For New Year’s 2015, I went to Paris for eight days with my well-dressed partner in crime, Salvatore. I started to write it up last year but put my blog on hold for a while – so here is the rest of the series. You can start reading here.
This a longer post with many photos, because that’s what I personally enjoy in a travel blog. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll answer you. J’apprends le français, desole pour mes erreurs.
Ah, our third day in Paris… henceforth to be known as the day we walked nearly 14 miles. Our combined love of museums and my own issues with anxiety and crowds bounced us around some well-known destinations: the Louvre, Angelina, the Galeries Lafayette, and the Palais Royal. We also ended the day with a very special discovery, which that has become a fond memory for both of us.
We woke early so that we could get breakfast and head to the Louvre to beat the lines. We ate at the café downstairs from our flat, La Rose de France. This charming café became our daily spot for petit dejeuner because of the extra-extra-buttery croissants, the quirky velvet décor, and the fascinating proprietor. She seemed a force to be reckoned with. I don’t have many photos of the interior because – while polite and welcoming – she seemed to notice when I had my camera out and didn’t look pleased by it. I may have misread her attitude, but it seemed best to err on the side of respecting boundaries. Visit their website to see how cute it is. If you ever visit and wonder where the storage is, I’ll tell you a little secret: it’s under a trap door in the floor!
When we got to the Louvre there was a line, despite the early hour. The winter air was cold in the shadow of the building and we once again saw the value of the Museum Pass; the line for pass holders was much shorter and faster, and we soon found ourselves inside. After taking the requisite “look we’re at the Louvre” photos, we headed inside on a mission: see the Nike of Samothrace.
To say there’s a lot of incredible art at the Louvre is like saying the Amazon is a rather large river – it’s not only an understatement, it’s hard to even say it’s very accurate. The Louvre is an overwhelming concentration of architecture, objects, and images, any one of which is a noteworthy specimen. Our museum-going philosophy is that one shouldn’t try to “do” an entire museum in one day, and that goes quadruple at the Louvre. Better to pick a wing, subject, or piece you are set on seeing and spare your brain the absolute overload of trying to pay attention to everything.
We picked the Nike because it’s one of my favorite pieces of classical sculpture. She is a goddess on the move, striding out towards a stormy sea, and I happen to have her tattooed full-length on my back. Frank Lloyd Wright was also obsessed with her, so I feel in good company. On the way to see the Nike we stopped at several other exhibits, battling past the hordes taking photos of the Venus de Milo and playing “count the perfect Greco-Roman butts” (a funny game, but a seriously good way to pay attention to detail in sculpture). We also stopped in the room featuring one of my favorite cultures, the Etruscans.
I don’t do well with crowds, and it was honestly a bit of a feat to get to the Nike of Samothrace without me wanting to throw elbows. I restrained myself because, well, it’s Paris, and the Louvre, and I knew I could keep a lid on it in the name of romantic daydreams and significant culture. Seeing the Nike calmed me right down, because she’s even more beautiful in person than the reproductions I’ve seen. The Louvre has her displayed very creatively, at the center of a double stairway under a skylight. She sparkles faintly and, when I looked at her, I could almost feel the wind off the ocean.
After seeing the Nike, we passed through the wings of large works, which is really something. If you visit the Louvre, try to make time to see this hall; I’ve never been in a room with that many enormous, gorgeous classic paintings. Most museums wouldn’t even have the space to group them together. We played “spot the (Jaques-Louis) David” and had our breath taken away by The Coronation of Napoleon and the Oath of the Horatii.
After several hours of gazing at sculptures and paintings, and gazing out the windows at the inaccessible inner courtyards (one of which had a large flock of ravens milling in it, eerily), we made our way down through the Louvre shops to the Tuileries exit to find lunch. We found a Chez Paul kiosk and got sandwiches, taking them to the chilly green chairs by one of the fountains to eat. Tuileries is beautiful even in winter, and we weren’t alone in our enjoyment of the brisk, sunny afternoon.
After fortifying ourselves with ham and cheese on baguette, we set out towards our real afternoon food destination: Angelina, the famous patisserie and hot chocolate salon. There was a line, of course, but the wait wasn’t bad and again we had excellent people-watching. Once inside we were seated at a lovely little table amidst a sea of truly chic people – mostly women – and given a menu that made Sal’s eyes roll back in his head with happiness. We ordered hot chocolates, a mont blanc, and a lemon tart. It was a sugar orgy, to be honest. Thick, rich hot chocolate and generously-sized personal pastries… oh my. Angelina, you beat us fair and square! (I have no photos from Angelina. I blame pastry distraction.)
Sal wanted to go to Galeries Lafayette to see the Christmas decorations and look out at Paris from the viewing deck on top of the building. We walked up through l’Opera, looking in the windows of all the most expensive stores. Jewels glittered back at us everywhere. Even though diamonds aren’t to my taste (aesthetically or politically), I couldn’t help but admit they were gorgeous in the winter sunshine.
