The City of Light (and Dark)
Ah Paris, the city with perhaps the biggest reputation of all the places we visited, and a city I could not wait to explore. However, while the few days we were there were a ton of fun, they also unfortunately seemed to support the not-so-positive stereotypes of Paris being a difficult place to visit.
Our flight into Paris was our first non-budget airline flight of the trip so not only was it much less stressful, we also got *gasp* free refreshments! There’s nothing like enjoying a quiet flight from Prague to Paris with a delicious snack to pass the time. As were all the flights in Europe, it was a quick ride that had us in Paris in about an hour, which is where the adventure began. For the most part we haven’t had problems getting around the cities on public transportation, but Paris became the most difficult to navigate from the very first train we tried to take. There were far fewer maps and signs than there should have been, and in comparison to the other places, a significant lack of English. Eventually we found the right train and made our way into the city, where I then proceeded to get stuck inside the station. Despite buying the right ticket as directed by staff, my ticket wouldn’t scan out, and I was stuck behind the turnstiles for a terrifying 5 minutes before a man let me out. The Paris metro is a complex and confusing machine.
We then had to make the trek from the train station to our place, which would have been fine but for some reason Europe was experiencing a heat wave so it was a lot hotter than we anticipated. I did not pack for this temperature, but hey at least it wasn’t cold or rainy. When we finally found our place and got settled in (and changed into something a little more weather-acceptable) we set out to find somewhere to eat. I’m not sure if what we had was typically French, but it tasted good, even if it involved a long time sitting and deciding how to pay. I am a firm believer that all restaurants should come with a how-to manual. Do we order at the table? At the bar? How do we pay? Is it acceptable to ask for free tap water? Or is it only bottled? Restaurants are the place where cultures come to their peak, and where tourists go to be confused. Do your research people, especially when it comes to tipping.
Eventually the payment debacle was resolved (we had to pay at the counter, just in case you were wondering) and we decided to just walk for a while and see what we could find. I think the easiest way to see Paris is to just walk until you find the Seine, and then just walk along it for a while. Most of the big stuff is pretty much on the river anyway. Our walk was accompanied beautifully by the sun set, casting a gorgeous glow as the city of lights slowly came alive.
Pretty amazing way to be introduced to the heart of Paris.
We stumbled upon Notre Dame and the Bastille, crossing bridges and admiring the architecture. Obviously Paris has THE Lock Bridge, but as it’s sort of being shut down to save the bridge from collapsing under the weight of all the locks, lovers have found places to put their locks all over the city. There are at least 4 separate bridges with locks and others placed sporadically around the city. It is pretty incredible to witness though. Each one of the thousands of locks was placed there by a person (or people) with their own story; thousands of locks, and thousands of stories.
I think my favorite part of the walk along the Seine was all of the adorable little box stands perched atop the ledges of the river side. There were people selling souvenirs, art prints, antiques, and my personal favorite: used books. I have this terrible problem where I buy things that will make packing to go home nearly impossible, and to continue that tradition I bought another Harry Potter book. Oops. But I sort of tentatively decided I’m going to try and complete a set of all foreign copies of the books. So I have a British copy and now a French one! (No I can’t read French, but the cover is pretty).
After my brief shopping intermission we wandered over to the Louvre to check it out and then made the final hike over to the Eiffel Tower. As we got closer we got to see the lights turn on, and at one point even got to see the sparkly lights turn on, which I didn’t think actually existed, but they are absolutely incredible. But when we finally got to the base of the tower, they had turned off. Apparently they only turn on the sparkly lights for five minutes at the top of the hour. We really wanted to see the tower in all its lit-up glory so we found a spot on the lawn and just sat for a while.
Continuing with my observations from Marseille, the French really love to just find a spot and relax. There were groups of people all over the lawn with a bottle of wine and a bag of chips just relaxing with friends, and pretty much wherever possible, sitting on the bank of the Seine doing the same. The French are a very relaxed people, which I think is pretty cool.
