. I successfully got our group onto the metro going the right direction – it wasn’t difficult to just follow the map, but it still felt pretty cool to be traveling unguided in a foreign city.
Day two was a completely free day that we could use to do whatever we wanted. My group left the hotel at 8am and didn’t get back until past midnight – we walked 17 miles that day! We went to the Eiffel Tower first thing in the morning, and I couldn’t believe the view from the top. I never realized how sprawling Paris was until then – every picture you seem to see of the city is from right in the heart with the Eiffel Tower looming close in the window in the background. After the ET we went and got in line to go through the catacombs. The line stretched all the way around the block, so we took turns going into a small cafe to grab lunch. I was so proud of myself for being able to get through the entire order and transaction completely in French – my high school knowledge actually came in handy!
Going through the catacombs was a pretty solemn experience once we actually got down around the bones, and I had to keep reminding myself that they weren’t actually the result of some crazy tragedy – the city just ran out of room in its cemeteries. It’s still pretty creepy to be walking around the remains of 6 million people though, tragedy or not. We went to the Louvre next to lighten our spirits and we gave ourselves a one-hour time limit – just enough time to see the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, grab a water, and get back out onto the streets. I got some cool street art and we stopped at the love lock bridge on our way to Notre Dame, but we got to the square only five minutes after they stopped admitting members of the public, so unfortunately I didn’t get to look for Quasimodo.
We crossed town to see the Sacré-Cœur Basilica and it was absolutely breathtaking – and not just because we had to climb 150 steps to get there. The basilica is all white stone and has huge domes and a beautiful view of Paris. Later back at the Champs Elysées we used our museum passes to climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, then had a late dinner at a cafe before returning to the hotel to get a quick night’s sleep before leaving for Amsterdam the next morning.
I was really struck by the people in Paris, in so many different ways. The traffic in Paris was insane – in a lot of areas you couldn’t even tell where the lanes were, and mopeds were constantly weaving in and out around the cars. I couldn’t imagine ever driving there without having grown up used to it. I loved the juxtaposition of antique and modern in Paris as well, in a totally different way than I noticed it in London. The architecture in Paris is beautiful and the buildings look old and perfectly stylized, but as soon as you get down to the street level you’re hit immediately with a modern vibe amid millions of people rushing between the hustle & bustle of traffic, corner convenience stores, and avenues of designer shops. Everything, even statues and monuments, was covered in graffiti, and I never noticed how clean London (and even some US cities) was until I got to Paris. The people there all looked so glamorously dressed compared to what I’m used to seeing, and they all looked so comfortable in their skin and in their city. If London reminded me of D.C., Paris was the NYC of my trip, and I can’t wait until I can go back.