Some cities have no equal. They stand alone, suspended by romanticized reputations built of cinematic allure. Even people who have never seen a map somehow have visions of these cities in their mind. New York City, for instance.
Paris is such a place.
I have dreamt of visiting Paris for as long as I can remember. It’s a city of romance and art, literature and philosophy. Yes: love.
My favorite era of American history – the Roaring 20s – is inextricably linked to Paris through the countless artists and writers (including personal favorite, Fitzgerald) who took up residence in the City of Light during the decade. It remains a cultural mecca.
After years of dreaming (and one spectacularly failed dalliance with a Parisian), I finally made my first pilgrimage to Paris a week ago.
The raison d’être for this visit was a concert by Brooklyn-based jam rockers, The War on Drugs (who, ironically, I never saw while living in Brooklyn for three year). I’d turned my roommate and travel companion, Emily, on to the band some months back, so I bought the plane tickets and she booked our accommodations.
After a two-hour flight from Madrid on which my Asian seat partner enjoyed a pungent Ramen noodle cuisine (got to make the most of cheap flights), Emily and I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport Saturday evening.
We had been told by a French native that Paris was an easy city to navigate because most signs are in English as well as French. In fact, the signage throughout the city is generally bilingual (or just in English), but even so, every new city offers challenges and its share of confusion.
Navigating Paris involves multiple public transportation systems. The first was the RER, express train lines that connect the center of Paris to the outer suburbs. At the supposedly multilingual machines, we didn’t know what tickets to purchase. The price of RER tickets depends on your zone destination. We probably overpaid in buying the 20€ round trip tickets, but whatca gonna do?
Our accommodations had been booked through a hostel website, but in fact, our lodging turned out to be a flat for a single dad; presumably, divorced. Our room was a child’s bedroom, complete with bunk beds, tiny chairs, and all the toys our hearts could desire. I hadn’t had the experience of climbing up into a bed since the last time I was too drunk to get off the floor.
We were staying in the 19th arrondissement (administrative districts; there are 20 in Paris), which on a Saturday night is perhaps not the most happening place to be, but we knew before we even hit the cold night air that it wasn’t going to be a late night for us. We stopped into a brewery for a local craft bière, but the next day was going to be long.
I’ve done my fair share of disparaging tourists in my time – and I’m not about to stop – but this was both of our first time’s in Paris, and we had a full list of cliché tourist destinations to see. The authentic cultural experiences would have to wait for a second trip. After our requisite breakfast of café and croissants, we left for our first stop: the Eiffel Tower. Don’t @ me.
We took the Metro (Paris’ subway) to Gard du Nord, one of the major transportation hubs in the city, and switched to a bus for a brief jaunt through the city. We were deposited across the Seine river from one of the most iconic structures in the world.
There was a marathon in progress that Sunday morning, so two of the bridges that would have taken us to the tower’s base were blocked off and the crowds were all being directed further down the banks of the river. Turning those lemons into a succulent lemon tart, we used our forced circumnavigation of the landmark to capture photos from all angles.
Some of my favorites (click to embiggen):
The bus dropped us off just after 11 and by the time we had walked entirely around the Eiffel Tower and moved on to our next destination, it was close to 2 pm.
A Walking Tour
Up next on our list were more landmarks, including the Musée du Louvre and Notre-Dame Cathedral. Since we had limited time (and funds), we didn’t opt to go into any of these destinations, but even just a tour of Paris’ gorgeous architecture is a full day’s worth of activity.
There’s no better way to see a city than walking, so we did, with Google Maps as our guide anytime we lost our way, which happened frequently. Our winding path to the Louvre brought us to the Invalides, a complex of Paris that includes the Musée de l’Armée, which houses Napoleon’s tomb.
By the time we reached the Louvre, the sun was already giving indications that it was ready to call it quits, but there was still much to see.
Our walking tour continued through the Louvre and back across the Seine onto Ile de la Cité, a slender island between the two banks of the Seine which houses Notre-Dame and the stunning views from Pont Neuf.
The evening was cooling as we made our way through the various sites and sights of the island, but crowds were still out in force.
Finally, we came to the famous cathedral.
Visitors were gathered all around and a large screen was displaying a video to the crowds. We didn’t realize at the time, but they were in the midst of setting up for a commemoration of World War 1 that would taking place two days later.
It was, perhaps, for that reason that the military presence was so heavy. At one point, while I was taking pictures of the cathedral, I realized that I was surrounded on all sides by large men wearing camo and holding almost sarcastically large guns.
