Picture perfect Paris
I've been taking pictures of Paris all my life, long before I got a camera. The Louvre, Notre Dame, the Arch de Triomphe, the Musee d’Orsay, and the Eiffel Tower are all images that have been entrenched in my mind’s eye, but only recently caught between the lenses of my digital camera. My mom and I recently strolled along the Seine and down the Champs-Elysees and up to Montmartre. We ate in quaint cafes in the Latin Quarter and Saint -Germain-des- Pres and got ogled by a creepy old man in tweed on the metro. She ate her first creme brulee and I sat and visited with Oscar Wilde at Pere Lachaise. And on the final evening, we took a moonlit cruise down the Seine. It was my sixth trip to Paris and my mother’s first.
Ernest Hemingway called Paris a “movable feast,” and I have to say I totally agree with him. Paris is the number one visited city in the world with annual visits of over 45 million people. They come for the love of art and history, because they love food, culture and to shop. They come for the love they have, the love they want or the love they lost. They come because Paris is for lovers—period.
Located in the north part of France on the river Seine, Paris has the reputation for being the most beautiful and romantic city in the world. French history is both passionate and tragic, a combination we all attribute to the very nature of being French. Celtic tribes populated the Seine River islands (Ile de la Cite and Ile St. Louis) when the Romans arrived in 52 B.C. The Romans built roads, aqueducts, amphitheaters, and baths. They eventually set up camp on the Left Bank, leaving the Parisii fishermen on the islands. The old adage is true… all roads led to Rome. When the Barbarian invaders drove the Roman soldiers homeward in the 4th and 5th” centuries AD, they also destroyed much of the Romans legacy, leaving only the Christian church behind.
During the Middle Ages, centers of learning grew up around Notre Dame Cathedral and schools like La Sorbonne attracted students from all over Europe. While the Church nurtured minds, the kings of France built walls around the city to keep out future invaders. Walls however, could not keep out the infamous Black Death and the Hundred Years War; both of which killed millions.
France rebounded during the Renaissance with the reign of Louis XIV. However, in the late 18th century, also known as the Enlightenment, the French went through a turbulent period of political and social upheaval. Previously a monarchy, the country developed a previously unknown sense of nationalism, citizenship, and inalienable rights. “Liberte, egalite, fraternite,” became the National motto. The storming of the Bastille in 1789 was the catalyst to the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and the emergence of the enlightened modem day France that visitors see today.
New wonders arrived during the 19th century and the city was reconstructed by adding long straight avenues, Gustave Eiffel’s famous tower, the first metro lines, most of the parks and electric streetlights. The twentieth century was hard on Paris, but thankfully not as hard as it could have been. Hitler’s order to burn the city was mercifully ignored by the German General von Choltitz who was convinced that it would be better to surrender and be remembered as the savior of Paris, than to be remembered as its destroyer.
Walking in Paris is one of the great pleasures of visiting the City of Light. It is possible to cross the entire city in a few hours. In fact within a few years, walking combined with biking and the Metro, will be the only way to get around Paris’ core within the next few years. The Mayor’s office has announced plans to declare the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th arrondissement (where the majority of tourists attractions are found) almost totally car free.
Central Paris is divided into districts called arrondissement, numbered from 1 to 20 in a clockwise spiral from the centre of the city. Kilometre Zero is the front door of Notre Dame. Arrondissement are commonly referred to by their number. You might, for example, stay in the “5th’’, which would be written as 5e (SANK-ee-emm) in French.
Some people would rather watch paint dry rather than spend a day window-shopping at the great couturiers, along the Avenue Montaigne (Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior) or the Faubourg Saint-Honore (Hermes, Gucci), but for others a day shopping for designer handbags and scarves would rank: as the highlight of their trip. Same goes for cramming a dozen churches and museums into a single day, heaven for some not so much for others. Double-decker bus tours also offer hop-on hop off tours that are reasonably priced and offer an alternative to a lot of walking.
Keep in mind that you may have to adjust your itinerary in case one of the days you’re in town happens to fall on a Monday (when most museums are closed) or a Sunday (when most everything else is closed, and those that remain open tend to operate on reduced hours).
