Where have we been for the past few weeks? UK, France, the US then home for the past 3 weeks, desperately trying to get over nasty bugs we caught. We are on our 3rd batch of drugs and stilll coughing… That’s why we have been so unsociable and have hardly spoken to anyone. Anyway, rewind back to early March.
Anthony’s last ski week, in the French Alps this time, suddenly got cancelled when a friend with whom we were going to ski changed his plans. So we started looking at other places including Chamonix which was on his ski pass. Last minute accommodation was horrendously expensive. But then I had a brilliant idea. While we have returned to the UK and France, where our families live, on average once a year since we emigrated to Australia 30 years ago, time there has pretty much been limited to seeing family for 2-3 days. How about spending a whole week in Paris, revisiting places I hadn’t seen since my last holiday in Paris in 1975 and showing Anthony places he had never seen? He liked the idea too.
First, we spent some precious time with my mum in Kent (it was great to spend a few days away with her, especially after her nasty fall, and be able to cook for my mum for a change), saw Anthony’s sister, our nieces and friends in the UK before seeing my dad, more family and friends in Paris. I am blessed with still having my parents in their late 80s and early 90s, time with them becomes more special every time… Paris is where Anthony first went down with his bug so I ended up wandering the streets of Paris on my own most of the time after a brief outing together in the mornings.
I picked a hotel in the Sorbone, literally across the road from the Sorbone university, perfectly located in the heart of the Latin Quarter to go to most places I wanted to revisit on foot. This area is where I used to sneek to between my 2 trains back home from my Paris boarding school on a Friday afternoon, zipping in and out of so many tiny art galleries, meeting and chatting to artists. Little did I know then I would end up working in the art world!
WARNING: this is a long blog and designed for future or past visitors to Paris. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list – just my personal preferences. I hope it is helpful.
So that anyone planning to visit Paris sometime may find some tips here, I’ll list where I chose to go this week, followed by a list of not to be missed places for first time visitors.
My week in Paris:
1. La Tour Eiffel – I cannot visit Paris without spending time admiring La Dame de Fer de Paris, the Eiffel Tower, either during the day or at night. Built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, it was going to be brought down at the end of the exhibition – can you imagine Paris without it?! A great spot to relax and admire this structure is the Champs de Mars, with a picnic or a bottle of wine (or as I did, chatting with Nicole for an hour, a fascinating street lady I came across on a bench with all her wordly possesions). For another fantastic view, walk up to the Esplanade du Trocadero. The Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) nearby has a cafe/restaurant with another perfect view of the Eiffel Tower. Your plastic (credit card) will melt with just drinks, but the location is worth it if you feel like a drink in the evening. Alternatively, for something very French, which I always do when in the area, have a glass of champagne at the Cafe du Trocadero across the place du Trocadero.
2. Berges de Seine – 7kms of roads have been converted into pedestrian and exercise areas on both the right and left bank – we walked along the latest stretch from Pont Notre-Dame up to the Tuileries. Talk about the Berges de Seine to Parisians, be warned most won’t be as enthusiastic about this scheme as it has worsened the traffic jams, pollution and noise levels for locals. The views the ancient buildings and numerous magnificient bridges across the Seine are breathtaking – a perfect place for a gentle stroll. The best way to see Paris!
3. Les Tuileries – before entering the Tuileries gardens from the Berges de Seine, look back and admire the Louvre courtyard with the glass pyramid. We enjoyed a stop by one of the ponds in the Tuileries gardens, sitting on some of the chairs and recliners set up all around the ponds, enjoying the winter sun, watching ducks, seaguls and even a moorhen. It is amazing to think that my father used to come to this very pond, a few hundred metres from his home, when he was a little boy to play with his toy sailing boat. If you go there, you won’t want to miss the Musée de l’Orangerie – a museum that houses some major impressionist and post-impressionists including Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir and Monet’s “Water Lillies” masterpiece.
Question: why are our seaguls in Manly Qld silent. Everytime we hear seaguls, it reminds us of the seaside, but it also reminds us that it is a sound we never hear at home despite being by the sea and all the seaguls there.
4. Musée du Quai Branly – opened in 2006 and dedicated to featuring the indigenous art and cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. There are always interesting exhibitions – I saw two this time, one on art from the pre-Inca period and one titled “Peintures des Lointains” on paintings depicting newly discovered lands and cultures. A few years back I saw a fantastic exhibition on tatoos! Different but fantastic works of art. The museum is surrounded by gardens. Don’t miss the green wall on the Quai Branly street itself: a wall of greenery covers 800 m2 of the facades of the museum, and 150 m2 of the interior walls. It includes 15,000 plants of 150 different varieties, coming from Japan, China, the Americas and Central Europe. Do not miss this Jean-Nouvel creation.
