When I first visited France for a month in September 2003, I deliberately made Paris my final stop. I suspected – correctly, I think – that if I had started in Paris then I may have gotten so swept up by life there that I wouldn’t want to leave. In the end I spent five days in the City of Light, and I deemed it just enough time to get a taste of the place without feeling that I’d left too soon. I ranked it as one of my favourite cities in the world after that visit, and I definitely wanted to go there again during our worldwide rambling this year.
Maybe it was because we found London so great, maybe it was because we wanted to simply relax a bit after the excitement of the previous week and a half, but neither of us were particularly excited by our week in Paris. It’s not that we disliked it, however we left feeling relatively indifferent about it in a way neither of us expected. While there are some lovely parts to be found, there are some decidedly un-lovely aspects as well. The trains, for example, while frequent and efficient (as they seem to be in almost all large cities except Sydney), were often downright ugly and depressing. I found the contrast from my first visit quite stark: perhaps without the rose-coloured tint of my first visit I could see Paris more clearly, perhaps Paris has changed, or perhaps I’ve just seen more of the world now than I had back then?
Despite our feelings about Paris overall, with a whole apartment to ourselves for the entire week we still greatly enjoyed our time there. In fact for the first two days we didn’t even leave the area immediately around it, as it was so comfortable and inviting! We found the apartment through the website airbnb.com, which allows people with private accommodation to rent to offer their apartment or house (or even just a room within it) to travellers at very affordable prices. During the preceding week we’d enquired about renting dozens of apartments in all corners of Paris, but discovered that just because something is listed on the website it doesn’t mean it’s actually available when you want it. Nevertheless with just a couple of days to go we got a few positive responses, and finally chose a bright and spacious place just outside the Ring Road that encircles central Paris.
The owner wasn’t able to meet us when we arrived at 9pm, but his father was waiting and explained all the features of the apartment and gave us the keys. There was even a welcome half bottle of wine, which was a pleasant surprise! The apartment had a good-sized kitchen with large island bench, fridge and all the condiments and utensils we needed, free internet, free phone calls to landlines in Australia, a printer and a huge flat-screen TV which we could plug our laptop into. In those first couple of days we luxuriated in having a proper “home” all to ourselves, and Kristen cooked a number of fine meals which we enjoyed on the sunny balcony 🙂
We did of course do some sightseeing in Paris, and our first day out and about took us to the Tuilleries garden, around the outside of the Louvre Palace, into Notre Dame Cathedral, and through some of the Left Bank streets to the Jardin de Luxembourg where we had lunch in the park. We found a nice shady spot on the grass, but were quickly told that the lawns in the sprawling garden complex were for looking at, not sitting on! A very pretty place nonetheless, and justifiably popular with Parisians whenever the sun comes out. In the afternoon we headed towards Montmartre, walking past one of Paris’ “hidden” vineyards and then enjoying the afternoon view from the front of Sacre Coeur. We discovered an excellent fruit and veg shop in Montmartre and bought a number of tasty items which were turned into yet another fine meal a la Kristen. Tres bien!
Over the following days we did visit some other tourist sites, such as walking around the base of the Eiffel Tower, going up the Arc de Triomphe, and viewing some of the amazing art held by the Musee d’Orsay. We also embarked on a hunt for a decent coffee, which is a harder task than you might think. We’d discovered during our roaming of the French countryside in the wohnwagen that French coffee often leaves a lot to be desired. The coffee culture of Australia and New Zealand is years ahead of France, and apart from some nice drops in Italy and London it had been months since we’d found reliably good brews. A bit of web searching revealed that we weren’t alone in our assessment, and in response there are in fact a few coffee shops dotted around Paris that aim to bring Antipodean standards to the French capital. One of the best of these is Coutume, so we tracked it down and were thoroughly impressed.
Coutume is pricey, but it’s very high quality and has a serious dedication to coffee. Kristen tried an iced coffee made with the Aeropress, a fairly new and simple invention that combines the best qualities of percolators and drip filters to give exceptionally pure and un-bitter coffee flavour. We were not surprised to find that the people running it on both days we went were Australian! We got talking to one of them, and she recommended an up-and-coming restaurant in the northeast of the city which we did visit the following day. It was interesting to try some nice bistro food, but it was our only restaurant experience in Paris and in fact only our second in all of France (almost all our other meals during our three weeks in France came courtesy of Kristen’s Kitchen).
The highlight of our time here was visiting the Palace of Versailles, the massive building and gardens of the former French monarchy located just outside Paris. The palace is huge and very impressive, especially the famed Hall of Mirrors which stretches along one entire side of the building, but for me the gardens were even more spectacular. Divided into quadrants each with a different design and theme, and with numerous fountains and statues dotted about, it was amazing to think that much of what we saw was created more than two centuries ago. We did a complete tour including all parts of the garden, the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, and even managed to watch one of the musical fountain displays that were a special event on the day of our visit.
Without such a nice place to stay, I think our Parisian adventure might have been quite disappointing. As it was it made a pleasant interlude between the excitement of London and stunning beauty of Switzerland, but neither of us will be in a rush to return anytime soon.