Straight off, let it be known that I have been obsessed with France, and in particular, Paris, for almost my entire life. An insatiable appetite for romance novels featuring desirable scenes from the city of love and an unhealthy obsession with the movie French Kiss combined with having a French heritage meant that France was always on my bucket list. Have I mentioned that I love wine? Oh, and at one stage I truly believed that I was a descendant of Joan of Arc… although I’m pretty sure she never had children.
I had high hopes for Paris. And to tell the truth, she was not like anything I had imagined. While she is still utterly and breathtakingly beautiful in my eyes, she now has an edge to her… an edge that makes her more real. And just like a lover discovering new angles and personalities to their partner, so has my relationship with Paris become more complex. She is a contradiction. She is beautiful and dirty at the same time and she can turn from being as friendly as a summer breeze to as mean as cat shit in a single moment.
Before we left, someone said to us that four days in Paris was too much. I disagree completely – although my wallet is breathing a sigh of relief as we leave! I feel like I’ve barely even scratched the surface of this enormous city. There are so many more areas and suburbs and little shops and galleries to explore and so many more croissants and coffees to taste (I have re-newed my obsession with espresso thanks to a rather condescending waitress near Notre Dame. She may have been condescending, but she was right – the French usually are. A short, strong coffee is so much better than a long Americano). And then there is still the entire French countryside waiting for my return!
Visiting Paris has left me wanting to tame the French and to make Paris my bitch. I want the Parisians to fall in love with me as much as I love them… and that’s the attraction of the French – their self-assuredness in their absolute marvellousness makes them irresistible. They know they have the best style and the most delicious wines and greatest literature and that they brought about the modern world as we now know it. They truly believe that they are the best. And that is why you either love them or hate them – with a passion. And believe me, I don’t think they would have it any other way.
things you need to know about paris
We got to and from our hotel via taxi and then everywhere else by the Paris Metro. If you’re already a fan of Uber, I recommend using them above the city taxi’s. Both our taxi drivers were rude to the point of where I wanted the floor to swallow me up. Don’t expect a friendly chat or even civil silence – they sit on their phones and swear and hoot at other drivers. Our last taxi driver in particular ripped us off something crazy – and even charged us two euros each for our bags on top of a ludicrous starting fee of eight euros twenty. Perhaps not all taxi drivers are like this, but we will definitely be sticking to only Uber taxi’s from now on – at least their system is internationally standardised and your trip will be far more pleasant – not to mention cheaper. And every euro counts in Paris, believe me!
The Paris Metro is fabulous and quick, but rather difficult to get the hang off in terms of stops and direction. I recommend downloading the app Metro Paris and familiarising yourself with the routes before you get there to help you with finding the correct lines to take to get to certain locations – it is a life saver! Just a warning, there are some crazies on the metro, especially on the weekend – in four days we saw a man walking up and down preaching (loudly) to whomever happened to glance at him; two guys rapping and breakdancing, as well as numerous other musicians busking on the metro. This mainly happens over the weekend – but do not feel that you need to give them money. As for the crazies, just ignore them – there are usually lots of other “normals/muggles” just like you on the metro, and I didn’t feel threatened once. The metro is self regulating in this way. Fellow passengers are civil and polite on the metro, just remember to steer clear of the doors and passageways when others are getting on and off. If you have any questions, the people at the ticket and information offices at each station are very helpful, so don’t be scared to ask for help!
I was petrified of the French before I left, especially of the Parisians. I had been told that they are rude, unhelpful and that they would pointblank refuse to help you or speak English. We only dealt with two unfriendly people – and they were both taxi drivers who probably deal with tourists every second of their working day and hate the crap out of them. Everyone else was nice and spoke English back to us. Listen, we didn’t make any life long friends, but we are travelling as a couple and Paris is a big city, choc-a-bloc full of tourists. To be honest, if I lived there, I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to make sure that every tourist felt special – it would be impossible, not to mention exhausting.
