There seem to be two types of people in the world. Ones that enjoy the comfort and security of an established routine and those that desire difference and change and are always seeking something unique. When choosing a restaurant, the former will always know a great restaurant with a favorite dish that they enjoy immensely every time they have it. The latter will always seek a different flavor or preparation from what they have chosen before. When picking a radio station, the former probably have their favorites set in memory. The latter pushes the seek button and only stops when they hear something that suits their current mood.
I imagine these two types of people probably also pick travel destinations in the same way. Some love their tried and true spots and return as often as they can. The convenience and familiarity of a previously visited hotel with a friendly and well-known staff provides the comfort of knowing what they will get. Others desire to shake things up and usually opt for different or unknown paths on their journeys. They seek the new smells, tastes and views that offer the excitement of the unknown and the unpredictability that comes with it.
A big part of our travel experience has been discovering new places. Seeing something new and exciting adds to the sense of adventure and increases the intrigue that any destination offers. I guess this is why we have generally not returned to many places in our travels. However, at times our love of a special place (and probably a really, really cheap ticket) has changed our normal behavior. Such it was that we decided to take a second try at Paris.
Four and a half years ago we visited Paris for our first time. We absolutely loved it. We are often asked to name our favorite place we have traveled to and while our answer often changes, Paris remains constantly high on the list. Evening walks by the river, mornings sipping coffee in a classic sidewalk cafe and afternoons visiting the well known and world famous monuments of the city are well cherished, often remembered and frequently discussed. Paris would have lived in our memory for years to come without ever visiting again. But the opportunity to purchase a 225 dollar ticket from Oakland to Paris changed our minds. We wanted to head back to Europe and we just couldn’t resist the crazy low price.
We again chose to stay in the Montmartre area of town. When we envision Paris in our mind, the images of tiny winding alleys, tree-lined streets, quaint houses and the incredible city views of Montmartre are what we see. Yes, it is over-touristed and probably doesn’t represent the best of Paris discovery but we find that if you squint your eyes just right you can almost see Renoir, Monet or Degas painting a windmill or beautiful Parisian girl in a flowering garden. We again stayed in a tiny, rooftop apartment under a zinc roof in a typical 1880’s 7 story Paris apartment building just down the steep stairs from Place Tertre, the historical center of the area.
Almost daily we took walks to hillside parks or braved the breath-stealing stairs to access the commanding views from Sacre Coeur which towers above the cities highest hill. In the cool of the morning before the tourists arrive or in the evening as the sun is sinking and the lights come on were our favorite times to visit. We had time to discover the leafy parks and hidden pathways rarely frequented by visitors. We made a mental list of the benches that provide the best shade and breezes to enjoy the homemade snacks we usually prepared for our daily journeys.
Our apartment was tiny and without fans or air conditioning and the scorching summer sun made being inside uncomfortable during the day. Even at night, we were forced to leave open the windows. At first uncomfortable, we learned to appreciate the sounds of our neighborhood. We heard crying babies in the mornings, children playing in the courtyard during the afternoon, early evening cafe conversations and the sounds of lovers throughout the night. We were soon able to identify what our neighbors were having for dinner by the wonderful smells of food being prepared nearby. The heatwave finally ended with a massive 30-minute blast of marble sized hailstones that sounded like the end of the world on our thin-skinned metal roof. Even after the cooler temperatures returned, we kept our windows open to stay tuned in to our surroundings.
Quick access to the incredible Paris Metro is the secret to fully experiencing the city. Despite the crowded cars, lack of air conditioning, frequently smelly passengers and the apparent use of every hidden corner as a urinal, we love the Paris Metro. Nothing brings you closer to the real Paris than the Metro. It is convenient, quick and takes you anywhere you want to go for a very appealing price. Even when it at it’s worst and seems unbearable, someone playing a violin or accordion will enter the car and make all the bad evaporate instantly. Returning to street level amidst the grandeur of the Parisian boulevards from the Metro never gets old. The combination of fresh air, classic architecture and stylish commotion is always a satisfying start to any days journey.
We are thankful to have stayed for a month on both this visit and our last. We consider ourselves lucky to have the time to see the city at a more relaxed pace. Paris has a lot to offer and it takes time to appreciate it correctly. While even a couple of days here can be enjoyable, we often feel for the families that are rushing through all the big name sites too quickly, especially on a scorching summer afternoon. Red faces, crying kids and spent adults with stressed faces doesn’t create the best picture of people enjoying their days. While someday they may look back with a romantic vision, it doesn’t seem like they are having the time of their lives.
I think most people think of Paris as being an expensive city. We find it to be quite affordable. By selecting a small apartment, preparing most meals at home and taking advantage of inexpensive public transportation we have no trouble staying on our tight budget. Staying longer also has benefits of taking advantage of the many free days offered by Parisian museums and major sites. Enjoying the breathtaking art at the Musee D’Orsay on a free day was incredible. We arrived first at the museum and made our way directly to the impressionist area. Standing face to face with a Van Gogh self-portrait, Monet cafe scene or Renoir portrait before the crowds arrived was something we will never forget.
A second visit also gave us an opportunity to see things we missed the first time. We enjoyed walking along the abandoned railway that has been turned in to a beautifully landscaped elevated walkway called Promenade Plantee (or Coulee Verte). Strolling through Le Village Saint-Paul in the Le Marais area gave us an untouristy view of what Paris looked like centuries ago. Shopping the busy open-air market area of Place d’Aligre gave us a chance to sample the best of Parisian craft foods for non-touristy prices.
We enjoyed a long journey to the La Defense area of Paris that most visitors don’t get a chance to see. Hypermodern skyscrapers and futuristic art-filled parks create an atmosphere most would not associate with Paris. On the hottest of days, we also came to appreciate the elevated terraces that provided some breezy relief along with their incredible views. The terrace at the Galleries Lafayette department store gives incredible views of the Paris Opera, La Madeleine and other attractions of the 2nd arrondissement. The 9th-floor observation deck of the Institut du Monde Arabe showed unprecedented views over the River Seine and Notre Dame Cathedral.
Of course, just wandering the streets of this historic city provides the true Parisian experience. The streetside cafe next to the park in front of the grand Saint Sulpice church, the epicurean delights viewed through the windows on Rue Mouffetard or having lunch on the shaded steps of the Pantheon are memories that will always be reflected upon.
We will always seek out new and exciting destinations in our travels. We will always find fascination with new places. Discovering something for the first time will always be the highlight of our best journeys. However, as we found with our 2nd trip to Paris, some destinations are worth taking a second look at.