Last March, after our tour of England and the great Peter and Richard wedding extravaganza, my sister Hailey and I flew to Paris. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Hailey had never been before, I had been once about 10 years earlier, and according to my pack-it-all-in logic, it would have been a waste to fly all the way across the Atlantic and only visit one country. We considered other places, but we knew we would only have a few day and that the weather might be iffy, so we reasoned that somewhere compact with lots of indoor attractions would be a good bet. Plus, well, Paris.
I debated whether to share details or just photos and a brief sketch of the trip, but now I’m glad that I wrote all of this down back in April or I never would have remembered exactly what we did. And reading other blogs helped me plan my trip, so maybe this will be helpful, too.
Here’s how we spent roughly 48 hours in Paris:
I won’t start the clock on our 48 hours yet because this was mostly a travel day, and we saw even less than we had hoped thanks to some frustrations acquiring cash and getting the map to work on my iPhone. But this day has to be mentioned because of how much I loved emerging from the subway in Montmartre and (after we had deposited our bags) winding our way up to Sacre-Coeur just after sunset. I think Hailey and I would both rather forget just how long we wandered around trying to decide where to eat before settling on a random cafe and calling it a night.
Starting at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés metro stop (across from Les Deux Magots), we meandered toward Gerard Mulot Boulangerie to grab some pastries to-go for a late breakfast. I can’t remember exactly what we had (I know there was a quiche, a chocolate chip thing, and several miniature bites of goodness), but I can say that their selection of pastries, terrines, bread and other picnic-perfect wonders was the nicest we saw anywhere.
From there, we made our way to Notre-Dame, where we spent a good while in awe of the rose windows before leaving to find coffee and a public restroom (the latter was easy – a free public toilet was just behind the cathedral.) We tried and failed to get into Sainte-Chapelle (some confusing construction and a long line of ambiguous purpose deterred us) before giving up and crossing back over the Seine, where we wandered along the river, bought two crepes from a rude man, and eventually veered off the main strip and found a cafe on Rue Jacob, where we had salad, coffee and french onion soup.
We continued on along Rue Jacob until it turned into Rue de l’Université, which made for a pretty, relatively quiet walk. Our main goal was to reach the Eiffel Tower via the Place des Invalides, but we also wanted to have a peek at 81 “Roo de Loo,” Julia Child’s first home in France. Except I remembered it wrong, and we photographed 80 Roo de Loo instead. Oh well.
Place des Invalides was far more stunning than I remembered it, but last time I think I only walked by at a fast clip whereas this time we stopped to admire the mostly empty courtyard and the stonework. Then, the moment Hailey had been waiting for, the Eiffel Tower, which I won’t say more about except that it was shrouded in a haze of smog, but still a beautiful site. We were getting cold, but we pressed on across the Seine and up Av. d’léna to the Arc de Triomphe, which, thanks to some construction scaffolding, was wearing what looked like a diaper. Cold and tired, we stayed in the tunnel under the arch for a looong time trying to decide what to do for dinner. Trying to decide what to do for dinner was an unfortunate theme of the trip, but the plan we landed on was one of our favorite moments, so I am going to save it for a second post.
After eating breakfast at our apartment (tiny yogurts in glass cups!), we headed out again on the metro and got off at the Bastile stop. Then we made our way through Marais, loosely following a walk in our Rick Steves’ book. I will admit that we set out trying to follow the walk exactly, but failed. We wandered into the Place des Vosges, thought it was not the Place des Vosges, tried to figure out where we went wrong, and left never knowing exactly what we had seen but liking it nevertheless. We ended up on Rue des Rosiers in the Jewish Quarter, which was a narrow, peaceful street filled with pedestrians and lined with shops. I unkinked a little – this was the sort of Paris street I had been hoping to find.
Another odd theme of our trip was our constant search for a quiet cafe at which we could sit and sip coffee. I thought that’s what French people did, yet almost every time we stopped at a likely looking establishment, we were told they only sat people for food service. We finally hit pay dirt at a spot called Korcarz on Rue des Rosiers. I’m not saying the coffee and the pastries were the best, but the street was quiet, a lone violin player on the corner filled the whole space with music that echoed off the cobblestones, and the cafe didn’t mind that we were only after a dink and a snack. To seal my love for Rue des Rosiers, we bought our second crepe of the trip from a nice man a few doors down from the cafe.
