Paris, Je t’aime

Four days ago I boarded a train on a grey and cloudy morning in London. Two and a half hours later I got off the train, and I was in Paris. As we walked out of Gare du Nord and I saw the distinctive green art nouveau arch with the yellow ‘Metropolitain’ sign above my head and the elegant buildings with their French windows, wooden shutters and pavement cafes lining the narrow streets, I gasped out loud. Surely a bustling capital city couldn’t be this beautiful?! As we wandered from the station over to the neighbourhood of Canal St-Martin, we passed building after building that had clearly been crafted with beauty as the primary purpose. Never have I seen such magnificence. My eyes grew rounder and rounder as we came across the lovely Canal and the pretty shops and cafes running alongside its banks; the trees running either side only need a month or two to burst into riots of glorious blossom, but even bare branched against a grey sky, still the view from the cobbled bridge across was breathtaking.

After grabbing a quick baguette from a delightful boulangerie close to Canal St Martin, we hopped on the Metro to Place d’Italie, where our beautiful B&B was located. We informed our hostess, Marie, that we wanted to practice our French and she wasn’t to speak to us in English during our stay. She was delighted to help us with our language practice and she cheerfully corrected us when we stumbled and helped to fill in forgotten words. Over a cup of tea, she showed us how to get to the places we wanted to visit, and loaded up with galettes and Orangina for un petit casse-croute, we excitedly set off for our first stop, Pere Lachaise cemetery, in Menilmontant. I can never resist a cemetery, and Pere Lachaise blew me away. I was expecting something like Green-Wood in Brooklyn; a green hilly place with orderly grave stones and a few trees and flowers here and there. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is like a miniature city of the dead, with cobbled avenues leading between sections of graves. The majority of graves are built like little houses, and many have beautiful stained glass inside, some depicting the faces of those they memorialise. I have never seen a cemetery like this; I am presuming it’s a Catholic, or a French, tradition.

We wandered around, gasping in awe at the ornate graves and the wonderful inscriptions, and we were most surprised when we reached Oscar Wilde’s rather interesting grave and found it covered in lipstick kisses! The best part of our visit was yet to come, however; on our way out of the cemetery, an elderly gentleman saw us consulting our map and stopped to ask if we needed help. Hearing our accented French, he asked where we were from. When we said we were English, he just couldn’t get over the fact that we spoke French. He said he had been volunteering in the cemetery for over 20 years and we were the first English tourists he had found who could speak more than a word or two of French. Encouraged by our smiles, he soon led us off on a tour of the cemetery, talking away in rapid French about famous figures we had never heard of and also showing us where his mother and sister were buried. We were enchanted by him and loved having the opportunity to speak so much French. As we said goodbye, we promised to email our new friend Calixte (what a name!) when we returned to England.

By the time we had walked all around Pere Lachaise, we were ready to drop. However, we couldn’t end our first day in Paris without seeing the Louvre, so we swung by the Rue de Rivoli to marvel at the colossus that is the Louvre and also gasp at my first sight of the Tour d’Eiffel far off in the distance! Once our sightseeing needs had been satisfied, we wearily headed back to our neighbourhood for a quick dinner of delicious steak frites before collapsing into bed. Switching on the TV, we came across a strange talent show looking for ‘le nouveau Claude Francois et les Clodettes’ – we had no idea who Claude Francois was and watched open mouthed as a succession of eccentric blonde middle aged men and 70’s disco-dressed women paraded around on a stage, singing songs we’d never heard of. Chalking it up to cultural differences, we fell asleep to the strains of ‘Comme d’habituuuuude….’ (subsequent googlings have revealed that Claude Francois was a BIG DEAL and wrote the original version of My Way – known as ‘Comme d’Habitude’ in French – who knew?!). After a wonderfully restful night, partly due to exhaustion and partly due to the fact that window shutters really do block out all light and noise, we woke up ready and raring to go and explore Paris. We ate a quick breakfast of croissants and fruit with our lovely fellow guests (who happened to be from New York, so we got on like a house on fire), before dashing off to catch the bus to Montmartre.

