A friend recently brought to my attention that she had been searching around for inexpensive flights to anywhere and she noticed that Paris was cheaper than usual. Perhaps this is due to the tragic events last November or perhaps this is just natural ebb and flow of airline tickets but whatever the reason, in case you were undecided about whether you should go or not, I just want you to know that Paris is always a good idea.
In January, 2014, my partner-in-crime and I were looking for cheap flights out of the polar vortex hell we had been in for weeks. We could only take a week off and we found tickets for $800 from a Sunday to Saturday in March. We figured six days would be a great start to exploring the City of Lights.
We booked it, started planning and put up a countdown calendar in the kitchen. Despite our extensive combined travel experience, neither of us had ever been to Paris before. My military fella spent most of his travels in war-zones with days of respite in Dubai or Prague. I tended to be away for longer periods of time working and travelling in Russia, the British Isles and Japan, and going on educational courses in Italy and Israel. Paris had always been one of those places that we had never thought of visiting because it was so …well…obvious.
We knew it had the potential to be expensive and we really didn’t have a lot of extra cash to spend so we knew he had to be cautious about the big-ticket items – accommodation and food. I did some research on Trip Advisor and found a little hotel called Hotel de la Mare. They have a variety of rooms but we chose one with a double bed, shared bath and a kitchenette in the room for the reasonable price of 75€ a night ($106). Being a backpacker and a soldier, shared bathrooms don’t bother us in the least. We figured the kitchenette would cut down our food bill, allowing us to eat breakfast and snacks in the room instead of in a restaurant. This was the only pre-planning we did in the hopes of having a relaxing yet spontaneous vacation.
The next two and a half months crawled by. But eventually, March arrived and we arrived in Paris at De Gualle airport around 10 am and started making our way to our hotel. We took the train into the city, then the subway to Ménilmontant Station. From here is was a five-minute walk to the hotel. The hotel was not the easiest place to find. When you come out of the subway, you will be on the median between two wide lanes of traffic. This is Boulevard de Ménilmontant. You want to go up (it’s a hill, so go UP) Rue de Ménilmontant. There are two ways to get to the hotel. The first (and probably easiest when you first get there), is to go to Rue Henri Chevreau. Turn left, then at the next intersection, turn left again onto Rue de la Mare. The hotel is down this street on your left. The second way (which is shorter but not as straightforward) is when you are on Rue de Ménilmontant, look for a massive church on your left, just back from the street. Go down into the square beside it, follow the little street, past the little shops, behind the church and after about a minute, you’ll see a pathway that leads to a footbridge over railroad tracks. Go over it and Hotel de la Mare will be just on the other side, on your right.
We arrived at our hotel (which is also a residence) and were met by a welcoming gentleman who showed us our room and how everything worked. We were amazed – there was a kettle, a microwave, a sink, all dishes, cutlery and utensils needed (including an ever-important corkscrew!), there were two gas elements and pots and pans for cooking small meals, three closets, a double futon, two lovely windows that opened up wide and a small table with two chairs. The linens and décor were clean and new and the furniture simple and clean and old-skool Ikea. The hotel also had free wifi and while it didn’t supply breakfast, they did provide croissants, pop and water every morning. As we later learned, the “residence” part of the establishment is for workers who work in Paris, but live outside the city. Which is why the rooms are completely outfitted for living, instead of just staying.
This area of Paris is called Ménilmontant. It is in the northeast of the city, in the 20th arrondissement (district/neighbourhood). It is NOT touristy. It is alive with Parisians and regular Parisian life – schools, daycares, theatres, markets, graffiti art, local restaurants, book shops and chic second-hand clothing stores. With little travel experience, you may at first feel slightly uncomfortable walking these streets, seeing menace in the graffiti instead of the creative spirit of art or seeing the closed shops at noon as signs of economic hardship instead of the sign of a vibrant nightlife. It is very eclectic, very friendly and very colourful.
During the second World War, this area of the city was part of the smaller city, Belleville, and not part of Paris. It was a stronghold of the resistance. We noticed numerous plaques on walls, bridges and stores commemorating events or heroism during the war. Over the next six days, we fell in love with this area and its hip and cozy feel, observing real Parisian life from local terraces – parents picking kids up from daycare and walking home, spontaneous games of soccer with the neighbourhood kids after dark, book store readings with wine and cheese later in the evenings.
