From Paris with Love – May 2014
My wife and I visited Paris for the first time at the end of April and early May, as a bookend to an earlier London trip. We took the Eurostar train from London to Paris and came away impressed, leaving a lasting impression and convinced that was the best way to travel between the two cities…with the added novelty of going under the English channel for a good 20 minutes…good thing we didn’t have to hold our breath. We bought our Eurostar tickets about 40 days prior to our train ride and we were able to snag a discount offer wherein Standard Premier seats were cheaper than Standard seats. The ride was smooth, with very comfortable seats providing more than ample leg room, and the cheerful and responsive service sure beats a plane trip any day….not to mention avoiding the hassles at the airport. All in all, a very pleasurable experience.
Upon arrival at Paris’ Gare du Nord, we sought out a ticket booth and purchased a carnet of 10 tickets for €13,70. A carnet is simply a stack of individual Metro tickets. Individual tickets cost €1,70 so getting a carnet was a better deal. We didn’t think we would need more than a carnet during our 4-night stay. If you would need to use the public transportation extensively during your stay, you should check out Paris Visite, which might be more cost effective for your travel needs. The Paris Metro was pretty easy to figure out and we found ourselves quite proficient during our stay…although there was an incident where we went through the wrong turnstile when we were in a hurry and didn’t pay close attention to the gate we were going through. The northbound and southbound entrances were separated and we took the southbound instead of the northbound entrance. Luckily, the attendant was gracious enough to let us through the correct gate. We did some research on the best places to stay in Paris, with a great location, suitable for maximizing exploration of Paris sights on foot, being our foremost selection criteria.
We opted to go with an apartment through Airbnb in an effort to “experience” life as a Parisian in a Parisian’s apartment. We chose an apartment on the top floor, 5th floor for Europeans but 6th floor for Americans (the ground floor in Europe is ground floor and the second floor is their 1st floor), located in 7th arrondissement (district) and within walking distance to iconic Paris landmarks. The apartment building itself was quite old (as one would expect in Paris) with this really small lift/elevator barely able to fit one person with a hiking backpack…so we made extensive use of the stairs to go up to and down from the apartment. The apartment is a couple of blocks away from Rue Cler, the street famous and popular to locals and tourists alike for its eclectic shops and restaurants that seem to spill out on to the streets, and has no less than five boulangeries and patisseries within walking distance.
Good eating and good life are what we’ve come to expect on our brief visit of Paris. On our first full day in Paris, we went to the Louvre. We bought tickets online via Paris Info, the official website of Paris’ Convention and Visitors Bureau. In addition to the Louvre priority admission tickets (€12 per person) and Arc de Triomphe tickets (€9,50 per person), we also purchased one-way Roissybus tickets (€11,60 per person) for what’s arguably the most convenient and cost-effective means to get from Paris’ city center to Roissy Charles De Gaulle airport and vice versa. Paris Info doesn’t charge a processing fee and can mail tickets in advance for a fee…we just picked it up by their office close to the Pyramides Metro station.
We expected the Louvre to be massive…and it was. We also expected the Louvre to have long lines of tourists waiting to get in…and it did. Even when we tried to enter through the lower entry by the subway station right at the time the Louvre opened up (bypassing the long lines by the above ground pyramid entry), the lines were still long…and there’s another line past that line where you actually present your tickets. We didn’t intend to stay in the Louvre for a full day, although there’s plenty of artwork and sculptures to suit everyone’s taste and occupy one’s day and more, so we concentrated our efforts checking out the “greatest hits” in the Denon Wing. The Denon Wing houses Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, and a couple of Michelangelo’s sculptures. If you have limited time to spend in the Louvre, highly suggest you devote that time in the Denon Wing. Sadly, the Winged Victory sculpture was not available for viewing during our visit due to an ongoing restoration project. We spent the rest of the day exploring Jardin des Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, Petit Palais, Champ de Mars, Eiffel Tower, Trocadero, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysee, then back to Eiffel Tower at night after dinner at La Fontaine de Mars. On our first full day, we walked over 10 miles…just getting started.
Our second full day was 1 May, Labor Day, and all the museums were closed. We took the Metro to Montmartre to see Sacre Coeur, a Roman Catholic church situated atop butte Montmartre. We got off at Abbesses station and walked up to Sacre Coeur, although there is a funicular that takes people up to Sacre Coeur for a fee. The walk up wasn’t too taxing although I would recommend the funicular for older visitors as well as those with mobility issues. In addition to the spectacular views of Paris from Sacre Coeur, harpist Hugo Barahona is a regular sight infusing romance with his mesmerizing renditions of classics played on the steps of Sacre Coeur…my favorite being “La Vie en Rose.” He obliged to play “La Vie en Rose” for us, with a €5 “donation.”
From Sacre Coeur, we headed to Latin Quarter for some lunch. We sought out some ethnic flavors and had some yummy Vietnamese food before braving the afternoon rain to check out Sorbonne, Pantheon, and finally making it to Notre Dame and Île de la Cité. Built in the mid 12th century, Notre Dame de Paris, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world. While its nave isn’t as grand and awe inspiring as Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican nor Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Notre Dame’s beauty comes from its Gothic arches, ornately designed portals, and impressive stained glass windows, particularly the north and south rose stained glass windows dating back to the mid 13th century. Expect long lines going into Notre Dame which remains an active church and a focal point for Catholicism in Paris. The cathedral is open everyday starting at 8:00 AM and entrance is free.
