Paris — the city of love, the city of light. Before I came to Italy, Paris was the number one place outside of Italy that I wanted to visit. Most people tried to convince me otherwise as Paris is not known for being the cleanest, nicest, or most inviting city for Americans. Still, I knew I had to visit in order to figure that out for myself. In the earliest morning of my life, I woke up at 1:58 after only two hours of sleep and took a 3:40 AM bus from Florence to Pisa to catch my RyanAir flight to Beauvais, an airport outside of Paris. From Beauvais, we took another bus, this time into Paris, and the metro to our hostel in Montmartre.
Once we unpacked and settled in our room, it was about 1 PM. Even though we had already been awake for almost 12 hours, Mel and I knew our list of to-do’s in Paris was exponentially longer than the 3 days we had there. We left the hostel and headed to the Louvre since we figured it was a low key activity that would keep our attention after an already long day. Plus, how do you visit Paris and not go see the Mona Lisa. I had tried to research the best way to enter the Louvre since it is always extremely busy. I read about an entrance that is inside the building and is less crowded than the entrance on the outside by the glass pyramid. Since we took the metro to the Louvre, it dropped us off underground so we didn’t even have to try to find the entrance as it was lying right in front of us. Before we entered though, we caved and ate McDonald’s since we were starving and knew the rest of the weekend would be filled with delicious, and equally as expensive, French cuisine. Once we downed our horrible, yet satisfying fast food, we embarked for the Louvre. While we were going through the metal detector, we realized there was no line–at all. We were in pure shock and thought it was a huge joke. As we walked down the corridor towards the ticket booth, there was only a 15 minute wait, but after that we were on our way. Besides the fact that we entered the Louvre in record time, our student visas allowed us to enter the museum for free. The only time that document has ever come in handy.
The Louvre is one of the largest collections of art in the world, and that fact was as dating to the eyes as it is on the ears. The museum is four floors of wall to wall artwork. In a word, it was overwhelming. While I find art interesting, there was almost too much art. We spent the first half hour just trying to figure out where we were on the map. We walked around and enjoyed that art that we stumbled upon, but after about an hour, we knew we needed to find the main attraction. When we found the wing that the Mona Lisa was in, we eagerly walked down the hallway until we came upon the room the painting is hung in. Surprisingly, the room was not that crowded. Although we still had to fight through a sea of iPad’s being used as cameras, my biggest European pet peeve, we both snapped pics of Mona and even a few selfies.
I had been told that the painting isn’t as big as you assume, so I think that prepared me for what I thought it would look like. The painting was the size of a normal portrait and it was pretty amazing to see in person. Many people throughout history have been puzzled and awed by the painting including Napoleon who had the painting hung in his bedroom, only to have his wife insist he remove it because she was so jealous. In addition, a worker at the Louvre once fell in love with the painting. He stole it and kept it in his home for three months. Although the painting didn’t affect me to that extreme, after seeing it I can confirm that she is definitely smiling.
Overall, we spent about three hours in the Louvre, and although we didn’t make even a small dent in observing the amount of art in that building, we felt satisfied. I once heard a fact that if you spent only 1 minute looking at each piece of art in the Louvre, it would take you over three months to see every piece of art. Clearly, we didn’t have that much time, so we opted to take some touristy pictures with the famous pyramid outside the entrance and said au revoir to the Louvre.
We wanted to hit Notre Dame that as well, so we we decided to take the scenic route to get there. We walked along the Seine and on the Pont de Arts, which is also known as the love lock bridge. Couples will buy a lock and write their names on it, lock it to the bridge, and throw the key into the Seine. Unfortunately, the locks add about an extra ton of weight to the bridge, which makes it structurally unsound. The city put up wooden boards to block the sides of the bridge and deter people from putting locks on it. There was only one little section that wasn’t boarded up so we took some pictures there to say we had been there done that, and continued onward.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Paris is a huge city. And I mean huge. What looked like a 10 minute walk from the Lourve to Notre Dame was more like 20+. While I didn’t hate it, I should sue the map company for making everything look like it’s right next to each other, because it’s most definitely not. We arrived at Notre Dame and luckily, the church has free admission.
