by Jacob Aldridge
Humphrey Bogart’s Rick escaped occupied Paris for Casablanca. We’ve gone the other way, arriving last night super energised for three amazing days in the city of lights.
Who doesn’t love Paris in the Springtime?!
Welcome to Paris!
We’re staying in the Montmartre district, in the north of Paris. A city of stunning arrondissements, if you talk to five friends about where to stay in Paris you are guaranteed at least five different suggestions!
For us, Montmartre offers the same bohemian feel that made it famous at the turn of last century, and reasonably-priced apartment accommodation (we found ours through Feels Like Home in Paris).
The streets of Montmartre, with the Sacre Coeur beyond
Conveniently located near the Abbesses (line twelve) and Pigalle (lines two and twelve) on the Paris Metro (famous for having stops only 500 metres / one-third of a mile apart) we know from New York and London that the best way to experience these world cities is to ignore the underground and set forth on foot.
Getting to Know You
For the first morning of our three days in Paris, our aim is to acquaint ourselves with this amazing city. Our first stop, then, is the Galeries Lafayette on the boulevard Haussmann – a department store with a famed interior dome, that is known to locals as the best place to escape for your lunch hour. Here’s why:
View from the roof terrace
Remarkably, these sweeping views aren’t well known to fellow tourists, giving us ample opportunities to view the vista and spy the sights.
Immediately in front of us in the Paris Opera; you can spy the twin towers on the facade of the Notre Dame Cathedral; and of course, breaking through in the distance, is the most famous Parisian icon of them all, the Eiffel Tower.
From here, we continue our walk through the streets, attempting to breath it all in. We’re planning a boat cruise with Bateaux-Mouches along the Seine River, which cuts through Paris.
Loosely, the route the boat cruise takes.
The city is named after the Parisii tribe, which inhabited the islands in the middle of the Seine at the time of Julius Caesar. Drifting past, we see the modern day inhabitants – or, more accurately, the modern day visitors queuing for Notre Dame beside a statue of the French Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne.
Charlemagne is the one in green.
Our boat also takes us under the Passerelle des Arts, a bridge now famous for the many locks lovers have placed here to signify their enduring relationship. (In honesty, this has become a tourist fad – you’ll see it in cities from Paris to Cologne, and even in the hills of Italy’s Cinque Terre. Moreover, local councils are forced to fund the removal of these locks lest they overwhelm the infrastructure they are attached to. On Passerelle des Arts, you won’t find padlocks that pre-date 2011 – assuming you want your love to last more than the next two years, be a sustainable tourist and avoid this cliché.)
Bridge of Lovers – Padlocks on Passerelle des Arts.
We turn, moving back past the famous museums of the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay. In front of the Louvre, the Jardins Tuliere is just starting to show its springtime colours.
And as we sweep around the river, past the shops and streets we look forward to exploring later, the Eiffel Tower comes into view. Famously built as a temporary structure in 1889, we’re happy to admit that it’s another Parisian tourist cliché that we still suggest everyone visits at least once.
Can you ever tire of this view?
Shopping in the Golden Triangle
The shopping begins near where the boat releases us. It’s effortless to spend three days in Paris and do nothing except go shopping; for our first visit, we want to mix it up a little, and that means limiting ourselves to the best shopping in the city: The golden Triangle d’or.
The triangle is named for the three streets that form the boundary – avenue Montaigne, avenue Georges V, and the Champes Elysees. Within this pocket are the French (and Italian) names you have come to associate with haute couture – Givenchy, Chanel, Gaultier, Dior, Vuitton, and more. If your credit card is going to melt at any point during our three days in Paris, here is the likely location!
The Greatest Stained Glass Windows in the World
Time now for something slightly more pious, though just as bright as a Gaultier spring collection. Even tourists jaded by the quantity of churches on their European jaunts have to admit that nothing compares to the chapel Sainte Chapelle.
The lower chapel, where we first enter, is impressive in its own way – move past the giftshop here, and look for the Virgin Mary mural above the door: this is the oldest fresco in Paris.
But upstairs is why we are here.
Stepping into Sainte Chapelle.
These incredible windows, recently restored, tell the tale of the Old and New Testaments, through to the life of Christ and the ultimate acquisition of several Christian relics – including a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns – by the 13th Century King Louis IX.
Most visitors seek to take a seat and absorb the colours. The more religious may attempt to follow the stories – Christian iconography can be a fascinating field.
Those of us who like big words, enjoy pointing out that the very final window tells its story “boustrophedon style” (that means, instead of reading left to right, it flows l-to-r and r-to-l as you move upwards).
The high altar in Sainte Chapelle.
