Ah, the city of lights. Only a short ride from London, it was inevitable that Paris would be a part of our adventure, and sure enough Marc had a business trip there earlier this month. To make it even better, I’d be meeting up with my friend Jonathan and would have a travel buddy for exploring the city.
The easiest way to get from London to Paris is via the Eurostar train, through the tunnel under the English Channel. It’s surprising to get off the train after only a few hours, and instantly know you’re in a very different place. London and Paris are so close, and yet feel so very different even when you’re just standing on a street corner outside a subway station.
We were staying on the Rive Gauche, the left/south bank of the river. It’s the other side of the river from most of the usual sights, but there was still plenty to do before making our way to a bridge. We walked from the hotel to the Jardin du Luxembourg, and through the gardens to the Luxembourg Palace. Created in the 1600s as a residence for the royal family, the palace is now home to the Senate.
Looking up, we noticed the dome of the Pantheon, which Jonathan had never seen, so that became our next destination. The building is the definition of grandeur, an awe-inspiring combination of high columns, arching domes, enormous paintings and sculptures, and bold geometric designs on the tiled floors. Equally enthralling are the crypts below, containing the remains of many of the great names of France. Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Louis Braille, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexander Dumas, and my favourite, Marie Curie, are all here.
We had decided that this wasn’t, however, going to be a trip spent visiting museums and waiting in lines. We both wanted to just wander, with one more exception: I had never seen the catacombs and was keen to get there. I had skipped it on previous trips because of the long lines, but it turns out there’s a trick to avoiding the wait: buy a ticket online. It was more expensive but worth it given our limited time. (To find similar options for this and other places, try an online search for “skip the line tickets.”) We found the tiny shop designated as the pickup location, the man checked the reservation code on Jonathan’s phone, and handed us our tickets. From there, trying not to look smug as we waltzed past the queue, we went to a separate, completely empty line where the attendant checked our tickets, gave me a bit of friendly teasing for my Québec accent, and let us right in!
What a remarkable place. A warren of narrow corridors 20 meters below ground was once a system of underground quarries that provided much of the stone used to build Paris. The ossuary was created in the late 1700s, when bones were transferred here from cemeteries that were being closed, and markings and signage indicate when each area was reinforced and developed, and where the bones in it were from. Strangely, the skeletons were not kept intact; great care seems to have been taken to sort the bones by type, and to organize them artistically. It’s all a bit surreal.
My favourite things about Paris aren’t the museums or landmarks. The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Musée D’Orsay, Notre Dame… they’re all worth seeing. But what I enjoy most is the atmosphere, the little things that to me say “Paris” much more than any of those big attractions. The cafés on the corners, where people sit facing out with a tiny cup of espresso, a glass of water, and a newspaper (or more likely these days, their phone). The ornate apartment buildings with Juliet balconies and geraniums on the window sills, and plane trees outside. The wide, straight boulevards. The baguettes… oh, the bread! A French baguette is to me the perfect bread, and I love that you still see people walking home at the end of the day with a baguette or two under their arm. It was interesting to contrast this with the things that have come to say “London” to me–but that’s a topic for another post!
We walked along the river, admiring the bridges. We drank coffee and ate baguettes. This is the way to experience Paris! Be forewarned, though… Parisians smoke. A lot. And your outdoor café table is likely to be enveloped by a cloud of cigarette smoke wafting over from a neighbouring one. One evening, as we enjoyed a French meal and wine at a casual restaurant down the street from the hotel, the frequent opening of the front door let the cloud right into the restaurant, to the point where our clothes smelled of smoke by the end of the meal.
We wandered the grounds of the Louvre, admiring the architecture, watching the tourists, dodging pigeons, and noticing the heavily armed gendarmes who keep an eagle eye on things. Even without going into the museum–which with the long lines, huge crowds, and huge collection is not for the faint of heart–there is plenty to see.
We wandered over to the Marais, one of my favourite districts. A number of years ago, Marc and the kids and I spent a week in a tiny apartment on rue du Temple in the Marais. It was a great, central location but we mostly walked straight down to the river without exploring the neighborhood. The next time we visited the area, we discovered that it was in fact an old Jewish quarter. The excellent Museum of Jewish Art and History has wonderful photographs showing pre-war life in the area; it also has heart wrenching photos of Jews being rounded up on rue du Temple. And on that second trip we discovered plaques honouring the people–particularly the hundreds of children–who perished, and the heroes who saved others. The Marais has changed a lot since that first trip, and it is now full of trendy shops and restaurants, and bustling with tourists and locals. But the corner near rue des Rosiers and rue des Hospitalières St. Gervais–perhaps the most touristy, but also the most atmospheric–is still my favourite, and I was happy to revisit it.
I suppose no trip to Paris would be complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower. In a sign of the times, we discovered that anyone wanting to walk directly under the tower now must go through a security check/metal detector. Thankfully the iconic structure is big enough that you don’t need to get that close to enjoy it.
We also popped over to the Arc de Triomphe to play with some night photography. Paris has no shortage of iconic sights.
The next morning we headed off to the Gare du Nord (which translates to “northern train station”) to head back to London. With a bit of time to spare we wandered a few blocks from the station. And as if to tease us, begging us to stay longer or at least to come back, Paris again enthralled us with sights around every corner.
You can see more photos from this trip and others on my web site: http://www.lkephotography.com/Portfolio/Travel