The church is known for the beautiful stained glass window and gothic architecture. Overall, the church looked almost exactly how I thought it would–grandiose, with pointed-arches and a dark vibe. After a semester abroad I am more or less KO’ed when it comes to marveling at the beauty of churches. While Notre Dame was great to see, I was ready to go soak in the architecture and quaint streets of the city.
After seeing Notre Dame, we attempted to find the metro. We walked around the streets for a little, kind of lost, but kind of enjoying being lost. We stumbled across this street with a cafe and cupcake shop where the walls were draped in wisteria. If I could sum up the charm and beauty of Paris in one picture it would be this location. Locals were sitting outside eating croissants and baguettes, content with the surroundings as if buildings painted with flowers was an everyday occurrence. After I tore myself away from the view, we found the subway and headed back to Montmartre, which is about a 30 minute metro ride from the city center.
Mel and I stayed in a three person room, and lucky for us, the other girl in the room was an American from San Francisco. Her name was Jess and she was spending two weeks in Paris. We all bonded over our American-ness and went out to dinner together that night. We stayed in Montmartre and found a quaint cafe that was serving dinner. I ordered a white fish filet, which I savored every single bite of, and creme brûlée. For anyone that doesn’t know creme brûlée is my guilty pleasure dessert and I only order it on special occasions. Being in Paris definitely called for a true, French creme brûlée. After dinner it was only about 9 PM, but I had been up for almost 20 hours, so we called it an early night, to rest up for the duration of the weekend.
The next morning, Mel, Jess, and I left around 9 AM to head to Versailles. The Chateau and past home of Louis XIV, and many succeeding French kings, is located in the town of Versailles, which is a little over an hour outside of the city. Luckily, the Paris metro is a God send and extremely easy to figure out. We double checked the trains we had to take at the hostel before hopping on the metro. An overall peaceful ride, we watched the sites of city and rural France roll by out the windows. When we arrived, we followed the mass of people who we hoped were all going to the same place we were — they were. Once again, we assumed we would have to trudge through hoards of people and wait in an endless line before we could enter the palace. Once again, we were wrong. Our visas allowed us to enter the palace for free, and once we had our document checked, we entered right away. The tour came with a free audio guide, which not only makes me feel like a huge tourist, but a real life adult, ew.
We started on the lower level of the palace, which contains the palace’s chapel and rooms of old pantings that showed the progression of the palace through the ownership of each king. We moved upstairs to the more interesting part of the palace pretty quickly, since there was not much else to see on the first level.
We walked through the room that was used by the kings for grand gatherings. The ceiling was painted with a depiction of 124 characters that took three years to complete. Impressive to the average human, but probably just the average piece of artwork to Louis.
From there, we walked through Louis XIV’s room. The walls were velvet red, and his favorite clock was positioned next to the bed. In addition, there was a portrait of him on the wall. While it was nothing special, I had learned about Louis and looked at that piece of art in my History 101 class, so it was kind of cool to see it in real life, and in Versailles nonetheless.
After Louis’s room was Marie Antoinette’s room. Unlike Louis’s room, Marie’s room had a fresher feel and was covered in floral gold decor. She even had a secret door that connected to Louis’s room. During the French Revolution, Versailles was looted so most of the original furniture has gone missing. Over the past few years, some of the furniture has been rediscovered and is in the process of being restored. What has been returned to the palace has been placed back in the room historian’s believe it was originally located in. Even though the majority of the furniture in Versailles are probably recreations, it was all accurate to the period and added to the immense grandeur of the home.
After walking through many, many rooms, all worthy of a jaw drop and applause, we entered into the crown jewel of the palace — the Hall of Mirrors. This room was commissioned by Louis XIV, as he was fearful of his court. The room has floor to ceiling mirrors, which line the walls, appropriately so. The mirrors allowed Louis to watch his back, to make sure no one in his court could follow and kill him.
This was by far my favorite part of the palace. It perfectly matched the expectations I had of what Versailles would be. The hall was glistening as the sunlight shone through the window and sparkled off of the chandeliers that lined the ceiling. Everything from the lines connecting the different mirrors, to the ceiling molding was gilded in gold. Many times, the beauty of old buildings in Europe suffer from age and tourism, but Versailles was in pristine condition and was nothing less than royal.
