Those who spread the nasty rumor about the French being rude have either never been to France, or went with an entitled, customer-is-always-right American attitude. If you have that sort of a chip on your shoulder and expect to have your ass kissed when you walk into a restaurant or a shop, you will probably be met with some hostility. If you respect that you’re in a new place and behave in a humble and civilized manner, you will have no problems at all in Paris. I found both the city and the people wonderful…except for a few cab drivers. But that seems to be a problem with cab drivers worldwide and not indicative of Parisians in general, no?
After returning from London and spending a day (Sunday 23 December) back in Luxembourg relaxing, doing laundry, and exchanging Christmas gifts, we were back on a train to Paris on Monday, Christmas Eve. Fortunately, the train to Paris from Luxembourg City is only about 2 1/2 hours. This left us considerably less exhausted and cranky than when we had arrived in London. We unloaded at the hotel, before heading to the most obvious tourist spot, which was just a short walking distance from where we stayed. This was our view of the Seine from our room:
Most people will say that objects appear smaller when encountered in real life. This was not my experience with the Eiffel Tower, which seems considerably more massive when standing underneath it than when looking at a photo of it. I managed to brave a mild fear of heights and climbed aboard the elevator for the second level. To explain (you must remember that–in Europe–the ground floor is level zero), there is only a restaurant on the 1st level. The second is the observation deck. The third level is the summit, at the very top. There are elevators along each of the bases that will get you to the 2nd level, and then you have to switch to a single elevator to get the rest of the way to the top. I am deeply ashamed to say that–while my parents continued on to the top–my partner and I wimped out and stayed at level 2 for photos and gift shopping. Baby steps. I may tackle it next time.
We opted again to utilize a hop on/hop off tour bus, which again I would suggest for first timers just for the sake of convenience. Two day passes are available, you see an overview of where you may want to go, and then you essentially have free public transportation until your time runs out. You won’t have to worry about cabs or the Metro. My only real beef is that the audio portion of the “tour” was a bit lacking. They provide you with headphones and there are multiple languages from which to choose; however, 90% of the audio is just music playing with very little information about the area’s history and architecture. Oh well. It was still convenient.
Our first stop was the original Paris Opera House, or the Palais Garnier. For you Phantom of the Opera fans, this is the setting. Unfortunately, tourists are not allowed into the lower levels/catacombs. It is, however, a spectacular building–completed in 1875–with some great architecture and design.
We spent a bit more time on foot Christmas Day, first having breakfast in a cafe near Notre Dame Cathedral. We had planned to tour the cathedral that day, but as it had not yet opened for tourists by the time we finished breakast, we opted to walk along the Seine instead and see what came up. This gave me the opportunity to show off my prowess with an actual map (suck it, i-phone/GPS dependents!), and we made our way through various street vendors and stepped off the beaten path to eventually find 81 Rue De L’Universite. Not a huge tourist spot for many, but it was the apartment Julia and Paul Child lived in during their years in Paris. I had just finished reading My Life in France a few months before, and am a bit Julia Child obsessed, so this was a real thrill.
We made our way back to the Place De La Concorde, which borders the Champs Elysees to the East. This was the square where Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and hundreds of others were guillotined during the French Revolution. The morbid history mixes with the present seamlessly here, with swarms of tourists riding a nearby ferris wheel and shopping along the Champs Elysees. It contrasted with the Tower of London, which has a more somber and creepy atmosphere despite the fact that only seven people were actually executed there.
There was a massive Christmas market along both sides of the Champs Elysees, which kept us occupied for a few hours (and where my mother was really in her element). The variety of merchandise sold here was endless.
We took a combination bus/boat tour that evening, topped off with a meal at Chez Clement. The restaurant is actually a chain, posted at several tourist locations around Paris, and would not have been my first choice, but it was part of the package deal and was adequate. The food was good; keeping in theme with the clueless first time tourist wanting to feel fancy, I ate escargot for the first time (not bad, similar in consistency to a mussel and loaded with so much butter you don’t care what it is). So the food was decent, but the restaurant rather quickly ushered those of us in the tour group to the back of the restaurant, as if they were ashamed of us somehow. It was not terribly welcoming, but I also understand that many American tourists can be loud and obnoxious; they likely behave that way out of courtesy to their other customers. Verdict: overall not bad, but not worth a return visit.
The real benefit of the evening was the boat and bus tour leading up to dinner, which allowed us some great nighttime views of the city:
We had made a point to give the Louvre a whole day, but I have to warn that that is not nearly long enough to appreciate it. The place is a massive maze, and I could happily spend several days lost in there (and plan to in the near future). Even if you’re not a fan of art, you can’t miss out on at least giving the Louvre a try. The electronic tour guide is actually a Nintendo DS, and comes with a guide of “must see” objects. I would recommend this for first timers who don’t know what the hell they’re doing (a camp to which we belonged on that day). I will be back and likely write on it more in-depth in the future, but for now:
After spending a day lost in the Louvre, we were quite efficient on our final day in Paris. We managed to squeeze in Notre Dame Cathedral and the Musee d’Orsay before catching our train back to Luxembourg. For anyone stressed about the intimidating size of the Louvre, I would suggest the Musee D’Orsay as an alternative. It is considerably smaller, and can conceivably be toured in a day. It is a real treat for fans of the Impressionists, as it houses an impressive collection of Manet, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. At the time we were there, it was also housing the famous American painting Whistler’s Mother.
With all the scenery, architechture, and art we viewed over the four days, the most impressive item for this atheist was the 800-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral. This is another must-see stop for first time tourists. It was breathtaking.