Home > Germany, Personal > La Ville-Lumière: A Long Weekend in Paris

La Ville-Lumière: A Long Weekend in Paris

To La Belle France

There are so many words written about Paris, nearly as many as the number of pictures taken at and of the Eiffel Tower. My four or so days there confirmed that the reputation of the “City of Lights” is well-deserved, even if it also confirmed every negative French stereotype I had ever heard of, and several I was unaware were stereotypes. But c’est la vie as the French might say. Here’s my own story of a long-weekend in Paris.

I had been discussing a trip for a while now with Claire, a friend I studied journalism with back at the University of Arizona. I hadn’t seen her since I had graduated (she was a year behind me) but had been in contact with her on and off, more so since I arrived in Europe because she has been working as a teacher in Malaga, Spain since fall. Our original plan was to go to Rome, but between scheduling, airfare, and other concerns, our plans shifted to Paris. As there are plenty of places I have never been in Europe, one was as good as the other to me, and indeed it seemed like a good time to go since it would be warm, but not yet the really heavy tourist season (not that there is ever really a non-tourist season in a place like Paris).

Rain in Germany, Night Bus and Three Ducks in France

And so last Wednesday, I left work to catch a nighttime flight to Paris. The weather in Munich on my way was truly awful, simply pouring rain, and despite my best efforts, I was soaked by the time I reached the airport. Munich’s airport is fairly low-stress luckily, especially with inter-European flights so I got to the gate in plenty of time. Unfortunately the rain was slowing everything down and we took off around half an hour later than our original flight time. I was tired enough to sleep straight through the flight, waking only on touchdown in Paris a little before eleven at night (Munich is wonderfully central, a less than two-hour flight to Paris isn’t bad at all). Though I had theoretically arrived in plenty of time to catch the Metro to the city (Charles de Gaulle airport is about thirty kilometers outside the city) the station was already closed (an annoying theme to Europe in general) and with great trepidation I got on the night bus. It only took us as far as the first transfer station on the Metro, which I was happy to see still running. It took me well over an hour to finally get to the hostel, the Three Ducks, near Montparnasse south (the Left Bank) of the Seine River.

Walking into the bar that fronted the sleeping area, I saw Claire (who looked like the last two years hadn’t happened at all, to the point where I made a Dorian Grey joke) and said hello. We checked into our room (Claire changed our booking to two nights and said she’d found a cheap hotel for the last three because the place was kind of grimy, and I agreed) and went with a fellow Claire had met at the bar to try and find a light night bite. We failed, but that was okay with me as I was far more tired than hungry. It was fin catching up a bit with Claire and hearing about the bartender/hostel desk runner’s attempt to hit on her using magic tricks. When we got back to the hostel we went fairly quickly to bed in a room across the inner courtyard. The bartender had apparently moved on to another girl staying at the hostel (with what looked like more success) I noted on the way. We fell asleep to the sounds of a group of Americans discussing how much they liked France and French culture even though they didn’t know the language. Irony apparently was not something they were familiar with.

Don’t Fall in the River, you don’t want to be in Seine

The next morning, Claire and I had originally planned to wake up early and go to the Eiffel Tower. We were so tired and frankly slow-moving though that by the time we got there the lines were already discouragingly long. We decided to put it off until Saturday and instead walked along the Seine, looking at sights and generally enjoying the incredibly hot and sunny weather. After a while we were hungry and our feet had started to hurt (a real theme of the whole weekend actually) so we took the Metro to eastern Paris to a market street recommended by my handy-dandy Lonely Planet guide to Paris that I had downloaded to my iPod for free when they were giving them away during the first volcano eruption.

Like every other visitor to Paris I suppose, I was entranced by the way bakeries, butchers, cheese shops, and fruit stands were laid out almost cheek by jowl all along the street. Though less efficient of course than a supermarket, and probably less quaint in a corporate “all these stores are owned by one company” way, it made getting lunch an experience in itself as we bought bread, cheese, and cherries at different shops and made our way to one of the many small parks infusing Paris with greenery to sit and eat. The picturesque atmosphere broke a bit when a park guard told us to get off the grass, but it was still a wonderful time. We went to a nearby coffee shop afterward so that Claire could get her afternoon caffeine fix while I had a phone interview for a possible post-Germany job.

