Part One: Paris- July 31 through August 5
As some of you may have noticed, my best laid plan of blogging on a daily basis from Europe was a complete non-starter. Nothing like slipping on the proverbial banana peel, right out of the starting gate. However, our errors and gaffes along with all of the things that went right as a result of advance planning, good timing, serendipity and plain old good luck can provide those who are planning a trip to any of the cities we visited, with some ideas, suggestions, tips and insights, so you can make your trip with the benefit of some hindsight, where we are all thin and rich! The blogging blooper (and what I should have done to obviate it) was but one of many learning experiences gleaned from three weeks of travel. So, eager reader of this blog we offer “pearls of wisdom,” in the form of plenty of useful information based on our observations and experiences.
Let us begin with some general observations that appeared true about any of the cities we visited. First and foremost: Despite some self-generated fears of pickpockets, scammers, thugs, thieves and buggerers awaiting us around every corner, we had no run-ins with those characters and in fact, never observed or heard of anything along the lines of what we read in the TA travel forums in regard to petty crimes. As I wrote in my pre trip statement, we had Pacsafe bags and were determined not present ourselves as “low hanging fruit” to anyone looking to line their pockets with our money/possessions. Perhaps this attitude sent a message that we weren’t easy “marks” and that’s why we encountered no problems. However, we saw plenty of people who weren’t taking precautions and presented themselves as easy targets with bags hanging all over them or wallets casually being stuffed with money just taken out of ATMs. Yet we never saw or heard of any incident although even many “locals” would tell us to be careful.
After a while I felt I could let my guard down somewhat. There were plenty of times when it just seemed superfluous to put money in a moneybelt (I began to feel silly undoing my belt and pants and reaching into my underwear to take money out) or only use my pacsafe bandolier pack when our regular, everyday, day pack would hold much more even though it was potentially, an easier target. I gained confidence that my worries were vastly overblown and although I always waded into a crowd, wary of theft, I stopped trying to “read” who was the “bad guy” in the crowd biding his time, waiting for me to let my guard down.
We traveled to areas that were clearly not on the tourist path and although some of these places did look and feel “sketchy,” we never felt threatened or unnerved. I have read some TA posts that were so fraught with fear about pickpockets or muggings, that the writer was actually wondering if it was safe to travel at all. Far be it for us to say: “Don’t worry, be happy.” It’s just that in our case, we didn’t encounter any problems of this nature. Travel with confidence, act like you own the place, look like you’re attentive to your surroundings and don’t look like some goofball tourist, and perhaps you will have the same positive experience we had.
General observation #2: It appears our European betters didn’t get the memo about the dangers of smoking/second hand smoke, etc. We knew that smoking was going to be an annoyance we had to deal with but we were continuously astonished by just how many people smoked. In Prague, it was almost beyond belief. Coming from Marin County where it’s practically illegal to smoke anywhere except in one’s home (Someone’s working on that one), we realized just how much of a “smoke free bubble” we live in. On a practical level, this impacted us in Paris because all of the smokers are “banished” to the outside tables of restaurants which in the fine weather we experienced, were the best places to sit. We’re not talking a random smoker here and there either. We’re talking high school bathrooms circa 1960’s/70’s. It seemed everyone who sat outside smoked…and smoked…and smoked. On metros, we often saw smokers would have a cigarette and lighter at the ready so that their first breath outside the metro would include the delightful taste of 60 carcinogens. Yum!
At least in Paris, the prohibition against smoking inside of restaurants appears to be enforced. In Prague, many restaurants allowed smoking indoors and outdoors even though there are nonsmoking regulations. In one place we ate we were consigned to a nonsmoking area in a downstairs windowless room and it smelled worse than the smoking areas because of no air circulation. The smoking really dragged down our dining experiences in all the cities we visited. We may not be “foodies” but that doesn’t mean we don’t mind inhaling poisonous smoke with our food.
General observation #3: The public transportation systems of Paris and Barcelona are outstanding, comprehensive and a great bargain when you buy a multiday use pass. Paris and Barcelona use turnstiles to enforce paying for its use. Prague and Frankfurt (what we saw of Frankfurt) appear to use the honor system as anyone can simply walk through unsecured turnstiles. The flipside of the honor system is that transit police randomly check users to see if they have a valid ticket. We were checked on at least one occasion. Public transportation in Prague is so cheap it’s hardly worth risking the fine if caught without a valid ticket. Also, because it’s a smaller city than Paris, it’s easy to walk almost everywhere. We simply bought metro tickets on an ad hoc basis for when we needed to use it. A ticket for 30 minutes and unlimited transfers costs just over a dollar.