When the host told us that the next morning there would be a street market just down the block for all our fruit and vegetables, we were even more excited. He also told us about a little grocery store just at the other end of the street. It was the first thing we checked out because by the time we reached the hotel that first day, we were absolutely starving! It had organic fruit, freshly-baked baguettes, cheese of all kinds, meats, nuts, olives and most importantly, wine! We stocked up on lunch foods, with a couple bottles of wine (because, hey, we’re in Paris) and headed back to the hotel after spending only around 15€ ($21). If you are looking to save money while in Paris, get a place with a kitchenette where you can prepare your own food. Over the week, we spent only 50€ on food and wine from the market (and we ate and drank a lot!). Whereas one meal for two in one of the local restaurants was 50€ (and like I mentioned above, we were not in a touristy area so we were not paying tourist prices.)
I should also make a quick mention about eating gluten-free in Paris. Because we bought most of the ingredients in our meals from markets, I didn’t have to worry about any hidden gluten. I did my research before leaving as well and discovered a 100% gluten-free bakery Thank You My Deer, only a 10-minute walk from our hotel. So every morning, this is where we got our coffee and sweet snacks for the day. No baguettes, unfortunately, but if you are gluten-free by necessity like I am, then you are probably excited just to be eating some sort of pastry in Paris.
Our original plan had been to bike all through Paris on their bixi-like service – Velib’ – but even though there are bike stands every 300 m, we could not find a single bike anywhere! In retrospect, I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to bike the streets of Paris. They have some crazy, multi-lane roads that do not go in a straight line, not to mention the speed of the cars. All week, by foot and metro was how we travelled the city and it was certainly not difficult. In fact, we walked so much, not only did I work off all the cheese, wine and chocolate that I consumed but I felt like I had even lost weight!
We travelled in mid-March, when in Canada, mountains of snow still covered our sidewalks and houses and the sub-arctic temperatures had kept us in bone-shattering cold for months on end. Paris, on the other hand, never really gets winter. It can get as low as 0°C in the dead of winter but it doesn’t snow. By March, temperatures usually range between 4°C and 10°C, with a fair amount of rain. This is what we had packed for. To our surprise (and every Parisian’s) we had the great fortune of hitting a heat wave of a beautifully sunny 17°C for six consecutive days. I had to go buy clothes and shoes as I was dying in my turtlenecks and tall boots. (Oh darn, shopping in Paris.) The streets and parks were filled with people out enjoying the unexpected weather. It was invigorating for our tired, winter-beaten Canadian souls to see people sitting on embankments and grassy knolls with their baguettes, cheese and bottles of wine, laughing, chatting and soaking up the sun with the soft, green grass under their bare toes.
Okay, on to the sites. I won’t go into great detail about the sites that we visited as everyone has their own “To See” list and their own impressions. We found Paris to be quite safe for such a large city but vigilance is always recommended, as it is anywhere you travel.
The Eiffel Tower
You can save a lot of time and money by going up to the top of the Eiffel Tower via the stairs instead of taking the elevator. But beware! The entire structure is open metal beams. Yes, everyone knows that because they’ve seen photos. But did you ever really consider how unnerving it is to climb 704 steps up 115 m being able to look down to the ground directly beneath you? I kept my eyes up the whole time ascending but descending was an entirely different story. I had a death grip on the rail in one hand and my fella in front of me with my other hand on his shoulder. To get to the very top, you need to purchase a ticket for the elevator (you cannot access it via the stairs) but you can do that from the first level. We went shortly before sunset so we got to see twilight and night atop the tower.
Free Walking Tours of Paris
If you are cost-conscious, these walking tours are “free”. The guides make their money from your tips. The first 5€ goes to the company and the rest they get to keep. The tours are given by Parisians. We did the Notre Dame walk and we learned about the history of the church, some of the architectural aspects of it, medieval stories that took place in the area (Heloise and Abelard), went to the love lock bridge (where Bob pulled a lock out of his pocket that we together locked on the bridge. This was not only romantic but stunning in the fact that he was organized enough to bring a lock from Canada!), and we walked through neighbourhoods we may not have otherwise. The guide was funny and charming and the tour was about an hour. At the end of the tour, we were given an envelope that contained coupons for other sightseeing events, some of which we were able to use.
In this same area, there are a number of interesting things to see. The English bookstore Shakespeare and Company is worth a gander, whether you buy anything or not. The shops along the Seine and the green stalls are also interesting for antique books, postcards and other non-souvenir-shop art, artefacts and knickknacks. Keep walking and you will come to the Louvre.
When I had mentioned to a friend that we would most likely not be going to the Louvre for the simple reason that it was too big and too crowded, she recommended the Musée D’Orsay. It is across the river from the Louvre, housed in an old train station. It is smaller and can be seen in its entirety in half a day. It is cheaper and less crowded but still enchanting. It houses works of equal notoriety as the Louvre, including Manet, Delacroix and Renoir.