When I was done we went to the Montparnasse cemetery to look at the graves of such illustrious figures as Simone de Beauvoir and Alfred Dreyfus, which was particularly moving for me to look at and think back on the enormous events that this otherwise dull man was inadvertently responsible for causing.

The sun was setting by the time we left the cemetery and it was time for us to head back to the river for the hour-long river tour we had purchased tickets for earlier. The tour was great. Sailing west and then back and farther east than where we boarded, the tour had a recorded guide explaining the various sights in several languages. Claire, who is fluent in Spanish, told me about the discrepancies between that version of the tour and the English one. Apparently the Spanish tour was rather more comprehensive and detailed. Had we thought ahead, we would have brought drinks or food like many around us did (my favorite moment being when somebody blasted a champagne cork and hit the underside of the bridge we were passing under). Other than that lack, the tour was great and well worth the ten Euros we paid, although I would have been interested in the dinner cruise the company offered were it not rather outrageously expensive.

We got a bit lost on the Metro on our way back, due to both fatigue and hunger. We did get to see the nightly Eiffel Tower light show though, which made everything feel more…Parisian to me. Luckily there was any number of open restaurants where we emerged from the train. I was shocked to realize when we sat down how late it had gotten, already eleven. In fact, we were so tired that it was hard to remember that we should probably eat too. We ended up splitting a steak (French meat is great) and salad before staggering back to the hostel, and after waking up our hostel roommates (which we had also done the night before, though to be fair it wasn’t a hostel for quiet people who go to bed early) managed to get to our beds and immediately fall asleep.

This is Paris, It Used to be a City; Now It’s a Museum

Claire and I arose and had another leisurely period of getting ready on Friday, checking out of the hostel but leaving our bags there so we didn’t have to carry them around all day. In Prague I had been forced into going on a free city tour run by a company called New Europe and to my surprise had a wonderful time. As Claire and I had no specific plans for the day, I suggested we do the one they offered in Paris, three and a half hours walking around the city and costing just whatever amount of tip you wanted to give the guide. She agreed and we headed to Saint Michael’s Church to meet the group. It was again incredibly sunny and hot, so first we stopped by a pharmacy to get sunscreen. Alas like all such things in Europe, sunscreen was rather more expensive than we would have hoped but we found a cheaper type whose only drawback was that it was blue until rubbed in because it was designed for kids and kids apparently want to look like Smurfs. There was quite a large crowd waiting for the tour, not too surprisingly and the guides split us up into smaller more manageable groups of about twenty. Our guide was named Arnaud (pronounced as he told us “Ar-no”) and was actually originally from America but not lived in Paris with his French wife and their child. The tour he led us on was excellent, starting at the Pont Neuf, the New Bridge, although actually the oldest surviving bridge in Paris, carved with the faces of the friends of King Henry IV (whose reign saw the end of the construction) as sketched near the end of a long drunken party. Claire and I decided it was much like Facebook, which led to a running joke about other bits of Paris and its history that were also similar to the website.

The tour covered a lot. Highlights included the locks carved with lovers’ initials locked onto a bridge and the key thrown into the river as a symbol of eternal love (Paris removes all of them every three months because it gets so crowded), the obelisk Egypt gave to Napoleon that they request the return of every year and every year France says no, and the endless and various palaces and gardens that told the story of the growth of the city. What fascinated me was how the description of all the homes and offices and working buildings were now almost universally a museum, which led to the above subtitle since it seemed Paris was in the midst of calcifying into one enormous museum, like the sea creature that builds an ever larger shell home for itself until the shell weighs too much and the creature dies, leaving a beautiful object with no life within.

The tour ended with the story of Paris’ liberation from the Nazi’s and how it survived the experience thanks to a clever German who didn’t want to be charged with the crime of destroying the city. Arnaud took us all to a restaurant where we could get a deal on lunch thanks to the tour. Alas the deal was not such a deal when the food took forever to arrive and Claire’s sandwich came frozen and when sent back came back still frozen. Aside from that, we agreed the tour was excellent and purchased tickets (discounted because we had gone on the free tour) for their Montmartre (Mountain of Martyrs) tour the next day.