Need to Know: The Metro is a very convenient and inexpensive mode of transportation with stops at all the major tourist destinations. Combination tickets offer the most value. Ask for assistance at the ticket booth or go online for fare information in advance.The very best map you can get for Paris is called “Paris Pratique par Arrondissement” which you can buy for about €3-5 at any news stand. For travelers under the age of 26, there is a special ticket (Jeunes 26) that you can purchase for use on the weekends or holidays. The price for Zones 1-3 is €3.30, good for one day of unlimited usage of the metro, RER, bus, and trams.
Paris souvenirs: Best place to shop—Montmartre!! Wine, cheese, perfumes and last seasons designer goods.
For the theater, there are two kiosks, on the forecourt of the Montpamasse railway station and at the Place de la Madeleine, offer tickets for that day at reduced rates.
The VAT can be refunded for goods, but not services. Visitors pay a tourism tax which is fixed by the local authority and varies from € 0.15 to € 1.07 per person per day and will be included in your hotel bill.
Restaurants usually charge for meals in two ways: a prix-fixe menu (also called a “menu”). This includes 2 or 3 courses, with cheese and/or dessert, and sometimes a half-bottle of wine for a stated price. Ordering each course separately is called “a la carte” and is much more expensive. Almost all restaurants include a 15% service charge (service compris). Otherwise service is non compris and a 15% tip is appropriate. Prices at cafes can vary considerably depending on the location as well as where you sit. Prices in areas that attract a high volume of tourists tend to be more expensive.
Museums are free the first Sunday of the month, Museum Night (Nuit des Musees) in Mayor Heritage Days in September (Journees du Patrimoine). Unless you are one of the first to get in line-forget about it. The lines are horrendous!
What to Skip ... this time: The Louvre. For those who come to Paris and think they must capture that obligatory shot of Mona Lisa’s lifeless smile, I actually recommend skipping this museum on a short trip. It’s not that I’m not a lover of the Louvre (I actually adore it)! There is just no way you can do the museum any real justice (not to mention enjoy it) in just a few hours crammed between other activities, you’d be better off checking out the loved and hated I.M. Pei pyramid out front and moving onto other attractions.
The Eiffel Tower is better appreciated, during a brief visit, from afar (or underneath). The view of the city from the second tier, and not the top, (the city is so flat, you actually are too far up to see anything), boast an incredible view. However, it probably isn’t worth the money, the times spent waiting in the snaking lines that encircle the base eat up precious limited time. Climb the steps of Montmartre, Notre Dame or the Arc de Triomphe instead.
Sainte Chappelle is the other Gothic masterpiece of the Ile de la Cite. I love, love, love tiny little jewel box of a chapel with one of the most beautiful rose windows and an ethereal glow in hues of red, blue and yellow from all the gorgeous 13th century stain glass windows. Alas, the last time I visited with my kids (September 2010), the restoration, begun 1970, was in full effect. The rose window had been taken down and the altar was in total disarray. The little chapel has never looked so bad.
Always Free: Notre Dame Cathedral (small fee to climb the tower), Flea Markets, Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Palace of Versailles gardens (except Sunday).
Because It’s Romantic: Love padlocks is one of the newest trends in cities across Europe. Sweethearts affix padlocks (I like copper ones that can be engraved) to a fence or similar public fixture to symbolize their love. In Paris this can be done at the Pont de l’Archeveche (Archbishop’s Bridge). The bridge links the 4th Arrondissement, at the lIe de la Cite, to the 5th Arrondissement. Throw the key into the Seine to cement your love forever.
I’ve been to Paris with my husband twice, and I have cruised on a Bateau Mouche, twice, and neither time with him. I know, I know ...pitiful! Don’t follow my lead on this one. Skip the dinner cruises though, it’s impossible to eat, enjoy each other’s company and take in the majestic buildings that line the Seine as wells as a replica of the Statue of Liberty.