As it turned out, wherever we stayed, we were always within a couple of minutes of the metro. We didn’t plan it that way but in hindsight, we realized just how much easier it made our sightseeing. I therefore would strongly suggest that if planning to use a city’s metro, make certain you are close to a line so that it isn’t a factor in your daily logistics.
General observation #4: Europeans seem to like getting tattooed even more than Americans. I won’t go beyond that sweeping generalization other than to ask: Why would anyone, anywhere want to mutilate their own body? (Rhetorical question, of course!)
Weather throughout our trip was as good as one could hope for in August. It was perfect for wearing shorts most days but thankfully, there were no heat waves to contend with. There were a couple of drizzly moments in Paris and the weather overall was on the cooler side. This was perfect weather for walking all day. Barcelona was the warmest, as expected, but never got so hot that we had to change any of our walking plans.
This following blog info is broken down as follows: A day by day description and observations in the cities of Paris, Barcelona and Prague and a brief mention of Frankfurt where we stayed overnight before heading back to the bay area, This blog is primarily written as a guide for those who are users of Trip Advisor. I have used it for many years (even though I’ve only been officially a part of TA this last year.) and spent a considerable amount of time on TA in the six months prior to our trip in August. The travel forums for the cities are of tremendous help.
We decided to rent apartments in Paris and Barcelona. We tend to be “do it yourself” types and like the idea of having a kitchen, more space, the use of a washing machine within the unit as well as not staying in a hotel laden tourist area or even a tourist laden hotel area. We stayed in a hybrid apartment/hotel in the outskirts of Prague because it was so highly rated on TA. The three accommodations we stayed in were all obtained from TA even though we also looked at places advertised elsewhere. For those interested in traveling as we do, you’ll want to read our detailed reviews on their TA webpages: “Paris Montmartre 1 bedroom flat near underground”, “Designer and Modern Pintor Gimeno Studio” (Barcelona) and “Aparthotel City 5” (Prague) This information won’t be on this blog because most people who read this won’t necessarily be interested in, for example, the noise level at night in Montmartre.
Additionally, we are not “foodies” and as it turned out, in Paris, we ate/drank less than in other places. No doubt more than a few readers will declare this the definition of irony. There was simply so much to see and do that we were too engrossed to bother to eat until the evening. We recognized at the time that we were missing out on Paris’ renowned haute cuisine; eating and drinking just wasn’t our priority. So don’t read this blog if you are seeking gastronomical ideas or enjoy vicarious dining experiences. “C’est la vie.” Hey, that’s what the French would say!
We departed SFO the evening of July 31; our first stop: Newark, NJ. Unfortunately, time constraints prevented our leaving the airport for a quicky tour of this thriving cultural hub of the Garden State despite that fact that the plane to Paris was delayed for four hours and we had to cool our heals at the airport until a 1:30am departure. We were fortunate enough to fly business class to and from Europe and for some unexplained reason, this was enough for us to secure an entry into United Club lounge. This made our stay in the airport much more bearable because libations and a variety of nibblies were gratis for the duration.
The flight over the pond was as good as one could have, for a true red-eye flight. We had large screen TV’s with plenty of entertainment choices (no internet though) and our seats reclined to make for a passable bed. It was a singularly strange experience to dine on a full, very elaborate steak dinner replete with an unending supply of liquor at 3am in an airplane flying in the pitch black of night over the ocean. Having said that, there are worse ways to spend an evening whiling away the hours. As is typical when I fly, I never sleep (must be all that arm-flapping) and Ellen, as always, managed to grab a few hours of shuteye.
