Paris—the City of Light, the City of Love. Some find it classy. Some find it dirty. Some go to Disney. Some go to the Louvre. And some find Parisians rude. Degrees of authenticity. Stay away from "touristy areas". Go here, go there. Try a little French. Walk the entire city. Just sit and watch from a bench.
When researching a trip to Paris, there is no shortage of opinions or advice, a testimate to how popular Paris is. No matter what you think about Paris, it is the physical and cultural hub of western Europe and it is an impressive city. The city could probably benefit from 5-7 full days up and down all corners of its historic streets. We did it in three (and one of the days was at a theme park!). Never enough time, but we managed to enjoy our stay!
When preparing this blog, I couldn't help but notice how tired we looked on our first day in Paris. This was our fourth day in Europe and still untreated jet lag was starting to take its toll. But upon further thought, I was reminded of the fact that nearly half of the day was a travel-day!
Our day began at 4:00am in Brugge where the unsurpassed hospitality of our hotel and a polite taxi driver left us at the train station before sunrise, groggy and feeling regretful that we had to leave the charming town at all. At 6:25, we caught a train to Brussels and from there, it was a transfer to Paris. We would arrive in Paris at Gare du Nord smack in the middle of morning rush-hour; an additional 45 minute queue for Metro tickets was an exceedingly unimpressive way to start our stay in Paris. Finally, with tickets in hand and luggage around our feet, it was just 8 Metro stops and 10 minutes of walking to our hotel near the Bastille. By the time we dropped off our luggage, we were wiped, hungry, and not yet feeling any sense of wonder for the place.
But we recollected and after 20 more minutes of walking and 2 more Metro stops, we were sitting on the bleachers before the cathedral of Notre Dame with baguette sandwiches in hand.
Notre Dame is one of the most majestic structures I've ever visited. While staring at it and chugging-down my sandwich, I couldn't help but think about "God". I mean, Notre Dame holds up in its size, its detail, its wealth, and its artistry, and that's by today's standards. I can only imagine what a peasant in 1350 would have thought—certainly there would be no other logical conclusion for the structure's prominence than the power of God.
For all of its majesty, I opted to not go inside. A line snaked back and forth in the courtyard between me and the building, the allure of climbing the bell-towers was squashed by every sore memory of climbing to the top of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and quite frankly, my sandwich was that good. But it didn't mean I couldn't enjoy the church, which is a big deal for me.
With our awe of Notre Dame and our lunches digested, we moved on. Fifteen more minutes of walking north of the cathedral and we found ourselves stumbling upon the Pont des Arts bridge, a pedestrian route over the River Seine. This bridge was made famous in the last decade when the trend of "love locks" became popular. To people in love, a "love lock" is a symbol of one's commitment to each other; a lock with each persons' names is clamped to the railing's lattice and the key is tossed into the River Siene. The act seemed harmless enough—after all, we were in the City of Love. So I bought a small lock from a merchant and Cindy and I performed the ceremony with Chuck and Jose as our witnesses.
We would later learn that to the City of Paris, a "love lock" is a strange form of tourist-fueled vandalism. Allegedly, over 45 tons of locks have been removed since the trend began, threatening the integrity of the bridge and of its heritage. After a public debate and attempts to curb the behavior, Paris recently decided to remove the love locks entirely, replacing the lattice with glass panels. Our lock may be gone but we have the ceremony well documented.
After illegally clamping our love to the bridge, it was onwards towards our original destination—the Louvre.
The Louvre is an amazing museum. Anyone who has a shred of respect for art must find it fascinating to stroll up and down the corridors and look at the famous sculptures and paintings. And if art isn't your thing, then the history of it all (which in some cases goes back thousands of years) will provoke a sense of awe. And if that isn't your thing, then you at least have to find the size of the place impressive.
