The much needed, imperfect Paris trip

Last time out on the blog I wrote about my daytrip in October 2016 to Liege. Following my time in Belgium (Liege) and Germany (Köln) I had just enough time to squeeze in one more trip in 2016 before the end of the year – a trip to Paris!

Visiting Paris had long been a must visit city for me, something about the romance of it had always really appealed to me. Call it cliché if you wish but it was always somewhere that in my head I saw as a special place and romantic place to visit.
For that reason it was also, for a long time, a place I put off visiting. I always wanted to wait to visit with the right person and didn’t see myself enjoying it solo. I’ve been to countless other places solo but Paris was different.

However 2016 was a tough year, early-ish in the year my relationship ended and as much as I’d love to say it was easy moving on it’d be a lie. It was heart-breaking for me and took me a long time to get over. After a few months of feeling sorry for myself I decided something had to change, I couldn’t continue moping about so I booked a trip to Paris.

I’m sure there are better ways to get over a relationship and I can’t say it entirely worked, you can’t just switch those feelings on and off but it certainly helped and the timing of the trip made it feel a little symbolic for me.

It was the end of the year! December 30th 2016 to January 1st 2017. It meant leaving thoughts of past relationships behind me and treating myself to some adventure. It also meant not going another year without visiting Paris solely due to a lack of company. I was determined to end 2016 and start 2017 right.

At this point I’d never really spent any significant time in France. By significant I mean in the sense that I could actually tell you where I’d been. My parents took me and my sister on daytrips when we were kids, I’d also gone on a coach trip with school to Spain which meant driving through the entirety of France but I couldn’t tell you where I’d gone or stopped beyond Calais – mostly service stations in truth.
This felt like my first proper French experience and I no longer had to feel dubious about adding France to the list of countries that I’d visited.

As much as I romanticised Paris, I had mixed feelings about visiting. Whilst most people are complimentary about Paris, it certainly isn’t without its critics. Perhaps moreso in England because I think it’s ingrained in to our society to automatically and irrationally dislike the French. Ask any Brit and I’m sure they’d tell you they’ve heard something derogatory about the French at some time, which is rather bizarre and a little sad when you think about it.

I was hoping to be proven wrong and that Paris would live up to expectations. With just two days in the city I was keen to try and see most of the touristy stuff: The Eiffel Tower, River Seine, Sacre Couer, Arc de Triomph, Notre Dame, Louvre and more. Paris is home to so many well-known landmarks and I now had the chance to see them myself. Sort of.

Going anywhere in Europe in December/January you have to be prepared for cold weather and grey skies. As an Englishman it wasn’t going to faze me, it’s always cold right?

Anyway, I left England on the 29th and by the time I’d arrived it was around midnight so all I really had time to do was check in and sleep. The following morning I wrapped up warm; departing my hostel I found grey skies and there was definitely a chill in the air but I was excited to get exploring the city at last.

I hopped on the metro ready to make my first stop of the day – the Sacre Couer! I wanted to see the building itself but I’d also heard it had some of the best views in Paris so it seemed like a great place to start my trip.

I was pleasantly surprised to get off the metro and find it wasn’t too busy. I’d made a bit of an early start (by my standards) but not terribly early, consequently I had expected a few more tourists in the area.

As I approached the Sacre Couer it became abundantly clear why it was so quiet. They say a lot about first impressions and mine wasn’t the greatest, as I stared up at the Sacre Couer my very first thought was “where did this fog come from?!”. All I could see was the faint outline of a building hidden behind a cloud of fog. My first viewing of the Sacre Couer was a blurred one, I could barely see it. The famous views from the Sacre Couer? Non-existent. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me.

IMAG4745
The simply stunning Sacre Couer! 

It really set the tone for the rest of the trip. There were two directions I could have taken – let the fog/weather spoil the trip or just go with the flow. I did the latter and laughed it off. I started taking selfies “with” the Sacre Couer and all you can see behind me is a layer of fog. I thought it was hysterical that my first stop of the day had been such a poor pick.

