5 Days in Paris - Days 1 & 2
Day 1 - Thursday
Our train arrived at Paris, Gare Du Nord at around 9:30am local time – 1 hour ahead of London, where we’d come from. The first thing we did was head to the station’s Tourist information booth to buy a four day Museum Pass, which would give us access to many of the attractions we were planning to visit - including, The Louvre, The Palace of Versailles, Sainte-Chapelle, The Concierge, The Picaso Museum and more. Depending on which version you get, the pass lasts for two, four or six days. We payed 62 Euro for the four day pass, and that ended up saving us a lot of money compared to the individual admission prices!
With time to spare until we could check in to our AirBnB at 3pm, we used a holding service called “BagBnB” to store our bags and then headed off to our first destination, the Arc De Triumphe. Little did we know this would be our biggest walking day yet.
The Arc De Triumphe is one of the top attractions in Paris, possibly number three after the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. And to be honest, I wasn’t overly excited to see the it, but as soon as we got there my mood changed.
Having seen pictures of the Arc many times before, I can say that you really don’t get a sense of just how big (and triumphant) it is until you’re standing in front of it. And it’s not just the arch that was bigger than I expected, the turning circle that it sits in the center of is also huge.
We walked through the underground, beneath the Arc De Triumphe’s turning circle and resurfaced underneath the Arc. Looking up, we could see the tall and magnificent stonework all around us. Reading some of the on-site information, we learned that the Arc was built during a time of rapid change in government. The construction took many years and this meant that several different architects, construction teams and French leaders oversaw the development at different points - each with their own vision.
The Arc was originally commissioned by Napoleon to tout his military conquests, but when he was defeated in 1814 work on the Arc came to a stand-still. King Louis-Philippe I resumed and completed work in the 1830s, dedicating the monument to the glory of the French armed forces. From the decades of work, you can see several composite elements in the Arc. The names on the inside are military figures of note, from the French Civil War and other wars of significance. The underlined names are those who lost their lives in battle. The figures on the outside of the Arc convey strength and depict historic battle scenes as well as gods. The top of the Arc also features intricate and beautiful stonework, but my favourite bit was the view from the top.
Standing on the Arc De Triumphe you can see the length of Paris. Of course the Eiffel tower and the streets below catch your eye immediately. Beyond that, the view extends far out into the distance and you can continue to see the hustle and bustle of Paris for miles.
Many of the key landmarks in Paris are clustered closely together. And from the Arc De Triumph, we walked down the Chaps Elysee to the La Seine river. The Champs Elysee is a beautiful stretch of classical, high end real-estate and shopping district. But while we were there, it wasn’t a “busy street” like the ou e la swimming pool song would have you believe. For the past few months there has been protests about class inequality and taxes introduced by the Macron government. The “Yellow Vest Protests” as they’ve been called, have been focused around high foot traffic areas and tourist attractions, including the Champs Elysee.
As we were walking down the street, we could still see the remnants of recent protests. Smashed windows, boarded up doors, and a large security presence at the high end retailers. Louis Vuitton even had cages around their window displays, designed to protect their products and deter protesters from damaging and looting - which had happened in weekends past.
There were certainly signs of recent damage and violence, but restaurants and shops were still open and people including us were thankfully able to see the sights that the Champs Elysee had to offer.
As we began to walk beside La Seine river, it really started to feel like we were in Paris - the boats on the water, sounds of accordions and other musicians on the bridges. We walked in the direction of the Louvre to the J’arden de Tuileries, where we started to see the beginnings of the Parisian spring. Large green lawns, flowers beginning to bloom and cherry blossoms again.
The time had flown and it was already time to check-in to our AirBNB. We walked the few kilometres back through the city to Montmartre, and picked up our bags before meeting our host (who was lovely!) and setting our bags.
While exploring the city, we’d skipped lunch. So obviously we needed to compensate by having a big dinner. Staying in Montmartre, we had a considerable selection of restaurants, cafes and specialty ateliers in close proximity. We walked a few streets back from our accommodation and found an amazing bakery / boulangerie called Le Grenier a Pain and cheese monger called La Butte Fromagere (which I forgot to take a photo of) only a few doors away from each other.
Giving in easily to the French stereotype, we bought ourselves a baguette and a wheel of cheese. Specifically, we got a “Baguette Paysanne”, which (I hadn’t heard of) but was white bread with a flour dusted crust. From the Fromagerie we then bought a Normadie style wheel of Camembert, which we paired with a rosé , confit tomatoes and crisps from the Monoprix supermarket.
It. Was. Amazing. We ate the whole baguette, the tomatoes and crisps, alongside half the Camembert. Ash doesn’t like smelly cheese, so I polished off the majority of it.
With stomachs full and feet tired from a long day, we hit the hay for our first night in France.
Day 2 - Friday
We woke up around 10am, which was super late and probably our bodies protesting from several early starts and walking over 24km / 15mi yesterday (according to my Apple Watch). We left the apartment at around 11:30am - which we felt both naughty and happy about. We had a long list of places to visit in Paris, and today’s were two of the most exciting - the Palace of Versailles and The Louvre.
To get to Versailles we first needed master the French rail system, and that took us a little while. We started at Saint Lazare Station, and things didn’t get off to a good start. The train to Versailles would depart from “Line L”, and even though we were following the signs we simply couldn’t find the right platform. A few wrong turns, a few re-calibrations and a few more escalators later we finally found the right entrance. We’d started at the bottom of Saint Lazare, and managed to visit every entrance and platform until we got to the right one at the top.
