I wanted to see Paris since I could remember. Be it these French classes I attended (or skipped to watch The Hobbit) in high school, or the legendary tales of the artistic atmosphere, or the Great Emigres who are the idols of mine that used to live and create there – I just always felt that I need to pay this city a visit at some point of my life. And there it goes: I was feeling a little uninspired and struggling to keep my creative juices flowing – so one morning, I just decided that taking a train to Paris will help.
The outcome? It did help: I came back happier and inspired to write, draw, design, take pictures, be more creative again and not despair over a writer/designer’s block. And I’m going to sell you a story of my recharge, but also show you around and possibly make you prep better if you’re going there on your own. Let’s get it right: I was a little scared of travelling on my own; talk about the girl who jumped on a plane to London to move her entire life with no one familiar in the city – isn’t that strange? But I decided that if I didn’t do it, I might as well keep on waiting for a better time forever. Hashtag, live now.
London is comfortably connected to Paris with a train line – so I decided I wouldn’t be flying. It’s much more convenient: the two-hour journey compensates the time you’d have lost travelling from anywhere in London to any airport, and from any Paris airport to the city centre. You board in King’s Cross St Pancras, you end up in Gare du Nord – and you’re saving yourself from the hassle of the strict aviation procedures and airport commute. If you live in London, it’s a perfect solution for your city break and I don’t really understand taking a plane there unless that’s a special caprice you’ve got.
As I was a solo traveller who didn’t have to keep up with anything or anybody, I pestered my friend to pick me a trail around Paris. He did – and I saw some of the amazing sights around the city, but also, as a humanist who enjoys all liberal arts, I decided to go through the places that I had heard of before. I studied the map carefully, planning out my trip – and then I decided I’d be walking around the city. It’s easy to pick an interesting route through the centre of Paris – and it’s really worth an ol’ good hike. Besides the famous tourist attractions that will certainly capture your attention, wondrous street art is absolutely everywhere. You’ll find an abundance of picturesque little streets and colourful murals that will blow your mind – all of that for free, dear art lover. Also, if you’ve got a map and look around, it’s pretty impossible to get lost in there – all the landmarks are clearly signposted.
My starting point was, of course, the railway station – Gare du Nord. From there, I headed to Centre Pompidou. It’s the museum that focuses largely on modernist and post-modernist art – and you’ll be intrigued from the very beginning. From the outside, the museum seems to look like a huge real-life Super Mario quest, surrounded by colourful pipes and a construction that covers the building like scaffolding. Inside, it hosts the collection of great modern art.
From there, I took a stroll to the isle on the Seine, passing Hotel de Ville on the way – primarily, to see the Notre Dame cathedral. But the place hides many more Gothic gems: there’s Sainte Chapelle with some wonderful stained glass windows. And there’s La Conciergerie: a royal palace at first, abandoned for the Louvre by the king, that turned into a prison where Marie Antoinette was kept in the times of the French Revolution. After that, I walked around Sorbonne, then Musee de Cluny – another beautiful medieval building.
I stopped for a bit at Chez Gladines that my friend recommended to me. The menu boasts big selection of delicious picks: and I decided that once I was there, I might as well try escargots… snails, I mean, with butter and parsley. I’ve also had a lovely chicken liver salad. Hearty portions and the right balance of flavours, and a pretty modern, pop-artyish setting are worth a lunchtime pause – it’s not far from the islands if you try their Saint Germain branch.
Then, I decided it was time for the Louvre. You probably know that the museum is huge and seeing it in its entirety in one day is impossible. I went there with certain exhibitions in mind: I knew I was going to explore Greek and Roman artefacts. I also wanted to see the collection of renaissance paintings (yes, honey, the likes Da Vinci, Arcimboldo, Botticelli and Rafaello), and the 19th-century paintings to prove to myself I could name the paintings without looking at the descriptions first. But the Louvre offers also the collection of European sculptures, Egyptian and Islamic arts, European decorative arts – pick up your map at the reception and choose an exhibition or two to explore thoroughly, rather than trying to rush through all of them if you, just like me, are there on a city break. You’ll have one more reason to come back.
Speaking of entry fees and tickets – it’s worth knowing that the entry is free to those under 25 and from the EU. Just flash your ID card/passport at the entry and you’ll be let in at no extra cost. When buying tickets, concessions are often available to those 25 and younger – it’s worth checking if you can get in for cheaper!
Late afternoon lights were dimmed down by the Parisian twilight as I stepped into Musee de l’Orangerie, continuing to Place de la Concorde. The biggest square in Paris, with an Egyptian obelisk gifted to France by the Egyptian government, was a place that saw many people losing their heads: more literally during French Revolution, when the guillotine was unmerciful even to Robespierre who kicked the uprising off, and more metaphorically during the gig of Jean Michel Jarre, who has set a Guinness record on the Bastille Day in 1979 with his first huge performance.
