After our three days in Barcelona, Leigh and I took a night train to Paris. We spent two full days in the City of Lights, and loved every minute of it!
When our train arrived in Paris early on the morning of July 28th, I was not expecting the emotional day that was about to follow. While nothing disastrous happened, I can safely say I underestimated the beauty of Paris, the heat of Spanish and French summers, and the stress of traveling, navigating, and dehydration. It was an eventful day that ended just as high as it started low.
When our train arrived at 9AM Leigh and I navigated our way to Le Regent Hostel in Montmartre. We had both prepared ourselves for a Parisian experience which we expected to be extremely unpleasant – both of us had had several friends who warned us of French rudeness and apparent disdain for Americans and tourists in general. Imagine our surprise when instead of being greeted with rudeness, we were greeted by an extremely kind French gentleman who (without any solicitation) drew us a direct map to our hostel less than two minutes off the train! After taking the metro to Montmartre Leigh and I walked up the stairs to the main street and were greeted by a classic “metropolitain” entrance sign and a tourism information kiosk. The people at the desk knew exactly where our hostel was (right across the street, as it turned out) and were once again very kind and helpful. Beginning with these examples Leigh and I both continued to be surprised at 1) the apparent popularity of our hostel (everyone seemed to know where it was) and 2) the politeness and friendliness shown to us by every French person we interacted with throughout our time in Paris. We’re not sure if this was a fluke, but we were very happy to beat the stereotypes!
Since our hostel would not allow us to check into our rooms until 4PM (most hostels have lock-out hours where guests are kicked out to allow management to clean), Leigh and I put our backpacks into a storage room and headed out to see the Arc de Triomphe and the Avenue Champs Elysees. On our way down the stairs of the metro we heard screams and the crashing of breaks, then a man came running up the stairs screaming for help – someone had ended up underneath a train seconds before we could reach the platform. The scene was complicated by a disagreement over whether the man had been pushed during/after a scuffle involving a piece of luggage. We’re still not sure whether it was an attempted suicide, botched robbery or accidental/attempted killing (we don’t know whether the man survived), but it was an extremely upsetting beginning to our first day in the city (for me, at least).
Trying to forget our metro experience Leigh and I soon arrived at the Arc de Triomphe and marveled at the sheer size of the structure. The roundabout surrounding the Arc is several lanes thick with almost none of the lanes properly marked – I have no idea how people manage to avoid killing themselves or others while attempting to navigate that road! The sky was a brilliant shade of blue and big puffy white clouds were drifting along, making it the ideal setting for pictures. The sidewalk was already packed with tourists and we had to move several times to avoid getting the heads of random people stuck in our precious photos. This did not even remotely work.
After a few minutes of photo-taking we headed down the Champs Elysees, window-shopping and laughing about the way the trees had been pruned into perfect rectangles. We turned right onto Avenue Winston Churchill and walked past a statute of Charles de Gaulle, the Grand Palais, and the Petit Palais before stopping on Pont Alexandre III to look at the picturesque view of the Eiffel Tower framed perfectly in the distance. It was our first view of the Tower in Paris! After another bout of tourist frenzy we headed up the street, onto the metro and back to Montmartre to eat at an adorable little brasserie we had seen right next to our hostel. (Leigh and I were anxious to be close by our hostel at exactly 4PM, since we had not had the opportunity to shower since the morning before and we were smelly and dirty from two days of walking in the hot Spanish/French sun). I ordered a glass of red wine with lunch (it was cheaper than soda!) and was floored by how utterly delicious it was. I also ordered a plate of chicken which was so perfectly cooked it melted off the bone and into your mouth. As my first Parisian food experience, words cannot do it justice. I’m drooling now writing this!
One of the best things about the location of our hostel was that it was within 5-minute’s walking distance of the Basilique du Sacré Cœur (!), one of Paris’s most famous cathedrals. The huge, white, domed church sits on top of a green terraced hill overlooking the entire city, and you have to climb a long series of steps to get to it. The church has had perpetual 24-hour prayer taking place inside since 1885, and apparently it also contains Jesus’ sacred heart (hence the cathedral’s name). Leigh and I decided to spend the last hour or so before we could check into our hostel climbing the stairs to the cathedral and looking down over the panoramic view of the city. I loved the double-decker carousel that sat at the base of the church lawns, and both of us smiled at the street performer dressed like some kind of strange gargoyle/jester who was taking a break from performing to admire the view.
When 4PM finally arrived we ran back to the hostel to take our showers and were surprised to discover that our hostel room came complete with an ensuite bathroom! We reveled in washing off the grime of two cities and a train and then took our time getting ready, eventually making our way over to the Eiffel Tower around 7PM with the intention of climbing it. The Tower was already illuminated for the evening and we both stopped in utter amazement for a few minutes before we tore ourselves away to eat at a restaurant just one block away. The experience that followed was definitely an adventure. Both of us ordered from the set dinner menu since it came with a fixed price and included an appetizer. Wanting to sample an authentic dish, we each ordered “terrine de canard” as an appetizer, which the waiter seemed very impressed with and complimented us on (in his words, “very good choice!”) Imagine our surprise when this actually turned out to be a spam-like substance that tasted and smelled like cat food! Needless to say, we were not fans. Likewise, when our bill came we were surprised to find that our medium Cokes had cost us a whopping 8.50€ each! Of course the one time we failed to look at the drink prices we got slammed with something pretty outrageous.
