I have to say that until I visited Budapest, Paris was my favorite city in Europe. Why, you may ask…oh, let me count the ways. The endless parks, the beautiful architecture at every turn, the incredible ethnic diversity, the macaroons, the brasseries with their elaborate paintings and high ceilings, the feeling of pride in every Parisian you meet.
My first visit to Paris I went alone and it turned out to be a delightful experience in self-discovery. I left early one morning, I think about 5 am and walked to my local train stop. Caught the train for a fourty minute ride to Cologne and then caught my Thally’s train to Paris. Because I still can’t seem to break out of college student mode, I had booked the cheap seats and I’m not sure what I expected, but it was much less than I found. The seats were wide and accommodating, upholstered in rich, red velvet. I have to admit I felt like a queen. I settled in for the 2 hour ride to the main train station in Paris. About half-way there I walked to the cafe train car and bought a nice little coffee. The whole experience was delightful.
When we arrived in Paris I walked off the train to be treated to some amazing architecture at the station. This was just a preview of what was to come. I found the metro ticket machine and watched to see what everyone else was doing. It appeared that most people were buying a bunch of tickets, so it seemed like this was a good idea. Blessedly, the machine had an option to proceed in English. I purchased a discount pack of 20 tickets, which meant every ride was 1.20 euros. Pretty good deal. I didn’t know how often I’d ride the metro but figured it was better to be prepared. Then I hopped the metro to my hotel.
On this first stay, I had a hotel near the arch de triomphe – it was a nice place but the neighborhood felt sterile and it was a long ways from the area I wound up spending most of my time, which was La Marais. So, on my return, I booked an older hotel in La Marais.
I have been extremely fortunate on my two trips to Paris to visit the city when the weather is beautiful. I found myself roaming the streets, parks and lovely neighborhoods for hours on end. Just taking in the sites of the city. If I was thirsty I would stop for refreshment. If I was hungry I would find a cafe to grab a croissant or macaroon.
One morning I decided I wanted to see the sun rise from Sacre Cour so I headed in that direction on the metro. It’s a long walk and I was wrongly informed that it was a boring walk. (On my next trip Chas and I walked to Sacre Cour and it was fascinating – I highly recommend taking the walk). Sacre Cour is gorgeous and I decided to splurge and pay to climb to the top. I jumped in line behind a lady around my age with short, curly hair and a friendly expression. We soon were talking and I learned she was a lawyer from Marseille in town for work and visiting her aunt who has a flat in Paris.
So, here’s the thing, traveling alone is sometimes nice – you can come and go as you please, there’s no time schedule, negotiations, compromise. But, being alone can be, well, lonely. Not surprising since its part of the word. It’s a strange feeling to be roaming a European city, which is full of people, but at the same time feel moments of such acute loneliness. There is great joy in sharing an experience with a person.
This is then how it came to be that I traveled Paris for the day with a French woman from Marseille. After coming down from the top of Sacre Cour (which does have magnificent views of the city and Eifel tower) we sat at a lovely cafe and had a croissant and cafe while we compared notes on where we wanted to travel next. She actually had a book. I, strangely enough, don’t go for travel books anymore. I do a little googling online, poll my Facebook friends, and then go where my feet and eyes are drawn in the city.
High on my list was the catacombs – she’d never been so we noted this as our last stop. We had one constraint which was to meet her friend and her friend’s daughter and father near the Eifel tower, which is how I found myself inside a funny little vehicle that was a combo bicycle/motorcycle/rickshaw getting to know a French lady and her 8 year old daughter and father – a lifelong Parisian. We took a whirlwind tour of the sites while we chatted in a mash up of French and English. I failed to note that on our way to the Eifel tower we passed a fenced off grassy area in the middle of the city where a flock of wooly sheep were grazing. What a delightful surprise!
I’m going to jump ahead a bit here to the catacombs. After waiting in line for an hour we entered the caves. This turned into one of the most emotionally moving experiences of my life. There are so many bones lovingly, carefully piled under the earth. I think most people find it creepy, but I found it deeply spiritual and a testament to human connection. I walked out feeling a bit shell-shocked. Then I did like every tourist and went to find a magnet. I selected one that said “keep calm and remember you will die”.
In a sad, strange turn of events, the Paris attacks happened exactly one week after my first visit to Paris. Many people did die while enjoying the lovely charm of this city. I was deeply moved by this experience.