Amelie is one of my favourite films of all time and so I was desperate to see the scenes I have delighted over for years. Montmartre is very hilly, and the little cobbled streets all snake upwards to the peak of a hill, on the top of which sits the amazing and iconic Sacre-Coeur. I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of it, and the views from the top are incredible; I could barely contain myself as I saw the tiny spindle of the Eiffel Tower emerge from the mist, amongst the loveliness of all Paris laid out in splendour at my feet. Little did I know that there was more magnificence to come; the interior of the Sacre Coeur is stunning, and we were very fortunate to be visiting at the same time as a service, so as we walked around, the sound of beautiful a capella singing from a group of nuns who were worshipping filled the church. It was a truly special experience.

By the time we had finished wandering around the Sacre Coeur, we had rumbling stomachs, and so we headed down into the streets below to seek a spot for lunch. As we wandered, we came across a sight I recognised; the greengrocer’s at the end of Amelie’s street. It’s now a posh cafe but the junction and the shop front were unmistakeable. I couldn’t believe my luck! Then, as we walked down another street, we bumped straight into Le Cafe les Deux Moulins; the cafe where Amelie works!! Of course we had to eat lunch there, and it was a wonderful experience. I couldn’t believe that I was in the same location, and the food was unbelievably delicious; I had the best croque monsieur I have ever tasted! Plus, to round things off, there was a great display of film memorabilia in the toilets, and I got to see the travelling gnome; what joy!!

Such excitement would ordinarily be hard to beat, but Paris is not a one trick pony. Far from it! After a quick photo call at Le Moulin Rouge, our next stop was Notre Dame, but first we wanted to take a walk along the Seine and browse the stalls of les bouquinistes. This is something I’ve dreamed of doing for years, and I had to keep pinching myself as I stood on the Pont Neuf and saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and all the beautiful, pale, stately buildings lined up along the river banks, and the towers of Notre Dame behind me. What a magnificent sight, and how unbelievably beautiful Paris is; as I looked at the vistas either side of me, I finally *got* why Paris is so legendary as a city of romance. It’s not about being there with someone you love; it’s the fact that a sense of the romantic, of the aesthetic, is in everything you see around you. Paris was built by people who appreciated grand gestures, beauty, surprises and flamboyance. You can’t help but go weak kneed at the sight of it.

I nearly went weak kneed upon walking inside Notre Dame; the height, the stained glass, the cool musty darkness of it; they all combined to produce an effect of total awe. It is lovely, and I could imagine how wonderful and powerful services must have been in here when they were packed to the rafters in the days of old when everyone attended church on a Sunday. It’s a truly mystical place, and I loved every minute of being inside it.

As the sun rapidly began to sink, my friend and I enjoyed an icecream at the delicious Berthillon before racing over to the Eiffel Tower to catch the view up close as dusk settled. As we came out of the metro station, I once again gasped in awe at seeing a sight that had become so familiar actually realised in the flesh before me. It was just like the first time I ever saw the Empire State Building; I could hardly believe my eyes. I stood in raptures as darkness fell and this wonderful symbol of Paris lit up and lights sparkled up and down its beautiful wrought iron structure; it was absolutely magical. Certainly a sight I will never forget!! Once we had had our fill, we then decided to go to a Quartier we hadn’t yet visited for dinner; Le Marais. Le Marais is one of Paris’ most historical and upmarket districts, and once we had wandered down a few side streets and marvelled at the stunning old stone buildings, we were enchanted with it. After a little walk, we came across a lovely looking bistro, Camille, filled with French locals and we took a chance on it for dinner; we were so pleased we did, because it was delicious! We chatted, drank red wine, ate lots of red meat and then had great fun bashing the top of a creme brulee to smithereens before heading off home for another night of well deserved rest in our lovely B&B.

