Paris has officially ruined Europe for me. It took every romantic notion I had dreamt up and confirmed it with absolute, relentless perfection. It’s times like these when I curse my poetic ineptitude; I wish I could accurately express how deeply in love I have fallen with Paris in the words it deserves. But alas, we’ll have to settle for this choppy love letter.
Paris was perfect. It was everything I expected and so much more. The food, the people, the monuments, the buildings, even the streets themselves radiated with an effortless, ageless elegance that no American city could ever possess. Every day, we were intoxicated by the smells of fresh croissants, cigarette smoke, and wet European sidewalks. Few moments passed where we didn’t revel in how spectacular it is that we, a pair of starry-eyed physics students from Boston, ended up in the City of Light for three whole days. In short, the entire experience was magical.
Thursday, 2 February
Our train arrived at Paris’ train station Gare de Lyon shortly before 9pm. With backpacks bursting at the seams and a printed-out screenshot of Google Maps, we set off on a slightly-treacherous walk to our hotel 20 minutes away. After a couple wrong turns and some cool-headed reconfiguring, we safely arrived at Au Royal Mad, which turned out to be in a somewhat seedier neighborhood than we had been originally led to believe.
The room was quite small, as we expected, but we were surprised to find that we’d be sharing a toilet and shower with three other rooms on our floor. The bathroom was in slight disrepair, but still functional, and the rooms were pretty spartan. Our wall’s blankness was broken only—and literally—by the bed’s drab duvet. But we had a place to sleep and free Wifi, so what more could we ask for?
Friday, 3 February
Paris is a much bigger city than I expected. We ambitiously decided to walk everywhere, starting with the restaurant where we would have our first Parisian breakfast. Le Petit Cler is located close to the Eiffel Tower—an hour-and-twenty-minute walk from our hotel. Dan and I were up for the challenge; we’re young, spry, and always eager to get that step-count up!
The walk was lovely. The sky was clear, the air warm, the streets slightly damp. We strolled past buildings that looked straight out of a painting (including the Swiss embassy! It took us a second to realize the flag was out-of-place here.) It was surreal to see the twisted-iron balconies and ancient stone architecture of my imagination in front of me.
Le Petit Cler was on a cobblestone street lined with food stalls and other cafés. We were immediately greeted by a friendly waiter who, upon giving us a table inside, asked, “English?” With sheepish smiles, we conceded; were we that obviously out of place? (This turned out to be a common occurrence on our trip: we would begin talking to a waiter or museum employee in French and they would respond in English. So much for practicing our French….)
Dan ordered a ham omelette with toast and I requested the breakfast special: coffee, fresh orange juice, eggs, and bread. Our omelettes were soft and cooked to perfection; the bread was still warm and even more delicious with butter; the orange juice was some of the best I’ve ever had, with a fresh-squeezed taste and plenty of pulp. The whole meal was the perfect way to start our Parisian adventure.
After breakfast, we walked the short distance to le Tour Eiffel, Paris’s most iconic monument. Its familiar silhouette was framed perfectly by the blue skies of the morning. Only the chain-link fences erected around the mall obstructed the otherwise postcard-perfect sight. As we got closer, we noticed names painted on the side, including some famous physicists and mathematicians—LaPlace, LaGrange, Coriolis, Fourier, Ampere, and many more….
Under the monument, we purchased tickets for access to the topmost deck, or the sommet. Dan only went up to the first deck on his previous trip to Paris due to his fear of heights. But now we’d be venturing all the way the top!
An elevator took a large group of us from the ground to the second floor. We snagged prime standing real estate by one of the lift’s large windows and watched the people and gardens below us become smaller as we ascended. I was thrilled; Dan was terrified. At the second floor, he hung back from the rail as I took photos and marveled at the views. On the second elevator ride to the sommet, he had to keep his eyes closed.
Fortunately for Dan, we were let off at the top in a completely-enclosed room. Long windows allowed us to see the panoramic view from safely inside solid walls. A panel ran above the windows with silhouettes of monuments all over the world and their height compared to the Eiffel Tower’s.
But there was yet another level. When Dan was ready, we took the stairs to the uppermost deck of the Eiffel Tower. We were still fenced in, but this time it was in open air. The gating around us assured our safety but the wind and wire caging certainly made this level feel more perilous. Normally, there’s a bar that sells drinks on the top deck and Dan and I decided it would be worth it to splurge on a couple glasses of champagne; unfortunately, it was closed. So we took lots of pictures before returning to the relative safety of the second floor deck.
When we returned to the first deck, our thirst for champagne was quenched. This level is home to the most touristy attractions: the restaurant, a large gift shop, even an ice skating rink. Here they were selling champagne, so we were able to enjoy a romantic drink while overlooking the sun-bathed city of Paris.