We arrived in the late AM at CDG no worse for wear. First items on the agenda were converting dollars to euros, obtaining a six day metro pass at the airport and getting the Paris Museum Pass (more on that in a bit.) We were in for an unnerving experience when attempting to make our first purchase; all of our credit/debit cards were rejected by the merchant. We went on a wild goose chase around CDG in search of a bank outlet where we could talk to someone about what must have been, in our minds, some sort of cosmic error. As it turned out, it was a glitch with the merchant and there wasn’t anything wrong after all. Fortunately, Ellen had converted currency before trying to buy the metro tickets so we were still able to buy what we needed. Therefore, the takeaway is to be prepared with currency in case you have a card problem so you don’t have to wait in line a second time and or feel stranded if your only resource is a credit/debit card. If a merchant does reject your card, try an ATM. That’s when we realized we had no problem after all. We also picked up at the airport the Paris Museum Pass which is good at about 60 museums (we got the six day pass for 69 Euros) and allows the holder to bypass the lines to buy tickets at any museum. However, it doesn’t allow the holder to bypass the security checkpoints with the ubiquitous x-ray machines. Expect major bottlenecks at these points. Overall, we felt it was a good value even if we didn’t use it everyday. It’s nice to have the option if a non-museum plan goes awry which is exactly what happened to us later that week. We left the airport and arrived late afternoon in Montmartre.
The airport escapades took a few precious hours. This meant that our first day in Paris was largely shot as a result of the delayed arrival coupled with too many hours at CDG. At least we would enjoy our first night in Paris. We took the RER (Paris train) to the Metro and got to our stop with no problems. The Metro is a fabulous system and very easy to figure out even if you don’t speak or understand French. As an English speaker with no command of French, I could still decipher enough words to understand simple signs and instructions which is pretty much what a metro system is about, sign-wise. I cannot speak for those who are Urdo speakers.
Our flat was five minutes from the Metro line 12- Mairie d’Issy/ Porte de la Chapelle and our stop was Lamarck Station/Montmartre. We met the owner’s agent and he was very helpful in going over the basics of the flat as well as the neighborhood. There was free wifi and this is very useful if you use it in conjunction with the Yelp App for Paris. Click on the TA link above to see photos of the flat and read about it if you’re planning to stay in the neighborhood. We highly recommend the apartment.
We stayed in 18th Arr. better known as Montmartre. The neighborhood (below and behind the Sacré Cœur as viewed from central Paris) felt very genuine even though there are a fair amount of tourists. No matter which street we walked down, we found an amazing array of eateries, bars, small markets and always, a handful of cafes with their tables dominating the sidewalk.
We ate at the café three doors down from our flat (L’Etoile de Montmartre.) It wasn’t inexpensive (good luck with that objective!) but a good introduction to the café experience that dominates the gastronomical landscape of Paris. Although we wanted to dine outside, we would have had smoke blown in our faces. Keep in mind, tables on sidewalks are crammed together so it’s no exaggeration to say you could have smoke blown in your face.
What is noteworthy (from the tourist standpoint) about the area is the Sacré Cœur which sits on a bluff with a commanding view of the city although the view itself isn’t terribly impressive. Interestingly, to get to the Sacré Cœur from the Lamarck station requires going two stops to the Pigalle station and transferring to the blue line and getting off at the Abassese station. This made it sound as if Sacré Cœur wasn’t easy to get to and when we did it this way we got to the base of Sacré Cœur and took the Funicular up, joining all of the other tourists on all of the streets immediately in front of Sacré Cœur which isn’t exactly a high watermark experience.
It wasn’t until the end of the week that we realized that Sacré Cœur is a five minute hike from Lamarck station (which means it’s faster to walk there from Lamarck than take the metro.) It’s located right above the Museum of Montmartre (see below) but it’s the backside of Sacré Cœur which is a marked improvement over the front side, in our opinion. There is an entire tourist area here and yes, as is the tendency of tourist areas, it’s filled with tourists. However, this area seemed a much classier tourist area than the tourist areas in front of Sacré Cœur. When we explored the front part, we had no idea of this back area and the fact that we could simply walk back to our flat. We simply didn’t realize how close it was because the metro map only shows the metro system and the complicated way to get there from Lamarck. Sacré Cœur is an impressive and imposing edifice. However, many TA reviewers don’t seem to like it because its steps are a “hangout” for people who are openly drinking and the entire area is littered with empty bottles (here you will find beer hawkers selling individual bottles) and other garbage. There are also the annoying peddlers of trinkets and fake gold jewelry. The inside of Sacré Cœur is worth the free admission but don’t spend too much time here. Walk outside and go behind the building and you will see the more upscale area I mentioned. There is some beautiful architecture in this area. You need to look up at all times because it’s easy to miss the many elaborate facades as well as the many memorial plaques dedicated to any number of famous people who once lived in the area.
