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.