With solid ground beneath our feet once again, Dan and I walked east along the Seine, towards the Louvre. Friday was supposed to have the nicest weather so we had left it open for wandering. I decided I wanted to visit another café across from the Jardin des Tuileries, so that is where we headed. The sky clouded over and it began to drizzle as we walked, but we made it to our destination without trouble.
I originally stumbled upon Angelina Café while looking for good macaron shops in Paris. While scouring their reviews for opinions on macarons, I noticed that every single person mentioned their hot chocolate, praising it endlessly for its “pudding-like consistency.” Once there, a very friendly server set me up with my chocolat chaud and their special Mont-Blanc macaron. The hot chocolate was indeed heavenly. It was so thick that I had to drink it through a straw! I’m going to try to emulate the recipe at home as soon as possible; it can’t be much more than melting down a bar of chocolate in a mug, because that was what it tasted like. I savored it as Dan and I wandered through a nearby bookstore.
Next, we walked to Place de la Madeleine, a plaza built around the Èglise de la Madeleine. I have an odd obsession with things with my name on them, possibly in part due to the fact that my name is rarely spelled correctly in America (“Madeline” is the most common offender). Dan humored me by taking my picture in front of everything:
We explored the church itself, which impressed me with its thorough historic exhibits. Dan and I followed a self-guided tour and learned about the church’s chapels and sculptures. On the way out, I bought a postcard and rose pendant with Mary Magdalene’s portrait and the church’s façade inside.
We decided to walk around Place de la Madeleine to find a place for dinner, but first we stopped into a couple shops to try more Parisian macarons. At the famous Ladurée, I bought a pistachio macaron; at Fauchon, I tried their chocolat noir (dark chocolate), which turned out to be my favorite from the trip.
For dinner, we ate at Café Madeleine, located right across the street from the church. Dan ordered a salmon dish and I enjoyed a bowl of genuine French onion soup; again, there was plenty of bread to fill us both.
From there we walked down the Avenue de Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Dan was adamant about visiting this monument at night so we could see the Eiffel Tower lit up from afar. The ticket agent there surprised us by giving us free tickets because of our Swiss residency. (Normally European Union students are eligible for free admission at most monuments and museums, but Switzerland isn’t part of the EU. It was a welcome surprise!) It was drizzling again and it was windy at the top of the Arc, but we still had a magnificent view. Unfortunately the Eiffel Tower was lit for a special event and we didn’t get to enjoy its iconic yellow glow, but it was still a wondrous sight.
Given the distance back to the hotel and the time of night, we took our only Paris metro trip that night. We arrived back at the Au Royal Mad with 29k steps under our belt, completely exhausted.
Saturday, 4 February
We woke up on Saturday to slick streets and a slight drizzle, so we set out with an umbrella and rain jackets. Our first stop was a small hole-in-the-wall called Culture Crêpes, tucked into a cobblestoned alley close to the Seine. I was told to eat lots of crêpes in Paris but was surprised to find that most crêpe shops didn’t open until 10am or later; Culture Crêpes was a rare exception and appeased our desire to start our day “early”. Dan’s flavorful ham-and-mushroom crêpe was savory and packed with spices, satisfying even his enormous appetite. My own strawberry-sugar crêpe was less substantial but still satisfying; the mocha really stole the show, though. It was an ideal blend of chocolate and coffee, spilling over with fluffy whipped cream. Yet another photogenic Parisian breakfast to start our day!
Cathèdrale de Notre-Dame was a short walk from our breakfast spot. After taking pictures of its magnificent Gothic façade, we entered the ancient cathedral. Since it is still an active church, it’s free to explore inside. We explored the church’s interior, marveling at its soaring ceilings and ancient works of art and architecture, reading every placard and occasionally taking pictures. I was excited to find a chapel dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, my patron saint!
Once we were finished inside, we went out to wait in the line for climbing the bell tower. The rain persisted at a slight drizzle and we had an umbrella, but my boots were proving to not be very watertight and my wet and cold feet did not make for a comfortable hour-long wait.
At last, it was our turn, and we were again able to score free tickets because of our Swiss residency. The bell tower turned out to be deceptively tall; the stone spiral staircase took much longer to ascend than I expected. On the first level of the cathedral the views were spectacular. Something about the overcast skies (it had stopped raining by now, fortunately) gave Paris an even more elegant look.
Then we climbed even higher—to the top of the bell tower! Like at the Tour Eiffel, we were securely caged in, but the winds had picked up and the cold air didn’t really allow us to fully appreciate the impressive panorama surrounding us. Still, the views were grand (and the price was right!)