Let Me See Your Louvre Face

It was already getting on in the afternoon by the time we left the restaurant to move our stuff to the Ibis Hotel, south of the hostel. It was a nice change, a very clean, yet quite cheap hotel, and easily reachable by train, if not quite walkable from the river that defined the center of most of Paris. We had first planned to go to the Louvre on Sunday because the first Sunday of the month is free at most Parisian museums. However, Arnaud had told us enough of what the line would be like that we decided to go that evening, when the museum was open later and had discounted prices after six. We got on the train once again (we spent a lot of time on the Metro, some of it just being lost) and headed up to the Louvre stop where an apparently less well-known entrance took us to the museum without even having to go outside to the main, enormous line. It turned out that Claire’s status in the EU meant she could get in free anyway as we learned when I bought my ticket at the tobacco shop selling them, so that was convenient.

With 35,000 objects and a truly enormous area, the Louvre is not somewhere to just wander if you’re smart. Using my Lonely Planet guide and other advice, we had picked out what we wanted to see to avoid the vacant, staring expressions plastered on the faces of those who had been overwhelmed by the Louvre. We put on our Louvre faces and headed in. Of course I wanted to see the notorious Mona Lisa, and was pleasantly surprised after hearing so much bad things about its size and the crowd, to find a not very large group in the room and the painting is quite large enough to enjoy. It’s protected by thick glass so it won’t be hurt by flash photography, which is good since even though such photos aren’t allowed, people were taking them endlessly anyway. Arnaud had been quite right to say the Louvre security “had its back broken long since” on that point. It was great to see the Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo, Michelangelo’s Dying Slave statue, the winged bulls of Sargon II and the great Raphael’s and Botticelli’s. My personal favorite was getting to see the actual Code of Hammurabi, the first real written-down code of laws, and the basis for much of Western Civilization. Even with our best efforts the Louvre seemed to suck out our energy and made it an effort to move with any speed as we left, happy with our trip and what we had seen and done that day. For dinner we went to the nearby Asian district and had a delicious Thai dinner (I don’t know why I end up eating Thai food all around the world, but I do enjoy it. We split a great (and because we were in France, cheap) bottle of French wine with the meal as well. When we were done we headed back to the hotel, making it to bed rather early (for us) because of our plans for the next morning.

Eiffel’s a Trifle, Notre Dame Neck Cricks, and Montmartre’s Trendy Styles

Though it took not a little willpower, Claire and I managed to drag ourselves out of bed and through the Metro system to the Eiffel Tower by nine, a half hour before it opened. There was already a significant line especially at the elevators, so I stood in the stairs line while Claire went to get some much-needed coffee. The line moved reasonably quickly once the tower opened and soon Claire and I were trudging up the steps of Gustave Eiffel’s enormous ode to overcompensation (as I thought of it). It wasn’t too bad to climb the stair and both floors gave an ever-expanding view of Paris. It was again very sunny and clear out so the vista was even more breathtaking. To get to the very top we had to pay another five Euros to use the elevator, but it was totally worth it. Looking out among the palaces and museums and then farther to the suburbs where the actually business and industry happens was a fantastic moment. On an amusing note, I saw that the price of water and everything else went up from floor to floor.

We took the elevator all the way back down, not wanting to face the stair with our already tiring feet. We had some time to kill until the Montmartre tour, so we checked out the cathedral of Notre Dame. It was free to go in which explained the long line. Inside it was gorgeous and I couldn’t believe it had almost been torn down, saved mainly due to the support drummed up for it by Victor Hugo when he wrote the Hunchback of Notre Dame. We decided against going up the bell tower because of our weary feet and instead took it easy, walking around for a while before getting lunch in a café near where the tour began. The tour started right across the street from the world-famous Moulin Rouge (Red Windmill in case you don’t what that means, I didn’t until that day) at Starbucks. Our group was much smaller than the day before. Besides Claire and myself there were two individuals and a family of five from Louisiana (and boy were they really from Louisiana). Our tour was led by Linda, an American, who was actually celebrating her one-year anniversary for moving to Paris (and getting married) that very day, which was sort of interesting I thought.

The tour itself was fantastic. From strange statues like the man partially walking through a wall (from the Marcel Aymé story) to the café where the movie Amélie took place, the hill was filled with great sights. We saw the Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) Church on top of the hill,wandered by the last vineyard in the city, and learned the origin of the word Bistro (from “faster” in Russian and the term the Cossacks who occupied the city at one point would yell to French people when they wanted food). The tour ended with a free glass of wine (very tasty) and coincidentally was right next door to a bakery Claire had told me about, voted the best baguettes in Paris (and logically therefore, the world). We grabbed one after we left the tour and finished it quite quickly with our picnic style dinner as we watched the BBC news, also known as the most depressing series of stories ever.