Dress me like a French Girl
Yes, the French women really are effortlessly gorgeous. Within 48 hours I had cracked their style code from my careful observations on the metro and sidewalks. French girls don’t try hard – their hair is simple, usually loose or tied up in a messy bun; their faces are mostly natural and make-up free, save for mascara and some red lippy here and there. They don’t care about their wrinkles or freckles – and I think it’s this confidence that is key to their style success. They are worlds apart from the poppies in stilettos frequenting the greater malls of Gauteng. Their uniform is simple – skinny jeans or cigar pants, a simple tee or blouse, a biker jacket or blazer, a scarf and wedges or ballet pumps. No name brands anywhere – especially not on the front of their shirts! They wear very little accessories, except for maybe a cocktail ring or a pair of pretty earrings – but never both at the same time, and always paired with a classic watch. This way of dressing is tried and tested, ensuring that they look beautiful, but are still able to walk and travel in comfort.
Light me Up
If you detest cigarettes and smoking, Paris is probably not going to be very enjoyable for you. The Parisians smoke a lot and from the time you open your window in the morning and your nostrils are greeted by the fresh smell of burning tobacco, to the time you go to bed with your hair smelling of smoke, you will be surrounded by cigarettes and smokers. The streets are littered with cigarette buds and you are able to smoke on the sidewalks outside restaurants and shops – even if you are under cover. It’s wise to remember that in Paris, especially at outside tables, you will be squashed between strangers – both sets of whom will very likely be smoking. Stick to indoor eating as much as possible if you can’t cope. As for the rest of the time, there’s not much you can do but embrace it as part of the culture. Imagine you’re in the ’70s.
Paris is painfully beautiful. Whilst Amsterdam was unique and quirky in her architecture, Paris is just straight-up elegant and impressive. Every building is beautiful, every street corner glorious. We walked the streets of Montmartre for hours, just checking out the beautiful buildings with their massive blue doors and pretty little balconies. History is around every bend and I often had to pinch myself to relax and remind myself to just bask in the pure beauty of my surroundings (and to ignore the frequent stench of human urine). We went up The Eiffel Tower and we went to see the Musee du Louvre, the Château de Versailles, the Sacrè Cœr, Notre Dame, the Arc De Triomphe, Champs Eylsees, the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop and the famous restaurant, Angelina. The only place we didn’t get around to seeing was the Centre George Pompidou, which apparently has amazing views of the city from the top. We stayed in Montmarte so we could literally see the famous red windmill of the Moulin Rouge if we looked up the street from our hotel, and the Sâcre-Cœr was in easy walking distance. All the sights were amazing and so awesome to see in real life – the Eiffel Tower was particularly mind-blowing – I really didn’t expect it to be that huge. I don’t know if I’d go right up to the top again though – it was freaking terrifying up there. I swear the building was moving! But it was incredible none the less and an experience I’ll never forget.
One thing I was a bit disappointed with was the museum management at Versailles – within the museum I felt like a cow being herded through a cattle crush, and all I could really see was other people holding up camera phones – all trying to get a pic of something they couldn’t see in real life – just so that they could remember a bit of the experience they had paid fifteen euros for. I got the hell out of there as quick as possible because I felt so claustrophobic – which is really sad, because as a lover of history and having taught the French Revolution myself, I would have loved to have taken my time around the place. The gardens were a welcome respite – but also another 9 euros to enter. I did leave Versailles feeling a little ripped off and with a rather bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps the museum management needs to review the amount of persons they let in at a time and enforce time slot bookings? However, I got the feeling that for them it was all about the money – not the sharing of a very special and important part of their history.