Paris has seen its share of violence and terrorism in the last few years, so the security presence was to be expected (still unnerving). It was hard not to think about the specter of terrorism when the next night, Emily and I would be seeing The War on Drugs at the Bataclan, the same venue that was attacked almost exactly two years ago.
It’s a sad part of reality, but it’s there, and we go on. I would never let terror keep me from traveling the world. There’s too much beauty to see.
From Notre-Dame, we crossed the short bridge to Île Saint-Louis, an even smaller island, where we had been told to visit a specific restaurant for an unmissable dessert made with pain perdu. It was an imperative.
So, of course, we reached the restaurant only to find it was closed for the entire week of our visit.
The sun was now setting, but we still had two more landmarks to visit, plus a dinner recommendation we had to try. The next stop on our, at this point, multi-mile walking tour, was the Moulin Rouge.
Located in the 18th arrondissement, just outside the renowned artists district of Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge is a world famous cabaret (immortalized in numerous films, including the glitzy 2001 musical) and continues to draw massive crowds. Alas, we were not among them that night, but there’s always the next visit.
From the Moulin Rouge, we continued through the rather colorful neighborhood to reach our dinner destination:
A good friend had recommended the place, but we had no idea what we were getting into. As the name suggests, it is a fondue restaurant. It’s also an experience.
Refuge des Fondus is tiny, a narrow dining room (more like a walk-in closet) with tables pressed up against the wall and arranged with no space in between. Each side was essentially one long table. When we entered, the waitress directed us to hang up our coats in the back. Upon our return to the dining room, a waiter pulled one of the tables out from the wall to open up space at the booth. Then he offered Emily his hand.
Incredulously thinking he was joking at first, she realized that he was offering to help her climb over the table to her seat.
After that feat of acrobatics, we were brought a platter of various meats, cheeses, and pickled vegetables, along with a small aperitif to drink. For dinner, we were offered our choice of fondue – we went with cheese, obviously – and white or red wine.
The restaurant gradually filled around us, and because all the tables were connected, it felt like one big group, people speaking in English and French, American accents next to British, everyone warmly enjoying themselves.
Waddling out of Refuge des Fondus, stuffed with cheese, bread, and wine, we continued through the darkening night to Sacré-Coeur, an ornate Catholic church in Montmartre, before finishing the night with a nightcap at the rooftop bar in the Terrass Hotel.
As we drank, a brisk rain fell around us, making the views of the city and the lights look even more majestic. One set of lights, in particular, was especially eye-catching.
From the bar, we had a roughly four mile walk back to the flat. On the way, we were briefly joined by a drunk french kid who matched step with us and sang abusively into our ears. We quickened our pace, but he only walked faster. Thankfully, another lad showed up to distract him before the situation devolved into something unpleasant.
We made it home without further incident.
The War on Drugs
The next day, both of us were in pain. Apparently, walking 20+ miles and sleeping on child-sized bunk beds isn’t ideal for your body. It was okay, though, because other than the concert that night, we only had one thing on our agenda for our second full day in Paris: find a creperie.
The tickets said the concert started at 8, and since there was an opening act we’d never heard of, we arrived at Bataclan at 8:20. Turns out, in Europe, when they say the concert starts at 8, they mean the main act. We were still waiting in the coat check line when The War on Drugs took the stage.
We ended up stuck in the back (in my younger years, I would have fought my way to the front), where the less engaged audience members stand. Couples making out and people chatting through whole songs was the price we paid for our tardiness, but the band still commanded the room.
If you’re unfamiliar, The War on Drugs mix Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen (with a touch of Grateful Dead), while still sounding utterly modern. Through their more than two hour set, they attacked their instruments and filled the room with enveloping rock and roll. Well worth the three years of anticipation.
We followed the concert with a drink at Le Comptoir Général, an African-themed bar in an old barn that’s hidden away on the other side of a dark passageway. If we hadn’t been given the exact address, we’d never have found it. Le Comptoir Général was a very unexpected bar to find in Paris, with a cocktail menu almost exclusively made up of African/Caribbean rum drinks and the music a mix of African hip-hop/R&B and French covers of current pop hits. A fun, unique find.
By the end of our second full day in Paris, Emily and I had hit almost every destination on our list. There is, of course, no end of things to do in Paris – we barely scratched the surface – but for a first visit, especially one so brief, we felt pretty accomplished.
Before we headed to the airport the next afternoon, we had only one more thing to do: devour another pastry.
It was only three days, but it was a dream fulfilled and Paris lived up to the hype. I miss it already. That’s okay, though, because I’m only two hours away and I know I’ll be back, soon.