We completed our second full day strolling through Ile de la Cite and checking out additional sights at Latin Quarter prior to walking back to our apartment. We walked over 8 miles on our second full day.
Our third day was slated for a visit to Arc de Triomphe. It was a bit disappointing that the weather was overcast upon ascending the spiral staircase to the top of the Arc, but we made the best of it. Arc de Triomphe honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars, and was inspired by the Arch of Titus in Ancient Rome. I found an exhibit, of all arches mapped around the world patterned against the Arch of Titus, very informative. Make sure to utilize the underground walkway to the Arc de Triomphe and not be one of those stupid tourists who cross and brave the traffic around the traffic circle surrounding Arc de Triomphe.
We spent the rest of our last full day in Paris exploring Les Invalides, Musee Rodin, Pont des Arts, revisiting Notre Dame, and living the decadent life with macarons from Pierre Herme and a pint of Berthillon ice cream from L’Epicerie Fine on Rue Cler. One can visit the Musee Rodin and just get tickets for the garden (€2) where Rodin’s famous sculptures can be seen, like the “Thinker” and “Monument to the Burghers of Calais” that was featured in the movie “Monuments Men.” We walked over 9 miles on our last full day in Paris.
While we were in Paris, we sampled quintessential French cuisine: Entrecote with Bearnaise sauce, confit du canard, coq au vin, quiche, boeuf Bourguignon, escargots, Pierre Herme macarons, Berthillon ice cream, crepes, baguettes and a myriad of French pastries…but our lasting food memory occurred on the day we left Paris. We bought a baguette cereales early in the morning at a boulangerie near our apartment prior to heading out to the Opera to take the Roissybus to Charles de Gaulle airport. The lasting memory of the steaming baguette on a crisp spring morning, as we tore off and savored piece after piece, was enough to make us want to come back to Paris.
Prior to our trip to Paris, we had preconceived notions of how Americans are generally treated in Paris. We’ve heard of how rude the French, specifically the Parisians, were to American tourists and how dismissive they can be of American tourists at restaurants. We braced ourselves for this, but we found most, if not all, of the French folks we came in contact with were friendly and engaging. We left Paris longing for a return in, hopefully, not too distant future. Paris cast its spell on us, and we fell helplessly in love with Paris.
– For those interested in riding bikes in Paris, there are Velib bikes for rent all over Paris.
– As an American, we found it “cool” to see statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (and even a Metro station named after Franklin D. Roosevelt) in Paris, further underscoring the close ties the two nations have that goes as far back as the American Revolutionary War through the two world wars.
– If you are going to stop by L’Epicerie Fine on Rue Cler, say hello to Pascal, the proprietor. I read about him on Rick Steves’ book and said hello to him and asked if he was Pascal when we stopped by…he knew immediately that I read Steves’ book. Oh yeah, don’t be shocked when he tells you the Berthillon ice cream costs €12,50 a pint!
– One of the disappointments we encountered while in Paris was the disgusting sight of animal feces present along the sidewalks, especially in residential areas. There was never a day that we didn’t see this during our walks. One has to be careful while gawking at Paris landmarks…make sure to keep an eye out for animal poop along sidewalks. I guess irresponsible pet owners are universal.
UPDATE: May 2015 My wife and I accompanied my mother and sister to Paris and we stayed in the 7th arrondissement once again…this time just south of Les Invalides. We flew into Orly Airport and simply took a taxi from the airport to our apartment to avoid having to transfer between modes of transportation (i.e. bus to Metro or train to Metro) due to multiple luggage. We still purchased a couple of carnets of Metro tickets which lasted our 4-day stay in Paris. We flew out of Charles de Gaulle Airport / Roissy, and instead of taking the Roissybus like we did previously, we decided to take the RER B from Gare du Nord (since we dropped my mom and sister off for their Eurostar train to London) for €10 per person one-way…and that was quite easy…however, if one has a lot of luggage or large luggage, the RER B special train to CDG gets packed and it might be a challenge to find a seat.
We still made it a point to stop by our favorite boulangerie in the 7th arrondissement, Nelly Julien, for some fresh, tasty baguette cereales…just as good as that crisp spring morning when we had arguably the best French bread we’ve ever had as we were headed to the airport on our flight out of Paris. We also made it a point to stop by Rue Cler and eat at least one dinner there…and of course the obligatory daytime visit to Eiffel Tower (before it was closed recently to crack down on gangs wreaking havoc with their pickpocketing operations targeting tourists and locals alike) and a visit at night to see twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower. We also had a chance to visit the area around Bastille…seemed like a pretty upscale and a nice area for dinner after a visit to the Louvre. We also went up to Sacre Couer once again, but this time, Hugo the Harpist wasn’t there. I don’t know if he has a certain schedule, but we were there on a Tuesday morning and he wasn’t there.