On the flip-side, the size can be intimidating. The enormity of the place makes it impossible to consume. We found ourselves strolling through the halls and struggling to take enough time to enjoy a single piece of art due to the pressure to keep moving and see more (as well as the actual pressure of getting pushed through a room by a mob of people). It felt as though most of the visitors were like us, tourists. We all clung to our maps and hurried through rooms hoping to catch all of the "major attractions" in the short time that we had.
One such example is with the most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. When you have thousands of tourists hoping to stare into her eyes and interpret her smile, you're left with a mob of people and cell phone cameras. I struggle to wonder if anyone actually gets value out of seeing it this way. I know Chuck didn't.
Regardless, we pushed on through the museum, stopping to see all of human kind's "greatest hits": The Venus de Milo, the Colossal Ramses, the Code of Hammurabi, the Virgin on the Rocks, the Liberty Leading the People...and on and on and on.
We must have walked several miles in that building because we were all exhausted by the end of our stay. There was a moment where we were waiting for Cindy to use the restroom and us guys sat down to rest; in those 30 minutes of waiting (seriously!), I think it's quite possible that each of us nodded of at one point or another.
Ultimately, there's no denying that the Louvre is full of greatness and is a "must see" in Paris. But now that we've seen it, I'm not quite sure if we would make time for it again. Maybe it would make more sense for someone who was more appreciative of the finer details of art.
For a reason I don't fully understand, I actually took a lot of video footage inside of the Louvre. It is at times cringe-worthy and perfectly summarizes our ignorance when it comes to all things ancient art. Which is why I felt the need to share it here! Check out this video of us trying to identify the significance of a few statues:
For all of our exhaustion at the Louvre it was time to press on, a side effect of not enough time to spend. Five more Metro stops (one transfer) and a few city blocks and we found ourselves at the far end of the Champ de Mars. At the other end? The Eiffel Tower.
We walked closer, snapping our photos along the way. The tower's design, very much a product of the time it was born in, has become timeless. You have to be a pretty far-gone degree of hipster to not find the icon beautiful.
When we got to the base, the queue to ride to the top looked very long. And here's where I share my secret: Cindy and I have been to Paris before. On that last visit, we waited nearly 4 hours to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. It's one of those deals where each time you make it to the next level, you get off and are faced with yet another queue for the next elevator. And yet for Chuck and Jose, it was important to get to the top (and rightfully so).
So this is where our group actually split. Cindy and I caught a train back to our hotel while Chuck and Jose queued for the top of the Eiffel Tower. Ironically, Cindy and I had to wait longer on trains and in our hotel (where a group of irate Italians held up the check-in line) than it took Chuck and Jose to get to the top. Not to visit without their own chaos, the two guys had to deal with a torrential downpour and hurricane winds atop the tower. It was comical, all around.
Anyway, our point of rendezvous was the Champs Elysees, the famous Parisian thoroughfare, where we grabbed a bite a McDonalds. For those about to cry out, as a fast food enthusiast, I love to see another culture's twist on something so familiar to me. I got this Big Mac style-sandwich except, instead of being built vertically, the patties were side-by-side, and on baguette bread. Super interesting to me! Besides, everyone needs a few budget meals while overseas!
Finally, we finished our day up the street at the Arc de Triomphe. With a posture taller than you've imagined, the monument stands on an apex surrounded by twelve streets in each direction. It is rather impressive.
As the sun slowly set on this hill, we chose to end our day. The exhaustion had finally caught up and there was no room for a night-time tour of Paris. It was off to bed, to prepare for our next adventure.
The next day, we took the RER A train out 45 minutes west of the city center. Our destination: Disneyland Paris. Despite our inexcusably short time in Paris, it was personally (and professionally) important to see the former Euro Disney. I don't have a full report of our day to share; I pledged to not focus significantly on theme/amusement park destinations in this blog.
What I will say, is that we had a fantastic time. The weather was perfect, both parks of the Resort were empty, and we were able to accomplish everything that we had wanted to. I think one of the most enjoyable parts of our visit was the lack of pressure to hop on a train and experience something different. By dedicating our entire day to the parks, we didn't feel rushed. It was certainly true that the "day trips" proved to be the most relaxing days of our trip, a valuable lesson that I take with me on all future expeditions.
