It is no longer Hemingway’s Paris.
No longer that romanticized epoch of clinking champagne glasses and Can-Can Girls, backlit with the swirling of sweet cigars and bawdy revelry. Where the beauty drifted, we don’t know; perhaps to the fate of time and erosion, or perhaps to the city’s reliance on old paradigms that just don’t work with the present population. The Paris we experienced in person was much different than that of the misty, lovelorn images dreamed of in well-worn novels. To us, it presented itself as a self-righteous, spoiled stepchild of what it once was – tattered, rude, and disconcerting.
To Tell the Truth
This is not one of those cheeky, double-speak reviews of Paris which ends up praising the beauty and uniqueness of the city in the end. I have to be honest. Furthermore, if you plan on traveling to Paris’ tourist attractions for a day via the Eurostar or into the train station at the Gare du Nord in general, as many do, you need to know what to expect if you want to feel safe and enjoy yourself, even if just for a few hours.
I know there are millions who have different experiences in this city, but as a first time visitor (as many people are) it’s important to depict a personal and real picture so other first-timers can be prepared for the shadows they may find within the City of Lights!
Our Paris Experience
Our main goal during our excursion was to fit in as many attractions as possible in the handful of hours we had in the heart of the city. So, to be fair, we were not out to see the quaint tree-lined outskirts or the coffee houses neatly tucked away in distant and charming arrondissements. We went with purpose due to the short amount of hours we had available, expecting the tourist experience like so many others: art, history, a walk along the Seine and a few glasses of red wine. What we found involved all those things, but in an unexpected way.
Arriving mid-morning at the Gare du Nord on the train from London , we stepped off into a sea of pedestrians, to be expected. Despite the crowds, we managed to find what we thought would be our way around the city – the ticket machine for the Metro. Having very few Euro coins and mostly bills, we were disappointed to find that this antiquated kiosk accepted only the former after waiting in a long line behind similarly-minded visitors. After exchanging some money, we purchased two Metro tickets. We should’ve just saved our exchanged coins.
Quick Note: the Gare du Nord, like many other places in the city, charges you to use the restroom once you arrive, so keep a pocketful of Euro coins handy for this purpose as well.
The Metro itself was, to be honest, one of the most crowded and sardine-can like looking undergrounds we’ve ever experienced. Even past what would be considered rush hour, around 11am, people packed themselves like cattle into unkempt, graffiti-littered train cars and shuffled off to whichever destination they chose. After the general push and pull of the crowd as well as the lack of helpful signage (we both speak enough French to get around… it was the confusing directional signage much more than the language), we actually abandoned our plan to join the masses moving to and fro in the underground and walked out of the main station gate instead, hoping to traverse the city by foot like we’d done so many times in other major cities.
Walking the Streets
For our first experience on the Parisian boulevards outside the Gare du Nord, we were greeted by what I can only assume were two eight-year-old children holding clipboards, aggressively asking us to sign up and pledge “money for the deaf”. When we politely refused and turned to move on, not only did they reach for Justin’s back pocket (we knew to keep our documents in our waist packs instead), but after finding nothing to steal, they screamed and berated us as we walked down the street in search of the Paris Opera house. Apparently, the laws in the city allow for those who are underage to get away with stealing, panhandling, and the like, with very little recourse. Be forewarned!
Quick Note: Carry your passports, money, train tickets and any other documents in a waist pack that is tucked under your shirt in the front. Pickpocketing is so rampant in Paris that there are even signs warning you to be aware of it at the entrance to the Louvre.
Our first stop (after walking briskly through the eerie and abandoned Stalingrad area of Paris) ended up being the Galeries Lafayette, a strikingly beautiful indoor mall where we stumbled upon a quaint restaurant we decided should be our first official stopping point. And having just been mildly assaulted by the wallet-grabbing kids, we thought a drink or two might help temper our initial experience!
