Saturday, day two of our weekend in Paris. Our only full day in the city and, of course, it has to be the wettest day of the three…
There is soo much to see in this vast and busy city that as a tourist you really only have two options when it comes to exploring what’s on offer. Option A) Pick a few sights that you really want to see and then explore them until your heart is content. Spend 4 hours in the Louvre, 2 hours at Notre Dam and 2 days drooling in Boulangeries if you want to. Or there is Option B) Speed through the city and take all of the photo op’s you can. Hit the sights and add them to the been there seen-it list; if not the been there done-it list. Paris is simply too big to do everything and do it well in one weekend alone; so you must choose one of these two approaches. We choose the latter. We have no love for museums or artwork and we’re not wasting our time tiring our legs climbing up and down stairs when there is so many other better uses for our time (sorry Notre Dam & Arc de Triomphe!).
Today was the day we hit the sights hard courtesy of the Big Bus Paris tour. Cheesy, I know, but its an affordable and informative way to learn about and explore the city on a budget. Truth be told, the audio experience was absolutely awful but the sights were a true joy to behold. Tour Eiffel, Les Invalides, Musée du Louvre, la Madeleine, Moulin Rouge: we saw them all- if only fleetingly. With the poor, drizzly weather, this approach to the city suited us just fine. We did get off the bus and do a little walking before resuming our Audrey Hepburn walking tour from yesterday but this was quite a relaxed day with a cosy French café thrown into the mix too. This tour conveniently finished at the Ritz Hotel’s cocktail bar which was a very grand experience in itself (and so I will explain to my bank manager…).
Skimming Through the City
Similar to yesterday we were on a time constraint as we needed to be home and ready in time for another fancy dinner excursion- this time for an evening dinner cruise of the Seine. We’d had a pretty relaxed and non-too-hectic weekend which suited us well (and is a real achievement in such a bustling city); we knew we couldn’t cram this city in to one weekend so there was no need to frantically try to.
We rolled up to Bateux Mouches for our 8pm booking for what would be the start of a wonderful evening. The boat was gentle and slow paced which perfectly matched the no-rush, low-pressure dining experience. The food was very good (although less fancy that 58 Tour Eiffel from the night before) however the real highlight was the views and romance of it all; the sultry music and moody lighting. If Paris is beautiful enough in the day then it is simply staggering by night. The whole layout of the city is spectacularly planned so that there is always some stunning architectural marvel in sight. On that note, the city streets actually followed a plan that encouraged several similar-looking major avenues spread across the city. This gives the whole city a feeling of continuity throughout the differing arrondissaments and allows wide open streets that encourage a pedestrian, al-fresco, atmosphere. Very clever. Imagine if London had several Oxford Street-esque boulevards across the city- now that would be something special. Back to the boat and the sights were non-stop amazing. I accidentally dropped the ball and confessed to the waiter that it was the wife’s birthday weekend, completely forgetting that the question “are you here for a special occassion, Sir?” isn’t proposed out of curiosity and conversation, but because it leads to an embarrassing ensemble performing Happy Birthday, candles being blown by the birthday girl and strangers clapping your annual milestone that is being shared in their very privileged company! (Sorry, again Mrs Carl!!).
Oddly, we completed the day by heading home, where we would usually finish up the day via a bar. The whole day had left us so relaxed and particularly contented; so much so that we retired home full of food and merriment, with no need to over indulge in the unnecessary.
Our final day started sadly when we realised that our local Boulangerie was closed. France isn’t too keen on working a 7 day week (or even working at all) and so Sunday probably isn’t the best day to bookmark a long luncheon. Lesson learned, oh well, I necked a Nespresso and grabbed a baguette from the supermarche as we headed off to The Catacombs.
We arrived well in time for our pre-booked midday slot. Buying tickets in advance, throughout Paris, allows you to jump the queue at most attractions. This is ideal in a situation like this where there is a mad 70+ strong crowd standing out in the pouring rain. It was our Uber driver’s second day on the job and he laughed and apologised when he saw the wet hoards standing in line… little did he know that I walked straight to the front like a boss – pre-book, people!!