Knowing where we needed to go, the next thing to sort out was tickets. There was a ticket machine near the gate and thankfully we could set the display to English and got a return fare to Versailles. We realised later that, somehow, we’d purchased four return tickets, not two. And wasted about 10 euro in the process.
When we arrived at the gates, we tried to put the tickets in gate’s slot, but it didn’t accept them. It wasn’t clear what we were meant to do, but and the gates were open and our train was leaving soon so we walked through and hoped for the best.
On the ~40 minute train ride to Versailles, Ash was getting anxiety about being pulled up by transit officers and being fined for not having a valid ticket. That didn’t happen though, so we were fine and not fined.
We arrived at Versailles Château - Rive Gauche station and The Palace of Versailles was a short 10-15 minute walk away. the palace is impossible to miss and even on a cloudy day, like the day we visited, the gold from the roof, the gates and the building glints as if the sun was full. We made our way into the palace and picked up one of the free audio guides on the way.
Getting the audio guide was a great decision because the palace is so large and SO much happened there. The Palace was home to several French Kings, including Louis XVI and XVII, and their families prior to the French Revolution when the royals were forced to flee. The royal families, consisting of up to ten children, each had their own apartment of five large rooms within the Palace - that’s just one reason why the Palace is so big.
The way the palace worked was very different to other cultures though. Anyone was able to enter the palace, and present their business to the King, Queen and / or royal family. The only condition was that they follow the rules of etiquette - proper attire, proper language and proper respects shown to the family. And this wasn’t just a typical nine to five arrangement. Much of the business was conducted in the bedroom (no innuendos intended) and a commoner could walk into the royals bedroom, present a scroll and confer on their business at any time of day.
The furnishings of the palace are even more amazing than how it worked. The ceilings, fireplaces, hall of mirrors and almost every room is decorated with all the luxuries that money could buy. Though much of the furnishings on show today are replicas because almost all of the originals were sold off after the French Revolution. While there were so many beautiful rooms, the two most notable in my opinion were the King’s Chamber and the Hall of Mirrors. Here’s a taste of just some of the rooms:
You’re not allowed to eat or drink within the palace grounds. However, there are several designated restaurants and cafes where exceptions are made. Ahead of our trip, we’d had several friends recommend going to Angelina for one of their “signature hot chocolates”, and there happens to be an Angelina within the palace itself.
We braved the long line and got a hot chocolate each and Angelina’s signature “Montblanc” dessert to share. I really enjoyed the hot chocolate, but Ash wasn’t a fan. The chocolate was very rich, although not sickeningly sweet (which I hate anyway). The Montblanc was a bit much for both of us though. It’s a meringue, with whipped cream on top, all covered by a thin layer chestnut cream vermicelli. It was good for a few bites, but quickly became too much for both of us.
Beyond the palace itself, there are also the immense gardens you can explore. When we went, there was a special spring exhibition on and it was a separate ticket that wasn’t included with our Museum Pass (basically the only thing that wasn’t included), so we decided to head back to Paris instead and see some of the other sights.
We caught the train back, validating our ticket correctly this time - magnetic strip down - and navigated our way to The Louvre. Luckily, that day The Louvre wasn’t totally packed and we were able to enter and walk around the exhibits comfortably. Their collection of ancient artifacts is exceptional, and seemed to complement much of the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts we’d seen the British Musuem the week before. The main difference was the vast amount of paintings and other art in the collection at The Louvre.
The thing everybody comes to see at The Louvre is the Mona Lisa (or “La Jacourde” as it’s known in French), and so had we. The painting has it’s own dedicated room in the museum which is near the Italian master painters section, and the room with the Mona Lisa always has always a large crowd in it. Despite that, we still found it easy to admire the picture for a while, get a photo of it at the center of the room as well as taking a selfie for the records. There were many other magnificent paintings in the adjacent rooms, and we spent a considerable amount of time there. I’d say it’s definitely worth dedicating at least half a day if you want to see them all.
To maintain the upkeep of the various exhibitions, The Louvre has a rotating closure of it’s exhibits. Unfortunately, when we went the Ancient Egyptian exhibit was closed - which is what we were most interested in outside The Mona Lisa. There were still a small number of Egyptian artifacts on display outside the closed wing of the museum, but it would have been great to see the full exhibit. We didn’t feel as if we’d totally missed out though, because the rest of the Louvre was great and we had already seen quite a lot of Ancient Egyptian artifacts at the British Museum.
After staring at paintings and sculptures for a few hours, we made our way back to the apartment.
We’d skipped lunch again, so we decided to do another round of baguette and cheese for dinner!
This time we got a traditional baguette (no flour coating the outside) from the same little bakery, and Ash gets special points for using a little bit of French to order at the Bakery. We also got half a wheel of English cheese because the Normandie Camembert we’d got from the Fromagerie yesterday was too smelly for Ash. Even though the it was wrapped up and in the fridge we could still smell it as soon as we got back to the apartment. Either way though, I happily ate the rest of the Camembert and Ash enjoyed her fresh bit of English cheese.
Read Days 3, 4 & 5 of our trip to Paris, including: Notre Dame [before the fires], The Eiffel Tower, Sainte Chapel, The Concierge, Galleries Lafayette Gourmet and lots of great food!