Nearby Notre Dame is perhaps the better known church on Île de la Cité – by this time of day, the queue to enter looks long, but the lack of entry fee means it moves fast. It’s also an opportunity to admire the French Gothic style of the construction – distinctive on a global scale, though common to cathedrals of a similar age in Northern France.
Quite quickly we find ourselves inside, eight centuries of history distilled into key moments – this is where Napoleon crowned himself Holy Roman Emperor (1,000 years after Charlemagne); you’ve likely heard of Quasimodo, though your age will determine whether it was through Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame book or the similarly-titled Disney film.
Even after Sainte Chapelle, the stained glass of the Rose Window is breathtaking. Less obvious, but also grand, is the opportunity afterwards to spend a few moments in the park behind Notre Dame admiring the flying buttresses of its design.
The Notre Dame Cathedral’s Rose Window.
From here, it’s a leisurely walk along the waterfront to see Gustav Eiffel’s most famous creation. But we’ll need some afternoon sustenance for the journey, so we start by crossing over from the Île de la Cité to the Seine’s other island, the Île Saint-Louis.
We are search of Paris’s best known ice-cream, from Maison Berthillon. The original store is located at 31 Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île; but so popular are the sixty flavour creations that four separate stores are open here. In summer, they are easier to find because of the queues that stretch around the corner in each location – today, thankfully, there’s a much shorter wait for caramel and salted butter, lavender, or earl grey tea.
Actually, the queues are here even in March!
Le Tour Eiffel
We’ve booked tickets for the Eiffel Tower climb to coincide with sunset. Having arrived a little early, we skip the people milling around the Parc du Champ-de-Mars beneath it and cross the river instead to the Jardins du Trocadero. Here, particularly as we climb up the concrete stairs to the balcony, we have a great view of the Tower … and the city of light beginning to shine in the early evening.
Jardins de Trocadero in the foreground. You probably recognise the thing behind them!
Why climb the Eiffel Tower at sunset? Because now is an opportunity to watch the tower itself shift colour, from the silver-grey of photographs to the bronze-gold it takes as the setting sunlight envelopes it. Taking the elevator up creates a sense of being present inside history – few buildings in the world have the same effect on so many travellers.
Our first stop is the second level, best for a closer inspection of the city beneath us. It’s remarkable at this height how uniform Paris begins to look. All of those alleys of shops and ice-creams suddenly appear as matching, six-storey high buildings with white roofs.
Les Invalides (the dome) is obvious – can you also spot the Louvre, Notre Dame, or the Musee D’Orsay
One benefit is the ease with which city monuments expose themselves among the sea of white. And not just the horrible Tour Montparnasse, we can spot the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides where Napoleon is buried, Notre Dame where we were today, and more.
Taking the elevator to the very top exposes an even grander view. Though the structures are less distinct from our height, now 1,000 feet above the ground we feel ourselves to be the centre of a grand and beautiful universe.
The last of the setting sun disappears, in the direction of Paris’s newer (and taller) business district. And this gives us a chance to turn our attention to the older Paris, the Paris of French monarchs from Clovis to Marie Antoinette, the Paris of Renoir, Rodin and of Edith Piaf.
And as if it feels us remembering its stars, the Eiffel Tower lights erupt. Night falls on Paris, and on us high above its streets.
We are permitted to show you a photo of the lights. We can’t legally show you a recording of the light show, as it is protected by copyright!
There is much to consider as we end our evening walking along its most famous street, the Champes-Elysee. From the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde to the Arc di Triomphe this glittering strip is more 21st century neon than 19th century romance, but my goodness it’s grand to walk along it and feel part of Paris.
Bonsoir, à demain. (Head straight to Day Two here, or skip to Day Three’s experience avoiding the crowds.)
Arc de Triomphe, at one end of the Champs Elysees
Want to go? Need to know!
- Love Parisian fashion? Every Friday you can take a seat at a genuine Paris fashion show at Galleries Lafayette – call 09 6939 7575 in advance, though, to reserve your seats (French is not necessary – but always appreciated).
- Entry to Sainte Chapelle costs €6.50; entry to Notre Dame is free.
- A slightly more obscure Notre Dame moment – it was on these steps in 1450 that the Wolves of Paris, allegedly responsible for the deaths of forty people, were finally cornered and killed.
- See all sixty of Maison Berthillon’s flavours in this pdf on their website.
- Unless you love the long queues that come from spontaneity, book your Eiffel Tower tickets in advance!
Casablanca doesn’t count as a Parisian film, but we want to know which of your favourite films does feature Paris – we’re having this conversation now on our Facebook page.