After dinner we headed over to ogle the Eiffel Tower some more and decided that we would rather climb it during the day when we could really appreciate the panoramic view of the city. Instead we trekked over to the Musee du Quai Branly to get a really good view of the tower – the plaza was filled with street performers playing Celine Dion hits on traditional Central American panpipes (don’t ask me why), circus performers throwing fireworks, and tourists battling each other to get the best view for taking pictures. We stayed for the famous light show, where once an hour the Tower lights up like disco ball and glitters for a few minutes – we felt like we were at Disney! It was a magical first night in Paris.
Early on the morning of July 29th Leigh and I took the metro from Montmartre to the Musee du Louvre – we had purchased tickets the day before in order to avoid the line, and boy were we glad we did! When we got to the museum around 10AM the courtyard was basically deserted, which meant we got some great pictures of I. M. Pei’s famous glass pyramid before the tourists started swarming. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and we were so excited to be able to enter the museum without having to queue with the quickly-growing crowd.
In the 5 or so hours that we spent in the Louvre Leigh and I were able to visit every floor and at least part of nearly every wing. We saw about half of the objects highlighted in our guide, including famous paintings such as the Mona Lisa (L. de Vinci), The Wedding Feast at Cana (Veronese), The Raft of the Medusa (T. Gericault), The Lacemaker (J. Vermeer), and The Card-Sharer (G. de La Tour), as well as the Winged Victory of Samothrace and Aphrodite/ Venus de Milo. Some of my favorite exhibits were the Rubens Room and the Napoleon III apartments, which consisted of a series of decorated rooms from his Grand Salon. The decadence and detail of the rooms is completely overwhelming (you can see a virtual tour of it here). I also really enjoyed the walk through the medieval moat underneath the museum, which allowed you walk through the remnants of the castle the current museum is built on. Around lunchtime we ate in the Café Richelieu on the 1st floor of the museum and I couldn’t stop myself from ordering quiche lorraine, wine and chocolate mousse (yummmmmm). We browsed the gift shop and some of its incredible objects (you can buy a huge stone statue of the Buddha for 2000€!) and left feeling very accomplished despite only seeing the highlights. People are definitely not exaggerating the sheer size of the museum or its contents – I would probably suggest visiting the museum over multiple days if possible, since even trying to take in one room at a time is often overwhelming and desensitizing. By the end of our few hours there it was hard to appreciate the level of art we were experiencing due to the fact that all of it was crammed into one building within close proximity of thousands of other masterpieces.
When we finally left the museum Leigh and I headed down the Seine towards Pont Neuf (Paris’s oldest bridge). We stopped at some of the small market stalls along the water in order to buy postcards and generally enjoyed the blue sky and beautiful Parisian weather. We saw the Palais Justice and wandered into a little hidden garden market full of quaint bird houses, potted plants, and garden ornaments. Eventually we found our way to the Notre Dame and took some time to go inside and walk the length of the cathedral. The church was absolutely full of people but a boy’s choir was singing a hauntingly beautiful hymn as we walked and it was a reverent, inspiring experience despite the crowds.
After the Notre Dame Leigh and I headed back to the metro station and hopped a train to the Eiffel Tower. This time we actually made it to the top, first by walking up the stairs to the second level and then by taking the elevator to the top (the elevator is the only way to get up once you reach the second platform). On the first platform they have an area of Astroturf complete with lawn chairs (yes, people were laying in them catching some sun). There is also a restaurant, gift shop, restroom, and kids area including a cut-out cartoon character named Gus. Once we got to the second floor we waited about an hour in the very cold wind in order to catch an elevator up, but whole experience only cost us 8.50€, far less than we expected! On top of the tower we made sure that we walked the entire 360° of the building and watched as the sun started to set. We attempted to take a series of self-portraits but generally failed, and a couple nice people took photos for us. One of the more creepy displays I have ever seen in my life is actually situated right on top of the Eiffel Tower, where they have erected a re-creation of Eiffel’s office (complete with life-sized dummies in extra creepy positions behind pillars and various office objects). My photos do not do it justice. As we were preparing to descend and taking our last few photos of each other Leigh and I were also flattered by the presence of a slightly-balding, greasily charming Middle Eastern man who called himself Aladdin. Seeing that I was taking a picture of Leigh he walked up and insisted that they have a picture together on both Leigh’s camera and his own, and asked whether her name was Jasmine (“Is your name Jasmine?” “No, why?” “Because I’m Aladdin and I came to Paris to find my Jasmine.” Cue nervous laughter and edging away.) A few seconds later he noticed I was there and said, “Oh, another one!” (oh thanks, how flattering!) and took a picture with me after saying I was beautiful and should be in movies. His attempts to “make the photo more romantic” didn’t work out, but Leigh and I both managed to be told we were beautiful on top of the Eiffel Tower! And that, my friends, is what I consider a success.
After our Tower experience Leigh and I headed back to our hostel in Montmartre to enjoy a late dinner at another nearby café. We had a decadent combination of wine, latte, nutella-filled crepes and crème brulee for dessert (Orangina for Leigh – her first!) and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves laughing about stories from the day. Then we headed back to go to sleep prepare ourselves for an early train to Brussels Midi!