(photo by geoftheref via flickr)
Ever year around this time I get a little nostalgic for the summer of 2005, which shouldn't really surprise those of you who know me. For the rest of you however, I am of course talking about the summer I worked as a tour guide in Paris (I intended to post this yesterday on Bastille Day but got distracted... big whoop wannafightaboutit?).
Perhaps the nostalgia comes from the fact that 2005 was also the year I started working in public accounting so those few months represent the end of my carefree years as a student, or perhaps it’s the fact that events set in motion as a result of that decision ultimately led Andrea and I to meet and eventually get married (yep that's the one).
Which is really just a long way to segue into the following:
The Top 5(ish) Reasons to Vacation in Paris
5. Fat Tire Bike Tours
This of course can easily be mitigated through the presence of an energetic American tour guide tickling your ears with stories of old Gay Paris. And that’s precisely where Fat Tire found their niche.
Started by a fellow Texas A&M alum, the company has been serving the needs of English speakers traveling through Paris for over a decade. And in my somewhat biased opinion, there is no better way to travel throughout the heart of the city than on a bike. These guys are the best in the business.
Prefer a walking tour? No problem. Feel like getting away from the crowds and heading out to Normandy or Monet’s Gardens? They've got you covered.
Unless you have a week or more to see the city, you'll rush to hit everything and completely miss what I consider to be the real Paris (keep reading for my definition). But with the help of a friendly guide, you can easily see the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, St. Germain, Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle, the Louvre, Les Tuilleries, just to name a few all in the span of 4 hours. Plus you'll have someone to take pictures of you (which is really what it's all about right?).
(Honorable mention: check out Paris' Velib system)
4. The Architecture
Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, and they know it.
I won't go into great detail here, but many cities in the western world owe their design to Baron Haussmann who was comissioned in the 1860's by Napoleon III to "modernize" the city. Haussmann's vision was heavily influenced, thanks to the industrial revolution, by the relatively new reliance on the train. Therefore he created wide boulevards designed to quickly link city residents to the various train stations located throughout the city, which would be anchored by various monuments (i.e. the Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, the Opera Garnier, etc...).
When I first arrived in Paris, I was quickly amazed that the city was both extremely clean (though the Seine and the French's general aversion to bathing do provide a noticeable odor upon arrival) and seemingly extremely safe.
Apparently Paris owes this to Haussmann as well whose design also led to the destruction of much of "old Paris" as the cities poor were relegated to the outskirst of town to make room for the new bourgeois apartments which were erected (with strict height requirements that also remain to this day) to further add to the city's aesthetic appeal.
Tour Guide Says:
Chicago, Moscow, and London all owe at least a portion of their design to Haussman, and you might have noticed during the Olympics that the Chinese have adopted this totalitarian approach to city planning as well.
3. Photo Opportunities
Few cities have more than a few major historical buildings / structures that are worth traveling thousands of miles to see. Paris has about a dozen. Here are my top choices:
Eglise du Dome / Les Invalides
Commissioned by the Sun King himself (Louis XIV) in 1670, this gold-adorned church was modeled after St. Peter's Basicilica at the Vatican and is perhaps one of the greatest examples of the excess that eventually led the "sans-culottes" to revolt in 1789. It however remains to this day one of the jewels of the city.
The building also serves as the burial chamber for Napoleon Bonaparte, who lies in state underneath the dome inside a giant Egyptian inspired sarcophagus (see below).
(photo by Raf Ferreira via Flickr)
Tour Guide Says:
Snap a few pictures and then head around back to find the military hospital (invalides = invalid get it) which was also constructed in 1670. This impressive building currently houses one of the top war museums in Europe, and is definitely worth the time if you enjoy French military history.
Also inside is perhaps one of the oddest artifacts you'll come across in a war museum; Napoleon’s actual dog and horse. Stuffed. You can't make this stuff up.
PS, it's really small (that's what she said!).
Le Tour Eiffel
Originally built for the World's Fair in 1889, the Eiffel Tower stood as the world's tallest structure until the Chrysler Building was completed in 1930. The French of course hated this eyesore, and in fact it was about to be dissassembled until WWI broke out and they realized that it could be used to transmit radio signals to the front lines.
All 30 million tourists will undoubtedly take at least a quick journey here for a picture to impress their friends, and therefore there really isn't a good time to visit this thing. My advice, save a couple dollars and take the stairs up to the 2nd level as opposed to waiting in line for the elevator to the top. It’s a bit of a hike (nearly 500 vertical feet), but well worth it to save an hour or so waiting in line.
If you’re simply looking for a good view, avoid the thing entirely and head over to Montparnasse Tower. It’s about the same height but with zero line, and there's a great restaurant at the top (La Ciel de Paris) that provides of the best aerial views of the entire city.
Plus if you’re at the top of the Eiffel Tower, there won’t be an Eiffel Tower in your picture and no one will be impressed by your photo. Heading over to Montparnasse solves that dilemma.
