Paris is a city you always heard about when growing up, and of course, a place I always wanted to go. A place that is stereotypically known for the iconic Eiffel Tower, escargots, rude / arrogant Parisians, delicious bread and the Louvre for the Mona Lisa. These few things were unfortunately all I really knew about Paris, so I was keen to read up and learn more about the so-called ‘City of Love’.
We had planned a lengthy stay in Paris, so decided to split our time in two different places. For our first 5 nights, we stayed in an apartment in Dupleix, where you could actually look up at the Eiffel Tower from the street. It was pretty surreal experience when we first arrived and realised this was our accommodation.
I’d been told about a recent trend towards free walking tours all over Europe from my boss at work, so thought we’d give it a go. I picked the Sandemans free walking tour (one of the better known companies), which turned out to be an extremely good introduction to the city. How these free tours work is that a young and enthusiastic guide walks you around the city, stopping to share historical stories, facts about the local way of life and other interesting items of note. At the end of the tour you tip the guide an amount you think is deserving of the tour provided.
Our guide for the day was a young Dutch guy who had lived in Paris for about two years. Initially we thought it might have been a mistake going with someone other than a French person, but as the tour wound on we realised the enthusiasm and passion of a person who has fallen in love with a city is often greater than someone who has lived there their whole life.
We started in Saint Michel and headed west out of the centre passing by everything of note including the Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre Museum, D’Orsay Museum, Revolution Square to the end of the Champs Elysees. While history doesn’t look all that favourably on Napoleon, our guide told some impressive stories about reform that he created for the French people. Fittingly he finished the tour with an amazing story about how close Paris came to ruin at the end of World War II. When Hitler had realised the end was near, he ordered his second in charge to burn Paris to the ground. The legend goes that a well-respected diplomat got to Hitler’s lieutenant and pleaded would he rather be remembered as “the man who destroyed Paris” or “the man who saved it”. Wisely he called off the destruction, and Hitler was dead within weeks. Telling this story almost brought our guide to tears. His passion had our entire group enchanted, and he was tipped accordingly.
The next day we focussed our wandering around the Eiffel Tower. It is a pretty spectacular monument, and wherever you walk around the city, you always catch glimpses of it between streets, or over the top of buildings. We’d read some horror stories about waiting 2-3 hours in the queue for the lift, so decided to walk the 674 stairs up the tower. The line is half as long and half price.
For something a little different, we make the journey to the outskirts of the city to the Longchamp racecourse (they call it a hippodrome which I thought was very funny). Longchamp is home to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – Europe’s richest and most prestigious race. It was a mid-week race day, so there was only a couple of hundred people there. The racecourse was absolutely gorgeous. And it’s a lot cheaper than back home. Only $2 to get in – we were allowed to take in our own French picnic and only about $4 for a beer or a mini bottle of wine / champagne. Unfortunately we don’t have much luck on the betting front – it’s hard to pick a winner in English, let alone another language. If anything though, it was a very quick way for Aaron to learn his numbers in French.
That night we head to a highly rated one man comedy show called ‘How to Become a Parisian in One Hour’ – apparently the only English speaking show in Paris. It’s a French guy who teaches the main traits of a Parisian person and does this by comparing the American versus Parisian ways of acting in certain situations. This includes commuting on a train, being served in a clothes shop, asking for the cheque at a restaurant and dancing in a night club. Turns out most the crowd is French as well – to get an understanding of the nights audience he cleverly starts the show by conducting the French national anthem to find out how many sing along. The show is a very funny, and provides for many laughs when witnessing these situations over the next week of our stay.
Over the coming days we walk the Champ Elysees, see the amazing Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame cathedrals and go to the Musee D’Orsay. The latter was a tip from our tour guide in preference to the Louvre, as it is cheaper, shorter line, with a more concentrated collection of classic artwork. He also suggests that a lot of the romance is taken out of seeing the Mona Lisa when you are crammed into a room with a thousand other people trying to take a photo of a surprisingly small painting off in the distance. The Musee D’Orsay is inside an old train station building which in itself is beautiful to look at.
For our last night in Dupleix we get to properly experience the ‘City Of Lights’ by taking a night time boat ride up the Seine river. It finishes of course in front of the Eiffel Tower just in time for one of its stunning sparkling light shows.