We were greeted warmly by the host and seated by the window overlooking the street, which was a welcome reprieve from our newly formed expectations of the day. The food was excellent as was the wine. Excellent perhaps in quality, but also in it’s warming presence against the din and dirt of the downtown. Unfortunately, despite the fact that we spoke in French while ordering (and while the restaurant was not at all busy), the waiter was clearly tired of foreign visitors and did no more than he had to in order to attend to our table until we paid the check. Luckily the food made up for it! We split a well-made ravioli dish and had a few glasses of wine before heading back out into the mean streets.
Quick Note: If you’re from the U.S., you’re probably used to tipping 15-20% on top of the overall tab. We still tip in Europe but one to three Euros is the norm, unless you’re at a less casual restaurant, where 5% of the tab is customary. No matter what, if your service is good, make sure to tip as much you feel is appropriate!
I was hoping our next walk down the boulevard towards the beautiful Opera National de Paris would alleviate my trepidation, but unfortunately it was just another shockingly unpleasant view of the once beautiful heart of Paris. During a very busy time of day on the main thoroughfare across from the Galleria, a homeless man sat on the sidewalk asking for money with his bags, a blanket, as well as a cat and a small dog positioned next to him, sleeping. Obviously, in any major city we face the reality of the less fortunate and those who find themselves without means for food and shelter, it’s a universal truth and one that we try to help, if and when we can. The problem in this particular instance was, the animals on the street next to this man were real, but clearly not alive.
I honestly debated whether or not to write about this, because as an animal lover it disturbed me so much that conjuring up the memory makes me cringe (to say the very least) and hope that what I saw was an illusion, but we both saw it, and unfortunately, it was not. I cannot understand any society that allows this disgusting display, and especially one that purports itself to be as “cosmopolitan” as Paris. We walked on before I lost my lunch.
Having put that behind us, for the moment, we happened upon the intended location of the Paris Opera House, a beautiful structure, to be sure. There was a smattering of people sitting along the steps to the entry, and a lot of good photo ops, but we weren’t able to find a way to actually tour the building. Our first time being there, I’m sure it was user error, admittedly, but we were time-crunched and wanted to see the typical tourist sites at the time.
After pausing on the Opera steps, we luckily found one of the many hop-on-hop-off bus tours that had a stop just across the street. Running to catch it (you can pay for the ticket on the bus itself, no need to go online), we dodged the mad rush of traffic to get on board. This was our saving grace for the day!
Quick Tip: The hop-on-hop-off buses in Paris pick up and leave from many destinations around the heart of the city. Find one that’s best for you and take advantage of the convenience! It picks up about every 15 minutes from each destination so you’re able to go at your own pace.
This city-wide bus tour takes you to the main points of Paris. One of our first stops was the Carousel next to the Eiffel Tower. The city and river views on the drive there are beautiful, and the Carousel itself is a relic that reminds you of those festive Parisian Can-Can days now gone. Being there in winter had it’s downsides, however, and we stayed on the bus for this particular attraction to avoid frostbite (not really, but it was very blustery).
The next main attraction was the quintessential Eiffel Tower itself. It’s an impressive structure, eternally beautiful for it’s lines and history, and personally surprising for it’s stunning deep copper-red color – one I’ve never seen correctly depicted in pictures! During the summer months I’d wager that the experience of simply sitting on the lawn beneath it with a baguette and a bottle of wine is worth the price of a ticket to Paris, but in the winter… it looks nice enough from afar! Taking a tour of it involves many hours spent in line, also, so that wasn’t in the cards for us. But, just to view it against the backdrop of the winter sky was an experience in and of itself.
To get that Eiffel Tower experience as best we could given our time in the city, we jumped off the tour bus momentarily to brave the sleet and rain and capture it’s stature in modern history on film. The romance of that moment was abruptly interrupted, unfortunately.
When it was time to leave for the next stop on our tour bus, Justin was already seated, but as I attempted to step back into the bus, the driver shut the door on my arm and started to drive off. Luckily, Justin – as well as the other passengers – alerted him to the problem and he stopped to open the door so I wasn’t dragged down the road. Yikes. In hindsight this is a funny memory for me, though a bit unsettling at the time! Make sure you alert the driver thoroughly before you hop back on!