Keep your bags zipped up and held close to you at all the tourist attractions – hagglers and pickpockets abound. Do not give them money and do not sign any petitions. We saw a Frenchman rescue a tourist from the clutches of a couple of Romanian women pretending to be deaf and trying to guilt him onto giving them cash. They miraculously learnt to hear and speak within minutes and after swearing at the Frenchman, retreated to a corner for a cigarette and a chat. Do not give these people money as you are simply encouraging them to continue. By all means, buy souvenirs from the people trying to make an honest living, but don’t be conned by the beggars or gamblers – especially those around the Eiffel Tower and at the Sacrè-Cœr.
The best time to sightsee in Paris is in September as summer is almost over and so while the weather is still good, there are much less crowds. For major attractions like The Eiffel Tower and the Château de Versailles, its best to get there early (before 9am) to avoid long queues.
Wining and Dining
Ah… my best part! Bittersweet was our experience of food and wine in Paris – because while it was mostly all delicious, the prices were astronomical. To avoid completely blowing our daily budget, we’d usually have a yoghurt from the supermarket for breakfast, a sandwich or baguette from a local patisserie for lunch and then go out for dinner in the evenings. A meal for two in Paris with a starter each and their cheapest bottle of wine will set you back at least R750.00. In fact we paid forty six euros for two burgers, two beers and a glass of house wine at a trendy burger joint (similar in style and setup to Cafe Royale in Cape Town) for lunch! Choose which meal and where you want to eat out each day and then for the remaining meals, stick to patisseries and supermarkets. We found a beautiful little place behind our hotel where we could have three croissants and a coffee each for under five euros (R75) for breakfast. To put this in perspective, Subway will charge ten euros (R145) for one sandwich in Paris, so breakfast there would be three times as much for two people.
In Paris, you must try the crepes (I had a delicious one on the way to Notre Dame) and drink coffee French style – short, black and sweet (similar to a South African espresso, but slightly larger). I was determined to eat French cuisine and after an initial disappointing traditional meal in a restaurant located right in a tourist hub, I had some of the best food of my life at a little local French restaurant called Clairière right behind our hotel. I had the duck l’orange and it was drool-worthy. So drool-worthy that we came back the following night to try out their platters and steak, which were just as great. The house wine was relatively cheap there and if you stay in Montmartre, you must give it a try. Sit outside on the sidewalk for the ultimate French experience (and to get away from the rather kitsch decor inside).
If you have a sweet tooth, Angelina is a must-visit. Their world-famous hot chocolate is non-negotiable – you simply have to have it. Their sandwiches looked amazing too, but also pretty pricey. Arrive after or before lunchtime to avoid the queues.
Another place we loved in our area was le Depanneur Pigalle (the pricey one similar to Cafe Royale in Long Street). Every time we walked past it was packed with locals and we treated ourselves to lunch there on the last day – dreamy hamburgers, Californian-style with delicious homemade french fries. Amazeballs. Most of the food in Paris is good, but I would advise staying way from eating at places directly next to major tourist sites – purely for the price. Stick to suburbs or local areas for good quality, reasonably priced food and wine. If you see that there are loads of Parisians there – it’s probably going to be good and reasonably priced.
We stayed at Hotel Villa Boheme in the Pigalle area of Montmarte. Hotel rooms are tiny in Paris, but we were super happy with our location and loved the fact that there were a lot of locals in this area. It is a party district with people falling out of the clubs at 10am on Saturday morning, but we were never disturbed in any way. In fact, we had a good giggle at some of the funnies wandering about. The area around the Moulin Rouge and Sacrè-Cœr was very touristy, but just few streets down and you felt like you were in the thick of Parisian life. We particularly enjoyed drinks at a bar near our hotel, watching French kids play street football and stopping little old French ladies walking their dogs for a little canine cuddle and a chat. One French lady had two pekingeses and we immediately bonded over our mutual affection of them (doggie-lovers unite!). The best thing I’ve learnt about traveling so far is that no matter where you are in the world, we’re all just humans, muddling along in search of love, friendship and a little attention. Smile, be polite, say merci and you will have a jolly old time in the city of love. I can’t wait to one day sink my teeth further into this city!