Paris is full of French people
I'm pretty friendly. I make friends easily, and am really good at keeping in touch. Therefore, I have a slew of people I can crash with all over the world- for free. Where I know people often dictates where I travel to, so when I got back in touch with my friend Emmanuel in Paris, I took advantage of seeing an old friend, and a great city. Plus, I've been dying to practice my French. I've always been good at languages and took a refresher course in the fall at Alliance Francaise, where I realized I don't really understand French all that well...
I knew airfares were going to be high, with the "war" in the Middle East affecting fuel costs etc, so when Air France had a sale, I jumped right on it. My friend Beth and I got our tickets for $450
. Of course, 2 weeks later they dropped to $415
. C'est la vie, man. The Charles de Gaulle Airport is about an hour from Paris center, but its really easy to get to and from via train. Emmanuel warned us of a transit strike that would be going on for the first few days we were there. Basically that meant that the trains run, just not as often, and were FREE
. (I think the city of Philadelphia nearly died when SEPTA went on strike, forcing thousands of overweight South Philadelphians to walk for the first time in their lives.) Emmanuel lives in the east end of Paris, near the Bastille (people actually ask where it is! PEOPLE, Bastille Day does NOT celebrate the construction
of the Bastille... use Google for chrisssakes) and not far from the Seine. A regional train and subway ride got us there. The subway system is great and easy, and you can get a carnet of 10 tickets for about 10 Euros
While we were there, the "riots" were going on in Paris... right... more like 40-45 minutes from Paris. I never saw a single burned out car or riotous act, just tons and tons of dog shit. I got to the point that I had to pretend that many Parisians had accidentally dropped their chocolate cakes. Seriously it was everywhere. "Mon dieu! Mon petit gateau chocolat! Pauvre-moi!"
There are many obvious spots to visit in Paris, and we created regional day trips with the aid of my Let's Go Paris book. My trips are always walking-intensive. That being said, I don't think I'd recommend going to Paris over Thanksgiving. It was cold. COLD. I wore everything I brought with me- AT ONCE. I'm not going to lie, it did put a damper on things. I'd expected Paris to be a bit more culturally diverse like London or Barcelona was, but I found it was mostly populated by native Parisians. But I found that they natives deeply loved Paris, and were proud of their rich culture.
Paris is an expensive city, but not as bad as I'd expected. Dinner was really expensive, and French food wasn't that appetizing to me. I have an adventurous palette, but being a vegetarian in Paris means slim pickins. Luckily we had access to Emmanuel's kitchen, so we ate extremely well on market finds. I LOVE SUPER MARKETS in other countries. The one near the apartment in Paris had the most amazing yogurt section, I swear like 100 different kinds. Each night we got a bottle of good wine for 3 Euros
, amazing cheeses and produce from the outdoor markets, and fresh baguette for 75 Eurocents.
Boulangeries (bakeries) in France are government regulated, so you can expect the same quality and price in each. I'm not a big sweets person, but I tried practically everything! Not going to dinner saved a lot, and the few times we did we were disappointed. I felt most French cafes were the same, with the same boring food for 15 Euros
or more. I found a great restaurant on Http://happycow.net
(lists veg. restaurants all over the world) called La Victoire du Supreme Couer http://www.vscoeur.com/
. It was a bit pricey but well worth it. I had this amazing salad and faux lamb. It's on a cute street near rue Rivoli and some good Australian bars (I know I know but it was Paris yea yea- but they had beer specials!).
Yes, you should check out all the usual spots; The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, The Louvre, The Pantheon, The Centre Pompidou....all the must-sees. Let's Go had said that The Louvre was cheaper after 4 pm, but that wasn't the case. I found 2 hours there was not quite overwhelming, but really the right amount of time. The Mona Lisa wasn't that exciting. I was more interested in Napoleon III's suites, and this giant hall we found housing unused relics. The Louvre is ridiculously huge, and there are hidden and unnoticeable rooms everywhere- so look out. This one I discovered when looking over a high ledge in a rest area. Hundreds of Roman sculptures quietly sitting in the dark awaiting installation, or lined up in some sort of graveyard. Definitely my favorite part, aside from Michaelangelo's The Dying Slave.
Speaking of corpses, I think the most underrated attraction is the Catacombs. The tourist entrance is located in the 14th arrondissement in the south of Paris. The Catacombs actually span the entire city, and is said to correspond with every major street. Much of it is unmapped and unexplored, but you can find pirate maps on the internet and what not.