Day 1: Our first stop was Notre Dame. Widely considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture; it is among the most well-known churches ever built. But you already knew this. We passed by ND a few times and it became the single most photographed object of our trip. It is impressive to look at and photograph from any angle. Behind ND is The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation the very spare and stark memorial to the 200,000 people deported from Vichy France to the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. There wasn’t much to look at and I left somewhat puzzled as to its intent as a memorial.
From there we went to the historic district known as Le Marais. Once upon a time, according to Ellen, it was a very genuine district and home to the Jews of Paris. When she was last there, it wasn’t a tourist trap. Now it has become a fashionable district, home to many trendy restaurants, fashion houses, and hype galleries. In other words, it’s gone tourist. Ellen was very unhappy with this change. I have nothing to compare it with and additionally, I’m not as offended as she is when an area becomes “too touristy.” We also visited in Marais the Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris. You can see a plaque on the door of a home informing you that Victor Hugo once lived there.
Later in the day we visited the Arab World Institute and the Pompidou Center but these visits were very perfunctory as we were “running on fumes” by this point. Although we used our museum pass to gain access to Pompidou, anyone can use the series of escalators on the side to ride up to a couple of platforms where one can get some good views and pictures of the surrounding area. This is where I espied my first view of the Eiffel Tower. The very large plaza in front of Pompidou appears to be a hangout for all sorts of street performers, pan handlers and backpackers.
By the end of this first day, I was truly feeling the results of hours of walking as my feet and ankles were giving out. We have no idea how much we walked on that first day but we were quite exhausted at the end of it. In hindsight we were sorry we didn’t bring a pedometer to see just how much walking we did and of course, never remembered to buy one when the notion came up. Neither of us can even remember what we did for dinner that evening.
Day 2: The day began with a trip to Versailles. As has been said, if you only go to one museum in Europe, make it Versailles. We took the RER (the Paris train system) and the approximate journey of 12 miles out of the city was interesting because we saw miles and miles of suburbs that we never would have seen otherwise. Not that there’s anything inherently interesting about suburbs. However, I have never seen a French suburb, so it’s that aspect that I found interesting. As I’m fond of saying: “Little things amuse little minds.”
Once in Versailles, it’s about a ten minute walk to the palace. I was staggered as I approached the palace. The beauty and the size coupled with the rich history made this a highlight for me. We got there late morning and the lines looked daunting but that’s just what you have to get through to see this gem of a place. We passed the one hour wait time listening to a Rick Steve’s audio tour/history of the place that I put on the IPOD. We had an adapter so that two headphones could be plugged in. This worked ok in a slowly moving line but it was quite a challenge to stay hooked together while walking through the palace with the vast hoards all around.
We took the standard tour along with about a half million others. The smaller rooms on the first floor are loaded with information, portraits and videos but were way too packed with people for us to enjoy being in them. We hurried through to get to the famous rooms most of which are upstairs. Of course, the Hall of Mirrors was the most spectacular one of all. Having said that, you may see some completely out of place and utterly incongruous modern sculptures that someone decided would enhance the room (and others, as well.) I can only say: “What were they thinking?” After the tour a walk through the gardens reveals just how large this estate was and is. Hard to imagine how much resources were used to keep the place up during its heyday although it was easy to see why the peasants came to resent the owners profligacy way back when.
After we returned to Paris, we went to the oddly named Les Invalides. The full name translates as: The National Residence of the Invalids. Or as we Americans would call it: Congress. This is a complex in the 7th Arr. that houses monuments and museums all related to French military history in all of its checkered glory. This entire complex is the place you can get your military fix. It’s perhaps best known as the final resting place of Napoleon. The building he’s entombed in, the Dome of Les Invalides is the jewel in this crown, so to speak. This structure is absolutely stunning in its own right. The tomb itself is iconic made more famous by the photo of Hitler gazing admiringly at it during his visit in 1940. His visit was done very early in the morning long before most Parisians were out and about. Probably something to do with his invasion of their country.
It was a remarkable moment for me to be here looking at the tomb thinking about how this one man changed history and pondering his final resting place and its immense size. I seem to recall he was a short guy (“Napoleon Complex”? Now there’s a true redundancy.) Once you step outside,take in the remarkable views from Les Invalides of the surrounding area of Paris. I was quite stuck by this and I truly got a sense of what makes Paris so indelible as well as its status as a world class city if not THE world class city.