The next day dawned; already our last in Paris! Drowning our sorrows with tea and croissants, we set off early on an expedition to see the Jardins du Luxembourg. Unfortunately, after a lot of wandering around, we failed to find them, and already in need of a sit down, I suggested heading back to Rue de Rivoli and the amazing Cafe Angelina, for chocolat chaud. The inside of this very smart tea room opposite the Tuileries is stunning, but the real reason for visiting has to be the hot chocolate; rich, velvety and delicious, it was the best I have ever had, though it doesn’t come cheap! Once we had drunk our fill, we then decided to go and do some souvenir shopping. Marie, our hostess, had recommended Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussman, which is kind of like Harvey Nichols for the Brits and Barneys for the Americans, so there we went. Inside it is absolutely breathtaking; there is a stained glass dome and dozens of ornate gilded balconies cascading down from the ceiling; it’s definitely the most beautiful department store I have ever seen. We browsed, I tried on a few very expensive dresses, none of which were designed for people with super long legs like me (honestly, it’s not as great as it sounds to have thighs that are twice as long as everyone else’s – finding dresses that don’t make you look like a woman of the night is very difficult!!), and we both bought CDs of French music to remind us of our stay. Not yet shopped out, we then decided to go to the Queen of Parisian shopping streets; the infamous Champs-Elysees. A wider, more beautiful, and much more calm feeling Oxford Street, with a lovely view of the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysees was very different to what I had expected, but very nice nonetheless. My only port of call there was Laduree, where I queued up for ages to pay the extortionate but totally worth it price of almost 16 euros for a box of eight macarons, which I had never tasted before. All I can say is- wow. Eight little discs of PURE perfection! I am so glad they have Laduree in London, because I don’t think I can live without macarons in my life now!!

With the time swiftly approaching for our departure, we just had time to go and take a good look at the Arc de Triomphe and then dash back for a last wander down the Seine before heading back to our B&B and then on to Gare du Nord. What a whirlwind three days! I can’t believe I waited this long to see Paris. It is so beautiful, I can’t even begin to eloquently describe how brilliant an experience it was to spend time just looking at the splendour unfolding everywhere before me, even in the most humble of streets. Only two hours by train from London, and I was in a world where people carry baguettes around on the streets, smoke potent cigarettes constantly, wear their hair in totally different styles (I am copying the high on the head chignon/bun style I saw on loads of women), and actually know what coffee is. Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, I was assaulted with beauty. What a city! It is quite unlike anywhere I have ever been before, and I am in love with it. The hazy mornings, the orange afternoons, the long vistas of pale shuttered loveliness snaking down cobbled streets; Paris is a dream come true. I’ll be back soon.

58 comments

  1. Wow, Rachel: What a great post! One of the things I enjoy most about your blog is your zest for life and that definitely comes across in this post. I have not yet been to Paris, but it is on my list – someday! How shocking the guide had met so few French speaking native English speakers. My french is super-rusty, but I speak Spanish well and use it every chance I get – it amazes me how random native spanish speakers (in US hotels, airports, not to mention in Latin America) are so excited to speak spanish with me. Merci beaucoup! Kathy

    1. Thanks Kathy, glad you enjoyed it! I do think a lot of English people don’t speak foreign languages – I’m glad I was enabled to study for so long at school. I wish I spoke Spanish though – I never learned that at school and wish I could have spoken it when I was in New York as most of my neighbours were Puerto Rican!

  2. Cafe Angelina’s chocolat chaud is divine, isn’t it? Laduree macarons are indeed little pieces of heaven; welcome to my obsession! Thank goodness for Laduree in London (you must try Pierre Hermes macarons too). I’m so glad that you had a wonderful time on your first visit to Paris, Rachel.

    1. YES Claire, it really is! I want one right now! I think I am going to start spending an awful amount of money on Macarons…not good. They are just so tasty! Thank you so much, and thank you for the loan of French Milk too – I read it both nights I was in Paris and it really added to my experience!