We sat at the Eiffel Tower for a while and just took in the magic that it has at night, eventually getting to see the sparkly lights turn on, which is an absolutely wonderful sight to see. It is definitely not one of those tourist attractions that ends up disappointing (at least in this context, trying to go up the tower is a whole different story). Eventually the heat of the day faded out and we got our fill of the lights so we headed off to bed for the night.
The next morning we were up bright and early to head off on our first full day in Paris. Our first goal was to head back to the tower and make our way to the top, which sort of turned into a nightmare. Firstly, the line was massive, which I guess I should have anticipated, but I don’t think any of us would have expected the top to close halfway through our wait. By the time we got to the front of the line, we were unable to even purchase tickets for the top level, so we settled for the first level and waited in line some more to catch the elevator (I have no idea how anyone can take the stairs, that thing is giant). Once you get up there though, the view is pretty spectacular. I didn’t really expect to feel so high up at just the first level, but it was a lot higher than I anticipated, which was a happy surprise, especially considering our chances of getting to go all the way up were looking grim.
View from the Eiffel Tower.
We spent about half an hour admiring the views before we found out that the wait to go up would be at least an hour, which would have required not only a lot of waiting, but paying the overpriced food fares at lunch time. It didn’t really seem worth the wait, or the time spent with the many hordes of people crammed on the little platform, so we decided to head down and continued our day elsewhere. Our next goal was to find a place to eat, which was a lot more difficult than I would have thought. Fun fact for you, a cafe in Paris is nowhere near the casual stop that it is almost everywhere else I’ve ever been, but more like a full on sit down restaurant. So whenever we got excited at the sight of a cafe, we were swiftly brought back down at the sight of the menu and the prices. Luckily we eventually found a place to grab some sandwiches to eat down on the riverside. My sandwich was ok but the atmosphere was perfect. Sitting in the shade, on the bank of the Seine, right outside the Louvre was an absolutely wonderful way to enjoy our lunch.
Our next stop was the Louvre Museum, where I got to experience the stereotypical Parisian attitude at its finest. Admittance to the museum is free for students of the EU so we all presented our ID cards and everyone was fine except for me. Apparently the Louvre staff doesn’t know what or where Cardiff is and didn’t believe that it was actually in the UK. I tried to understand what the problem was and why my ID was any different than Shelbie’s London ID, and it became apparent that the only real difference was that they obviously knew where London is and didn’t need any proof of its location. At the threat of bringing in security I decided to forget it and pay the ticket price. I was very frustrated, mainly that they were completely unwilling to understand my viewpoint, but also disappointed that they didn’t know where Cardiff is. I wasn’t even that excited for the museum in the first place, but this really put a bad taste in my mouth.
When we were in Prague, our tour guide told us that the number one most overrated tourist attraction in the world is the Mona Lisa, so the expectations were low, but it was something we felt like we had to see. Walking into the room the painting is in is almost laughable; its completely packed with people and the painting itself is on a massive blank wall, with the little, tiny Mona Lisa on it. It’s laughably disappointing, so I think it’s important to go into that viewing with an open mind. I would say not to expect an amazing experience, because it’s mostly just tourists looking at a largely blank wall. I’m still not sure why the Mona Lisa is such a big thing to see, but now I’ve seen it so I should feel accomplished?
Most overrated tourist attraction in the world? Might as well selfie.
Since I had to pay to get in (cringe) I wanted to get my money’s worth, so we wandered the corridors of the museum for like three hours, and didn’t even come close to seeing everything. The Louvre is absolutely massive. I made a point to see all of the Egyptian Antiquities and then we made our way through the apartments, which were probably my favorite part. They were absolutely beautiful, but eventually we were overheated and exhausted (the museum definitely wasn’t air conditioned) and we made our way out to decide what to do the rest of the day.
The very casual decor of the royal apartments in the Louvre Museum.
In typical tourist fashion we went to Starbucks for a cold drink and some wifi, and I finally got my hands on a baguette. We relaxed and later got crepes on our walk back to our room. I can’t say our day was everything I had hoped it would be, but we still had fun.