For the second half of our time, we relocate to a less touristy part of Paris – a ‘village’ in the city called Republique. This area has a young student vibe and our cute little studio overlooks a bustling intersection packed with restaurants, bars and cafes. People come and go all day and long into the night.
We make an evening trip to Montmartre up on the hill north of the city. This is an area famous for housing the Parisian artists and alternative crowd during the late 19th and early 20th century. Most of the artists were struggling or impoverished and chose to live here as it was outside the city jurisdiction, which allowed them to avoid taxes and pay cheaper rent. For now it’s biggest drawcard is the beautiful Basilica of Sacre Coeur up on the hill, which gives a spectacular view across the city. At the base of the hill is the Pigalle neighbourhood – the main ‘red-light’ district and home to the Moulin Rouge. We’d heard many mixed reviews about the current Moulin Rouge show so opt for one of its cabaret competitors Le Nouvelle Eve. A thoroughly enjoyable night, despite the room being filled with a drunken Australian Contiki tour.
For an area we had heard so much about, the nightlife on the main street seemed surprisingly quiet (and dodgy), so we head back to Republique which is overflowing with locals drinking in pubs and on the street. We join the street party and end up meeting lots of great French people as well as other nationalities. We try and speak broken English / French, although miming and dancing seem to be much easier ways to communicate. Aaron’s favourite place is ‘My Woodie’, an old surfie-themed hole in the wall bar playing on ly 50’s and 60’s surf music, with ‘The Endless Summer’ on repeat on the TV. It is so kitsch and quirky that it just works.
This night out highlights something very interesting for us – like the angry rushing New Yorker, the rude arrogant Parisian also seems to be a myth. We asked around about this, and it seems that Parisians and French people in general like to think they are educated and sophisticated. Therefore, any outsiders who come into their country and make an effort to embrace their language and culture will receive a warm response. Turning up and asking ‘do you speak English’ or ‘where is the Champ Ulysses?’ will get a more stereotypical response. English is becoming more and more common, but we still made the effort to attempt French. More often than not, this was met with a smile and a response in English – but this could be something to do with the fact we were not American or British.
The French bread is so good, and crunchy baguettes become a staple very quickly. Armed with a baguette and a growing beard, Aaron was starting to look more and more like a real Frenchman.
Around the corner from our apartment in Republique, is the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Many noble and famous people are resting here, such as artists, scientists and authors (Oscar Wilde for one). The cemetery has lots of huge family tombs and the grounds are beautifully set out. The cemetery is also home to the grave site of Jim Morrison from The Doors, who was living in France when he died of a suspected drug overdose. This was a must-visit for Aaron.
Following a tip given to us from a couple we met in London, we visit the Paris Catacombs. We line up for an hour or so out on a normal looking Paris street and take a long spiral staircase 20 metres below ground. From there you walk through a long narrow corridor for about 15 minutes until you are confronted with a remarkable sight – the remains of six million Parisians, stacked in 800 metres of tunnels and corridors.
The Catacombs were created at the end of the 18th century to serve as an ossuary. In 1780 Paris’s largest cemetery, the Cimetiere des Saints-Innocents, was closed for public health reasons. In 1785, the Council of State issued an order requiring the removal of human remains. It was decided that bones from all of the city’s cemeteries would be stored in disused limestone quarries. After about 20 years of randomly dumping the bones, the layout of the Catacombs was given more structure divided each side of a long tunnel. Plaques were positioned telling of which cemetery and the year the remains were brought in. This was truly an eerie experience.
On a lighter note, we also did the cheesy lock bridge thing, where you come to the bridge with your loved one – for your love to be eternal you fix a padlock to the bridge and throw the key into the river. We were in the City of Love after all, plus I couldn’t believe how many locks there were on the bridge (Mum – sorry but this was the spare lock and key you gave to me incase I needed it for my bag!). I thought the combination locks on the bridge were hilarious, but I guess very realistic of the statistics of marriages nowadays.
For our last night in Paris we dine at a typical French bistro down by the River Seine, which was super cute. From our table out the front we look straight across to the Notre Dame Cathedral.
The City of Love had proven to be much more than that. Learning of its rich history showed me why it is such a popular and well-preserved city. No surprise it is the most visited tourist destination in the world. We spent ten days there and still could have filled another ten.