As soon as we saw Galeries Lafayette, I got nervous. After the sugar and the crowds of the Louvre, I was feeling a bit jittery, and sadly it only got worse inside. The place is an absolute madhouse during the holiday season… at least, I hope what I experienced was out of the ordinary! Scents, sounds, and movement were everywhere, and I only made it to the fourth floor before I felt an immediate need for fresh air and fewer people. Sal was also feeling overwhelmed, so he kindly led me back down and outside.
We walked away, looking for a side-street that seemed less crowded so that I could catch my breath. Sal spotted a sign with a name that caught his fancy: Rue de Petit Champs. “That means lil’ champs, right?” he asked playfully, guiding me down there in my panicky fog. What a man! Steering me into a quiet bar called La Belle Époque, he installed me at a dark wooden table in the corner and got us two Johnny Walkers. Well, he tried to get scotch – but that’s not a common thing in bars in Paris. Johnny Walker was on hand, so Johnny Walker it was.
Looking around, we realized we had found a real gem. While the bar was obviously recently renovated, it had been done with such style that it felt like a glowing scene from another era. Stained glass details, mirrors, brass, and dark wood made everything feel cozy, while a tile floor and bright white bar made it feel like exactly the right setting for the hipster bartender. As we drank, we peered into second-story windows across the street, looking in to rooms where the shutters had been drawn back. Our favorite showed a glimpse of a warm lamp, bookshelves, and a little black cat.
Soon we both felt righted by the calm atmosphere and the drink (thanks, Mr. Walker). We decided it was time to head home – we had tickets to a very special show in the evening. Looking at the map, I noticed an unlabeled square of green nearby. I suggested we walk back that way. As we walked down Rue de Petit Champs we saw a beautiful glove shop, a ramen house, and a store with cut paper art; we quickly declared this one of our favorite streets so far.
Turning into the “square of green” we realized how silly we were. It was, in fact, the gardens of the Palais Royal. Lined with small luxury boutiques like Rick Owens, Acne, and Stella McCartney. These shops are like beautiful jewel boxes, complete with a burly man in a fine suit standing near most of the doors to buzz you in, should you prove worthy enough to enter. Instead of tempting ourselves with extravagant things, we veered to the right and – you guessed it – went into a café. Without realizing it, we had a very good cup of coffee at Café Kitsune, which is apparently quite popular. I enjoyed it thoroughly – the man working the counter was so friendly and funny – but still have no idea what Instagram intersection we stumbled into…
After our coffee, we explored the gardens: the beautiful fountains, warmly lit upper windows, and the striped column installation in the inner courtyard. Created by Daniel Buren in the 1980’s, this sculpture garden was (or perhaps is) somewhat controversial. Reading up on it later we learned that it was considered unsuitable because it did not meld with the historic surroundings, but every time we visited that courtyard we saw people enjoying the space, and the columns seemed to be in harmony despite their clearly different period of creation.
There’s something simple and beautiful about them, to me; they emerge from either the decking or from pools of water below, and their differing heights make them seem like harbingers of some secret, cohesive undulation is happening below the city. If you live in or are from Paris, will you share with me in a comment your thoughts on the sculpture? I’m curious how residents feel about it.
Back at the flat we had a quick snack of red wine, cheese, and baguette. We changed into some of our nicer, but very warm, clothes and headed right back out with eager smiles. Earlier in the day, you see, Sal had noticed a small poster outside our downstairs café. He struggled to read it, then asked for my help, and we reasoned out that it was advertising a Bach concert that same evening – inside the famous Saint Chappelle cathedral just around the corner from us! He went onto the website on his phone and (as far as he could tell with limited French) bought tickets as a treat for me.
Saint Chappelle is a high, slender Gothic cathedral inside the medieval palace on the Île de la Cité. This palace is now largely judicial offices and other justice system buildings. It is also where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned for a time. The cathedral itself is still a tourist attraction and concert venue, but visitors must go through security because of the other functions of the building (security was heightened because we visited just a few months after the terribly sad attacks of 2015). If you’re unfamiliar with the building, I encourage you to read more about it.
Inside, stained glass windows stretched up the narrow walls of the building, and the interior was richly ornamented with statues and reliefs. There is no heat, so we huddled with our 40-some-odd fellow concert goers on little wooden benches, keeping our coats wrapped tight. The solo violinist – a charming man with a story for each piece – stood in the glow of two portable light trees, on the steps of the altar. The acoustics of the building made every note hum around our heads. It was a truly magical evening.
We were so excited after leaving the concert that we couldn’t go home. Instead, we decided it would be a good idea to hop on the metro and ride up to the Arc de Triomphe, then walk back down the Champs Elysees to look at the Christmas lights and the Christmas market. Eventually we collapsed into a salon de thé, surrounded by other, cooler couples just starting their night.
Remember how I said we wound up walking 14 miles? Well, now you know how. Between footing it around the Louvre all morning and then this (admittedly ill-advised) walk down the spine of Paris, we really wore ourselves out! Sadly, I also ended this long, cold walk with a tickle in my throat. Stay tuned next time to hear how I learned the phrase “j’avez un petit mal du gorge…”