Where to even begin. I grew up in your typical small town, thinking of Paris, France as a mystical city that didn’t actually exist. People went there, they wrote about it, they even took photos, but somehow, it couldn’t be a real place. No city on earth could possibly measure up to that level of hype.
And in many ways, it didn’t.
But, as I walked its lovely streets, I started to understand the source of all its magic, romance, and mystery. Paris was a soulful entity, the intermingled ghost of past, present, and future. Once there, you shared a part of its history. The temptation to leave the mundane behind in order to pursue a passion – art, writing, singing, dancing – becomes so strong that, while there, you start to believe you can.
It’s a Thursday. The plane just took off. We’re watching the final vestiges of the fiery purple Atlanta sunset melt into the horizon.
We landed at Charles de Gaulle airport on schedule but taxied for what seemed an eternity. The airport is a labyrinth, and the tram to the baggage claim is a minotaur. So many people cram inside, it’s a struggle to escape its clutches when the time comes.
“French graffiti looks just like American graffiti, except in French” I thought as we inched along the clogged expressway.
Just as a fog of negativity was settling over my first impressions of the city, we suddenly shot down a ramp, turned onto a narrow street and dove into the heart of Paris. The fear that I would be disappointed by this iconic city was replaced by the fear that I wouldn’t see every single building, bicycle, or boulangerie flashing by outside.
Our Paris Hotel was the Melia Vendome — a charming, tucked-away hotel on the Rue Cambon within walking distance to the Jardin des Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, and easy access to metro stations. We took 1 of the 2 tiny elevators to the 2nd floor to Suite 105–a junior suite with a large sitting room. The bathroom was also large (by European standards), and a spacious bedroom with french doors opened out to the sounds and cool breezes of the Rue Cambon.
Like children eager for Christmas morning, we unpacked and practically ran to the streets of Paris. Our first unintended sightseeing stop was the lush gardens of the Jardin des Tuileries then on to Place de la Concorde, famous for its 3,300-year-old Luxor Obelisk, and on a more grisly note, the guillotine execution site of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.
IN SEARCH OF THE ARC
We wanted to go to the top of the arch, but I’m fairly certain mice in a maze would have figured out how to get up there faster than we did. After making a complete circle underground, we still couldn’t locate the entrance tunnel.
We kept popping up like prairie dogs, looking about and asking ourselves, “How did we get here?” Finally, we located the ticket booth and began our dizzying climb up the spiral steps to the top. Winded and wheezing, we were rewarded with a 360 view of Paris in all of its afternoon glory. Even the glory of the twisted mess of traffic circling the arch below.
DINNER AT LE CIEL DE PARIS
When we got back to our room, a bottle of champagne lay chilling in a silver bucket. We quickly poured a glass, toasted the city, then scrambled to get dressed for our dinner reservations at Le Ciel de Paris in le Tour Montparnasse.
A light rain had started to fall when our cab arrived to take us to the tower. We skipped the long line of tourists waiting to board the elevator to the Observation Terrace and took a separate elevator to the 56th floor. Soft music guided the way to the restaurant. Since through some miracle we had arrived early, they seated us at the champagne bar until our table was ready.
The building itself is not particularly attractive, especially when it’s surrounded by Paris’ renowned elegant architecture. But, when you’re in it and looking out at Paris from that height, you don’t mind so much that it’s not aesthetically pleasing. Our first dinner in Paris was as decadent and satisfying as we had hoped, but the view of the Eiffel Tower shimmering across from us stole the show.
Back in our room late that evening, we opened the French doors to breathe in the night. The city softly whispered as we drifted into a champagne dream of glittering lights that shined like diamonds in the rain.
A MORNING OF MONET
We slept late.
Cafe Flottes, a few doors down, became our breakfast nook as each morning K walked there and brought back flaky croissants and steaming Americanos. This particular morning, we walked to Musee de l’Orangerie and saw Monet’s “Nympheas.” It was satisfying to think that this was how Monet intended his works to be displayed all those years ago, in this particularly beautiful oval room.
Afterward, we began our first walk to the Eiffel Tower, catching glimpses of the metal lacework through white buildings and pink blooming trees.
When we finally reached the Champs de Mars, we were impressed. We had expected to be impressed, but this was different. The tower is remarkably bigger than it seems in pictures, and the paths to get there are nothing more than white, gravelly powder.
How had we missed that?
LUNCH AT JULES VERNE
There were so many people waiting in line to go up. With only 1 elevator working that day, the lines had grown exponentially. Our lunch reservations at Jules Verne gave us access to the private red elevator in the left leg, the only ticket in town that could get us past those entwining lines.
Our table looked towards the hill of Montmartre and the vividly white Sacre Coeur. We ordered from the fix prixe menu, beginning with some champagne. Then came several courses, and, of course, a bottle of wine. It was (and remains) the most expensive lunch we have ever had, but it was such a memorable experience. To eat an extravagant lunch on top of one of the world’s most iconic monuments is an experience I wouldn’t hesitate to do again…and again….and again.
ILE DE LA CITE
We ambled through the music-filled streets of Ile de la Cite, later stopping for some oversized and overly decadent gelato before finding ourselves crossing the Pont Neuf – the oldest bridge in Paris, despite the name. With the sun finally setting, we collapsed for dinner at a tiny outdoor table of a cafe just across the bridge.
We had planned to go to the Loire Valley, but Paris called to us. We needed more time to fully immerse in its culture. That excursion would have to be reserved for a future date. So, we slept through breakfast and took a leisurely mid-morning stroll through the Tuileries, ultimately deciding it was time to explore Bohemian Montmartre.
