It was a whirlwind four days of walking place to place, wandering up and down and over and through the maze of passageways and staircases of the Metropolitan, finding crepe after baguette after pan chocolate, standing in lines, finding ways to avoid lines, beautiful scenery, rich history, breathtaking views and city lights, always people bustling about, crashing into each other, meeting each other, pickpocketing, panhandling and street selling – all in all, Paris is lovely, and is very much a very, very large, old city.
Often times my friend and I would have that feeling that I just love to have. That sense of being lost but knowing exactly where you are, of “how did we get here?” and a sense of pure, dumb luck.
The Métropolitain de Paris
Another city in and of itself with it’s streets and alleys and shops and dark corners, the Métro de Paris is the Paris underground. It is the stark reminder that Paris, despite its romanticization, is a big, old, dirty city, filled with saints and criminals alike. It’s quite efficient for getting around, yes, and one does notice that at the main tourist stops that someone must have taken a mop and an eye for design to it within the last year or two. Otherwise… my friend and I managed to describe our Metro experience in that, “it smells… so… human.”
By far my favorite quarter of Paris. Shops and restaurants with red glowing neon signs in cursive script reflect a rosy glow on the narrow cobblestone streets, as tourists and citizens of the upstanding and seedy type alike bustle about buying, chatting, eating, and being plainly human. In Montmartre, the mount upon which Sacré-Coeur stands protrudes above the tall, crammed yet luxurious apartments of the quarter, and one can find a breathtaking view of Paris, one which, in my opinion, beats the view from the Eiffel Tower, hands down. My friend and I had the opportunity to visit and climb to the top of the mount twice (well, once we took the train up the mount, as it was free after 6pm on New Years Eve). On our New Years Eve visit, a nighttime visit, the city sparkled, as did the light show at the Eiffel Tower, which one can clearly see from the mount. On the steps up to Sacré-Coeur a choir sang Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” and we had one of those moments that makes you stop and think, “Wow, how lucky am I to be here?”
This train of thought continued as we walked back down the long staircase on the mount to grab a Croque Monsieur to munch on, and continue on down the pedestrian walkway to the Moulin Rouge, a boulevard overrun with bright neon signs advertising “Sex Shop!” and “Sexy Ladies!” We finally arrived at the windmills of Le Moulin Rouge, and after taking that in a bit, decided to stop for a 8pm café crema at a café just across the street. Again we came to the realization of our own overwhelming “Parisian-ness:” drinking coffee, by the Moulin Rouge, both dressed rather French, and smoking a cigarette, basked in the red glow of our environment.
This cemetery was a total downer! No, but seriously, it’s a bit odd thinking about visiting a massive cemetery on a trip to Paris, but I would wholeheartedly recommend it. It is massive, and you can spend hours wandering around the family tombs and gravestones and contemplating your own relatively short existence on this planet. One never wanders on exactly the same route twice as you can weave amongst the tombstones and find your own path, your own way from point A to point B. Of course, some recommended point A’s and B’s would be the tomb of Jim Morrison (The Doors), Edith Piaf (a lovely classic French singer with a rather tragic life and death), and the tomb of Oscar Wilde (my favorite tomb of all).
How can a tomb become a favorite tomb, you may ask? Well, you see, for years it has been tradition to kiss the tomb of Oscar Wilde, and of course, many of these lips had lipstick on them. What the gravekeepers came to find out over the years was that the chemicals in the lipstick began to slowly eat away at the stone, and even though the rain and wind and years has washed the makeup away, you can still see the etched-in marks of the lip prints in the solid rock. It’s lovely, and just how Mr. Wilde would have wanted it, in my mind. And now the tombstone is enclosed in a glass box, which is, of course, covered in lipstick kisses.
Arc de Triomphe & Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Word of the wise: Don’t try to cross the street that circles the Arc de Triomphe: You will die. Please use the stairs and the tunnel that takes you under the street to the Arc. Thank you. The Arc is massive and impressive, but in all honestly, I didn’t spend more than a few minutes there. It was the former grand entrance to the city, there’s the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and tourists. Right by the Arc is the Champs-Élysées. It’s long, it’s wide, it’s a shoppers paradise, it’s crowded as hell, and despite it being lovely and all, wasn’t really my scene. But it certainly took long enough walking down it, weaving amongst hungry people, begging people, shopping people, and people with shopping carts selling roasted chestnuts. In the least, it was a straight shot to the Place de la Concorde, La Grande Roue (Wheel of Paris), and some lovely gardens near the Louvre.
As has surely been said in many, many guidebooks, one can get lost for days in the maze of contemporary, classic and ancient art at the Louvre. We went on a Friday evening, and had decided to stay until it closed at 10:00pm (it’s open later on Fridays). As we approached, saw the famous glass pyramid and the massiveness of everything (including the line) and took a shortcut through another entrance of the Louvre: its shopping center (yes, they have one). A 10 minute wait vs. a 2 hour wait; it’s good to have clever friends in France. So we began our tour first through the Greek, Roman, and Hellenistic sculptures and pottery, unfortunately having it a bit tainted by the actions of a few fellow tourists who would experience a work of art by leaning on it, having a picture taken in front of it, and walking away – an annoyance that was hard to shake.