Champs Elysees were an obvious move – and I could imagine how beautiful this place is in the sunlight. But I got nothing less: there was a wonderful Christmas village set up at the time, with lights and music playing, crowds tasting food with a melange of scents that would make you hungry in an instant, people enjoying themselves on a Saturday night walk. Extremely vibrant and charming – so I slowed down, picking up some roasted chestnuts and mulled wine to warm up. After half an hour, I reached Arc du Triomphe, another iconic monument that hides the tomb of the unknown soldier and is a tribute to those who went to battle by Napoleon’s side.
From there, I took a rather radical turn towards the Eiffel Tower. It was an early winter evening, the dark skies had already taken over and the illumination of this most popular landmark was on. It’s not enough to say that it’s stunning. Its construction, remembering the times of the 19th -century world expo, has become the symbol of Paris long since – and its arches were illuminated in gold to light up with silver sparkles dancing around the tower, up and down, for a few seconds.
The night was not finished yet – and this was the time when I got on the bus for the first time. If you’re planning to walk as much as me, you don’t have to worry about public transport fares (and it’s €2 per one journey on the buses and the metro) – but if you plan to get around by commuting, consider buying a carnet which is a pack of 10 tickets for just over €14.
Getting on the bus for the first time, I was heading for Boulevard de Clichy, to check out the place where the can-can dancers reside – and see illuminated Moulin Rouge after dark. Then, I went around for a pub crawl: I stopped by in few places wandering around Pigalle, which is claimed to be the heart of the nightlife. I remember two, since I was walking out to the places, often not really looking at their names, to just feel if I’d like it there (ha!): Comedie Café, a pub that filled up in seconds and where people casually smoked inside, and Le Chat Noir just by Moulin Rouge that actually has some good food, as well as the history of hosting the artistic bohemia at the end of the 19th century – it was one of the most famous cabarets!
A few hours of sleep and I was all ready for a Sunday in Paris – so I decided to look for a place to eat to start the day of another long walk. Just next to my hotel, there was a place called Holybelly. It’s quite popular, and it doesn’t take reservations in advance – so you need to pop in and put your name down on the list on the day. The perk of being on your own was that a place popped up pretty quickly, and before I managed to smoke a cigarette, I was sat by the long table in this warm but modern space. You’ve got to try their pancakes – they are insane. They’ve also got lovely apple juice, freshly pressed, naturally sweet. Their food is not only super delicious but also beautifully presented and appetising. If you’re up for something outside of the menu, they offer a dish of the day that constantly changes. Friendly, smiling and helpful staff also make you feel welcome – I am really glad I found this place, as it is a lovely, lively breakfast spot.
Finally, it was the time to explore Montmartre. I wandered around the little streets spiked with a few illusionists and street performers that stopped the crowd from time to time. How many Amelie fans and couples flocked to this place at the time? I can’t tell you. But I know that being on these crowded streets felt like serenading your rational self, just separated from your artistic one that walks down the street with the flow of the people in the back streets, with La Foule. (I am not entirely sure what you can make out of this, but I think I got what Edith Piaf meant, at least on a spiritual level, ha!). Enchanted, I walked all the way up to Sacre-Coeur. The view from the above is breathtaking – and you can identify some spots from the top of the hill using the provided map if you’re not so much up for guessing. If you didn’t know that you can put stuff related to romance in a museum, there’s a proof just down the road: Musee de la Vie Romantique and Musee de l’Erotisme.
There was one more place I decided I needed to visit – and it’s not fledged with fellow tourists, if you don’t count some die-hard music fans that come there in pilgrimages to pay a tribute to some of those who stayed there forever. I’m talking about Pere Lachaise cemetery – where the greats such as Jim Morrison or Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde or Moliere (not so much on a musical note here) lie. I went around looking for the tomb of Frederic Chopin – K.’s Polish enough to do that – and I noticed many Polish surnames on the tombs as I strolled by. What immediately sprang to my mind is Great Emigration. Poles lost their country at the end of the 18th century. After the first uprising in 1830, when many young guys who had gone to rebel against the current state of things lost their lives, artists who would later become national bards, went on exile to Paris. Although the most famous, they weren’t the only ones, because those who were in the opposition and were now unable to live under the occupation had to leave. At Pere Lachaise, there’s also a tomb of a Polish girl who stole Napoleon’s heart, Chopin’s childhood friend – Maria Walewska. If you’re looking to calm down and perhaps put yourself in a slightly more reflective mode, it might be a good place to go to, as it’s slightly more off-beat than all the typical tourist attractions.
I wanted to see The Catacombs that take you for a stroll in the tight passages between human bones in the 18th-century building – also recommended to me, and quite thrilling! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get there to be able to be back at Gare du Nord on time because of the closures on the metro – so if you’re going planning a big skip across the city, be cleverer than me and check which underground lines are closed for a weekend. The next time I go, I’ll make it a necessity to see Musee d’Orsay, too – I don’t know how I missed out on all that impressionist art!
Conclusion: I will be back, someday, for another weekend. Paris is absolutely charming and stole a chunk of that part of my artsy heart that belonged solely to Cracow before – maybe it’s that bohemian vibe and so many ties between now and the 19th century, and the mixture of well-preserved places from all the ages and built in all styles, from Gothic, through Renaissance and neo-classicist to totally modern. I dig that mixture – and I would be to stay over there for a couple of days again.