A Wintry Weekend in Paris

The first time I visited Paris was in July 2003, in the middle of summer. I was 13 years old, in Europe for the first time with my family, and everything seemed impossibly magical. All the wonderful things I had only read about or seen in movies came to life in vivid colour that summer – the huge, imposing Eiffel Tower, the delightfully colourful and symmetrical flowerbeds and hedges of the Jardins de Tuileries, the sophisticated sidewalk cafés, the delicious pastries, and the famous artworks I had only ever seen in musty old textbooks in my art class back home.

I fell in love with Paris swiftly and deeply. As we sat on the steps below Sacré Cœur on Bastille Day (July 14th), I watched the fireworks over the city and felt incredibly blessed to be in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and to have the opportunity to soak up the sights and culture.

Le tour d'Eiffel par nuit - photo and edit by Carmen Anderson
Le tour d’Eiffel par nuit – photo and edit by Carmen Anderson

My second time in Paris was in June 2010, on a 49-day Contiki tour with my brother. We had about 3 days in Paris, with the freedom to do whatever we wanted. We were on a strict budget, so we skipped the main attractions that we had already seen and spent time simply wandering about Paris, soaking up the atmosphere (and plenty of rain from a sudden cloudburst!). Upon arriving in Paris, we were treated to garlicky escargots with champagne, before taking a quick evening tour by bus of the city. Our time in Paris was quite a whirl, with a fancy French dinner at Les Noces de Jeanette, hours spent exploring the Champs-Élysées, relaxing in the Jardins de Tuileries, and taking the Metro back to our campsite late at night.

Jardins de Tuileries, looking towards Le Louvre. Carmen Anderson
Jardins de Tuileries, looking towards le Louvre. Carmen Anderson

On our Eiffel Tower excursion, my brother and I only travelled to the second level (to save money), and we enjoyed the exquisite sunset whilst looking over the city of Paris. We were there during the Soccer World Cup 2010, and the games were shown on a massive screen under the Eiffel Tower. The atmosphere was festive and friendly, and we had a fantastic time.

Le tour d'Eiffel en rose. Carmen Anderson
Le tour d’Eiffel en rose. Carmen Anderson

I am so grateful to have experienced Paris for a second time with my brother, and all the friends we made on our Contiki tour. It was a truly special summer!

*

My third time in Paris was a romantic city break for Valentine’s Day in February 2014 with my love. He had organized it as a special weekend to spend together after we spent almost 4 months apart in the second long-distance part of our relationship. I’d never been to Paris in winter, and I was extremely excited to explore the city through new eyes, hand in hand with my lover. I packed my high heels, thick winter tights, scarves, and winter skirts in the hope of feeling at least a little bit stylish in the freezing cold. We flew to Charles de Gaulle airport from Berlin, without checked-in luggage to save money.

Charles de Gaulle airport is easily the worst airport I have ever visited! It’s massive, confusing, with terminals so far away that it takes about 30 min by bus to travel from one to another. Upon landing, the plane taxis across highways and past hotels for what seems like forever until it finally stops. Then, you take a bus ride to your terminal, which can easily take 20 min. Finding out how to get to the Metro station was also a mission, and while we searched for signage we were approached by an airport employee doing a survey on the layout and signage of the airport. Even after we answered all her polite questions, she still couldn’t tell us exactly where to go.

CDG Airport map.  http://air-travel.discoverfrance.net/
CDG Airport map.
http://air-travel.discoverfrance.net/

We then finally found the Metro, struggled to buy a ticket, and eventually ended up on a train that took us to our hotel. Unfortunately, approaching the centre of Paris by rail can be a harrowing experience. The stations often smell like stale urine, and there are many vagrants huddled up against the cold. The metro network is over 100 years old, and many of the tunnels are very narrow and claustrophobic. However, it was all part of the experience, and we struggled though the crowds like real Parisians.

First glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in winter. It's hard to believe that many Parisians hated this landmark when it was built for the World Fair in 1900!
First glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in winter. It’s hard to believe that many Parisians hated this landmark when it was built for the World Fair in 1900!

My fiancé had never been to Paris, so our first stop was the Eiffel Tower. Freezing cold and excited, we caught our first glimpse walking towards Invalides. Paris in winter is quite striking – it seems older, and more mysterious. After a bit of exploring, it started to rain so we took refuge in the Café Champs de Mars and had dinner. I had a lovely French onion soup, and some French red wine. Café Champs de Mars has a lovely atmosphere, but it is quite pricey and touristy, so I wouldn’t recommend it for those reasons.

I won’t say much about our first hotel, because it was awful. Hotel rooms in Paris are usually small, but this was ridiculous. We wanted to stick to a budget, but this hotel was just terrible. I was so unhappy that we moved the next day. I can’t even remember the name of the hotel, or where it was.

We booked into the Ibis Hotel in Gare du Nord, La Fayette, and it was infinitely better. We were now set to explore!