The windows had an incredible view of the gardens and I could have been content admiring the ironic beauty of the famous room the rest of the day. Instead, we continued on through the rest of the home before heading to the gardens that occupy over 200 acres of land.
Unfortunately, my visa didn’t work for everything, so I had to pay for access into the gardens. When we were beginning the audio tour of the palace, there was a video that showed us the different areas of the gardens. When you see the grounds from the palace, they don’t look that big, but we were very wrong. We wanted to be able to hit as many parts of the garden as possible, so in addition to the ticket to the garden, we paid for a hop on hop off tram ticket that drove us to the main features of the gardens, where we could explore and then jump back on to see more sights. This proved to be an excellent decision since just the drive to the furthest part of the gardens was about 15 minutes.
Our first stop was the Grand Trianon. This was the size of a normal house that the royal family could go to when they wanted an escape from Versailles. There was also a Petit Trianon on the grounds, but we chose to bypass it because why see the Petit Trianon when you can see the Grand Trianon. Can you say rich royalty problems. Obviously it was no where near as extravagant as Versailles, but it showed the true money, and power the French royalty had.
From the Grand Trianon, we walked to Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. This was the only building on the grounds of the garden that we wanted to see most. Since Marie was English by birth, she wanted an area of the grounds to have a house that reflected the English countryside style she was accustomed to. The area of the hamlet contained the main house, two houses for the workers and groundskeepers, and a pond. Mel and I couldn’t resist singing the song “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast since it truly was a little town, filled with little people, at least in our eyes.
The hamlet had a completely different feel than the rest of the grounds as it was quaint and built with wood rather than marble, like the main palace. We bought some fresh pressed orange juice from a juice stand outside of the hamlet before taking the tram back up to the main part of the palace.
When we returned to the main part of the Palace, we were welcomed with the view of a gigantic pond filled with men attempting to row their lovers on the small wooden boats. We walked up towards the palace along the main pathway and had a spectacular view of the back of the Palace. Violin music played from strategically placed speakers as Mel and I danced up the sloped, rocky pathway, and Jess looked on probably wondering why she agreed to come to Versailles with two weirdos.
As we continued upwards, we came across a row of statues. Since being in Europe, Mel and I have grown a fondness for mimicking statues. It started out as a joke, but now whenever we find ourselves in a museum or a garden we can’t seem to avoid making complete fools of ourselves as we try to recreate the statues. Luckily, Jess was totally on board with our shenanigans, and even acted as our creative director. Enjoy some of the photographic evidence of our embarrassing, yet equally as amusing photoshoot on the grounds of Versailles.
After spending the majority of the day at Versailles, we decided to head back to Paris. Versailles was my favorite place that I saw over the weekend. The house and the gardens are kept in perfect condition and truly lived up to my expectations. The Hall of Mirrors was my favorite aspect of the house, and no park, green-space or outdoor area that I’ve seen in Europe can compete with the pure size and beauty of the gardens.
When we returned to Paris, we still had a solid half a day to explore. Montmartre is one of the more picturesque and artsy areas of Paris, despite its distance from the center of the city. Since we had spent a lot of time on transportation and wanted to save all of our city center activities for Sunday, we explored around Montmartre. We started at the Sacre-Cour which is a church built in memorial to those lost in the Franco-Prussian war. It was a steep walk up to the top, but offered a great view of the city. We didn’t stay up there too long, but there a bunch of people lounging on the grassy areas around the church enjoying the view, and the nice weather.
We walked down to the main street and stopped in a few shops, before we continued on in hopes of stumbling upon Moulin Rouge. Thankfully, Europe has helped me grow out of my directionally challenged nature and I can read a map pretty damn well if I do say so myself. We found Moulin Rouge, but considering it is in the Red Light District of Paris, we decided to take some pictures of the sign and then leave to find better things aka crepes.
We definitely paid too much money for our crepes, but when your list of “Foods I Must Eat While Spending a Weekend in Paris,” includes baguettes, crepes, macaroons, croissants, creme brûlée and escargot you gotta squeeze in any and all food when appropriate. Mel and I decided to order one savory and one sweet crepe and split them. Our sweet one was nutella, banana, and coconut and our savory one was ham, egg, and mushroom. The sweet tooth in me preferred the sweet one, probably because it had nutella and coconut, two of my favorite ingredients.
