After 10 months of living in the UK, we finally finally made it to Paris. It was a long time coming, I know! Richard and I spent a great weekend across the channel for my birthday (hurrah!). I worried that Paris would be unpleasantly touristy and dirty based on what I’d been told. In reality, Paris was beautiful, fun and an absolute delight to visit.
Paris is a large city so it’s definitely worth getting a travel pass to get around. Charles de Gaulle airport is fairly large so we had to walk some way to the other side of the building to catch a train into the city. There were huge queues of people at the ticket machines that appeared endless. We waited in one line (thankfully a shorter one!) only to discover the type of pass we wanted couldn’t be purchased from those machines. So a note to future travellers, if you’re buying day passes, you need to visit the manned offices behind the machines. Once we had the passes, it was easy to navigate the metro system and get to our hotel. First stop, Arc de Triomphe!
The Arc de Triomphe is one of the the most iconic monuments in Paris (of which there are quite a few!). It’s featured in so many movies, TV shows and ads that I thought I knew what to expect. When we arrived however, I was surprised to find that it was a lot bigger than I imagined at 50 metres tall and 45 metres wide. The most entertaining thing when we first arrived was actually the traffic around it. There are no marked lanes in the roundabout itself and cars drive straight into it without checking so it’s a free for all. Buses, trucks, cars, bicycles, mopeds – everyone navigated the chaos with calm faces as if it was the most natural thing in the world to charge into oncoming traffic at a roundabout and cross horizontally in front of seven vehicles to exit again. The only time horns were used was when pedestrians tried to cross to the arc – a dangerous and needlessly reckless move. There is a handy underpass to get you there in one piece – a much wiser choice!
Standing at the centre of the Arc de Triomphe, you get an even better sense of it’s size. The monument honours people who fought and died in the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. Carved into the stonework are the names of all French victories and generals, and on the ground was a roped -off area with a torch and flower wreaths. It is a beautiful structure and well worth checking out.
Next on the list was the Eiffel tower. Needless to say, it was incredibly crowded there and an intimidatingly long line snaked through the base of the tower. Nobody has time to wait in long queues when it’s their birthday! But really, we knew we would be back in 3 weeks and had already booked tickets to go up the Eiffel tower then.
The weather was nice enough for us to continue exploring outdoors so we caught the metro to the Luxembourg gardens. These gardens span 23 beautiful and peaceful hectares. Work began in 1612 with an aim to create an imitation of parks in Florence. Initially 2000 elm trees were planted on the site and several gardeners were enlisted to create flower beds, fountains and tree-lined promenades. We spent some time relaxing by a circular basin surrounded by romantic raised balustraded terraces. A vendor by the fountain hired out small boats to children. The boats had various national flags and can be pushed into the water with long sticks. We were happy to see a NZ boat there too! A little girl promptly took it and in an amusing twist, it was caught up with the Australian boat for a while in the centre of the fountain.
The surroundings in the garden made us feel content and at ease. Children were running around the fountain after their boats and people relaxed on chairs around the basin chatting, reading and nibbling on bread and cheese; so picturesque! In 1848 the terrace area was littered with statues of Queens and famous French women. Later in the 1880’s and 1890’s, more statues were added of writers and artists. The statues create a sense of romance that works well with the fountain. It was such a great space to find in the centre of a city.
As a birthday treat, we had dinner at Lasserre. The team at this Michelin starred restaurant treated us to an unforgettable evening of haute cuisine. This is by far the most fancy place we have ever been to which at first it was a little disconcerting. Our reservation was for 7pm when the restaurant opened and only one other couple were in the restaurant so the four of us had 8 waiters standing around the room watching us. Once a few more tables filled up, things were more relaxed. We dined on canapés of caviar, goats cheese and fish, followed by a degustation menu that included lemon cured fish, truffle filled penne pasta covered in the most glorious cheese, grilled halibut with an interesting peanut sauce, and duck with cherries and almonds. The two dessert courses were a spectacular tarragon panna cotta (it works!) with green apple three ways, and a chocolate souffle with vanilla ice cream. At the conclusion of our meal, we also got a platter of petit fours that had a delightful lychee jelly, a hazelnut and chocolate praline, strawberry macaron and a cute mouthful of lemon meringue. It was a really wonderful experience and I felt truly spoilt. We didn’t take more than a couple of pictures because we really just enjoyed the experience.
On Sunday morning the day dawned cooler and decidedly more grey. After a sleep in and brunch, we went to see Notre Dame. I’m sure most of us are familiar with the iconic story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame from our childhoods. I don’t even know if the cartoon was meant to be set at this cathedral but that’s what the name evokes for me! It’s probably one of the most well known cathedrals in the world, and is considered one of the finest examples of French gothic architecture. There were some incredible stained glass windows and it was certainly not lacking in grandeur.
As with many old and iconic buildings, the Notre Dame suffered a significant amount of damage in its history. During the 1790’s during the French Revolution it was desecrated with a lot of the decorative features destroyed. In 1845, extensive restoration began and a further restoration programme began in 1991. Today, the cathedral is well maintained and super popular with visitors.
In the rain, we wandered along to Pont Neuf where we encountered the famous fence of locks. Several peddlers were selling locks but we didn’t feel inclined to add one for ourselves. It was a marvel to see how many there were. Part of the fence had been cordoned off because it had rusted away and needed repair.
Passing by the outside of the Louvre, we took photos like the hundreds of other tourists. Again, opting not to go in but to simply observe the sheer size of the museum, we headed onwards to have crepes.
On our way to the next metro station, it poured with rain and we sloshed through a park that was again, very pretty and picturesque. The green spaces in Paris create small havens in the city where you can be content and enjoy beautiful surroundings – it is one of my favourite things about the city.
We whittled away the last couple of hours in Paris wandering through Le Bon Marché, the oldest department store in the city. Since 1852, the store has been selling fine goods to the rich and fashionable people of Paris. Initially it sold lace, ribbons, sheets, mattresses, buttons and umbrellas. Now, the building belongs to the LVMH Luxury Group (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) which should give you an indication as to what they sell. Just to confirm, we didn’t buy anything.
The weekend went by very quickly in a blur of beautiful parks and amazing food. We were fortunate to have a day of nice weather to enjoy the best of the outdoors in Paris. I’m very excited to return this weekend and explore even more!