We finished the day with a walk over to the Le musée du quai Branly. This museum displays collections of objects from African, Asian, Oceanic and American civilizations. By this point in the day, I was seriously dragging and wasn’t too receptive to objects of the aforementioned regions. To be honest, on a good day, I would be hard pressed to embrace African art objects, figuratively as well as literally. We pretty much zipped through this museum and headed back to Montmartre. Again, what we did for dinner eludes our recollection but I know that we made dinner one our first nights because, well, we had a kitchen and I enjoy shopping for food in markets especially in a country where food and its preparation is in a class by itself. But then again, garden snails are considered a delicacy here. Eeek! Get the Raid!
Day 3: Eiffel Tower day! Despite the look of ennui on Ellen’s face, she was OK with seeing this monument even though it was her, what, fourth…fifth time? I was pretty excited by the prospect. After all, this is one of the world’s most iconic structures and it was on my “bucket list.” I didn’t feel the need to take the elevator to the viewing platform. It was enough to stand at its base and simply take it all in. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the plethora of soldiers around the park area, carrying their machine guns, always “at the ready” but it still felt somewhat unnerving. It was at moments like this that I was glad to have left my AK-47 at home. I hate provoking international incidents.
We next headed out to the 6th Arr. This area is Saint-Germain-des-Prés and was, at one time, the center of the existentialist movement. As I saw in every city, plaques commemorating famous persons with even the most tenuous connection to the edifice they’re attached to are easy to find here. The famous Les Deux Magots café is here. A litany of famous artists use to hang out at this café. It dominates a street corner and was packed when we came across it. We also visited The Church of St Germain des Pres which is remarkable for its age. The square in front of the church has bistros, restaurants, shops and cafes all around it. Which is a statement that could be true for just about any area in Paris! From here, it’s a short walk to the Jardins du Luxembourg (Garden of Luxembourg.) This is a large and diverse park not unlike a smaller version of Golden Gate Park (albeit, much, much smaller.) that is well kept with a beautiful palace with a large man made lake in front. Worth a walk through on a nice day especially if you are on your way to the Pantheon, which we were.
It’s stunning inside and out. Definitely worth a visit. The area around it is very nice as well. The Pantheon is in the Latin Quarter and was originally built as a church. It now functions as a secular mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens. And I had thought you couldn’t make anything useful out of a house of worship! From here we walked to the the Musée de Cluny.
This is a museum dedicated to the Middle Ages of Europe and was one of my favorites of the trip. It’s not very large and an hour or two is all you need to take most of it in. Those famous unicorn tapestries we’ve all seen ad infinitum, can be found here. There are examples of illuminated manuscripts, furniture, icons and other typical religious artifacts (were there any other kinds of artifacts from the Middle Ages?) The day we went, there were no crowds and we could linger as long as we wished. I would opine that this is the case most of the time at this museum.
Day 4: We started the day back in the Latin Quarter. Ellen was disgusted with the changes here from when she last visited. This area appeared to be ground zero for tourists. I found it very photogenic with a riot of colors along narrow streets and alleys but yes, it’s an endless maze of souvenir shops, bistros and countless cafes and restaurants with “tourist menus” which interestingly seemed cheaper than other eateries in Paris. Here is where tourist buses disgorge the proverbial, “If it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium” groups of camera clutching tourists (as opposed to yours truly.) Does anyone recall the Mad Magazine satire of that movie? “If it’s Tuesday this must be boredom.”
It’s still worth a visit as long as you don’t have issues surrounding claustrophobia or throngs of people. We also visited The Church of Saint-Séverin in the Latin Quarter. It’s one of the oldest churches standing on the Left Bank. If you’re into gargoyles and flying buttresses, (and these days, who isn’t?) you can get your fill of them between here and ND.
We next walked over to The Île Saint-Louis. This is the small island on the Seine. I can’t say it better than Wikipedia: “A peaceful oasis of calm in the busy Paris centre, this island has only narrow one-way streets, no metro stations and two bus stops. Most of the island is residential, but there are several restaurants, shops, cafés and ice cream parlours at street level.”
And no, we did not try Berthillon’s world famous ice cream which is found here. It wasn’t a hot day and why waste the calories?