The new Russian cathedral is nearby. Beautiful architecture and also has a museum of icons.
5. Pont Bir Hakeim – Being an art deco fan, I wanted to walk across this one of kind, double storey, bridge. You can take the metro and have fabulous views of the Eiffel Tower, but I preferred walking under the elegant art deco arches. This bridge has appeared in a few movies including Inception, Our Kind of Traitor and Le Pont du Nord. Half across the bridge, you can access the Allée des Cygnes, an artificial island leading to a Statue de la Liberté whose cast was used to create the model of New York one.
6. Les Invalides – I have always admired the fabulous dome of the Invalides, especially at night, but had never spent much time there. The majestic building was built as a shelter for returning injured servicemen. It is situated just down from the pont Alexandre III. The Invalides now consists of the Musée de l’Armée whish has a fabulous multi-media exhibition on the Général Charles de Gaule, the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, the Musée d’Histoire Contemporaine as well as the Dome des Invalides and the Panthéon Militaire, a large church containing the tombs of French war heroes such as Napoleon Bonaparte. I hadn’t expected to spend as many hours as I did, and I missed so much.
7. La Saint-Chapelle – a stunning little gothic chapel which was originally built to house valuable Christian relics such as Christ’s crown of Thorns. The upstairs chapel will take your breath away with its exquisite 15 stained glass windows, each 15 metres high, the stained glass panes depicting 1,113 scenes from the Old and New Testaments recounting the history of the world until the arrival of the relics in Paris.
A short walk from the Sainte Chapelle, the Conciergerie was a medieval royal palace that became a revolutionary tribunal and prison where Marie-Antoinette was held is worth a visit.
8. Le Panthéon – completed in 1790, the Pantheon was originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve. It now functions as a mausoleum for the internment of great Frenchmen (72 men and 4 women) such as Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Voltaire, Emile Zola and Pierre & Marie Curie. It was somehow moving to be in the ‘presence’ of so many great people! The Panthéon is also where physicist Léon Foucault installed a 67 metre long pendulum beneath the dome in 1851 to demonstrate the rotation of the earth.
9. Notre-Dame – the most famous church in France, Notre Dame was completed in 1365 and is a stunning example of French Gothic architecture, beautiful inside and out – take the time to walk down the south side along the Seine which has fewer people than outside the front of the cathedral. I gather the Sunday evensong sound is simply beautiful.
10. Le Marais – a historic district in Paris, it is a fabulous place to stroll through on a Sunday when it is bustling with activity: cobbled streets such as Rue des Barres, rue des Rosiers, many outstanding buildings of historic and architectural importance and museums such as the Picasso museum and the house Victor Hugo lived in, and of course lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. A favourite square of mine is the Place des Vosges.
11. Passages: there are many covered passages in Paris, built mostly in the 19th century, usually covered with glass roofs. Most have many small shops and tea rooms and each one has a distinctive character. We visited the oldest one first, the Passages des Panaromas, built in 1799. This passage leads to Passage Jouffroy and Passage Verdeau.
12. L’Institut du Monde Arabe – another favourite museums of mine, dedicated to the Arab world and another Jean-Nouvel masterpiece especially the façade. Inspired by the Arabic architecute, the mashrabiya, a lattice work designed to protect the occupants from the sun and provide privacy, the façade is made of a system incorporating several hundred light sensitive diaphragms that regulate the amount of light that is allowed to enter the building. Interior spaces are dramatically modified, along with the exterior appearance.
13. Le Quartier Latin – this where we were based and I walked to all those places from or took a bus to the Invalides. One of the oldest parts of Paris, the Sorbonne University in the Middle-Ages attracted scholars who learned Latin from the world over, hence its name. It is vibrant, artsy, eclectic, has the most number of bookshops imaginable. Its narrow streets, pedestrian lanes, ancient churches, quirky restaurants and vibrant feel makes it the best place in Paris to stay in my opinion. Unfortunately the musée de Cluny, musée national du Moyen-age, at the bottom of our street, was temporarily closed. Worth visit if you can if only to see the Dame à la Licorne tappisery – a middle ages masterpiece. However, amazingly, and only the third time The lady and the unicorn tapestry series has left France in 500 years, it is currently displayed at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney until 24 June 2018!
