When I was in my early teens, I told myself that one day, when I make my own money, I would go to Paris. At that age, I wasn’t exactly sure why I had set my heart on a city I knew very little about, but I understood it was supposed to be romantic and that was enough.
The weekend before Christmas last year, I finally did it.
I took the train from London St Pancras to Paris Gare Du Nord to fulfill that long time wish and to explore the city of love, which at that time was still recovering from the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks. Maybe all my expectations of the place are so far removed from the truth, I thought. Maybe the energy will be more somber and guarded than it is magical and ‘romantic’. Whatever it is, I had 72 hours to find out while ploughing through the list of landmarks I wanted to visit.
The Paris Essentials: For first-timers (and in no particular order)
- Arc de Triomphe
- Montmatre neighborhood
- Le Marais district
- Louvre Museum
- Eiffel Tower
- Musée Rodin
- Place de la République
- Canal Saint-Martin
- Notre Dame
- Rue des Martyrs
- Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
- Basilica Sacré-Cœur
- Moulin Rouge
- + All the French food you can eat and drink!
It was early afternoon when we arrived and the weather was bleak and chilly – my favourite. By then I had grown too comfortable with the shockingly mild English weather (so mild that cherry blossoms appeared in Kent and it was on the news) that I looked forward to being in a slightly low temperature, a complete change in habitat for a tropical creature like myself. I do love layering.
We quickly dumped our stuff at the Grand Pigalle Hotel in South Pigalle, or SoPi, a bustling neighborhood near Montmatre which offered a more local Parisian vibe. It was also a minute away from the rue de Martyrs, a short street made famous by ex-NY Times Paris Bureau Chief Elaine Sciolino because of the wonderful stories about its residents and merchants.
After a Then off we trotted to start ticking off the essentials on our list: the Sacré-Cœur, Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe.
Majority of the food stalls or carts in the streets of Paris sold mulled wine with star anise, roasted chestnuts, slabs of nougat, Nutella crepes, raclette sandwiches so big even for my huge mouth. But nearly everywhere we went, Nutella crepes followed. It was hard to say no all the time so I had it for breakfast on the second day, with a large Viennese hot chocolate to give me energy for a full day of walking (the excuse I fed myself – I just really wanted a sweet hot drink).
First stop: The Palais Royal Gardens en route to the Louvre.
Still high from our cultural fix, we strolled along the River Seine to Notre Dame. With nothing but a map and a huge chunk of pistachio nougat, we decided to be a bit more systematic with the little time we had so we weren’t jumping from one district to another and back again. As much as possible, we went by foot so we could see as much of everything.
And much to our surprise, we saw a portion of the Pont de Arts still adorned with love locks! In June last year, news broke that the padlocks symbolically fastened to the bridge before keys were tossed into the river were to be removed because it was bearing too much weight. We thought it was adieu forever to the tradition but it’s still very much alive!
For the record, Charlie was initially hesitant about this whole thing cause it’s so “cheesy” and whatever. But he ended up choosing the lock, where we would put it, and insisted we padlock it to the bridge together. So who’s the cheesy one?
Then we saw the great Notre Dame de Paris…
…had a late champagne lunch cause we were on holiday…
…and pottered around the trendy Le Marais district before topping the night off with awesome cocktails in our fancy hotel bar and satisfied our hankering for steak frite.
Last full day and we had a few more items on our ‘To Do List’ that needed seeing to and first up was Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Years ago when Charlie surprised his brother with a trip to Paris, they visited this gorgeous, hilly public park which had a temple perched on top of a cliff. He knew I’d like it too and since we were always up early, we decided to have brekkie around the area then take a nice walk around the green space before heading to Canal Saint-Martin.
If you’ve seen ‘Amelie’, you will know just how picturesque Canal Saint-Martin is with its 19th century waterway and iron footbridges. The neighborhood itself, especially Quai de Valny, was filled with restaurants, eateries and independent shops and boutiques with really crafty products.
And of course, we stopped by Place de la République where candles are lit and flowers are placed to pay tribute to the victims of terror attacks. We spent a couple of minutes reading peoples’ messages, looking at photos of victims, and quietly observing the other people around us who were there for the same reason. Some were clearly foreigners like ourselves, fortunate to be strangers in this scenario. But there were those who knew someone in one of the photographs, and you can really tell because it was the only photo they really looked at, or sometimes a teardrop or two escapes from their eyes. Maybe they were regulars at Place de la République. Or maybe it was one of those days they didn’t want to feel alone in the suffering.
Musée Rodin featuring the works of French sculptor Auguste Rodin was also on the list. It’s the very first museum I’ve been in that displayed sculptures outdoors, in well-kept gardens, all of which makes the experience much more interesting.
From a distance, you can also catch a glimpse of the Dôme des Invalides, which contains Napoleon I’s tomb.
It was dusk when we left the museum and hopped on the Paris Metro to Montmatre and Moulin Rouge, very near where we stayed. It was our last night and felt extremely pleased with ourselves that we had completed our checklist in a weekend, and therefore had the morning to spend having a last stroll on rue des Martyrs before we make our way back to London.
I was on such a high during this trip, and saw the entire city with rose-tinted lenses. The fresh and crisp weather, architecture, green spaces, art, café culture, history and people make the city so charming it’s easy to forget your worries. Maybe it was that, which makes Paris so romantic: it’s a place where you can escape your realities and get lost in so much beauty it makes you feel small, humbled, and hopeful for what’s yet to come.