When I was younger my family used to visit Paris quite often; when you live in Holland, the next country is only 2-3 hours away, so France can be reached in about 5 hours if you time the traffic well. However, since moving to the UK the trip has become a lot more complicated (read: expensive; the Eurostar is expensive), so the last time I went to Paris it was the winter of 2011 or 2012. I got to stay at a friend’s amazing apartment right in the heart of the city and experience Paris from a local perspective (with a good dose of museums thrown in). So, it was a little odd to return this year, to a familiar yet unfamiliar city, amid the gilet jaune protests, without my family, without local friends… as a, dare I say it, tourist? No, lets’ not quite go there.
B and I just went for the weekend, for our annual birthday trip (which may or may not have fallen exactly on his 30th birthday, shh). He flew in from Manchester, I took a train to Gare du Nord. It is odd what you do and do not remember, but I knew exactly where to go in the metro and how to buy tickets. B failed to meet me at the station, but he did obtain a bottle of excellent French wine. It was late in the evening at this point, so we began our tour of Paris virtually, by selecting Dix pour cent on Netflix – which I can absolutely recommend.
B had never been to Paris before, so we began our Friday morning with a walking tour of sorts. We took the metro up to the Sacré-Cœur, had a wander around Montmartre, and then hurried into a couscous restaurant for lunch as it began to rain. My mum had left us with a list of restaurant recommendations, many of which un-find-able, closed, or nonexistent altogether. Fortunately, there were plenty of alternatives. Having finally visited Algeria this summer, I can vouch for the fact that some of the best Algerian food in the world is actually served in France. Especially as a vegetarian among over-priced pieces of tourist-menu French meat, I highly recommend exploring North African or Middle Eastern cuisine whilst in Paris above anything else. (Behold my magnificent command of French: ‘couscous aux légumes et un verre de vin rouge, s’il vous plaît‘.)
We then proceeded down to the Champs-Élysées and all the way to the Arc de Triomphe – and back again. Rain was still coming down pretty solid, so I decided to introduce B to one of my all-time favourite bookstores: FNAC. What’s so special about it? Well, for one, it has an admirable collection of beautiful illustrated books and comic books; I do not know many stores that have as good a selection, and I always find something cool there. This time I noticed a whole new Greek-mythology inspired series that has got to go on my Christmas/Sinterklaas wishlist. Perhaps more importantly however, this is where my parents used to take me as a treat when I was little; I was allowed to choose a new book every time we went to Paris, which was just one of the most exciting things to ever happen to me I think. Parenting 101 here: somehow cause children to be excited about French books?! Granted, I usually went for books heavy on pictures and light on French, but I am sure I learned more French from this than I ever did in secondary school.
Not quite realising how exhausted we / our feet were, we marched on to the Eiffel Tower. It is moments like these you can rest assured you have ended up with the right person: B was very happy to admire this architectural wonder from a distance, edge around it slightly, and then get the hell out of the tourist trap. We had a lovely walk by the road-works along the Seine, back to the metro, and back to our hotel. As I might have let on a little already: I am not actually the biggest fan of French food. Apart from the holy trinity of course: wine, cheese, and bread. We stopped by the local supermarket to stock up on all of these and proceeded to Netflix and chill (with more Dix pour cent). The next morning – I am not sure if I got very lucky with B or if he just listens to instructions very well (probably both) – the boy went off to obtain a variation on one of my favourite French foods (bread): fresh croissants.
Since we were in Paris the first weekend of the month – which is when a lot of attractions are free – we made a very careful calculation which sites to visit in which order. We decided to sacrifice our money to Versailles, in favour of free Louvre and free Musée d’Orsay. I will let you know my opinion on this decision in a couple of paragraphs. First: Versailles. I am pretty certain that I had never actually visited Versailles, so that was pretty exciting. I imagine my parents were there once, and could never be bothered to face the horde of tourists + family price tag again? I could be wrong, and maybe we did visit, but clearly I was too young / did not find it memorable.
There are detailed instructions on the internet about the combination of metro and train to take to Versailles, which to be honest made it sound a little daunting to me? It was really fairly easy. 1) Use regular metro ticket to take metro to a station which Google maps indicates has an ‘RER C’ train 2) get a ticket to ‘Gare de Versailles Château Rive Gauche’ 3) try your best to go to ‘Château Rive Gauche’ and not ‘Versailles Rive Droite’. (Optional 4) do not panic if you end up at Versailles Rive Droite instead. We took the train back to Arche de la Defense from there; it was also fine.) Versailles, when it is not free, costs something in the region of 20 EUR. P.S. Bring a packed lunch, there’s no where (good/affordable) to eat in there.