Thankfully our woes were over, and the charms of Paris made us forget about the issues we had the previous day.

On the 14th (Valentine’s Day!) we decided to ascend the Eiffel Tower. Of course, the lines for the lifts were impossibly long, so we decided to walk (?!) up. It’s much cheaper to walk, but it takes a while, and I really wouldn’t recommend it for those with a fear of heights. I could barely even take photos looking down, let alone walk! I finally made it to the first level, with lots of support from my fiancé. The view is already magnificent from the first level – and we decided to stay there, instead of fighting the crowds at the top.

Mon amour et moi. <3  First level of the Eiffel Tower
Mon amour et moi. <3
First level of the Eiffel Tower

It might be clichéd to watch the sunset from the Eiffel Tower on Valentine’s Day, but we did it. And it was beautiful!

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Sunset over a chilly Paris.
Sunset over a chilly Paris.

After we’d had a romantic snuggle we headed back down, and strolled through Invalides at night. Although it was cold, the atmosphere was amazing. We got a crêpe with Nutella and Grand Marnier at a stand at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, and then took a leisurely walk along the Seine.

Twinkling Eiffel Tower!
Twinkling Eiffel Tower!

The tower sparkles for the first five minutes of every hour after sunset, and it makes for a delightful surprise if you’re not expecting it. After walking around Invalides, we decided to visit Sacré Cœur in Monmartre, which is not far from the Ibis hotels in Gare du Nord.

The basilica is lit up at night, and the view from the top of the hill is spectacular.

Sacré Cœur, Monmartre
Sacré Cœur, Monmartre

We visited the sex museum in Monmartre, and were surprised to see some people doing an erotic photo-shoot in the stairwell! We also passed by the Moulin Rouge, and I couldn’t help but think of the movie and imagine Ewan McGregor singing from the top of a giant elephant. Next time, I’d love to see a cabaret show with a bottle of French champagne.

Le Moulin Rouge, Monmartre
Le Moulin Rouge, Monmartre

We returned to our hotel quite late, ordered food at the hotel bar for room service, and enjoyed late night snacks and drinks in our hotel room. Bliss!

Inside Saint Chapelle
Inside Sainte-Chapelle

The next day, we did a trip to the Île de la Cité for a heady dose of culture and history. First stop – Sainte-Chapelle. This often overlooked church is stunningly beautiful – a true gem from medieval times, with the most spectacular stained glass windows. We literally wandered around as if in a trance, staring upwards at the gleaming, colourful windows. The main hall has windows that tell the story of the Bible, and you can follow the events in each panel with an information board.

Saint Chapelle, Île de la Cité
Sainte-Chapelle, Île de la Cité

 

Main stained glass windows, St. Chapelle
Main stained glass windows, Sainte-Chapelle

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I’d highly recommend a visit to Sainte-Chapelle – it’s truly mesmerizing! Next up was the Conciergerie, the famous former prison of Paris. We got to see Marie Antoinette’s cell, and the women’s courtyard. The history behind this building is amazing, and if you’re a lover of history, it’s a must-see!

Conciergerie, Paris.
Conciergerie, Paris.

We took a break at a sidewalk café across the river, and enjoyed our drinks while watching the world go by. You’ll notice that most tables and chairs at cafés in Paris are angled for a good view of the street, and people-watching with a cup of coffee and a book is a popular pastime.

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Paris cafe culture
Paris café culture
Refreshment before more sightseeing!
Refreshment before more sightseeing!

Next, we visited the Notre Dame Cathedral. With its Gothic architecture, imposing size, and flying buttresses, this cathedral is well worth a visit. We first visited the crypt beneath the cathedral for some history on the Île de la Cité – it was fascinating! Find out how the islands were built up by the first settlers, see some ancient Roman ruins, and learn about the Parisii tribe.

Front facade of Notre Dame
Front facade of Notre Dame
I couldn't help but imagine the Hugo and Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" looking down on us!
I couldn’t help but imagine Victor Hugo and Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” looking down on us!
Amazing detailing!
Amazing detailing!
Sculpture, Notre Dame
Sculpture, Notre Dame
I highly recommend buying a Paris Pass, for entrance to a whole lot of museums including Le Louvre, Musee D'orsay, Arc de Triomph, etc. Skip most queues!
I highly recommend buying a Paris Museum Pass, for entrance to a whole lot of museums including the Louvre, Museé D’Orsay, Arc de Triomphe, etc. Skip most queues!

We then stood in the crazy-long queue to see the interior of the Notre Dame. Entrance is free, but visitors are required to line up to get in. Similarly, you have to queue to climb the towers and pay a small fee to do so. It’s well worth it though, as you come face to face with the grotesque gargoyles (decorative water spouts) and chimeras (free-standing decorative sculptures), and you have a fabulous view of the city. You do need to walk up a very narrow staircase, however, so it’s maybe not a great idea for those with claustrophobia or a fear of heights. (Although, I have mild varieties of both fears, and I made it!).