IMAG4750
Selfies with the Sacre Couer!

On the plus side the inside of the Sacre Couer was beautiful and the lack of tourists meant it wasn’t overly crowded as I expect it is on a clearer day. I continued my exploration by strolling through the beautiful Montmarte area, which really does live up to the hype by the way, and then jumped back on the metro.

Next aim of the day? Walk the Champs Elysee from end to end. From the Arc de Triomph down to the Louvre or vice versa, I decided I’d do the former and possibly pop in the Louvre after if it wasn’t too busy. Typically I got off at the wrong stop and ended up somewhere in the middle, probably for the best because it was freezing and walking all of it might have resulted in my fingers and toes falling off.

So in the end I only walked half of it up towards the Arc de Triomph, rather than down to the Louvre. I felt I picked wisely because I’d soon stumbled upon Paris’ Christmas markets, they were beautiful and to add to the magical feel it suddenly started to snow whilst I was passing by. It was only light snow, not enough to set but certainly made it feel a little more Christmas-y on my walk along the Champs Elysee.

IMAG4789
Christmas markets along the Champs Elysee

The Arc de Triomph itself is cool. I liked it but I don’t think it’s a landmark I’d see myself going back to time and time again. It feels a bit out of the way, not particularly near anything, sat on its own in the centre of a busy road and I’m pretty content having seen it the once. The view from the top is apparently good though which might be the only thing to tempt me back.

Afterwards I grabbed some lunch before making my way to Paris’ “must-see” – the Eiffel Tower! Unfortunately the cursed fog struck again – my first viewing of the Eiffel Tower didn’t include the top of it, left hidden somewhere among the fog. I still haven’t seen it! Who goes to Paris and only sees a percentage of the Eiffel Tower?!

Paris
“I went to Paris and saw (most of) the Eiffel Tower!”

For what it’s worth I still loved the remaining 80-90% of it that I could see. In contrast to the Arc de Triomph I don’t think I’d ever tire of looking at Paris’ best known landmark. It’s stunning and (almost) lived up to all of my expectations – it still would have been nice to see all of it though! Next time!

After that I didn’t do too much, I had a little wander before finding a spot for dinner and then gave some thought to my plans for the evening. The hostel I was staying at had a rooftop bar and had advertised a New Years Eve (NYE) celebration/party in to the night up on the roof! It sounded perfect!

A perk to staying in hostels is it can be easy meeting people and NYE meant everyone was in high spirits. Some Australian guy made conversation with me which meant the rest of my 2016 was spent with good company and a few beers.

Sadly we’d chosen a particularly poor spot to stand and chat. As the clocks struck midnight the hostel staff hopped up on to the bar and started spraying champagne. Sadly we were both in the prime “splash zone” so I was soon drenched in it! A very enjoyable night though and a great way to end 2016 and start the New Year – so much so that I’ve tried to make it a New Years tradition to be out of the country. I went to Edinburgh’s famous Hogmanay the following year!

Anyway.. Sunday morning rolled round, fortunately hangover-free and I decided I had to find a café for breakfast. Crepes and tea in a Paris café seemed the best possible start to the year and it didn’t disappoint. Paris’ café culture is understandably very different in the winter given the contrast in temperatures, however it was still enjoyable to just sit and relax for a while before starting another day of exploring.

The first stop of my final day in Paris was to be the Notre Dame. Fortunately the fog had disappeared today, the disappointing first-impressions remained in place though. I think your first impression of this is going to be a complete contrast depending which angle you’re seeing it at. I came from the entrance-facing direction and genuinely my first impression was “is that it?” – once you get closer to it and see the detail it truly is stunning but from a distance it looked remarkably small and I was left underwhelmed. I want to add a photo for context because it sounds particularly harsh but this is what I first saw. I’m convinced it’s not that impressive but feel free to argue otherwise!