This is the day we went to Sacré Cœur not realizing we could walk there from our flat. We took the various metros, transferring at Pigelle to the Abassese station. Those stations are the gateways to Paris’ “red light district” and home to Moulin Rouge which we didn’t see. It’s a very interesting area with lots of bars and cafes. It’s a bit sketchy and most advise against wandering around late a night. In the daytime, it felt safe and there wasn’t much to suggest sleaze although we weren’t seeking it out.
I already mentioned Sacré Cœur as a destination. If you approach it from the front, you can take the funicular up the hill. It’s part of the Paris Metro so a pass or carnet is all you need. On the front side, you will have to contend with those annoying hawkers of trinkets who are pretty aggressive. This is the time to be wearing dark glasses and have ear buds firmly planted in ears. If they can’t get your attention, they move on. The inside of Sacré Cœur is pretty spectacular and as it’s free, it’s worth a visit. Again, you will get a commanding, if uninteresting view of Paris from top of all of those steps. As suggested previously, if you elect to eat somewhere, find the tourist area on the backside of Sacré Cœur as opposed to the front side.
Day 5: Stalingrad. And you thought Stalingrad no longer existed! In this case, it’s a metro stop which we used to get to Canal St. Martin. We had planned to take a 2 ½ hour ride on the canal. The area from Stalingrad to the canal is definitely on the seedy side and will give you pause as you exit the station. Once you adjust to this reality, it’s not too bad an area. It just isn’t upscale when compared to other areas.You can’t be a tourist and fear every unknown situation or you won’t see much. After walking along this canal and not seeing anything that corresponded to our map we finally realized we were not in the right area. When we got to the tour company offering the boat ride, we had missed the morning departure. Rudderless (so to speak) we decided to head to the Louvre to try our luck there.
Although initially, this was a “must see” for me, I had decided that it was a poor use of time to spend many hours in lines to get into a museum to then fight my way through the throngs to see paintings that everyone else wanted to see. As long as we were without a specific goal after the canal plan didn’t work out, we took the metro to the Louvre on the remote possibility we could simply waltz right in. Which, as it turned out, is exactly what happened. I had read on TA to enter the Louvre via “the Carousel” which didn’t mean much to me until we got off the metro and I saw signs pointing to the Carousel entrance which is under the Louvre. So if you go, do not get in any of the lines outside. They are long and they looked as tedious as any line you care to stand in although with a killer view. So yes, we zipped right through the Carousel entrance with absolutely no wait and to my amazement, we were in the Louvre.
It actually didn’t seem particularly crowded. There were rooms with only a couple of people in them. Until, of course, we found the room with the Mona Lisa in it. That was a true mob scene. It was difficult to get close to her and I didn’t even try. It was enough to see it from the back of the pack. After all, I hadn’t expected to even get into the Louvre. None of my photos of her came out clear. That may or may not be a result of all the glass the picture is under.
As has been pointed out, ad nauseam, this place is outsized. I couldn’t grasp the size until I looked out of various windows that can be found in some of the upper level wings. At first I didn’t believe that the stunningly beautiful palaces seen through these windows were in fact wings of the museum. When you too don’t believe it, look at the guide you picked up at the entrance. One truly goes into “overload” trying to take in a fraction of what’s to see. The architecture alone is a day’s visit. Don’t even attempt to see this place in one day unless you’re a meth freak. So if you are turned off by reports of massive lines and long waits, try what we did and maybe you’ll have the same luck. It’s well worth the effort.
When you’re on “Louvre overload” the only thing to do is walk across rue de la Légion d’Honneur and head to the Musée d’Orsay. It’s housed in a former train station which explains the ad hoc feel of the interior as it relates to an art museum. It houses an extensive collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces. Here you will see some of the originals of those masterworks that have been ubiquitously reproduced and we’ve all seen in one form or another.
It always feels special when I can stand in front of one of these works of art which is so casually affixed to an unadorned wall as if it were merely any painting (Mona Lisa excepted.) Here you will find room after room of Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Seurat, Gauguin and Van Gogh. If you appreciate this artwork this museum is a “must.” You aren’t allowed to take any photos but I saw so many people taking pictures, I joined in the action. It almost seems as if in this museum, people don’t abide by this rule. All the other museums allowed pictures as long as the flash was turned off.
We next took a short metro ride to the Arc De Triomphe. There’s not much too say. It’s a magnificent monument and very imposing. It was included with our museum pass but it was enough for me to just see it with my own eyes and think about the history associated with it. Be sure to traipse along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées which is the iconic passage that merges at the Arc. Play the game of “how long can I stomach walking down an overblown version of Rodeo Drive only this one is geared to tourists?” I’m afraid we only lasted a half of a block.