For those of you who do not know, Versailles was the residence of the French royal family from 1682 until the French Revolution in 1789. It was home to a couple of famous kings, mostly called Louis, not to mention Marie-Antoinette. It is absolutely an astonishing complex, with art, statues and golden trimmings everywhere. I also enjoyed some of the flamboyant cushion-matching-the-wallpaper interior designs Versailles has going on. The grounds are ridiculous, and we quickly realised that renting a bike would have been a very good idea (albeit way too expensive, when we checked out of curiousity later). We spent around 4 hours there before feeling too exhausted and overwhelmed to continue. Because it was March none of the flowers or trees were blooming or green, so I suspect a visit in summer would be lovely; however, if this was ‘not so busy’ then I do not really want to know what busy means. (Btw, I am just very good at taking photos without people in them. I can assure you, there were people there.)
So, next, we elected to visit the Louvre during La Nocturne du Samedi. Crazy? Yep. For one, we just spent the entire day walking up and down Versailles (keep in mind it is not just a palace; the royal family purchased a couple of villages), so our feet were numb. For two, it was insanely crowded. We got to the queue when the free night opened, on the dot – and faced a queue throughout the entire Carrousel underground (we thought it might be better than Pyramide?). We queued for c. 45 minutes. That’s ok, we made it. Then, the gallery leading up to the Mona Lisa was just a wall of people. Fortunately, as I mentioned before, B’s interests do occasionally align with mine: so we legged it out of there, in search of quieter galleries. One of the biggest disappointments of the evening, for me, was that the Iraq gallery was closed. However, the Palmyra gallery was accessible in all its glory, and also completely devoid of crowds. Personally, having visited the Louvre many times before, I enjoyed the novelty of the night-time experience. You see the building in a different light (literally ha) and it really did have a sense of ‘night at the museum’. However, B having never been before, I am not sure this was our brightest decision. For a first-time visit, this was just too chaotic.
On our last day, we headed down to the Notre-Dame. It feels odd to write about it now, because I could have never guessed it would burn down only a month later. I am so grateful to have had another look at it, before so much of it was destroyed. It does make me think of Palmyra however: it is a really well-studied building, it has survived centuries of conflict and damage, and we are lucky enough to have 3D-scans that preserve the structure digitally at least. All is not lost.
After our visit we tried to walk down the Boulevard Saint-Michel because I wanted to visit Gibert Jodesph and the other bookstores there. Unfortunately, Sunday is not a good day for this in Paris. Everything was closed. Instead, we tracked back to the Shakespeare and Company bookshop just across Notre Dame. Ooh I have to say – it was not a tourist attraction, when I used to visit it, when I was little. There were a lot of people instagramming around the place (despite clear signs asking visitors not to take photographs). Shakespeare is a very unique, and old, English-language bookshop, and I was going to recommend it as a cute hidden gem to visit. While it is still good to visit, it is definitely not a secret any more (was it ever?).
We took a couple turns in the wrong direction and ended up at the Jardin des Plantes. We took the opportunity to stroll back down to Musée d’Orsay along the Seine. I love all the little stalls selling art and books there. Sure some of it starts to look the same after a while and post-cards are probably over-priced, but there are also some really special items there if you look well enough. We saw some wonderful old maps, that could never survive the trip back to London in my backpack.
We decided to aim for a post-lunch/late afternoon visit to the free Musée d’Orsay, hoping the queues would be less crazy then. We were wrong, the queues were crazy. I think we waited 30-45 minutes to get in, which was fine; but we did then only have 1.5 hours until the museum closed. It was just about enough to show B some of my favourite galleries (van Gogh) but a little stressful than I would have liked. The crowds were pretty crazy again as well, but I think they are most days really, so unless you manage a Wednesday at 9am I think that is just a fact of life in Paris and it does not bother me too much. Moral of the story? If you are in Paris the 1st weekend of the month, do make use of all the free things. However, try, if you can, to just not visit Paris on a 1st weekend of the month. I do not mean to sound so negative by the way! We had a really lovely time, and apart from perhaps slightly less walking, I would not change anything.
Until next time, Paris!