Our second day in Paris started out with some more amazing pastries for breakfast. They were so buttery that my fingers ended up greasy and so flaky that most of it ended up on the ground, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We had a much busier schedule for this day and our first stop was the Sacre Coeur, where we had to climb a lot of stairs. There wasn’t nearly as many steps here as at the Eiffel Tower and I could barely do this, so I can’t imagine what the Eiffel Tower is like. But it was definitely worth it, the Sacre Coeur is absolutely magnificent, and the interior is wonderful. We couldn’t take pictures so you’ll just have to trust me on this one, but it was amazing. Generally I think the inside of a church is pretty much the same as the last one I had seen, but this one had a really unique twist on the traditional stained glass windows. Rather than just having biblical stories, they also had a really cool modern art element that coupled the traditional with the modern and made for a really interesting interior. It was probably my favorite church that I’ve visited, which is saying something after visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
We then made a brief pit stop at the Arc de Triomphe, which is cool, but not much of a place to spend a lot of time. For a small fee you can climb the Arc and I assume it has some pretty amazing views, but we opted out of that. It’s really just a place to snap a few pictures and admire, and I suppose you could explore the Champs Elysee after seeing it, but as poor college students we don’t really have the budget for that. Instead, we opted to head back to the river for a much more affordable shopping trip.
Today was Shelbie’s birthday so in celebration she picked a little Mexican place for lunch. Unfortunately it was closed so we had to find somewhere else to eat. However, we lucked out when we stumbled across a hole in the wall Mexican restaurant called ‘Mexi & Co’ where we ended up having a delicious birthday lunch for Shelbie. The whole restaurant was run by one woman, which was astounding considering how excellent the food and service was. If you get the chance and you want a little bit of extra ethnicity in your trip to Paris, I highly recommend this excellent little place.
After lunch we were off to our biggest stop for the day: the Paris Catacombs. We had to catch a train south for a little while and wait in line for like half an hour in the sun, but it was 100% worth it. If you get the chance I HIGHLY recommend the Catacombs. It’s a rather damp and claustrophobic experience, but it’s incredibly surreal and eery. I sort of knew what to expect but the first time I saw the seemingly infinite stacks of human skeletons, I was immediately at a loss for words. Deep beneath the city of light, we were surrounded by tunnels and tunnels of human remains in what was probably one of the darkest experiences of my life. Not literally dark in the sense that there wasn’t any light, because there was sufficient light, but the sheer idea of being surrounded by the remains of millions of human lives really puts yours into perspective. In a strangely ironic way I was repeatedly reminded of the lock bridge. Where each and everyone of the locks had their own story and reason for being locked on the bridge, every single one of those bones belonged to a person; a person with a life and a family, who may have even been down there as well. It’s a really difficult thing to come to terms with.
The tunnel complex also has some interesting carvings and things as well as the bones.
The macabre of the Catacombs also came with a certain level of beauty, and a surprising amount of respect. Some of the bones are arranged in hearts and crosses and patterns that are appealing to the eye, but each set also has a placard commemorating the time and place that the bodies came from. There are also a lot of quotes and altars put in place to honor the bodies that were forcibly removed from their graves and moved into the tunnels. It was reassuring to know that the bodies of these people weren’t just nonchalantly stacked up for people to look at. The whole idea of the catacombs is still quite strange to me, but it was a very compelling thing to experience.
And with that, our second day in Paris came to a close and we were back in our room packing up our stuff and prepping for our early morning flight the next day. As much as I wanted these few days to prove everyone who has ever said that Paris has really rude people and is a difficult place to be a tourist wrong, unfortunately the stereotypes held true. That’s not to say the city isn’t amazing, because it is, but on a whirlwind trip of many different cities, it did end up being the most difficult city to visit.
Europe was absolutely amazing, but I cannot put into words how excited I am to get back to London, where I understand the language and the culture. Experiencing new cultures is incredible, but there is nothing like the familiarity of a city you know and love.