  3. Your post made me as proud of my city as if I had personally built it from the ground up! I’m so pleased you enjoyed yourself, Rachel (and that Ladurée’s macarons did not let you down!). Tomorrow I’m hesitating between going to the Salon de l’Agriculture with a friend (the idea makes me think of Madame Bovary every time) and going to the Marché aux Fleurs (not far from Notre Dame) to pick up some plants for my balcony – it’s spring and I want to garden! Whichever I choose, I have a feeling I will be looking at everything with renewed interest, thanks to your freshness and enthusiasm…

    1. Oh wow, thanks Florence! I am so glad! What a wonderful day you have planned…I am jealous. You are so lucky to live in such a beautiful city!

  4. Thank you for this fabulous post! I really felt like I was experiencing this magical city with you. It makes me eager to return and see more of its sights, more illustrations of its romantic character. I, too, am a huge fan of Amelie, so I would jump at the chance to retrace this iconic character’s steps and explore her haunts. And to kiss Oscar Wilde’s grave! I would be all over that, so to speak.🙂 I’m thrilled to hear you had such an enchanting experience in Paris.

    Also, your photos are fantastic. What kind of camera do you have?

    1. Thank you Diana, I’m so glad that you enjoyed it! It really was a fantastic experience and I already can’t wait to go back!

      I actually took all of my photos on my iphone – my camera battery was dead and I couldn’t find my charger before I left, so I just made do. I’m surprised by how well they came out as well, as I was gutted when I realised I couldn’t take my camera.

  5. How magical and magnifique!😉 Your descriptions are so vivid and sparkling with life. I felt like I was in Paris again as I was reading! I love how Paris is so walkable – you can explore everything by foot, always surrounded by beauty and able to slowly soak in all the pretty little details around you. I hope you get the chance to go back for another visit soon🙂

    1. Merci!🙂 Yes, the walkability and compact nature of Paris is perfect for just soaking it all up – I loved every second of it and enjoyed taking the bus as well as it gave me a better idea of how the city all connects. I hope I get the chance to go back soon as well!🙂

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your trip with us. My first reaction was the same as Ruby’s, “Wow!” So glad you had a great time.

  7. What a delicious, satisfying post. That’s the best, most exciting picture of the Eiffel Tower I’ve ever seen, and all the pictures illustrated the trip perfectly. It was just lovely to read your first raptures about Paris. Talk about being late in a first visit to Paris, I’ve only been there once, passing between stations. There’s been no time or money in my life between my two obsessions with England and Italy – something had to give! That said, I would love to visit Versailles, and trace the steps of Colette one day, though.

    1. Thanks Diana, I’m so pleased you enjoyed it!! Paris is definitely a city everyone needs to visit at least once and I am desperate to get to Versailles too – I need to squeeze in another visit soon!

  8. I am so happy for you … it sounds like you and Paris are a match made in heaven. I hope you have many more opportunities to spend time there.

  9. Having never been to Paris, I felt I was with you all the way there. Your enthusiasm comes across in you writing and your photos. Thank you for sharing with us all.

  10. Oh what a lovely time you had and what fabulous photos you took. I am living in France now but have not been to Paris for many years — clearly that must change really soon.

  11. Oh, I’m completely sold! What a treat to read your post.

    On another note, however, it saddened me too. Your description of buildings crafted with the express purpose of beauty went heart of my angst about the tilt slab concrete monstrosities to come in my city, Christchurch NZ, as replacements for all our heritage buildings lost in the succession of earthquakes we have been experiencing for the past 18 months or so.

    It is incredible how the physical, built environment interplays with the heart and soul of identity.

    I am unlikely to be moved by a building here again. Obviously will need to save for Paris!

    How are your plans progressing with teaching? X

    1. Thank you! So glad you enjoyed it.

      How sad for you – I was greatly saddened too to read of the devastating loss of much of Christchurch’s beautiful old buildings – what a tragedy. I’m so sorry for you all and for what you have been through.

      Indeed – those familiar scenes of our pasts are indelibly linked with where we spent them, and I can’t imagine how it must feel to see your home destroyed.

      Teaching plans are progressing well, thank you very much for asking – I have a very exciting interview on Monday at a school local to me for a teaching position so fingers crossed!