Tour Guide Says:
There is no shortage of events that have taken place on or to the Eiffel Tower. However my favorite story was of an American pilot who managed to fly underneath the Eiffel Tower (~200 feet clearance) and land on the Champ de Mars to celebrate VE Day.
On every tour I would have everyone eating out of the palms of my hands whenever I'd start into my schpeal about the Tower. On one tour however, I was unexpectedly interrupted by a girl who raised her hand as I finished the story of the brave American pilot. This girl informed the crowd that the pilot in question was actually her grandfather!
Here’s his story as told by his daughter-in-law via an email I received weeks after the tour:
I found the photo of the Eagle's Wrath sitting proudly beneath the Eiffel Tour on Liberation Day. The B-17 bomber plane was piloted by my husband's Dad, Lt. Dorac Banta. He became an Army pilot at age 19, and went on to fly 35 successful missions over enemy territory.
He was also a member of the "Lucky Wings" hall of fame-- those few pilots (also affectionately known as the "Lucky Bastards") who successfully flew a minimum of 30 successful missions. [His] heroics didn't end with the war. He became a successful pharmaceuticals rep, and lived his life as a great dad, grand-dad and husband.
Place de La Concorde
(The obelisk at the end of Champs-Elysees. Photo by Marcia Salviato via flickr)
You'll also quickly notice one of the other hallmarks of French architecture (symmetry), and there is perhaps no better indicator of this than at the Place de la Concorde. Starting at the Grand Arch in La Defense and extending to the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elysee, through the Tuileries Gardens, and ending at a statue of Louis XIV in front of the Louvre, this ~5 mile long straight line provides one of the most picturesque scenes the city has to offer.
Tour Guide Says:
There is no better story about this location than the death of Louis XVI. There are conflicting stories surrounding the details of his death, but the version I love to tell is that upon being condemned to death, the King was quickly marched to the guillotine (where Marie Antionette would meet her end a few months later), and up to the top of the platform.
The crowd came to life as the King reached the apex, yet they were quickly silenced as the executioner slowly began to raise the blade. The anticipation built with every inch the blade was raised, until finally the crowd cheered as the rope was cut and the blade came to a stop.
Silence quickly resumed however as those nearest the platform first noticed that the blade had not done it's job. The King’s neck had NOT been severed. The blade was raised again, and again, until finally on the 3rd drop of the blade, the king was dead.
Vive le Republique!
(The Pyramid entrance at the Louvre. Photo by J. Salmoral via flickr)
The Louvre was once the King's palace, until Louis XIV through the deuce to all the pollution inside Paris and headed out to Versailles, so it goes without saying that it is quite an impressive building. Napoleon III later added a 3rd wing in the 19th century which is how it stands today.
It is every bit as awe-inspiring (and overwhelming) as you’ve heard, and due to your travel plans you might feel inclined to take it all in during your few days in Paris. I do not recommend this because if you were to look at every work of art housed inside for only a second, it would still take you over 100 days to see everything inside.
So don’t bother.
Tour Guide Says:
When you’re looking at the Pyramid Entrance facing East, directly in front of you is the Sully wing which is the oldest section of the building (other than the subterranean cavern below the inverted pyramid that Dan Brown discovered). To your left is the Richelieu wing, and finally the Denon wing is to your right. This is where you should spend the majority of your time, as it is there where you’ll find the “big 3.”
Don’t know what those are? No worries, just follow the crowds to the Venus de Milo and you’ll run into the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Then finally head upstairs for the Renaissance artists and the somewhat disappointing Mona Lisa (it’s so small). The museum has much more to offer, but it will all depend on what you prefer.
I also recommend, if you have the extra energy, to head over to the Richelieu wing and check out the Code of Hamurabi and Napoloen's bedroom. But if not, save your energy for:
The Musee d'Orsay
The Orsay museum is housed inside an old converted train station that currently contains some of the most famous impressionists works of art the world over. If you’re traveling across Europe I’d recommend having Paris be your final destination as both the Louvre and the Orsay make the majority of other museums pale in comparison (save for the British Museum).
That being said, if you prefer the likes of Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, etc… to Da Vinci, then this is where you’ll want to spend the majority of your museum going minutes. It’s significantly smaller than the Louvre, and therefore much less overwhelming.
Tour Guide Says:
(Musee d'Orsay by Marco Mancini via flickr)
Head to the top level for a quick snapshot of the family in front of the see-through clock (above) which overlooks the Seine and provides a great view of Montmartre.
Perhaps the 2nd most recognizable location in Paris (besides the Eiffel Tower), this centuries old cathedral sits on the city's original location founded by the Parisii tribe over 2,000 years ago. Construction began on the church itself in the 12th century, yet it took over 200 years to complete, and today serves as one of the greatest examples of Gothic architecture in existence.
The church fell into disrepair after its usage as a "Temple of Reason" (aka courthouse) during the French Revolution. Victor Hugo's novel was actually written in part to raise awareness of the church's unique history, in hopes that it would be restored to its original beauty.