Encountered a sculpture room with some sort of wretched ceiling painting in blue, which we complained about as if our own taste would be better. Many incredulous statements were articulated. Naturally we saw the Venus de Milo, which was all most folks with excellent cameras seemed to care about. We then approached our mutually favorite section, the 18th and 19th century French painters, capturing biblical scenes and Romanesque tales of suffering, bravery and struggle, many of which were painted by Jacques Louis David, and stretched from floor to ceiling.
Being then a few hours in, we decided to take a quick break to assess our priorities, paid too much for a few 0,33L Heinekens, and decided that we better see the Mona Lisa. What could be described as a “flash mob” (get it?) flanked every side of the massive wall holding the relatively small, smirking, unassuming Mona Lisa, and I felt like I was at a punk rock show, trying to mosh pit my way to the front to take a good look. Then on to the Dutch and German painters. Unfortunately, my Albrecht Dürer self-portrait was unavailable for viewing. The Egyptian section was fascinating, as was the idea of an ancient mummy being captured on photo via an iPhone. Oh, how things change. With the announcements in multiple languages that “the museum is about to close,” we took a quick swing by Napolean’s lush pad (i.e. his furniture, throne, tables, chandeliers and so on) and left soon thereafter. We went, then, to get a coffee – we needed something to help us digest it all.
Pro-Tip: Believe in the power of the secret “second entrance,” and seek it out. Tourists are, usually, as dumb as they look (crowd mentality, I guess). Don’t spend your time waiting in line with them.
It’s beautiful and I love it and it reminds me of home. I hope to sit on one of it’s bridges sometime this summer with a picnic lunch and a glass of wine and just soak it in. I hear that’s the thing to do. I’d recommend walking along the water as we did, after visiting the Notre Dame. Then maybe heading over to the Latin Quarter.
So my friend and I had a couple options to celebrate New Years in Paris. Some other friends in town were headed to the Eiffel Tower to crack open a bottle of champagne and enjoy the fireworks show* – surely, as was later confirmed, amongst many a tourist and perhaps a few rowdy individuals. Another option was to go with our host to a NYE party with him and some friends at his friends place in the outskirts of Paris. Then, of course, we could do a bit of both, we thought. As it turned out, we went to our host’s friend’s place and had a really lovely time enjoying lots of tasty food that our host had worked hard to prepare all day (I just couldn’t get enough of all the ham, cheese, egg and flaky crusted things they have going on over there!) and drinks, and music, and dancing, and ridiculous party favors, and antics, and all that. And wonderfully enough, the balcony had an excellent view of the Eiffel Tower! It took me a couple days to get all of the confetti out of my hair that had been tossed around in wild, celebratory abandon. Suffice to say, we had a great New Years Eve.
As our entire Paris group got together in the morning for coffee to update each other on the previous night’s events, we found out hat our other friends that had went to the Tower ended up having their champagne confiscated, and being sexually harassed and groped by groups of men as they walked the Champs-Élysées. Not my idea of a night! Oh, and: * There was no fireworks show. And since were on the subject…
La Tour Eiffel
I’m going to give it to you straight: 95% of your time at the Eiffel Tower will be spent waiting in line. That said, bring a sandwich, grab a coffee, and get ready for the long haul. It is, truly, a test of one’s patience and sanity, minute by achingly-long minute slowly ticking by as you move one step, one step, two steps. Try to keep in mind that you are not actually in Purgatory, it just seems like it at the time, and it’ll be worth it.
Moving on. The second level is a wonderful enough view, 360 degrees of Paris, the city stretching outward as far as the eye can see, the tall, white buildings of condensed city living, with tiny alleys and streets cutting through them like someone took a butter knife to them to create throughways. You can see the particularly well the golden statues atop the building where Napolean was buried, as they sparkle in the sunlight. We were lucky enough to have a nice, sunny clear day for our visit to the Tower.
Perhaps we were a bit naive. I just know that, if there’s a next time – I’m taking the stairs.
Food in Paris is about what one would expect. The only consumables we found affordable were from the street vendors. Crêpes crêpes crêpes, all sorts of crêpes: With cheese and mushrooms, with ham, egg and cheese, with nutella and bananas – and so on. There were also baguettes, of course, which are as long as your forearm and stuffed with various veggies, cheeses and meats. If you have them grill it, it’s a “panini.” A magical transformation.
Also worth a mention is the Croque Monsieur, which is this wonderful cheese oozy creation – simple enough, it’s two toasted slices of bread with ham and melty cheese in the middle, and then melty cheese on the outside. If cheesiness could punch you in the face…
And, let’s be honest here, I was a bit too poor to drink beers at pubs in Paris. It’s not cheap, and found myself thinking “they’d *never” charge this much for beer in Germany!” quite a few times. Wine was the better deal, and so, for a few days, I was more of a wine drinker. “Roughin’ it.”
What Else is There to Say?
Paris is the type of place where you look around in awe, as you then look back to watch your pockets. When sitting at a restaurant, you may very well wait 45 minutes for one drink (as we did) despite reminding the waiter twice of your order. At this same location flower peddlers may come by, begging your romantic side, and after declining, return after 20 minutes to peddle again because they simply see too many faces in a day to recall them. It’s huge, sexy, hectic, and dirty specimen of a European city, and it definitely made an impression on me. And I liked it.
And that, my friends, was my Paris experience in a nutshell.