Le Crawl With it All

We had decided earlier to go to the pub crawl offered by New Europe as a way of spending Saturday night. Meeting at the same Starbucks. We got our wristbands and prepared for the night. It almost ended before it began when they were checking ID and Claire had forgotten hers, luckily the person in charge asked if anyone in the line had not had their ID checked and even though Claire was about to say something I stopped her in time so it worked out. Our first stop on the Paris Pub Crawl was Café Oz, an Australian bar, naturally. Every drink at all the bars came with a free shot and the drinks were cheaper than normal for us too, so it was a good deal. Not wanting to be antisocial, Claire and I sat down at a table with five others. They turned out to be a group of three girls, Marsha, Amy, and Sarah who had gone to the University of Illinois together and were travelling through Europe for a while, and Ben and Deidre, both Americans who were studying for the semester in Bamberg, in northern Bavaria, not too far from Munich and spending the weekend in Paris.

Claire and I chatted with and got to know them as we travelled from the Australian bar to an Irish pub, then a smaller bar and ending up in a large, fairly fancy bar that also included a small dance club. We met several other interesting people, Americans, Britons; I even brought out my rusty Hebrew when I met an Israeli girl. The pub crawl included one last stop, a big French dance club, but we had been warned that it wasn’t that great by both Linda and Arnaud (who was helping staff the pub crawl) so the five of us elected to stay at the last bar.

The three Illinoisans had to leave earlier than the rest of us because of a planned trip to Versailles the next day, but most of the pub crawl group had stayed behind and we all hit the dance floor.

Hanging out with Claire and Ben and Deidre was a lot of fun. I had never done any drinking with Claire at Arizona so that was a new experience as well. Deidre and I danced to the eclectic mix of music (accompanied by video screens showing spinning disco balls) including some great 80’s hits and one song that teased us into thinking Footloose was coming on and disappointed us when it was not. Though I could have gone later, around three, Claire and Ben came up and said we should go. We made plans to meet up the next evening for dinner however. The Metro wasn’t running by then of course so we shared a cab, stopping at the apartment Ben and Deidre were staying at and then going to the hotel to quickly fall asleep.

Afternoon at Bastille, Island Life, Dinner, Drinks and Goodbyes

Understandably, Claire and I slept in on Sunday waking up around noon. We went to the last few sights I wanted to see first, including where the Bastille once stood, and the nearby Pletzel, the old Jewish quarter of Paris. Afterward we walked through Île Saint-Louis, the smaller of the two islands in the Seine. It was a cool area to see, built as it was from two islands joined together. It also had what was supposedly the best ice cream in Paris, with lines out the door at both its locations on the island. It was delicious Claire and I agreed.  At one point during our meanderings, we saw a crowd gathered around outside a small coffee shop, with many people taking pictures. Curious, we approached and found that the object of everyone’s attention was none other than former French president Jaques Chirac, famous both for his work in boosting the French economy and his insistence on French nuclear tests. Loved or hated, it was clear the Parisians around us were excited to catch a glimpse of him. We walked along the river so Claire could get some post cards and then went back to Montmartre to get more of the delicious baguettes. We had a little time before meeting Ben and Deidre so we got coffee and tea at the café from Amélie before heading down to the Moulin Rouge to meet the two of them, who were just finishing their own Montmartre tour. We walked up the hill near Sacre Coeur and found a restaurant with a great eleven Euro salad, steak, and desert menu. We were joined by one of Claire’s friends from Spain and one of his friends who had just arrived in Paris and together enjoyed an excellent last dinner in Paris (along with a bottle of wine of course, though a little of that got spilled onto Deidre accidentally). We walked to the nearby lookout and saw the lights of Paris and I promised myself I would come back and see the million and one things I had not been able to on this trip.

We headed back down the hill to meet two more of Claire’s friends, although she originally knew them from Arizona. We had a drink in Café Oz, and said goodbye to Ben and Deidre who unfortunately had to run off earlier than the rest of us.

When we had finished, Claire and I went back to the hotel making it there just a few hours before we would have to rise again as both our flights were at seven in the morning. We did get up in time, catching a taxi to the train station that conveyed us all the way to the airport. I landed and went straight to work, somehow making it through the day, and excited already for more travel and someday, a return to La Ville-Lumière.

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