Tour Guide Says:
The crown of thorns supposedly worn by Jesus Christ during his crucifixion is housed inside Notre Dame. However don’t expect to see it until Easter each year, and you can definitely expect a crowd.
If the line isn't too long, paying the extra fee to walk up to the top of the spires is well worth your time (see above picture), but if not then head across the bridge for some Berthillon ice cream on Ile St. Louis or take a stroll through the Marais.
Without a doubt Saint Chapelle is one of the most unique buildings in all of Europe, and it is also my favorite church not located in Vatican City. Originally built by King Louis VII (you might know him as Saint Louis of Missouri) to house the crown of thorns (now at Notre Dame) and a piece of the cross, which was destroyed during the French Revolution.
Tour Guide says:
Over 100 stories of the Bible are depicted on vertical strips of stain glass that both envelope the main room and, as you can probably guess from the above picture, fill you with a sense of awe. Bring a camera.
(Honorable mention: Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Latin Quarter)
2. Chateau de Versailles
Located only minutes outside of Paris (by train), Versailles was transformed from a former royal residence into the palace that you see today by Louis XIV who, fearing an insurrection inside Paris, decided to move his court to the more remote location.
Tour Guide says:
If you're not sure where to propose and you definitely want her to say yes, then please allow me to recommend Versailles. The photo above was taken just after I proposed at the foot of the Grand Canal (a giant cross which is in my opinion one of the most romantic spots in the entire city), which extends for over a kilometer behind us.
In other words, trying to navigate the grounds by foot is impossible. Take a bike.
1. The Summer
Everyone wants to talk about “Paris in the Springtime”, but I say that’s a bunch of baloney. Why? Well, when I arrived in the middle of May it was 30 degrees and rainy for the first 2 weeks. Due to Paris' location (latitudly speaking), the summer is really the only time when you're virtually guaranteed good weather. Though keep in mind that prices jump around mid-May.
I realize that this may seem like an odd choice for the #1 spot, but good weather will allow you to experience what I believe to be the real Paris. To better explain what I mean by that let me add that on every tour I would get asked the same three questions; 1) Do you speak French? 2) Were you a French history major? and 3) What is your favorite thing to do in the entire city?
The answer to the first two questions always surprised them (no), and often my answer to the third would as well.
Relax and enjoy yourself.
Everyone comes to Paris with a checklist of places they want to visit, yet many leave completely missing Paris altogether. So if you are planning a trip to Paris at some point in the future, here is the list of what you want to focus on:
- Les marchés alimentaires par arrondissement (food markets by district) - The city is divided into arrondissements (districts) which start at the Louvre and then circle around in a clockwise manner like a snail shell from 1 to 20. Every arrondissement has a weekly market where you can purchase some of the best and cheapest food you'll find in the city. Depending on where you're staying, find out when the closest market is and then head out to one of the cities dozens of parks. And due to the cost of an apartment (40 sq. meters = ~$2000) and the lack of A/C in most buildings, this is also where you'll likely encounter the majority of Parisians enjoying their time off from work as well.
- Champs de Mars - Starting at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and extending all the way to Ecole Militaire, this park serves as one of the city's social centers during the warm summer months. If you're looking for a great way to relax or get a cheap bite to eat, grab some food from one of the markets noted above or a nearby supermarket and head here. For a great picture, be there by 10pm when the lights on the Eiffel Tower start to sparkle.
- Pont des Artes - extending from the south portal of the Louvre across the Seine and connecting with the Acadamie Francaise, the bridge comes alive around dusk as dozens of tourists, local students and yuppie types alike arrive to share a bite to eat and a bottle of wine. My suggestion, head over to the St. Michel metro stop where you can fill your bags with food and/or drinks, then head to the bridge and plan on spending at least a couple hours there. During the summer months you'll be surrounded by hundreds of people from all over the world, many of whom love to share their food, so don't be afraid to break out of your comfort zone. But if nothing else, how can you beat drinking a glass of wine while watching the sunset over the Seine?
- Sports / Special Events - The French Open is held every June at Roland Garros stadium inside Paris. Or if soccer is your thing, be sure to check out when Les Bleus are playing (or any of the country's professional teams). If you're around during the summer solstice then you'll undoubtedly want to check out the biggest party this side of Bastille Day known as "Fete de la Musique." My personal favorite however is the Tour de France, which begins in early July and ends ~3 weeks later. The tour enters Paris on the final day along the Seine until they reach the Rue de Rivoli and then the Champs-Elysees. Grab a spot near the Grand Palais and you'll find yourself at the finish line. The winner then flies their home country's flag over the Hotel Crillion for a week after the finale.
- Bastille Day - My absolute favorite day in Paris however is July 14. The French celebrate French Independence Day (aka Bastille Day) to commemorate the storming of the Bastille Prison on this day every year, and it is surprisingly a lot like the 4th of July. So in other words it starts as a day to honor our independence and inevitably evolves into a huge party that involves a plethora of fireworks. My advice, head to the Champs de Mars nice and early because around 100,000+ people will arrive there to watch one of the best fireworks shows you'll ever see.