That night we grabbed dinner at a nearby restaurant that had good reviews on Yelp. I had French Onion Soup, because when in France, and I was still decently full from our crepes. Jess also convinced us to order dessert so I had creme brûlée again because I just couldn’t resist.
The next day was our last full day in Paris and we still had loads of food to eat and sights to see. Jess was leaving to stay at another hostel, so we bid our farewells as she told us to come to San Fran and see her. We went into the center of Paris and had a breakfast complete with a croissant, baguette, yogurt, juice, and espresso. And yes, French croissants lived up to the hype. From there, we embarked on our mission to climb the Arc de Triomphe. Since Mel and I had both climbed the Duomo in Florence, which is 463 steps, the 264 of the Arc was no big deal.
From the top there were panoramic views of the entire city. While more people tend to go to the top of the Eiffel tower, we opted for the Arc since it was free for us, there was no line, and our view included the Eiffel tower. From the top we could see Montmartre and the Sacre-Cour, the Champs-Elysses, the main shopping street, and of course the Eiffel Tower. The view of the Eiffel Tower was my favorite, not only because it is the defining building in Paris, but it was perfectly positioned between the streets that spiral off of the rotary that the Arc is in the middle of.
After soaking in the views, and sunshine, we walked the Champs-Elysses for some retail therapy, and more food. Since most of the stores on the Champs are high-end retailers such as Louis Vuitton and Tiffany’s we admired from afar, before indulging in something that was more of our speed — macaroons. We went to Laduree, the most famous macaroon producer in Paris. Mel and I split a box of six macaroons and paid an unhealthy amount of money for them, but it was worth it.
After a mid-day snack, we headed for the crown jewel of Paris– the Eiffel Tower. Considering it was probably a sin that we had been in Paris for 3 days and not seen the Eiffel tower yet, our visit was well overdue. As we walked along the Seine, we dodged people who had just completed the color run, as the race was along the area where the Eiffel Tower is.
Seeing the Eiffel Tower in its true glory was a sublime feeling. I don’t really have words for it. I guess, when you see something in books growing up and then you’re physically in front of it you feel a little small and insignificant. I don’t know how a metal structure could make me feel anything, but it did. It wasn’t a feeling that made me want to cry and it wasn’t even my favorite moment of the trip or abroad, but seeing it made me feel like I was truly in Paris and Europe. Little moments like that make me realize what a special experience study abroad is.
Mel and I attempted to take pictures with the tower, but it’s sheer size makes it quite difficult. It was hard to get yourself in the picture without cutting off the tower or looking like a midget. Good thing that the tower is recognizable even if the whole structure isn’t in the picture. People were laying on the grassy areas on the sides of the tower and we found the best angle was along the open space that overlooks the tower from the Royal Palace.
We spent a solid hour, probably more, by the Eiffel Tower, but it’s only so long that you can look at a building and take pictures of it, no matter how pretty it is. We grabbed a baguette before quickly dropping our stuff at the hostel and heading back out for dinner. When we left for Paris, Mel and I both promised we would try escargot. We wanted to make sure that we had it from a restaurant that had good reviews, so we asked our hostel what they recommended. The restaurant was called L’Escargot Montorgueil, and when we arrived it looked like we would have a very wonderful, and classy evening. The restaurant had a golden snail atop the sign and little plants positioned along the windowsills.
When we sat down, we knew we wanted to order the traditional snails, but were deciding on one other plate. We decided to go for the truffle snails, since Italy has fostered our obsession with truffles. Our server, who weirdly enough use to live in Nashua and worked in Tyngsboro, recommended we pair our snails with a white wine called Bourgogne et Blanc, and it was one of the most delicious wines I have had since being abroad.
It took me a few tries to figure out how to remove the snail from the shell, but once I did, eating them was an out of body experience. I can’t believe I am saying this, but those snails were one of the most delicious meals I have EVER eaten. It was a cross between the texture and taste of calamari and mushrooms. We also split a chicken dinner, but in all honesty I could have eaten another plate of escargot and been equally as happy. I never expected that I would love escargot as much as I did, but it gave me such a respect for French cuisine, even though we passed on the foie gras.
