I’ve now been to Paris about 4 times; but the first 3 I didn’t fall as much in love with the city as many people do. I think perhaps when I was younger I was less clear about what I was interested in; and also I didn’t really research ‘places to visit’ before I went there, unlike my daughter who had a very clear idea about what she wanted (and didn’t want) to see.
In fact she had planned a detailed timetable which made me a little worried that I was going to have a regimented holiday being marched round various sites; and several times I tried to convince her that it might be nicer to go to the coast somewhere. I ended up being glad she had done her research and that she insisted on us going to Paris.
We travelled down by Eurostar, which just seems such a civilised way to travel despite the crowded waiting area at St Pancras International and the lack of places to get a decent meal while you wait (there’s a Pret a Manger, which is great but I don’t really want sandwiches when it’s dinner time on a Sunday evening). You arrive in the heart of Paris at the Gare du Nord, and we had booked into a hotel just across the road for our first night. Already it felt different from home (even from London), with the cafes open out on the pavement and people milling around in the warmth of a summer evening.
The following morning we had our first pleasant surprise when it turned out that a week’s travel card for zones 1-5 inclusive was only Eu25 each – and the very helpful ticket guy at the station took photocopies of our passport photos as we didn’t have photos with us for the cards. Next time we go (!) we can just top up the cards online or at a ticket machine.
We made our way to the airbnb property we were staying in and after a few minor difficulties trying to get in, found ourselves in a lovely third floor flat which was absolutely perfect for us: and had a piano, which was one reason Bella had insisted on booking it. On the timetable for the Monday was going to the Marie Curie museum, so we had time to go to the supermarket across the road and stock up on some food before heading out again.
What we hadn’t checked was whether it would be open on a Monday; having walked all the way there from one of the metro stations we found it wasn’t! However Bella was delighted to spot a maths bookshop on the way back (we were in the heart of the Sorbonne area), and we had an ice cream before walking through the Jardins de Luxembourg and then through St Germain des Pres, including visiting the church of St Suplice, where apparently Widor (as of the Widor Toccata, used at many weddings) was once the organist.
On the Tuesday we had tickets booked for Versailles, just over an hour away by train but included within our cards (Navigo passes). Changing stations to pick up the RER out to Versailles was probably the closest we got to the Eiffel Tower, which was NOT on Bella’s list of places to go. Versailles was amazing but it was very hot and very busy, and by the time we’d walked all around the palace and then around the gardens as well, we felt disinclined to visit the Trianon as well. It wasn’t the first time we were to say ‘next time we come back’. I was so glad to see inside the palace, however – last time I had decided it was too expensive and the friend I was with and I had just walked down through the gardens for a bit and back up the other side. I wasn’t particularly interested in gardens back then, and I don’t think I had appreciated the amazing piece of engineering that got water to the gardens and then created the various fountains. Bella kept saying that her Dad and her brothers would like it, and I think she’s right. You also completely understand why the French aristocracy and royalty were so unpopular, especially by the time you’ve seen the Louvre as well and read about the Tuileries; and the many other enormous ornately decorated buildings in the city.
Bella’s lunch was an ‘Antoinette’ from the Angelina cafe – a chain of teashops with branches elsewhere in the city (though ‘chain’ makes it sound rather downmarket and as with so many French patisseries, it wasn’t).
We had our own upmarket feast that evening as Bella had even researched cafes and restaurants, and we were booked into Le Chardenoux bistro/brasserie. Not only was the food delicious, but the building is impressive and there is a patisserie and a chocolaterie run by the same chef – Cyril Lignac – at the same road junction (he also has a ‘proper’ restaurant as opposed to a bistro, elsewhere in Paris – but for us this was great as it was within walking distance of where we were staying). We were both excited to find bookshops open late into the evening as we walked back: we went back later in the week and bought books, me treating myself to one of his recipe books, which included the recipes we’d eaten in the bistro.
Wednesday turned out to be even hotter, and we were glad to start the day with a trip to the Catacombs: somewhere else we decided that the boys would like. In many ways it was an amazing regeneration project for its day, and highlights one of the differences between Paris and London. The bones from all the city’s cemetaries were moved into the catacombs, which were originally quarries, largely (as far as I can tell) for health reasons/slum clearance. And of course one of the reason Paris has lovely wide streets and lots of beautiful apartment blocks is because it was designed – whereas unfortunately Christopher Wren’s vision to create something similar in London after the Great Fire in 1666 was not accepted.
We came out from the coolness of the catacombs into the heat of a summer’s day, and were glad to find fountains specially designed for people to stand under and cool down at one of the railway stations, before walking into the Jardin des Plantes. We decided to go into the menagerie, and spent several hours wandering around looking at the animals and trying to keep in the shade: I’d wanted to see the red panda but a lot of the animals felt the same way as us and were also just snoozing in the shade.
We then walked along the Seine and into the Polish centre, to see the Salon de Chopin – where, gratifyingly, the guide spoke to us in French. Previous memories of being in Paris were that the French would speak to you in English because their English was far superior to your French; whilst it is, I really did want to try to speak in French while I was here.
On the Thursday – Bastille Day – we went to the Louvre, where we found that neither of us had remembered our phone. I think for me the most impressive part of the visit was in fact seeing the bits of the original castle, dating from c.1190. We saw many galleries, including Greek sculptures – amazing that they are so many 1000s of years old – and more statues which had been at Versailles or other royal palaces; and also the rooms of Napoleon III. The place is enormous and, as mentioned earlier, a reminder of the excesses of royalty and the extremely wealthy.
There were also some low-flying aircraft of various types during the morning, which I think may have been something to do with Bastille Day – we’d seen them on the Monday as well over the Jardins de Luxembourg. That afternoon we ended up back in the Jardins de Luxembourg again, this time joining a relaxed crowd listening to a police band playing from the bandstand. ‘Music’ was perhaps one of the themes of our week.
During our time in Paris I was impressed by how many cyclists there were – and also scooters. There are wide, dedicated cycle lanes: and also one way streets where there are arrows indicating that cyclists can go in the opposite direction to cars! None of them seems to wear a helmet and in fact on one day there was even a woman on roller blades skating along in the middle of the traffic without seeming the slightest bit worried about how vulnerable she was. The city also seemed really clean: my impression of most French cities 20 or 30 years ago was that there was a lot of dog poo around, but this time I saw hardly any. A lot of the French still smoke though: if you’re sitting outside a cafe you can’t guarantee that there won’t be someone at the next table smoking.
We visited the Cemetiere Pere Lachaise on the morning of our final full day, which was just up the road from where we were staying. One thing I was conscious of was how recent the second world war still feels here, which was something I remember thinking when I lived and worked in France in 1996. It may have been partly as it was an anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup – the arrest of more than 13,000 Jews by the gendarmes on 16th and 17th July. There were photos of Auschwitz and other concentration camp survivors along the fence of the Jardins de Luxembourg; and within Pere Lachaise there are some thought-provoking memorials not only to the victims of the camps but also to the resistance.
The final afternoon we found an amazing street of music shops at Europe metro – we had been to a concert of Chopin piano music on the Thursday evening, and Bella wanted to buy some – and walked again for miles looking at shops and the buildings generally: next time I go back I want to go to Opera, and perhaps to Sacre Coeur. It had been an amazing trip and we had both fallen in love with Paris.