Six million skeletons call The Catacombs their home and this place provides an extraordinary glimpse into the world of the dead (and the ingenuity of the Parisian people) whilst also showing a small glimpse of Paris’ staggering 200 mile underground tunnel network. The story of the historic burial sites that eventually gave birth to the Catacombs plus the physical 2-year long painstaking creation of the displays and its subsequent success as a tourist attraction is a marvellous tale told brilliantly by the excellent audioguide. The tunnels are somehow completely serene and peaceful and the creators chose to display the skeletons in all sorts of unique and artistic forms. The place has a strange, photogenic appeal (though I did frown at people taking selfies besides skulls) and you can’t help but snap a million shots; perhaps this helps us distance ourselves from the fact these are real human remains…(?) It’s almost unbelievable that you are actually walking amongst the dead. Ironically, when you leave the burial site you will definately feel as if you’re dying and ascending to heaven yourself… the steep, spiralled 83 steps are absolutely knackering and you can’t help but think “if I don’t make it back out, make my skeleton into something pretty”. Ah well, onwards and upwards as we headed (back) to Laduree (again) for some goodies to eat on the plane journey home. Nom, Nom, Nom. Looking at those skinny bones had helped to work up quite the appetite…
Looking Back Whilst Looking Forward
Paris was a beast… and we absolutely loved it! Its definitely one of the biggest and busiest cities I’ve ever visited and there is no way you can explore the entire place in just one hit. Throughout our trip we were listing places that we need to return to: Montmartre, Notre Dam, la Madeline, Versailles and a Cabaret show all make the list. We also need to return and find a cozy cafe, boulangerie or snug that we can call our own. We did stop for drinks and croque monsieurs but these tended to be in the tourist areas in crowded cafes and I very much doubt we rubbed shoulders with many locals besides the staff themselves. I wanted to do all the cliches (baguettes, croissants, cafes, cheeses, wines) but we found it hard to manage all this in such a short space. All said and done, I enjoyed the way we swiftly swept across the city. We have a rough knowledge of a wide area and know exactly where we would pin point on our second trip, whilst also having an incredible experience on our first.
The city was full of surprises, not least the outstanding pride, attitude and approachability of its citizens. We never met a rude Parisian or felt cast aside because we lacked the French vernacular – which was wholey surprising after hearing the exact opposite throughout most of my life. Paris does tourism and it does it bloody well, so it is no surprise to read that it is the world’s 3rd most visited city (behind Bangkok and London). The infrastructure, services, ease of navigation, excursion possibilities and sightseeing opportunities are all first rate and there is something for absolutely everyone.
The quality of food, drink, service and activities were also noteworthy. Whilst we tip-toed gingerly at the higher end of our budget there is certainly something in the city to suit all wallets and purses. You can swap a 5* dinner for a 5 Guys dinner and scoot past Dior in favour of a Zara, forgo the Taxis and hop on the metro instead or grab yourselves a supermarket bottle of cider and chill in the shadows of Tour Eiffel without a care in the world- c’est magnifique! This city has it all.
Until Next time, Paris…
I’ll admit that before visiting Paris there was a genuine fear of terrorism. I had originally pencilled a trip for Valentine’s weekend (The Wife’s birthday is the day before Valentine’s) but thought against it because the ‘day of romance’ in the ‘city of love’ just seemed a bit too risky for me. When journeying from the airport to the city centre our heads dropped as we saw Stade de France in the distance and remembered the horror stories from not too long a go. In fact, just one week before we travelled there was an attack at the Louvre and two weeks after we returned there was an attack at Paris’ Orly airport…. but this can happen anywhere at anytime. The old adage that you can walk outside your door and be hit by a bus tomorrow may be true but at the same time I live on a cul-de-sac in a sleepy suburb whilst Paris, at the moment, seems absolutely full of damn busses. I guess the key is to be careful and keep your wits about you. If you see something that you’re uncomfortable with then avoid the situation as smoothly as swiftly as possible; report it if necessary but remember that these incidents are very few and very far between. The tourist attractions, airports, major rail station and public spaces are peppered with armed police – it sounds scary but its actually reassuring more than anything. You’ve just got to forget about the ‘busses’ and do what you gotta do… and if my experience is anything to go by then you’ve just got to do Paris.
This was originally written 18 March, before the attacks in London Westminster; an attack which affected many of my work colleagues and occurred on a day that I was, thankfully, off work. RIP to PC Keith Palmer and my thoughts go out to his family and the families of all the victims of this tragic event.