14. Rue Mouffetard. One of the oldest streets in Paris in the Latin Quarter is beautiful, cobbled and brimming with little restaurants, bars and shops! The best time to visit is at night when the street is buzzing with activity.
Here are some must see places for Paris first time visitors, but which I didn’t see this time:
1. Le Louvre – The Louvre is the world’s largest and most visited art museum, and home to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. Be prepared to be overwhelmed – you will not see everything in a single visit. If you don’t go in, enjoy the stunning architecture outside including the striking glass pyramid in the main courtyard of the Louvre Palace.
2. River cruise – a beautiful way of seeing Paris. There are many options but I particular like the night ones as the bridges and buildings are so beautifully lit.
3. Montmatre (Sacré Cœur and Moulin Rouge) – a area of cobbled streets, tiny cafes, steep hill with many many steps and stunning view. The Place du Tertre buzzes with life and colour in the evening, packed with artists offering to draw a sketch of you. If you head to the Moulin Rouge you’ll also come across the café from the movie Amélie, the Café des Deux Moulins.
4. Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysees. The top of the Arc de Triomphe in the middle of the Étoile (star) roundabout offers fabulous views over Paris and towards the Eiffel Tower. From there, enjoy a walk down the famed Champs Elysées but beware of the prices charged in cafés and restaurants. You will pay a fraction of those and have a fabulous meal if you just walk down a few back streets.
5. Musée D’Orsay – This museum is housed in the old Gare d’Orsay train station, another fabulous piece of architecture, this one dating back to 1898, with a magnificent large glass atrium. Do not miss the large clocks which you can climb up to and get fabulous views of Paris (and some cool arty photos). The museum houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces, which used to be housed in the Jeu de Paume, by painters including Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh.
6. Petit Palais – Built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition (like the Eiffel Tower) it now houses the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts. Get off at Les Invalides to admire the majestic Pont Alexandre III and the architecture of both the Grand & Petit Palais. Don’t miss the Jardin du Petit Palais cafe and enjoy the oasis of its garden.
7. Galeries La Fayette (Blvd Hausmann) – the inner atrium of this department store is breathtakingly beautiful. And the terrace on the rooftop offers fabulous views across Paris rooftops. Worth a visit even if you’re not shopping.
8. Jardin de Luxembourg – beautiful treed public garden created in 1612, with a big pond where kids pay with their toy boats. Look out for the view of the Pantheon dome.
9. Bastille – check out another little gem of a cobbled street, the Passage Lhomme, tucked away off 26. rue Charrone or accessible from the Passage Josset. South of the Bastille is the rue Cremieux, the most colourful street in Paris, lined with different coloured houses.
10. Opéra de Paris – Palais Garnier – one of my favourite buildings in Paris! Try and catch either a ballet or opera while you are in Paris, but if you can’t, at least take a tour of this absolute treasure. The Palais Garnier is a truly magnificient building, and the gorgeous ceiling painted by Chagal will take your breath away, once more.
11. Buttes Chaumont – Last but not least, if you have time, and enjoy nature, you won’t be disappointed! This 61 acre park situared in North eastern Paris has a different feel to the usual perfectly manicured and geometrically layed out parks: this one is hilly, rocky, and you can sit on the grassy banks there unlike other Paris city parks.
There is also the Tour Montparnasse for another great view, the Pompidou Centre (museum), the Canal Saint-Martin & Canal de l’Ourcq, the Halles de la Villette and its Géode IMAX, the musée Bourdelle, musée Jacquemart-André, musée Marmottan Monet and of course Versailles!
My top tips when visiting Paris:
– Check out museum opening times – it used to be easy when all museums in France closed on Tuesdays, now it is either Mondays or Tuesdays
– Wander off the main streets, down twisted narrow alleys and you will discover the best cafes and restaurants and little treed squares and old churches.
– Use buses (get bus and metro map from any metro station) if you can’t walk to your destination and look up – the architecture throughout Paris is gorgeous
– Go out at night for the lighting and different atmosphere
– Allow yourself to meander, get lost, stop often and simply enjoy beautiful Paris!
Oh there are so many gems in Paris… Give yourself at least a week to discover this beautiful city, two if you can. I am so happy to have spent that week in Paris, where I was born those short 6 decades + ago. With thanks to my parents. Merci Paris!