After a full day at the Disneyland Paris Resort, we caught the RER back and prepared for our final day in Paris.
From Disney to death, from Mickey to mort, our next day would start with a sharp transition from our visit to Marne-la-Vallée. We would venture to the Catacombs of Paris.
As I have mentioned, this was our second visit to Paris and thus it was important that we mix a few "greatest hits" attractions with a few new things for Cindy and me to see. The catacombs definitely fit this criteria and was a stop that intrigued me.
For those who don't know, the short-story of the Catacombs of Paris is that Parisians ran out of space to bury their dead hundreds of years ago. Necessity and tradition placed their cemeteries in the city center where they were surrounded and couldn't be expanded. This led to unsanitary mass graves, an unsafe situation for all still alive. At the same time, a series of cave-ins from an underground quarry led to an investigation of subterranean Paris and these mines were soon reinforced. Newly strengthened underground real estate seemed plentiful as surface-level cemeteries were overflowing and thus, an idea was passed into law to relocate the burial of the dead to these underground catacombs.
Today, it is estimated that the catacombs hold the remains of 6 million bodies. These bones are stacked neatly in rows 8 feet high and 15 feet deep on either side of walkways that meander through the quarry. There is no record of the names of those buried, though occasionally markers denote which year they were buried in. It's a morbid tourist attraction (although it has been one for nearly 150 years).
After the catacombs, we needed a break. They started super-interesting but after a while, you couldn't help but feel a little claustrophobic and overwhelmed by the scale of death. Without getting too philosophical, we chose to not contemplate our mortality and get a bite of lunch instead.
We grabbed another round of those baguette sandwiches we were so fond of, a few macaroons for good measure, and found a small park by the River Siene. To sit, eat, and relax was one of my favorite moments on the trip. It was the Paris I missed the first time around and everything I wanted out of this trip.
After relaxing and settling, we knew we had the time and energy for one more destination, Montmartre.
Montmartre is a hilltop district of Paris that overlooks the whole city. At its center is the famous Basilica of the Sacré Cœur. This white icon is surrounded by an old-feeling artistic district and beyond that is the nightclub circuit (made famous by the Moulin Rouge, which we did not visit). On a day as beautiful as the one we were visiting on, the view of Paris was stunning from up top.
After relaxing in front of the Sacré Cœur, we ventured off into the older part of Montmartre. Though scoffed at by a few for becoming over-touristy, I think we all fell in love with the place. It provided a clearly different feel and tone than the rest of the city, one we could easily grab some ice cream and relax in. Cafes and caricature artists dotted a landscape of the small and quirky buildings. The place seemed to feel alive with performers and vendors who added to the environment as they asked for your attention. It was a great stop.
After strolling through Montmartre, exploring all of the nooks and crannies, it was time to leave. We regrouped at the hotel and researched around for a nice sit-down restaurant that we could conclude our visit to Paris with. We found one near the Eiffel Tower and figured it would be great to dine and then see the icon at night. I'm really grateful for how well the evening turned out.
One last thing: when strolling around the Champ de Mars, Cindy and I broke away from the guys and went for a stroll, where I proposed to her! For as cliché as a proposal in front of the Eiffel Tower is, our night was going perfectly and I managed to find a nice, private spot to monologue like a Bond villain. If you haven't guessed by the photos I've uploaded of our wedding, she said yes!
It was a perfect way to cap a wonderful stay in the City of Love. We returned to our hotel to update everyone back home on social media. But soon it was off to bed as we had another early day in route to Germany.
Like Brugge before it, Paris was a city that I randomly took some video footage of as we ventured through it. I decided to stitch the footage together into a video for you to enjoy. It is not a great travelogue; there's no great footage of Parisian attractions. But what I love about it is it instantly takes me back to what it felt like to be there. If you want to join us for that, check out the video below. Then, there's a gallery of a ton more pictures you can scroll through. Give it a look!