Emmanuel told me of an entire modern movie theater used for secret cinema screenings, found in a branch of the Catacombs, that was recently discovered by authorities. Parts of it have collapsed in the past, causing the buildings and streets above to crash into a pit of bones! The entrance, near Petit Palais, has a 5 Euro
fee, or 2.50
for "young people" (26 and under! haha I'm a young person!) Beth and I entered and started walking down the spiral staircase for what seemed like forever...we kept walking and walking, looking for the tour group....until we realized there was no tour group.
It was just us. Alone to explore. The tourist walk spans about a mile. The ceiling is about 7 ft high, and the walls are comprised mainly of skulls and femurs stack lengthwise. Theres a constant drip, adding to the spookiness. There are engraved slabs of marble everywhere, stating which cemetery the lot of bones came from, or a French poem about death, and also mini altars and wells/fountains. It was very dark, so I kept taking random pictures in order to really see where we were going, or what was inscribed in the marble. After an hour you come to the end and exit out of an unmarked door on a residential street near Montparnasse Cemetery. Very surreal. We immediately went to a boulangerie, bought some croissants, then headed into the Montparnasse Cemetery (free!
) to explore and look for Oscar Wilde's grave.
A must see for me was Versailles. I studied a lot about it in Art History class, and had to see the remaining decadence for myself. Motorcoach tours are advertised everywhere taking you to the palace for about 50 Euros
. But actually, the train was super easy and only cost 7 Euros
roundtrip and takes an interesting, scenic hour. Its only about a 10 minute walk from the train station to the palace.
There are different options for touring, and we chose the audio tour (I hate guided tours) in 2 of the apartments. I really wanted to explore the grounds and gardens more, but again the cold was deterrent. In fact, it snowed! Of course being off season, the Hall of Mirrors was closed. The rest of the palace has been mostly restored, considering most of the furniture and what not was either destroyed, stolen or auctioned off during the Revolution. I can't really imagine ever living there. It would be like living in a museum, but then again Royal life was very public, births were even a public event!
I wouldn't be able to handle the lack of alone time. The walls and ceilings are covered with famous paintings and scenes, including a HUGE portrait of my boyfriend, Napoleon I, crowning Josephine. (yes I have a crush on paintings of young Napoleon) It was well worth the trip though. The gift shop was lacking- I only bought a postcard of Napoleon. The town is pretty touristy and expensive, I'd recommend eating at the cafe at Versailles, fairly cheap with 3-4 Euro
sandwiches and 1 Euro
coffees. Or if you are lucky enough to visit in nice weather, bring a picnic and sit in the gardens! I'll be jealous of you.
My favorite parts of vacations are the unscheduled, exploration moments- using my street map and just meandering about. I stumbled upon the Luxembourg Gardens one night, which were closed, but found that the fence around the entire perimeter is used as a make shift photography gallery, with billboard like prints showcasing photography from the 1800s to present time. How nice to see art in the public eye, for the sake of sharing! (and free
!) I wish we'd learn from that. Imagine art on public fences! sigh...
I'd actually budgeted about 100-200 Euros to "splurge" on something fabulously French, and I actually came home with money! I wasn't really impressed with the fashion. It wasn't that it was expensive, it was just boring. French women are known for buying expensive essentials, and essentials aren't really what I want to buy while on vacation. So, sadly, I didn't bring back any fun souvenirs, except for 2 bottles of 3 Euro
wine. We did hit all the major shopping areas, including rue Rivoli, the Sorbonne area, and Bon Marche , the oldest and most exclusive department store.
Coming back was a pain, I would definitely suggest giving yourself 3-4 hours from Paris center to the airport. It takes an hour by train, and then once you arrive at Charles de Galles, there are about 4 security checkpoints (where they go through all of your dirty underwear infront of the entire line) THEN after check in, you have to get on a "bus" with no seats and jostle about standing for about 40 minutes to your gate.
All in all, I spent $450
on my ticket, about $50
in trains/transportation, and about $300
otherwise. I'd really expected to spend more. Like I said, I came home with money. I'd definitely like to go back when the weather is nicer, but maybe for a few days and then check out the riviera or another region. My only other downside aside from the cold, was that I was very excited to practice my French, but the Parisians were very excited to practice their English, so when they detected my Buffalo/East Coastie accent, they'd drop the French and cut right to English. Pauvre-moi. xo