Nothing prepared us for Paris. Even though we had a scrumptious brunch at Le Pain Quotidien (I will later find out that this delicious chain of pastry cafes originated in Brussels, not Paris) at the St. Pancras Station before we departed for Gare du Nord, the French capital would soon present itself in a way that we will remember for life in a span of four short days.
But first – all aboard the Eurostar!!!
Boy oh boy! I’ve always wanted to ride on a high-speed rail service and I did not hesitate spending a little bit more for train tickets, even though flying was actually the cheaper option. I chose 2nd class (the cheapest option) and it was even more comfortable than economy seats on a plane. Legroom was aplenty and there’s even a fully equipped bathroom (with a cheeky portrait of the Mona Lisa) at every coach for passengers to freshen up. The train journey took about 2 hours – from London into the English Channel (underground) and then Paris – the entire journey was smooth like butter.
Just like their people, the Gare du Nord station tries to minimizes the usage of English as much as it can. The first (very useful) word my mom and I learned was “sortie”, which means exit. I bought a carnet of (10) Metro tickets before we made our way to our Airbnb apartment which was cheaper than buying individual tickets.
Here’s the lowdown on the Metro- anyone who complains about our local LRT has probably never taken a Metro before. It’s dirty, it smells like pee and some (not all) of the trains are very, very old – so much so that you actually have to manually open the latch of the door when you reach. But it’s the most efficient way to get around Paris, and the stations serve as temporary shelters from the temperamental Parisian rain – so we got used to it quite quickly.
To understand how Paris works, the city is divided into 20 arrondisements, spiraling outward starting from the Louvre, and split by the Seine river, where we have the Left Bank (“below” the river as in the map) and the Right Bank (“above”. Our AirBnb was located in the 5th arrondisement, which is located at the Quartier Latin, a district dominated by university students.
Our AirBnB apartment was lovely! It was tiny (and so was the elevator – it could barely fit the two of us with one large backpack), but very well-kept. We were greeted by our host’s dad and while he spoke no English, the earlier instructions that were given to me was clear enough so the transaction of the keys went smoothly (although he did come by a second time because he forgot his “chapeau” and it took me five minutes to realize he was referring to his hat). We also found a bottle of red wine as a welcome gift from our host.
As soon as we settled down, we were off to get some lunch and explored the areas nearby on foot. The skies were cloudy and it wasn’t too cold – perfect. Another reality check came about rather quickly – while it may seem as if all the famous landmarks in Paris are about a stone’s throw away from one another, the hilly roads do make it seem longer than anticipated. This is why investing in a good pair of quality shoes is very important.
About 15 minutes of walking brought us to the Seine river, where it was hard to miss the Notre Dame de Paris that stood out majestically. Upon admiring one of the greatest French-Gothic architectures in the world, I remember thinking “This is it.” – that I was really on European soil with mom. I was crossing off one of the major items in my bucket list that I’ve had since I was in school – it was almost emotional.
Towards the evening we took a cruise with Vedettes du Pont Neuf along the Seine river, where we departed from one of the 26 bridges called Pont Neuf, which is also the city’s oldest bridge, opened by King Henry IV in 1607. It is situated on the west tip of the Ile de la Cite, the same isle that houses the Notre Dame on the east side. The cruise was a great way to give us an overview of the famous buildings and monuments (not to mention the countless bridges!) of Paris. I believe it would be equally fascinating if we took it at night when the entire city is lit up.
After a well-needed good night’s sleep, mom and I were on our way to the Louvre the next morning. Of course, not before grabbing some delicious croissants and coffee for less than €3 to kick start our day! It’s one of the things I miss most about my trip – the ease of grabbing cheap but quality breakfast on the go. To save a bit of energy, this time we took the Metro to the Lourve.
The Louvre is, to say the very least, ginormous. I was a bit skeptical when people kept telling me that they needed a few days to cover the place (I mean, how big can an art gallery be?) and now that I’ve been there, I’d have to agree. The Mona Lisa, on the other hand, was a lot smaller than I thought. We got there quite early, and even then there was a small crowd where we had to make our way through to see the portrait. If we were any later I probably would’ve given up entirely.
As predicted, we couldn’t finish the entire museum and soon we left for the Tuileries Garden to enjoy the sunny outdoors. I was getting the hunch that the French really, really loved their sculptures. And based on the size of their landscape and buildings – it was really go big or go home for them.
Pass the garden we soon found ourselves trotting along the Champ Elysees avenue, making our way to the Arc de Triomphe. At this point, my RM29.90 Uniqlo umbrella was becoming our best friend. Now, taking a photo of the Arc de Triomphe was a little tricky. It is, after all, right smack on a roundabout in the middle of the road – which means that traffic is everywhere.
Next, we were on our way to one of the most beautiful (and dangerous) landmarks of Paris – the Sacre Ceour. This was where my mom almost got her pocket picked when buying a bottle of water at one of the stalls. Initially, she thought the yelling stall keeper was just being rude and impatient (as with many of the French we have encountered in our journey) – as my mom reached for her pocket she felt a cold hand that quickly retracted upon contact. Turns out, the stall keeper was shouting at him for his attempt, and mom was very shaken upon that incident.
Despite all that though, mom recovered very quickly (that, or it was the adrenaline rush talking) and insisted that we finished our climb towards the church, even though I had suggested for us to go elsewhere. Seeing her determination as we climbed each step (it was quite a long climb since this is one of the highest points in the city) touched me – I knew she wanted to make sure our trip was worth it and did not want an incident like this spoil the holiday. I had almost forgotten how strong she can be.
After the brief but scary episode at the supposedly holy ground, it was time to visit the Eiffel Tower. Paris proved to be no short of drama once more when we saw police barricading the streets leading to one of the world’s most famous monuments and shooing tourists away. We soon found out from another tourist that somebody had thrown a television from the first floor of the tower, and so it was closed for investigation. So we walked around the area and managed to find a cozy little corner with an unobstructed view of the tower!
The third day was Chataeu de Versailles day! To go to Versailles we had to purchase tickets for the RER (another train service). While it was convenient to purchase the tickets through the machine, it only took coins and credit cards! We did not have enough coins and could not find anyone at the counter to purchase our tickets from, so we had to opt for the latter. Thank goodness I had activated my credit cards for overseas use prior to our trip (I needed them to buy some Longchamp bags anyway, but more on that later).
Even though we were early at the station, the first couple of trains leading to Versailles had to undergo maintenance so by the time we boarded, we had to join the other tourists that arrived later, and even more of them when we reached. We managed to skip the queue to buy our tickets as we had purchased our passes earlier – but so did everyone. The long queue that I imagine might resemble the scene at the pearly gates, was the security line.
But once we got in, all that waiting was forgotten. From the chapel, to the gallery, Hall of Mirrors, the queen’s chambers and the garden – no details were sparred in putting this palace in a class of its own. Like the Louvre, 24 hours just isn’t enough to see and absorb everything!
It was so crowded during the tour of the chambers that we just wanted to get over with it, because we couldn’t wait to get to the next part – the gardens.
We finished the rest of the day by visiting the Notre Dame before it closes, shopping at the La Fayette Gallery, where mom wanted to help her friend get a couple of Longchamp bags (I think it’s the only place in Paris where I’ve seen the most Asians) and a final look at the Eiffel that was gloriously lit up at night.
There’s a lot to hate yet there’s also a lot to love about Paris. Merci beaucoup, Paris – you are of sorts, but still the sort that I would like to get to know again. It’s now time to bid you au revoir and make our way to Belgium the next morning!