After dinner, we took the metro back to the Eiffel Tower for a Seine River cruise. We arrived a little early, so we took advantage of the amazing lighting and beautiful sunset to snap some more pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Once we exhausted yet another picture taking angle of the tower, we headed for the banks of the Seine to board our boat cruise.
It was 9 PM when we left, and even though the sun had set it was still light out, but once the boat started cruising down the river it started to get a little darker. We passed the Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame, Pont des Arts, Louvre, National Assembly building, the Latin Quarter, and many other sites. We had nerdy metal phones that we could hold up to our ears and would tell us about what we were seeing. I used it for the first half of the boat tour, but once we turned around to head back to the dock, I decided to just take in the view.
When we returned it was just about 10 PM. Once the sun sets, on the hour, the Eiffel Tower sparkles. I eagerly awaited, and watched for when the tower would sparkle. We were still on the Seine when the lights came on and the tower began to sparkle. That view and moment was one of my favorites of the whole trip. While the Eiffel Tower was a masterpiece during the day, how it looked at night blew the daylight view out of the water. We floated down the river, passed under a bridge, and docked on the banks of the Seine. As we left the boat, the tower still sparkled, but I knew it wouldn’t last much longer, since it only stays on for a few minutes. Just as I thought it, the lights went out. If Paris is the city of lights, then the view of the Eiffel Tower at night definitely helped the city live up to that name. After that, we headed home since we had to wake up at 4 AM for our flight home.
Overall Paris did not conform to any of the bad expectations that people had set for me. The majority of people I interacted with besides one man at Versailles who we think just hated his job, and one lady on the train, everyone was extremely nice. This was especially true at restaurants. Every time we went out, if the restaurant didn’t have an English menu, the servers were happy to translate, or help us understand what each dish was. The city was overall pretty clean. Whenever people say that Paris is dirty, I don’ think they realize that it is still a city where people live and work and it’s not just a picturesque place in Europe. While it obviously wasn’t pristine, it was never so dirty that I took notice to it. Lastly, was the smoking. Smoking is a bigger part of the European lifestyle than it is in America, so most of the places I’ve visited, smoking is much more prevalent. Honestly though, I notice more people smoking in Florence than I did while I was in France. Of course it is still a habit, but it’s not like every time I turned a corner there was someone smoking in my face.
On the contrary though, Paris did not blow me out of my seat and down the Seine River. I did enjoy my time there and thought it was a beautiful city, but for the most part I wasn’t in a state of awe when it came to most of the sites. In a way, I attribute this to the fact that as you grow up, you hear so much about Paris through books, music, and movies. It almost sets an unrealistic expectation that no place in the world could live up to. Even though I very much enjoyed my weekend there, it was not my number one trip of the semester. What I will say is that I was truly shocked and surprised by the ability for the city to have such a vivacious culture, no matter what arrondissement I was in. Arrondissements are the Parisian version of districts and each arrondissement had its own vibe. Mel and I both really enjoyed the district that we had dinner in, which was the 1st if I can remember correctly.
Even though Mel and I had a laundry list of places we wanted to go and sites we wanted to see while we were there, we crossed off just about every one. While we were out and about each day, which is what traveling is for anyways, we never felt rushed. This was a rare feeling since we only ever have a maximum of four days to travel on the weekends. While this is definitely nicer than having a two day weekend, and our weekends happen to be longer than our school weeks, it puts you in a time crunch when you’re trying to see as much of a city as possible. In the end, my favorite place was Versailles, my favorite site was seeing the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night, and my favorite memory was trying escargot. I was able to experience a perfect balance of immersion in the French culture, but also check off some of my own Parisian bucket list items. In the end, Paris was a beautiful and wonderful city that I am so happy I was able to visit while I was here. There are an endless amount of places to visit and see, so I would love to return someday. Until then, I will have to settle for subpar baguettes and croissants all while I dream of eating snails and sipping on French wine in the city of love and light.
Ciao for now,
All photography by Emily Houston.