Looking up from the bottom of the cathedral.
Looking up from the bottom of the cathedral.
Up at the top; gargoyles surveying the Île de la Cité below.
Up at the top; gargoyles surveying the Île de la Cité below.
The crazy queue below. Luckily, it only takes 15-20 minutes to reach the door. In summer, however, it can get longer.
The crazy queue below. Luckily, it only takes 15-20 minutes to reach the door. In summer, however, it can get longer.
Paris in winter - shades of brown, grey skies, and old buildings.
Paris in winter – shades of brown, grey skies, and old buildings.
Thoughtful gargoyles. I wonder what they've seen over the years?
Thoughtful gargoyles. I wonder what they’ve seen over the years?
Paris!
Paris!

[As you can see, Paris isn’t particularly pretty in winter. The trees are bare, and everything is a shade of brown or grey. It can get very cold, so I’d recommend packing several pairs of very thick tights, one or two winter coats, thick pairs of jeans, winter dresses and skirts, and wedged boots (cobblestones are NOT fun in heels!). Accessorize with scarves and hats, and maybe a nice pair of gloves. An umbrella is a must!]

Street musician, Île de la Cité. Lovers locks on the bridge - the relatively new tradition is for lovers to write their names and the date on a padlock, lock it onto the bridge, and toss the keys into the river as a symbol of undying love. <3
Street musician, Île de la Cité. Lover’s locks on the bridge – the relatively new tradition is for lovers to write their names and the date on a padlock, lock it onto the bridge, and toss the keys into the river as a symbol of undying love. <3
Place de la Concorde, with the obelisk and big wheel.
Place de la Concorde, with the obelisk and big wheel.
Walking down the Champs-Élysées, window-shopping all the famous clothing labels.
Walking down the Champs-Élysées, window-shopping all the famous clothing labels.
Top of the Arc de Triomph! Amazing views.
Top of the Arc de Triomphe! Amazing views.
Arc de Triomph, Champs-Élysées.
Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées.

We finished off our day with a stroll down the Champs-Élysées, and a visit to the Arc de Triomphe. There are amazing views from the top, especially at sunset.

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Our last full day was spent at the Louvre and Museé D’Orsay. We spent many hours walking though the museums, enjoying the exhibits on Ancient Greek and Ancient Egyptian art, Islamic art, all the way through to Renaissance art, all housed in the Louvre. Ideally, one would spend one whole day at the Louvre and then half a day at the Museé D’Orsay, but we were pressed for time so we visited both in the same day.

Even if you’re not a keen fan of art, the Louvre and Museé D’Orsay are high up on the list of things to see in Paris, and they make excellent day trips.

Outside Le Louvre, pyramids in the distance.
Outside the Louvre, pyramids in the distance.
A great day for art!
A great day for art!
Inside the glass pyramid - main entrance to Le Louvre
Inside the glass pyramid – main entrance to the Louvre
Inside Le Louvre. There are multiple galleries, each with their own entrance.
Inside the Louvre. There are multiple galleries, each with their own entrance.
Venus de Milo.
Venus de Milo.
The Grand Gallery, le Louvre.
The Grand Gallery, Louvre.

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La Giaconda - The Mona Lisa! She is always surrounded by mobs of admirers.
La Giaconda – The Mona Lisa! She is always surrounded by mobs of admirers.
La Giaconda, Mona Lisa.
La Giaconda, Mona Lisa.
Some of the opulent decor of Louis XIV's former palace.
Some of the opulent decor of Louis XIV’s former palace.

The Museé D’Orsay is housed in a converted railway station, and it is one of my absolute favourite art museums. It has undergone major renovations since my first visit in 2003, and it now boasts a fabulous Salon de Thé and revamped galleries. If you’re a fan of the Impressionists, then this museum is an absolute treat.

Cafe in the Musee D'Orsay
Café in the Musee D’Orsay
A quick tea break at the Salon de The before seeing the Impressionists!
A quick tea break at the Salon de Thé before seeing the Impressionists!
Interior of the Musee D'Orsay! Unfortunately photographs of artworks are forbidden, so they have to remain in my head. A favourite was the van Gogh gallery.
Interior of the Museé D’Orsay! Unfortunately photographs of artworks are forbidden, so they have to remain in my head. A favourite was the Van Gogh gallery.
Musee D'Orsay from the Seine.
Museé D’Orsay from the Seine.
Jardin de Tuileries, sleeping in winter.
Jardin de Tuileries, sleeping in winter.
Goodbye, Paris. Until we meet again!
Goodbye, Paris. Until we meet again!

Our whirlwind tour of Paris was over all too soon, and we found ourselves on the plane back to Germany feeling a bit sad, but full to the brim of warm memories.

Having seen Paris from different angles and in different seasons, I’d have to agree with Audrey Hepburn – Paris is always a good idea.

 

 

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