Paris, France – It’s the city of lights, of poetry, of romance. It’s a city people fantasise about visiting and romantics fall in love with instantly. For me however, Paris wasn’t love at first sight. This is the story of my late blooming love affair with Paris.
Have you ever visited a city (probably back when you were young and foolish) and tried to do everything, and I do mean everything, in a limited amount of time? The end result is exhaustion, usually accompanied by its good friends, frustration and disappointment. That pretty much sums up our first visit to Paris.
Andrew and I first visited Europe together in our early 20s. We took one of those crazy bus-tours that promise 18 cities in 26 days, thinking “When will we ever have the chance to see Europe again?” (Oh hindsight). So we tried to tick off all the boxes – Coliseum in Rome, check; gondola ride in Venice, check; Beer steins and coco clocks in Germany, check, Red light district in Amsterdam, check, snowy mountain peak in Switzerland, check. Our last stop was Paris – a city with a long tourist check list.
We were already exhausted from our whirlwind tour of Europe, but we HAD to see the Mona Lisa, and Notre Dame, and Montmartre, and cruise the Seine, and climb the Eifel Tower, and visit the Musee d’Orsay… after all, we had two whole days…
I’m sure you can see how this story ends. We burnt ourselves out racing from sight to sight, so we could check them off our list, never having the time to appreciate any one of them.
Despite that, I didn’t hate Paris. I just didn’t fall in love with it. There were a two perfect moments I still remember: stepping into Sacr Coeur just as a choir launched into song and taking a brief pause by the Seine and realising ‘I am in Paris.’ Most of the time however I was hot (as it was August), tired, and standing in a very, very long line.
Our second visit wasn’t much better. We were living in Amsterdam for three months and decided to drive to Paris for a long weekend. We didn’t want to drive in the city centre so we booked a hotel on the outskirts. As this was before the invention of TripAdvisor, our hotel choice was random and our budget was cheap. As you may know, not all of the outskirts of Paris are particularly lovely. I won’t say I feared for my safety exactly but I didn’t sleep well that weekend.
There were two upsides to that particular visit as well. First, we discovered our favourite view of Paris – from the roof of the Pompidou Centre. It’s free. You can see both the Eifel Tower and Sacré Coeur and there is a great (if overpriced) terrace where you can enjoy a drink or a meal.
Our second discovery was Rue Mouffetard, a lively street lined with restaurants and food sellers. These days it can be quite touristy, but it still makes me feel like this is what Paris should be: lively shops, good food and cozy cafes. (I’m sure some Parisians will slam me for this, but I still love it). We return whenever we visit the city and we always have at least one great meal here.
Since those first two trips, we’ve returned to Paris with each of our families and each time we’ve made new discoveries: beautiful shops, delightful restaurants, quirky museums. But while my feelings for Paris were warming into affection, it still wasn’t true love.
That happened one August weekend, about three years ago. Andrew and I were invited to a dinner party in Paris, hosted by some visiting American friends. We hadn’t seen them in some time and their parties are always legendary, so we decided to make a weekend of it.
Our hotel was forgettable, but it was affordable and clean and in a ‘real’ Paris neighbourhood. Other than the dinner party (which was as legendary as we expected) we had absolutely no plans. In fact, thinking back on that weekend now, I really don’t remember anything specific that we did.
We walked a lot, in neighbourhoods off the beaten path. We spent hours sipping coffee on the terraces of non-descript cafes while people-watching. We had long meals in dark restaurants where we were the only tourists. In fact, it was exactly what visiting Paris should be but so rarely ever is. And yes, I fell head-over-heels in love.
My most recent trip to Paris was last July. My dear friend from Canada was visiting, and while she was happy to relinquish planning control for Copenhagen, Berlin and Budapest, I knew she had a Paris checklist much like my original one. July, Eifel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame… I was afraid this would end my Parisian love-affair forever.
As my friend means much more to me than my relationship with Paris, I was willing to sacrifice the love affair. But what if we could manage both: visiting some of the top tourist sites, in peak season, without burning out and still experiencing some of the ‘real’ Paris. I accepted the challenge.
The first step was finding the perfect place to stay in the right neighbourhood. After sifting through listing after listing, we found a studio apartment, within walking distance of all of the major sites, but still in an ‘off the tourist trail’ neighbourhood, at a reasonable price.
We started each day with a breakfast of flaky croissants and rich coffee at the corner cafe. We walked just about everywhere and remembered to stop and take our time. We bought museum cards so we didn’t have to wait in endless lines and we didn’t have to feel guilty if we didn’t spend hours exploring one place. Over four days we had checked most things off the list without feeling rushed or frustrated. We ate, we drank, we shopped and we explored (and we slept well at night).
Through it all, my love affair remained intact.
I wish I could take every new visitor to Paris by the hand and show them how they can have the best of both worlds. I would whisper ‘slow down’ in their ears and lead them to a hard chair at a sidewalk café.
I would lead them through the backstreets and tell them to put the map away and get lost.
I would tell them to abandon the restaurants with menus in 5 languages and instead go to the ones with illegible French scrawled on chalkboards.
Paris is not monogamous. She has enough love for us all.
Are you in love with Paris? Did you have a late-blooming love affair with a city? Tell us your story in the comments below.
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