IMAG4853
First glimpse of the Notre Dame

I’ve joked since about the “hunchback of Peterborough” because I’m still adamant now that if you put the two buildings side by side, most would favour Peterborough’s cathedral viewed from the front. I’m expecting a Disney movie about it any day now.

Peterborough
Peterborough cathedral – Disney worthy?

I frequently question how harsh my first impression was but then started picking up postcards to take home and every postcard had the Notre Dame from a side-view from across the river. Had that been my first sight of the Notre Dame I would have had a very different first impression but sadly you only get one first impression and this was mine.

As I hurdled among the crowd to see it up close and walked around the building I started to see what all the fuss was about. It really is a stunning piece of architecture and I can only imagine how incredible it would have looked inside. I’ve seen a handful of photos but didn’t get the chance to enter myself. The queue was a mile long (exaggeration..) and it probably didn’t help it was also a Sunday. I figured this was something I could see next time, it wasn’t a regret I had at the time but this year’s tragic fire adds a little regret that I didn’t see it in all of its glory. Hopefully restoration works bring some of that glory back and I’ll see it at some point in the future.

Content I’d admired it from all angles I went and picked up some souvenirs before heading off in search of food. I was keen to cross off another Hard Rock Café (HRC) visit and jumped on the Metro in that direction. The nearest stop was a little walk away. As I strolled along I thought to myself that this was a really nice part of Paris.

Literally seconds later a couple of officers came around the corner with massive guns on their shoulders which seemed like comical timing for me to have thought how nice the area was. I then approached the entrance to the Hard Rock Café where the DOORMAN did a quick search before letting me in which suddenly blew that theory out of the water.

To his credit I survived lunch so he did his job well, I left without a scratch on me! Seriously though, I’ve never been to a HRC where they’ve required a doorman for security.

The rest of my afternoon was just relaxed, I just wandered through the streets peering my head in to little cafes and shops. By this point I’d accepted I’d be coming back to Paris with clearer views and hopefully warmer climates. I’d built up this little fantasy in my head of what Paris was going to be like and it didn’t really tick any of the boxes. My first impressions of the sights seemed to be met with a twinge of disappointment, the famous café culture was non-existent because it was too cold for outside dining, the love of my life was nowhere to be seen and to top it off the French were worryingly friendly and welcoming.

I’d heard so much about how unfriendly the French are towards English-speaking tourists and not even that lived up to expectation. It had me thinking back to a Bill Bryson quote in his book “Neither here Nor there”.

It took me two or three days to notice it, but the people of Paris have become polite over the last twenty years. They don’t exactly rush up and embrace you and thank you for winning the war for them, but they have certainly become more patient and accommodating. The cab drivers are still complete jerks, but everyone else – shopkeepers, waiters, the police – seemed almost friendly. I even saw a waiter smile once. And somebody held open a door for me instead of letting it bang in my face. It began to unsettle me.

IMAG4890

Paris was imperfect in so many ways. However rather than enjoy it for all the things I thought I would, instead I found small pleasures in other places and I think that made me even fonder of Paris. The fact I’d enjoyed it despite nothing going to plan was a strong reminder as to why I fell in love with travel to begin with. It isn’t just about the gloss and the glamour but just as much about the atmosphere and people of the city. Paris still had this irresistible charm and romance in the air, the people were nice and even in the fog it remains a beautiful city.

I sat at some restaurant eating dinner before catching the train back to England and pondered how highly I rated Paris. I don’t think I’d put Paris up there with the best places I’ve visited. I’d still favour cities such as London, New York City, Madrid, Sydney but on a personal note it was exactly the trip I needed at that moment in my life. It was a good lesson that sometimes things don’t work out how you thought they would but it’s still going to be alright.

Anyway, that wraps up this trip. Have you ever been to Paris? Give me some recommendations on what to see next time! I’ll be returning to the city very soon but more on that to come in my next blog post!

Stay tuned!

Jason