On to the Louvre!
The next hop-off for us started at the famous Pont des Arts, down the street from the Louvre, which is the location of the famous “Love Locks”, where locals and visitors alike attach locks to the structure of the bridge’s side grate. Now defunct due to safety reasons, we were able to see the massive and touching display first hand before we made our way to the Louvre.
While massive and well-known, if you’re trying to find The Louvre as a first time visitor by walking down the main road you may find yourself confused, as it it’s famous main entryway sits in the center of the square and is hidden from view if walking from the Love Locks bridge. On the walk there we decided to stop a local and ask (in French) which direction the Louvre was, and ended up pleasantly surprised with his genial and friendly response; his helpful demeanor brightened up our day despite the drizzle. Maybe it just goes to show that if you look for the light in Paris you’ll end up finding it!
The Louvre museum itself has a breathtaking entry. After our travails of the day it was a welcome sight to crest the corner of the structure and see those triangular glass domes beckoning us to enter. For only twelve Euros, you can experience not only the Mona Lisa, but the Venus de Milo, one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture.
The statue, casually roped off to the public, is so close you’ll feel like you’re viewing an antiquity in it’s original time. The Mona Lisa, while the most famous, is actually much smaller than most people expect! Restricted behind glass and a railing barrier (understandably), this painting is still a beautiful sight. In addition to these most famous works, the Louvre’s treasures are immeasurable, and the absolute highlight of our day in the city.
Quick Note: Expect large crowds in the Louvre as well as long lines at the facilities in the museum. I normally wouldn’t mention this particular aspect of a museum experience, but if you’re a new visitor, it’s important to know that the restrooms there are not (how do I put this…) modern. There are myriad visitors from tours and buses and the Louvre does not have adequate restrooms when it’s busy, especially for women. Just a quick tip!
After we’d toured the Louvre, we had to catch our bus back to the Gare du Nord for our train back to London. The hop-on-hop-off tour we’d used wasn’t arriving on time for some reason, so we decided to catch a local bus back to the train station as he was departing from the roundabout of the Louvre. Luckily, the driver was extremely congenial and saw us running after the bus! He stopped to pick us up as he left for the next destination, much to our relief, and, for less than eight Euros, we were able to make it back to the station downtown in a clean bus with friendly people.
During the ride to the station we sat by the window, and despite the rain, the impromptu tour of downtown Paris was mesmerizing and peaceful for the first time, the streetlights bouncing nicely off the building facades and rain soaked pavement as we meandered and bounced along the bustling roads.
Our Last Glass of Wine in Paris
Next to the Gare du Nord was a French-themed restaurant offering a full menu including crepes and wine, the typical expectations of a visitor for the first time, like us. We were understandably hungry at that point and looking to balm our wounds with a glass of vin, so we ventured in. The service was impeccable and graciously accommodating. At the end of a long day it was a welcome change – a friendly server and a window side table tucked into a quaint corner. We ordered food and several glasses of wine before beginning our journey back. Our ham and cheese crepe was hearty and warm, and we had some house red wine to start out – of course! The wait staff was considerate and understandably used to tourists, speaking English as well as French. And, despite being busy that evening, they offered to take our picture for us (several of them, to make sure it was good enough) to document the end to our very long day!
Where Impression Turns to Hope
The quiet, the rain, the lights against the umbrellas in the street. The hope is that this city is more than a tiny Mona Lisa and a plate of tasty but hastily made crepes now that the recipe has been lost to time and waste.
The warm seat in a café, looking through the mist and midnight of what now yearns to become what once was. The hopeful glance through a tour bus window is now the Moveable Feast that the new Paris has lost.
There is much that Paris has yet to recall and reclaim. It may never move the same way as it did when artists flooded the bars and feathered brothels, but to ignore it’s original brilliance is, at the end of the day, folly. To pretend that the rose-colored-glasses-ideals through which we once viewed Paris aren’t rooted in truth and clutched to the heart is a fallacy.
It will remain la vie en rose, but when will the pink light return?