After seeing Marais, our second goal of the day was to slowly gather the ingredients for a picnic that we would eat in Le Jardin du Luxembourg. Leaving Rue des Rosiers, we headed toward the Left Bank, stopping to buy some cheese from a woman at a street market. We crossed over onto Ile Saint-Louis, which was an even quieter haven than the streets on our Marais walk. We would have happily spent more time there, but we left after acquiring more picnic goods from a random shop.
We kept hoping to stumble across a shop with the kind of bounty and perfection we saw at Gerard Mulot Boulangerie, but alas, no luck. I am always pressing for new experiences, but I need to remind myself that when you are short on time and you find something good, it often pays to go back to it. After a long and frustrating search for a bathroom (McDonald’s came through) and a last minute quest for a wine shop (seriously, we couldn’t find one and settled on something from the equivalent of a bodega), we finally reached the park, dragged some chairs into a good position to take in the view, and ate our spoils.
Our plan was to end the day at the Louvre, which is open late on Wednesdays, but I was less than committed given the price, the limited time frame and the threat of large crowds. We finally decided to go for it and hopped on a bus (good decision – seeing Paris in the glow of the late afternoon was beautiful) that dropped us off near the Champs-Elysees, which I thought would make for a nice walk (bad decision – the park area leading up to the Louvre was much longer than I anticipated, and when we were almost there, we were shooed out because the area closed shortly after sunset.)
Despite my doubts and our unorthodox approach, we both loved the way our Louvre experience turned out. We arrived at about 8, meaning we only had 1.5 hours to spend in the museum, but there was NO line for tickets, and all of the galleries, including the one holding the Mona Lisa, were sparsely populated. We identified a few key things we wanted to see (Mona Lisa, the apartments of Napolean, and a painting involving sisterly nipple-pinching), and we walked fast. The building itself —inside and out—was our favorite part. In the end, we saw a lot in under two hours.
When we left the museum it was nearly 10 and we still wanted to see the Eiffel Tower at night and get a good meal. Debates ensued, followed by a search for an open restaurant. I have been told time and again that the people of France begin their evenings much later than Americans, and that to eat before 9 is a bit odd, and yet one after another restaurant had just closed their kitchen when we arrived. We ended up at Cafe Constant feeling very harried. I had foie gras over lentils, fish and a dessert of stewed prunes that tasted like Christmas.
After a very quick peek at the Eiffel Tower again, which was just a few blocks away, we rushed to catch the last subway train (a subway that stops running was a foreign concept that made me nervous) so we could get a few hours of sleep before heading back to the airport via train in the morning.
A few things about Paris:
1) These people have their public transit figured out.* Trains came every three minutes during the day, and the arrival time of the next two trains was posted prominently on digital signs in every station we visited. Even the bus stops had digital arrival time signs.
2) The one thing lacking in the metro system was public art—all of the stations I saw looked exactly the same. Subway art is one of my very favorite things about New York City. It is such an egalitarian offering.
3) Everything is beautiful. Obviously. It is, hands down, one of the prettiest cities I have ever visited. Perhaps the prettiest. It is also just a little bit the same and just a little bit overwhelming in its opulence, especially when you stick to the tourist spots. I think I would miss New York’s architectural diversity and grime.
4) Note to myself: Other cities are not a good place to escape your city. My nerves were a bit rattled on our first day thanks to the annoying whine of hundreds of scooters and motorcycles, which strike a pitch that I have always found especially grating. At times, it didn’t feel like a vacation so much as an annoying afternoon in SoHo.
5) Despite the exhausting hills and stairs (oh so many stairs!), we loved Montmartre and loved staying in an Air B&B apartment. The neighborhood was quiet, friendly and charming. We weren’t far from a metro, so it didn’t feel out-of-the-way at all. And since I live on the biggest hill in Brooklyn, I felt right at home.
* I can’t neglect to mention that on my first visit to Paris 11 years ago, the metro wasn’t really running at all thanks to a massive public strike that was one of a couple of things that nearly ruined that trip. But when they decide to turn it on, it works great.