Montmartre. The city within the city that was most definitely on our minds. It had been tempting us since the first day we set foot atop the Arc de Triomphe. The moment we stepped off the metro and into the Place des Abbesses we instantly fell in love with this neighborhood of Paris and realized why so many others had before.
At a corner cafe, we order a bottle of cider and some nuts. A sudden street fight performance provided some unexpected entertainment. And then, our favorite dining experience of the entire trip — The Creperie Broceliande. Tender savory crepes filled with lightly sauteed spinach and a variety of fresh cheeses; then came the sweet crepes – flambeed tableside — bananas foster crepe followed by an apple brandy one.
SACRE COEUR & MOULIN ROUGE
Feeling energized (but not superhuman) we walked to the Funiculaire – the invention that affords lazy, full people a ride to the top of the hill where the Sacre Coeur is located. On one hand, you’re thinking,”I’m full of crepes, I should walk.” But, on the other hand, you’re thinking, “I’m full of crepes….”
No matter how you choose to get up there, a truly beautiful basilica awaits. There it was — the white wonder on a hill. The best part is the view from the steps looking towards Paris cascading out in front of you.
The Moulin Rouge was our next stop, a tiny red windmill stuck inadvertently along the street. Smaller than I had imagined, but no less vivid.
The next morning, we took the metro to the Latin Quarter where we found a random pizza place that was quick, easy, and absolutely delicious. From there, we walked to Shakespeare and Co., which was exactly as I had envisioned: old, tiny, quaint, and chock full of books. There’s even a piano upstairs that invites any random soul to sit down and play. I ran my fingers over the spines of the dusty books, wondering at all of the literary history housed in this seductively musty place.
From Shakespeare & Company, we strolled over the bridge to Notre Dame situated on the Ile de la Cite. No offense Quasimodo, but the stairs to your bell tower were far too many. Our hamstrings had not fully recovered from the twisting climb up the steps of the Arc de Triomphe. We chose instead to roam the flower market and the orchid house topped off by a stroll along the Seine.
The BatoBus beckoned and we bought a 2-day “hop on – hop off” pass just in time to avoid the strangest onslaught of hail. We stayed aboard as long as possible, only exiting when the Musee D’Orsay was the next stop and the pelting hail had ceased.
We started touring the Degas exhibit when we heard the unexpected announcement that the museum was closing early. Unsure of what to do with our evening, we took the metro back to our new favorite place – Montmartre.
A walk along its streets led us to Le Relais Gascon, a restaurant offering exactly what…we didn’t even know…but based on the plates of food we saw being served, we had to try it.
This morning, we took the metro back to the Musee D’Orsay to make up for the previous, ridiculously short visit.
To complete our museum experience, we glided along in another Batobus across the Seine to the Louvre. How could we leave Paris without seeing Cupid & Psyche, Winged Victory–Nike of Samothrace, or the Mona Lisa?
Alert for any way to avoid a line, we bought a museum pass. It was totally worth it. One long bypassed line later, we were inside that glass pyramid–that unsuspectingly hot glass pyramid.
“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
Today is our last full day in Paris. We’re sad to feel the end near, but we feel complete. This final morning greeted us with yet another vividly clear, beautiful day, and after a quick breakfast, we decided to visit the quiet, reflective gardens of the Rodin Museum.
Such beautiful sculptures, so strong, so peaceful, which I guess is what led us to move on to the loudly ostentatious Tomb of Napoleon and the remembrances of wars long past encased in the Les Invalides.
LE TOUR EIFFEL
Hungry for lunch, we started walking in the general direction of the Eiffel Tower and discovered that you could get a reservation at the other restaurant inside, 58 Tour Eiffel. So, we hopped into the shortened reservation line for the elevator and were whisked up once more. Amazing what the power of a reservation can do.
58 Tour Eiffel was a semi-cafeteria restaurant, where you were seated, ordered your beverages, and then were given a basket to take through a line where you chose which food you wanted, and it was later brought to you. Odd but effective. Rather than taking the elevator back down, we chose the steps. For once, we preferred a slower means of descending to the world below.
DINNER ON THE SEINE
The cruise boat was beautiful–all glass and similar to the boats in London and New York. We were seated on the port side next to the glass. Thrilled with our view, we ordered some cocktails and enjoyed the elegance of Paris floating languidly by. Gliding under arching bridges, past the buttresses of Notre Dame, we caught our own reflections thrown inadvertently on the city herself.
The sunset burnished and softened the ivory buildings with its sustained glow while we talked and laughed over our adventures of the previous days. Even though the sunsets of Paris were late in coming, they were among the most beautiful we had ever seen.
Though we were docked, we still had dessert to finish. We reluctantly returned to dry land where we took in our last view of the Eiffel Tower. Offering a final farewell to the beauty that is Paris at night.
We found a less traditional mode of transportation to take us back to the Melia Vendome; from out of the evening haze, there was a man, driving a Took Took, flooded in a bright blue light.
He appeared like something out of a dream, and we couldn’t resist the chug-chug and blue magnetism of his tiny chariot.
We climbed in and clicked along the streets of Paris. Back down the Champs Elysees, around the Tuileries, and on to our hotel. In a sense, retracing our first day in this romantic city. Bubbling over with laughter and happiness, we tumbled out and bid a cheerful goodbye to our driver.
Packing to go home–-always a sad aspect of any trip. It’s sort of like reaching the last page of a favorite book. Ending a trip is a much better experience though because at least it’s the end of your own adventure. You can know that there will be sequels to follow.
Paris is hypnotic – glamorous, stylish, ageless. Since I’ve been home, I often find my mind wandering back to Montmartre and those savory crepes. I remember what the wind felt like blowing against my face while standing in the Eiffel Tower. I recall the memory of looking down on the dizzying traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. Memories that will keep me mentally coming back until I actually do.