Take a Memorable Stroll
To get a great orientation of the city on foot while seeing many of Paris’ major sights, you can do a West to East walk from the Arc de Triomphe to He de la Cite (Notre Dame). This walk takes about 1-2 hours without any stops. Start at the top of the Champs Elysees (at the Arc de Triomphe) and begin walking down the Champs Elysees towards Place (square) de la Concorde. On the way towards the obelisk in the square, you’ll see the major designer stores (Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint-Laurent, Gueriain, and Lancome, to name a few) of Paris’ on most famous avenue. You’ll also pass a McDonalds, Quick Burger (the French rival) and a few very high priced restaurants that actually stay in business serving tourists 18€ hamburgers. Once you’ve passed the main shopping area, you’ll see the Petit Palais and the Grand Palais to your right.
At Place de la Concorde, not only will you be mesmerized by the traffic, you’ll be able to see many of Paris’ major monuments around you. In front of you is the Tuileries, behind you is the Champs-Elysees and Arc de Triomphe, behind you to your right is the Tour Eiffel and Musee d’Orsay, and finally, to your left is theMadeleine. Continue straight ahead and enter the Tuileries Gardens passing by fountains, flowers, and all the lovers in the park.
As you continue straight ahead, and out of the gardens, you’ll pass under the beautiful Carousel Arch and see the pyramid entrance to the Louvre directly in front of you. With the pyramid directly in front of you, and the Tuileries directly behind you, turn to your right and stroll towards the Seine. Now you can walk along the Seine (eastwards) until you reach Pont Neuf. Gliding across the Seine below are the grand sightseeing boats, les Bateaux Mouches. Pairs of lovers strolling hand in hand. Others sitting close together along the water’s edge locked in feverish embraces. Cross Pont Neuf and walk through the Latin Quarter, cross the river again to reach Notre Dame Cathedral on Ile de la Cite. Afterwards, visit Berthillon’s, the best ice cream in Paris located on the smaller island of on lIe Saint-Louis. Enjoy your cone while perusing the booksellers stalls along the banks of the Seine. Take a moment to flip through the antique and second-hand books, comic strips, post cards and prints. Enjoy a fantastic dinner in the Latin Quarter. After dinner take a leisurely walk back along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower and watch it light up the sky.
Meet the Local Color
Visit the Luxembourg Park in the ritzy 5th Arrondissement. Meander through the beautiful sculptured gardens with statuary, watch the children sail boats in the fountains or play in the kids area (1€ entrance fee), smell the countless varieties of roses and fruit trees or take up residence on a bench and do nothing at all. C’est la vie!!
Take the Metro to Montmartre, one of the most colorful neighborhoods in Paris. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, it doesn’t exist. Mingle with the street vendors, munch on nutella-filled crepes or roasted chestnuts, try a hand of “three card monty,” and haggle with the souvenir hawkers who don’t take “no” for an answer.
Visit the Moulin Rouge made famous by the can-can dance and marked by the big red windmill on the roof. Walk up, or take the funicular, to the top of the hill. Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) is a Romanesque Basilica with an awe inspiring view of the city. The locals take lunch (or a lover) here to watch the sunsets unfold below.
What did you Miss??
All that glitters is not gold, unless you are visiting the Palace of Versailles. This is a great day trip from Paris, if the weather is nice. The gardens were the envy of many European Monarchs and the hall of mirrors is a spectacle of glass, light and reflection. There is a fee to enter the Palace, but the gardens are free except Sunday when the Musical Fountains dazzle with musical syncopation.
The Musay d’Orsay is a beautifully converted train station filled with many Impressionist paintings, sculptures and photographs from 1848-1914 from celebrated artists like Monet and Manet (I always get them confused), Degas, Rodin, and Gauguin.
Josephine Baker once said, “I like Frenchmen very much, because even when they insult you they do it so nicely.” I don’t agree, but I can understand why many Americans still believe all French people are arrogant. Avoid “animosity” by trying to speak a few phrases in French (hello, goodbye, how much, where is…) Don’t assume everyone speaks French (Parlez-vous Anglais?) Make sure to say hello/goodbye to shopkeepers (it’s considered rude otherwise, its akin to coming into someone’s home and not speaking). And most of all, don’t forget your camera!