Day 6: The day began with a metro ride to the outskirts of Paris. We went to the market at St. Denis (not surprisingly called Le Marché de St-Denis.) This market is one of the largest in Paris. We held a vague notion of buying the freshest comestibles here and cooking dinner back at the flat. The food here (and boy was some of it fresh!) didn’t inspire us as much as we expected. Nonetheless, if you want a multicultural experience that suggests you may in a more exotic country, spend a few hours here. I found out about this market through an article in the New York Times a few weeks before the trip. It’s title is: “A Gastronomical Palace in St.-Denis” you can read the article yourself. The streets and stores around the market are even more interesting in our opinion. It’s very crowded, very frenetic and at times very exotic.
Be sure to visit The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis which is right around the corner from the market. Read about its history and have a good laugh at the reason for this particular church.
We also decided to investigate the history of our own neighborhood: Montmartre. The word itself is interesting: mont= mountain, martre= martyr; ergo, “Mountain of the Martyr” and owes its name to St. Denis who you already know about from visiting his Basilica as we suggested. For a dead guy, he sure got around. Our first stop was the Museum of Montmartre, a five minute walk from the metro station. It isn’t included in the Museum Pass but it’s well worth the 8 Euro admission. The museum is where Renoir briefly lived when the building was a live-in sanctuary for local artists. It now houses a collection of paintings, photographs, posters, and manuscripts documenting Montmartre’s history. It’s also a museum of cultural history that goes well beyond Montmartre. Relearn in great detail the “Paris Commune” movement and its connection with the area.
The museum also delves into Le Belle Epoque as exemplified by Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir. You will also notice from many of the windows of the museum, a house down the hill with the name: Au Lapin Agile. The background of this famous establishment and the attendant historical offshoots are spelled out in the museum. Steve Martin wrote a short play in the early 1990’s called Picasso at the Lapin Agilewhich I happened to see at the time. Yes, Picasso did haunt this establishment (see his 1905 painting: “At the Lapin Agile” for further evidence) along with Modigliani, Apollinaire and Utrillo who also owned the house that became the museum that sits above it. Today, The Lapin Agile is still a place to go and have a drink but we passed, on the assumption that we would pay top euro to drink in a place that bears zero resemblance to what it was over a hundred years ago.
After we left the museum, we strolled around the corner and after walking a couple of blocks up the hill, we stumbled onto the area behind Sacré Cœur and realized just how close we were after all. If you stay in Montmartre, a visit to this area is a must. It really is very lively and feels very French despite the fact that the area caters to tourists.
Day 7: We wanted to keep this last full day on the light side. So we went to a deportation exhibit at the Hotel De Ville made famous in the 1966 movie “Is Paris Burning?” (Mad Magazine’s version: “Is Paris Boring?”) The “hotel” is also famous for Charles De Gaulle’s famous August, 1944 speech made from the “hotel” where he declared that in honor of his liberating Paris, the French chocolate candy known as “Napoleon’s” should be renamed “De Gaulle’s.”
Yes, he did give a speech there and yes, it was in August 1944 but I did make up that last bit…the part about his liberating Paris. He had little to do with that, actually. The Hotel is in “quotes” because this beautiful and very big building isn’t a hotel. Rather, it houses the City of Paris’s administration. Across the street however, you will find a hotel for the Hotel De Ville. Ah, French society!
I will say it loud and proud. I have joined the ranks of people everywhere in pronouncing Paris the greatest city I have ever visited. I can see what people mean when they say they never tire wandering its streets or when people say they’ve lived there all of their lives and discovered a new area they’ve never been to. The city is an endless cornucopia of visual delight and intrigue.
Paris is magical and lyrical, beguiling and very approachable. I found Parisians to be friendly, helpful, very cheerful and not in the least contemptible or hostile to tourists, well, not us two, anyway. I saw nothing of the stereotype of a typical Parisian cast as rude, abrupt and condescending. Insouciant perhaps and why that attitude, with all of the problems that Paris, as any large city confronts, is a mystery to me. I was to ponder this paradox over the next week as it applies to a country with 25% unemployment. The next day, we flew to that country. And when we got there…boy, were our arms tired!