  12. You bring such wonderful excitement and sense of adventure to your travel posts, Rachel, and you make me smile as I read about them. What a wonderful trip you had and how much more you were able to experience because you spoke French. A wonderful post.

    There are cemeteries like the Pere Lalchaise in New Orleans, which has a strong French history and influence.

    I’m so glad you had such a wonderful time and that you shared it with us.

    1. Thank you Penny! I know I really was so lucky, and I loved having the chance to practice my French as well. I already can’t wait to go back.

      Oh really? That’s interesting to know, thank you!

      Thank you so much – it’s a pleasure to share it with others!🙂

  13. Was there not glass around the grave? Or were there lipstick kisses on the glass only? Just trying to discern how law-abiding people are being so I can have a guide for my own life when I finally go to Pere Lachaise.

    1. Oh Jenny, I thought of you when I was there, thinking how much you’d want to kiss Oscar! They recently put up glass and that’s what you kiss. You can’t get to the real stone anymore!

  14. This was the first blog I read this morning (while still in bed, on my NOOK, avant cafe) and I am so glad I did. Your experiences and great detail of your first impressions took me back to October 2004 when we went to Paris for a week to celebrate our 10 year anniversary. It was a dream~~and my dear husband surprised me by making it come true. And isn’t it true about the coffee? It was the best I have ever had and we have tried and tried to duplicate it but can not quite match its taste. I hope you will return again soon…especially with living relatively close (comparitively speaking). You’ve inspired me to re-dream going back…maybe for our 20th? ~~Bliss (PS–I will be getting my travel journal out today and reliving our time there…well, everything except the blisters).

    1. How wonderful that you got to have your dream holiday in Paris! I’m so glad you have such happy memories of your time there. I hope to go back soon, yes – and I hope you will get the chance to go back for your 20th anniversary! Enjoy your reminiscing today – and I hear you about the blisters!

  15. That was the loveliest tour of Paris I will ever have and how can I face my morning toast and tea after salivating over croque monsieur and macarons? I showed Roman your stunning photos, we both smiled at your oh-so-Parisian striped t-shirt and he does have to agree with you about the state of coffee in England.
    Now that Cousin Matthew is well and truly spoken for, were there any French fellows that turned your head (not counting Calixte), Rachel?

    1. Oh I don’t know Darlene – nothing will compare to your own trip!! Glad you enjoyed the photos – hehehe I bought that top especially!! Oh Matthew…no, no boys for me…I was too busy looking at architecture to worry about them!!😉

  16. It sounds as though you had a lovely trip. I’ve never been to Paris – I would love to go one day. I recently watched Amelie for the first time and thought it was a wonderful life-affirming film.

    1. Thanks Joanne, I really did! You MUST go – it is something else and an experience everyone should have in their lifetime! I LOVE Amelie – it really is special and so uplifting – I love the soundtrack too.

  17. Paris is a wonderful city. I go and just love wandering around it. I am insanely jealous of your visit to the cemetery, I have so, so, so wanted to go there for so long… next time I will, next time. Thank you so much for taking us with you.

    1. Isn’t it just? I can’t wait to go back and wander!! Hope you’ll get to go again soon. You MUST go to Pere Lachaise next time, but make sure you leave at least an hour and a half to enjoy it!

  18. Such a wonderful post for such a lovely city! Don’t you just want to sing Edith Piaf the whole you’re there? That or the soundtrack to Amelie (a favorite of mine as well!!)….

    So glad you went to Marais, maybe that will be my next place I settle down, a dream at least. I love how close everything is in Paris, and how different the cultures can be!

    1. Thanks Daniel! Yes I did – the Amelie soundtrack is my FAVOURITE and I also love Edith Piaf – I bought a great CD of songs in Paris and I am going to be mooching around London listening to them!

      Oh The Marais was lovely…you’d adore it Daniel! I agree – Europe is amazing and it makes me ashamed that I haven’t explored more – the mix of cultures is wonderful and it doesn’t take long to find yourself in a totally alien and exciting new environment!