Champs Élysée and the Arc de Triomphe
If you are up for a very long walk, you can walk from Notre Dame down the Seine, looking at all the kiosks, to the Musée D’Orsay, have a drink at any one of the little restaurants along the way, cross to the Louvre and then head west through the Jardin de Tuileries and then walk the Champs Élysée all the way to the Arc de Triomphe. This route is approximately 5 km but if you stop for museums, drinks, souvenirs, crepes or shopping, it could take the full day. The Champs Élysée is obviously a shopper’s paradise. This massive thoroughfare is lined with designer names (ex. The Louis Vuitton flagship) as well as the stores we all know so well (H&M, Gap, etc.). The Arc de Triomphe was under renovation and covered with scaffolding when we were there so it wasn’t exactly the photo op we were hoping for.
Nighttime Boat Cruise of the Seine
There are several boat cruises available from different companies and some provide dinner and drinks with the cruise as well. We chose this one simply because it was one of the coupons we received from the walking tour. The cruise was 14€ each but with the coupon, it was 9€ each. For that price, there was obviously no dinner offered. The launch was at the Pont Neuf in the same area as Notre Dame Cathedral and the Louvre. It was magical to see Paris lit up at night from the water. The cruise went all the way down the Seine to the Eiffel Tower at one end, then turned around and went past Notre Dame to the university and back again. It was approximately an hour. The only drawbacks were that the English commentary was spoken by someone whose first language was certainly not English and over the mic it was very difficult to understand. The other was the excited group of French high school students that came on right after us which made the broken English commentary even harder to hear. You get what you pay for, I guess. And apologies for the low-quality night shots; at that time I had an iphone 4 and a point-and-shoot.
Cemetery of Père-Lachaise (Cimetière du Père-Lachaise)
It might seem morbid to some but I love visiting famous cemeteries. This cemetery has countless famous people buried in it, most notably Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. It’s so large, you need a map and even then, it can still be a challenge to find a particular grave (with the exception of Oscar Wilde’s as it is enormous and white with a five-foot art deco angel on it) or your way out again. Some stones are beautifully kept and easy to read, others toppled and overgrown with moss. It is northeast of the city centre, only one metro stop away from where we were staying. It’s free entry since it is a public space.
Sacre-Coeur and Montmartre
This impressive white marble church crests the top of the Montmartre hill. You can climb the steps and get an incredible (free) view of Paris through the hazy sky. Going inside the church itself is free, which is refreshing (most famous churches have long lines and exorbitant entrance fees). No photos are allowed inside.
Sacre-Coeur is in the Montmartre area, where you can also find art markets, fabric markets and if you walk along Blvd. Rochechouart, you can get your fill of peep-shows, sex clubs and shawarma shops, ending at the Moulin Rouge. This legendary theatre still offers dinner and a show starting at a whopping 200€ ($283)! Needless to say, we did not partake of this event.
Some other sites of interest we saw were the Marché Aligre. It is the quintessential French market, housed partly in an old market building and partly out on the street with cheese, meat, fish, fruit and vegetable vendors.
My partner and I are also outdoor enthusiasts and we thought it would be fun to get some cycling gear from the country of the Tour de France. As it turns out, buying French brands of sports gear is well worth it! What would cost an arm and a leg in Canada, we scored for less than half the price. Shoes, padded bicycle shorts, a hiking cap, a small hiking pack, and a small cycling hydration pack made its way back to Canada. (Only to wait in storage another two months before being used for the first time.)
And of course, we had to experience the nightlife in our “local” neighbourhood. We actually went out for dinner the last night we were there to a local restaurant that served French cuisine. It was delicious! How did I manage the gluten-free issue? I had printed out small cards that explained Celiac disease in French that I gave to the server so she could check with the chef. After that, we popped next door to La Laverie, a “bo-bo” bar on the other corner. (“Bo-bo” is a French term derived from bourgeois bohème that means young professionals that are looking for the bohemian life of art, creativity and counter-culturalism. Basically, “hipster”.) It served a charcuterie board of meat and cheese to go along with our wine. There was the shawarma place that served a shawarma hamburger for 5€. There were also clubs aplenty with a variety of different musical genres.
So that is a very basic rundown of some things to do in Paris. Can you believe that was only six days? It is a city that never sleeps so you can fill your days with as much stuff as you have energy to see. You can definitely fit enough in to 6 days to feel satisfied (and exhausted) when you sit your butt back down in your seat on the flight home. But this is a city you could live in for your whole life and still not see everything. We had an absolutely amazing time exploring this unending city. We are looking forward to planning a three or four-day stopover in Paris during one of our next trips so we can revisit this incredible city.