For lunch, we had planned on going to a highly-acclaimed falafel shop near to Notre Dame, but we discovered that it is closed on Fridays and Saturdays. Fortunately, there was another falafel joint, Mi Va Mi, across the street and there we enjoyed the best falafel we’ve ever had (not that we’re particularly falafel-literate). Down the street was a crêperie called La Droguerie, where I bought an inexpensive Nutella-and-coconut crêpe for our walk to the Musée d’Orsay.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the Orsay. We found out that Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône lives at the Orsay, but subsequently learned that it’s temporarily in Toronto. As hardcore astronomy nerds drawn to anything with the word “star” we were pretty devastated to hear the news, but nevertheless we soldiered on. We encountered a rainbow arching over the Louvre while looking through the glass of one of the Orsay’s iconic clock windows and admired some Monets. I think I would need more time at the Orsay to fully appreciate all it has to offer, but I can say I like its logo: an M and apostrophe-O, reminiscent of my initials. 😉
That evening, we had a reservation for dinner at a restaurant called Les Bougresses. It had stellar reviews online and it would be our one splurge-y French dinner while in Paris. Dan ordered filet de canard—his first experience with duck! I ordered a special that included an appetizer, main course, and dessert: poached egg with foie gras (duck liver) sauce, steak with foie gras sauce, and crème brûlée, respectively. Everything was delicious, the atmosphere was warm and cozy, and everyone was friendly and welcoming.
Satisfied with the delightful repast, we walked home under a freshly-clear sky and retired for the night.
Sunday, 5 February
Dan and I packed up our room Sunday morning as the sun struggled to crest above the Parisian skyline. We walked through an adorable street market offering homemade cheese and fresh produce by the Bastille monument on our walk to the Musée du Louvre.
The 45-minute walk to the Louvre passed much more quickly than I had anticipated; I had been trying to find a cozy stall on the road where I could buy a crêpe and cup of coffee for the walk but we found ourselves at the glass pyramid before I had a chance to caffeinate. The Louvre is free on the first Sunday of certain months, including February, so the lines were long but moved quickly. (Never fear—I had my cappuccino once inside.)
There isn’t much more I can say about the Louvre; it’s an icon of Paris and practically a World Wonder. Of course, we saw the essentials: Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, Liberty Leading the People, etc….
Hanging across from the Mona Lisa is an enormous painting by Paolo Veronese called The Wedding Feast at Cana. While hundreds of visitors coagulate in front of the glass pane that encloses the Mona Lisa, many probably don’t bother to appreciate the huge frame behind them. Dan has raved about this painting practically as long as I’ve known him and it was kind of surreal to finally be standing in front of it with him. Its enormity and level of detail makes you wonder what makes the tiny framed piece on the opposite wall so renowned while this remains in relative obscurity….
Obviously it’s impossible to give every piece in the Louvre its deserved attention in just one day. It’s been said that it takes two weeks to actually look at every piece in the museum. By that afternoon, however, I was more interested in relieving my poor feet than squeezing every second out of our visit.
Ironically, my feet got no rest after we left the Louvre. Dan and I began walking along the Seine towards Gare de Lyon where we would catch our train home later that evening. On the way, we stopped at a crêpe stall where I bought my final crêpe in Paris and a boulangerie (bakery) to pick up a small dinner: a chicken panini for Dan, a baguette for me. We ate on a bench on the banks of the Seine, enjoying the heavenly warm air and idyllically clear skies of our last night in Paris.
We walked to the train station where I bought a few macarons to share with Casey and Mina upon our return home. Our train ride back to Geneva was smooth; Dan slept while I wrote some postcards and then napped. Three hours later we arrived safely at our dorm, our adventure complete.
Over the course of that weekend, Dan and I logged about 75,000 steps each, or about 30 miles. Dan was smart in wearing sneakers. Meanwhile, I learned that my boots, in fact, were not made for walking and my feet hurt for hours at the end of each day.
I brought few mementos back from Paris, having eaten most of my “souvenirs” while there. I now have an Èglise de la Madeleine postcard hanging above my desk, a Mary Magdalene rose pendant on my keys, and a copy of Ludwig Bemelmans’ beloved children’s classic Madeline in French (so it’s spelled Madeleine like my own name!!) on my desk.
Back in Geneva, a lot of people asked us if Paris was as dirty and smelly as we’d been told. Having lived in Chicago, Boston, and now Geneva, I didn’t think it was worse than any other major city I know of. There were, however, lots of smokers. In our attempt to blend in with the locals, I realized that Dan and I would probably immediately fit in if we had a cigarette between our teeth. (We never resorted to this method.)
Paris was everything I dreamed it to be. When I was younger, I had developed all sorts of romantic fantasies about the city—people selling crêpes on every corner, endearingly crooked European buildings, cobblestone-paved roads and alleys, musicians playing French music on the street—and it all turned out to be true!
I think it would be accurate to say that I fell in love with Paris on our trip. Anyone who knows me can attest to my love for my hometown, Chicago. But every time I raved about my Windy City, Dan would counter with Paris as the best city in the world. After finally being able to explore Paris together I think I have to agree with him….
Also, I never found a bakery selling real French Madeleine cookies… So I guess I need to go back!