  19. I’m pretty sure I was just about your age when I went – 23. And the images are still so clear to me all these years later. Your ‘Amelie’ is my ‘Hemingway.’ We walked in his footsteps, saw the apartment from the street, shopped where he and Hadley shopped. We were at Pere Lachaise just after Jim Morrison had been buried there, and we didn’t even know he had died until a few days later. We had the most wonderful room with windows on a courtyard.
    This was such a wonderful posting, and I love the photos of you!

    1. Oh Nan, I wish I was still 23 – I’m 26 in a few short weeks! But I’m so glad you had the experience of walking through Paris when you were in your twenties…such a romantic experience, I’m sure! Hemingway indeed…I have never read any of his books, to my shame. One day! How amazing you were at Pere Lachaise when Jim Morrison had just been buried – it’s a real shrine there now. The tree next to his grave is covered in graffiti and chewing gum, for some reason!

      Thank you, I’m so pleased you enjoyed it!

  20. I love your post. I’m also a big fan of ‘Amélie’, and next time I’m in Paris, I will definitely include a trip to the Canal St.-Martin. How did Père Lachaise compare to Highgate Cemetery? That one is still on my to do list for one of my next trips to London. And I see you didn’t make it to Versailles. I didn’t think you would, as there is so much to do and see in Paris. A good excuse to plan a second trip to Paris …😉

    1. Thanks Elke, I’m so pleased! Definitely go to Canal St Martin, it’s lovely and there are some great shops. Pere Lachaise was very different to Highgate – I’d say Highgate is more atmospheric and architecturally interesting than Pere Lachaise because it’s more of a jungle, but both are fascinating places. No, I really wanted to go to Versailles but we just didn’t have time, and I really wanted to focus on exploring Paris first. There will be a next time very soon and then I will definitely be making the trip!🙂

  21. You don’t have to convince me how lovely Paris is but you have made me want to go and see Pere Lachaise for myself! I recommend Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast before your next visit and Angelina’s Mont Blanc (chestnut cake) and a walk through St. Germain des Pres!

    1. Oh definitely go to Pere Lachaise Sakura, it’s wonderful! I must read some Hemingway so I will take your advice very seriously, thank you – and the Mont Blanc sounds wonderful! I couldn’t even finish my hot chocolate so the thought of cake on top was too much but next time I will push myself!🙂

  22. Hey! Thank you so much for this post, I am thinking of visiting Paris this summer and you just helped me with my decision and i have bookmarked all the places and cafes you have mentioned. Cant speak French but intend to learn some before I go there, lets see, I know French is not easy🙂

    1. Oh PV, you must go – you won’t regret it! It’s an amazing city. I hope you manage to make it. French isn’t an easy language to learn from scratch as there are a lot of rules, but over time those rules will make your life easier as you grapple with grammar and such like. As long as you learn a few phrases you’ll be just fine – most Parisians speak some English if not more and will be more than willing to help you!🙂

  23. I’m so happy you loved Paris ! It’s such a delight to read such a description of the city I loved …
    And I’m glad to see you met some kind parisian : we are told to be not-so-nice people ! I hope you will come back soon and for a longer stay. Near the place your B& stood, there is the Butte aux cailles, where you can find some lively bars to spend the night !

    1. I don’t know how anyone could not love Paris, Celine – it’s unbearably beautiful!! I found most Parisians to be lovely – everyone in cities is pressed for time and I don’t see that Parisians are any worse than Londoners!

      Oh yes, our hostess told us about that, but we were so tired every night we just wanted our beds!!

  24. Oh, Rachel. Je le fais profiter de vos messages. Mais, mais, sacre bleu! – Qu’en est-il Shakespeare and Company?

    – le “Bop”.

  25. I love your lively descriptions of Paris and your feelings about it. I agree. It’s so beautiful. On my last visit there, after our silken hot chocolate in the Tuileries, my friends hustled off for more sightseeing. Instead, I went and sat on the concrete steps of Petit Palais, where I gazed at the Grand Palais across the street. It was soooo beautiful, I just sat there and cried.

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